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Falcons enter critical third year of Dimitroff's master plan


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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Three draft classes and three years of free agency.

That's the timetable Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith set for being able to make a serious run at the Super Bowl.

Though Atlanta has notched back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history, Dimitroff said that's been nothing more than foundation building. We'll see what this team is really made of this season.

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"We had very definitive lines and ideas about the building of this football team and one of the aspects that was very important to us was to be consistent in our thought process and not be swayed by the emotions of the season and offseason signings and such," Dimitroff said. "We've adhered to our policy close enough to a T. We haven't abandoned anything when things went a little bit awry.

"We're in our third year and we're getting closer to where we want to be. As we finished our third OTA session this spring, this team had an element of confidence and swagger about them. They believe that they can truly play with anyone in this league and compete with anyone in this league. That is important."

Dimitroff said Atlanta is without a glaring hole at any position for the first time since his arrival. There may be a lack of depth here and there, but the roster is fortified for the most part. Much like conference champions Indianapolis and New Orleans, Atlanta can withstand an injury at nearly any position other than quarterback.

The Falcons should be good this season. Unseat-the-Saints as NFC South champs good? Maybe. This is a division that has never had a repeat champion since its inception in 2002. New Orleans seems poised to snap that streak, but Atlanta poses the biggest threat to the Saints.

The Falcons have their franchise quarterback in Matt Ryan, who, like Dimitroff and Smith, is entering this third season. Running back Michael Turner is already in shape, something he wasn't until a few days before gashing New Orleans for 151 yards in a 35-27 loss to the Saints in Week 8 of last season. More importantly, Atlanta now has depth and options on defense, due in large part to the free-agent acquisition of cornerback Dunta Robinson and the first-round selection of multi-purpose outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon.

The process of getting to this optimistic point started when Dimitroff and Smith were hired in 2008, shortly after the Michael Vick dogfighting scandal and Bobby Petrino's in-season flight from the carnage.

"We knew that we really needed a quarterback to kick off that first season, and with that we were going to build around that quarterback for years to come, and we were going to make sure we were going (to) provide all the tools we could for him to succeed," Dimitroff said.

"That was going to be our focus and then start with a young, aggressive, vibrant defense that would grow into a passionate defense with a swagger about them. Mike Smith is a defensive coordinator at the core and knows defense. He thrives on defense. I believe that with putting the money and time in on the offense while growing and evolving this defense, we were going to have a shot at being a perennial playoff contender."

Donna McWilliam / Associated Press

While the Falcons have played well offensively under Mike Smith, the defense has yet to hold up its end. Check out its performance over the last two years:

Still finding their way

Category 2009 2008

Total defense (NFL rank) 348.9 (21st) 348.2 (24th)

Passing defense 241.9 (28th) 220.4 (21st)

Rushing defense 106.9 (10th) 127.9 (25th)

While the surprising Falcons went 11-5 in Dimitroff and Smith's first year behind a patchwork defense, Ryan (who won Offensive Rookie of the Year) and Turner (who was a Pro Bowler), it was time to take things to a new level in 2009.

Dimitroff traded a second-round pick to Kansas City for future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. With Gonzalez and emerging Pro Bowl wide receiver Roddy White, Ryan and the Falcons seemed poised for even greater success.

But White (who still put up great numbers) was distracted by the desire to get a contract extension, Turner enjoyed the offseason a tad too much, and the purging of defensive veterans in favor of young players didn't pan out. Atlanta still won nine games, but it didn't make the playoffs and took a step backwards -- especially Ryan, who seemed less comfortable behind an offensive line that occasionally struggled with some massive 3-4 fronts early on and then was weakened by injuries.

The fairly young defensive line and secondary weren't overly productive (Atlanta finished 28th vs. the pass) in part because Dimitroff's first two draft picks in 2009, defensive tackle Peria Jerry and safety William Moore, played only four combined games due to injury. The grand plan and Dimitroff's draft savvy hit a snag of sorts.

Now comes the fusing of those two seasons in order to prove things have been done right. Dimitroff and Smith might not have strayed from their plan, but this third season will tell if the plan was correct.

Here is Dimitroff's position-by-position breakdown and why he thinks his roster finally doesn't have a glaring weakness:

QB: Ryan has begun to show signs of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees, telling offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey plays he wants to call and ones the team should stay away from. His learning curve has shortened, and he realizes now is the time to make this his team. Ryan's leadership is unquestioned, and he garnered even more respect from teammates by finishing out the 2009 season despite suffering a turf toe injury.

RB: Turner is buoyed by Jason Snelling, a similar big-bodied back who a lot of teams wouldn't mind having run the rock for them. Atlanta wants desperately to utilize the speed and breakaway ability of super-fast Jerious Norwood in open space, but he's seemingly always nicked. Turner is motivated to get back to his Pro Bowl form after the ankle injury that cut short his 2009 season has healed.

