The Atlanta Falcons have become a consistent playoff contender since third-overall pick Matt Ryan and Head Coach Mike Smith took over in 2008. In fact, the only time when they missed was in 2009 when Ryan suffered a turf toe injury late in the year.
Next up was the challenge of actually winning a playoff game, something that had eluded the Falcons in the Ryan/Smith era. They finally achieved that goal last year against the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Divisional Round, a team many are projecting to be one of the top squads in the NFL for the next few years. Their loss in the NFC Championship to the San Francisco 49ers was heartbreaking, but at least they participated in the contest.
With the ‘playoff win’ monkey off their back, the Falcons will continue to challenge the rest of the league. The big question is can the defense keep up their end of the bargain?
Five Reasons to be Confident
1. Matt Ryan Keeps Improving
The top QB taken in the 2008 NFL Draft, ‘Matty Ice’ seems to always have an opportunity to win games. He also continues to improve. In 2011 he completed 371 passes for 4,376 yards, 29 TDs and a 61.1 completion %. Last year, he completed 476 throws for 5,365 yards, 38 TDs and a 68.8 completion %. More importantly, Ryan’s deep passing improved significantly. In 2011 he completed 16 passes of 20 yards or more for 518 yards and four scores. In 2012 he essentially doubled that as he completed 32 such passes for 1,072 yards and 13 scores. Perhaps even more important in the eyes of many is that he finally won a playoff game, and even led a short drive with a pair of 22- and 19-yard passes to put his kicker in range to make the game-winner. Having a full year under offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter’s system now will also help Ryan.
2. Steven Jackson
Despite scoring 10 rushing TDs and forcing 38 missed tackles in 2012, Michael Turner was released after averaging only 3.6 yards per carry on an otherwise very potent offense last season. The Falcons have brought in long-time St Louis Ram Steven Jackson to replace him, which could pay dividends. Jackson played behind an inferior and injury-riddled offensive line last season, yet still managed to average 4.1 yards per carry en route to a 1,000+ yard season (Turner gained only 800 yards). More importantly, Jackson is a receiving threat as well. Jackson caught 38 of 49 passes for 321 yards last year, while Turner caught only 19 of 29 passes for 128 yards. A running back that can catch passes out of the backfield should elevate this already dangerous offense.
3. Sam Baker’s Improvement
Sam Baker was drafted in the first round of 2008 along with Ryan, and was designated as his blindside protector for years to come. However, he didn’t deliver on the promise that came with that first-round selection for a few years: his cumulative pass blocking grade from 2008 to 2011 was -16.1. But in 2012 Baker seemed to come into his own, giving up only 6 sacks, 9 hits and 37 hurries in 18 games (including only a single hit to Aldon Smith, and a combined six hurries in two playoff contests), earning a +7.2 pass blocking grade. Considering Matty Ice is at his worst when pressured from LT (as shown by Steve Palazzolo right here), it is a major relief to Falcon fans that Sam Baker seems to have turned a corner.
4. Julio Jones Improvement
The Falcons gave up a lot to trade up and select Alabama WR Julio Jones with the sixth-overall pick of the 2011 draft. Jones responded by catching 61 of 99 passes (61.6%) for 1,023 yards and eight TDs, but also dropped eight passes. In 2012 he began to fully reward the Falcons for their faith, once again dropping eight passes but on 150 catchable passes while hauling in 96 of them for 1,439 yards and 12 TDs. His dominance was evident from the first game, when he burned the Pro Bowl-laden Chiefs’ defense for 108 yards and two scores, and finished the year by torching the 49ers’ vaunted defense for 182 yards and another two TD catches. While Roddy White is still capable of threatening defenses, Jones is now the guy that teams lose sleep over. He has a bright future and Falcon fans should be excited to see what he can do this season.
5. Exciting Secondary
While the Falcons’ defense overall is a concern, their playmaking secondary is not. With the departure of oft-burned CB Dunta Robinson, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan still has key players in veteran Pro Bowler Asante Samuel, former seventh-round pick and PFF Secret Superstar slot defender Robert McClain, as well as the safety duo of William Moore and Thomas DeCoud. This group last year picked off a combined 16 passes, while defending another 23. Replacing Robinson will most likely be this year’s first-round pick Desmond Trufant, while second-round selection Robert Alford could also be in the mix. It remains to be seen just how ready these rookies are, but they have a solid group of mentors to help them.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1. Run Defense Woes
Of the Falcon’s 18 opponents last year, only five rushed for less than 100 yards — and two of those teams (Eagles and Giants) that didn’t break 100 yards earned over 90. They also allowed Cardinals backup RB LaRod Stephens-Howling to have one of his two 100+ yard rushing performances on the year, and at home no less. In the playoffs, they gave up a combined 272 rushing yards (4.8 ypc) in two home games. All three parts of the defense had at least two starters grading negatively in run defense in 2012 — the line (John Abraham and Jonathan Babineaux), the LBs (Stephen Nicholas and Sean Weatherspoon), and the secondary (Samuel and DeCoud). The aging Abraham has since been released, but all the other starters remain, meaning opposing running backs could continue to find success in 2013.
