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Atlanta Falcons 2010 Season Preview


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Atlanta Falcons 2010 Season Preview

By ANDY BENOIT

Jason Szenes for The New York Times

At age 34, tight end Tony Gonzalez (88) still has a knack for making big receptions. He caught what proved to be the game-winner against the Jets late last season.

Andy Benoit is the founder of NFLTouchdown.com and a writer for CBSSports.com’s N.F.L. blog. He can be contacted at andy.benoit –at – NFLTouchdown.com.

When making Super Bowl predictions, people tend to focus on either the powerhouse teams from the previous year (i.e. the defending conference champions) or, more likely, teams that were a cut below powerhouse level (i.e. the teams that lost in the conference championship round). We’ll call these the powercondo teams. Occasionally, you’ll come across a brave soul who is too smart for his own good. With thoughts of the ’99 Rams and ’01 Patriots dancing in their head, this person predicts a bottom-feeder club – sticking with the housing theme, we’ll call it a powershack team – to come out of nowhere and win it all.

Recent history suggests these people have it all wrong. Look at the record of the past three Super Bowl champions the year before their Lombardi Trophy. The Saints were 8-8 in ’08. The Steelers were 10-6 in ’07. The Giants were 8-8 in ’06. Lately, Super Bowl champions haven’t emerged from the powerhouse or powercondo (or certainly powershack) ranks; they’ve emerged from something like the power-upper-floor-level-apartment ranks.

Enter the Atlanta Falcons. They went 9-7 in 2009, the first time the franchise had ever followed a winning record with another winning record. It’s easy to consider Atlanta’s 11-5 breakout in ’08 and view last season as a step back for Mike Smith’s club. But what if that “step back” was actually just the result of well-navigated growing pains?

It would make sense. After all, this is a solid young group led by a budding star quarterback, Matt Ryan. Granted, Ryan himself took a step back his sophomore year. His completion percentage dropped from 61.1 to 58.3. His yards per attempt fell from 7.9 to 6.5. He threw 11 interceptions in 16 games as a rookie, and 14 interceptions in 14 games last year, which was a big reason his passer rating decreased by nearly seven points.

But Ryan, like many of his teammates, battled injury (turf toe) for part of the season. While he might have uncharacteristically struggled in reading defenses at times, he didn’t show signs of panic or of a damaged psyche. In short, Ryan is fine.

His offensive line is fine, too. And, if running backs Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood can stay healthy, Atlanta’s backfield should be fine. The receiving corps, with star wideout Roddy White and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, is also fine. In short, this is a solid offensive group. With all 11 starters back in ’10 and intriguing backups either coming aboard (third-round rookie guard Mike Johnson, fourth-round rookie center Joe Hawley ) or reappearing (electrifying slot receiver Harry Douglas back after knee surgery), it will only be better.

The offense, orchestrated by coordinator Mike Mularkey, has a distinct identity: a ball-control attack predicated on power runs from two-tight end sets. The Falcons have nearly ideal personnel for a classic black and blue approach.

Of course, the past three power-upper-floor-level-apartment Super Bowl champions all had their title runs spearheaded by a defense coming alive. The ’09 Saints D became big-play oriented. The ’08 Steelers D stayed healthy. The ’07 Giants D became dominant in rushing the passer. The ’10 Falcons D?

Last season, Smith ran a mundane zone-based scheme with mundane players. That doesn’t work in today’s N.F.L. Smith’s scheme isn’t changing, so the hope is that the players will improve. Given the young talent joining the scene, it’s likely improvements will come from somewhere – the odds against it are just too low.

Last year’s first-round defensive tackle, Peria Jerry, arrives after missing his rookie year with a knee injury. First-round rookie Sean Weatherspoon is expected to be an instant three-down presence at outside linebacker. Free-agent cornerback Dunta Robinson gives the Falcons an elite stopper who should help curtail the big plays that gouged this team a year ago (the Falcons allowed 55 passes of 20 yards or more in ’09, just one behind the Rams for most in the N.F.C). And hard-hitting second-round safety William Moore has a chance to compete for a starting job after hamstring and knee problems sidelined him for all but two games a year ago.

Does this sound like the makings of a Super Bowl contender? Well…..let’s see: modest success the previous year; no burden of high expectations; distinct offensive and defensive identity; star quarterback; and improvements in most key areas of weakness. Sounds pretty good. And we haven’t even mentioned the stability at the top (another trait the Saints, Steelers and Giants all shared, by the way). Owner Arthur Blank and G.M. Thomas Dimitroff run their program with great chemistry. Perhaps even Super Bowl caliber chemistry.

Offense

Before we get too far along, let’s all agree that Matt Ryan is indeed a star quarterback. Or at least an emerging star. Ryan has all the traits of an elite passer: strong, accurate arm; athleticism to move in – and occasionally flee – the pocket; toughness and poise with bodies around him; and the football IQ to read defenses and anticipate throwing lanes. Ryan didn’t always trust what he saw last season, though with his track record in college and with renowned quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave watching over him, it’s almost certain he has already learned from his mistakes. Should Ryan miss time again, the Falcons have a smart, reliable backup in Chris Redman.

It’s important that Ryan bounce back in ’10. Even with this being a power-run offense, the Falcons are going to rely on their young quarterback to win games. Running back Michael Turner requires a high volume of touches to maximize his effectiveness. There will be games where Turner won’t get enough carries. There’s no promise that he’s still a star, anyway. True, the 28-year-old has only been a featured ballcarrier for two years, but his lack of lateral agility, inability to quickly change direction and propensity to gain yardage by breaking tackles are all traits of a runner with a short shelf life.

At least the backfield depth is excellent. When healthy, Jerious Norwood is a touchdown waiting to happen. But because Norwood has never polished his unique game, downhill interior runner Jason Snelling will get plenty of touches off the bench.

Fullback Ovie Mughelli has light feet for a traditional lead-blocker. The Falcons rely heavily on Mughelli and backup tight end Justin Peelle to force mismatches in the run game – mainly through an unbalanced line. When Peelle is in the game, right tackle Tyson Clabo, a somewhat limited athlete but very willing fighter, often lines up directly next to left tackle Sam Baker. Baker, a first-round pick in’08, is serviceable when healthy, though he must improve in pass protection. (Ryan’s cleverness in the pocket often masks this front five’s mediocre pass-blocking.)

Left guard Justin Blalock is a 333-pound mauler who can get to the second level, though only in straight-line fashion. Blalock’s nonexistent lateral mobility and expiring contract could be the reasons Dimitroff spent a third-round pick on Alabama’s powerful run-blocking guard, Mike Johnson. Of course, it’s possible Johnson is here to at some point challenge Harvey Dahl, the gritty but un-explosive right guard. Center Todd McClure is tied for the franchise record with 128 consecutive starts (with Keith Brooking), but because craftiness can’t hide his subpar strength forever, fourth-round pick Joe Hawley is being groomed as a replacement.

The Falcons must be careful not to get too transfixed with Tony Gonzalez in the passing game. At 34, Gonzalez remains an elite tight end. He’s such a good route runner and tough receiver that it’s tempting to force the ball his way. But doing so limits the scope of the aerial assault and mitigates the field-stretching abilities of Roddy White. With three straight seasons of 80-plus catches and 1,100-plus yards, White has cemented himself as a top-tier all-around receiver. No. 2 wideout Michael Jenkins is slow but effective in traffic. If slot receiver Harry Douglas bounces back from the knee injury that wiped out his ’09 season, Atlanta will have a second source of speed to accompany White. If not, they’ll stick with the two-tight end sets.

Defense

Dimitroff and Mike Smith know that fixing the 28th-ranked pass defense will almost certainly propel this team into the postseason in 2010. After tying for 26th in the league in total sacks last year (28), many expected the Falcons to acquire a pass-rusher in the off-season.

Instead, the Falcons are betting that veteran John Abraham’s dip from 16.5 sacks in ’08 to 5.5 in ’09 was a fluke, and that the 11th-year veteran still has the startling quickness and fluid athleticism to be a star. It’s not a bad bet, though the penalty for losing it is dire. No other player on the Falcons is close to capable of posting double-digit sacks. Gap-attacking defensive tackle Peria Jerry is expected to bring a boost inside, but you can’t rely on an unproven youngster with a surgically repaired knee. The Falcons know this – that’s why they drafted defensive tackle Corey Peters in the third round.

