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Athlon counts down to NFL kickoff with in-depth team previews for all 32 teams.
Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.
The Atlanta Falcons check in at No. 8.
For the third time in four seasons, the Atlanta Falcons’ season ended in the first round of the playoffs. The New York Giants banished Atlanta from the postseason, 24–2, and went on to win the Super Bowl. There shouldn’t be any solace taken in the fact that in each of the three one-and-done playoff appearances, Atlanta lost to the eventual NFC representative in the Super Bowl.
The Falcons are in win-now mode, and that’s not just a playoff win. Atlanta needs — and is talented enough — to make a Super Bowl run.
Gone are both the offensive and defensive coordinators from the three failed Falcons playoff runs. General manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith brought in new coaching blood to spark a change. And team owner Arthur Blank is fully behind the change. Blank is tired of watching the late rounds of the playoffs from home. He’s calling for success, and he wants it immediately.
The biggest addition to the Falcons’ offense will never step foot on the field of play. New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter plans three things that could greatly enhance play when Atlanta has the ball: 1) create a better vertical attack; 2) use the screen pass more frequently; 3) reduce Michael Turner’s workload.
Even though quarterback Matt Ryan says the playbook has only changed about 15 to 20 percent, the newly added schemes could bolster Ryan’s numbers dramatically.
Koetter has always been a deep-threat mastermind, and Atlanta has the tools in Roddy White and especially Julio Jones to stretch the field. Ryan has been working on strengthening his passing arm, and the quarterback will have a complete offseason to work with his receiving corps to perfect these new deep routes.
The Falcons rarely threw screen passes under Mike Mularkey. Koetter plans to work with the running backs and the offensive line to incorporate the screen game into the offense. This will not only help keep opposing teams from retreating too quickly into the secondary, but it will also get players like running backs Jason Snelling and Jacquizz Rodgers more involved in the offense. Snelling is the best receiver in the Falcons’ backfield, and Rodgers is a quick, change-of-pace back who can give Atlanta multiple looks. He had 151 receptions in three seasons at Oregon State.
At 30 years old, Turner is on the back end of his playing days. He finished third in the NFL in rushing with 1,340 yards but was far more dangerous in the beginning of the season than at the end. Four of his six 100-yard games came in the first seven weeks of the season, though he did have a season-high 172 yards in a Week 17 win over Tampa Bay. The Falcons will reduce Turner’s workload in 2012 in an effort to keep him healthy and explosive. Gone are the days when Turner would accumulate 300 or more carries in a season.
Turner’s lightened workload will mean more opportunities for Rodgers, the team’s fifth-round pick in the 2011 draft. The Falcons coaching staff believes Rodgers can be an every-down back in the future. That future is not in 2012, but if Rodgers can double his workload from his rookie season — he had 57 carries in 16 games — it will take pressure off of Turner and keep the veteran fresh in the second half of the season.
Other than a few changes on the offensive line — Joe Hawley could beat out Todd McClure at center and there is an open competition at right guard — the Falcons will look very similar on offense from a personnel standpoint. The team expects Jones, the No. 6 overall pick in the 2011 draft, to shine in his second season. He missed three complete games and all but one series of another because of injury in his rookie campaign. If healthy for 16 games, Jones has the ability to lead the NFC in receiving. Veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez returns for his 16th and final season before heading off to his eventual destination, the Hall of Fame in Canton.
As much of a game-changer as Koetter is expected to be on offense, new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is supposed to be even more of a catalyst for the Falcons’ defense.
Nolan comes to Atlanta equally experienced with the 4-3 and 3-4 defensive schemes. The Falcons have been playing the 4-3, and Nolan says it isn’t wise to change schemes immediately, but expect him to plug in a good number of hybrid looks.
The biggest difference in the front seven will be the absence of linebacker Curtis Lofton, who led the team in tackles in each of the last three years. The former second-round pick signed a five-year deal with NFC South rival New Orleans. Nolan plans to play a lot of nickel packages, which would have turned Lofton, who is weak in pass coverage, into a two-down linebacker. The Falcons didn’t feel the need to pay Lofton’s salary demands for first- and second-down work.
Instead, Atlanta traded for veteran help in the secondary. The Falcons acquired former All-Pro Asante Samuel, who will team with Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson to give the team three elite cornerbacks. Expect Samuel and Grimes to remain on the outside while Robinson moves inside to cover the slot receiver.
