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Next step for Falcons...SUPER BOWL

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The NFL lockout has dampened the usual offseason analysis of each team's comings and goings. But, lockout or not, the league will still be moving on at some point -- hopefully in time for the 2011 regular season to start on time on Sept. 8. And during the labor impasse, USA TODAY will focus back on the field by breaking down the five biggest questions facing each team for the 2011 season.

Up today: The Atlanta Falcons

1. Is Matt Ryan the next quarterback to take the leap?

Ryan took another step forward in his 2010 campaign when he registered career highs in passing yards (3,705) TD passes (28), interceptions (just nine), completion percentage (62.5) and passer rating (91.0). But it was the poise he showed leading the Falcons to an NFC-best 13-3 record that showed he's on the cusp of joining the top echelon of the NFL's quarterbacks. Ryan earned his first Pro Bowl invitation last season. That puts him on the right track to join Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers among the league's best players. Missing, however, is a playoff win -- and more specifically a Super Bowl win.

The Falcons never had recorded back-to-back winning seasons before Ryan's arrival in 2008. Now they've had three straight. Still, Ryan is 0-2 in the playoffs and must show he can step forward and lead the Falcons successfully in the NFL's second season.

2. Was Julio Jones worth the investment?

The Falcons paid a steep price for the right to draft Jones with the sixth overall pick. They sent five draft picks, including two first rounders, to Cleveland for Jones. But the result, they hope, is a dynamic playmaker who can add even more punch to an offense that ranked fifth with 414 points last season.

Jones should become another high-yield option for Ryan alongside Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. Those two combined for more than 50% of the Falcons' receptions last season. So adding Jones -- who caught 78 passes for 1,133 yards last year with seven TDs at Alabama -- should tax defenses' abilities to cover the Falcons' trio effectively.

"They are not going to be able to defend us the way they have defended us in the past," coach Mike Smith said.

3. Will they add pass rushing help for John Abraham?

While the Falcons have several playmakers on offense, they don't put that same fear into opponents on the defensive side of the ball. Their defense ranked 16th -- smack in the middle of the NFL road -- last season. They have a formidable pass rusher in DE John Abraham, who recorded 13 sacks last year.

The rest of the team recorded just 18 sacks, however. So more help for Abraham is needed. They have an in-house candidate in Kroy Biermann, who had three sacks after growing into a starting role in his third season last year. But the Falcons probably will look for pass-rushing help in free agency whenever football operations resume.

Additionally, the pass defense needs strengthening. The last time that unit took the field it was shredded by Rodgers for 31-of-36 passing for 366 yards and three TDs in Green Bay's 48-21 playoff win.

CB Brent Grimes earned a Pro Bowl spot. But the Falcons need their secondary, with safeties William Moore and Thomas DeCoud and big-money CB Dunta Robinson, to perform better and improve on a unit that ranked 22nd in the 2010 regular season.

4. What reshuffling happens along the offensive line?

Only two teams surrendered fewer sacks last season than the 23 the Falcons' offensive line allowed. But Ryan's group of protectors could change dramatically, with three 2010 starters -- Pro Bowl RT Tyson Clabo, LG Justin Blalock and RG Harvey Dahl -- staring at potential free agency.

None of them are guaranteed free agency, with the resolution of the lockout set to determine their fate. The Falcons potentially could still hold the rights to all three.

The loss of Clabo, a five-year veteran, would likely be the most significant. The Falcons drafted G Andrew Jackson with the 210th pick, but expect them to target offensive line depth when free agency opens. Keeping Ryan upright and healthy is a top priority.

5. Can they get over the hump?

The Falcons took a big step by edging out the Saints for the NFC South title last season. But still there were some disturbing signs for Falcons fans: the Week 16 loss at home to New Orleans and the playoff flop loss to Green Bay.

Atlanta hasn't won a playoff game since the 2004 season. That needs to change, especially since the Falcons will likely enter the season as a popular pick to win the division again and possibly earn a Super Bowl berth.

They have an outstanding nucleus on offense in Ryan, White, Jones and the still-surehanded Gonzalez, who expects to play one more season for a shot at a title. Add in Michael Turner, who collected 1,371 rushing yards last year (and at 29 is nearing the typical wall for running backs), and the Falcons have the offensive resume of a winner.

The question is on defense. Can they pressure quarterbacks effectively? Can they hold top-flight passers such as Brees and Rodgers in check? If they can pass those defensive tests, they will likely make a push again into the postseason.

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Thanks for the post.

I'm trying not to get too excited until I know that there will be football but I'm geeked about our potential. I'm hoping Turner is in shape, Snelling returns, Julio opens up the field, Kroy blows up on the left side, Peria pushes the middle and creates a third pass rusher out of Babs, Dunta will give us a second Pro Bowler at CB, Moore doesn't lose his aggressiveness due to the sissification of pro football, Gonzo goes out with a ring, Quizz is on the all-rookie team, Lofton is all-pro, and the Birds bring home the Lombardi.

As I said, I'm trying not to get too excited.

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