by Andy Benoit
(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's annual team previews. Please be aware that these previews are more scouting-oriented than what we run in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and they represent one man's opinion so they may differ from the forecast from our statistical team projection system. -- Aaron Schatz)
The Atlanta Falcons have done everything the NFL manual says to do. Owner Arthur Blank has assumed an active role in the club’s day-to-day operations, but he spends the majority of his time on the business side of things with team president Rich McKay. He leaves the football side to general manager Thomas Dimitroff. Dimitroff has the type of autonomy every executive covets, though he doesn’t horde power. He has an intricately involved scouting department and a strong working relationship with head coach Mike Smith.
Under this stable power structure, the Falcons have constructed one of the soundest, richest, rosters in the NFL. They’ve groomed what they believe is a franchise quarterback in Matt Ryan. They have a top-five receiver in Roddy White, flanked by a second-year phenom, Julio Jones. Lining up between them is a future Hall of Fame tight end, Tony Gonzalez. This isn’t just an aerial offense, though. Far from it, in fact. Atlanta has a big, cohesive front five, which is well-suited for the sustainable power run game that veteran Michael Turner provides.
The Falcon defense is not quite as talented as the offense, but it’s just as balanced. There are a handful of praiseworthy pass-rushers up front, staunch interior players, a rising star at linebacker (Sean Weatherspoon) and a secondary featuring three big-name corners: Brent Grimes, Dunta Robinson and newbie Asante Samuel.
According to the NFL manual, the Falcons should be serious Super Bowl contenders right now. They may have been the only team that went into this past April’s draft without a single obvious hole to fill on either side of the ball. That's why no one voiced any concern about the fact that, thanks to past trades, just two of their six total selections came before the fifth round.
Yet, heading into the 2012 season, the Falcons are known as the team that can’t win a playoff game. They’re 0-3 in postseason play since the Dimitroff/Smith/Ryan era commenced in 2008. If you’re Dimitroff, what do you do? You can’t change head coaches –- Smith has done way too good a job. You can’t make drastic alterations to your personnel –- none of your weaknesses are distinct enough to justify an expensive repair job. You can’t gather the team and give them a moving speech about focusing, stepping up in big moments, and wanting it more because such dramatic nonsense only carries weight in Disney movies and on lazy studio shows.
So what do you do? How do you push your more-than-ready franchise to the next level? Dimitroff and Smith actually came up with a solution: bring in new top-level assistant coaches to install more sophisticated schemes. Ladies and gentlemen, say hello to offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan –- the two men tasked with propelling Atlanta to the top.
It might seem ridiculous to tout Dirk Koetter as the man who can save Atlanta’s offense. After all, Koetter’s offenses in Jacksonville ranked sixth, 24th, 24th, 18th, and 28th in scoring the five years he was there. But Koetter’s offenses in Jacksonville never had any quality weapons in the passing game –- and Koetter is a passing connoisseur.
Under previous coordinator Mike Mularkey, the Falcons spent a lot of time in heavy base personnel, using multiple tight ends or putting multiple backs in the backfield. They were built around a high-volume interior run game, with a passing attack that was full of rudimentary isolation routes. Koetter will add more dimension and variables to the passing attack. He’ll design more complex route combinations that will rely on Matt Ryan’s ability to dissect and manipulate defenses.
A more sophisticated passing game should play to Ryan’s strengths. One plus from playing in Mularkey’s system was, last season, when the Falcons did go to the air, they tended to do so with three-receiver personnel out of a no-huddle. Ryan gained valuable experience calling signals at the line of scrimmage and setting his own protections. Ultimately, these are traits a young quarterback must hone in order to become elite. Koetter, who values having strong working relationships with his quarterbacks, should expand Ryan’s freedoms and responsibilities this season.