Jonathan Babineaux has the initial quickness to get penetration, but if we were to give players a letter grade for overall performance, he’d still never earn higher than a B. (That’s not an insult; C is average.) Babineaux will play almost every down, while the defensive tackle spot next to him will be filled by a rotation made up of Peters, Thomas Johnson and Trey Lewis (Johnson and Lewis must learn to untangle better from double teams).

Forget the idea of first-round defensive end Jamaal Anderson getting pressure. Most people get divorced more often than Anderson reaches the quarterback (2.5 sacks in three years). At least he is an excellent run-defender. Athletic backups Lawrence Sidbury and Kroy Biermann both offer quickness off the edges and can replace Anderson on third down, but now we’re talking about dipping into the third string.

The Falcons felt comfortable leaving their pass-rush unaddressed because of the addition of cornerback Dunta Robinson. Some football observers look at Robinson’s seven interceptions over his last five years in Houston and crow that he can’t play. But true football aficionados see Robinson’s startling quickness and instincts in man coverage and realize he’s one of the few veritable shadow defenders in the N.F.L.

It should be noted that Robinson had six interceptions as a rookie in ’04, and in this zone-based scheme, he’ll get more opportunities to make plays on the ball. The starting job across from Robinson is wide open. Brian Williams would have filled it, but team officials are skeptical of his ability to bounce back from a torn ACL (they gave him a one-year, $1.6 million contract with a heavy roster bonus incentive). With Williams a question mark, Brent Grimes will be closely examined. Grimes tends to give up as many big plays as he makes – and with a team-high six picks a year ago, he makes quite a few – but coaches love his athleticism.

You’d think recent third-round picks Chevis Jackson (’08) and Chris Owens (’09) would be front-runners for a starting job, but coaches have been more willing to play street free agents than either young guy so far. Jackson at least seems to have settled in as a nickelback; Owens needs to get stronger.

Assuming he can stay healthy, second-year pro William Moore should eventually unseat Thomas DeCoud at free safety. Moore is a feisty hitter. DeCoud is athletic but average in coverage (mainly from a mental standpoint). Strong safety Erik Coleman is one of the best open-field tacklers in the game.

Most of the tackling, of course, will be done by the linebackers. Middle ‘backer Curtis Lofton has, surprisingly, become versatile enough to stay on the field in third-down situations. Lofton’s awareness improves by the week, and it’s hard to criticize anything about his fundamentals. He isn’t a sideline-to-sideline playmaker, though, which is partly why Dimitroff invested a first-round pick in Sean Weatherspoon. Because veteran Mike Peterson is adroit enough in this scheme to play anywhere, there has been some debate about where Weatherspoon will line up. Expect it to be on the strong side, as the Falcons drafted him for his coverage abilities as much as anything. It will be hard for last year’s starter, Stephen Nichols, to find a role off the bench, given that he struggles as a pass-defender. Same goes for Coy Wire.

Special Teams

Matt Bryant is reliable enough from any distance, though he’s never been thought of as a money kicker. Punter Michael Koenen needs to improve his ’09 net average of 36.3 yards per boot. In the return game, coaches will most likely tap the electrifying Harry Douglas. But if they don’t trust Douglas to stay healthy, they’ll turn to calm and steady Eric Weems.

Bottom Line

One or two playmakers could be all that’s needed to spark this defense. If that happens, the offense has enough pieces to flourish, though Atlanta may still be a player or two short of Super Bowl caliber.

Predicted Finish: 2nd NFC South

Andy Benoit is the founder of NFLTouchdown.com and a writer for CBSSports.com’s N.F.L. blog. He can be contacted at andy.benoit –at – NFLTouchdown.com.

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I stopped reading right there!!!:angry

Good thing they did it at the end of the article.

Overall, not a bad article. They misspelled Nicholas, I always thought Coy Wire was our best LB in coverage.

Thanks for the heads up. I quit reading right before there.

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Forget the idea of first-round defensive end Jamaal Anderson getting pressure. Most people get divorced more often than Anderson reaches the quarterback

lol awhat!? Wow, don't sugar coat it. haha

He had me thinking he was predicting us as the Superbowl Winner. He presented his case and comparisons for us and the past three Superbowl teams, then he said at the bottom of the article that we were maybe a player or two short?! :wacko:

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LINKAGE

Atlanta Falcons 2010 Season Preview

By ANDY BENOIT

Jason Szenes for The New York Times

At age 34, tight end Tony Gonzalez (88) still has a knack for making big receptions. He caught what proved to be the game-winner against the Jets late last season.

Andy Benoit is the founder of NFLTouchdown.com and a writer for CBSSports.com’s N.F.L. blog. He can be contacted at andy.benoit –at – NFLTouchdown.com.

When making Super Bowl predictions, people tend to focus on either the powerhouse teams from the previous year (i.e. the defending conference champions) or, more likely, teams that were a cut below powerhouse level (i.e. the teams that lost in the conference championship round). We’ll call these the powercondo teams. Occasionally, you’ll come across a brave soul who is too smart for his own good. With thoughts of the ’99 Rams and ’01 Patriots dancing in their head, this person predicts a bottom-feeder club – sticking with the housing theme, we’ll call it a powershack team – to come out of nowhere and win it all.

Recent history suggests these people have it all wrong. Look at the record of the past three Super Bowl champions the year before their Lombardi Trophy. The Saints were 8-8 in ’08. The Steelers were 10-6 in ’07. The Giants were 8-8 in ’06. Lately, Super Bowl champions haven’t emerged from the powerhouse or powercondo (or certainly powershack) ranks; they’ve emerged from something like the power-upper-floor-level-apartment ranks.

Enter the Atlanta Falcons. They went 9-7 in 2009, the first time the franchise had ever followed a winning record with another winning record. It’s easy to consider Atlanta’s 11-5 breakout in ’08 and view last season as a step back for Mike Smith’s club. But what if that “step back” was actually just the result of well-navigated growing pains?

It would make sense. After all, this is a solid young group led by a budding star quarterback, Matt Ryan. Granted, Ryan himself took a step back his sophomore year. His completion percentage dropped from 61.1 to 58.3. His yards per attempt fell from 7.9 to 6.5. He threw 11 interceptions in 16 games as a rookie, and 14 interceptions in 14 games last year, which was a big reason his passer rating decreased by nearly seven points.

But Ryan, like many of his teammates, battled injury (turf toe) for part of the season. While he might have uncharacteristically struggled in reading defenses at times, he didn’t show signs of panic or of a damaged psyche. In short, Ryan is fine.

His offensive line is fine, too. And, if running backs Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood can stay healthy, Atlanta’s backfield should be fine. The receiving corps, with star wideout Roddy White and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, is also fine. In short, this is a solid offensive group. With all 11 starters back in ’10 and intriguing backups either coming aboard (third-round rookie guard Mike Johnson, fourth-round rookie center Joe Hawley ) or reappearing (electrifying slot receiver Harry Douglas back after knee surgery), it will only be better.

The offense, orchestrated by coordinator Mike Mularkey, has a distinct identity: a ball-control attack predicated on power runs from two-tight end sets. The Falcons have nearly ideal personnel for a classic black and blue approach.

Of course, the past three power-upper-floor-level-apartment Super Bowl champions all had their title runs spearheaded by a defense coming alive. The ’09 Saints D became big-play oriented. The ’08 Steelers D stayed healthy. The ’07 Giants D became dominant in rushing the passer. The ’10 Falcons D?

Last season, Smith ran a mundane zone-based scheme with mundane players. That doesn’t work in today’s N.F.L. Smith’s scheme isn’t changing, so the hope is that the players will improve. Given the young talent joining the scene, it’s likely improvements will come from somewhere – the odds against it are just too low.