WRs/TE: Gonzalez is nearing the end, but he showed last season by catching 83 passes that he's still one of the top tight ends in the league. What could open up the field for him is the return of Wes Welker-like slot receiver Harry Douglas. They could form an interchangeable over-under tandem that will leave one of them covered by an outside linebacker most of the time they're simultaneously on the field -- a favorable matchup either way. White is one of the NFL's top wideouts, but fellow starter Michael Jenkins needs to bounce back from an inconsistent season that took some starch out of the passing game.

"I was very impressed with Roddy White's spring," Dimitroff said. "He wasn't worried about the contract, and he was focusing. He and Matt took it to another level, as far as developing that connection."

OL: This will be the third year this mean-tempered group will be together. Right guard Harvey Dahl is one of the nastiest players in the league, but he needs to stay healthy. He is coming off a bad foot injury. Center Todd McClure is the only player with some age on him, but he's still got something left. Left tackle Sam Baker, drafted in the first round with Ryan in 2008, has never reached his potential because of injuries.

"Though he's battled some injuries, I truly believe he has the potential to be an upper echelon left tackle," Dimitroff said of Baker, who has started 19 of 22 games, while missing 10 due to injury.

DL: The play of the defensive tackles is where the Falcons' season could be made or broken. Jonathan Babineaux is a solid 3-technique tackle but Atlanta really needs to get steady play and a full season out of Jerry, who was making headway before wrecking his knee just two games into the season (the Falcons won't disclose the injury, other than saying it wasn't to his ACL). Atlanta drafted Corey Peters in the third round to rotate with Jerry and expect a lot out of him.

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"The interior is going to dictate our creativity and pressure on the outside," Dimitroff said.

Former eighth overall pick Jamaal Anderson, an end, will see more time at tackle this year. He is viewed almost solely as a run-support end and will be moved inside on passing downs because of the emergence of Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury as pass rushers. This could be Anderson's last season with the Falcons. What Dimitroff is most jacked about is John Abraham, who struggled to get just 5.5 sacks last season after registering 16.5 in 2008.

"I maintain that John Abraham still has fuel in his tank and can still be disruptive. I believe he's in good shape, and he has a chip on his shoulder that he's not a player of the past."

LBs: The loquacious Weatherspoon can talk as good a game as anyone, but he's the three-down, pedal-to-the-metal, versatile playmaker this defense lacked at the second level. He could give this unit some much-needed personality. He just needs to find his way onto the field. He will compete at both outside linebacker spots, but the odds are he'll end up playing more on the strong side, where Steven Nicholas started last season. MLB Curtis Lofton came into his own last season, and weakside linebacker Mike Peterson is still highly effective against the run. Weatherspoon, though, is a potential difference-maker, and he was drafted with the Saints in mind.

"Prototypically he'd be a fine Will (weakside) linebacker in this league," Dimitroff said of Weatherspoon. "He can run, he can scrape, he can get to the ball, but he can flip his hips and turn and get into coverage with running backs and tight ends, which are incredibly important (skills) for us as far as our being able to defend some of the teams in our division -- namely the New Orleans Saints."

DBs: Robinson was signed to a six-year, $57 million contract this spring, and the Falcons feel as if they already are getting a return on their investment.

"This year, we step back and we know that one of our missing links was to have that veteran corner," Dimitroff said. "Let's be realistic about it, he's not going to knock down every ball, no corner in this league can do that -- but, by virtue of the presence and speed of Dunta Robinson, he's going to dissuade quarterbacks from pulling up and tossing the ball on him."

"The team is excited, whereas last year, I felt the general feel of our secondary was, 'What's going to happen next?'. Now (the attitude is) we have some athletes and speed here, and we should eliminate some of the big plays. Hopefully we'll eliminate a lot of the big plays and not be ranked 28th in pass defense."

Things are still a little dicey at the other cornerback, where Brian Williams, Chris Owens and Brent Grimes will battle for the starting job. Grimes had six interceptions last season, but Owens might be tougher against the run and have more long-term upside. At safety, the Falcons are hoping that Moore can find his way onto the field at strong safety. Erik Coleman is the starter, but Moore's intimidating style is something they'd like on the back end. Rangy free safety Thomas DeCoud could begin his surge to many Pro Bowls this season.

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It is a good article except for:

The process of getting to this optimistic point started when Dimitroff and Smith were hired in 2008, shortly after the Michael Vick dogfighting scandal and Bobby Petrino's in-season flight from the carnage.

*sigh* I was hoping the media would stop feeling the need to insert this up in every state of the franchise article. This probably means the announcers are going to mention it at every game again this year.

We know. We lived it. Give it a rest already!

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It is a good article except for:

*sigh* I was hoping the media would stop feeling the need to insert this up in every state of the franchise article. This probably means the announcers are going to mention it at every game again this year.

We know. We lived it. Give it a rest already!

