2013 Atlanta Falcons Preview – Did They Let Their Super Bowl Window Close?

Julio Jones was on a roll in the first half of the NFC Championship Game.

Julio Jones was on a roll in the first half of the NFC Championship Game.

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.

Matt Ryan's 6th year is where he has to step into the league's elite in the playoffs.

Matt Ryan’s 6th year is where he has to step into the league’s elite in the playoffs.

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.

Jackson should be deadly in this offense.

Jackson should be deadly in this offense.

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.

One more year for the future Hall of Famer.

One more year for the future Hall of Famer.

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.

Weatherspoon is a fast heady player who should continue to get better.

Weatherspoon is a fast heady player who should continue to get better.

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.

Samuel is the NFL's all time post season interceptor, yardage, and touchdown leader.

Samuel is the NFL’s all time post season interceptor, yardage, and touchdown leader.

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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Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

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2012 NFC Championship Preview: San Francisco 49ers @ Atlanta Falcons

The George Halas Trophy that is awarded to the NFC Champion.

The George Halas Trophy that is awarded to the NFC Champion.

Well we only have a few days left to see who will punch their ticket to New Orleans and Super Bowl XLVII. San Francisco comes in riding the emotional high of having vanquished the Green Bay Packers, behind Colin Kaepernick’s record-setting performance. Where the Falcons are starting to understand who they are in winning their first playoff game under the current coaching regime. This is the most intriguing match-up of the conference finals weekend.

In the divisional round we learned what Atlanta has grown accustomed to do, will carry over into the playoffs. Including last week, they had gone 8-2 in games decided by 7 points or less. That lass loss was a meaningless game to conclude the regular season. If you go back to the 4th game of the season, it matched what took place in last week’s game with Seattle. They were behind 28-27 with less than 1:00 to go when Matt Ryan led them to a last second field goal and a 30-28 come from behind victory.

The banter and hard hitting between Seattle and Atlanta could spawn a bitter playoff rivalry.

The banter and hard hitting between Seattle and Atlanta could spawn a bitter playoff rivalry.

Sure the first victory came against the Carolina Panthers but now the Falcons performed the encore in  the playoffs. Many fans didn’t care what they did until they made it to the playoffs. Many were  sure they were going to lose their first game before the playoffs even began.  The Taylor Blitz Times believed in the Atlanta Falcons yet felt the Seahawks were playing better heading into last week’s game. However this was the game where “Matty Ice” and Coach Mike Smith came of age and won their first playoff game. Will they go into this conference championship brimming with the confidence of the team that left the field, or the tentative nervous bunch that watched a 20 point lead vanish in the fourth quarter??

One thing about the NFL playoffs, when the national media focuses on one aspect of a football team they normally overlook another. This is happening as we speak with all attention on Kaepernick, no one is covering the fact the 49ers are allowing 30 points per game on average in their last 4 games. In fact if you take out the win against the hapless Arizona Cardinals, that average jumps to 35.6!! What is happening to the great San Francisco defense??

Colin's 181 yard rushing performance was a transcendent performance.

Colin’s 181 yard rushing performance was a transcendent performance.

Remember the style of offense the Niners were running that kept their defense rested at the beginning of the season?? That isn’t the case any longer. For a team that finished 4th overall allowing 294.4 yards per game, it’s now allowing 406 to go with the 35.6 points given up in those 3!! Are you paying attention?? They are wearing out their own defense and now they have to go on the road for the NFC Championship Game. If you take out the 3 games we’re talking about, the 49ers gave up an average of just 256.6 yards per game in the other 14.

Now while everyone is giddy over the record-setting performance of the quarterback, let’s remember that happened at home. How did he fare in his last road game?? He was chased out of Seattle. Do we get that Kaepernick, or the one that torched the Patriots on Sunday night football?? Sandwiched between those two performances was a very forgettable road loss that is being ignored largely.

We said in our NFC South Preview https://taylorblitztimes.com/2012/08/27/2012-nfc-south-previews-predictions/ this was the time for Coach Smith’s 4 year plan to mature. Michael Turner is about to turn 30 and one of history’s finest tight ends in Tony Gonzalez is set to retire after the season. Now with the emergence of Jacquizz Rodgers as the change of pace back that can spell Michael Turner, the Falcons have more explosiveness on the field than with RB Jason Snelling. One of the unsung acquisitions that should pay off in this football game is CB Asante Samuel. He stepped in when Brent Grimes went down on IR and has been a key contributor. Do you realize that Samuel is the leading interceptor and yardage leader in NFL playoff history?? One lazy sideline pass can be disastrous against this group. They were the 5th most larcenist defense in the NFL with 20 interceptions and the Georgia Dome will be loud this Sunday.

Samuel is the NFL's all time post season interceptor, yardage, and touchdown leader.

Samuel is the NFL’s all time post season interceptor, yardage, and touchdown leader.