Last year’s first-round defensive tackle, Peria Jerry, arrives after missing his rookie year with a knee injury. First-round rookie Sean Weatherspoon is expected to be an instant three-down presence at outside linebacker. Free-agent cornerback Dunta Robinson gives the Falcons an elite stopper who should help curtail the big plays that gouged this team a year ago (the Falcons allowed 55 passes of 20 yards or more in ’09, just one behind the Rams for most in the N.F.C). And hard-hitting second-round safety William Moore has a chance to compete for a starting job after hamstring and knee problems sidelined him for all but two games a year ago.

Does this sound like the makings of a Super Bowl contender? Well…..let’s see: modest success the previous year; no burden of high expectations; distinct offensive and defensive identity; star quarterback; and improvements in most key areas of weakness. Sounds pretty good. And we haven’t even mentioned the stability at the top (another trait the Saints, Steelers and Giants all shared, by the way). Owner Arthur Blank and G.M. Thomas Dimitroff run their program with great chemistry. Perhaps even Super Bowl caliber chemistry.

Offense

Before we get too far along, let’s all agree that Matt Ryan is indeed a star quarterback. Or at least an emerging star. Ryan has all the traits of an elite passer: strong, accurate arm; athleticism to move in – and occasionally flee – the pocket; toughness and poise with bodies around him; and the football IQ to read defenses and anticipate throwing lanes. Ryan didn’t always trust what he saw last season, though with his track record in college and with renowned quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave watching over him, it’s almost certain he has already learned from his mistakes. Should Ryan miss time again, the Falcons have a smart, reliable backup in Chris Redman.

It’s important that Ryan bounce back in ’10. Even with this being a power-run offense, the Falcons are going to rely on their young quarterback to win games. Running back Michael Turner requires a high volume of touches to maximize his effectiveness. There will be games where Turner won’t get enough carries. There’s no promise that he’s still a star, anyway. True, the 28-year-old has only been a featured ballcarrier for two years, but his lack of lateral agility, inability to quickly change direction and propensity to gain yardage by breaking tackles are all traits of a runner with a short shelf life.

At least the backfield depth is excellent. When healthy, Jerious Norwood is a touchdown waiting to happen. But because Norwood has never polished his unique game, downhill interior runner Jason Snelling will get plenty of touches off the bench.

Fullback Ovie Mughelli has light feet for a traditional lead-blocker. The Falcons rely heavily on Mughelli and backup tight end Justin Peelle to force mismatches in the run game – mainly through an unbalanced line. When Peelle is in the game, right tackle Tyson Clabo, a somewhat limited athlete but very willing fighter, often lines up directly next to left tackle Sam Baker. Baker, a first-round pick in’08, is serviceable when healthy, though he must improve in pass protection. (Ryan’s cleverness in the pocket often masks this front five’s mediocre pass-blocking.)

Left guard Justin Blalock is a 333-pound mauler who can get to the second level, though only in straight-line fashion. Blalock’s nonexistent lateral mobility and expiring contract could be the reasons Dimitroff spent a third-round pick on Alabama’s powerful run-blocking guard, Mike Johnson. Of course, it’s possible Johnson is here to at some point challenge Harvey Dahl, the gritty but un-explosive right guard. Center Todd McClure is tied for the franchise record with 128 consecutive starts (with Keith Brooking), but because craftiness can’t hide his subpar strength forever, fourth-round pick Joe Hawley is being groomed as a replacement.

The Falcons must be careful not to get too transfixed with Tony Gonzalez in the passing game. At 34, Gonzalez remains an elite tight end. He’s such a good route runner and tough receiver that it’s tempting to force the ball his way. But doing so limits the scope of the aerial assault and mitigates the field-stretching abilities of Roddy White. With three straight seasons of 80-plus catches and 1,100-plus yards, White has cemented himself as a top-tier all-around receiver. No. 2 wideout Michael Jenkins is slow but effective in traffic. If slot receiver Harry Douglas bounces back from the knee injury that wiped out his ’09 season, Atlanta will have a second source of speed to accompany White. If not, they’ll stick with the two-tight end sets.

Defense

Dimitroff and Mike Smith know that fixing the 28th-ranked pass defense will almost certainly propel this team into the postseason in 2010. After tying for 26th in the league in total sacks last year (28), many expected the Falcons to acquire a pass-rusher in the off-season.

Instead, the Falcons are betting that veteran John Abraham’s dip from 16.5 sacks in ’08 to 5.5 in ’09 was a fluke, and that the 11th-year veteran still has the startling quickness and fluid athleticism to be a star. It’s not a bad bet, though the penalty for losing it is dire. No other player on the Falcons is close to capable of posting double-digit sacks. Gap-attacking defensive tackle Peria Jerry is expected to bring a boost inside, but you can’t rely on an unproven youngster with a surgically repaired knee. The Falcons know this – that’s why they drafted defensive tackle Corey Peters in the third round.

Jonathan Babineaux has the initial quickness to get penetration, but if we were to give players a letter grade for overall performance, he’d still never earn higher than a B. (That’s not an insult; C is average.) Babineaux will play almost every down, while the defensive tackle spot next to him will be filled by a rotation made up of Peters, Thomas Johnson and Trey Lewis (Johnson and Lewis must learn to untangle better from double teams).

Forget the idea of first-round defensive end Jamaal Anderson getting pressure. Most people get divorced more often than Anderson reaches the quarterback (2.5 sacks in three years). At least he is an excellent run-defender. Athletic backups Lawrence Sidbury and Kroy Biermann both offer quickness off the edges and can replace Anderson on third down, but now we’re talking about dipping into the third string.

The Falcons felt comfortable leaving their pass-rush unaddressed because of the addition of cornerback Dunta Robinson. Some football observers look at Robinson’s seven interceptions over his last five years in Houston and crow that he can’t play. But true football aficionados see Robinson’s startling quickness and instincts in man coverage and realize he’s one of the few veritable shadow defenders in the N.F.L.

It should be noted that Robinson had six interceptions as a rookie in ’04, and in this zone-based scheme, he’ll get more opportunities to make plays on the ball. The starting job across from Robinson is wide open. Brian Williams would have filled it, but team officials are skeptical of his ability to bounce back from a torn ACL (they gave him a one-year, $1.6 million contract with a heavy roster bonus incentive). With Williams a question mark, Brent Grimes will be closely examined. Grimes tends to give up as many big plays as he makes – and with a team-high six picks a year ago, he makes quite a few – but coaches love his athleticism.

You’d think recent third-round picks Chevis Jackson (’08) and Chris Owens (’09) would be front-runners for a starting job, but coaches have been more willing to play street free agents than either young guy so far. Jackson at least seems to have settled in as a nickelback; Owens needs to get stronger.

Assuming he can stay healthy, second-year pro William Moore should eventually unseat Thomas DeCoud at free safety. Moore is a feisty hitter. DeCoud is athletic but average in coverage (mainly from a mental standpoint). Strong safety Erik Coleman is one of the best open-field tacklers in the game.

Most of the tackling, of course, will be done by the linebackers. Middle ‘backer Curtis Lofton has, surprisingly, become versatile enough to stay on the field in third-down situations. Lofton’s awareness improves by the week, and it’s hard to criticize anything about his fundamentals. He isn’t a sideline-to-sideline playmaker, though, which is partly why Dimitroff invested a first-round pick in Sean Weatherspoon. Because veteran Mike Peterson is adroit enough in this scheme to play anywhere, there has been some debate about where Weatherspoon will line up. Expect it to be on the strong side, as the Falcons drafted him for his coverage abilities as much as anything. It will be hard for last year’s starter, Stephen Nichols, to find a role off the bench, given that he struggles as a pass-defender. Same goes for Coy Wire.

Special Teams

Matt Bryant is reliable enough from any distance, though he’s never been thought of as a money kicker. Punter Michael Koenen needs to improve his ’09 net average of 36.3 yards per boot. In the return game, coaches will most likely tap the electrifying Harry Douglas. But if they don’t trust Douglas to stay healthy, they’ll turn to calm and steady Eric Weems.

Bottom Line

One or two playmakers could be all that’s needed to spark this defense. If that happens, the offense has enough pieces to flourish, though Atlanta may still be a player or two short of Super Bowl caliber.

Predicted Finish: 2nd NFC South

Andy Benoit is the founder of NFLTouchdown.com and a writer for CBSSports.com’s N.F.L. blog. He can be contacted at andy.benoit –at – NFLTouchdown.com.

