Where This Meets That
One of the best times of the year. It’s officially football season, and the Atlanta Falcons are undefeated! Cautious optimism has settled all across NFL fandom, and now it’s finally time for eight months of marketing to translate into performance. Let’s take a look at my beloved Atlanta Falcons.
The “Off” Season
Last season . . . ended.
And, as Forrest Gump might say, that’s about all I got to say about that.
Looking Ahead – Offense
I’m so glad Thomas Dimitroff took my advice and drafted Jake Matthews with the Falcons’ first pick! That pick weighs particularly heavy now, with starting left tackle Sam Baker lost for the season. Matthews’ learning curve is steep, but by all pre-draft accounts, he was the offensive lineman coming out of college who was ready for a quick transition to the pro game. His progress in preseason and training camp has only confirmed as much.
In addition to signing Matthews, the Falcons also added fifth year guard Jon Asamoah, from Kansas City, and re-signed center Joe Hawley. Suddenly, the offensive line looks formidable.
If the line can protect Matt Ryan, then the sky’s the limit for the Falcons offense in 2014. The team added depth to the receiving corps with legendary return specialist and subpar wideout Devin Hester, from Chicago. Hester has never flourished as an NFL wideout, but he’s always flourished in space. Sharing the field with Julio Jones, Roddy White, and Harry Douglas just might give him the space to create some success as a receiver.
Second year tight end Levine Toilolo appears to have all the tools and enjoyed a year behind future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez. At 6’8″, Ryan will definitely give him some looks in the end zone.
Behind Ryan in the backfield, Steven Jackson is back to carry the rock, but for how long is anybody’s guess. Jackson is beyond all doubt a physical specimen, but for all his chiseled man mass, a little yoga would do him some good in the flexibility department.
Behind Jackson is a curious mix of question marks. Fourth year back Jacquizz Rodgers has shown flashes but never much consistency. Antone Smith, in his sixth year, has shown tremendous explosiveness in few opportunities and is expected to see more action this season than in previous years. Like Rodgers, rookie Devonta Freeman offers hard running and good hands in a compact form. If his line can give him some creases, he can make some things happen.
Key Success Factor
Offensive Line. The Falcons simply must reclaim the line of scrimmage if they are to control and win ball games. This is the most important key to the Falcons’ 2014 success.
Looking Ahead – Defense
More good news on the defensive front: the Falcons significantly beefed up their defensive line during the offseason and can finally field a legitimate 3-4 defensive line. Three hundred forty-pound Paul Soliai, from Miami, will anchor the nose of the line. He is experienced in Mike Nolan’s defense, and together with ends Jonathan Babineaux and new pickup Tyson Jackson, from Kansas City, should be able to eat double teams. Fifth year tackle Corey Peters and rookie Ra’Shede Hageman are certain to see regular rotation.
While the line may be all set with veteran bulk, Sean Weatherspoon’s season-ending injury leaves the Falcons with a fairly green inside linebacking core. Nevertheless, the improved line should allow for prolific linebacker production. Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu both came up large as rookies last season. Worrilow racked up nearly 130 tackles in a dozen starts, including back-to-back 19 tackle performances and seems primed for good success following a full offseason of work. Rookie Prince Shembo, from Notre Dame, has impressed this preseason and promises good upside in a depth role.
Outside, high-motor, positional chameleon Kroy Bierman should be back at full speed, following the achilles tear that ended his 2013 season. He will lead the pass rush, along with the men of Troy (State University), 12-year veteran Osi Umenyiora and third year Jonathan Massaquoi.
The backfield should be strong. Corners Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford both had strong rookie campaigns last season. Their continued improvement will weigh heavily on the defense’s overall success this season. William Moore returns at safety and will probably share the field with a rotation of new Falcons, Dwight Lowery (Jets) and Dezmen Southward (R-Wisconsin).
Key Success Factor
Defensive Line. While this unit isn’t built to pressure the passer, it is expected to shut down the run and keep blockers off the linebackers and open gaps for defensive coordinator Mike Nolan to bring pressure from elsewhere.
Preview – Special Teams
Not much to say here but that the Falcons should be good. Devin Hester has some miles on him but still has moves and vision to bring explosiveness to the return game. The Falcons recently brought back Eric Weems, as well, to back up Hester here.
Matt Bryant returns as kicker, no concerns there.
Matt Bosher returns as punter and linebacker surrogate, always ready to mix things during punt returns.
The Falcons open with three games – including division rivals the Saints and Bucs – in 11 days, baptizing many young players by fire. These games will be spent rapidly coaching players up, evaluating how new players “rise up” after getting burned. If all goes well, and the team can avoid the “walking dead” syndrome that plagued them in 2013, then the Falcons could be poised for a midseason run. The team’s youth and chemistry should be well-seasoned for a division-heavy back stretch.
Falcone’s Crystal Ball
It’s interesting to see how quickly many pundits fell off the Falcons’ bandwagon with last year’s poor showing, but I think there were two primary factors that created that monster: attrocious offensive line play, and injuries.
Injuries happen; best hope is that they are minor, short term ordeals that don’t ultimately undermine team chemistry. What the Falcons faced last year was pretty close to the worst-case scenario. Fortunately, what they paid for last year in losses, they should gain this year in depth.
Offensive line play, however, is fundamental and controllable, and I think the Falcons made great strides to improve that this offseason, between coaching and player changes.
With an improved offensive line and a full arsenal of good hands in the field, Matt Ryan will have his best season yet. My crystal ball shows him approaching 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns.
Improved offensive production and game control lead to a more opportunistic defensive and combine to deliver an 11-5 regular season record and playoff birth.