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3 Atlanta FALCONS

Sept. 06, 2010
Sept. 06, 2010

Table of Contents
Sept. 6, 2010

GOLF PLUS
LEADING OFF
Inside: THE WEEK IN SPORTS
NFL PREVIEW
Departments

3 Atlanta FALCONS

The defense must coalesce for this maturing team to contend consistently

WATCHING HIS defense one afternoon in training camp, general manager Thomas Dimitroff savored the fruits of three years' worth of scouting. Kroy Biermann, the fifth-round pick from Dimitroff's first draft, in 2008, battled for the starting left end job with Lawrence Sidbury (fourth round, 2009). Last year's No. 1 choice (24th overall), tackle Peria Jerry, dug in on the starting line. This year's first-rounder, outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, worked on his speed rush next to middle 'backer Curtis Lofton, a 2008 second-rounder. The leader of the secondary, free safety Thomas DeCoud (third round, 2008) looked eager to unload on an unsuspecting receiver in a half-speed scrimmage. Those six prime defensive parts are all between the ages of 22 and 26. The franchise quarterback, Matt Ryan, is 25—and has made 31 starts.

This is an article from the Sept. 6, 2010 issue

"This is no longer a young team learning on the fly," Dimitroff says. "This team really believes it's ready to take that next step. I think we might be too."

What Dimitroff hopes he's building, through the draft and with recent imports at positions of major need such as cornerback (Dunta Robinson), running back (Michael Turner) and tight end (Tony Gonzalez), is a contender that won't suffer through 4--12 falloffs. Under Dimitroff in 2008 and '09, Atlanta had consecutive winning seasons for the first time in the franchise's 44-year history. But for consistent long-term success, his young defense must start to dominate.

The Falcons' D ranked 24th in the league in 2008 and 21st last year, when it had too many holes and got overpowered by strong offenses. In five games against the Cowboys, Giants, Eagles and Saints (twice), Atlanta allowed an average of 33.2 points. To address their shortcomings, the Falcons are banking on new faces at important positions. Emerging tackle Jonathan Babineaux had no one to help him on the inside last year; after missing the last 14 games of the season with a right knee injury, Jerry returns to provide a second knifing presence up the middle. At weakside linebacker Weatherspoon brings his loud presence—"He's the fiery dude we needed here," Dimitroff says—and a solid college résumé: 43½ tackles behind the line of scrimmage in four seasons at Missouri.

But the most important newcomer is Robinson, 28, the former Texan who signed a six-year free-agent deal, with $22.5 million guaranteed, in March. "We needed a player like this," Dimitroff says. No kidding. Only four teams allowed more passing yards than the 3,873 the Falcons surrendered, and Atlanta had nothing resembling a shutdown corner. Undrafted free agent Brent Grimes competed hard on one side, while a mishmash of Chris Houston (dealt to Detroit before the 2010 draft), Chevis Jackson and Christopher Owens got torched on the other. Robinson is no Darrelle Revis, but he's a top 10 cover guy who ensures that the Falcons will no longer be pushovers on obvious passing downs.

"Dunta brings a nastiness that we needed back there," says Lofton. "He's diving around in practice. He really competes. As a group we're starting to get that swagger. We've got a great mix of veterans and young kids starting to play like veterans."

Lofton himself has come a long way in two years. When he arrived in 2008, a 22-year-old kid just off the campus at Oklahoma, he felt self-conscious calling plays in a huddle filled with veterans. "I'm looking up and seeing Keith Brooking and these older guys, thinking, These guys got wives and kids. What am I doing here?" Lofton recalls. "But you gotta just play. It's a lot more natural now."

The pass defense would also be helped by more pressure up front; Atlanta had just 28 sacks last year. Biermann has to emerge. Or Sidbury. Or Weatherspoon. "What we need is to be a faster, more urgent defensive group," says coach Mike Smith, who arrived along with Dimitroff in 2008. "The key isn't really sacks but pressure. The Jets led the league in defense last year and brought consistent pressure, but they were middle of the pack in sacks. What does that mean? They made the ball come out fast, and when you do that you affect the passing game as much as getting a sack."

The Falcons have the prospects. Now those prospects have to blossom into players.

