CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Two big additions make Falcons whole as NFC contender

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Julio Jones cost the Falcons a lot in draft picks but has quickly impressed. (US Presswire)  
Julio Jones cost the Falcons a lot in draft picks but has quickly impressed. (US Presswire)  

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- They aren't the defending champions from Green Bay or the supposed Dream Team from Philadelphia, but why isn't anybody talking about the Atlanta Falcons as an NFC power?

Did people already forget they were the No. 1 seed in the NFC last year? Did they forget that the two big trouble spots -- big plays in the passing game and pressuring the quarterback -- have been addressed with two major off-season moves?

It might be because the lasting image of the 2010 Falcons is a team that was two victories away from the Super Bowl, playing on its home field, getting blasted by the Packers.

That stinging loss, a 48-21 blowout, highlighted two problem areas for the Falcons that got overlooked some because of the 13-3 record in the regular season. The Packers, with their three good cover players, took away the outside passing threats. And the Falcons had big problems getting Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers on the ground, even when they seemingly had him penned in for a sack.

The image of Rodgers spinning away on key third downs to make big throws was as frustrating for the team as any.

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"We couldn't get him on the ground," coach Mike Smith said late that night in his locker room.

Fast forward to now. The Falcons traded up in the first round of the April draft to get receiver Julio Jones, trading four picks to do so, with the idea that the passing game would be more dynamic with him on the field. They then signed defensive end Ray Edwards as a free agent to play opposite John Abraham.

Better team. Less attention. Weird.

"We like flying under the radar," Falcons receiver Roddy White said after a walk-through here Wednesday during workouts with the Jaguars.

He's getting his wish. With the Eagles spending to add several big-name free agents to a playoff team from 2010, and the Packers getting back many key players who missed the playoff run because of injuries, the Falcons aren't being talked about much.

"For us, we're not worrying about outside perception" quarterback Matt Ryan said. "One of the best attributes of our team is we can stay focused on what's at hand. I don't think anybody in our locker room is worrying about what anybody else thinks."

The Falcons were 31st in the league in passing plays of 20 yards or more -- the so-called explosive plays. Only Carolina, which played rookie Jimmy Clausen much of the season, had fewer explosive plays.

"For us, that's definitely an area we need to improve," Ryan said.

That shouldn't be the case with a quarterback like Ryan. He can throw the deep ball, but there are times he has been held back. This is the year the team needs to give him more. With Jones on board, that's going to happen.

Now in his fourth season, Ryan has the second-best winning percentage of all active quarterback with 10 or more games. Only Tom Brady is better. Ryan is 33-15 in three seasons.

The playoff failures, which has him at 0-2, have taken away some of the shine from his successful three-year start. Ryan has thrown four interceptions in two playoff games and had two turnovers, one a fumble, the other one an interception, returned for a score. Tramon Williams returned an interception off Ryan for a huge touchdown on the final play of the first half in the loss to the Packers.

"It was difficult walking off that field because we felt we had a good chance to make a run," Ryan said. "We didn't play our best when we needed to do so."

With Jones joining White and tight end Tony Gonzalez, and third receiver Harry Douglass another year removed from knee surgery and looking quick again, Ryan has a lot of options now.

White, who is apt to say things more so than any other player on the Falcons roster, has bragged about the offense since seeing Jones and what he can add.

"Adding Julio will make it a lot easier on us," White said. "You can't double everybody. In two games, the Saints doubled me and Tony and the other guy had to make plays, and couldn't make them. I think this year we have a guy who can make them. Not only make them, but make them explosive plays. Instead of getting 10 yards, he can get 30- or 40-yard gains."

Jones has come in as a rarity: A receiver who doesn't talk much. There is no diva about him.

"He's got a great demeanor," Ryan said. "As a rookie, it's kind of nice to be seen and not heard. He's that guy."

Jones plays a loud game, but he is certainly quiet off the field. Getting him to say much about himself is tough to do. Think Andre Johnson early in his career. "I'm just laid-back," Jones said. "I do whatever they want me to do. If they want me to go in and block, I'll block. It's not like I need a ball every game. I just do what they tell me to do."

They didn't give up four picks to see you block, Julio.

Jones came to Atlanta during the lockout to spend time with Ryan even though Jones didn't have a contract and was putting himself at risk of injury. The two developed a rapport you can see on the field. They also get together now before practice and throw some routes.

"He was going to be my quarterback, the guy throwing me the ball, and I just wanted to get the timing down," Jones said. "The time me and him had together to get on our timing was going to be short. The sooner I got together with him, the better."

Ryan's face lights up when talking about Jones. It's that way with nearly everyone in the organization, players, coaches and front-office people. It was a bold, brash move made by general manager Thomas Dimitroff to get him -- one that cost the Falcons premium picks, including next year's first-round choice -- but if Jones ends up being the next Andre Johnson it will pay off in a big way.

If he flops, it will be a move that will be criticized sharply and could derail this team's path to a Super Bowl. But after seeing Jones in the preseason opener and then watching him work here with the Jaguars, you can forget about the flop talk.

"He's so explosive, so big, fast and strong," White said. "And he's done a great job picking up the offense. He does a lot of things naturally. You don't have to teach guys like that to play football. You just let them go out there and do their thing. They get acclimated real fast and they go."

Edwards, who was signed as a free agent after four years in Minnesota, missed the preseason opener against the Dolphins as he battles back from offseason knee surgery, but he worked some Wednesday night against the Jaguars during one-on-one drills.

The Falcons hope he can be a nice 8-10 sack compliment to John Abraham on the other side. If they can get 20-25 sacks from those two players, there shouldn't be many more images of Rodgers or any other quarterback constantly spinning away from pressure.

Atlanta is better simply because of Jones and Edwards. But the growth of lot of young players in their third and fourth seasons will also make them better.

So don't forget about the Falcons. Remember them, the top seed in the NFC in 2010? They aren't a Dream Team and they certainly don't have Super Bowl rings, but they are every bit as good as the other teams in the NFC.

"We don't need all the hype," Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson said. "That's the way we like it."

Like it or not, that's the way it is.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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