|Falcons owner Arthur Blank says coach Mike Smith (above) is not in trouble but wants results. (US Presswire)|
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The coach and the quarterback are always linked in the NFL.
The quarterback and coach of the Atlanta Falcons are linked this summer, taking an endless stream of criticism mainly because they haven't been able to win a playoff game.
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Coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan are 0-3 in the playoffs, which has opened both up to a ton of heat, even though the Falcons have been in the playoffs three of their four years together and lost twice to the eventual Super Bowl-winner.
"We know what we have to do," Ryan said. "We can't stand pat."
Coming here to watch the Falcons work at their team facility, it's obvious they haven't. There is a new offensive coordinator in Dirk Koetter and a new defensive coordinator in Mike Nolan.
Both have brought new looks to the team. Koetter will feature more downfield passing, which should play to Ryan's ability to see the field and make quick reads. It should also make Julio Jones a star.
On defense, Nolan will show many more looks than what the Falcons have used the past four years.
"We will move around a lot," linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who told me this spring that Smith was not in any sort of trouble, isn't a patient man. He spends big, but wants results.
The Falcons have to find a way to win a playoff game -- and they all know it.
The changes they've made are a step in the right direction, particularly on offense.
• Implement the deep passing game. Ryan has done some really good things over the years in the no-huddle offense, which puts more on him. That's because he seems to play better when he's not restricted. Koetter will let him go more than former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey did. In Jones and Roddy White, the Falcons have two receivers who can get down the field. Jones was sensational the days I watched him work, and could be ready for a 90-catch, 1,500-yard season after an impressive rookie year in 2011.
• Find another pass rusher to go with John Abraham. The Falcons spent big money on Ray Edwards in free agency before the 2011 season, but he didn't provide much bang for the buck. He was running some with the second team when I watched the Falcons, which isn't a good sign. Lawrence Sidbury is having a good summer and could earn a starting spot. Whoever plays opposite Abraham has to get pressure to help take some of the slide protection and double-teams he faces.
• Solidify the offensive line. That was a problem area in a big way last season. That mostly means getting better play from left tackle Sam Baker. After being a first-round pick in 2008, Baker has not lived up to the expectations. Injuries have slowed him, but it's his time to prove his critics wrong. He is healthy for the first time in years, so there are no more excuses. Right tackle Tyson Clabo also didn't play as expected last year after getting a big deal. This unit has to protect Ryan better.
Defensive end: They need to decide on somebody opposite Abraham. In addition to Edwards and Sidbury, veteran Kroy Biermann is also in the mix. He is more of a situational backup, but he plays hard. Edwards has to show more for the Falcons to start getting bang for their buck.
Projected winner: Sidbury. He is bigger, stronger and players were raving about him.
Starting corner: We know the Falcons will have three good corners on the field in veteran Asante Samuel, who came over from Philadelphia, Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson. But who starts? Grimes seems to be lock, so it comes down to Samuel and Robinson. The guess here is that Samuel, who brings a loud, brash style to the defense, will be the starter with Robinson playing inside in the nickel.
Projected winner: Samuel. He is the one corner who isn't afraid to take the other team's top receiver and lock him down.
Right guard: Veteran Garrett Reynolds headed into camp as the starter, but he really struggled last season. He isn't as physical as the team would like. Rookie Peter Konz, the center of the future, is getting a look as well.
Projected winner: Konz. Reynolds isn't physical enough.
Somebody to Watch
The Falcons were a team with fast players who played slow last season. That will change and running back Jacquizz Rodgers is a big reason why. Michael Turner is a power, plodding back, while Rogers is an explosive smaller back who will flourish in the new system. The Falcons will get him more carries, but they will also get him involved in the screen game, something they did very little of last season. He could be their Darren Sproles.
• Defensive tackle Corey Peters is recovering from a foot injury and hasn't been practicing. He is a projected starter.
The Last Word
It's time to let this fast offensive team play fast.
The Falcons will give more to Ryan and the passing game, which is a must in the modern game. That will pay off big.
On defense, they have to get to the quarterback more, whether it's with the more aggressive approach or with the outside rushers winning.
The window is far from shutting on this group, but at some point they have to find a way to win a playoff game.
I say this is the year.
If not, the pressure will intensify on both coach and quarterback.