Ben Roethlisberger's ability to perform under a heavy pass rush remains critical to Pittsburgh's offensive success.
14 Apr 2013
by Andy Benoit
The 2013 "State of the Team" articles will run daily through the NFL draft. These offer a snapshot look at a team’s roster, with players classified by color based on how they fit their role. My analysis is based on film study, not statistics, although we will try to note when my judgment differs significantly from FO's advanced stats, and explain a little bit why. Starters are in bold, and you will notice that many units are listed with 12 starters rather than just 11. This denotes the extra playing time that nickelbacks and third receivers usually get in today's NFL.
Some players colored pink as "just a guy" are younger low-round picks who just haven't seen much playing time, but keep in mind that 99 percent of the time, there’s a negative reason why such a player has rarely seen the field.
Players colored red as "upgrade needed" are not necessarily bad players. Sometimes, this simply means the player is a decent backup who should not be starting.
Since I generally don't do analysis on special teams, those categorizations are based strictly on FO stats, with any comments written by Aaron Schatz. We're only listing kickers and punters, as most teams go into training camp without specific players set as return specialists.
The plan is working. Matt Ryan is living up to his high first-round status; even his harshest critics would have to agree that his postseason woes are over. The superstar receiving duo that GM Thomas Dimitroff brazenly traded a collection of draft picks to assemble is everything the Falcons hoped for – and still improving. Coordinator Dirk Koetter’s updated system proved to be an excellent fit in Year One. The Falcons, in fact, may have had the best-coached offense in football last season. All that’s left is for these pieces to keep gelling. Theoretically, this team only needs to be 10 yards better than it was in 2012.
QB: Matt Ryan, Dominique Davis; Lost: Luke McCown
RB: Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers, Jason Snelling, Bradie Ewing (FB); Lost: Michael Turner
Ryan doesn’t quite have top-notch arm strength, but he understands his progressions, he’s very sound fundamentally and, most importantly, he has developed the poise and toughness to make throws from a muddied pocket. In short, you can win a Super Bowl with Ryan as your quarterback. At running back, the newly acquired Jackson has more in the tank than Turner had. He’ll give this offense better quickness on first and second down. Rodgers is a star in the making. He might not become the next Maurice Jones-Drew, but he’s of that mold and has the potential to become extremely valuable in a niche role. Right now, his niche consists primarily of third-down duties, though he’ll likely continue to see more and more action on regular downs. Rodgers is one of the best pass-blocking backs in the league and, though he’s not fast, he has the quickness and agility to make defenders miss in space. He’s also getting better as a traditional base set runner.
WR: Roddy White, Julio Jones, Harry Douglas, Drew Davis, Kerry Meier
TE: Tony Gonzalez, Chase Coffman, Tommy Gallarda
White is the Z receiver, meaning he’s the movable chess piece. Jones is the X receiver, meaning he’s the explosive straight-line threat. Gonzalez is the Y who capitalizes on constant mismatches inside. This is everything you could want in a receiving trio. The Falcons do not make much use of their ancillary weapons, though Douglas and Davis know how to take advantage when opportunities do come. It will be interesting to see if Koetter expands the route combination and option concepts for Jones this season. The third-year stud has shown gradual growth from a mental standpoint. The more he can handle, the more diverse this system will be.
LT: Sam Baker LG: Justin Blalock C: Peter Konz RG: Garrett Reynolds RT: Lamar Holmes
Backups: OT Mike Johnson, G Joe Hawley; Lost: C Todd McClure, Tyson Clabo, Will Svitek
Individually, this is not a very athletic front five. Hence, none of these guys are great pass-blockers. Collectively, though, they play well together and understand how to succeed in a system that usually works to their strengths (power blocking, five-step-timed pass-blocking, six-man protection concepts, etc.). The question is whether this continuity can be sustained now that stalwart veteran center McClure is retired and second-year man Konz is anchoring the middle. Konz’s lack of strength was a problem at guard; the hope is he can thrive as a help-blocker in his more fitting middle position. Another question is whether Holmes, a third-round pick a year ago, can fill Clabo’s spot at right tackle. Clabo was overrated but still one of the league’s better right tackles. Johnson is classified as a “good” backup because he plays a lot of meaningful snaps in the six- and seven-man O-line packages that Koetter likes.
The Falcons were an evolving defense in their first season under coordinator Mike Nolan. Key players at all three levels saw their roles expand to include more flexibility and disguise elements. Nolan was able to venture into new designs because Atlanta’s safeties finally got sounder in coverage. (It’s somewhat of a chicken or egg case, as clearly part of the safeties’ improvements derived from the disguises that Nolan had them in.) Heading into 2013, the question is whether the Falcons have enough firepower going after the quarterback. Osi Umenyiora is replacing John Abraham, which is a wash if not a mild improvement. But even when Abraham was at full throttle, this pass rush was up-and-down last year. Another question – a bigger one, perhaps – is whether the Falcons are still good enough at cornerback.
DE: Kroy Biermann, Osi Umenyiora, Cliff Matthews, Jonathan Massaquoi; Lost: John Abraham, Lawrence Sidbury
DT: Jonathan Babineaux, Peria Jerry, Corey Peters, Travian Robertson; Lost: Vance Walker
Biermann might be the most underrated defensive lineman in the league. He’s a lithe, quick, versatile athlete who can play in traffic or space. He’s emerged as the lynchpin to a lot of Nolan’s front seven disguises. An equally underrated D-lineman is Babineaux. He’s an interior one-gap penetrator worth double-teaming regularly. Last season, he proved he can also be effective on the outside. Umenyiora is a nice addition; he still has a good first step and anticipates snap counts well. He’s been hot and cold as a run defender throughout his career, which is a mild concern. The Falcons need him to be hot because Matthews, a young player on the rise, is best suited for situational pass-rushing. If Umenyiora can’t hold his own on the ground, Babineaux will slide outside, which is fine but would also mean less depth at defensive tackle and less athleticism overall up front.
OLB: Sean Weatherspoon, Stephen Nicholas, Robert James, _____; Lost: Mike Peterson
ILB: Akeem Dent, Pat Schiller
Weatherspoon is both patient and explosive against the run. He’s also effective in coverage. Nicholas is a respectable run defender but not great against the pass. That’s a problem considering how often Nolan’s nickel schemes leave him one-on-one against tight ends. Dent’s subtle lack of burst is likely a product of him still acclimating to the pro game. The Falcons only need him to be a viable run-stopper on first and second downs. Depth at linebacker is questionable if not poor.
CB: Asante Samuel, Robert McClain, Dominique Franks, Peyton Thompson; Lost: Dunta Robinson, Brent Grimes, Chris Owens
S: William Moore, Thomas DeCoud, Shann Schillinger, Charles Mitchell; Lost: Chris Hope
Moore and DeCoud are both downhill hitters with newfound range in coverage. They’re very good as “attackers” but only average as “reactors.” Samuel is a preeminent off-coverage corner who jumps passing lanes but brings little else to the defense. That’s fine as long as the guys around him are solid. But are they? McClain emerged as a nickel slot corner in 2012; the Falcons are betting he can replace the sure-tackling Robinson outside. Even if he can, will Franks be able to handle the No. 3 duties fulltime?
K: Matt Bryant, P: Matt Bosher
The most interesting thing about these guys may be that they have the same initials.
80 comments, Last at 26 Apr 2013, 9:33pm by fb29