Tonys Last Ride
Atlanta Falcons 2013 Season Preview
Super Bowl or Bust
2012 record: 13-3
2013 projection: 14-2
HC: Mike Smith
DC: Mike Nolan
OC: Dirk Koetter
Tony Gonzalez could have retired last year with no regrets. He will be remembered as the best tight end in NFL history in the same indisputable fashion as Jerry Rice among wide receivers. He made huge plays in the 2012 playoffs to ensure that his team won a playoff game for the first time in his career, but they were unable to finish with the Super Bowl he wanted to end his career with. When he announced he was 95 percent sure he would retire last season, I believe he meant it. He knew he could walk away from the game and leave a legacy of greatness, discipline, and dignity. But two things became clear last year: At 37, Gonzalez is still an elite TE, and the Falcons have a group of guys very capable of giving Gonzalezí career a storybook ending. After losing in heartbreaking fashion in the NFC Championship game, the Falcons convinced Tony Gonzalez to come back and stocked up on talent in the offseason. Anything less than a Super Bowl victory will be considered a failure to this team. They have amazing talent and great continuity, and they should be hungry after the way last season ended.
Head Coach Mike Smith really doesnít get enough credit for what heís done with a Falcon team that was in complete disarray when he took over. In 5 seasons he has led the team to a winning record every year, fielding a 56-24 record, and he now has the team knocking on the door of a Super Bowl. His smartest move came in his first year on the job, when he drafted QB Matt Ryan third overall. The Boston College product has been a winner from year one and has shown consistent improvement throughout his young career. With a potent crew of playmakers surrounding him, Ryan leads the one of the NFLís most potent offenses with authority and confidence.
QB: Matt Ryan, Dominique Davis
HB: Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers, Jason Snelling
FB: Bradie Ewing
TE: Tony Gonzalez, Levine Toilolo
WR: Roddy White, Julio Jones, Harry Douglas
LT: Sam Baker, Alex Savoie
LG: Justin Blalock, Jaques McClendon
C: Peter Konz, Joe Hawley
RG: Garrett Reynolds, Phillipkeith Manley
RT: Lamar Holmes, Mike Johnson
The Falconsí offense is built brilliantly. Roddy White is a prototypical go-to receiver with good size and speed, and the ability to run every route on the tree and get open against double coverage. He got a lot harder to guard when the Falcons traded a kingís ransom to trade up and draft Julio Jones. Thereís no need to second-guess that decision, as Jones has quickly emerged as one of the most deadly big-play threats in the game and the perfect complement to White. The two make up the best receiving duo in the NFL right now, and I donít hesitate to say that. But when Matt Ryan needs a first down, the guy he will look to first will be Tony Gonzalez, who continued to rip up the middle of defenses to the tune of 93 catches for 930 yards last year. The trio has combined for 6609 yards and 48 touchdowns in 2 seasons since they have been formed. Harry Douglas gives the team a nice option out of the slot, but the depth is lacking after that.
The Steven Jackson Effect
One limitation of the Falcon offense last year was the lack of a productive ground game. Michael Turner was still a somewhat effective battering ram, but rarely broke long runs and was a liability as a receiver. Jacquizz Rodgers is an excellent change-of-pace back and receiver out of the backfield, but he is not strong running between the tackles. The result was an offense that became somewhat predictable based on who was in the backfield. With the addition of Steven Jackson, this will no longer be an issue. Jackson is one of the best power runners in the league, but he is also a complete back who possesses big-play ability and excellent receiving and blocking skills. At 29, Jackson has done an excellent job of keeping himself in top shape, and his presence in the Falcon offense should give defenses fits. He may no longer be suited for a workhorse role, but the Falcons donít need him to be. They have a great passing game to lean on, and they have one of the leagueís top reserve running backs in Rodgers, with Jason Snelling providing a solid third option.
Key Players: C Peter Konz & RT Lamar Holmes
With Sam Baker and Justin Blalock, the Falcons have two proven performers in the prime of their careers on the left side of their line. Last year, the Falcons invested second and third round picks in Konz and Holmes to replace the aging veterans they had in place. Konz got some playing time as a rookie and looked somewhat overwhelmed, while Holmes remains something of a wild card. The hope is that with another offseason under their belts, they will be ready to take on starting roles. The offensive line is the only potential weakness of this offense, so if Konz and Holmes can step in and play at a high level, it could really make this unit an unstoppable force.
