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With Matt Ryan leading charge, Falcons excited about new year


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By Tom Pedulla, USA TODAY

To appreciate how much ground the Atlanta Falcons have covered and how far they must travel, consider the franchise's plight two years ago.

The Michael Vick era had ended in disgrace, with the quarterback heading to prison for his involvement with dogfighting. The hiring of Bobby Petrino away from Louisville had backfired, with his head coaching tenure lasting less than a season before he bolted late in a 4-12 campaign for the Arkansas Razorbacks.

A disenchanted fan base was hardly appeased when owner Arthur Blank hired two relative unknowns, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith.

Blank had tried — and failed — to persuade noted rebuilder Bill Parcells to take over the broken operation before settling on Dimitroff. Although Dimitroff had been the New England Patriots' director of college scouting, it was unclear to the outside world how much of a role he had played in their success.

While Smith owned nearly three decades of coaching experience and had done well as the Jacksonville Jaguars' defensive coordinator from 2003 to 2007, he had not been prominently mentioned in previous head coaching searches. The task of turning around a franchise that had never produced consecutive winning seasons appeared to be awfully large for someone who had never served as head coach at any level.

Now, after 11-5 and 9-7 records allowed Atlanta to shake that gorilla off its back, it is clear how much Dimitroff and Smith succeeded in meeting their first goal of changing a losing culture that permeated the organization. Everyone who wears red and black now thinks big.

Listen to quarterback Matt Ryan, the grand slam Dimitroff belted when he took him third overall in the 2008 draft to begin putting the Vick nightmare in the rearview mirror. "It was great for the organization to knock off the back-to-back winning seasons," Ryan said, "but we want more. We want to be in the playoffs and have the opportunity to play late in the season. We are working hard to get there."

Running back Michael Turner, who signed as a six-year, $34.5 million free agent gamble by Dimitroff before the 2008 season, chimed in as well: "It seems like everyone is more excited this year," he said during a May minicamp. "Even though we went through a lot to get to 9-7 last year, that wasn't our main goal. We're trying to keep everyone healthy this year, and we have a chance to do something special."

Dimitroff likes everything he sees and hears.

"This group is a very wide-eyed group of individuals who are looking to get better," he said. "I continue to say this is one of the best locker rooms I've ever been around."

Smith instilled an urgency to win at home that was lacking under previous regimes. The Falcons will attempt to extend their dominance at the Georgia Dome after compiling a 13-3 mark there since 2008.

Ryan, known as "Matty Ice" for his unflappable play at Boston College, is nearly perfect with a 13-1 record under the dome while helping to spark renewed interest in the Falcons in a city long captivated by the college game. Ryan sets an ideal tone with his determination and quiet confidence.

"He's a tough guy, and he's the type of guy that I think we know the majority of this team looks to as a leader," says Dimitroff. "I see his arrow definitely up, and he's the least of our concerns here."

Atlanta ranked last in passing offense while finishing 7-9 in 2006, Vick's last season there. Ryan passed for 3,440 yards as offensive rookie of the year in 2008 and added 2,916 yards last season despite missing two games with turf toe. The Falcons rated 14th among 32 teams in passing each of the last two years.

But if Atlanta is to improve on its second place NFC South finish and take over the top from the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, a full season from Ryan is a must. He and wideout Roddy White form a potent combination, and their chemistry should only improve. In the past two seasons, they clicked eight times on plays of 40-plus yards that resulted in touchdowns.

Turner's durability will be another key. The onetime San Diego Chargers reserve erupted for 1,699 rushing yards after Atlanta set him loose as a starter in 2008. A severe ankle injury caused his production to plummet almost in half last season. His value cannot be overstated. The Falcons are 13-2 when he carries 20 times or more.

Atlanta will do everything it can to follow the lead of Tony Gonzalez, who enters his 14th NFL season as the all-time leading tight end in catches (999), yards (11,807) and touchdowns (82) but hungers for an elusive Super Bowl ring. "I don't think there's a player on this team that's more respected as far as working on his craft," Dimitroff says.

Another critical element will be the continued growth of a young defense that was supplemented in the draft by four new players, including linebacker Sean Weatherspoon in Round 1 and third-round defensive tackle Corey Peters.

From Week 10 of last season until the end of the schedule, the Falcons improved from 26th against the run to 10th. They are eager to extend a streak of not permitting a 100-yard rusher for 13 consecutive games.

"It's at the core of what we want to do defensively," says Smith, adding, "the last quarter of the season, I thought we did it as well as anybody in the league."

Atlanta won four of its first five games in 2009, lost four of its next five, won one, lost two, then closed with a three-game winning streak.

Smith's message from the start of training camp will be obvious.

"One of the big things we're going to have to improve on is becoming a more consistent football team," he says. "Not necessarily from week to week but play to play."

That kind of incremental improvement might lead the Falcons to another franchise first: a Super Bowl title.

AROUND THE FIELD IN ATLANTA

Quarterback: Everything about Matt Ryan — from his work ethic to his leadership to his ability — points to him as a winner. His 20-10 record backs that up. A key to his continued improvement will be avoiding interceptions. Chris Redman has revived his career and proved to be a capable fill-in.

Running back: Michael Turner was asked to carry the ball 376 times after joining the team in 2008 and responded with 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns. But that production came at a price because he was unable to stay healthy last season. The Falcons are promising to closely monitor his carries. They have the luxury of doing that, given the capabilities of Jerious Norwood, also returning from injury, and hard-charging Jason Snelling.

