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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