After the past week of troubling lock-out related news, it's back time to round out final installments of the season in review series. With Six teams left, we will look at the tops teams in last year's NFL. Let's just hope that they aren't in the same exact order next year....
For now, the Atlanta Falcons.For such a good team with a dominate record and talent at every skill position, their offensive and defensive stats were surprisingly mediocre. The offense definitely seemed better than a 15th ranked passing unit and a 12th ranked rushing attack might suggest, and a likewise 22nd ranked pass unit and 10th ranked rushing defense were seemingly much more dominant than the numbers indicated as well. Yet, as I've said in this series all along, these four major statistical categories rarely lie and they once again came through, as Atlanta's weakest link - its secondary - was torched by a scorching Aaron Rodgers in the NFC divisional game.
Still while such a finish was an incredible disappointment to a very promising season, Falcons fans should be extremely pleased with the progress of not only the team as a whole, but the individual players as well.
After slowly acquiring talent and building up the team for the past few seasons, The Falcons took a significant leap
this past season fighting and scratching their way to the top of a competitive and dangerous NFC South and
jettisoning the Super Bowl champions in the process.
Season in Review: A tale of two seasons
This year was a old Colts' favorite: the tale of two seasons.
The Falcons were dominate in the regular season, only to collapse in the postseason (Ahh the memories). It's a curse for young quarterbacks that only Baltimore's Joe Flacco seems to have broken (Matt Sanchez doesn't count because the Jets have never been dominate during the regular season and he's overrated anyway).
The Falcons rise from 9-7 the year before to 13-3 and was nothing short of meteoric as they dominated the division and set the pace for the league.
Wins over New Orleans, Tampa Bay (twice), Baltimore, Green Bay and Seattle (hey don't scoff - they made the playoffs) proved the their fans and the league just how good they can be.
The problem, was that damn playoff game. As has happened to Peyton Manning and the Colts so many times before, Ryan and the Falcons were tripped up by a dynamite quarterback and a tough ball hawking, bullying defense. Sound familiar Colts' fans?
The good news for Atlanta is Matty Ice still hasn't hit the prime of his career and he's got all the right tools around him to help Atlanta keep rolling.
Offseason Momentum: Has to be the highest in the league
Matt Ryan is already easily a top 10 quarterback, which is a scary thought for defenses around the league as he is just now maturing and really figuring the game out.
Even worse news for defensive coordinators is the fact that Ryan has Michael Turner, who can more than carry the load during an occasional off game for the 5th year quarterback. Turner, who ranks as the only top 10 back in the NFC South, is simultaneously one of the more explosive and bruising backs in the league, who if healthy, is a shoe-in for 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Proving just that, after struggling with turf toe and other injuries in 2009, Turner was back among the league's best rushing for a quite 1371 yards and 12 scores.
Not that Ryan needs it, but Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White also provide a world of help up the middle and on the outside. White, who has quietly become one of the best receivers in the league, and Gonzalez, who added another stellar season to his already hall of fame resume, combined for over 2000 yards along with 16 touchdowns.
With a solid offensive line creating holes for Turner and giving time for Ryan to throw, and one of the most dangerous return specialists in Eric Weems, the Falcons can score a lot of points a lot of ways and quickly. Defensively, the mood is not as buoyant, especially after giving up 48 points in their loss to Green Bay, but that does not mean their isn't room to be optimistic.
After returning from a knee injury his rookie year, Peria Jerry, a guy many thought the Colts were going to draft in 09, is starting to develop into a force in the middle. Teamed up along with Johathan Babiineaux, who lead the league in sacks among defensive tackles in 2009, the two tackles created a powerful run-stuffing force up front and allowed ends John Abraham and Jamaal Anderson to cause havoc on opposing qb's. In fact, Abraham had such a good year that he was awarded defensive all-pro honors for the third time is his career.
The linebacking corps also played to a high standard helping to hold 5 opponents to 10 points or less..
