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Atlanta Falcons 2011 NFL Team Preview


The Saints and Packers rode the explosive offense and opportunistic defense formula to the past two Super Bowl titles. The Falcons appear to be following a similar plan.

Few teams can match the Falcons’ firepower on offense. Their weaponry at the skill positions equals any team in the league. Yet instead of fortifying the defense, the Falcons used two of their first three draft picks on wide receiver Julio Jones and running back Jacquizz Rodgers, bolstering an already loaded offense.

They’ll likely need to score a lot of points, because the element of surprise is gone. The Falcons won’t sneak up on anyone after going an NFC-best 13–3 and winning the NFC South Division. Now comes the hard part: Repeating that success.

The talent to make a deep playoff run is unquestionably there. Questions remain about the intangibles. How will this young team handle the high expectations? Will they adjust to being the hunted rather than the hunter? Can they rely on the fourth-quarter wizardry of Matt Ryan for a second consecutive year?

In fiery head coach Mike Smith and Ryan, an unflappable quarterback, the Falcons have quality leadership in the right spots to face the challenge.

In this golden era of NFL quarterbacks, the Falcons have one of the best and brightest in Ryan. It’s difficult to find a hole in the fourth-year pro’s game. He has prototype size, is fundamentally sound and boasts all of the requisite intangibles for the job. He’s tough, competitive, smart and poised. Ryan is mature beyond his 26 years of age and has earned the trust of coaches and teammates with his cool work under pressure. The next step in his evolution is to earn his first playoff victory and become a consistent postseason winner.

Despite Ryan’s brilliance, the offense has lacked quick-strike ability. Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff tried to solve that problem in one bold draft-day stroke, trading five draft picks to move up and select Jones. The Falcons see Jones as the antidote for the constant double teams on Pro Bowl wide receiver Roddy White. The 6'3", 220-pound Jones is the complete package, a rare combination of size, speed and playmaking ability. He’ll team with White, who led the NFL in receptions with 115, to give the Falcons a scary one-two punch at receiver. Slot receiver Harry Douglas and sure-handed tight end Tony Gonzalez work the middle and underneath routes to give the Falcons one of the most talented sets of receivers in the league.

Jones’ addition should benefit Michael Turner as well. His powerful runs between the tackles are the perfect complement to Ryan’s passing. A bowling ball in cleats, Turner has a low center of gravity, powerful lower body and uncanny balance that combine to make him a tackler’s nightmare. Turner could have a big year.

Rodgers will provide a nice change of pace to Turner’s power. The elusive scat back has tremendous short-area quickness and will be a check-down threat out of the backfield in passing situations.

The line might be the most underrated unit in the league. They allowed only 23 sacks last season and consistently cleared paths for Turner on the ground. There’s no superstar in the bunch, but few lines are tougher, smarter or more consistent.

This unit is built for the fast track at the Georgia Dome, relying on speed and athleticism rather than size and strength. The Falcons don’t overwhelm anyone with their defensive personnel, but the unit plays well as a team. Still, they need to improve in a couple of key areas for Atlanta to hold off the Saints and challenge the Packers for the NFC crown.

First and foremost, the Falcons must improve on third down, where opponents enjoyed a 39.3 percent conversion rate. A better rush will help. The Falcons need someone other than veteran end John Abraham to pressure the passer. Abraham led the Falcons with 13 sacks last season but didn’t make many big plays when it counted as teams focused their blocking schemes in his direction. The Falcons believe they have found some help for Abraham in the form of sixth-year veteran Ray Edwards, who recorded 16.5 sacks over the last two seasons with the Vikings. Kroy Biermann will be in the rotation at end, too. He’s undersized and can be pushed around at the point of attack, but he is a tremendous effort player. Inside, Jonathan Babineaux and Corey Peters form one of the most underrated tandems in the league.

The linebacker corps is equally solid. Curtis Lofton, a terrific interior run defender in the middle, is the star. Sean Weatherspoon flashed talent early as a rookie but struggled with injuries the rest of the way. Hopes are high for him to enjoy a breakout season as the starter on the weak side. Veteran Mike Peterson saw his production drop off dramatically last year and could lose his starting job to Stephen Nicholas or rookie Akeem Dent, who will add some much-needed thump and juice to the strong side.

