Matt Ryan will have to shoulder less of the load with his weapons returning. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

NFC South Preview: Atlanta Falcons

An NFC South preview is the best way to get the lay of the land, and have a good look at the Panther’s competition.  First on the preview list is the Atlanta Falcons.

A year after putting up their 3rd straight 10+ win season, the wheels fell off for Atlanta as the entire team seemed to break down and struggle to win four games.  It’s time to take a look under the hood and figure out what went wrong, and what to expect from Atlanta this year.

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Offensively the team took a step back, after being 7th in the league in points scored per game in 2012 they slipped to 20th last year.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that losing Roddy White and Julio Jones will have a deleterious effect on a an offense.  Matt Ryan responded reasonably well considering the drop off, but still ended up posting a lower TD:Int ratio, fewer yards, and a lower completion percentage than the previous year.  With a full complement of his wide receivers, Matty Ice should bounce back.  One target that won’t be returning is Tony Gonzalez, who pitched in his usual 80+ reception and 8 TDs last year.  While the Hall-of-famer certainly helped provide a safety valve for Ryan, Gonzalez’s aversion to run blocking probably explained their dead last ranking in rushing yards per game.  Taking in and pulling Gonzalez surely tipped defenses off to the Falcons’ plans.  Having Steven Jackson fail to stay healthy throughout the season, or break 100 yards in a single game also help kill the run game.

The H.O.F Tight End's presence was great for passing, but not for the run game

The H.O.F Tight End’s presence was great for passing, but not for the run game

It might be as simple as this for Atlanta—their best offensive weapons were hurt last year, they will return this year.  Speaking of returning, the Falcons uncharacteristically signed a big-name free agent when they inked Devin Hester to a deal.  Hester will give the special teams a shot in the arm that it hasn’t had since Eric Weems left in 2012. Hester will also serve to give the offense more explosion, something that was a glaring void once Jones went down. With Jackson’s injury, scatback Jacquizz Rodgers received time and looked good in limited spots.  While he will probably never be a number one RB, he showed an ability to be a capable runner between the tackles.  Add draft pick Devonta Freeman as a consistent every-down back, and the running corps looks good for the future.

The prized jewel of the draft for the Falcons is first round selection Jake Matthews. New Assistant GM Scott Pioli is renowned for his ability to pick lineman, so the fact that Matthews is the first selection bodes well for Falcons fans.  The offensive line was much maligned last year, and Matthews will replace the struggling Sam Baker at the Left Tackle position. Perhaps more importantly than adding Matthews, the line will be coached by highly touted Mike Tice, who will add toughness to a squad in desperate need of it.

The defensive line will receive a shakeup as well, with new coach Bryan Cox; an important acquisition, as the defense will need more than a couple of returning players to be better.  Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and DE Kroy Biermann both missed significant time due to injuries; perhaps that’s why the team tied for 29th in the league for sacks generated. No significant pass rush exposed the porous secondary; and led to the Birds getting done Dirty to the tune of 29 allowed passing touchdowns.

Any real change of fortune for this squad will start on the defensive end.  The Falcons spent 7 of their 9 draft picks on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive Lineman Ra’Shede Hageman from Minnesota will add much-needed depth with his ability to play multiple positions on the line. In a similar vein, their 4th round pick, Prince Shembo, should bolster the Linebacking corps; Shembo can play either inside or outside LB. While Thomas Decoud has gone to greener pastures left to play for the Panthers, the Falcons used the draft to upgrade their secondary.  Free Safety Dezmen Southward seemed to be a reach before DeCoud was cut (mostly due to salary cap concerns)—indicating that the Falcons wanted to go younger with high value rookie contracts on defense.

Injuries severely hampered both the offense and defense last year. Look for a renewed Falcons team to bounce back from their four wins.  They won’t win the south, because the defense will still struggle with its pass rush, but it will compete for a Wildcard berth in the NFC.



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