The 2010 season was a banner year for the Atlanta Falcon franchise. Although it ended in disappointment, they came back to dethrone the defending Super Bowl champion Saints and reclaim the NFC South, as they won in 2008 also. They have a nucleus of talent that is still young and growing, they just happened to run into a buzzsaw in Aaron Rodgers in the playoffs. They were beaten in the playoffs by the Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers who made two herculean interceptions by Tremond Williams to turn the tide, one of which returned for a halftime touchdown, iced the game. Yet through the 2010 season we learned about this team. They were battle tested in facing Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the AFC, then the Eagles, Packers, Seahawks, and split with the Saints. Thats right 7 playoff teams and thats before we bring up the season sweep of the 10-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers that kept them from the playoffs. This team has won 2 of 3 division titles in the toughest division in football, the NFC South. So where do they go from here?? What do they do for an encore??
Quarterback: This team is set at quarterback for many years to come in Matt Ryan. Not only does he pass the eyeball test, “Matty Ice” is going to be one of the faces of the NFL through his play over the next decade barring injury. His third season was a fruitful one completing 357 of 571 passes for 3,705 yards, 28 TDs and only 9 interceptions. If you only saw his playoff game and saw that late 2nd quarter interception that put the Falcons behind by two scores at the half, you’re short changing one of 2010’s best pressure qbs. He led drives to take the lead in 7 games last year, most notably, games 3 and 4 in the upset win of New Orleans and San Francsico to get the Falcons season underway. Then rose to the occasion to do the same in what many thought could be a Super Bowl preview against the Baltimore Ravens in week 9 on a Monday Night. The 26-21 win with the last second touchdown pass to Roddy White will be the calling card of his career until he wins a playoff game or a Super Bowl.
Ryan has worked hard on his footwork within the pocket. He always keeps his feet set for to throw and doesn’t throw off his backfoot which caused some balls to sail on him in his first two years. Another quality he’s worked on is not staring down his receiver allowing the defender to get a jump on his throws. The playoff interception was an aberration because he was scrambling to that half of the field with time running out and should have thrown it away. Little more improvement and we’re looking at a perennial NFC Pro Bowl quarterback. Its just time for him to win a playoff game. Clearly on the rise…Super Bowl quality
Offensive Backfield: One of the NFC’s best and most physical rushing attacks with Michael Turner and Jason Snelling. They are still scratching their heads in San Diego over why they didn’t re-sign Turner who used to spell LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego, opting for the undersized Darren Sproles…yet i digress. Turner has been a constant force for this Falcons team since his arrival. In 2010 he was 2nd in the NFC and 6th in the NFL overall with 1,371 yards rushing with a gaudy 4.1 yards per rush average. Turner is only 3 seasons removed from a career year of 1,699 yards rushing and may be able to best that mark this year. He’s not much of a threat as a receiver with only 12 catches yet with the Falcons play action passing attack he’s utilized more as a pass blocker. He can push the pile and fall forward for the extra yards that sustain drives.
With Turner going into his 8th season there is a chance he could start slowing due to hits piling up on that body. Enter Jason Snelling. Most teams have a second running back that comes in with a slightly different running style than the starter, not here. Snelling comes in with his 223lbs. and slashes into the hole and physically finishes off runs the same as Turner. In his five years he has averaged 4.1 yards per rush and the Falcons can run for a tough 3rd and 2 attempt with either back. A luxury many teams don’t have. Running downhill is what this team does.
Rushing attack from time to time is too centered in power football and needs a little bit of wiggle. Could see a third down back or a scat back to add to their arsenal of backs. A draft could be used here to pick up a wildcard type of player to provide a little explosion to the mix. Especially once the bruisers have softened up the underbelly of opponents defenses. If they stand pat, still an impressive backfield.
Receivers: It all starts with Roddy White, the best receiver in the NFL. He led the league with 115 receptions for 1,389 yards and 10 TDs. A Pro Bowl starter and 1st team All pro performer that has a volatile streak is actually the emotional sparkplug for this team. From time to time the coaches reel him in a little bit but they know they can’t turn him into a church-mouse. His personality and fight permeates this team and propels his play and if you curb that, the team would go flat. Coming off 4 straight 1,000 yard seasons this was no fluke. White is in the prime of his career and should be catching Ryan passes the rest of the decade. Michael Jenkins is a solid receiver who disappears at times during games. However he had 41 receptions and averaged 12.3 yards per receptions to keep the chains moving. He only scored twice and needs to break more plays for the Falcons. At receiver the Falcons could use a boost here in the draft..
Tony Gonzalez showed up as the all time leader in receptions for an NFL tight end and didn’t disappoint with a 70 reception season for nearly 700 yards and 6 touchdowns. He gave Matt Ryan the safety valve necessary to stay calm in the pocket and get into a passing rhythm week after week. The Falcons hope to coax another season out of Gonzalez that could propel both to their first Super Bowl victories. At least that is the plan. Receiver is great with a little room for improvement from Jenkins or a rookie to step in and help.
