Optimists point to Matt Ryan's strong season (4,177 yards, 29 touchdowns and a 61.3 completion percentage), Michael Turner's 1,340-yard effort last year and say the Falcons are poised to dominate on offense in 2012. Pessimists point out that Turner's stats are inflated by a Week 17 explosion against the hapless Bucs, that Ryan struggled throwing the ball down the field and that Mike Smith hasn't won a playoff game in his Atlanta tenure.
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The reality is somewhere in between: Ryan was very good, Turner's stats are inflated, Smith's job is plenty safe, and the Falcons struggled to generate big plays last year. A top-10 unit in points scored, yardage, and passing touchdowns, Atlanta averaged just 5.6 yards per play (14th in the NFL), 6.8 net passing yards per attempt (13th) and 4.0 rushing yards per attempt (22nd). Ryan completed just 15 of his 60 passing attempts 20 yards or more down the field according to ProFootballFocus.com. That Rex Grossman both took and completed more attempts down the field should tell you all you need to know.
This was reflected in the organization's decision to shakeup the coaching staff. Hiring Dirk Koetter as the team's offensive coordinator should mean more shots down the field, more no-huddle responsibilities for Ryan and less dependence on Turner, who lacks big-play ability and is showing signs of wearing down. With weapons like Jones, Roddy White and the aging-but-effective Tony Gonzalez and an offensive line that's more efficient at protecting Ryan than it is at creating holes for Turner, the Falcons stand to be more explosive, and thusly more effective, in 2012.
The Falcons hope that defensive changes will result in more explosion as well: new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's aggressive style should improve on 13 forced fumbles, 19 picks and just 33 sacks from last year. The biggest problem for Atlanta is that you can't play in the NFC South and not pressure the quarterback. Cam Newton, Drew Brees and Josh Freeman are guys that can tear apart defenses if given enough time. The Falcons ranked just 19th in the NFL in sacks last year, despite going all-in with Ray Edwards in the offseason. He's mentioned health as a major issue saying he wasn't ever 100 percent last season, but Atlanta will soon know whether or not that's accurate.
Bringing back Jonathan Abraham should help Edwards improve on his 3.5-sack total from last season. Sean Weatherspoon may be the biggest factor for this entire defense though: after a disappointing one-sack, five-start season as a rookie, "Spoon" flashed a ton of potential last season and could be headed for a big-time breakout year in 2012. The trio of Brent Grimes (franchise tagged), Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson needs to make plays. That's the best group of defensive backs Atlanta's had in a long time and if Samuel's presence and ballhawking improves the group enough overall, they could do damage against the dangerous group of quarterbacks in the NFC South.
Staff: Offensive Coordinator Mike Mularkey (departed to become Jaguars head coach); Dirk Koetter (former Jaguars OC) replaces him. Brian VanGorder (departed to become Auburn defensive coordinator); Mike Nolan (former Dolphins defensive coordinator) replaces him.
The Falcons were hamstrung in the draft and free agency by a big offseason (the Jones trade; a head-scratching contract for Ray Edwards) in 2011, but still made some quality additions. Konz was a steal in the second round and could shore up the guard position for Atlanta. Abraham reportedly wanted a monster deal ( like $12 million per year), but at the age of 33, that wasn't happening and he had to settle for less with Atlanta. It's a win-win for both sides, though. Asante Samuel was the big acquisition this season, though it hardly cost Atlanta anything to acquire the ballhawk. Samuel might be averse to tackling but with franchise-tagged Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson, the Falcons have a stout secondary.
X-Factor: Dirk Koetter
Mularkey never took the Falcons over the top offensively and his style of play-calling really looked exposed in recent playoff losses. If Atlanta wants to get over the hump, they're going to need to develop a trait that the teams who beat them have: explosion. This is where Koetter comes in. He's a play caller who prefers to get vertical in the passing game but didn't have the option to do so with Jacksonville, primarily because the Jaguars haven't had a decent wide receiver since Jimmy Smith. (This is neither a joke nor an exaggeration.) With White and Julio, Koetter will have a chance to take the reins off of Ryan and let him get loose in the passing game. The Falcons clearly believe Koetter can upgrade their ability to get down the field and be aggressive. If it backfires, we'll see some explosions too. Just not the good kind.
Changing of the guard
Roddy White and Michael Turner have been pretty prolific over the past few years: from 2009 to 2011 Roddy White is one of only two wideouts in the NFL with more than 300 catches (Wes Welker is the other). And Turner is one of six backs rushing for more than 3,500 yards in that span. But there's apparently a seismic shift in the way the team attacks opponents next year: White's said himself that he expects to do less this coming year, and the team's been forthcoming about cutting back on Turner's totes in 2012. It's logical to spread the ball around, get Julio involved and lighten the load on Turner. But the Falcons have two proven playmakers. Can other guys step up and fill the void if their roles are reduced?
People like to chat about Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff not winning a playoff game in four years with the Falcons. You know what no one points out though? That even their 0-3 record in four years is misleading: each time Atlanta's bowed out of the postseason, they've lost to the eventual NFC champion and twice to the eventual Super Bowl champion. It's a murderer's row too -- Kurt Warner and the Cardinals in 2008, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in 2010 and Eli Manning and the Giants in 2011. Seismic changes on the coaching staff are a signal that Smith and Dimitroff understand what people are saying though. The challenge for the Falcons in 2012 isn't getting to the postseason, but getting a victory when they get there.
