Falcons

2010 NFL Preview: Atlanta Falcons

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Between now and the September 9th season kick-off, Hank Koebler, IV will be previewing all the NFL teams with new teams being released daily.

2009 Season Breakdown

2009 final record (overall, division): 9-7, 3-3
Division finish: 2nd NFC South
Offensive rank (Points, Total Yards, Passing Yards, Rushing Yards): 13th, 16th, 14th, 15th
Defensive rank (Points, Total Yards, Passing Yards, Rushing Yards):
14th, 21st, 28th, 10th

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2009 Individual Statistical Leaders

Rushing: Michael Turner, 871 yards, 10 TD; Jason Snelling, 613 yards, 4 TD; Jerious Norwood, 252 yards, 0 TD
Passing: Matt Ryan, 2,916 yards, 22 TD, 14 Int
Receiving: Roddy White, 1153 yards, 11 TD; Tony Gonzalez, 867 yards, 6 TD; Michael Jenkins, 635 yards, 1 TDD
Tackles: Curtis Lofton, 105 total tackles; Eric Coleman, 82 total tackles; Mike Peterson, 82 total tackles
Sacks: Jonathan Babineaux, 6 sacks; John Abraham, 5.5 sacks
Interceptions: Brent Grimes, 6 interceptions (0 touchdown);Thomas DeCoud, 3 interceptions, (0 touchdowns); Chris Owens, 2 interception (0 touchdown); Tye Hill, 1 interception (1 touchdown)

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2010 Season Outlook

Schedule
(* denotes division game)

Key Matchups

September 26 at New Orleans: This game will be key to getting an early lead on the division, as Atlanta is the team with the best chance of beating the Saints for the divisional title. Whichever team wins this game will probably have the lead in the divisional race, at least until they meet again on December 27. The Saints' defense will be a slight bit worse than last year, but in the super-competitive NFC South, that slight bit could be the tipping point. This will be the Falcons' first challenge of the year after facing the Steelers and the Cardinals, two teams with struggling running games that lost key elements of their passing game in the offseason.

October 3 vs. San Francisco: The 49ers look to be one of the best running teams in the NFC, and their passing game should not be overlooked with the development of Michael Crabtree, Josh Morgan, and Vernon Davis. The 49ers' offensive line was solidified during the draft, and if quarterback Alex Smith can play consistently, the 49ers could surprise everybody by fielding one of the top offenses in the league. On defense, the 49ers will be formidable as well, and this is another tough matchup for the Falcons.

Thursday, November 11 vs. Baltimore: This could be a possible Super Bowl preview, and is guaranteed to be a tough test for the Falcons' defense as they try to contain Anquan Boldin, Donte' Stallworth, Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton, and tight end Todd Heap without allowing a ton of room for the Ravens' powerful running game. While the Ravens' defense isn't great against the pass anymore, they compensate for this by stuffing the opponent's running game and forcing them into long-yardage passing situations that are easier to defend. Short, efficient passing games will be the key for the Falcons' offense if they want to move the chains and stay in this game.

November 28 vs. Green Bay: Here the Falcons will be tasked with slowing down what can be one of the best offenses in the league, and they will also have to score against a quickly-improving defense. This team made the playoffs last year, and has a legitimate chance to contend for a wild-card spot again this year. Beating the Packers would give the Falcons a leg up in any tie-breaker scenarios for the fifth or sixth seed in the playoffs.

 

Key Losses

Tye Hill, CB

Key Returning Players

Matt Ryan, QB; Michael Turner, RB; Sam Baker, OT; Roddy White, WR; Tony Gonzalez, TE; Tyson Clabo, OT; Harvey Dahl, OG; Jonathan Babineaux, DT; Peria Jerry, DT

Key Draft Picks

Will Witherspoon, LB; Corey Peters, DT; Mike Johnson, OGR

Key Free Agent Signings

Dunta Robinson, CB

Offensive Overview

General manager Thomas Dimitroff struck gold with the selection of Matt Ryan in the 2008 Draft, and the Falcons are set at the quarterback position for years. Though Ryan has some minor work to do in his mechanics and making his reads of the defense, those flaws are small and will easily work themselves out in time. Ryan possesses all of the instincts and underrated intangibles that separate the great quarterbacks from just the good ones, and it is hard not to think of Tom Brady while watching Ryan play.