Really?? Honestly this is one of the better write ups from someone outside of atlanta but the guy still needs to learn alot more about the team b4 he writes another article

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lol awhat!? Wow, don't sugar coat it. haha

He had me thinking he was predicting us as the Superbowl Winner. He presented his case and comparisons for us and the past three Superbowl teams, then he said at the bottom of the article that we were maybe a player or two short?! :wacko:

I think the writer, Andy Benoit, just couldn't bring himself to pull the trigger and say outright that Atlanta Falcons are going to triumph in 2010, so he hedges his bet with "Predicted Finish: 2nd NFC South". Typical of sports writers who are basically afraid of later being shown to be overoptimistic. Much safer to predict last season's champions to carry on like last season – if they don't, who'd have thought?

C'mon Andy, show you have some balls. You made a great case to expect the Falcons to be dominant in 2010, so go with it! Think of the esteem you'll enjoy when you are proven right!

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I agree with alot of this article. I think that this person has more knowledge of the falcons than anyone that i respect on TV. He made great points about the offense. I think that he was off a little on the defense. I think we have all the playmakers needed to make that super bowl push. with all the guys coming off injury and the addition of Dunta Robinson, I feel that we will have 2 playmakers more than we had last year and 100% more of a "danger Factor" as I like to call it....when teams gameplan for you and point out things that will be dangerous about a defense. I don't think any team feared anyone on our defense. This year will be different. WE have gotten much quicker and just better overall on defense through addition and subtraction.

I am worried about abraham...he is the key to the defensive line and the secondary. He MUST DEMAND THE DOUBLE TEAM!!!!!!!! I don't think that he needs to get 16 sacks to be effective. If he gets 10-12, teams will recognize that he has danger factors and gameplan for him and free up other guys.....that is winning football. Your stars HAVE to be stars.

Come on Abraham....just give us one more of those seasons!!!!!!Please!!!!!!

Also I think that thomas decoud is here to stay at free safety. moore will challenge for the SS position with coleman.

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I dont agree with what he said about Turner or about Moore taking Decouds spot but other than that I liked this article.

Not a bad article but I completely agree with you about Turner and DeCoud. Turner will have a great season and coaches will better monitor his carries. If Moore's the starter, Coleman's the one on the bench, not DeCoud guaranteed.

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LINKAGE

Atlanta Falcons 2010 Season Preview

By ANDY BENOIT

Jason Szenes for The New York Times

At age 34, tight end Tony Gonzalez (88) still has a knack for making big receptions. He caught what proved to be the game-winner against the Jets late last season.

Andy Benoit is the founder of NFLTouchdown.com and a writer for CBSSports.com’s N.F.L. blog. He can be contacted at andy.benoit –at – NFLTouchdown.com.

When making Super Bowl predictions, people tend to focus on either the powerhouse teams from the previous year (i.e. the defending conference champions) or, more likely, teams that were a cut below powerhouse level (i.e. the teams that lost in the conference championship round). We’ll call these the powercondo teams. Occasionally, you’ll come across a brave soul who is too smart for his own good. With thoughts of the ’99 Rams and ’01 Patriots dancing in their head, this person predicts a bottom-feeder club – sticking with the housing theme, we’ll call it a powershack team – to come out of nowhere and win it all.

Recent history suggests these people have it all wrong. Look at the record of the past three Super Bowl champions the year before their Lombardi Trophy. The Saints were 8-8 in ’08. The Steelers were 10-6 in ’07. The Giants were 8-8 in ’06. Lately, Super Bowl champions haven’t emerged from the powerhouse or powercondo (or certainly powershack) ranks; they’ve emerged from something like the power-upper-floor-level-apartment ranks.

Enter the Atlanta Falcons. They went 9-7 in 2009, the first time the franchise had ever followed a winning record with another winning record. It’s easy to consider Atlanta’s 11-5 breakout in ’08 and view last season as a step back for Mike Smith’s club. But what if that “step back” was actually just the result of well-navigated growing pains?

It would make sense. After all, this is a solid young group led by a budding star quarterback, Matt Ryan. Granted, Ryan himself took a step back his sophomore year. His completion percentage dropped from 61.1 to 58.3. His yards per attempt fell from 7.9 to 6.5. He threw 11 interceptions in 16 games as a rookie, and 14 interceptions in 14 games last year, which was a big reason his passer rating decreased by nearly seven points.

But Ryan, like many of his teammates, battled injury (turf toe) for part of the season. While he might have uncharacteristically struggled in reading defenses at times, he didn’t show signs of panic or of a damaged psyche. In short, Ryan is fine.

His offensive line is fine, too. And, if running backs Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood can stay healthy, Atlanta’s backfield should be fine. The receiving corps, with star wideout Roddy White and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, is also fine. In short, this is a solid offensive group. With all 11 starters back in ’10 and intriguing backups either coming aboard (third-round rookie guard Mike Johnson, fourth-round rookie center Joe Hawley ) or reappearing (electrifying slot receiver Harry Douglas back after knee surgery), it will only be better.

The offense, orchestrated by coordinator Mike Mularkey, has a distinct identity: a ball-control attack predicated on power runs from two-tight end sets. The Falcons have nearly ideal personnel for a classic black and blue approach.

Of course, the past three power-upper-floor-level-apartment Super Bowl champions all had their title runs spearheaded by a defense coming alive. The ’09 Saints D became big-play oriented. The ’08 Steelers D stayed healthy. The ’07 Giants D became dominant in rushing the passer. The ’10 Falcons D?

Last season, Smith ran a mundane zone-based scheme with mundane players. That doesn’t work in today’s N.F.L. Smith’s scheme isn’t changing, so the hope is that the players will improve. Given the young talent joining the scene, it’s likely improvements will come from somewhere – the odds against it are just too low.

Last year’s first-round defensive tackle, Peria Jerry, arrives after missing his rookie year with a knee injury. First-round rookie Sean Weatherspoon is expected to be an instant three-down presence at outside linebacker. Free-agent cornerback Dunta Robinson gives the Falcons an elite stopper who should help curtail the big plays that gouged this team a year ago (the Falcons allowed 55 passes of 20 yards or more in ’09, just one behind the Rams for most in the N.F.C). And hard-hitting second-round safety William Moore has a chance to compete for a starting job after hamstring and knee problems sidelined him for all but two games a year ago.

Does this sound like the makings of a Super Bowl contender? Well…..let’s see: modest success the previous year; no burden of high expectations; distinct offensive and defensive identity; star quarterback; and improvements in most key areas of weakness. Sounds pretty good. And we haven’t even mentioned the stability at the top (another trait the Saints, Steelers and Giants all shared, by the way). Owner Arthur Blank and G.M. Thomas Dimitroff run their program with great chemistry. Perhaps even Super Bowl caliber chemistry.

Offense

Before we get too far along, let’s all agree that Matt Ryan is indeed a star quarterback. Or at least an emerging star. Ryan has all the traits of an elite passer: strong, accurate arm; athleticism to move in – and occasionally flee – the pocket; toughness and poise with bodies around him; and the football IQ to read defenses and anticipate throwing lanes. Ryan didn’t always trust what he saw last season, though with his track record in college and with renowned quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave watching over him, it’s almost certain he has already learned from his mistakes. Should Ryan miss time again, the Falcons have a smart, reliable backup in Chris Redman.

It’s important that Ryan bounce back in ’10. Even with this being a power-run offense, the Falcons are going to rely on their young quarterback to win games. Running back Michael Turner requires a high volume of touches to maximize his effectiveness. There will be games where Turner won’t get enough carries. There’s no promise that he’s still a star, anyway. True, the 28-year-old has only been a featured ballcarrier for two years, but his lack of lateral agility, inability to quickly change direction and propensity to gain yardage by breaking tackles are all traits of a runner with a short shelf life.

At least the backfield depth is excellent. When healthy, Jerious Norwood is a touchdown waiting to happen. But because Norwood has never polished his unique game, downhill interior runner Jason Snelling will get plenty of touches off the bench.