Ryan has the mental makeup to handle the heaviest of loads –- but it won’t show unless he becomes more proficient physically. If he has more to read dropping back, he must get more comfortable with holding the ball longer and playing from a congested pocket. Ryan has only good arm strength, which isn’t a problem until he gets a little rattled when defenders crowd him. His accuracy, which is normally very stellar, can also be compromised under duress.
Discomfort in a congested pocket isn’t a glaring weakness of Ryan’s, but it’s the weakness currently keeping him from blossoming into a top-shelf signalcaller. He has to change this because, not only are muddied pockets as common in the NFL as third downs and TV timeouts, but the Falcons offensive line is an unathletic bunch that has trouble sustaining blocks in seven-step pass protection. Koetter, like Mularkey, will likely work around this by dialing up frequent quick drops and rolling pockets for Ryan. (Ryan, as a fundamentally sound timing-and-rhythm passer, excels with these tactics anyway.) Nevertheless, the signature of Koetter’s offense is its innovative downfield aerial designs. Those often require longer dropbacks. Koetter never got to showcase his downfield designs in Jacksonville; if he’s to showcase them here, Ryan must improve as a late-in-the-down pocket passer.
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Ryan’s not the only player being expected to step up in 2012. The enticing skills of second-year wideout Julio Jones were, ostensibly, a big inspiration behind the decision to bring in Koetter and his system. Jones has extraordinary explosiveness as a straight-line, downfield weapon. His quick-twitch, stop-start ability still needs refining (and thus, so does his route running), but his raw strength alone can compensate while these attributes develop.
Defenses will have a difficult time figuring out how much attention to give Jones. If he’s primarily used on downfield patterns, it’s probably worth regularly cheating a safety over the top to his side. Problem is, opposite Jones is Roddy White, one of the most dynamic all-around receiving threats in football. With Jones’s development and Koetter’s system being structured to incorporate more ancillary receivers in the passing game, White says he’s prepared to assume a lesser role in 2012. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the 30-year-old early in your fantasy draft, though. White led the NFL in pass targets last season (which is partly why he also led the league in drops). His role is decreasing from that of an over-used star to that of just a regular star.
And it’s not like the Falcons have mountains of up-and-coming receivers in need of more touches. With Jones and White lifting more coverages, darting fifth-year slot man Harry Douglas figures to play a slightly more prominent role running crossing patterns underneath. Tight end Tony Gonzalez, at 36 and in what he claims is his final season, can still easily beat the one-on-one coverage of just about any linebacker or safety. But Douglas and Gonzalez are it. Atlanta’s fourth wideout is undrafted second-year pro Kevin Cone. No. 2 tight end Michael Palmer is almost exclusively a (good) blocker.
The "increased diversity" brought forth by Koetter’s scheme won’t lead to using more weapons in the passing game –- it will lead to using the existing weapons in more ways. In the run game, it’s a different story. The Falcons plan on decreasing Michael Turner’s workload and going with more of a backfield by committee. This is a wise move. On paper, Turner didn’t show any glaring decline last season in rushing for 1,340 yards. However, his yards per carry fell below 3.7 in every game after Week 10 asides from Week 17, when the Falcons hammered a Bucs squad that had already waved the white flag. Some speculate Turner’s drop in production had to do with the downgrade at fullback, as veteran thumper Ovie Mughelli got injured and was replaced by the weaker Mike Cox. (Cox will be replaced this year by free agent pickup Lousaka Polite.) Perhaps, but you can’t overlook the fact that Turner is also a 30-year-old pounder who has topped the 300-carry mark three of the last four seasons.
Of course, Turner averaged just 57 rushing attempts per season in his first four years with the Chargers, so you couldn’t blame him for arguing that he’s still fresh. Turner isn’t arguing that, though. Or, at least, he’s saying all the right things about sharing the load. It will be interesting to see how he actually does with this. Turner’s not a very dynamic runner –- he doesn’t succeed by "changing the pace" of the offense. He’s methodical and has always thrived on a high volume of touches.
