This is the 25th in a series of team-by-team breakdowns that will run on SportingNews.com before the start of training camp. Reporting date: July 31 What can we expect from QB Matt Ryan as he enters his second season? With all due respect to the Arizona Cardinals, the Atlanta Falcons were the real surprise team of the '08 season. The Cardinals, after all, had a playoff-proven quarterback, a tried-and-true lead rusher and a pair of Pro Bowl wide receivers. Even their coaches had tasted success before, albeit with another franchise. The Falcons, on the other hand, had none of those things. They were led by a rookie quarterback, a rookie head coach and a rookie general manager, yet still made the playoffs, losing to the Cards. The question now is what will the Falcons do for an encore? They never have put together back-to-back winning seasons, and NFL history is filled with teams that came out of nowhere to shake the world one year only to fall back into a hole the next. <H3 class=node-block-title>Related Links</H3> <LI class="0 first">Camp countdown: Find your team's date <LI class=1>SN fantasy mock draft: Rounds 1-9 <LI class=2>SN fantasy mock draft: Rounds 10-17 <LI class=3>Falcons' owner sells small slice of franchise Sporting News: Atlanta Falcons team page These Falcons appear to be built for the long haul. But if they can't make a swift transition on the defensive side of the ball, they could lose the momentum they gained last year and go from being the league's biggest surprise to its biggest disappointment. What's new Offense: Coordinator Mike Mularkey is a fan of old-fashioned smash-mouth power football but will throw in some exotic twists. He has a lot of tricks and gadgets inside his playbook. Now that quarterback Matt Ryan has a feel for the league, he'll bring a lot of them out in '09. Mularkey won't overdo it, though. He has the power rusher he wants in Michael Turner and still will lean on him. He'll also use play-action fakes and throw downfield. In addition, the offense added the ultimate intermediate target in future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. What Ryan has to do this year is develop consistency and carry it through to the end of the season. Chances are he will. This is a kid who's not afraid to do his homework. Defense: Brian VanGorder would like to attack more in his second season as the coordinator, but he still doesn't have a lot of weapons. If he can get the secondary to play better in his 4-3 zone scheme, he'll get aggressive with his linebackers. If not, he'll rely on the line to get the bulk of the pressure. Outside of end John Abraham there isn't much to rely on there. Over the past two years, the Falcons worked to improve the defense in both free agency and the draft but have come up short. It's possible that their patience with players such as end Jamaal Anderson will start to pay off. If so, Atlanta could develop into a team to be feared. Atlanta began rebuilding its linebacking corps last spring when the team drafted Curtis Lofton, moved him into the middle and pushed Keith Brooking to the weak side. Now Brooking has been released and in his place is veteran Mike Peterson, who had his best years while playing middle linebacker for coach Mike Smith and VanGorder when all three were with the Jaguars. Strongside linebacker Michael Boley is gone, too. The Falcons plan to move young Stephen Nicholas into his spot, but Nicholas will get a run for the job from Coy Wire, who has a little more experience than Nicholas. View from the other sideline An opponent breaks down the Falcons "You have to start with Matt Ryan, who was just lights-out last year. He's an outstanding player, and he obviously has a great command of the game and great knowledge and awareness of what's going on around him. They're real solid there and should be for a while. Coach Mike Smith talks with new Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez."They have a very strong running game, too, with Turner, and with (Jerious) Norwood, they've got that changeup kind of back there as well. They also have one of the best fullbacks in the league (Ovie Mughelli). You talk about one-on-one blocking and moving people, he's really good at it. "On defense, the pass rush needs a little bit of a kick-start. Everybody's getting on Jamaal Anderson, but he's still playing pretty well. I'm not ready to sign off on him just yet. If he can get better or if they can add another guy to help out John Abraham, they should be OK there. Chauncey Davis could be that guy, but I see more as a rotational guy. If they get that pass rush going, they should be all right. But they've made a lot of changes at linebacker and in the secondary, so you have to see how that's going to work out." Burning question What can we expect from Matt Ryan in Year 2? "The biggest part is trying to fine-tune the little things, trying to improve individually, and if we can do that, we can improve collectively. ... That's the kind of stuff we need to clean up now so when we get to training camp, we can work on our timing and have a great understanding of what we're doing." -- Falcons QB Matt Ryan Bottom line Expectations are high again—maybe too high. The defense remains in a rebuilding mode, and the offense still is young at the most crucial spot on the field. The special teams are strong. If the defense can get better and the offense can avoid a precipitous drop in production, the Falcons should stay in the hunt for a division title. This doesn't look like a team that's ready to make a long run in the playoffs, but a second consecutive postseason appearance is possible. It also would be unprecedented, and that would make 2009 another big success.