Say this about the Atlanta Falcons: They don’t rest on their laurels. Coming up just 10 yards short of the Super Bowl and winning an NFC-best 13 games apparently wasn’t good enough for GM Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith. They overhauled the roster despitea recording the No. 1 overall playoff seed for only the second time in franchise history. Eight new starters will line up for the Falcons this season, including prize free-agent additions Osi Umenyiora and Steven Jackson.
The Falcons enter the season as one of the favorites to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLVIII in New York. After steadily fortifying the roster in recent years, they appear ready to take the next step in the hyper-competitive NFC. “I think this team really believes now this team truly can strap it up against any team in this league,” Dimitroff says. “There is not the intimidation factor that there once was. And I love that feeling.”
Athlon Sports NFC Power Ranking: 5th
The Falcons feature a premier quarterback in Matt Ryan and boast an arsenal of playmakers as deep and talented as any in the NFL. Wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones are big, physical playmakers on the perimeter who can score from any down-and-distance scenario. Both are good enough to be No. 1 receivers on most NFL teams. White sprained his ankle during the Falcons' second preseason game, but it should not prevent him from being out on the field for the season opener in New Orleans. Mercurial Harry Douglas is established as the third receiver, but the team believes he has big-play potential that hasn’t been fully utilized in the past. The big-play opportunities should be there for him with defenses concentrating on White and Jones. He needs to capitalize on them.
Tight end Tony Gonzalez is Ryan’s favorite target, especially in the red zone and on third down. He was targeted 124 times and produced 93 receptions and eight TDs last season. He keeps himself in great shape, so another big year is possible for the perennial Pro Bowler.
Jackson has a lot of wear on his tires but remains remarkably productive. The classic workhorse back, he will try to notch his ninth consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season. That the NFL record is 11 by Emmitt Smith says a lot about Jackson’s dependability and durability. He’s the perfect complement to the Falcons’ high-powered passing attack and will be a significant upgrade over Michael Turner, who had clearly lost explosiveness last season. Scat back Jacquizz Rodgers is the check-down option. He needs more touches, and like Douglas, could have a breakout year with defenses focused outside the hash marks on White and Jones.
Ryan set career highs in passing yards (4,719), completion percentage (68.6) and TD passes (32) last season. He’s the consummate field general who can make every throw. He’s become a more vocal leader in recent years and has earned the trust and respect of his teammates.
The Falcons’ failure to score from the 1-yard line on three downs in their heartbreaking loss to the Saints was the impetus to overhaul the offensive line, which will feature three new starters. The goal is to get more physical and athletic up front. Tackle Lamar Holmes and guard Garrett Reynolds form the new right side. Both are bigger and more physical than their predecessors. Peter Konz replaces longtime veteran Todd McClure at center and is much stronger and more powerful at this stage of his career. Left tackle Sam Baker enjoyed a strong rebound season in 2012. He’s not spectacular at anything but does everything well.
Coordinator Mike Nolan plays multiple schemes but prefers to operate out of a 4-3 base. The Falcons are unfailingly consistent on defense. They annually rank among the league leaders in interceptions and near the bottom in sacks. Rushing the passer continues to be their most pressing concern. To that end, the Falcons replaced the aging John Abraham with Umenyiora, who is three years younger. Umenyiora’s production has declined precipitously the past two years. The Falcons are hoping a change of scenery and the Georgia Dome fast track will turn things around for him. Kroy Biermann makes plays with his hustle and non-stop motor, but he can be overpowered at the point of attack and is a liability against the run. The underrated Jonathan Babineaux is the Falcons’ best lineman. He’s undersized but is one of the league’s best interior penetrators.
Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is the leader of this defense. He’s an elite athlete who makes plays all over the field from his weak-side spot. Akeem Dent and Stephen Nicholas are solid if unspectacular in the middle and strong side, respectively. Depth is a big concern.
The Falcons wanted to upgrade their play at cornerback despite allowing an NFL-low five touchdowns on passes outside the painted numbers last season. Asante Samuel is a boom-or-bust proposition at left corner. He intercepted five passes but also can be burned for big plays because of his penchant for gambling. Rookie Desmond Trufant plays with a similar swagger to Samuel. He has the athleticism and ball skills to start right away. The nickel back position has been a major problem spot for the Falcons. It’s basically a starting spot with so many high-profile passing attacks in the NFC. Rookie Robert Alford should be an immediate upgrade over the undersized Robert McClain. Safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore form one of the best tandems in the league. Both are aggressive hitters with range and improving ball skills.
The Falcons’ special teams are solid. Matt Bryant is one of the best clutch kickers in the NFL, as evidenced by his game-winner against Seattle in the playoffs. He has a range of just over 50 yards and is very accurate and dependable from inside the 50. He has enough leg to consistently send his kickoffs into the end zone.
Punter Matt Bosher needs to improve his directional punting and get-off time. He had two punts blocked last season. Still, he boasts a solid combination of distance and hang time.
Rodgers and Dominique Franks are average return men. The coverage units are solid and should improve with the influx of fresh legs in the draft.
Final Analysis: 1st in NFC South
For all of their recent success, there’s been something missing from the Falcons. For whatever reason, they’ve lacked the aggressiveness and competence of their NFC rivals in Green Bay, New Orleans and San Francisco. They’ve been good, but not good enough.
The Falcons are and should be the favorites to repeat as NFC South champs. They are the most complete team in the division and have several young players emerging into stars. Their window of opportunity to win a Super Bowl in the Ryan era is still wide open. If Jackson and Umenyiora can produce at their former levels and the defense can improve just a little, Atlanta should cruise to its fourth consecutive playoff appearance and challenge San Francisco and Green Bay for superiority in the NFC.
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2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:
New England (8/30)
NY Giants (8/30)
Green Bay (8/29)
San Francisco (9/3)