Turner will be sharing his touches with a solid group, at least. Backup Jason Snelling is like a quicker, more upright but less controlled version of Turner. Unlike Turner, Snelling can moonlight at fullback and also catch passes out of the backfield. More intriguing is second-year man Jacquizz Rodgers. It’s natural to assume that the 5-foot-6 fifth-round pick is a scatback type. Rodgers has the quickness to play that role, but he also has surprisingly compact strength. Considering he’s adept in the passing game, Rodgers should give Koetter’s offense some added dimensions.
As for the unathletic offensive line, understand that it’s not a bad group. In fact, it’s one of the more cohesive groups in all of football, but it’s deprived of any standout forces. Left tackle Sam Baker has been somewhat disappointing since being drafted 21st overall in 2008. He battled injuries last season and was at one point benched for the more agile Will Svitek. That won’t happen this year because Svitek is out for the season with an upper arm injury.
Left guard Justin Blalock has thunderous size but limited range on pull blocks. Center Todd McClure is reliable but far from dazzling. In fact, considering that third-year backups Mike Johnson and Joe Hawley can both play guard, the Falcons may have drafted the nimble Peter Konz in Round Two this past April to soon replace McClure. Konz projects as an NFL guard, but he spent his entire Wisconsin career snapping the ball. At right guard, Garret Reynolds will get a shot at reclaiming the starting job that he lost to Hawley midway through last season. Rounding out the front is right tackle Tyson Clabo, a mudder whom many erroneously believe is Atlanta’s best blocker. (Blalock is Atlanta’s best blocker.)
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Mike Nolan won’t transform the defensive scheme as drastically as Koetter will transform the offense. Keep in mind, Mike Smith earned his head coaching job by overseeing a classic zone scheme in Jacksonville. It’s doubtful the 4-3 based Falcons will drift too far into Nolan’s 3-4 hybrid system.
There will be changes, though. Most of the pass-rushing pressure manufactured in Smith’s scheme comes out of zone-blitzing with base personnel. The Falcons hired Nolan to spice up their nickel and dime schemes. These sub-packages may seem concomitant to Smith’s base packages, but in today’s pass-happy NFL, defenses spend as much time in sub-packages as they do in base. The Falcons know this –- that’s why they traded a seventh-round pick and handed out a three-year, $14.5 million contract to acquire Eagles corner Asante Samuel. The four-time Pro Bowler gives them an accomplished cornerbacking trio that includes Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes.
"Accomplished" does not necessarily mean "potent," though. There’s a reason Philly was so eager to dump Samuel. It’s not just that the 31-year-old is in decline; Samuel has inherent limitations as a press corner. In truth, he can’t play press, he can only play off-coverage (i.e. zone or man-to-man with a serious cushion). That’s not all bad -– in this style Samuel is very good at reading quarterbacks and jumping routes –- but it limits what a coordinator can do with the rest of his defensive backfield. No matter what, the Falcons will have to play some sort of zone to Samuel’s side of the field, which means they’ll often have to dedicate at least one extra defender over.
Samuel’s not the only one who plays with a cushion. Robinson, though a former first-round pick, is one of the NFL’s softest cover artists. He requested extra slot duties even before Samuel’s arrival, but in the slot he’ll have to deal with more man-based concepts. Robinson will probably be an upgrade over what the Falcons used last year inside, but don’t expect him to flourish.
As for Grimes, he’s one of the smarter zone defenders in the game, and he has the athleticism to win one-on-one matchups downfield. The Falcons franchise-tagged him this past offseason, which could end up costing them more in a signing bonus if the fifth-year veteran has another big season.