Running back Michael Turner is a quick and shifty runner whose compact body packs a powerful punch upon contact, but overuse caused him to miss 5 games in 2009. In order to preserve Turner, the Falcons' coaching staff is likely to spell him with powerful Jason Snelling and speedy Jerious Norwood from time to time. Ryan has one of the best deep-threat receivers in the league in Roddy White, and Tony Gonzalez provides an excellent set of hands in the middle of the field. Michael Jenkins lined up opposite of White last year, and provided Ryan another deep target. Also, fullback Ovie Mughelli is one of the best in the game, and can be relied on to get open and make a the catch in goal-line situations, giving Ryan yet another outlet for his passes.

The Falcons' offensive line is impenetrable from the right side, but left tackle Sam Baker and left guard Justin Blalock allowed too much pressure on quarterback Matt Ryan. In fact, the Week 12 ankle injury that caused Ryan to miss the better part of three games was the result of a poor block by Baker. Baker's assignment on the play was to block Buccaneers defensive end Stylez White. White blasted around Baker and got into the pocket with ease, forcing Ryan to step forward. On the other side of the line, right tackle Tyson Clabo has effectively neutralized defensive end Tim Crowder, getting pushed back but still holding his block long enough to keep Ryan safe. However, once the pressure from the blind side forced Ryan to move up in the pocket, Crowder was in position to get to Ryan, and it was impossible for Clabo to stop him without holding him and incurring a penalty. As a result, White fell on Ryan's ankle as Crowder was bringing him down, and Ryan missed the rest of that game, as well as the following two weeks against the Eagles and Saints. The play where Ryan got injured starts at the five-second mark on this video, for those who want to see for themselves.

In run blocking, the left side of the line was also the weakest link. When watching Falcons' games, Blalock and Baker continually got pushed back at the line of scrimmage while the rest of the line blew the defensive line off of the ball. The Falcons didn't do much to upgrade the left side of their line, waiting until the third round to draft Mike Johnson from Alabama. For the Falcons to truly take the next step and challenge for the Super Bowl, they need the left side of their offensive line to hold up as well as the right side does. If that happens, Ryan will be absolutely deadly with more time in the pocket, and Turner will exploit the increase in the amount of holes opened in opposing defenses for years to come.

Free safety Thomas Decoud was excellent playing zone coverage in the middle of the field, as it allowed the fast free safety make a play on deep passes to any side of the field. He was also a ferocious tackler in run support, and recorded two sacks on blitzes in 2009. Seeing him play makes it easy to believe he can bloom into one of the top safeties in the league soon. Strong safety Erik Coleman was solid, but could be pushed for his starting job by second-year safety William Moore, who was drafted from Missouri in the second round of the 2009 draft but suffered knee and hamstring injuries and was placed on injured reserve in October. If Moore can stay healthy, he will have a chance to show the same ballhawking skills he displayed at Missouri before an injury-derailed senior season. Regardless of whether Coleman or Moore starts at safety, the Falcons' defensive backfield will be great in 2010.

Although middle linebacker Curtis Lofton was an anchor for the defense, outside linebackers Mike Peterson and Steven Nicholas struggled in both pass coverage and getting to the ball-carrier. To solidify the linebacking corps, the Falcons drafted Missouri outside linebacker Sean Witherspoon, and he will be expected to start and contribute immediately.

