The Falcons are primed to take the next step.
Some of the predictions made this offseason by the media about the Falcons will be considered bold, while others won't. The following are the bold predictions about the Falcons this season.
This doesn't mean a 4,500 yard or a 30 touchdown season for Matty Ice. This means Ryan takes the absolute next step as a quarterback. He's entering his fifth season in the NFL and has worked with Dirk Koetter to design the offense this offseason to his strengths.
Combine that with one of the best groups of receivers in the NFL with Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Harry Douglas and Jacquizz Rodgers, and you have a firecracker ready to be lit. Matt Ryan should explode to have stats similar to those of Matt Stafford's last season of 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns.
The biggest thing that will help him achieve these stats is Dirk Koetter's play-calling and willingness to allow Ryan to do more no huddle. Bucky Brooks of NFL.com explains it best when talking about what Koetter will do to enhance Ryan's game:
To help Ryan maximize his talents, Koetter certainly will retain some of the concepts that worked well last season. That will likely included a host of play-action passes from two-back sets to capitalize on Ryan's deft ball handling and pinpoint accuracy on throws inside the numbers. Koetter also will incorporate some spread and empty formations to make it easy for Ryan to identify coverage and exploit vulnerable areas down the field.
And because of this, Ryan will have yet another career year with stats that would make fans around the country go, "This guy is good." It should also lead to the Falcons' first playoff victories under Ryan getting the 0-3 in the playoffs monkey off his back.
Slowed by a foot injury, Holmes may have been put in the right situation to start the season.
Sam Baker has continually been the worst left tackle in the NFL for over three years now when using Pro Football Focus's pass-blocking metrics in sacks, hurries and pressures. So the Falcons decided to change things up and draft Lamar Holmes in the third round.
Holmes is the ideal left tackle prospect as he has quick feet, long arms and great strength. Oh yeah, he's also 6'6", 330 pounds and looks the part too. His best asset, though, is his attitude as he was quoted by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Chris Vivlamore as saying:
I went to junior college when I was a freshman with my head down, just basically saying "I’ve got to go in there and take somebody’s spot. I’ve got to earn a job. I’ve got to be on the field. I’m not here to make friends." I think that type of mentality, it carried me to where I am now. I went to Southern Miss with just the same mentality. And I’ve just got to keep doing it.
This attitude is what all the great players have. He will end up earning a job from Sam Baker's ineptitude at left tackle in pass protection by the sixth game of the year as Ryan will get tired of getting slammed into the ground by free-rushers on the left side.
In will step Lamar Holmes and his motivated, hulking nature. He will not just look solid, as an NFL average left tackle would be a major upgrade from Baker; but he will look like a young Andrew Whitworth protecting for one of the best young quarterbacks in the game.
Stephen Nicholas will finally shine in Nolan's defense.
With Mike Nolan as the new defensive coordinator, expect Stephen Nicholas to have a much bigger role in the defense. As already seen in the first two preseason games, Nicholas is joining Sean Weatherspoon in the nickel package as the other linebacker.
Nicholas has always been underrated as someone who can cover the intermediate passes to tight ends and running backs. He has also been one of the best blitzers on the Falcons roster since being drafted in the fourth round of the 2007 draft.
A big reason why he should be able to get Pro Bowl consideration, though, is the tackles that he should rack up now that Curtis Lofton is gone and now that he is playing on third downs. Not to mention the impact plays such as sacks and forced fumbles that will rack up as he gets sent after the quarterback on third downs.
Nicholas is also a leader on and off the field and will be using this as a way to motivate, and sometimes even pester, his teammates. Weatherspoon was quoted by Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about Nicholas's Pro Bowl-level energy. Weatherspoon said, "I like to sleep to the last minute. Every morning, he’s knocking at the door…He’s so upbeat."
It's an energy that will lead Nicholas to a breakout year as a star on the defense. But it's also one that should lead to Pro Bowl consideration as a projected stat line of 85 tackles, four sacks and one interception is pretty solid for a linebacker.
The Falcons seem to be focusing on defensive and offensive improvements this year related to scheme and attitude change over actually bringing in more talent. The goals seem to be to get after the quarterback and improve as a team in the passing defense.
However, scoring defense should see its biggest stride in 2012, and it will be because of a team effort all across the board. Atlanta Falcons" target="_blank" href="http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1280028-atlanta-falcons-roster-2012-latest-news-cuts-preseason-predictions">The Atlanta Falcons' official website's Daniel Cox quoted Dunta Robinson about the team's goals. Robinson said:
I know that starts as a collective defense and the pass rush, but those are our goals. I think as long as you set your goals high, you have a very good chance of being a good football team. We’re dreaming big and we’re thinking big. Now it’s just a matter of going out there and getting the job done.
And in the first two preseason games, the first-team defense has more than done its job holding the Ravens to a goose egg while allowing the Bengals a total of 10 points in the first half. If the defense can continue to disallow teams from scoring, this could be a great year for the Falcons.
It's something that they truly should do. They were 18th in scoring defense in 2011, but Miami's defense was sixth. Mike Nolan has more talent on defense than what he had in Miami, so there is no reason why the team shouldn't be able to improve from 18th to top five in terms of scoring defense.
Using his size and speed to his advantage, he will make a lot more plays in 2012.
Constant improvement on the returning front is part of why Jacquizz Rodgers should be on pace for over 1,500 all-purpose yards this season. About half of that should come as a kick returner as he should be able to gain close to 700 yards as the return specialist.
The Falcons have to consistently improve their blocking, though, because it has been below standard in the first two games despite improving from the Ravens game to the Bengals game. The Atlanta Falcons' official website's Daniel Cox quoted Jacquizz about the improved return game against the Bengals. He said on Saturday:
We had some things on special teams that we needed to fix and that was one of them. We went in and practiced, fixed it and had a chance to get some open holes and return a couple.
The average definitely improved. Rodgers had an 18.0 yards per return against the Ravens and their terrific special-teams unit. However, he improved it nearly five yards to 23 yards per return against the Bengals. That improvement is something that should benefit him in the long run.
However, the big reason why Rodgers is going to break out is his ability to take the ball to the end zone at any time. That ability should be highlighted on at least one return as he should be able to get a return touchdown at some point in 2012.
Scott Carasik is a Featured Columnist and Trends and Traffic Writer for Bleacher Report. As a Featured Columnist, he covers the Atlanta Falcons, NFL and NFL Draft. He is also the Falcons analyst at Drafttek, runs the NFL Draft Website ScarDraft.com and hosts Kvetching Draftniks Radio.