Where This Meets That
Tonight kicks off the NFL 2011 regular season in what should be a stellar match between the past two Super Bowl champions, the Saints and the Packers.
For what it’s worth, the Falcons are beginning to gain some national respect of their own after their third straight winning season and second playoff appearance in three years.
Of course, respect and a dollar might get you a small cup of coffee at the corner QT, but the Falcons are a little tired of coffee. They want it ALL.
Are they up to the task? As I sat in the Georgia Dome for the Aaron Rodgers Quarterback Clinic in January, I was dumbfounded by how completely the Falcons crumbled into pre-Smitty and Tommy D. form. Fortunately, Coach Smith has proven himself masterful at instilling a single-game mentality for the team, meaning they have already buried that dreadful day firmly in the past.
This Sunday hatches a new season for the Falcons at Soldier Field against the Bears. The first half of the season is uphill, with five games on the road and two of the three home games hosting the Eagles (#7’s return) and Packers (a little Ryan-Rodgers redemption?).
The good news is that a road-heavy front end translates to a home-heavy back-end. If the Falcons reach mid-season at 0.500 – and I think they will – they will be well positioned for a big run down the stretch.
If the offensive line can gel with “new guy” Garrett Reynolds replacing Harvey Dahl at guard, Matt Ryan will be living the dream, with more weapons at his disposal than ever before. While Ryan continues to show strong football intelligence, this season will give him a great opportunity to prove he can stretch the field. With giant, rangy receivers who can fly on the outside, his challenge will be simply to out-throw the secondary.
Last year saw Roddy White take that next step from being a player to being a gamer. He caught virtually everything Ryan threw his way, continued to blossom as a blocker, and managed to win or save games in the clutch on numerous occasions.
Expectations for Julio should be conservative; it will be enough that his speed, size, and ability opposite Roddy will present a distraction for defenses. If he manages to break free on a big early season scoring play or two and to stay healthy throughout the season, his job as a receiver, for all practical purposes, will be done for year 1. Equally important will be his natural gift as a physical downfield blocker
I am excited about the resurgence of Harry Douglas at slot. He could very much be a Wes Welker type of receiver for Ryan and with mismatches created by the two big guys outside, Douglas might really soar this season. I would love to see him replace Tony Gonzalez as Ryan’s default check-down to put even more pressure on opposing defenses.
Turner has been a top-notch running back for the Falcons for most of the past three seasons, and I’m hoping he’s got another full season in top gear. As mentioned, above, the addition of Julio Jones adds a powerful new burst of downfield blocking. The key will be whether the offensive line can give Turner the holes to make it to the next level.
Behind Turner, the Falcons were fortunate to hold onto Snelling for another season as a steady back up and solid set of hands out of the backfield. Shifty Jacquizz Rodgers has the build and skill-set of Warrick Dunn. If he can manage to avoid the big blows as Dunn was able to, he could prove to be an effective change-of-pace back in the Falcons’ loaded arsenal.
Before Aaron Rodgers dismantled the Falcons defense in the playoffs last year, I really thought the unit had become a strength of the team. No, their front seven couldn’t pressure opposing quarterbacks (with exception of Mr. Abraham, of course), but collectively they had shown tremendous improvement over the year before and consistently came up with big stops in the clutch.
This year sees Ray Edwards line up opposite John Abraham. Last year, lining up opposite Jared Allen in Minnesota, Edwards tallied 10 sacks. If Abraham and Edwards can pressure consistently from the perimeter, it should both open up some interior pass rush lanes and reduce the need for blitzing defensive backs, which leaves the secondary vulnerable.
The interior line should again be stout against the run, and LB Curtis Lofton is excellent against the run, as well. Pass defense is the critical area for improvement. Sean Weatherspoon showed promise last year at outside linebacker but battled injuries much of the season. He will need to play a big role if the defense is to shut down teams like the Saints and Packers this season.
Even up until this past week, Dimitroff was working to shore up the secondary through free agency, adding seasoned playoff veterans at safety and cornerback. Pro-Bowler Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson will try to lock down the corners, while a reliable nickel back is yet to emerge.
Summary / Predictions, etc.
The NFC South is arguably the toughest division in football, Panthers notwithstanding. I anticipate the Falcons splitting games with the Saints. The Bucs could make a move this year; they are coming along quite impressively as the youngest team in the league. I would not be surprised if the Falcons go 4-4 over the first eight games. Ultimately, I expect them to finish 11-5 in the regular season then shrug off their last two playoff losses to make it to the NFC Championship. Beyond that, I firmly reserve the right to dream!
What do YOU think this season will bring, for the Falcons or any other NFL team?