Cornerbacks Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson are solid cover men outside. Robinson is one of the most physical corners in the league, but the Falcons are paying him to make impact plays. He needs to step forward this season. Grimes isn’t very big, but he’s extremely quick and competitive. Nickel back is a major question mark. Chris Owens was picked on mercilessly in his time there and will be challenged by Dominique Franks for the starting spot. While unproven, both are young players with upside. Free safety Thomas DeCoud is the quarterback who calls the pre-snap coverage assignments. He did not make as many plays last season as he did in 2009, but he’s still a solid starter. Strong safety William Moore is a big hitter who also tied Grimes for the team lead with five picks.

Kicker Matt Bryant made 28-of-31 field goals, including three game-winners. Matt Bosher, a surprise sixth-round draft pick, kicked and punted at Miami (Fla.). He will replace Michael Koenen, who signed with Tampa Bay, as the Falcons’ punter. Slippery Eric Weems is a game-changer on both punt and kickoff returns.

In what looks like a two-team race in the NFC South, the battle between the Falcons and Saints should come down to which defense can play better. The rivals are built almost identically, with franchise quarterbacks, high-powered offenses and opportunistic yet sometimes leaky defenses. If Jones is the difference-maker the Falcons believe he is, then Atlanta should field one of the most prolific offenses in the league and have no problem earning a second consecutive playoff berth. How far they go from there will be determined by the team’s intangibles and Ryan’s progression.

Outside the Huddle
Hall call 
Deion Sanders became the club’s first full-fledged Hall of Famer when he was enshrined in August. Sanders played for four other clubs during his 17-year career but chose to be inducted as a Falcon, the team that drafted him in 1989. The club’s other two Hall of Famers — Eric Dickerson and Tommy McDonald — primarily made their marks with other teams.

Kroy Jr. 
Kroy Biermann and girlfriend Kim Zolciak, of “Real Housewives of Atlanta” fame, welcomed their first child into the world this summer. Kroy Jagger Biermann was born on May 31.

Nice pipes 
Fullback Ovie Mughelli is a passionate singer. He’s a founding member of the NFL Players Choir, which sings every year at the Super Bowl. He was forced to miss the event last season because of his Pro Bowl duties. “When I was younger, I loved to do solos all the time,” he says. "Of course, my voice has changed a little bit from then.” Mughelli wowed fans when he sang the national anthem before an Arena Football League game between the Georgia Force and Dallas Vigilantes in April.

Headed downtown? 
Owner Arthur Blank floated the idea for a new open-air stadium in downtown Atlanta. A feasibility study by a Kansas City. Mo., consulting firm identified a 21-acre site just north of downtown and estimated the cost for the 65,000-seat stadium at $700 million. The Falcons have been playing in the Georgia Dome since 1992.

Top cop 
Curtis Lofton has earned the nickname “The Police” from Falcons radio announcers Wes Durham and Dave Archer. The nickname is derived from Lofton’s jersey number: 50. One of the nicknames for the police is 5-0 as in the television show, “Hawaii 5-0.” Durham and Archer have determined that “teams can’t run from the Police.”

Successful start 
GM Thomas Dimitroff signed a multi-year contract extension with the club in March. He’s won the NFL Executive of the Year award twice in his first three seasons. Under his direction, the Falcons have posted a 33–15 (.688) record, which is tied for the third-best in the NFL over the past three seasons.

On the offensive published a chart of offensive points scored per game last season. Unlike the more commonly seen ‘scoring offense’ stat, the OPPG only takes into account points scored by a team’s offense. Special teams and defensive touchdowns are removed. The Falcons ranked seventh in the league, with 23.7 offensive points scored per game. The Patriots led the NFL with 28.5 OPPG. The Eagles led the NFC with 26.1.

BCS or bust 
All but one of the Falcons’ draft picks played their college football in a BCS conference. Guard Andrew Jackson, the team’s first seventh-round pick, played in the WAC at Fresno State. Three of the picks played in the SEC — Julio Jones (Alabama), Akeem Dent (Georgia) and Cliff Matthews (South Carolina).

The Falcons were the least-penalized team in the NFL by a wide margin, committing only 58 penalties. Next on the list was Miami, which was flagged for 72 penalties. The Falcons were second in fewest penalty yards, with 598, just three more than the Dolphins.

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