Offensive Line: Aside from C Todd McClure, the remaining 4 linemen have 5 years or less on their resume, with McClure entering his 11th. Not one of the five starters for Atlanta missed a start in 2010 and their performance bore this out. They were 3rd in the NFL with only 23 sacks allowed while paving the way for 497 carries and 1,891 yards and 14 TDs. Although the rushing total was only good enough to rank 12th, only the New York Giants and the New England Patriots could boast more rushing yards and less than25 sacks allowed.
Lets face facts, this is a quality line whose cohesion and youth should serve them well in what will be a dogfight in football’s best division. For the Falcons to reach Super Bowl XLVI this line will need another great year from this offensive line. Sam Baker (T) and Justin Blaylock (G) man the left side and keep blindside blitzers off of Ryan. Each one of them are entering only their 3rd year. Harvey Dahl (RG) and Tyson Clabo (RT) are each entering only their 5th seasons. This is arguably the best line in football and should continue to improve. Coach Mike Smith knows his team wins or loses it in the trenches and the heartbeat of this team is the offensive line. Super Bowl Caliber
Defensive Line: This defense had a decent year in the statistical sense but its totally misleading. John Abraham had a good year with 13 of the 20 sacks garnered by the defensive line. However they could use more force at defensive tackle and here is the dilemma: Although the defense ranked 10th against the run, this team ranked 25th in yards given up per rush with 4.6. Thats terrible. Jonathon Babineaux and Corey Peters need to eat up those blockers yet not get pushed off the ball so much. More pressure is needed from the defensive end opposite Abraham, Kroy Bierman’s 3 sacks is nowhere near enough for a starting defensive end in a 4-3 defense. Could see several draft picks used on the defensive line although Peters at DT was a rookie. Abraham is going into his 11th year and has had injury issues throughout his career.
This team’s defense relies on their offense running the ball after getting a lead and controlling the clock to keep them off the field. However as evidenced in the 48-21 divisional playoff loss to the Packers, if the defense can’t force teams off the field on their own the wheels can come off quickly. This also happened in Philadelphia early in the season in a 31-17 loss. Spend a couple draft picks to bolster this defensive line. Coaxing another year out of this line as it is wouldn’t be wise…not against up and coming Tampa Bay and the dangerous Saints in the division. They have to get better. This defensive line is below average…they achieved through smoke and mirrors last year
Linebacker: Curtis Lofton had a solid 2010 at MLB and finished with a team leading 118 total tackles. He was able to get 2 sacks and force 3 fumbles. However too often opposing linemen were able to push through the Falcon front and gobble up the smallish linebacker (6’0 /244lbs.) which is a two fold issue. He has to shed blockers a little better if the defensive front doesn’t improve. He has good range but what most teams will do is run directly at the Falcon middle until they prove they can stop it. Steven Nicholas has good speed and range and finished the season with 78 total tackles yet only 1 interception and no sacks. Needs to make a few more plays like he did in the 1st quarter of the playoff loss when he chased Packer WR Greg Jennings down and forced a fumble 25 yards downfield. An amazing play. Solid and strong on the outside should get a few more interceptions facing tight ends. Mike Peterson is going into year 12 and should give way to the younger Sean Weatherspoon, last year’s 1st round pick, who did start 5 games in place of Nicholas last year. Either he or Nicholas needs to move in and replace an aging Peterson and get a little more athleticism on the field. Falcon linebackers are solid but not spectacular…if Weatherspoon can get on the field and pan out…this could change.
Secondary: A funny thing happened here last year. After making a splash with the free agent signing of CB Dunte Robinson, the play of CB Brent Grimes improved dramatically. Grimes went to his first pro bowl after leading the Falcons with 5 interceptions, highlighted by a game clinching interception in a week 12 showdown with Tampa for first place. Grimes finished second on the team with 87 tackles showing he will support the run. Tremendous season for the other cornerback. Robinson only finished with 1 interception and needs a better second season in Atlanta. Of course the company line is he was getting used to the Falcon system yet was last seen struggling against the Packers. He definitely needs a bounce back year and he should. He’s only entering his 6th season and is a physical corner. He gains some humility from watching Grimes become a prime time player could propel this team into having the best set of cornerbacks in the NFC. Two young safeties in William Moore and Thomas McCloud have played solid but not spectacular. Moore tied for the team lead with 5 interceptions. A very good secondary and if the Falcons can muster a real pass rush can be Super Bowl quality.
Overall: This is the team that will make the pilgrimmage up north to take on the Green Bay Packers in Lambeau Field for the NFC Championship Game. The Falcons were 13-3 last year yet they need to improve on the defensive lines and the other wideout needs to make a few more plays. Yet how they play now it would bode well in Green Bay. Aaron Rodgers isn’t going to throw for 400 yards in below zero weather outdoors as he did in last year’s domed playoff game. Stranger things have happened and a piece of history to take with you is that in 2002 the Atlanta Falcons went to Green Bay and won a playoff game in the snow. The first ever post season loss at Lambeau….ever. Just sayin’….
Next: Baltimore Ravens