If it helps cheer you up any, I heard the other day that Pigtrino lost 800,000$ on the sale of his Atlanta house ....... :lol:

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It is a good article except for:

*sigh* I was hoping the media would stop feeling the need to insert this up in every state of the franchise article. This probably means the announcers are going to mention it at every game again this year.

We know. We lived it. Give it a rest already!

MSM will never let it go...it makes the story more interesting for them. Kind of like 4-5 years after Katrina...it's mentioned all the time when teams are talking about the Saints. They feel it appeals to the masses.

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It is a good article except for:

*sigh* I was hoping the media would stop feeling the need to insert this up in every state of the franchise article. This probably means the announcers are going to mention it at every game again this year.

We know. We lived it. Give it a rest already!

Hopefully announcers, experts and commentators will not say anything else about it cause its sooooo irrelevant. Hope they would feel quite stupid if they did.

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I disagree with this team not having any GLARING HOLE....if John Abraham doesnt bounce back from his terrible season DE becomes a Glaring problem..

That would be a huge problem. If is a very big word. I think Ja55 will bounce back no problem with the secondary being upgraded.

Edited by FalconinPA
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Much like conference champions Indianapolis and New Orleans, Atlanta can withstand an injury at nearly any position other than quarterback.

Presumably the "nearly" refers to both Roddy and JA55, as if either of them went down we'd be in real difficulties.

Good article though - thanks for posting.

Edited by FalcoChicquera
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If it helps cheer you up any, I heard the other day that Pigtrino lost 800,000$ on the sale of his Atlanta house ....... :lol:

The only thing that would make me feel better about Petrino is if he lost everything and placed in a mental institution for life. And surround by a room full of falcons gear and fatheads. And daily visits from Deangelo Hall.

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The only thing that would make me feel better about Petrino is if he lost everything and placed in a mental institution for life. And surround by a room full of falcons gear and fatheads. And daily visits from Deangelo Hall.

:lol: that was really funny.

But hey think of it as a blessing. We would not have any of these ppl and we probably wouldn't be talking about a superbowl if petrino didn't punk out.

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Presumably the "nearly" refers to both Roddy and JA55, as if either of them went down we'd be in real difficulties.

Good article though - thanks for posting.

Thanks ... at QB though I think we are less dependant on Ryan than the Colts and Saints are on Manning and Brees ... I believe we are more offensively balanced.

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The only thing that would make me feel better about Petrino is if he lost everything and placed in a mental institution for life. And surround by a room full of falcons gear and fatheads. And daily visits from Deangelo Hall.

I hear ya, and +1. On the other hand, I've never been happier than where we are now as a franchise, and it's all in reaction to Petrino and he who shall not be named. I guess it plays into that whole Chinese philosophy thing about opportunity being the same as disaster.

There are a couple of other things I disagreed with in the article. I keep hearing about Ryan's "step back." I just don't see it. Dude was injured for a couple of games, sure, but he played a much tougher schedule, tougher pass defenses, our running game wasn't as strong, and our defense didn't consistently get us the ball with good field position. Despite all that, he came away with decent stats and a winning record. I can only suspect that in a year when things go marginally right for us, he'll be in the Manning, Brees, Brady, Rivers conversation.

Also, I don't think "dicey" is the right word for our CB position opposite Robinson. I'm a little tentative about Dunta, to be honest, although he's an improvement over the situation last year no doubt. That said, the competition between Grimes and Owens (I don't even see Williams being in the competition, aside from perhaps coach speak) could produce the best CB on the team- better than Robinson. I don't see that as "dicey" at all.

Other than that, nice article.

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MSM will never let it go...it makes the story more interesting for them. Kind of like 4-5 years after Katrina...it's mentioned all the time when teams are talking about the Saints. They feel it appeals to the masses.

yup viking fans are gonna have to watch the saints vikings game with the sound off. cause they will not stop talking about katrina, how much it has meant to the city how the saints team have jesus status in n.o yada yada yada yada

watching thr falcon game a year after katrina was annoying enough

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yup viking fans are gonna have to watch the saints vikings game with the sound off. cause they will not stop talking about katrina, how much it has meant to the city how the saints team have jesus status in n.o yada yada yada yada

watching thr falcon game a year after katrina was annoying enough

I think it's funny, I went through both hurricanes Hugo and Fran, but we cleaned up within a year and never really bitched about it.

New Orleans, take note.

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They will always talk about the Michael Vick and Pigtrino incident. Can you just imagine if we make it to the big one this year? Leading up to the game that week the story will be, "The franchise that went to **** and back." Imagine if we win? It's gonna be talked about for years and years and unfortunately it's just an ugly story that will be linked to our team forever. I mean come on, the franchise player of our team went to jail for operating a huge dog fighting circle and our coach left us in the middle of the season. These are stories that I'll tell my son about when he's older and his friends will watch nfl films with him about our storied franchise that went to such mess and then went on to win 10 consecutive super bowls to become the most dominant franchise in nfl history.

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