Atlanta has done the right things to push it over that last hurdle—and it still might not be enough
The Atlanta Falcons’ mission is to be 10 yards better than they were a year ago. That can be tough for a team that went 13-3 and at one point led 17-0 at home in the NFC Championship Game. It can also bring about pressure similar to the "0-3 in the playoffs" monkey that was on these Falcons’ backs at this time last year.
Such is the burden of being a good franchise that operates like a great one but hasn’t accumulated the hardware to actually be called great. Sixth-year head coach Mike Smith can average 11 wins a year, but, fair or unfair, until he reaches a Super Bowl he’ll remain open to the type of second-guessing he endured last postseason. Matt Ryan can throw for 4,719 yards and 32 touchdowns like he did in 2012, but until he plays a meaningful game in February, he’ll occupy Joe Flacco’s old place at the front of the subtly insulting "elite or not elite" debate. Thomas Dimitroff can build and maintain a perennial contender, but the wide-held respect for the sixth-year GM won’t morph into wide-held reverence until he has a ring. (Just ask Ozzie Newsome.)
So far, how have the Falcons gone about getting 10 yards better? For one, by drafting players they expect to immediately rectify their most consequential weakness: athleticism (or lack thereof) at cornerback. They traded up to take Desmond Trufant in the first round and got Robert Alford in the second. The Falcons also used free agency to replace two aging key components with slightly less-aging models: Steven Jackson (30 years old) comes in for running back Michael Turner (31), and defensive end Osi Umenyiora (31) replaces and John Abraham (35).
More important—and more difficult—than personnel tweaks is that the Falcons must augment the many things they already do well. History is littered with really good teams that couldn’t do this and thus couldn’t become great. In a business as competitive as the NFL, every second that you’re not improving is a second spent falling behind.
In his first year coordinating the Falcons’ defense, Mike Nolan injected valuable dimension into Mike Smith’s 4-3 zone scheme. The Falcons sub-packages, and even some base sets, were often a cocktail of hybrid fronts, disguised coverage rotations and multilevel zone blitz concepts. Most downs ended with the Falcons in some variation of a 3-over, 4-under zone look, but their process getting to that look could be extraordinarily confounding. It was not uncommon to see an inside linebacker—or even a defensive lineman—drop to free safety. Or to see corners rotate inside after the snap and be replaced by outside linebackers or a dropping safety. Or to see rotations that weren’t actually rotations, but rather, just two-man exchanges. The variations were vast.
Consequently or fortuitously, downhill smacking safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore became stars in this scheme, finally converting their outstanding speed into coverage range. Nolan also had a solidly athletic pair of linebackers, Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas, from whom he asked a lot in coverage. Plus he had a unique Joker in defensive end Kroy Biermann, who could drop back and operate in space as a spy, underneath patroller or the aforementioned “free safety.”
Fascinating and successful as Atlanta’s scheme was, it got exploited in the playoffs by Seattle’s and San Francisco’s dual and trips wide receiver sets. The spacing of these unbalanced formations prevented the Falcons from using many of their best pre-snap disguises, making for a predictable and reactionary defense. It also distorted some of the zone coverage responsibilities for the secondary and compelled weaker cornerbacks to be critical force defenders against the run.
Nolan’s scheme is too good to rewrite, but parts of it obviously need amending. A simple response to unbalanced sets is man coverage. Hence the new cornerbacks. Desmond Trufant has the fluid footwork and physicality to play press-man. Robert Alford is also a physical press-defender. And his willingness to play the run could help offset some of what Atlanta lost in releasing Dunta Robinson.
Nolan likely now has the new option of playing man coverage, though he’ll still have to hybrid these with zone concepts, as incumbent No. 1 corner Asante Samuel is strictly an off-coverage defender. Samuel’s aversion to contact can be obnoxious if not constricting, but his knack for disguising traps and inverted coverages, as well as for jumping routes, outweighs this.
If both rookies can contribute immediately, the Falcons will have excellent cornerbacking depth. Fourth-year pro Robert McClain blossomed into a very fine nickelback last season; if he can’t fend off the rookies in 2013, he’ll at least be the best dime back in the league. Dominique Franks has never truly competed for a long-term starting job, but he’s certainly capable of being a fifth corner. It might be worthwhile to give one of these corners reps in centerfield, given that the depth at safety consists of unused former sixth-round picks Charles Mitchell and Shann Schillinger.
Helpful as a revamped secondary can be, the best remedy for an exposed defensive scheme is a potent four-man pass-rush. The Falcons did not have that in 2012. A lot of their 28 sacks (fifth fewest in the league) came from manufactured pressure via zone exchanges or blitzes. The hope is that Osi Umenyiora at right end will change this, but even if the 31-year-old former Giant can maintain his sensational initial quickness (which he should), there aren’t enough weapons around him. Valuable as Biermann’s versatility is, the sixth-year pro does not have the raw edge-bending speed to draw double-teams or even consistently reach the quarterback. That’s why the Falcons are banking on one of their mid-round youngsters—second-year man Jonathan Massaquoi or rookies Malliciah Goodman and Stansly Maponga—to step up. A better bet might be sinewy 2011 seventh-rounder Cliff Matthews, who last season showed hints of upside playing about eight snaps a game (when active).
There’s also some optimism for generating pressure inside, as Jonathan Babineaux remains arguably the most underrated gap-shooting force in the league. The ninth-year veteran spent a lot of time (and thrived) at strongside defensive end in 2012 but will still play his familiar three-technique spot on passing downs. The hope is Peria Jerry can start next to Babineaux, though more likely it will be rising fourth-year pro Corey Peters, who has flashed a bit in a rotational role but has a tendency to fall behind in hand-to-hand battles early in the down.