PROJECTED STARTERS

WITH 2009 STATS

COACH MIKE SMITH

OFFENSE

2009 Rank: 16

QB MATT RYAN

G 14

ATT 451

COMP 263

PCT 58.3

YARDS 2,916

TD 22

INT 14

RATING 80.9

RB MICHAEL TURNER

G 11

ATT 178

YARDS 871

AVG 4.9

REC 5

YARDS 35

AVG 7.0

TTD 10

FB OVIE MUGHELLI

G 14

ATT 4

YARDS 10

AVG 2.5

REC 7

YARDS 51

AVG 7.3

TTD 1

WR RODDY WHITE

G 16

REC 85

YARDS 1,153

TTD 11

WR MICHAEL JENKINS

G 15

REC 50

YARDS 635

TTD 1

TE TONY GONZALEZ

G 16

REC 83

YARDS 867

TTD 6

LT SAM BAKER

G 14

HT 6'5"

WT 307

LG JUSTIN BLALOCK

G 16

HT 6'4"

WT 329

C TODD MCCLURE

G 16

HT 6'1"

WT 296

RG HARVEY DAHL

G 11

HT 6'5"

WT 305

RT TYSON CLABO

G 16

HT 6'6"

WT 331

DEFENSE

2009 Rank: 21

DE JAMAAL ANDERSON

G 13

TACKLES 27

SACKS ½

INT 0

DT PERIA JERRY

G 2

TACKLES 1

SACKS 0

INT 0

DT COREY PETERS (R)

G 13

TACKLES 29

SACKS 4

INT 0

DE JOHN ABRAHAM

G 16

TACKLES 35

SACKS 5½

INT 0

LB SEAN WEATHERSPOON (R)

G 12

TACKLES 103

SACKS 4

INT 1

LB CURTIS LOFTON

G 16

TACKLES 133

SACKS 0

INT 0

LB STEPHEN NICHOLAS

G 16

TACKLES 80

SACKS 3

INT 0

CB DUNTA ROBINSON

G 16

TACKLES 64

SACKS 0

INT 0

FS THOMAS DECOUD

G 16

TACKLES 68

SACKS 2

INT 3

SS ERIK COLEMAN

G 16

TACKLES 116

SACKS 0

INT 0

CB BRENT GRIMES

G 16

TACKLES 66

SACKS 0

INT 6

SPECIAL TEAMS

P MICHAEL KOENEN

PUNTS 61

AVG 42.6

NET 36.9

K MATT BRYANT

FG 7--10

XP 10--10

POINTS 31

PR ERIC WEEMS

RET 27

AVG 10.0

TD 0

KR ERIC WEEMS

RET 48

AVG 25.3

TD 0

New acquisition

(R) Rookie: College stats

TTD: Total touchdowns

2010 SCHEDULE

2009 Record: 9--7

September

12 at Pittsburgh

19 Arizona

26 at New Orleans

October

3 San Francisco

10 at Cleveland

17 at Philadelphia

24 Cincinnati

31 BYE

November

7 Tampa Bay

11 Baltimore (T)

21 at St. Louis

28 Green Bay

December

5 at Tampa Bay

12 at Carolina

19 at Seattle

27 New Orleans (M)

January

2 Carolina

(M) Monday (T) Thursday

SCHEDULE STRENGTH

NFL Rank: 20

Opponents' 2009 winning percentage: .496

Games against 2009 playoff teams: 7

ANALYSIS

The Falcons ran into one of the toughest schedules in the NFL last season and missed the playoffs despite high expections. The slate is more manageable this year, with 10 of 16 dates in domes and no snow games likely. Four of the last five are against divisional opponents, a stretch that will go far in determining whether Atlanta regains the top spot in the NFC South.

SPOTLIGHT

Sean Weatherspoon, Linebacker

EARLY IN camp the Falcons vaulted Weatherspoon, the 19th pick out of Missouri, to No. 1 on the depth chart at weakside linebacker, hoping he'll supply the pass-rush pressure they've lacked. Defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder chirped at the kid constantly because he needed him to be ready to start in Week 1. "Goddam rookie show out here!" Van Gorder yelled after Weatherspoon made a coverage mistake in one of his first practices. But the 22-year-old wasn't intimidated. In his second camp practice he brawled with veteran tackle Sam Baker.

When the Falcons scouted Weatherspoon, they knew they had to have him. "Sean played against a lot of spread offenses in the Big 12," coach Mike Smith says. "He played in space, which is what he'll have to do here. He faced displaced receivers playing all over the field. That's what the Saints do. He'll match up very well with his quickness against tight ends and backs."

The 6'2", 245-pound Weatherspoon played in coverage more than he attacked the passer in college, so he's excited about taking on edge-rush duties. "Every linebacker loves to blitz," he says. "In this system they expect their linebackers to be fast and to be able to cover and rush. I'll make mistakes, but I really think I can be that spark."

One club source worries that vets will chafe at the fiery, outspoken Weatherspoon. So be it. With him you get the total package. "He's not just a three-down player," Smith says. "He's a four-down player. He could be a star on special teams. He's a coach's dream." And if Weatherspoon is knocking Drew Brees to the turf this fall, no Atlanta defender is going to care if he's mouthy while he's doing it.

PHOTOBOB ROSATOMIDDLE MAN Lofton commands a D that's long on potential if not experience.PHOTOBOB ROSATO