The line is perhaps the biggest question mark on defense. Jonathan Babineaux constantly obtained solid penetration up the middle, led the team in sacks, and recorded more tackles for a loss than any other defensive tackle in the league in 2009. However, he faces the possibility of a four-game suspension under the NFL's Substance Abuse Policy after a December 2009 arrest for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. If he is suspended, the Falcons will rely on second-round defensive tackle Corey Peters and last year's first-round pick Peria Jerry, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second game of 2009, to collapse opponents' interior offensive lines. Elsewhere on the line, defensive end John Abraham has to rebound from a relatively unproductive 2009 campaign, as his sack total dropped from 16.5 in 2008 to 5.5 in 2009, despite starting all games. Jamaal Anderson and Chauncey Davis were equally ineffective opposite Abraham, making Babineaux the only dominant player on the Falcons' defensive line. The Falcons didn't sign any free-agent defensive linemen to compete with any of the starters, which shows that they expect their returning players to rebound from last year's poor performance. Whether this expectation is right or wrong will determine how far the Falcons go in 2010. 

This team could have been a Super Bowl contender last year if it weren't for a slew of injuries to key players. Over the offseason, they continued to improve, and with a healthy Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, and Peria Jerry, this team could make a deep run in the playoffs this year. When deciding whether the Falcons or Saints would win the decision, the edge was given to the defending Super Bowl champions. However, it is highly likely that both the Saints and the Falcons make it into the playoffs regardless of who wins the division. One area the Falcons could struggle in is the establishment of a pass rush against top-tier offenses, but if John Abraham returns to form and Peria Jerry and Corey Peters bring the pressure they're expected to, then this team will be nearly unstoppable. - Hank Koebler, IV

Hank is an aspiring sports journalist who will be attending the University of Missouri's school of journalism starting this fall.

Be sure to check the right sidebar daily for new NCAA Football 2010 Season Previews and NFL 2010 Season Previews as we'll be adding them almost every day until the September kick-off's.

Special Teams Overview

The Falcons special teams play on kickoff coverage was solid: they had the fourth-highest average kickoff distance, and allowed the fifth-lowest average yards per kickoff return. On the other hand, their punting coverage could use some improvement. Their 42.5-yard average punting distance ranked in the bottom half of the league, and their average yards allowed per punt return was the fifth-highest in the NFL. This gave them the third-lowest average net gain (punt distance minus return distance) per punt, 31.8 yards. In terms of field position, this isn't doing them any favors, and they could stand to improve in this area. In the return game, the Falcons were solid, with the ninth-highest average yards per punt return, and sixth-highest average yards per kickoff return.

Head Coach: Mike Smith

The Falcons special teams play on kickoff coverage was solid: they had the fourth-highest average kickoff distance, and allowed the fifth-lowest average yards per kickoff return. On the other hand, their punting coverage could use some improvement. Their 42.5-yard average punting distance ranked in the bottom half of the league, and their average yards allowed per punt return was the fifth-highest in the NFL. This gave them the third-lowest average net gain (punt distance minus return distance) per punt, 31.8 yards. In terms of field position, this isn't doing them any favors, and they could stand to improve in this area. In the return game, the Falcons were solid, with the ninth-highest average yards per punt return, and sixth-highest average yards per kickoff return.

Top 2011 Free Agents

Justin Blalock, OT; Mike Peterson, LB; Stephen Nicholas, LB

Season Prediction

2nd NFC South

 

 

Defensive Overview

Coming into the 2010 season, it appears that the defensive backfield is an area of strength for this defense. Despite a small stature at 5'9", third-year cornerback Brent Grimes showed phenomenal leaping ability and had a knack for getting interceptions, though he sometimes struggled against the league's taller receivers. Cornerback Chris Houston, who struggled to make plays on the ball despite possessing the speed to keep up with almost any receiver in the league, was traded to Detroit after the Falcons signed former Houston Texans cornerback Dunta Robinson. Because of the acquisition of Robinson, the Falcons are better off at cornerback than they were last year, despite the loss of Houston. Chris Owens, who started towards the end of the season while Houston dealt with hamstring injuries, played well and will be a tremendous asset in the Falcons' nickel packages.