Spare a nickel
The idea right now is to have Grimes and Samuel on the outside in nickel packages, with Robinson in the slot. If this package works correctly, the Falcons will turn into a stout team against third-and-long situations and will therefore become a much more effective defense. If it doesn't work, it'll be a disaster, with Robinson getting torched by slot receivers left and right. The biggest problem if this nickel package doesn't work is what the NFC powers will do to Atlanta: the Packers, Saints, Giants, Cowboys and Eagles are just a few of the teams that can spread the field with their dangerous receivers and make the Falcons pay for a weakness in the secondary.
"People talk about their offensive line, and I guess there's some concern there, and Michael Turner is older, yes. But they're still going to run the ball well and they will be very tough to stop in the air. The offense can still carry them and theyre going to be even better at receiver.
"The problem is if they stop the rest of the division. All the quarterbacks in this division can hurt you. The secondary has issues. [Safety William] Moore has to step up. [Asante] Samuel helps some at corner but they can't be totally comfortable on the back end and at linebacker. Losing Curtis Lofton will hurt them. They don't have natural pass rushers, but I like [that] the guys on their defensive line are mobile and they do enough. I like [tackle Jonathan] Babineaux. He's a good fit for what they do."
Xs and Os
By Pat Kirwan | NFL Insider
The Falcons are the new bridesmaid of the NFL. They get to the playoffs but haven't won a game. The answer to their problems may lie in the Xs and Os.
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2012 Preview Schedule
Panthers @ Falcons: 9/30 (1 p.m. ET)
Falcons @ Panthers: 12/9 (1 p.m. ET)
2012 Preview Schedule
Saints @ Falcons: 11/29 (8:20 p.m. ET)
Falcons @ Saints: 11/11 (1 p.m. ET)
2012 Preview Schedule
Bucs @ Falcons: 12/30 (1 p.m. ET)
Falcons @ Bucs: 11/25 (1 p.m. ET)
Last season, QB Matt Ryan had six games with more than 40 pass attempts and Atlanta went 1-5 in them. Throwing less with improved quality is new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter's mission. The Falcons want a vertical passing attack with Julio Jones and Roddy White on the field, but to do it well they need three factors:
1) They need to maintain their solid running attack, so Michael Turner needs more touches (when Turner got 20-plus carries in 2011, Atlanta was 6-1);
2) They need better pass protection (play-action protection off a solidified rushing attack gives them the best chance for the vertical game while alleviating pressure on the offensive line);
3) Ryan doesn't have to become a runner but he needs to avoid pressure in the pocket (10 sacks in three postseason games -- once every 12 attempts).
Even so, Ryan told me he still prefers five-man protection schemes to the more conservative six- and seven-man schemes. Ryan's best attribute is his smarts and he presents problems in the no-huddle package which should be expanded.
Atlanta still is 4-3 team but new coordinator Mike Nolan will use more of a hybrid package. Look for ends John Abraham and Ray Edwards to be standing up at times and dropping into coverage. Only eight teams rushed for 100 or more yards last year against this unit. Even though MLB Curtis Lofton (147 tackles) is gone they will play the run well.
I really like the Falcons in the nickel package. They have the corners to match up on three wide receivers and can use an extra blitzer when necessary. Don't be surprised to see Dunta Robinson blitzing from the slot nickel spot much like Charles Woodson does for the Packers. Asante Samuels is an excellent cover two corner who can bait quarterbacks into bad decisions.
By Rob Rang | NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst
The Falcons may have addressed their biggest concern on the offensive side of the ball with their only two picks before the fifth round: linemen Peter Konz (Wisconsin) and Lamar Holmes (Southern Mississippi).
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The highly celebrated Konz left the Badgers after his junior season and had earned first-round buzz early in the pre-draft process. Concerns about his durability and strength -- especially after a disappointing combine performance -- ultimately led to his slipping into the middle of the second round.
While the 6-foot-5, 314-pound Konz starred at center with the Badgers, he projects well at guard as well. His versatility was cited by GM Thomas Dimitroff following the draft for good reason. Konz spent most of his first minicamp with the Falcons practicing at right guard and is in the mix to start as a rookie.
Fifth-round pick Jonathan Massaquoi should provide a bolt for the pass rush. He has speed off the edge, especially if he returns to his playing weight from 2010 when he racked up 13½ sacks. Massaquoi bulked up to 275 last season, lost a step and some serious draft stock in the process.
The rest of the Falcons' picks:
2nd Round - No. 55 overall - Peter Konz, C, Wisconsin
3rd Round - No. 91 overall - Lamar Holmes, OT, Southern Miss
5th Round - No. 157 overall - Brady Ewing, FB, Wisconsin
5th Round - No. 164 overall - Jonathan Massaquoi, OLB, Troy
6th Round - No. 192 overall - Charles Mitchell, S, Mississippi State
7th Round - No. 249 overall - Travian Robertson, DT, South Carolina