Fullback Ovie Mughelli has light feet for a traditional lead-blocker. The Falcons rely heavily on Mughelli and backup tight end Justin Peelle to force mismatches in the run game – mainly through an unbalanced line. When Peelle is in the game, right tackle Tyson Clabo, a somewhat limited athlete but very willing fighter, often lines up directly next to left tackle Sam Baker. Baker, a first-round pick in’08, is serviceable when healthy, though he must improve in pass protection. (Ryan’s cleverness in the pocket often masks this front five’s mediocre pass-blocking.)

Left guard Justin Blalock is a 333-pound mauler who can get to the second level, though only in straight-line fashion. Blalock’s nonexistent lateral mobility and expiring contract could be the reasons Dimitroff spent a third-round pick on Alabama’s powerful run-blocking guard, Mike Johnson. Of course, it’s possible Johnson is here to at some point challenge Harvey Dahl, the gritty but un-explosive right guard. Center Todd McClure is tied for the franchise record with 128 consecutive starts (with Keith Brooking), but because craftiness can’t hide his subpar strength forever, fourth-round pick Joe Hawley is being groomed as a replacement.

The Falcons must be careful not to get too transfixed with Tony Gonzalez in the passing game. At 34, Gonzalez remains an elite tight end. He’s such a good route runner and tough receiver that it’s tempting to force the ball his way. But doing so limits the scope of the aerial assault and mitigates the field-stretching abilities of Roddy White. With three straight seasons of 80-plus catches and 1,100-plus yards, White has cemented himself as a top-tier all-around receiver. No. 2 wideout Michael Jenkins is slow but effective in traffic. If slot receiver Harry Douglas bounces back from the knee injury that wiped out his ’09 season, Atlanta will have a second source of speed to accompany White. If not, they’ll stick with the two-tight end sets.

Defense

Dimitroff and Mike Smith know that fixing the 28th-ranked pass defense will almost certainly propel this team into the postseason in 2010. After tying for 26th in the league in total sacks last year (28), many expected the Falcons to acquire a pass-rusher in the off-season.

Instead, the Falcons are betting that veteran John Abraham’s dip from 16.5 sacks in ’08 to 5.5 in ’09 was a fluke, and that the 11th-year veteran still has the startling quickness and fluid athleticism to be a star. It’s not a bad bet, though the penalty for losing it is dire. No other player on the Falcons is close to capable of posting double-digit sacks. Gap-attacking defensive tackle Peria Jerry is expected to bring a boost inside, but you can’t rely on an unproven youngster with a surgically repaired knee. The Falcons know this – that’s why they drafted defensive tackle Corey Peters in the third round.

Jonathan Babineaux has the initial quickness to get penetration, but if we were to give players a letter grade for overall performance, he’d still never earn higher than a B. (That’s not an insult; C is average.) Babineaux will play almost every down, while the defensive tackle spot next to him will be filled by a rotation made up of Peters, Thomas Johnson and Trey Lewis (Johnson and Lewis must learn to untangle better from double teams).

Forget the idea of first-round defensive end Jamaal Anderson getting pressure. Most people get divorced more often than Anderson reaches the quarterback (2.5 sacks in three years). At least he is an excellent run-defender. Athletic backups Lawrence Sidbury and Kroy Biermann both offer quickness off the edges and can replace Anderson on third down, but now we’re talking about dipping into the third string.

The Falcons felt comfortable leaving their pass-rush unaddressed because of the addition of cornerback Dunta Robinson. Some football observers look at Robinson’s seven interceptions over his last five years in Houston and crow that he can’t play. But true football aficionados see Robinson’s startling quickness and instincts in man coverage and realize he’s one of the few veritable shadow defenders in the N.F.L.

It should be noted that Robinson had six interceptions as a rookie in ’04, and in this zone-based scheme, he’ll get more opportunities to make plays on the ball. The starting job across from Robinson is wide open. Brian Williams would have filled it, but team officials are skeptical of his ability to bounce back from a torn ACL (they gave him a one-year, $1.6 million contract with a heavy roster bonus incentive). With Williams a question mark, Brent Grimes will be closely examined. Grimes tends to give up as many big plays as he makes – and with a team-high six picks a year ago, he makes quite a few – but coaches love his athleticism.

You’d think recent third-round picks Chevis Jackson (’08) and Chris Owens (’09) would be front-runners for a starting job, but coaches have been more willing to play street free agents than either young guy so far. Jackson at least seems to have settled in as a nickelback; Owens needs to get stronger.

Assuming he can stay healthy, second-year pro William Moore should eventually unseat Thomas DeCoud at free safety. Moore is a feisty hitter. DeCoud is athletic but average in coverage (mainly from a mental standpoint). Strong safety Erik Coleman is one of the best open-field tacklers in the game.

Most of the tackling, of course, will be done by the linebackers. Middle ‘backer Curtis Lofton has, surprisingly, become versatile enough to stay on the field in third-down situations. Lofton’s awareness improves by the week, and it’s hard to criticize anything about his fundamentals. He isn’t a sideline-to-sideline playmaker, though, which is partly why Dimitroff invested a first-round pick in Sean Weatherspoon. Because veteran Mike Peterson is adroit enough in this scheme to play anywhere, there has been some debate about where Weatherspoon will line up. Expect it to be on the strong side, as the Falcons drafted him for his coverage abilities as much as anything. It will be hard for last year’s starter, Stephen Nichols, to find a role off the bench, given that he struggles as a pass-defender. Same goes for Coy Wire.

Special Teams

Matt Bryant is reliable enough from any distance, though he’s never been thought of as a money kicker. Punter Michael Koenen needs to improve his ’09 net average of 36.3 yards per boot. In the return game, coaches will most likely tap the electrifying Harry Douglas. But if they don’t trust Douglas to stay healthy, they’ll turn to calm and steady Eric Weems.

Bottom Line

One or two playmakers could be all that’s needed to spark this defense. If that happens, the offense has enough pieces to flourish, though Atlanta may still be a player or two short of Super Bowl caliber.

Predicted Finish: 2nd NFC South

Andy Benoit is the founder of NFLTouchdown.com and a writer for CBSSports.com’s N.F.L. blog. He can be contacted at andy.benoit –at – NFLTouchdown.com.

That's the paragraph where he lost me. Biermann is anything but a 3rd stringer. He's got a chance to start this season after playing well last season, and Sidbury is developing well, so I don't know what this guy is talking about calling them 3rd stringers.

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The only thing I disagreed with is Moore unseating Decoud at FS. If he unseats anyone it will be Coleman at SS.

Other than that I thought it was good analysis.

I think Kroy Bierman is going to light it up this year with the sacks. He doesn't have the size to play every down but for pash rush he just has that tenacity and intensity like a Pat Kerney of David Pollack at UGA.

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LINKAGE

Atlanta Falcons 2010 Season Preview

By ANDY BENOIT

Jason Szenes for The New York Times

At age 34, tight end Tony Gonzalez (88) still has a knack for making big receptions. He caught what proved to be the game-winner against the Jets late last season.

Andy Benoit is the founder of NFLTouchdown.com and a writer for CBSSports.com’s N.F.L. blog. He can be contacted at andy.benoit –at – NFLTouchdown.com.

When making Super Bowl predictions, people tend to focus on either the powerhouse teams from the previous year (i.e. the defending conference champions) or, more likely, teams that were a cut below powerhouse level (i.e. the teams that lost in the conference championship round). We’ll call these the powercondo teams. Occasionally, you’ll come across a brave soul who is too smart for his own good. With thoughts of the ’99 Rams and ’01 Patriots dancing in their head, this person predicts a bottom-feeder club – sticking with the housing theme, we’ll call it a powershack team – to come out of nowhere and win it all.

Recent history suggests these people have it all wrong. Look at the record of the past three Super Bowl champions the year before their Lombardi Trophy. The Saints were 8-8 in ’08. The Steelers were 10-6 in ’07. The Giants were 8-8 in ’06. Lately, Super Bowl champions haven’t emerged from the powerhouse or powercondo (or certainly powershack) ranks; they’ve emerged from something like the power-upper-floor-level-apartment ranks.

