Posted by Will Brinson
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It's pretty rare when winning your division and losing to the eventual Super Bowl champions qualifies as a "disappointment," but that's probably the case with the Atlanta Falcons, who really seemed destined to make a run at a championship in 2010.
Alas, destiny came unbound and Green Bay burnt Atlanta to the ground (surely that's not too soon) en route to taking down the Lombardi Trophy. What makes the way in which Atlanta lost interesting is that it was their bread and butter -- old-school, methodical football -- that left them unable to mount a comeback against the Packers.
Having said that, this is a Falcons team that's built for the long-haul. Matt Ryan is an All-Pro for years to come, Roddy White is blossoming into one of the best receivers in the NFC (if not the NFL), and the defense as a whole appears full of young playmakers. Sure, Tony Gonzalez and Michael Turner might not be contributing five years down the road, but that doesn't impact 2011, when the Falcons will be absolutely primed to repeat their success from the previous year.
Speed, Explosiveness, Youth
In 2009, Atlanta was vulnerable to getting torched on big plays, and got gashed by opponents on 20-yard-plus plays 55 times, and 40-yard-plus plays 11 times. They addressed their secondary needs in the offseason, stealing Dunta Robinson away from the Texans (who then became historically bad against the pass, for what it's worth). In 2010, Atlanta gave up just 38 plays of 20+ yards and only six plays of 40+ yards.
So, yeah, not a problem anymore. But what is a problem? The big plays created on the offensive end. Atlanta ranked next-to-last in the NFL in passing plays over 20 yards with 32, just two ahead of Carolina. You may recall that the Panthers didn't finish No. 1 in the conference. Add in six plays all season of 40-plus yards, and it's clear the Dirty Birds lack some explosiveness in the passing game.
This is partially a result of Mike Mularky's vanilla offense, and partially because Tony Gonzalez can't stretch the field quite as much as he used to. But it's primarily because Atlanta hasn't been able to find a true WR2 to pair with White and give Ryan a deep threat.
1. Speedy WR2
The M.O. of Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith isn't necessarily to grab a WR early just because they need one. And it's unlikely that one of the true talents in this draft -- think A.J. Green and Julio Jones -- will get even close to the Falcons. It's possible they could use a draft pick on a speedy wide receiver, but it's also possible that they could look to boost their receiving corps through free agency (Santana Moss would fit the bill nicely; he's been wildly inconsistent as a WR1, but his downfield burst would fit well with what the Falcons need, especially as a second wideout). The ideal candidate -- as I noted in the podcast above -- is Steve Smith of the Panthers, but an intra-division trade seems like a pretty unlikely outcome.
2. Defensive End/D-line depth
Defensively, the Falcons performed well in 2010, ranking in the top five in terms of points allowed and right about the middle of the NFL in terms of yards per game allowed. But they weren't anywhere close to the top in terms of sacks, ranking 20th with 31, 13 of which came from the aging John Abraham. Given the incredible defensive line depth in the 2011 NFL Draft class, it's almost likely that we see the Falcons address their pass-rushing needs with their first round pick in April.
3. Running Back
Michael Turner has been a fantastic find for the Birds since they signed him as a free agent (especially considering people thought they'd overpaid), and Jason Snelling is a pretty good backup insofar as those things go. But at some point, Atlanta's going to need to find some additional running back depth in order to stay ahead of the curve and not find themselves empty-handed if Turner slows under the weight of excessive carries. They could also use a change-of-pace, third-down back, and the second round is a decent spot for them to address that need.
Atlanta's going to compete with the Saints -- and perhaps the Buccaneers?? -- for the division title in 2011, and it's hard to fathom a situation where they're not the favorites to win the NFC South this year. That's simply based on the fact that they return the entire nucleus of a team that showed it knows how to play a grind-it-out style of football and win close games.
And there's no question that this is a team for whom "winning the Super Bowl" isn't just a silly goal to have simply because football hasn't been played and "everyone's got the same record right now." The only issue for Atlanta, in order to take the next step, it seems is finding some explosiveness that the 2010 rendition of the Falcons lacked. Otherwise, building on the base they've already got means we'll be saying similar things about this team for years to come.
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