Atlanta is definitely not an under-the-radar type of city. CNN, Coke, Chick-Fil-A, Home Depot, Usher, coughJustinBeiberCough, Alan Jackson...you get the point. It is a southern city that has big names and big headlines. It is also one of the few cities in the NFL where the team is not a direct reflection of the culture. The current make-up of the Atlanta Falcons is a team that you would expect to find in the Midwest. They are a little blue-collar, somewhat underrated and definitely under-the-radar. They keep to themselves, are content with a team of role-players with few "stars" and have a very legitimate shot of upseting the defending Super Bowl champions as the NFC South winners.
In part 2 of a 3 part series, we will take a quick but in-depth look at the Atlanta Falcons and how they factor into the Bucs season.
November 7 - 1:00PM - Georgia Dome
December 5 - 1:00PM - Raymond James Stadium
Sean Witherspoon (LB) R, Corey Peters (DT) R, Dunta Robinson (CB) 6th Season
Chris Houston (CB), Tye Hill (CB)
The Falcons have remained fairly steady this offseason, hoping to recover from a plethora of injuries and adding a couple of crucial pieces to their defense. Sean Witherspoon adds to an already very good LB corp, bringing athleticism and play making abilities to the weak-side. Chris Houston and Tye Hill really aren't huge losses. At most, they lose some depth, but both players have under-achieved in their time in Atlanta. Hill was a proven bust who they didn't mind giving the papers to and they traded Houston to Detroit to bulk up on the LOS in the draft. Arthur Blank is building a team of good characters and solid players.
The Falcons strength on offense is balance. They passed the ball 570 (56%) times last season and ran the ball 451 (44%) with their talent favoring their passing offense. I don't mind a team being slightly off-balanced as long as their talent matches their dispersion of the ball (not the Bucs). I consider that balance. While Turner is a Top 10 back when healthy, he missed 5 games and was often playing through ankle pain last season. Roddy White is an elite WR, Gonzalez is still an Elite TE and Matt Ryan is an elite QB. I expected the Falcons to make additions in the WR corp this offseason, but apparently have more faith in Michael Jenkins (who, depending on who you ask, is one of the league leaders in dropped passes) than what the casual fan sees. Their Offensive Line is average and have reasonable depth and they bring depth to the RB position.
On defense their strength is easily their LB corps. Witherspoon, Lofton (Pro-Bowl) and Peterson will be their starters. Peterson, a former pro Bowler is probably their weakest position, which is saying a lot. He is 34, past his prime, but still serviceable at worst. I also don't hate their DT's. Corey Peters, Babineaux and Thomas Johnson offer a viable protection against the run.
On offense, their WR still has some work to be done. I don't like Jenkins and the options are pretty slim after him, unless Harry Douglas recovers from injury and Eric Weems surprises everyone. Sam Baker and Tyson Clabo have shown some promise on the outside, but the meat of their offensive line comes inside. They don't allow many sacks, but they also don't give Offensive Coordinator Mike Mularkey a whole lot of confidence to run behind. Again, this could be a situation in which Mularkey believes in playing to their RB's strength (Turner is a very physical back), a foreign concept to Greg Olsen.
On defense, their secondary still needs to catch up. The addition of Robinson will be huge and Brent Grimes is an OK 2nd CB. However, Thomas DeCoud and Eric Coleman may not start for a lot of teams in this league. Coleman can hit and provide run support, but I would say he is fairly ineffective in the pass game. The Falcons also have no pass rush. They ranked 28th in sacks last year, and the additions made are more focused against the run. Their defensive line could look very similar to ours this year.
How the Bucs can be successful against them:
I didn't think our game-plan was terrible against them last year. Take away the run and make Matt Ryan get to his 2nd and 3rd reads. They threw the ball 35 and 44 times against us last year. Unfortunately in the game they threw 44 times, 41 of them were thrown by Chris Redman. We absolutely should have taken advantage of that, and we didn't. He was incredibly successful against our defense because we had absolutely no pass-rush and gave Gonzalez, Jenkins and White far too much time and freedom. Easier said than done, but you have to keep a body on Gonzalez. I would venture to guess that Quincy Black was largely uncomfortable against a Tight-End of this caliber. The addition of Price and McCoy and another year for Miller should push Turner outside and allow out athletic and fast OLB make plays.
Your going to hear me say this quite a bit, but on offense we have to run the ball. If we can gain any success against an elite LB corp, it will knock a sub-par secondary off-balance giving Freeman the ability to have a nice day while Williams is getting behind these safeties. Run First. Run First. Run First. It should honestly be Olsen's motto going into this year. Run plays that match talent.
Again, this team isn't sexy. It doesn't have flashy names past White and Gonzalez. It has a reserved and strategic Head Coach in Mike Smith. I think this is exactly what we can expect of them. They won't be at the top of the NFL, but the Saints will have to compete with them for the division. They won't send a lot of players to the Pro Bowl, but they will absolutely be respected by anyone who spends 5 minutes in the film room (Freeman?). Playing an easy schedule (as is the rest of the South) will benefit the Falcons and I will go ahead and predict them to be a Wild-Card team in the Playoffs. Expect between 9-11 wins. Matt Ryan commented to the AJC that they "feel like they are closer to 12 or 13 wins than we are to 8."
For complete coverage of all things Atlanta Falcons head over to The Falcoholic. Dave runs an excellent site with well-thought out articles on Atlanta.