Led by veterans Mike Peterson and Will Weatherspoon, the Falcons kept opposing offenses in check for much of the year (save for the game against Green Bay that Falcons fans don't want to remember).
So a quick recap of the Falcons:
Premiere head coach? - Check
Elite quarterback? - Check
Top 10 running back? - Check
One of the league's most best receivers? - Check
Hall of fame tight end? - Check
Game changing return specialist? - Check
Steady offensive line? - Check
Aggressive, penetrating defense? - Check
Smart, effective linebackers? - Check
How did this team not win again?!?!?
Ahhh... the secondary.
Offseason Anxiety: The Secondary
For most of the season, the secondary wasn't terrible. It just so happened to play its worst when it counted the most. I couldn't believe when I tuned in and saw Green Bay had ripped off 35 straight points!!! I left after the first quarter with Atlanta up 7-0 and by halftime the game was seemingly out of reach.
It's unfair to heap all the blame one the secondary, or even the entire defense, but watching Rodgers go 31-35 for 366 yards and 3 scores was hard for Falcons fans to stomach. The guy missed 4 passes the entire game.
JaMarcus Russel used to miss that many after his first 4 throws on a regular basis!
Sure, Atlanta's secondary was far better for most of the season, but with every other position seemingly in good if not great shape, someone has to take the blame right?
Realizing the potential for future troubles, the Falcons were ahead of the curve, which has been a consistent trademark of Rich McKay lead teams, and aggressively pursued cornerback Dunta Robinson who signed as a free agent from the Texans.
After signing a 57 million dollar contract making him the second richest cornerback in NFL history to Nnamdi Asomugha, Robinson far from lived up to the hype or worth of such a flattering deal. His other more inconspicuous secondary mates did little to bail out their high profile star either as the Falcons game up 226 ypg.
Undaunted, look for Rich McKay and GM to Thomas Dimitroff to again focus on the secondary.
Draft Desires: Secondary and wide receivers??
Secondary is the clear need, but there's been a lot of talk recently on the Falcons' sister blog to stampedeblue - The Falcoholic - of the Falcons taking a more explosive down-field receiving threat.
The names that have come up the most are Titus Young of Boise State and Leonard Hankerson from Miami.
Personally, with Roddy White and Michael Jenkins still in a Falcons' uniform, I think receivers could wait, although I as a Colts' fan I have grown accustomed to the luxury having Stokely, Collie, Gonzalez and Garcon as 3rd or sometimes 4th options.
If they do go defense, look for the Falcons to take a linebacker/safety type in the first round and then find a backup for Abraham/ starter to take over for Anderson with later selections. UCLA's Akeem Ayers is a linebacker/safety tweener and would be an interesting selection as would UNC's defensive end Robert Quinn.
(Speaking of Quinn, he was named to Playboy's Preseason All American team. Since when does Playboy cover sports? and what perks did Quinn receiver for such an honor?)
Free Agency Farewells: Hardly hit
The Falcons will avoid any major losses in the upcoming free agency. Because of injury concerns to Michael Turner, Atlanta would be wise to either resign Jerious Norwood or Jason Snelling for depth. Justin Blalock is something the Falcons don't want to lose either, as protecting Ryan will be Atlanta's number determinant for a bright successful future.
Resigning Mike Peterson would add quality, but he is aging. Otherwise the Falcons are in good shape.
Threat to the Stampede: High
The Falcons have to be the favorites to come out of the NFC and given that the Colts play the NFC next year anyway, the threat to the stampede is of one the highest in the league.
Based on the odds its unlikely that the Colts and Falcons would both make it to the super bowl, but you have to believe that the two teams will at least be picked to meet in Indy by a few experts.
The Saints will challenge the Falcons for the division, but expect Atlanta to hang tough and hold on to the division crown. Another 13 game season is easily within reach. So too is the super bowl.
It's time for Matt Ryan and the Falcons to soar to new heights.