Think back to the second quarter of last year’s NFC Championship Game for a second. Julio Jones had just caught his second touchdown to put the Atlanta Falcons up 17-0. The crowd was into the game and after the comeback scare the Seattle Seahawks threw at them the week before, there was no way the 49ers were going to comeback. No way. They were just a little over 2 quarters away from Super Bowl XLVII….or so they thought.
The 49ers roared back to rob the Falcons of that trip. It looked like the maturation of the 5 year plan of Head Coach Mike Smith had fallen just short. Future Hall of Fame Tight End Tony Gonzalez stood before the media saying goodbye. A great NFL season had come to an abrupt halt.
However it looks like the 5 year plan came with a one year option as the Falcons coaxed Gonzalez out of retiring. They replaced a slowing Michael Turner with former St Louis Ram Steven Jackson to increase offensive firepower. Talks are still ongoing with former Giant DE Osi Yumeniora, who lives in Atlanta by the way, to replace the departed John Abraham. Then get this… since the Falcons have lost more free agents then they have signed they have been awarded four additional draft picks for this year. An extra fourth rounder and three seventh rounders for a total of 11 draft picks. Maybe this sixth year won’t be so bad after all.
Quarterback: Nowhere else can you look at a quarterback and say the future is now like you have to with Matt Ryan. Once we watched Joe Flacco break through to join the ranks of Super Bowl champion quarterbacks, just winning a playoff game is not enough. Although if you look at the playoff game he won he showed you why some still have question marks about him. In that game he was 24 of 35 for 250 yards 3TDs, but threw 2 interceptions that helped fuel Seattle’s comeback. He disappears in the middle of games and did so in the NFC Championship as well.
What leads to the upside is he did march the Falcons to his first playoff win after falling behind with :31 left to play. With a berth in the NFC Championship at stake “Matty Ice” connected on 3 passes and put them in range of the winning field goal to escape 30-28. He led the Falcons on 6 last second winning drives like that in the regular season, so he is cool under fire.
For the season, his stats were spectacular completing 68.6% of his passes for a team record 4,719 yards and 32 touchdowns. Owner Arthur Blank succeeded in drafting a QB to be the face of the franchise after the Michael Vick era. However Ryan sat in that tier of “yeah-but” quarterbacks with Joe Flacco, Matthew Stafford, Jay Cutler, and Tony Romo as regular season statistical guys that hadn’t shown up in the post-season. Now that he’s in his prime and Flacco broke through that wall, he has to do so as well. He has to keep his intensity for the entire game and not wait until the last minute. At quarterback the Falcons are Super Bowl quality.
Offensive Backfield: The signing of former St Louis Ram running back Steven Jackson could be the move to put Atlanta over the top. Face it Michael Turner in recent years declined from being a good running back to a marginal ball carrier. He could only get the yardage the offensive line produced and nothing more. Evidence?? How about 3.6 yards per carry for the season??
Enter Steven Jackson. There was an overall feeling in previous years, throughout the league, that the Falcons weren’t a tough team. Jackson with his bruising style should change that completely. Although the Rams went to a passing offense he still made it to 1,042 yards in just 257 carries. In 7 of the last 8 seasons he has averaged 4.1 yards per carry or greater. That’s as the focal point of the offense.
Now he gets to line up with Julio Jones, Roddy White, and Tony Gonalez as passing targets to free the running lanes?? Yikes!! He hasn’t had anywhere near that much talent around him before…trust us Danny Amendola doesn’t scare defensive co-ordinators. He should have a 1,400 yard season now that he has a chance at a Super Bowl ring. That hunger should feed the team’s urgency as well. Jacquizz Rodgers is the 3rd down / change of pace back who has some burst. Only going into his 3rd year he’s learning the game and is adept at slipping out and catching passes for 1st downs. They’re going to be playoff quality at least with Jason Snelling backing up Jackson as well.
Receivers: Just when NFC South defensive co-ordinators thought they could take a break, Atlanta drafts Julio Jones. Now they bring back Tony Gonzalez for another go ’round. By the way you do realize in 2010 Roddy White led the NFL with 115 receptions while being second in yards with 1389 yards right? That was 3 years ago?? Well last year White caught 92 passes for 1,351 yards and 7 touchdowns and may not be the best receiver on the team anymore. Julio Jones replaced him on the NFC Pro Bowl roster after a 79 catch 1,198 yard season where he scored 10 touchdowns. This is firepower!! Jones is only going into his 3rd season and benefits from the coverage afforded White and Gonzalez. Defenses can pick their poison because they are going to lose.
Which brings us to the slowing, aging veteran tight end in Tony Gonzalez. Wait a minute, what aging process?? He caught 93 passes for 930 yards and 8 touchdowns. He was voted All Pro and made the Pro Bowl. In all actuality, this may be the greatest group of traditional receivers (2WR / 1TE) in NFL history. It certainly is when it comes to production. These guys had 264 rec. for 3,479 yards and 25 touchdowns. Compare this with the 1980 San Diego Chargers who had John Jefferson, Charlie Joiner, and Kellen Winslow when they had 242 receptions for 3,762 yards and 26 touchdowns. It’s certainly worth debating and for one more year this team is Super Bowl quality at the receiver position.
