A new defense and a healthy receiving corps has Atlanta thinking playoffs again
Heading into last season, the Falcons’ goal was to be 10 yards better than the year before, having come up that short in the 2012 NFC Championship Game. Heading into this season, their goal is to be 10 games better. A rash of injuries led to a monstrous collapse in 2013. Atlanta never won consecutive games and finished 4-12, a stark pivot from the team’s 13-3 record in 2012. The Falcons also finished below .500 for the first time since general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith took over in 2008.
Far less qualified teams have had big turnarounds, but just because Julio Jones is back and Roddy White is healthy (forming perhaps the NFL’s most dominant wide receiver duo)—and just because the much-maligned offensive line has been retooled—well, that doesn’t mean the Falcons are automatically Super Bowl contenders.
In 2012, the Falcons saw their defense come to life under Mike Nolan’s new scheme. The estimable defensive coordinator has now transformed his hybrid system into more of a base 3-4; it’s a major departure from the classic stack-backer 4-3 zone looks that Mike Smith, a former D coordinator himself, has long preferred.
Atlanta is comfortable entering the season without a big-time pass rusher because the front office believes a fierce pass rush can be manufactured by the defensive scheme.
But do the Falcons have the personnel? There are significant concerns at linebacker, especially since top playmaker Sean Weatherspoon will miss the season after tearing his Achilles. The Falcons have, unfortunately, grown accustom to playing without him; the 2010 first-round pick missed nine games last season (foot and knee issues), three games the year before and five games as a rookie.
In most of those seasons, there was at least an experienced replacement. This year, there’s a fourth-round rookie, Prince Shembo, peering over the shoulders of starting inside linebacking pair Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow, two undrafted second-year players. Bartu has very good multidirectional mobility and flashes some burst against the run and the pass. Worrilow, though prolific in tackle stats, looks closer to what you’d expect in an undrafted player. He compensates with decent (but only decent) play recognition. If he’s asked to play nickel again, quarterbacks will go after him.
Outside linebacker is even more dubious. The uber-versatile Kroy Biermann is coming off an Achilles injury of his own but is still positioned to start opposite Jonathan Massaquoi, a limber third-year pro who hasn’t attached much production to his name. Osi Umenyiora, with 82.5 career sacks, has a lot of production to his reputation, but he won’t be building much on that. The ex-Giant had 7.5 sacks in his first season with Atlanta but showed a marked decline in speed and acceleration off the edge. He’ll most likely be restricted to playing in obvious passing downs.
The rest of this front is equipped to at least stop the run. The front office’s mission this offseason was to get stronger in the offensive and defensive trenches, which the Falcons did. Seven-year Dolphin Paul Soliai was brought in to assume the nosetackle duties. He’ll serve as a first and second down clogger and, hopefully, as a mentor to rookie Ra’Shede Hageman, a first-round caliber talent who fell to the second round because of his inconsistent output as a Golden Gopher. Hageman’s movement skills are obvious; Soliai’s are unheralded but also very good.
On the edges, Tyson Jackson was brought over to play five-technique—a position he grew into as a Chief. Jonathan Babineaux will serve as a movable chess piece on the other side. Atlanta re-signed the 32-year-old for three years and $9 million, which is an outright steal. That Babineaux has never been to a Pro Bowl testifies to the flaws in the selection process. For the past five years, he’s been one of the best all-around defensive linemen in football.
Depth-wise, the front line is in good shape. Corey Peters was a semi-explosive upper-tier starter before tearing his Achilles in Week 16 last year. The team, optimistic about his potential for a full recovery, figures to build the back of its D-line rotation around him. Included in that rotation is last year’s fourth-round pick Malliciah Goodman, who may at first have a little trouble carving out a niche in the new scheme, and sixth-year pro Peria Jerry.
To a degree, Atlanta is comfortable entering the season without a big-time pass rusher because the front office believes a fierce pass rush can be manufactured by the defensive scheme. Nolan is very aggressive with his pressure concepts, particularly against young quarterbacks, whom he’ll attack with a variety of blitzes. He’s also versed in zone blitz concepts featuring exaggerated coverage rotations. In their previous 4-3 scheme you may have noticed that several times each game a Falcons defensive end—usually Biermann, sometimes Massaquoi—would drop back to free safety in a zone blitz. (The thinking there: the pressure concept will force the QB to throw into traffic against more apt athletes well before there’s a chance to attack the 275-pound centerfielder.)
Manufacturing a pass rush requires sturdy secondary play, starting with man coverage corners. That’s why Dimitroff last year invested a first-round pick in Desmond Trufant and a second-rounder in Robert Alford. With sharp short-range movement skills and body control out of his backpedal, Trufant has a chance to soon blossom into a top 10 corner. Alford has been respectable in sub-packages on the outside—though if Dimitroff and Mike Smith were completely sold on him, they may not have signed veteran Josh Wilson or contemplated the addition of midsummer free agent Brandon Flowers. Alford is best equipped for the outside, which is fine because not only can Trufant play the slot, but so can Robert McClain, a young journeyman who is carving out a career as a nickelback.