DE: Osi Umenyiora, Kroy Biermann, Jonathan Massaquoi, Malliciah Goodman
DT: Peria Jerry, Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters, Travian Robertson
SLB: Stephen Nicholas, Nick Clancy
MLB: Akeem Dent, Pat Schiller, Brian Banks
WLB: Sean Weatherspoon, Robert James
CB: Assante Samuel, Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford, Robert McClain, Dominique Franks
FS: Thomas Decoud, Charles Mitchell
SS: William Moore, Shann Schillinger
Whatís remarkable about the Falcon defense is how much of the defense is made up of home-grown talent. Nine of eleven projected starters were drafted by the Falcons, and there are some bright young stars among the group. William Moore and Thomas Decoud, who both enjoyed breakout seasons in 2012, make up one of the best safety tandems in the league. Decoud has proven to be a rangy defender and instinctive playmaker, while Moore has taken on the enforcer role. Sean Weatherspoon seems to be a rising star at OLB, as players with his combination of talent and skill are hard to come by. He missed 3 games last year, and his absence was evident. Weatherspoon is a great chess piece for Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan, as he can be used as a disruptive blitzer, a rangy tackler, or an athletic cover linebacker. Guys like Peria Jerry, Stephen Nicholas and Akeem Dent have proven to be solid players, but the Falcons need to see more from them. Dent in particular needs to become more of a tone-setter and forceful run defender.
Osi Umenyiora and Assante Samuel, the teamís two big veteran acquisitions, both figure to play big roles. Both have won multiple Super Bowls and bring veteran leadership to a defense full of young players. As evidenced by his 50 career interceptions, Samuel is one of the best in the league at reading quarterbacks, jumping routes, and making game-changing play. He will be taking on an important mentor role with rookies Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, who were picked in the first and second round, respectively. The Falcons are depending heavily on this pair of rookies to contribute immediately after letting veteran corners Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes walk in free agency. Umenyiora will have big shoes to fill as well, as he will be replacing John Abraham, a man who racked up 68.5 sacks in 7 seasons with the Falcons. Umenyiora is coming off a disappointing season where he struggled with injuries and only sacked the quarterback six times, but he vows he is ready to return to form and just needed a fresh start. The cupboard is pretty bare after that when it comes to pass-rushers, with Umenyiora being the only player on the roster realistically capable of posting double-digit sacks. Atlanta ranked 28th in the league with a mere 29 sacks last year, a number they must find a way to improve upon. A renaissance from Umenyiora would certainly help, but Nolan will need to get more creative with his blitz packages and find ways to generate pressure without having a host of top-flight pass-rushers.
Player Spotlight: SS William Moore
InIn just 12 games, Moore recorded 75 tackles, 4 interceptions, 2 FF, and 1 sack. Had he not missed games with injury, he would have had the most impressive numbers of any safety in the game. The 220-pounder out of Missouri quickly became an intimidating presence in the secondary by delivering crushing blows to receivers, but it didnít all come together until last year. He showed great ball skills and intelligence in coverage last year and is a bright young star in the mold of Dashon Goldson.
Human Story to Watch: LB Brian Banks
Brian Banksí road to the NFL is one of the kind. A top recruit coming out of high school, Banks was planning to accept a scholarship from USC before his life took a dark turn. In 2002, Banks was sent to prison and served five years for rape before he was exonerated. Itís hard to imagine how it must feel to spend five years locked up and have all your dreams dashed because of the fabrications of a classmate, but you canít help but admire the emotional strength he has shown and root for him. A 28-year old rookie, Banks will have to fight for a roster spot and any snaps he hopes to get, but itís hard to question his determination after everything he has been through.
K: Matt Bryant
P: Matt Bosher
KR: Jacquizz Rodgers
PR: Dominique Franks
Jacquizz-Rodgers is a dangerous threat on special teams who does a great job setting his offense up with great field position. The Falconsí kicking game isnít especially strong, but Bosh and Bryant are not liabilities either. Their coverage units last year finished 8th against kick returns and 14th against punt returns.
The Falcons stayed undefeated the longest last year, and they could certainly do so again this year. They have some tough non-divisional games, but they get New England, Seattle and St. Louis at home, and their game in Miami requires minimal travel. Their will be no free wins in the NFC South, but the Falcons have a clear upper hand on the rest of the division and should win a minimum of 4 divisional games.They will get two big tests in weeks 14 and 16, when they will travel to Green Bay and San Francisco. These games will be useful, as they will get the Falcons ready for the intensity of the playoffs.
Week Opponent Projected Result
1 at New Orleans W, 1-0
2 vs St. Louis W, 2-0
3 at Miami W, 3-0
4 vs New England W, 4-0
5 vs New York W, 5-0
7 vs Tampa Bay W, 6-0
8 at Arizona L, 6-1
9 at Carolina W, 7-1
10 vs Seattle W, 8-1
11 at Tampa Bay W, 9-1
12 vs New Orleans W, 10-1
13 at Buffalo W, 11-1
14 at Green Bay L, 11-2
15 vs Washington W, 12-2
16 at San Francisco W, 13-2
17 vs Carolina W, 14-2