Gone are the days when Atlanta couldn’t string together back-to-back winning seasons or consistently get playoff appearances. Now we’re looking at a team that needs to find a way to take the next step from good side to elite contender.
That is obviously no easy task, but it’s one that may become easier if the New Orleans Saints suffer any kind of hangover from their Bountygate troubles, freeing up the NFC South a little more for the Falcons.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1) Matty Ice
Today’s NFL has become all about the quarterbacks and, as much as some people like to run down Matt Ryan, the Falcons do have themselves a legitimate signal caller capable of making all the throws at the most crucial of times. Maybe he has yet to do it in the playoffs on the biggest stage, but he has dragged the Falcons to more wins with clutch throws than people ever give him credit for. He has always graded better in PFF’s analysis than his raw numbers may suggest and while he may not be Aaron Rodgers, nor is he Blaine Gabbert or any of the other quarterbacks yet to show any evidence they are capable of winning consistently, let alone win the Super Bowl.
2) Samuel and Grimes in Coverage
Brent Grimes has quickly become one of the league’s best cover corners. He missed some time last year, but when he was on the field his play was genuinely exceptional. The problem for the Falcons was that behind him they had problems. Dunta Robinson may be a big-money acquisition, but he has never come close to earning that contract or showing the kind of form he once had for the Texans before his injuries. The team acquired Asante Samuel from the Eagles after he became the odd man out in their stable, and whatever flaws Samuel has, he is an elite cover man in the kind of zone scheme the Falcons run. That now gives them a pair of extremely tough corners on the edge, and Robinson’s physical, headhunting style may be best suited to playing the slot these days anyway. The Falcons should be a whole lot tougher to pass on in 2012.
3) Abraham Has Been Looked After
The Falcons have always done their best to keep John Abraham in top condition. They limit his snaps more than most defensive ends in the league, keeping him fresh for big games at the end of the season, giving him time off during the season while players like Jared Allen have to be virtually dragged to the sideline to get rest time. Abraham has also been allowed to roam a little in the Falcons front and also sees more time than most dropping into coverage. All this has meant that at his advanced age of 34, he has shown no real indication of slowing down, despite what some would call a down season in 2011 because his sack numbers weren’t eye-popping. Abraham still brings pressure with the best of them and will be a force again this season.
4) Reports of Michael Turner’s Demise Have Been Premature
People will tell you that Michael Turner’s play fell off last season and that he is clearly too old and weary following an extremely heavy workload from the Falcons since becoming their feature back. Turner however led the NFL with 62 forced missed tackles last season (ten more than the next best runner), and added another five from his 17 receptions. Turner was the same rumbling, tough to tackle, yard-getter he has always been for the Falcons, but his statistics looked less healthy because the Falcons’ O-line struggled for the first time in a few seasons. The blocking in front of Turner was at fault in 2011, not Turner himself. He is still capable of being a feature back and carrying the load for this offense, but the increase in workload of Jacquizz Rodgers can only help as a change of pace.
5) The Emergence of Weatherspoon
As a rookie Sean Weatherspoon struggled to find himself in the NFL. Known for vocal leadership and high energy, he was often out of position or making mistakes and generally looked like he was trying too hard to make an immediate impact rather than simply letting the game come to him and relying on what he was good at. His second season was something else entirely as he looked like one of the league’s best weak side linebackers. He has speed, instincts and the ability to play in all facets of the game, and will be the Falcons leader at linebacker this season.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1) The Offensive Line is Still an Issue, Especially at LT
Last offseason the Falcons faced three of their linemen hitting free agency in the same year. That is an error of front office planning, and in the end it cost them Harvey Dahl, one of the league’s better blockers at guard, and it turns out, capable at right tackle as well. They plugged in Garrett Reynolds to the vacated spot and he looked completely out of his depth as a replacement. The line as a whole suffered and things became tougher for a Falcons offense that was just about primed to take advantage of its excellent blocking. To make matters worse, they have still no answer at left tackle where Sam Baker is firmly entrenched as a draft bust, and Ryan has no viable blind side protector. The line is now a large enough problem to be an issue for the entire offense.
2) Can Ray Edwards Play with John Abraham?
Ray Edwards took a while to get going in Minnesota. He was drafted as an extremely young, raw prospect in the fourth round and it took a few years of play before he developed into an excellent DLE opposite Allen. The Vikings virtually never flipped their defensive ends so Edwards played almost every snap in the same position. In Atlanta, Abraham flips between left and right end in every game, and Edwards needs to move to accommodate that. In his first season with that being asked of him he was visibly struggling with the change (as well as an unreported injury), and was at his best in games where he got an extended, un-broken run of snaps at DLE. The Falcons paid Edwards a lot of money to bring an additional dimension to their defensive front beyond Abraham, but this is a big season for Edwards to prove he can be viable outside of his familiar role.
3) Replacing Lofton
Maybe Curtis Lofton wasn’t the most complete linebacker in the game, and maybe he is even best suited to a two-down role in a defense, but it would be a mistake to focus only on his limitations and forget the things that he does extremely well. Lofton can come down hill and control the middle of the field for the first two downs, as well as be a legitimate leader on the field for his defense. It would be a mistake to assume that replacing him will be easy, and fans need to be aware that Akeem Dent has some significant shoes to fill at middle linebacker for the Falcons. It’s true to say that there is the potential for improvement there, but it is also true to say that there is a long way a team can fall from Lofton as their middle linebacker. Which side of that divide will Dent fall in 2012?
4) Drops, Drops and More Drops
The only thing holding Julio Jones back from being one of the league’s most unstoppable weapons is the penchant he’s had throughout his career for dropping the football. He has unbelievable ball skills and the ability to make ridiculous catches, so one can only conclude that his drops fall into the least understandable category of simple lack of concentration and mental lapses. On the other side of Jones you have Roddy White, who last season led all WRs with a massive 15 drops, or just shy of one per game. Both players are game-breakers at any time, but both players need to eliminate the drops and if they could would become dramatically more dangerous players to a defense.
5) Where is the Depth?
Ryan’s backup is Chris Redman, there are few legitimate receiving options after the starting receivers, the defensive line depth has had their struggles and the cornerback depth is a list of players who couldn’t get it done last season. The Falcons have a playoff caliber team when you look at their starters, but it wouldn’t take many injuries at all to throw this team into some serious problems. Often the teams that contend by the end of the season are those that were able to receive good play from their depth players. Can the Falcons expect to do that if they have to this season?
What to Expect?
The Falcons have found themselves in that ugly area of being an extremely good team, but one that seems unable to match the high-powered dominant sides each year, and comes unstuck every time they reach the postseason. They tried to address that by adding some more dynamic weapons on offense, and getting a little more talented on defense, but they have done so at the expense of the offensive line which until recently had been the foundation of an exceptionally reliable ball-control offense. Now they need those playmakers just to match the output they once had with steadier blocking. In the end, I think the Falcons will tread water this season – have another strong showing, and maybe make the postseason again, but fail to threaten the Lombardi Trophy.