Where This Meets That
When the Atlanta Falcons last faced the New Orleans Saints, the Saints’ future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees had the worst game of his career, tossing five interceptions and ending his record streak of consecutive games with a touchdown at 54.
It was an ugly exclamation point on a disastrous 2012 season for the Saints, who were battling without exiled head Sean Payton because of the infamous “bountygate” scandal.
When the two teams open the 2013 season this Sunday in New Orleans, you’d be well-advised to lock away the little ones; it’s going to be one wild ride, boiling over with more than a little animosity.
Payton returns to the Saints’ sidelines, and his team will be fighting to re-establish themselves among the NFC’s elite. The Falcons, meanwhile, will not only be scrapping to re-assert themselves atop their arch-nemesis but will also be kicking off one of the league’s toughest schedules.
When the 2012 Atlanta Falcons were firing on all cylinders, they were beating the Giants 42-0, leading the resurgent Seahawks 20-0 and the NFC Champion 49ers 17-0. Even in achieving a 13-3 record
The 2013 season offers another compelling opportunity to chase the Super Bowl, but despite featuring a deadly assortment of offensive weapons, the Falcons will need a lot of things to fall into place across the rest of the roster to make a serious run.
Let’s have a look.
To call this offense potent is an understatement. Second year Offensive Coordinator Dirk Koetter is living the dream. Quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones are still climbing the upsides of their careers. Wide receiver Roddy White and “one more time” tight end Tony Gonzalez remain at the top of their game, and new addition Steven Jackson gives an extra gear and reliable set of hands out of the backfield. Here’s just hoping that, now 30 years old, Jackson can find a good spot next to Gonzalez at the fountain of youth.
There are no questions among the offensive skill positions, but up front, there are plenty. The offseason claimed two mainstays from the offensive line: right tackle Tyson Clabo and center Todd McClure. To further confound matters, Clabo’s expected replacement, Mike Johnson, broke his leg in preseason. The right tackle role now falls to either Lamar Holmes, who has struggled in pass protection, or new pick-up Jeremy Trueblood, whose career so far shares the same struggles.
Facing the Tennessee Titans in preseason week 3, the offensive line showed tremendous room for growth. Ryan, sacked only 28 times in 16 regular season games in 2012, went down five times in the first half against the Titans’ starters. In other words, for all the Falcons’ offensive horsepower, their tires look dangerously low on air. For a team placing so many of its hopes for success on the offense, building a cohesive line will be paramount.
Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan had quite a first year with the Falcons. Nolan’s knack for game planning confused the most cerebral and elite quarterbacks in the game. The Manning brothers, Drew Brees, and Phillip Rivers threw for a combined 13 interceptions against only four TD’s versus the Falcons.
The blossoming safety tandem of Thomas Decoud and William Moore deserve a lot of credit, combining for 122 tackles and 10 interceptions, but they’ll have to work overtime this season. Gone is cornerback Dunta Robinson, the team’s third leading tackler, and former standout Brent Grimes, who missed last season due to injury. Robert McClain stepped up admirably last season, but his play will be even more important this year, as rookies Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant find their feet at the corners. Asante Samuel brings a wealth of senior schooling for the rookies, and lining up opposite Roddy White and Julio Jones at practice every day can’t hurt their development, either.
Also gone from the defense is sackmaster John Abraham. Giant import Osi Umenyiora brings more Super Bowl experience to the team, but his best days are behind him. Kroy Biermann is the returning sack leader from last season, with only four sacks. Unless someone steps up big time, opposing future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, figure to enjoy an all-too-clean pocket against the Falcons. Meanwhile, a back half of the schedule that is loaded with mobile magic-makers (Rodgers, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III, and Colin Kaepernick) will place added pressure on the young secondary.
Falcone’s Crystal Ball
So what will all this translate to for the Falcons in 2013?
Barring outstanding development from new guys, the Falcons will take a step back from last season’s 13-3 regular season record. Fortunately, following the Super Dome debut, the front half of the schedule is friendlier than the grueling back stretch. This should give the new guys a little time to find their legs. Until that happens, Koetter and Nolan can mask some apparent weaknesses, but that only goes so far when the Super Bowl is the goal.
My crystal ball reveals a 10-6 regular season ahead and another playoff appearance. While I would love nothing better than to see Tony Gonzalez close out his career with a Super Bowl win, my crystal ball is a little foggy on the matter. The Super Bowl is certainly within reach for this year’s Falcons; the biggest key is whether Ryan can stay upright.
Elsewhere around the League
Here’s to a great 2013, Falcons. Time to Rise Up!