Offensive Line: One loss for Atlanta is the retirement of 14 year Center Todd McClure. However the line needs some improvement as evidenced by their fall to 29th in rushing with just over 1,300 yards. In contrast with the same cast of characters they were 12th in 2010 with almost 1900 yards. Look for a draft pick to be used to fortify the offensive line, whether a Center is drafted or a guard is picked. One will switch over to snap the football. They only allowed 28 sacks as a unit but frequently couldn’t push the pile on 3rd and 1 to keep drives going. Did you know that on 3rd or 4th and 1 including goal line, this group could only power for the first down or touchdown on 50% of rushing plays up the middle or to the strong side??
How much of that falls on the line and how much falls on the running backs?? Well since every running back ran for less than 4.0 yards per carry and the short yard percentages were 25th and 24th respectively, this group gets the blame. When it’s 3rd and 1, you don’t need Eric Dickerson to get that yard. It’s a matter of attitude and toughness at that point and this team needs to get tougher on the point when they run. Since they did get Matt Ryan hit 80 times passing the football this team gets an average grade on the offensive line. We have to see how they develop.
Defensive Line: Although there is speculation this team still hasn’t signed Osi Yumeniora or the replacement for John Abraham yet. You have to understand they needed help to rush the passer anyway. Did you know that John Abraham not only didn’t record a sack in last year’s two playoff games, he didn’t produce 1 tackle?? You have to go back to the two losses to the Giants and Packers in 2011 and 2010 to find some postseason pass rush from him. Just one sack in each of those which turned out to be losses. Kroy Bierman (4 1/2 sacks) Jonathon Babineaux (3 1/2 sacks) and Vance Wlker (3 sacks) are the returning linemen. Just 10 sacks between them. The Falcons were 24th overall and 21st against the run and this group has to take the brunt of that as well.
The Falcons will need to draft some help and possibly sign two key free agents here. After watching this group get tortured trying to chase Russell Wilson who threw for a postseason rookie record of 385 yards against them, you see why Falcon’s Brass is making the change. That should have favored a John Abraham and it didn’t. This could be the group that sinks the Super Bowl aspirations of this team and is below average.
Linebackers: This is a speedy group that often gets linemen out on them when the team is run on. They have to shed blocks better and Sean Weatherspoon should have a breakout year going into his fourth season. Last year he tied Stephan Nicholas with 95 tackles for the team lead while compiling 3 sacks, an interception and a forced fumble.This is with him missing 3 games last year.
Nicholas also garnered 2 sacks and an interception in his 6th season. Right now they are as good as it gets in the NFC South. These two are on the field for nearly every play including the Spread and Pistol formations. They just need to make a few more splash plays and force more turnovers to improve the defense from a statistical and tactical standpoint. With a little improvement this will be a playoff quality group.
Secondary: Last year the Falcons acquired Asante Samuel to help with the nickle slot receivers and insurance if they lost Brent Grimes or Dunta Robinson. Turns out Grimes went down with an injury and all Samuel did was intercept 5 passes returning them for 110 yards and 1 touchdown. What was amazing is the Falcons only had 7 total interceptions from their cornerbacks. Now Grimes and Robinson are elsewhere and Samuel is entrenched as a starter. Opposite him could be Robert McClain but he’s more of a journeyman than a starting cornerback. Look for the Falcons to make a move for a veteran here with a late summer pick up more than a draft choice since they’re trying to win now.
The Falcons are better at safety where Thomas DeCoud (76 tackles / 6 ints) and William Moore (76 tackles / 4 ints) had a nose for the football. Each will support the run and tackle well in space. Since the Falcons have to manufacture a pass rush they’ll blitz their safeties as well. Both DeCoud and Moore recorded sacks last year. One of the reasons the Falcons were exposed in the secondary was the weak pass rush that left them in coverage too long. If they can shore that up this would be a playoff quality group, right now we have to leave their ranking as average.
Overall: The Chancellor of Football’s crystal ball comes down to the Falcons taking a trip to Seattle for the NFC Championship if the Falcons complete the moves necessary to move forward. Shore up the Center position, rush the quarterback better and give the ball to Steven Jackson to maintain drives like Michael Turner used to in years gone by. Matt Ryan needs to play complete games and not take 3rd quarters off and a better running game can aid from a tactical standpoint. Shore these up and they can make a run at history. Keep your eye on one or two defenders that get cut by other teams being scooped up to fill holes in the defense. Last year it worked with Samuel. For the 3rd straight year Taylor Blitz Times has the Atlanta Falcons headed for the conference championship…
They host RG III and the Redskins, Patriots, and Seattle again with the winner of that game possibly getting the homefield advantage. After that there are two away games that present problems. One trip to San Francisco and one to Green Bay, if the running game is intact each of those are very winnable. The Chancellor sees the Falcons with an 11-5 or a 12-4 record. They won’t go 13-3 again. It’s all lined up for them if they get the breaks and shore up their defensive front. Time will tell if Matt Ryan is going to make them a Super Bowl team.
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