What was interesting was how slow the Packers were in adjusting in last week’s divisional playoff. This is the NFL and we have seen this type of quarterback before. Whether we’re talking 2002 Michael Vick, 1987 Steve Young, a 1987 John Elway, or a 1989 Randall Cunningham. The number one way to get after them were to clog their escape routes sending 5 to 6 rushers after them. After all, this defense has to chase Cam Newton twice a year so they’r equipped to do it. In Randall Cunningham’s case, the Los Angeles Rams confused him with everyone up on the line of scrimmage. By the time he knew who was rushing and who was dropping, his team fell behind and the game was out of reach.

The one thing going for the 49ers last week was the fact that it was quiet and Packer pass rushers couldn’t get the jump on their offensive tackles. Expect more delayed blitzes and zone blitzes this week to accompany John Abraham off the corner with all the Georgia Dome crowd noise. Instead of defenders with their backs to Kaepernick in man to man, they will be facing him and should keep scrambles at a minimum gain. The Falcons will look to get Colin to look down at running lanes and his vision off the downfield receivers. That is a big no-no in the NFL.

One other axiom of the NFL as Nick Buoniconti once said about the NFL playoffs circa 1987 “What happens the week before, doesn’t necessarily happen the next week.” Eric Dickerson ran for a playoff record 248 yards in a divisional playoff in 1985, then lost in the NFC Championship Game. Anthony Carter caught a playoff record 227 yards passing in a divisional playoff in 1987, only to lose in the NFC Championship Game. Peyton Manning threw for a record 457 yards (most ever in a regulation playoff game) in 2004 only to fall  in the divisional round against New England. You have the 1995 Buffalo Bills who rushed for a modern playoff record (post modern 1950 NFL) 341 yards in a Wild Card win over Miami, only to collapse in the AFC Divisional in Three Rivers. Then finally the 1999 Jacksonville Jaguars who scored the most points (post modern 1950 NFL) with 62 in the AFC Dvisional playoff only to lose in the AFC Championship Game.

The 49ers are going to depend on that type of performance by Kaepernick again and won’t get it early as they fall behind. Just like the other teams that had record setting performances in year’s past. The Falcons have two unheralded linebackers in Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas that can flat out run. Not only will the Atlanta Falcons get the early lead after forcing a few 3 and outs early….they should win the game 30-21. Atlanta will be making the trip to New Orleans.

By the way….look at what arrived in Atlanta today…

This year's George Halas NFC Championship Trophy  just arrived today in Atlanta.

This year’s George Halas NFC Championship Trophy just arrived today in Atlanta.

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2012 NFC South Previews & Predictions

Second year wideout Julio Jones skies over a Ravens defensive back for a touchdown in last week’s preseason opener.

As the 2012 regular season beckons, many pundits and fans are looking for the Carolina Panthers to light up this division. There will be several young stars that will come to the fore in the toughest division in football, yet there will be one second year player who should take the league by storm. Oh you thought we meant Cam Newton?? He’ll do well but the player who is about to break out is WR Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons. His play so far in the preseason along with the maturation he showed toward the end of last year. Look out his star is on the rise.

No division in football has been as competitive from top to bottom as the NFC South. Since its inception in 2002, there hasn’t been a repeat division winner and again its the only division to have every team play for the conference championship during that time. Each team can run at you physically, Atlanta with Michael Turner (1,340 yards in 2011), thunderous LeGarrette Blount (1,007 yards in 2010), former Heisman winner in Mark Ingram, and former twin thousand yard rushers DeAngelo Williams and Jonathon Stewart in Carolina. Yet with last year’s emergence of Cam Newton and 2010’s Josh Freeman (25TDs to only 6 ints), each team fields better than average quarterbacks. This is before we get to record setting Super Bowl champion Drew Brees and 3 time playoff participant QB Matt Ryan. This division is stacked on offense…

However there are several questions moving into 2012. How will the Saints fare with the suspension of Head Coach Sean Peyton?? Will their game day adjustments suffer or will the overall gameplan be inferior?? Have the Panthers made enough moves to allow Cam Newton to star again or will he have a sophomore slump?? Which team was the real Tampa Bay Buccaneers?? Was it the 10-6 2010 team that was coming on at the end of that season or last year’s 4-11 debacle that got Head Coach Raheem Morris fired??

