By the time Julio Jones crumpled to the turf of the Georgia Dome in Week 5, his season-ending foot fracture was just one of countless injuries to an Atlanta franchise many had considered to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender. The Falcons, 1–3 at the time of his injury, continued to battle — they won two of their final five games, with the three losses to playoff teams by an average of four points — but this team simply didn’t have enough on either side of the ball to be any kind of factor in the NFC South.
Maybe it was more than just Jones’ absence — at the time of his injury he led the league in receptions. Maybe it was the shaky depth created by general manager Thomas Dimitroff’s move up to draft the Alabama star two seasons prior. After all, in a matter of weeks, the Falcons’ mediocre offensive line unraveled when injuries exposed a thin depth chart. Simultaneously, years of busted free agency moves on defense (Ray Edwards, Dunta Robinson, Asante Samuel) and a slew of injuries created one of the league’s most anemic pass rushes.
Although it appeared Atlanta built the framework of a powerhouse franchise despite the Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino debacles, head coach Mike Smith and Dimitroff watched the Falcons lose an entire season in the trenches before it ever really began. The good news is that most of the crucial pieces are in place for a rebound. Seven of the Falcons’ 12 losses last season were by a touchdown or less, and five of those were to playoff teams. Dimitroff recruited ex-Chiefs GM Scott Pioli specifically to oversee personnel housecleanings on the offensive and defensive lines (both units also feature new position coaches). Pioli’s input is likely for both short- and long-term fixes, as owner Arthur Blank is still confidently demanding a Super Bowl or bust for a team that’s locked and loaded on offense.
After a steady climb toward consideration as one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks, Matt Ryan was undone by an injury-plagued offensive line in 2013. The Falcons’ quarterback was sacked 44 times after an average of 20 per season from 2010-11. Under near-constant pressure, Ryan posted a career-high 17 interceptions while throwing for only 26 TDs, his lowest total since 2009, when the Falcons last missed the playoffs.
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Enter former Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Tice, who must overhaul one of the league’s worst lines in order for coordinator Dirk Koetter to effectively utilize his range of skill-position weapons. First-round pick Jake Matthews could start immediately at right tackle, but don’t be surprised if he upends maligned left tackle Sam Baker by season’s end. Free-agent guard Gabe Carimi is a high-upside, low-risk signee who could add a little extra nasty, and tackle Mike Johnson is expected to return at full strength after missing the entire 2013 season with a broken leg.
Compounding matters for that battered offensive line were key injuries to Ryan’s stable of weapons, most notably Jones (broken foot), All-Pro wideout Roddy White (high-ankle sprain) and running back Steven Jackson, who nursed multiple injuries and finished with the worst yards-per-carry average (3.5) of his career. All three are expected back, but Jones has become the most valuable, as his mere presence demands that defensive coordinators shift coverage to his side of the field.
Tony Gonzalez’s retirement will force Ryan to prove he can work without a safety valve, but he’ll do so with arguably the NFL’s best 1-2 receiver tandem in Jones and White. There’s room for competition at the No. 3 spot. Harry Douglas is coming off of career highs of 85 receptions for 1,067 yards, but many of his targets were the result of injuries at the position.
Running back Jacquizz Rodgers has proven a capable receiving option, and with a healthy O-line, Koetter will be allowed more creativity with a stable of fast, smallish backs that includes Rodgers, fourth-round draft pick Devonta Freeman and Antone Smith.
Coordinator Mike Nolan and Smith have refused to acknowledge that the Falcons are shifting to an outright 3-4 alignment, Nolan’s historic preference. Yet all signs point that way: The team signed nose tackle Paul Soliai and drafted a fleet of rookie linebackers built for inside and outside speed-rushing. For two seasons under Nolan, Atlanta has lacked pass-rushing talent on the edges of a 4-3 and the talent at linebacker to effectively shift into a 3-4. The latter has certainly been addressed. Among Atlanta’s draft class, Notre Dame linebacker Prince Shembo stands out as an ideal 3-4 backer capable of rushing the passer and dropping into coverage. In addition, Kroy Biermann will return from a season-ending torn Achilles. Initially a traditional 4-3 defensive end, Biermann had excelled as a 3-4 outside linebacker before his injury.
Expect veteran pass-rusher Osi Umenyiora to shift toward a specialist’s role on third downs. After that, the front seven depth chart is anyone’s guess, depending on how often Nolan shifts schemes. The Falcons drafted four new linebackers to accompany veteran Sean Weatherspoon and breakout performer Paul Worrilow, an undrafted rookie in 2013 who led the team in tackles with 127. The linebacker depth will be tested even further now that Weatherspoon (ruptured his Achilles during team workout in June) and fifth-round pick Marquis Spruill (tore his ACL during training camp) have already been lost for the season. The team signed veteran Pat Angerer to take Weatherspoon's spot on the roster.
The signing of Soliai and the selection of Ra’Shede Hageman in the second round seem to indicate a base 3-4. However, if Atlanta wants to maintain traditional 4-3 looks for variety they’ll need Corey Peters to return from a late-season Achilles injury and serious advancement from defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi as a legit pass-rushing threat.
Atlanta failed to pick up a serious starter at safety through free agency after parting ways with Thomas DeCoud, making the middle of the secondary the thinnest position on the team. Desmond Trufant is poised for a breakout sophomore season and could develop into an elite cover corner.
Free-agent signees Devin Hester and Javier Arenas are expected to compete in an overhauled return game. Hester’s speed could find a niche role in Koetter’s offense, but he’ll be looked upon foremost to repeat as the league’s leader in kick-return yardage. Since coming over from Tampa Bay in 2009, Matt Bryant has provided consistency at kicker, and his notable range (his career long is 62 yards) has given Smith confidence to rely on the Pro Bowler from long distances. Punter Matt Bosher returns after he netted a career-best 41.1 yards per kick.
No one’s expecting a Super Bowl run now, but the Falcons have traditionally thrived under Smith and Dimitroff when they’re ignored. But just like last season, Atlanta’s chances with names like Ryan, Jackson, White and Jones won’t matter if both lines of scrimmage haven’t been repaired — or least patched up.