Injuries and inconsistency at cornerback weren’t what led to Atlanta ranking a ho-hum 20th against the pass in 2011. Safeties William Moore and Thomas DeCoud both had their iffy range and coverage instincts exposed. The truth is, the Falcons are trying to get by with two in-the-box type safeties. Moore, a second-round pick in ’09, can be a playmaking thumper in the flats. He fits the mantra of playing faster, which is a tenet Nolan was brought in to teach. DeCoud is the one who needs to be challenged. Dimitroff and the front office might say they like the guy and that his wrinkles can be ironed out, particularly if the zone scheme is tweaked to help him. But, when they signed DeCoud to a new five-year, $17.5 million contract this past March, they made just $4 million of it guaranteed. In other words: they view this as a make-or-break season for the 27-year-old. If DeCoud absolutely flounders, the Falcons could turn to new veteran Chris Hope. Then again, Hope is only here because he struggled in Tennessee’s zone scheme the last two years.
The Falcons, like any 4-3 zone-based team, rely on generating pressure primarily with a four-man pass-rush. They don’t do it unimaginatively, though –- Smith is willing to dial up tricky zone blitzes with his linebackers and safeties. That said, they still rely heavily on the guys up front. They’re hoping that 34-year-old John Abraham can continue to turn the corner as the leading speed demon outside. There’s no indication that Abraham can’t, though his first-and second-down snaps may need to be curtailed even more.
The Falcons have depth outside to accommodate Abraham. Sinewy fifth-year pro Kroy Biermann is a very fluid run-defender and probably a more dynamic pass-rusher than last year’s big free agent pickup, Ray Edwards. This, however, says more about Edwards than Biermann. Edwards is a solid all-around presence, particularly against the run, but he doesn’t have great burst and swivel off the snap. Someone who does is Lawrence Sidbury, though the 2009 fourth-round pick recorded just four sacks as a pass-rushing specialist in 2011, and two of those sacks came from being in the right place at the right time against Minnesota. Injuries and inexperience have hindered Sidbury somewhat; if he has a breakout season in him, it better be now. If he doesn’t, then fifth-round rookie Jonathan Massaquoi will likely replace him in the long-term plans.
Inside, Jonathan Babineaux remains perhaps the most underrated three-technique tackle in all of football. He’s been what 2009 first-round pick Peria Jerry was supposed to be. Jerry hasn’t been a complete bust -– he plays with energy and occasionally creates opportunities for others. With quick, athletic third-year pro Corey Peters on PUP due to a stress fracture in his foot, Jerry will be given another chance to show his skills. He’ll be spelled at times by effective ’09 seventh-round Vance Walker.
At the second level of the defense, Atlanta is rolling the dice by having Akeem Dent take over for the departed Curtis Lofton at middle linebacker. The 2011 third-round pick has flashed athleticism, particularly on special teams, and is expected to be rangier in coverage than Lofton was. Nevertheless, this scheme demands sharp read-and-react skills against the run, which aren’t always easy for young players to immediately cultivate.
It helps that Dent will be playing alongside rising star Sean Weatherspoon. Expect the 2010 first-round pick to be regarded as the defense’s clear-cut best player by season’s end. Weatherspoon plays with an all-around explosiveness that can’t be taught, and he’s very good in coverage, which is critical in this scheme.
For depth purposes, the Falcons brought back 36-year-old Mike Peterson, who has played for Mike Smith since the two arrived in Jacksonville in 2003. The versatile-but-now-limited Peterson will likely be the No. 4 linebacker, behind starting strongside man Stephen Nicholas.
Kicker Matt Bryant has always had phenomenal range. Playing in the climate-controlled Georgia Dome only helps that. As a sixth-round rookie last season, Matt Bosher ranked 12th in both net punting and balls inside the 20. In the return game, Harry Douglas will handle punts and Jacquizz Rodgers will take care of kicks.
With the Bountygate turmoil in New Orleans and the Panthers and Bucs both still young, the Falcons’ window in the NFC South is open wider than ever. But the focus with this team is not on winning the division, it’s on finally winning in the postseason. That will come down to how well Matt Ryan and the offense adapt to Dirk Koetter’s new system. The prospects look good.