The NFL has turned into a pass-happy league, and the NFC South has four very talented quarterbacks. The Falcons will spend a lot of time in Nolan’s “Big Nickel” package, and the secondary — which has been an area of weakness in the past — could be a bright spot in 2012.
Atlanta returns kicker Matt Bryant and punter Matt Bosher. Bryant led the league in accuracy, hitting 93.1 percent of his field goal attempts. Bosher, the team’s sixth-round pick in 2011, got off to a rough start as a rookie but was punting the ball very well late in the season.
Return specialist Eric Weems left via free agency, so the Falcons will look at corner Dominique Franks along with rookies Cody Pearcy and James Rodgers (Jacquizz’s brother) to step up on special teams.
Final Analysis: 1st in the NFC South
Getting over the playoff hump is of the utmost importance to the Falcons, but it’s only the first step. Atlanta cannot just settle for winning a playoff game. It’s “win now” time for this team, and if the Falcons don’t advance to the NFC Championship Game, the year will be a failure.
Much of the roster looks the same, with upgrades in the secondary and on the offensive line. The biggest area of change — and what could quite possibly be the factor that pushes the Falcons over the hump — is with both coordinators.
Koetter and Nolan will breathe new life into this Falcons team on both sides of the ball. It will be up to Smith, the head coach, and the players to do the rest.
Related: 2012 Atlanta Falcons Schedule Analysis
Outside The Huddle
Just How Good?
If you just give wide receiver Julio Jones the four games he missed as a rookie, his numbers would project to this: 72 receptions, 1,279 yards and 11 touchdowns. He might actually do better in 2012 and move into the top five of the league in yardage and touchdown catches.
Dome sweet dome Only two teams in the NFL have better home records than the Falcons since 2008. Atlanta’s 26 wins at the Georgia Dome trail only Baltimore (27) and New England (28).
Smith’s A Winner
Mike Smith is Atlanta’s 14th head coach in franchise history. He’s the first head coach to lead the Falcons to four consecutive winning seasons, and his 43–21 regular-season record is the best four-year mark in franchise history. With 43 wins, Smith sits in third place on the all-time Falcons coaching list behind Leeman Bennett (46) and Dan Reeves (49). A seven-win season would propel Smith into first place on the list.
Quick Out of the Gate
No team in the NFL has scored more points than Atlanta on its first possession of the game over the past four seasons. The Falcons have accumulated 173 points on their first drives of games since 2008. New Orleans is second (171) with New England third (163).
Close Game, No Problem
Over the last four seasons, Atlanta leads the league in games decided by eight points or less, with a 22–10 record since 2008. In games decided by a field goal or less, the Falcons are 9–6.
Tough in the Red Zone
Atlanta was extremely tough on opponents when backed up into the red zone in 2011. The Falcons’ defense held opponents to a 78.7 scoring percentage when inside the 20-yard line, giving up 22 touchdowns and 15 field goals on 47 trips inside the red zone.
Moving the Ball
In 2011, the Falcons set a franchise record for most total net yards gained in a season with 6,026 yards. Atlanta broke the record that was set by the 2008 squad, which posted 5,779 total yards.
Matt Bryant has been in the league 10 seasons and is showing no signs of slowing down. With three field goals in Week 7 last year, Bryant set a franchise record with 27 consecutive made field goals. His 27-for-29 performance in 2011 was good for third-best all time in the Falcons record books.
In good hands Tight end Tony Gonzalez moved into 11th place on the all-time list with his 875 receiving yards last year. Gonzalez now has 13,338 receiving yards in his career and needs 667 more to pass James Lofton and move into seventh place.
2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:
No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Arizona Cardinals
No. 25: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24: Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23: Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21: Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19: New York Jets
No. 18: Buffalo Bills
No. 17: Tennessee Titans
No. 16: San Diego Chargers
No. 15: Cincinnati Bengals
No. 14: Philadelphia Eagles
No. 13: New Orleans Saints
No. 12: Dallas Cowboys
No. 11: Denver Broncos
No. 10: Detroit Lions
No. 9: Chicago Bears
No. 8: Atlanta Falcons
No. 7: Thur., August 23
Order your 2012 Atlanta Falcons Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here
Related: 2012 Atlanta Falcons Schedule Analysis