Regardless of whether it’s 4-3 or 3-4, Nolan’s patented disguise concepts hinge on the safety position. To play here, you must be versatile enough to fire into the box, retreat into deep coverage and, perhaps most importantly, zip from sideline to sideline. Hard-hitting William Moore meets those demands, though he plays with such a full head of steam that he may require a shrewd, impactful veteran beside him. That’s not necessarily Dwight Lowery, who was signed away from Jacksonville after Thomas DeCoud’s ups and downs finally resulted in his release. Lowery is just a stopgap; the hope is that this year’s third-round pick, Dezmen Southward, can develop into the long-term free safety.
You can’t overstate the significance of a healthy Julio Jones. Not only does he give the Falcons a dominant No. 1 receiver, he gives them a super dominant No. 2 in Roddy White, who at 32 is just barely still in his prime. White, one of the best in the business at separating from defenders, faces softer coverages with Jones on the field.
Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter does a tremendous job of building route combinations around his two stars. Assuming Jones, who is coming off a broken screw in his surgically repaired foot, and White, who is coming off a year plagued by ankle and hamstring problems, can stay on the field, Koetter will reintroduce his deep-intermediate post and corner route designs plus his diverse, potent screen game.
Jones’s return also puts crossing pattern connoisseur Harry Douglas back into a fulltime slot role, giving Atlanta down-to-down alignment stability that they’ll use out of hurry-up. In these scenarios, expect to see Douglas and White playing opposite Jones and the tight end, creating a 2 x 2 formation that allows them to have man-beating routes on one side and zone-beating routes on the other. Such tactics can make an offense somewhat predictable, but that matters little here because having two star receivers will force defenses into conservative (more predictable) coverages. There will likely be a favorable mismatch on either side.
The only negative is Matt Ryan won’t have a security blanket in the middle of the field between his stud wideouts. Tony Gonzalez was a surprisingly unaware coverage reader, but it didn’t matter because of his unbelievable ability to make contested catches. It’s possible that Gonzalez’s replacement, the lithe 6’8” Levine Toilolo, won’t need to get open in order to make catches either.
Ryan shouldn’t need a security blanket as much, though. Entering his seventh season, he’s capable of jumping from the NFL’s second tier of quarterbacks (where he’s been firmly entrenched since 2010) to the top tier. He is very shrewd at the line of scrimmage, which helps make him a tremendous anticipation passer—something that, with his average arm strength, he needs to be.
Quarterbacks who don’t have a gun typically need a clean pocket so they can fully step into a throw. The Falcons recognize that Ryan is no exception. To rectify the pass-blocking woes that hindered them in previous years and outright felled them in 2013, Dimitroff spent the No. 6 overall pick on Jake Matthews, the latest progeny from the family of Hall of Famers.
Matthews will initially supplant the slow-footed Lamar Holmes at right tackle, and it’s only a matter of time before he supplants injury prone left tackle Sam Baker. (Baker’s long-term contract stops carrying guaranteed base salaries after this season, so he could be released.) Inside, sticking with their commitment to getting stronger up front, the Falcons signed solid ex-Kansas City guard Jon Asamoah to replace woeful 2012 second-round pick Peter Konz.
Joe Hawley was inserted as the new center, where he’ll play alongside Asamoah and eighth-year veteran Justin Blalock, who struggled in pass protection last season but, when surrounded by the right players, can successfully assert his 330 pounds worth of force in the running game.
Power blocking is the right type of blocking for a back like Steven Jackson. The 31-year-old no longer has the breakaway speed or requisite gear to consistently turn the corner, but thanks to vision and hardiness, he remains effective between the tackles. Jackson is also a capable pass catcher (even though he contributed to a few critical incompletions last season, including the potential Week 1 game-winner against New Orleans). This allows him to play in the no-huddle, a role that many were expecting Jacquizz Rodgers to fill. Rodgers, however, has not earned coaches’ trust, which is why Dimitroff spent a fourth-round pick on Devonta Freeman, a 5’8”, 205-pound thumper with upside.
With questions on defense, it’s likely the Falcons will have to have a high-scoring offense in order to vie for a playoff spot out of the ultra-competitive NFC South. While the running game is important, the points will come primarily through the air.
Devin Hester was brought in to handle return duties, which is sort of like bringing in Emeril Lagasse to handle the cooking. Some might believe that the 31-year-old does not have much left, but the numbers don’t bear that out. Last season Hester averaged 14.2 yards a punt return, including an 81-yard touchdown, and he posted 27.6 yard on kicks, with an 80-yarder. The kicking game is solid with Matt Bryant on field goals and Matt Bosher on punts.
The Falcons are closer to their 2012 selves than their 2013 selves, but that’s not to say they’re as good as they were in 2012. There are significant questions about their front seven on passing downs. The offense might be good enough to compensate, but that’s asking a lot.