Enter the Atlanta Falcons. They went 9-7 in 2009, the first time the franchise had ever followed a winning record with another winning record. It’s easy to consider Atlanta’s 11-5 breakout in ’08 and view last season as a step back for Mike Smith’s club. But what if that “step back” was actually just the result of well-navigated growing pains?

It would make sense. After all, this is a solid young group led by a budding star quarterback, Matt Ryan. Granted, Ryan himself took a step back his sophomore year. His completion percentage dropped from 61.1 to 58.3. His yards per attempt fell from 7.9 to 6.5. He threw 11 interceptions in 16 games as a rookie, and 14 interceptions in 14 games last year, which was a big reason his passer rating decreased by nearly seven points.

But Ryan, like many of his teammates, battled injury (turf toe) for part of the season. While he might have uncharacteristically struggled in reading defenses at times, he didn’t show signs of panic or of a damaged psyche. In short, Ryan is fine.

His offensive line is fine, too. And, if running backs Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood can stay healthy, Atlanta’s backfield should be fine. The receiving corps, with star wideout Roddy White and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, is also fine. In short, this is a solid offensive group. With all 11 starters back in ’10 and intriguing backups either coming aboard (third-round rookie guard Mike Johnson, fourth-round rookie center Joe Hawley ) or reappearing (electrifying slot receiver Harry Douglas back after knee surgery), it will only be better.

The offense, orchestrated by coordinator Mike Mularkey, has a distinct identity: a ball-control attack predicated on power runs from two-tight end sets. The Falcons have nearly ideal personnel for a classic black and blue approach.

Of course, the past three power-upper-floor-level-apartment Super Bowl champions all had their title runs spearheaded by a defense coming alive. The ’09 Saints D became big-play oriented. The ’08 Steelers D stayed healthy. The ’07 Giants D became dominant in rushing the passer. The ’10 Falcons D?

Last season, Smith ran a mundane zone-based scheme with mundane players. That doesn’t work in today’s N.F.L. Smith’s scheme isn’t changing, so the hope is that the players will improve. Given the young talent joining the scene, it’s likely improvements will come from somewhere – the odds against it are just too low.

Last year’s first-round defensive tackle, Peria Jerry, arrives after missing his rookie year with a knee injury. First-round rookie Sean Weatherspoon is expected to be an instant three-down presence at outside linebacker. Free-agent cornerback Dunta Robinson gives the Falcons an elite stopper who should help curtail the big plays that gouged this team a year ago (the Falcons allowed 55 passes of 20 yards or more in ’09, just one behind the Rams for most in the N.F.C). And hard-hitting second-round safety William Moore has a chance to compete for a starting job after hamstring and knee problems sidelined him for all but two games a year ago.

Does this sound like the makings of a Super Bowl contender? Well…..let’s see: modest success the previous year; no burden of high expectations; distinct offensive and defensive identity; star quarterback; and improvements in most key areas of weakness. Sounds pretty good. And we haven’t even mentioned the stability at the top (another trait the Saints, Steelers and Giants all shared, by the way). Owner Arthur Blank and G.M. Thomas Dimitroff run their program with great chemistry. Perhaps even Super Bowl caliber chemistry.

Offense

Before we get too far along, let’s all agree that Matt Ryan is indeed a star quarterback. Or at least an emerging star. Ryan has all the traits of an elite passer: strong, accurate arm; athleticism to move in – and occasionally flee – the pocket; toughness and poise with bodies around him; and the football IQ to read defenses and anticipate throwing lanes. Ryan didn’t always trust what he saw last season, though with his track record in college and with renowned quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave watching over him, it’s almost certain he has already learned from his mistakes. Should Ryan miss time again, the Falcons have a smart, reliable backup in Chris Redman.

It’s important that Ryan bounce back in ’10. Even with this being a power-run offense, the Falcons are going to rely on their young quarterback to win games. Running back Michael Turner requires a high volume of touches to maximize his effectiveness. There will be games where Turner won’t get enough carries. There’s no promise that he’s still a star, anyway. True, the 28-year-old has only been a featured ballcarrier for two years, but his lack of lateral agility, inability to quickly change direction and propensity to gain yardage by breaking tackles are all traits of a runner with a short shelf life.

At least the backfield depth is excellent. When healthy, Jerious Norwood is a touchdown waiting to happen. But because Norwood has never polished his unique game, downhill interior runner Jason Snelling will get plenty of touches off the bench.

Fullback Ovie Mughelli has light feet for a traditional lead-blocker. The Falcons rely heavily on Mughelli and backup tight end Justin Peelle to force mismatches in the run game – mainly through an unbalanced line. When Peelle is in the game, right tackle Tyson Clabo, a somewhat limited athlete but very willing fighter, often lines up directly next to left tackle Sam Baker. Baker, a first-round pick in’08, is serviceable when healthy, though he must improve in pass protection. (Ryan’s cleverness in the pocket often masks this front five’s mediocre pass-blocking.)

Left guard Justin Blalock is a 333-pound mauler who can get to the second level, though only in straight-line fashion. Blalock’s nonexistent lateral mobility and expiring contract could be the reasons Dimitroff spent a third-round pick on Alabama’s powerful run-blocking guard, Mike Johnson. Of course, it’s possible Johnson is here to at some point challenge Harvey Dahl, the gritty but un-explosive right guard. Center Todd McClure is tied for the franchise record with 128 consecutive starts (with Keith Brooking), but because craftiness can’t hide his subpar strength forever, fourth-round pick Joe Hawley is being groomed as a replacement.

The Falcons must be careful not to get too transfixed with Tony Gonzalez in the passing game. At 34, Gonzalez remains an elite tight end. He’s such a good route runner and tough receiver that it’s tempting to force the ball his way. But doing so limits the scope of the aerial assault and mitigates the field-stretching abilities of Roddy White. With three straight seasons of 80-plus catches and 1,100-plus yards, White has cemented himself as a top-tier all-around receiver. No. 2 wideout Michael Jenkins is slow but effective in traffic. If slot receiver Harry Douglas bounces back from the knee injury that wiped out his ’09 season, Atlanta will have a second source of speed to accompany White. If not, they’ll stick with the two-tight end sets.

Defense

Dimitroff and Mike Smith know that fixing the 28th-ranked pass defense will almost certainly propel this team into the postseason in 2010. After tying for 26th in the league in total sacks last year (28), many expected the Falcons to acquire a pass-rusher in the off-season.

Instead, the Falcons are betting that veteran John Abraham’s dip from 16.5 sacks in ’08 to 5.5 in ’09 was a fluke, and that the 11th-year veteran still has the startling quickness and fluid athleticism to be a star. It’s not a bad bet, though the penalty for losing it is dire. No other player on the Falcons is close to capable of posting double-digit sacks. Gap-attacking defensive tackle Peria Jerry is expected to bring a boost inside, but you can’t rely on an unproven youngster with a surgically repaired knee. The Falcons know this – that’s why they drafted defensive tackle Corey Peters in the third round.

Jonathan Babineaux has the initial quickness to get penetration, but if we were to give players a letter grade for overall performance, he’d still never earn higher than a B. (That’s not an insult; C is average.) Babineaux will play almost every down, while the defensive tackle spot next to him will be filled by a rotation made up of Peters, Thomas Johnson and Trey Lewis (Johnson and Lewis must learn to untangle better from double teams).

Forget the idea of first-round defensive end Jamaal Anderson getting pressure. Most people get divorced more often than Anderson reaches the quarterback (2.5 sacks in three years). At least he is an excellent run-defender. Athletic backups Lawrence Sidbury and Kroy Biermann both offer quickness off the edges and can replace Anderson on third down, but now we’re talking about dipping into the third string.

The Falcons felt comfortable leaving their pass-rush unaddressed because of the addition of cornerback Dunta Robinson. Some football observers look at Robinson’s seven interceptions over his last five years in Houston and crow that he can’t play. But true football aficionados see Robinson’s startling quickness and instincts in man coverage and realize he’s one of the few veritable shadow defenders in the N.F.L.