Wide receiver: Roddy White doesn't draw much national attention, but no one can dispute his emergence as a big-time target. He will be seeking his fourth consecutive 1,000-yard receiving season, something no Falcons receiver has accomplished. Michael Jenkins is consistent but nothing special. The team is hoping Harry Douglas will provide a spark if he makes a full recovery from knee surgery.

Tight end: In his first year in Atlanta, Tony Gonzalez had 83 catches to set the franchise season record for tight ends. Consistency? He has a streak of 147 games with at least one catch. Performance in the clutch? He made 26 third-down grabs for 309 yards and two touchdowns in 2009. And his value in the locker room matches his on-field contributions.

Offensive line: Center Todd McClure is a dependable anchor for a solid line. Atlanta gambled by drafting left tackle Sam Baker 21st overall in 2008 despite injury concerns, but it's paying off. Rookie guard Mike Johnson might push for snaps.

Defensive line: End John Abraham can be as erratic as he is talented. After notching a franchise-record 16½ sacks two years ago, he had 5½ in '09. More are needed. Tackle Jonathan Babineaux comes off a career-high six sacks. Tackle Peria Jerry is on the rebound after an injury wiped out most of the 2009 first-rounder's rookie season.

Linebacker: Third-year middle linebacker Curtis Lofton is a rising star. Rookie Sean Weatherspoon, being mentored by 12-year veteran Mike Peterson, should quickly assert himself. The 19th overall draft choice can find the ball and get to it in a hurry.

Secondary: Atlanta did not stand pat after ranking 28th in pass defense, signing free agent cornerback Dunta Robinson to a six-year, $57 million contract. He likely will be paired with fourth-year man Brent Grimes, who is eager to continue his progress after making four interceptions in the last three games. Free safety Thomas DeCoud is a promising player who's finding his stride.

Special teams: The Falcons look to maintain their excellence in kickoff coverage after leading the NFL in that category last season. The average starting position for opponents was just beyond the 21-yard line. On the flip side, Eric Weems is a quality return man. Mike Koenen holds down punting and kickoff duties. Matt Bryant and Steve Hauschka will vie for the kicking job.

Coaching staff: Atlanta is 18-1 in its two seasons under coach Mike Smith when holding the lead at the half, proof of his ability to make sound halftime adjustments. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, a former tight end, stays close to his roots with a run-first preference. The time should be at hand, though, for him to loosen the reins on Ryan. Brian VanGorder oversees an improving defense.

Outlook: Optimism abounds. The Falcons have 15 new starters since Thomas Dimitroff became general manager two years ago. Much depends on the continued improvement of a fresh-faced defense that did not allow a touchdown in 10 of the last 11 quarters in 2009. The talent appears to be there, just not the experience. Atlanta might be a team no one wants to face in the second half of the season.

http://www.usatoday.com/sports/football/nfl/falcons/2010-07-08-falcons-organization-report_N.htm

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9-7 without our top 2 draft picks of 2009, 9-7 without Matt Ryan for 2 (basically 3) games, 9-7 with Michael Turner missing 5 games and the better part of 2 more. 9-7 with one of the hardest schedules in the league.

Let's see what they can do with last years first 2 picks, and this years first 2 picks. And a healthy Matt Ryan and Michael Turner. ...oh yeah, and not a shaft of a schedule. (And no Chris Houston)

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9-7 without our top 2 draft picks of 2009, 9-7 without Matt Ryan for 2 (basically 3) games, 9-7 with Michael Turner missing 5 games and the better part of 2 more. 9-7 with one of the hardest schedules in the league.

Let's see what they can do with last years first 2 picks, and this years first 2 picks. And a healthy Matt Ryan and Michael Turner. ...oh yeah, and not a shaft of a schedule. (And no Chris Houston)

NFL, BE ADVISED, THERE IS A STORM HEADED YOUR WAY.

DO NOT BE CAUGHT OUT IN THE OPEN. STRONG WINDS AND

LIGHTING. THIS ADVISORY IS IN EFFECT FOR 18 GAMES!

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I really believe those last three games last season will be something we all look back on one day and say that's when it really started. YOU ALL know hardly any of our past teams would have stuck it out just to go 9-7 and have back to back winning seasons with no playoffs in site just for pride's sake. I think those games have helped Matt Ryan, this team and this organization take the next step from just being "happy to be here" to "WE BELONG HERE". The culture has changed and will be TELEVISED!

GO FALCONS!!!

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Im not sure if im reading this right but does that mean we are 2-12 (playoff game is the extra loss) in games that were tied or losing at half?

Losses (total 13 including playoff game):

Trailing at half = 11 games

Leading at half = 2 games (including the playoff game - we were leading 17-14 at half)

Wins (total 20)

Trailing at half = 1

Leading at half = 18

Tied at half = 1

So, the answer is that including the playoff game, when trailing or tied at the half - we are 2-11 and when leading at the half, we are 18-2.

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Losses (total 13 including playoff game):

Trailing at half = 11 games

Leading at half = 2 games (including the playoff game - we were leading 17-14 at half)

Wins (total 20)

Trailing at half = 1

Leading at half = 18

Tied at half = 1

So, the answer is that including the playoff game, when trailing or tied at the half - we are 2-11 and when leading at the half, we are 18-2.

This definitely has to be worked on if were going to take the next step. 2-11 isnt good at all. I know this team is run first and that were finally taking the chains off of Matty but were not always going to be leading going into the half. This team is better then that mark and we have to start winning those games.

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