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Atlanta Falcons Season Report Card

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Although they entered Week 17 with a chance to win the NFC South, the Atlanta Falcons were doomed early in the season when they suffered through a five-game losing streak and 2-6 start en route to a 6-10 finish and the firing of coach Mike Smith.

Losing linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (Achilles) and five offensive linemen to season-ending injuries surely didn't help matters. Not to mention the Falcons failed to address their most glaring need on defense -- a pass-rusher -- and it showed.

The whole theme of getting bigger, tougher and stronger that was emphasized in the preseason and portrayed on HBO's "Hard Knocks" ended up being just a facade as the Falcons got beat up on both sides of the line of scrimmage in their most important game: the season finale against Carolina, where they were pummeled 34-3.


It was inexcusable to go 6-10 after getting Julio Jones back healthy from last year's season-ending foot fracture and after supposedly bolstering the offensive and defensive lines -- although the Falcons did lose five offensive linemen to season-ending injuries. Blown double-digit leads against the Lions and Giants and horrendous clock management against the Browns threw away three winnable games. Coordinators Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan both had their struggles, although Nolan had a lot less talent at his disposal.


That might seem harsh for a team that finished in the top five in red zone percentage and in the top 10 in passing yards and total offense. But the Falcons failed the final exam with a poor offensive showing in the season finale with the division title on the line.


Yes, strides were made at the end of the year and corner Desmond Trufant is going to be a perennial Pro Bowl pick very soon. That being said, the Falcons still finished last in the league in six defensive categories, including total yards per game (398.3), passing yards per game (279.9), and third-down defense (46.8 percent). The Falcons allowed 6,372 total yards -- 2,098 more than the top-rated Seahawks.

Team MVP: Julio Jones. Earlier in the season, it was running back Antone Smith, simply based on Smith being the lone bright spot on a team that was struggling. But then Smith broke his leg and was done for the season. As the Falcons started to turn things around and as Jones shook off an ankle injury, he started to dominate. Jones' franchise-record 259 receiving yards against the Packers on "Monday Night Football" showed the world just how great he can be. Jones, named to his second Pro Bowl, finished the season with a franchise-record 1,593 receiving yards and six touchdowns. And he missed the game against the Steelers with an oblique injury. "I just have to get back healthy and focused on next year," he said.

Best moment: Pro Bowl return man Devin Hester setting the NFL record with his 20th career return touchdown, a 62-yard punt return against Tampa Bay in Week 3. Hester high-stepped his way to the end zone with his mentor, former Falcon Deion Sanders, in the building for NFL Network. The play also happened in front of Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith, who brought Hester into the league with the Chicago Bears and has maintained a close relationship with him over the years.

Worst moment: The Falcons blowing a 21-point lead to the Lions in London, which resulted in a 22-21 loss on Matt Prater's game-winning 48-yard field goal. The tide turned in the Lions' favor when Matt Ryan threw a third-quarter interception right into the hands of a defender. Jones had a key drop late in the game.

2015 Outlook: The Falcons are set to have a new coach after seven seasons under Smith, but general manager Thomas Dimitroff remains. Owner Arthur Blank doesn't want to take mediocrity into his new Atlanta Stadium. He just wants wins, with no excuses. Smith was a great guy whom the players appreciated, but Blank no doubt wants a coach who's going to be stern to all the players, from the top guys on down. Dimitroff has to secure a pass-rusher or two and continue to invest in the offensive line. Finding quality linebackers also has to be a priority, as well as a pass-catching tight end.

By Vaughn McClure | ESPN.com


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