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Big Question: Three in a row for Falcons?


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Big Question: Three in a row for Falcons?

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Can the Atlanta Falcons have a winning record for the third straight season?

There was some minor celebrating at the end of last season when the Falcons won their final three games to finish 9-7 and record back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history. It still wasn’t good enough for the Falcons to get to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time and that was mildly disappointing after a 2008 season in which rookie coach Mike Smith and rookie quarterback Matt Ryan took Atlanta to the postseason.

[+] EnlargeJohn Abraham

Kevin Liles-US PresswireThe Falcons need a stronger season from John Abraham and the Falcons' pass rush.

Blame last year on injuries and bad luck. But maybe a season in which everything that could go wrong did is exactly what the Falcons needed to raise the bar for 2010. They were a 9-7 team when everything was working against them.

They should be much better when things are going well. Things can always change, but, right now, the schedule doesn’t look all that difficult. Injured guys like defensive tackle Peria Jerry, safety William Moore and receiver Harry Douglas are expected back at full strength. Running back Michael Turner is in much better physical condition than he was at this point a year ago and he seems to be on a mission to prove that his 2008 season wasn’t a one-hit wonder.

The Falcons took their annual one large plunge into free agency by signing cornerback Dunta Robinson and that should solidify the secondary. First-round pick Sean Weatherspoon should give Atlanta a playmaker at linebacker. The only uncertainty is the pass rush. Maybe John Abraham can bounce back from a quiet season and maybe Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury can take the next step in their development.

The pass rush and the New Orleans Saints might be the biggest obstacles the Falcons face at the moment. Even with those issues hanging out there, this looks like a team that’s on course for a third straight winning season.

Atlanta weakness: Defensive end

By Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson

» NFC South Weaknesses: Falcons (6/29) | Panthers (6/30) | Saints (7/1) | Bucs (7/2)

Originally, I was going to make pass rush the Falcons’ weak spot, but I believe they potentially have one of the best interior pass-rush combinations in Peria Jerry, last year’s first-round draft pick, and the vastly underrated Jonathan Babineaux. Rookie Corey Peters also could factor in as an upfield interior player in this capacity and will become even more important if Babineaux is suspended for his off-field behavior or if Jerry doesn’t return to top form after his knee injury.

John Abraham more in passing situations would benefit Atlanta's defense.

But the end position still worries me for Atlanta, although I also believe it isn’t as big of a weakness as many tend to think.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not a fan of what Jamaal Anderson has done since being such a high draft pick, but he is a big body who can play the run. His pass rush is a liability and it may also remain a deficiency, but as run-stopping base ends go, you could do a lot worse than Anderson, and he still has room to improve. But he really isn’t someone you want on the field on third-and-long.

Another unknown -- like Babineaux -- is Kroy Biermann. Biermann may not be ready to handle the rigors of an every-down role, but I am high on what he does bring to the table as a substitute for Anderson on throwing downs and as someone who can lighten John Abraham’s load on a play-by-play basis. Biermann had a fine 2009 season and should see his snap count rise dramatically. He brings quite a bit to the table as a pass-rusher and can hold his own as a run player. Biermann is an up-and-comer.

But Abraham worries me. I understand he was the focus of every opponent’s pass protection scheme, but I am also a believer that he just wasn’t as good in 2009 as he had been in previous seasons. Abraham, who is always a durability risk, needs to spend more of his snaps focused on passing downs. A guy such as Biermann, and to a lesser extent Chauncey Davis or Lawrence Sidbury, could help keep the aging veteran fresh for when the Falcons need him most.

Abraham’s age (32) also is a big worry and depth here is just average. There also have been rumblings that Anderson might not even make the team this season, which I personally find hard to believe. But when writing these team weaknesses pieces, most teams have a much bigger problem than what the Falcons have at defensive end.

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Obviously nothing is 100 percent certain but the odds are so in our favor of a winning season I hadn't even given thought to the possibility of a losing season.

Just like last year at this time my thoughts are primarily on defense. Where will they be ranked this year? Will they be the aggressive enough? Will they own the field?

I like the moves we have made. I hope we finally have the defense we need.

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there may not be a team in the league that doesn't have at least one weakness in an area of the field. Yes, DE is a concern for the falcons, especially for the season after next. We may need to replace two starters at that spot on the field.

I am equally concerned about our O-line, specifically Sam Baker. Injuries have certainly slowed him down. I didn't see the same player in 2009 as I did in 2008.

But our defense as a whole should be improved with a better secondary, two big pieces from the 08 draft back. And I am still hoping to see a big jump in how Sidbury plays this season. Beer man should have a good year. And if Abraham can find a level of play somewhere between the last two seasons, we should be ok.

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Stronger push from the DTs up the middle should help DEs perform better. I believe that with the depth we have @ DE right now, that this is what TD and Smitty are thinking as well.

I think we have good depth @ DE, we may not have many big names back there, but everyone will know Biermanns' name by the middle of the season.

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The two main stats we need to improve by a good 75 percent this year are sacks and turnovers. Those are the stats of an aggressive and punishing defense.

A stronger secondary helps the pass rush get sacks and forced fumbles and a stronger penetrating dline helps our secondary get interceptions.

I think we have all the pieces we need. We just need them to go out there and make it happen.

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