2. Replacing John Abraham with Osi Umenyiora
Despite his elderly status, long-time Falcon John Abraham accumulated 10 sacks, 8 hits, and 36 hurries in 18 games last season. He was blanked in the two playoff games, but did suffer an injury in the divisional round game. He has since been released and replaced by long-time complaining Giant Osi Umenyiora. Despite playing on an arguably more talented defensive line last year, Osi managed to muster only 6 sacks, 7 hits and 32 hurries. He also performed considerably worse against the run (-4.8) than Abraham (-0.8). Osi has won two rings and certainly played a part in winning them, but are the Falcons truly better off with him instead of Abraham? Last year’s stats point to “no”.
3. Who’s Rushing the Passer?
The potential drop-off in production the Falcons could get in this area by swapping sack leader Abraham with Umenyiora has been noted — who else is going to disrupt opposing quarterbacks? Aside from the departed Abraham, the only other defensive linemen to produce last year while playing significant snaps were Jonathan Babineaux and Vance Walker. Left defensive end Kroy Biermann was the biggest culprit (38 total pressures in 448 rushes, only three of which were sacks) while Corey Peters and former first-round pick Peria Jerry combined for a meager 28 total pressures. Atlanta drafted rookie defensive ends Malliciah Goodman and Stansly Maponga to help, but can they help right away? Can reserve linemen Cliff Matthews or Jonathan Massaquoi (a combined 10 hurries between them) contribute? On paper it looks like Nolan is going to have to continue relying on LB and DB blitzes for consistent pressure.
4. Offensive Line Transition
While Baker and LG Justin Blalock could continue to hold down the left side, the rest of the line is a question mark heading into 2013. Reliable run-blocking center Todd McClure retired, and right tackle Tyson Clabo, their highest graded pass blocker in 2012, was a cap casualty. Peter Konz struggled when asked to play RG for an injured Garrett Reynolds last year, but played center in college so he will likely replace McClure. Clabo’s spot could go to one of their two 2010 draft picks (Mike Johnson and Joe Hawley) or 2012 pick Lamar Holmes, but they played a combined 46 snaps last year. While injecting new blood into an offensive line is inevitably a necessity, it can lead to some growing pains.
5. Sean Weatherspoon Took a Step Back
LB Sean Weatherspoon was a first-round pick in 2010 and responded with a disappointing rookie campaign — he was OK blitzing (a sack and 11 hurries), but lacking in run defense (just seven stops) and especially coverage (allowed 89.2% of passes thrown into his coverage to be completed). He showed sensational improvement in his sophomore season, accumulating 4 sacks, 4 hits and 10 hurries, 36 stops against the run and conceding an improved 72.8% of passes targeting him. However, last season saw Weatherspoon regress in Nolan’s defensive scheme, partially due to injury. His pass rushing ability remained evident, but his work against ground attacks diminished, as he missed the third most tackles (eight) in this area among 4-3 outside linebackers. Also, 66.1% of passes into his coverage were completed and, while he got the first interception of his career (against Drew Brees no less), his worst graded coverage performance (-2.5) came in the biggest game of his life, the NFC Championship loss. With an already shaky defense, the Falcons are hoping last season was more of a fluke than a sign of things to come for the young LB.
What To Expect
The Falcons should continue to put up points, but a questionable defense makes it hard to predict them as NFC South champs again. This division is far from one of the worst in the NFL. Carolina’s Cam Newton has already proven to be a problem for the Falcons, Tampa Bay’s roster has been significantly improved under sophomore Head Coach Greg Schiano, and of course New Orleans will be a contender, especially with Sean Payton’s return. With Julio Jones’ ascent, future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez returning for one last ride, and the addition of receiving threat Steven Jackson, Matt Ryan should have no problem abusing defenses again this year. Now the Falcons just need to see improvement on the defensive side of the ball.
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