It should be noted that Robinson had six interceptions as a rookie in ’04, and in this zone-based scheme, he’ll get more opportunities to make plays on the ball. The starting job across from Robinson is wide open. Brian Williams would have filled it, but team officials are skeptical of his ability to bounce back from a torn ACL (they gave him a one-year, $1.6 million contract with a heavy roster bonus incentive). With Williams a question mark, Brent Grimes will be closely examined. Grimes tends to give up as many big plays as he makes – and with a team-high six picks a year ago, he makes quite a few – but coaches love his athleticism.

You’d think recent third-round picks Chevis Jackson (’08) and Chris Owens (’09) would be front-runners for a starting job, but coaches have been more willing to play street free agents than either young guy so far. Jackson at least seems to have settled in as a nickelback; Owens needs to get stronger.

Assuming he can stay healthy, second-year pro William Moore should eventually unseat Thomas DeCoud at free safety. Moore is a feisty hitter. DeCoud is athletic but average in coverage (mainly from a mental standpoint). Strong safety Erik Coleman is one of the best open-field tacklers in the game.

Most of the tackling, of course, will be done by the linebackers. Middle ‘backer Curtis Lofton has, surprisingly, become versatile enough to stay on the field in third-down situations. Lofton’s awareness improves by the week, and it’s hard to criticize anything about his fundamentals. He isn’t a sideline-to-sideline playmaker, though, which is partly why Dimitroff invested a first-round pick in Sean Weatherspoon. Because veteran Mike Peterson is adroit enough in this scheme to play anywhere, there has been some debate about where Weatherspoon will line up. Expect it to be on the strong side, as the Falcons drafted him for his coverage abilities as much as anything. It will be hard for last year’s starter, Stephen Nichols, to find a role off the bench, given that he struggles as a pass-defender. Same goes for Coy Wire.

Special Teams

Matt Bryant is reliable enough from any distance, though he’s never been thought of as a money kicker. Punter Michael Koenen needs to improve his ’09 net average of 36.3 yards per boot. In the return game, coaches will most likely tap the electrifying Harry Douglas. But if they don’t trust Douglas to stay healthy, they’ll turn to calm and steady Eric Weems.

Bottom Line

One or two playmakers could be all that’s needed to spark this defense. If that happens, the offense has enough pieces to flourish, though Atlanta may still be a player or two short of Super Bowl caliber.

Predicted Finish: 2nd NFC South

Andy Benoit is the founder of NFLTouchdown.com and a writer for CBSSports.com’s N.F.L. blog. He can be contacted at andy.benoit –at – NFLTouchdown.com.

He lost some of his credibility when he said Moore would replace DeCoud. To me, that signals he doesn't know as much about this team as he thinks he does. If anything Moore will replace Coleman and it'll be Decoud and Moore at the safety positions.

LINKAGE

Atlanta Falcons 2010 Season Preview

By ANDY BENOIT

Jason Szenes for The New York Times

At age 34, tight end Tony Gonzalez (88) still has a knack for making big receptions. He caught what proved to be the game-winner against the Jets late last season.

Andy Benoit is the founder of NFLTouchdown.com and a writer for CBSSports.com’s N.F.L. blog. He can be contacted at andy.benoit –at – NFLTouchdown.com.

When making Super Bowl predictions, people tend to focus on either the powerhouse teams from the previous year (i.e. the defending conference champions) or, more likely, teams that were a cut below powerhouse level (i.e. the teams that lost in the conference championship round). We’ll call these the powercondo teams. Occasionally, you’ll come across a brave soul who is too smart for his own good. With thoughts of the ’99 Rams and ’01 Patriots dancing in their head, this person predicts a bottom-feeder club – sticking with the housing theme, we’ll call it a powershack team – to come out of nowhere and win it all.

Recent history suggests these people have it all wrong. Look at the record of the past three Super Bowl champions the year before their Lombardi Trophy. The Saints were 8-8 in ’08. The Steelers were 10-6 in ’07. The Giants were 8-8 in ’06. Lately, Super Bowl champions haven’t emerged from the powerhouse or powercondo (or certainly powershack) ranks; they’ve emerged from something like the power-upper-floor-level-apartment ranks.

Enter the Atlanta Falcons. They went 9-7 in 2009, the first time the franchise had ever followed a winning record with another winning record. It’s easy to consider Atlanta’s 11-5 breakout in ’08 and view last season as a step back for Mike Smith’s club. But what if that “step back” was actually just the result of well-navigated growing pains?

It would make sense. After all, this is a solid young group led by a budding star quarterback, Matt Ryan. Granted, Ryan himself took a step back his sophomore year. His completion percentage dropped from 61.1 to 58.3. His yards per attempt fell from 7.9 to 6.5. He threw 11 interceptions in 16 games as a rookie, and 14 interceptions in 14 games last year, which was a big reason his passer rating decreased by nearly seven points.

But Ryan, like many of his teammates, battled injury (turf toe) for part of the season. While he might have uncharacteristically struggled in reading defenses at times, he didn’t show signs of panic or of a damaged psyche. In short, Ryan is fine.

His offensive line is fine, too. And, if running backs Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood can stay healthy, Atlanta’s backfield should be fine. The receiving corps, with star wideout Roddy White and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, is also fine. In short, this is a solid offensive group. With all 11 starters back in ’10 and intriguing backups either coming aboard (third-round rookie guard Mike Johnson, fourth-round rookie center Joe Hawley ) or reappearing (electrifying slot receiver Harry Douglas back after knee surgery), it will only be better.

The offense, orchestrated by coordinator Mike Mularkey, has a distinct identity: a ball-control attack predicated on power runs from two-tight end sets. The Falcons have nearly ideal personnel for a classic black and blue approach.

Of course, the past three power-upper-floor-level-apartment Super Bowl champions all had their title runs spearheaded by a defense coming alive. The ’09 Saints D became big-play oriented. The ’08 Steelers D stayed healthy. The ’07 Giants D became dominant in rushing the passer. The ’10 Falcons D?

Last season, Smith ran a mundane zone-based scheme with mundane players. That doesn’t work in today’s N.F.L. Smith’s scheme isn’t changing, so the hope is that the players will improve. Given the young talent joining the scene, it’s likely improvements will come from somewhere – the odds against it are just too low.

Last year’s first-round defensive tackle, Peria Jerry, arrives after missing his rookie year with a knee injury. First-round rookie Sean Weatherspoon is expected to be an instant three-down presence at outside linebacker. Free-agent cornerback Dunta Robinson gives the Falcons an elite stopper who should help curtail the big plays that gouged this team a year ago (the Falcons allowed 55 passes of 20 yards or more in ’09, just one behind the Rams for most in the N.F.C). And hard-hitting second-round safety William Moore has a chance to compete for a starting job after hamstring and knee problems sidelined him for all but two games a year ago.

Does this sound like the makings of a Super Bowl contender? Well…..let’s see: modest success the previous year; no burden of high expectations; distinct offensive and defensive identity; star quarterback; and improvements in most key areas of weakness. Sounds pretty good. And we haven’t even mentioned the stability at the top (another trait the Saints, Steelers and Giants all shared, by the way). Owner Arthur Blank and G.M. Thomas Dimitroff run their program with great chemistry. Perhaps even Super Bowl caliber chemistry.

Offense

Before we get too far along, let’s all agree that Matt Ryan is indeed a star quarterback. Or at least an emerging star. Ryan has all the traits of an elite passer: strong, accurate arm; athleticism to move in – and occasionally flee – the pocket; toughness and poise with bodies around him; and the football IQ to read defenses and anticipate throwing lanes. Ryan didn’t always trust what he saw last season, though with his track record in college and with renowned quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave watching over him, it’s almost certain he has already learned from his mistakes. Should Ryan miss time again, the Falcons have a smart, reliable backup in Chris Redman.

It’s important that Ryan bounce back in ’10. Even with this being a power-run offense, the Falcons are going to rely on their young quarterback to win games. Running back Michael Turner requires a high volume of touches to maximize his effectiveness. There will be games where Turner won’t get enough carries. There’s no promise that he’s still a star, anyway. True, the 28-year-old has only been a featured ballcarrier for two years, but his lack of lateral agility, inability to quickly change direction and propensity to gain yardage by breaking tackles are all traits of a runner with a short shelf life.