Having a few more functional man-to-man defenders could allow Nolan to deploy his best athlete, Sean Weatherspoon, more on blitzes. Weatherspoon is the type of talent worth using in as many ways as possible. He has what they call a “nose for the ball,” which can show up in his spurts of emphatic dominance against the run. Accompanying Weatherspoon at the second level is Stephen Nicholas, who has blossomed into a very fine force defender, particularly when positioned up on the line of scrimmage in 5-2 stack alignments. Nicholas must, however, get better in man coverage. Otherwise the Falcons may have to consider replacing him in nickel with third-year middle linebacker Akeem Dent.
We can now confirm that Dimitroff’s 2011 draft night gamble on Julio Jones clearly was a win—it’s just a matter of how large the payoff ultimately will be. With Jones and Roddy White, the Falcons have a pair of authentic superstar talents that all but compel defenses to keep both safeties deep. While White was the No. 1 receiver in Jones’s first year, the duo leveled into more of a 1 and 1A last year. White caught 92 passes on 139 targets; Jones caught 79 balls on 127 targets. But even the 31-year-old veteran himself has acknowledged that the scales are likely to tip to the youngster in 2013. There simply have to be more touches for Jones; at 6-3 and 220 pounds, he’s bigger, faster and stronger than his four-time Pro Bowl counterpart.
Having two top-flight wideouts gives offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter almost endless possibilities when drawing up pass plays. Given Jones’s maturation as a student of the game, expect Koetter, who stuck with a lot of isolation patterns last season, to craft more intertwined route combinations in 2013. This would play perfectly to Matt Ryan’s attributes. The sixth-year pro is cerebral and fundamentally sound but, while he’s much improved at throwing with bodies around him, he doesn’t quite have a gun to fall back on. In order to generate the necessary velocity to attack tight windows, Ryan must have functional space to step into throws.
Because functional space is hard to come by in the NFL, most of Koetter’s designs will use quicker-timed dropbacks, allowing Ryan to rely more on his anticipation skills. On this note, there remains one significant step between Ryan and superstardom: maintaining a high football IQ against non-static defenses. Too many of Ryan’s 17 interceptions last season (including playoffs) resulted from defenses tricking him into bad decisions. Ryan must become a little less predictable.
White and Jones aren’t the only weapons at Koetter’s and Ryan’s disposal. Tight end Tony Gonzalez is back after convincing almost no one that he’d actually retire on the heels of his sixth All-Pro honor. The 37-year-old no longer runs as well as he did, but as he’s able to line up all over the formation and catch contested balls, it doesn’t matter.
Preparing for the day Gonzalez actually does walk away, Dimitroff spent a fourth-round pick on Stanford’s Levine Toilolo. At 6-8, 260, Toilolo could contribute right away as an additional blocker. The Falcons, however, generally prefer to go with a sixth offensive lineman for extra girth. (They did this six to seven times a game last season, though that could decrease this year with Mike Johnson out after a gruesome leg injury.) Toilolo’s best strength coming out of Stanford was actually his leap-and-catch prowess, but with two explosive wideouts, Koetter does not have to do much formation disguise, which minimizes the necessity of two-tight end packages. And when the Falcons go to their more simplified, highly effective hurry-up, it’s almost always with a third receiver, slot man Harry Douglas.
Occasionally, Atlanta’s high-octane aerial attack will be hindered by a front five that’s long on size but short on athleticism. The group’s collective pass-blocking improved last year, but a lack of nimbleness across the board will prevent it from ever being sensational. On the left side, tackle Sam Baker has at least developed better chemistry with Ryan in terms of the two knowing what to expect from each other on five-step drops. Guard Justin Blalock’s good short-area movement enables him to thrive on the ground and survive in pass protection.
On the right side, last year’s second-round pick, Peter Konz, often failed to hold ground against bull-rushers. Moving from guard to his natural center position this year should ameliorate things, as he’ll now be more of a help-blocker in pass pro. In the run game, Konz has much better power, particularly when on the move, and he understands how to employ double-teams.
Stepping in at right guard will be either Garrett Reynolds or Joe Hawley. Neither has lit the world on fire when filling the position in previous years. At right tackle is third-round sophomore Lamar Holmes, who will probably have his hands full at first but should give this line livelier feet than it got from now-departed veteran Tyson Clabo.
The running backs this line will be blocking for are excellent fits in the system. Steven Jackson has outstanding vision and patience between the tackles. Jacquizz Rodgers, who will probably wind up getting close to half the touches, is compact in the Maurice Jones-Drew mold. Being low to the ground and having good short-area quickness makes Rodgers an effective inside runner. Jackson and Rodgers will operate behind second-year fullback Bradie Ewing in base sets. In three-receiver sets, particularly shotgun, they’ll be important help-blockers and outlet receivers. Both have the attributes to flourish in the pass game.
Matt Bryant’s 33 field goals tied for second-most in the league last year. The 38-year-old was a perfect 4-4 from 50-yards-plus. Third-year pro Matt Bosher had a league-high 38% of his punts fair caught, which is partly why Atlanta gave up the fourth-fewest punt return yards in the NFC. The return-game duties are still being sorted out. On kick returns the Falcons have used Jacquizz Rodgers; on punt returns they could settle for the inexplosive Dominique Franks.
If at least one of the rookie corners can prosper right away, this defense could be much better than last year. The offense is all but assured of improving given that Julio Jones is entering his early prime and Steven Jackson gives the run game more oomph than Michael Turner did. The principles of logic make a strong argument for the Falcons as Super Bowl favorites in the NFC. And yet, it also doesn’t seem wrong to view them as the conference’s third or fourth best team.
Andy Benoit is diving deep into each team’s prospects for 2013. Read what he’s done so far.