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Offense should rebound; D has questions

by Vaughn McClure | ESPN.com

SECRET SUPERSTAR

DT Paul Soliai

The former Dolphin should beef up Atlanta's front four: His 3.6 Pro Football Focus grade against the run was tied for 18th and ranked better than all Falcons DTs. And his five batted balls in 2013 was second most among DTs.

-- Sam Monson

BEST & WORST

Will win 10 if the offense gets close to its scary-high ceiling with Julio Jones and Roddy White healthy again.

Will win 6 if the edge rushers play the way they did in '13 (T29 with 32 sacks) and a young LB corps can't stop the run.

-- Field Yates

GAME-BY-GAME

PREDICTIONS

By Advanced

Football Analytics

Falcons'

Projected

Record

7-9

WIN LOSS

Sept. 7 vs. NO 24-10

Sept. 14 @ CIN 27-20

Sept. 18 vs. TB 34-17

Sept. 28 @ MIN 34-29

Oct. 5 @ NYG 34-17

Oct. 12 vs. CHI 27-14

Oct. 19 @ BAL 21-6

Oct. 26 vs. DET* 36-13

Nov. 9 @ TB 22-19

Nov. 16 @ CAR 31-13

Nov. 23 vs. CLE 27-16

Nov. 30 vs. ARI 26-7

Dec. 8 @ GB 31-20

Dec. 14 vs. PIT 22-10

Dec. 21 @ NO 28-20

Dec. 28 vs. CAR 31-17

* In London

VEGAS VIBE

By LVH SuperBook

Super Bowl

Odds

60-1

Over/Under

Wins

8.5

MORE NFL

NFL Nation

Top 50 breakout players

Top 10 impact rookies

Sando's coaching tiers

Fantasy fooball home

KEEPING UP WITH JONES

How important is Julio Jones to the Falcons? Panic ensued when the media didn't immediately see Jones, who missed the final 11 games last season with a broken foot, at the start of organized team activities. But watching Jones cut on a dime while running routes this summer made it easy to believe his game-breaking ability will be in tip-top shape. (Jones' 6.5 yards after catch since 2011 is second to only Percy Harvin among receivers with 150 catches.) "I feel great," Jones says. "I'm back doing the little things that I used to do. I'm back to the old Julio." Old Julio? The Falcons would prefer that their 25-year-old star be as good as new for the season opener vs. New Orleans.

BEST-KEPT SECRET

Pulling the center will be much more of a factor in the Falcons' offense this season, a concept new offensive line coach Mike Tice used plenty in his days working with Matt Birk and Jeff Christy in Minnesota. Tice wants to take advantage of the athleticism he has in Joe Hawley. Getting Hawley out and pulling should only help enhance a run game that averaged just 3.9 yards per play a year ago. Tice also strongly believes in left guard Justin Blalock's ability to pull, despite some previous doubts about Blalock's footwork.

WORST-KEPT SECRET

The Falcons' pass rush was virtually nonexistent last year -- and on paper it hasn't gotten much better. The lack of elite pass-rusher is magnified when you see opponents such as Greg Hardy and Cameron Jordan in the NFC South. The Falcons hope bulking up the defensive line with Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson will help shut down the run, lead to opponents being more one-dimensional and create more third-and-long situations. But they still need a player or two to emerge as consistent pass-rushers, which might be a tall task.

Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

QB CONFIDENTIAL

As told to NFL Nation, an active player gives his assessment of QB Matt Ryan:

"If you sit back on Matt Ryan, he will pick you apart. He's one of the better throwers, pure passers, in our league. He can put the ball on a dime, and he can throw one of the prettiest deep balls. ... You have to be able to press their receivers. If you disrupt their timing and get in their face, then he gets a little antsy. He moves a lot more in the pocket once the receivers aren't wide open. You have to take that security blanket away from him."

MAKE-OR-BREAK STRETCH

A five-game stretch before the Falcons' Oct. 26 trip to London to face the Lions could reveal a lot about which way the team is headed. It starts with a Thursday night game against the improved Buccaneers at the Georgia Dome. Then the Falcons have three road games -- at Minnesota, the New York Giants and Baltimore -- in a four-game span. The Falcons could face an 0-2 start to the season with the opener against New Orleans and a road trip to Cincinnati, which makes Weeks 3-7 that much more important.

MCCLURE'S PREDICTION

Advanced Football Analytics has the Falcons improving by three wins from last season, to seven. I'm more optimistic about their chances of rebounding, although that won't necessarily translate into a playoff spot. I see the Falcons going 9-7, which won't be good enough to win the NFC South. With help, maybe they'll be in contention for one of the two wild-card berths. Then again, the NFC wild-card teams had double-digit wins last season.

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