The Atlanta Falcons released their training camp schedule today, and now begins the 35 day countdown to the beginning of what could be a season of greatness. General manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith have known nothing but winning with the Falcons – having led the team to its first ever back to back winning records. While barely missing last year’s playoffs, the quick success has raised the bar on expectations around Flowery Branch. I believe there are six key elements which will determine whether the Falcons are serious Super Bowl contenders or simply a “one-and-done” playoff hopeful. I will begin with the offensive keys.
1. “Matty Ice” must show a little fire. While Matt Ryan’s second season improvement was hampered by a painful and lingering turf toe injury, I have some concerns. Last season there were times when Ryan held onto the ball too long. There were other times when I felt he threw the ball away too quickly. I think both are the product of Ryan’s well served “low risk” mentality. The only problem is that low risk usually yields low reward. The Falcons suffered a few too many three and outs as a result. And that is a momentum stealer.
The Falcons’ offensive coordinator, Mike Mularkey has promised an improved passing game and a faster tempo – with a great deal of work on the no huddle in OTA’s. That may be just the answer. I don’t expect Matt Ryan to become the next Brett Favre – that’s not who he is. I do expect an increase in big plays and big third down conversions. That will most likely take an increase in risk as well.
2. The running backs must stay healthy. Michael Turner’s high ankle sprain was, fortunately, one of those injuries that has great short term impact but wasn’t career threatening. His absence gave Jason Snelling a chance to show his capabilities and ease the Falcons’ depth concerns. I believe the central concern is the health of Jerious Norwood. Three concussions is bordering on the dangerous, and I wonder how much of a mental toll it has taken. The Falcons need a healthy and aggressive Jerious Norwood, whose game changing potential only increases Michael Turner’s effectiveness. The Falcons seem pretty certain of Norwood’s health, as they re-signed him in the off season.
3. Is this the year Michael Jenkins…..? You can complete that question any number of ways. Jenkins was highly touted out of Ohio State and has yet to warrant the rave reviews. He has been serviceable, but inconsistent. After 6 years in the league he must step into the role as an elite second wide receiver. Roddy White has proven to be a big play maker and Tony Gonzalez is…..well Tony Gonzalez. If Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ offense are to move to the next level, they need to know they can count on Jenkins in the check downs. Harry Douglas showed some spark before a season ending knee injury, but he doesn’t possess the physical raw talent of Jenkins.
Now to the Defense.
1. The Falcons must develop at least one lock-down corner back. Jeff Van Gorder is the king of the “bend but don’t break” defense. But, as New Orleans showed in their comeback win last year, you can’t stay in Cover Two most of the game. The Falcons signed free agent Dunta Robinson in hopes that he can provide what departed corners Chris Houston and Tye Hill could not – a true lock down corner enabling the Falcons to play situational man coverage. The Falcons didn’t get much immediate help in the draft, unless the physical and fast Dominique Franks improves his cover skills.
2. Sack the Quarterback. The Falcons recorded only 28 sacks as a team last year. Jonathan Babineaux and John Abraham led the team with 6 and 5.5 sacks respectively. Even the best defensive backs in the league cannot maintain coverage indefinitely, so the Falcons must improve their pass rush and sack totals. When the Falcons finally sign first round draft choice Sean Weatherspoon, he will provide speed and range that can be utilized in covering tight end and swing passes as well as the occasional blitz.
3. Make big plays. The Falcons’ defensive philosophy also takes on a low risk attitude. The team was +5 in turnover margin last year, but failed to consistently create game changing turnovers or stops. Big plays build momentum and protect leads, two things the Falcons struggled with last year.
The Falcons play in one of the NFL’s toughest divisions, but a typical post- Super Bowl let down by the Saints and an easier schedule should give the team plenty of opportunity to make a playoff run. To make it to the next level, possibly a Super Bowl win of their own, is possible. It all depends on how well the Falcons address the above six key areas.