At least the backfield depth is excellent. When healthy, Jerious Norwood is a touchdown waiting to happen. But because Norwood has never polished his unique game, downhill interior runner Jason Snelling will get plenty of touches off the bench.

Fullback Ovie Mughelli has light feet for a traditional lead-blocker. The Falcons rely heavily on Mughelli and backup tight end Justin Peelle to force mismatches in the run game – mainly through an unbalanced line. When Peelle is in the game, right tackle Tyson Clabo, a somewhat limited athlete but very willing fighter, often lines up directly next to left tackle Sam Baker. Baker, a first-round pick in’08, is serviceable when healthy, though he must improve in pass protection. (Ryan’s cleverness in the pocket often masks this front five’s mediocre pass-blocking.)

Left guard Justin Blalock is a 333-pound mauler who can get to the second level, though only in straight-line fashion. Blalock’s nonexistent lateral mobility and expiring contract could be the reasons Dimitroff spent a third-round pick on Alabama’s powerful run-blocking guard, Mike Johnson. Of course, it’s possible Johnson is here to at some point challenge Harvey Dahl, the gritty but un-explosive right guard. Center Todd McClure is tied for the franchise record with 128 consecutive starts (with Keith Brooking), but because craftiness can’t hide his subpar strength forever, fourth-round pick Joe Hawley is being groomed as a replacement.

The Falcons must be careful not to get too transfixed with Tony Gonzalez in the passing game. At 34, Gonzalez remains an elite tight end. He’s such a good route runner and tough receiver that it’s tempting to force the ball his way. But doing so limits the scope of the aerial assault and mitigates the field-stretching abilities of Roddy White. With three straight seasons of 80-plus catches and 1,100-plus yards, White has cemented himself as a top-tier all-around receiver. No. 2 wideout Michael Jenkins is slow but effective in traffic. If slot receiver Harry Douglas bounces back from the knee injury that wiped out his ’09 season, Atlanta will have a second source of speed to accompany White. If not, they’ll stick with the two-tight end sets.

Defense

Dimitroff and Mike Smith know that fixing the 28th-ranked pass defense will almost certainly propel this team into the postseason in 2010. After tying for 26th in the league in total sacks last year (28), many expected the Falcons to acquire a pass-rusher in the off-season.

Instead, the Falcons are betting that veteran John Abraham’s dip from 16.5 sacks in ’08 to 5.5 in ’09 was a fluke, and that the 11th-year veteran still has the startling quickness and fluid athleticism to be a star. It’s not a bad bet, though the penalty for losing it is dire. No other player on the Falcons is close to capable of posting double-digit sacks. Gap-attacking defensive tackle Peria Jerry is expected to bring a boost inside, but you can’t rely on an unproven youngster with a surgically repaired knee. The Falcons know this – that’s why they drafted defensive tackle Corey Peters in the third round.

Jonathan Babineaux has the initial quickness to get penetration, but if we were to give players a letter grade for overall performance, he’d still never earn higher than a B. (That’s not an insult; C is average.) Babineaux will play almost every down, while the defensive tackle spot next to him will be filled by a rotation made up of Peters, Thomas Johnson and Trey Lewis (Johnson and Lewis must learn to untangle better from double teams).

Forget the idea of first-round defensive end Jamaal Anderson getting pressure. Most people get divorced more often than Anderson reaches the quarterback (2.5 sacks in three years). At least he is an excellent run-defender. Athletic backups Lawrence Sidbury and Kroy Biermann both offer quickness off the edges and can replace Anderson on third down, but now we’re talking about dipping into the third string.

The Falcons felt comfortable leaving their pass-rush unaddressed because of the addition of cornerback Dunta Robinson. Some football observers look at Robinson’s seven interceptions over his last five years in Houston and crow that he can’t play. But true football aficionados see Robinson’s startling quickness and instincts in man coverage and realize he’s one of the few veritable shadow defenders in the N.F.L.

It should be noted that Robinson had six interceptions as a rookie in ’04, and in this zone-based scheme, he’ll get more opportunities to make plays on the ball. The starting job across from Robinson is wide open. Brian Williams would have filled it, but team officials are skeptical of his ability to bounce back from a torn ACL (they gave him a one-year, $1.6 million contract with a heavy roster bonus incentive). With Williams a question mark, Brent Grimes will be closely examined. Grimes tends to give up as many big plays as he makes – and with a team-high six picks a year ago, he makes quite a few – but coaches love his athleticism.

You’d think recent third-round picks Chevis Jackson (’08) and Chris Owens (’09) would be front-runners for a starting job, but coaches have been more willing to play street free agents than either young guy so far. Jackson at least seems to have settled in as a nickelback; Owens needs to get stronger.

Assuming he can stay healthy, second-year pro William Moore should eventually unseat Thomas DeCoud at free safety. Moore is a feisty hitter. DeCoud is athletic but average in coverage (mainly from a mental standpoint). Strong safety Erik Coleman is one of the best open-field tacklers in the game.

Most of the tackling, of course, will be done by the linebackers. Middle ‘backer Curtis Lofton has, surprisingly, become versatile enough to stay on the field in third-down situations. Lofton’s awareness improves by the week, and it’s hard to criticize anything about his fundamentals. He isn’t a sideline-to-sideline playmaker, though, which is partly why Dimitroff invested a first-round pick in Sean Weatherspoon. Because veteran Mike Peterson is adroit enough in this scheme to play anywhere, there has been some debate about where Weatherspoon will line up. Expect it to be on the strong side, as the Falcons drafted him for his coverage abilities as much as anything. It will be hard for last year’s starter, Stephen Nichols, to find a role off the bench, given that he struggles as a pass-defender. Same goes for Coy Wire.

Special Teams

Matt Bryant is reliable enough from any distance, though he’s never been thought of as a money kicker. Punter Michael Koenen needs to improve his ’09 net average of 36.3 yards per boot. In the return game, coaches will most likely tap the electrifying Harry Douglas. But if they don’t trust Douglas to stay healthy, they’ll turn to calm and steady Eric Weems.

Bottom Line

One or two playmakers could be all that’s needed to spark this defense. If that happens, the offense has enough pieces to flourish, though Atlanta may still be a player or two short of Super Bowl caliber.

Predicted Finish: 2nd NFC South

Andy Benoit is the founder of NFLTouchdown.com and a writer for CBSSports.com’s N.F.L. blog. He can be contacted at andy.benoit –at – NFLTouchdown.com.

He lost some of his credibility when he said Moore would replace DeCoud. To me, that signals he doesn't know as much about this team as he thinks he does. If anything Moore will replace Coleman and it'll be DeCoud and Moore at the safety positions.

Edited by Chitown2ATL_Falcon
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Ratings

# Name Team Snaps Overall Rush Cov. Run Pen. # of Pen QB Sk QB Ht QB Pr BP Tks *** MT St

1 Jonathan Babineaux ATL 870 19.2 9.4 5.0 5.8 -1.0 1-0 7 5 25 2 39 4 2 43

2 Kelly Gregg BLT 463 17.8 1.2 0.0 16.6 0.0 0-0 3 2 6 0 38 9 2 30

3 Kevin Williams MIN 871 16.2 14.1 1.0 8.1 -7.0 7-1 5 11 20 7 17 4 5 18

4 Albert Haynesworth WAS 575 15.8 11.1 2.0 9.7 -7.0 7-1 4 11 12 2 25 7 2 22

5 Sione Pouha NYJ 473 14.3 -5.7 0.0 20.0 0.0 0-0 0 1 6 0 32 4 2 25

6 Vince Wilfork NE 448 12.3 -0.3 0.0 14.6 -2.0 3-0 0 0 9 3 34 5 5 27

7 Mike Devito NYJ 315 12.0 -0.5 1.5 11.0 0.0 0-0 0 1 7 0 23 2 2 19

8 Pat Williams MIN 494 11.7 -7.6 1.5 19.3 -1.5 2-0 2 1 2 2 35 3 0 30

9 Brodrick Bunkley PHI 617 10.7 -4.0 1.0 13.7 0.0 0-0 1 1 10 5 31 4 0 26

10 Lorenzo Alexander WAS 261 8.5 7.9 1.0 0.6 -1.0 2-1 2 2 8 2 14 0 1 12

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