We’ll answer a few of those later in the article….as for our predictions

2012 NFC South Predictions

Atlanta Falcons 11-5 *

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 9-7

New Orleans Saints 9-7

Carolina Panthers 6-10

Now that the Saints signed Drew Brees to a long term deal: How will he fare this season without Sean Payton?? Payton and Brees have been lethal these last several years with game plans but they will suffer with game-day adjustments. There should be a drop off this season as Interim Coach Joe Vitt can’t put his stamp on the team. In a single season lame duck situation?? Not going to be good. More important, without their spiritual leader on defense with the suspension of Jonathon Vilma, this defense will give up points by the bushel and will behind in the race to win the south. As evidenced in Saturday night’s preseason game against Houston, this defense struggled in a 34-27 shootout. The Texans marched to two easy touchdowns while the starters were out there. Don’t forget the Saints were at home. How do you think they will fare when they are on the road this year?? http://www.nfl.com/gamecenter/2012082554/2012/PRE3/texans@saints#tab=recap&menu=highlights

They have a murderous schedule and will lose tie breaker advantages during the weeks of 12-15 where they face San Francisco, who beat them in last year’s playoffs. Then they face a stronger Atlanta Falcons team on the road, then travel to play the World Champion Giants in the cold, then come home to face a resurgent Tampa Bay Buccaneers team. Even though Tampa had a down year in 2011, they only lost 27-16 in New Orleans and defeated the Saints in the Superdome in 2010. At full strength with Coach Peyton, Jonathon Vilma on defense, the Saints would be in good shape against these ball clubs but with a coaching staff trying to keep the ship steady?? These are four losses waiting to happen and all to NFC teams. This is after they would have played the Packers at Lambeau in week 4, and the Philadelphia Eagle in week 9.  Too many in conference losses will doom the Saints this year.

Super Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers.

Has there been a more electrifying rookie quarterback in NFL history than Cam Newton?? The Chancellor can only think of one and that was Dan Marino’s 1983 season. Yet a closer look and Newton broke the rookie record in week 1 with 422 yards against the Cardinals, rushed for 706 yards and 14 TDs (another record), while completing 60% of his passes for 4,021 yards (another record) and 21TDs. All as a rookie?? Yikes! That dwarfs Marino’s 20TD passes and didn’t start for Shula’s Dolphins until week 6 and was no threat with only 45 yards rushing. What is he going to do for an encore??

Once upon a time Tim Tebow was given the nod over Newton at the University of Florida. My how the tables have turned as the Panthers defeated Tebow and the Jets 17-12 last night in pre-season action.

The question is did they do enough to move up in the competitive NFC South?? They still have the “Cash & Carry” backfield of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathon Stewart, who just signed an extension last week. Ageless Steve Smith revitalized his career with Newton’s emergence and may have a running partner in WR Louis Murphy who scored in last night’s game.  On offense the answer is yes, but on defense they haven’t done enough. They did get LB Thomas Davis back but they have to keep their fingers crossed he doesn’t injure his knee for a fourth time. They need all the help they can get on a defense that was 28th last year and finished 25th against the run. In this division that last stat will be what they need to improve and the draft only brought one lineman in 4th rounder Frank Alexander. New leaders have to emerge for the Panthers to make a  move up… that can happen in 2013. The problem is it’s still 2012 so they’ll improve just a few wins on offense as a team.

Former Boise St running back Doug Martin should rush for 1,200 yards for Tampa this season.

Now a team that will be the surprise winner in this division is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Last year this team dropped to 30th in the NFL in rushing and brought unnecessary heat on QB Josh Freeman. Team brass addressed that with 1st round selection RB Doug Martin out of Boise St. With the rushing attack under performing it also kept the Buccaneers defense from resting. In 2011 this was a run first, pass second team that went 10-6. Josh Freeman had the second lowest touchdown to interception ratio, 25TDs to just 6 interceptions, to a record setting Tom Brady. With the acquisition of WR Vincent Jackson from the San Diego Chargers to go along with TE Kellen Winslow Jr, WR Mike Williams and WR Arrelios Benn, this team has some big targets.

Speaking of Tom Brady, the Buccaneer defense made his life miserable in pre-season action Friday night. The Bucs pass rush harassed him all night and made him throw a pick six in a 30-28 win. Brady played into the 3rd quarter (unheard of in pre-season) and New England needed 2 4th quarter touchdowns to make the score close. One of the differences was the efficient play of Freeman and Doug Martin, who rushed for 53 yards on 13 carries and sat out more than half the game. This talent who has been a Taylor Blitz Time favorite https://taylorblitztimes.com/2011/08/02/2011-heisman-campaign-doug-martin-of-boise-st/ will tilt the balance of power for them from a tactical standpoint all year. They should return to form and match the 10-6 record of 2010. They’ll be ready to make a serious move in 2013.

However 2012 will belong to the Atlanta Falcons. They have built for this season for the last four and this is the year for the payoff. TE Tony Gonzalez can’t go forever and RB Michael Turner is about to turn 30. When the Falcons lost in last year’s wildcard to the New York Giants, it marked the second season in a row their season ended at the hands of the eventual Super Bowl champions. As a matter of fact, if you include the 2009 NFC Divisional playoff loss to the Arizona Cardinals, 3 of the last 4 seasons has ended at the hands of the eventual NFC Champion. Its time for their maturation and ascend to a Super Bowl themselves. Head Coach Mike Smith and Matt Ryan have to prove they can win a playoff game. They are primed as a team talent wise to make a move.

Next up: NFC North

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2011 Atlanta Falcons Preview

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’….

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