Atlanta Falcons: 10 Things We Learned from the Season Opener

Justin BlanchardContributor IISeptember 9, 2012

Atlanta Falcons: 10 Things We Learned from the Season Opener

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    Last January's playoff loss behind them, the Atlanta Falcons kicked off their journey back to the postseason with a convincing 40-24 win against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday.

    It was a tale of two halves, as the Falcons and Chiefs found themselves in a tight 20-17 contest at the half.

    The Falcons dominated the second half, however, scoring 20 unanswered points to seal the game.

    Here are 10 things we learned about the Falcons from the afternoon.

Air Attack Is Here to Stay

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    Entering this season, one of the biggest questions surrounding Atlanta's offense was how much it would throw the ball.

    The answer? A whole lot.

    Matt Ryan finished Sunday's game 23-of-31 for 299 yards and 3 touchdowns, adding another on the ground. 

    Ryan looked comfortable in Dirk Koetter's up-tempo passing attack, spreading the ball around evenly among his receivers as he led the Falcons to scoring drives on each of their first eight possessions. 

    It's still early too early to say that Ryan and the Falcons will have a Green Bay Packers-like high-powered offense, but they certainly look well on their way after Sunday's performance.

Running Game a Concern

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    Dirk Koetter said back in preseason that he wasn't worried about the running game.

    He should be now.

    As a team, the Falcons carried the ball just 23 times for 84 yards, a far cry for a team used to amassing well over 100 yards a game these past few seasons.

    Michael Turner had just 32 of those yards, as he failed to find much running room on his 11 carries. As much as the offensive line is to blame though, it should be noted that Turner looked no different from the worn out runner he appeared to be throughout preseason. 

    Unless Matt Ryan suddenly starts throwing the ball like Tom Brady, the Falcons could be in big trouble if they can't establish a running game in the weeks to come. 

Pass Protection Has Improved

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    It may be because the Chiefs were without their premier pass-rusher Tamba Hali, but the Falcons' offensive line looked much improved in the passing game Sunday.

    Matt Ryan had all day to throw on more than one occasion and was sacked only once when outside linebacker Justin Houston beat right tackle Tyson Clabo to bring Ryan down.

    Deserving a mention is left tackle Sam Baker, who kept Ryan's backside well-protected throughout the game. 

    Now Falcons fans only have to wait and see if the offensive line can stay consistent, especially as more potent defensive lines are ahead on the schedule.

Third-Down Woes Still Remain

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    One of the Falcons' biggest issues under ex-coordinator Brian VanGorder was getting off the field on third downs.

    It would seem that problem is here to stay.

    The Falcons allowed Kansas City to convert 11-of-16 third-down attempts (68 percent) on Sunday, a stat that will need to be improved upon if Atlanta doesn't want every game to become a shootout.

    Be it 3rd-and-long, 3rd-and-medium or 3rd-and-short, the Falcons simply couldn't stop the Chiefs offense on a consistent basis. It looked like the Falcons of old: solid on first and second down, terrible on third.

    The Falcons secondary shoulders much of the blame, but the real issue is found on the following slide.

Still Little Pressure from Front Four

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    All that talk of a new and improved defense under Mike Nolan amounted to little production on Sunday.

    As was the issue the past few seasons, the Falcons failed to get consistent pressure on the opposing quarterback from their front four, allowing Matt Cassel to look a lot better than he really is.

    Cassel finished 21-of-33 for 258 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions, picking the Falcons apart play after play thanks to great protection in the pocket.

    Atlanta's front four was often nowhere to be until late in the third quarter, when John Abraham and Jonathan Babineaux each recorded a sack. 

    The talent is there for the Falcons defensive line; it just needs to start rushing the passer with more consistency.

Red Zone Efficiency Still an Issue

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    The Falcons finished just four for seven in the red zone for a 57 percent efficiency on Sunday.

    They were two for three in goal to go situations.

    40 points is something to be proud of, but those statistics are definite cause for concern.

    The Falcons could find themselves in a shootout more often than not this year, especially with all the talented quarterbacks on their schedule this year.

    If that's the case, they'll need to start putting up six instead of three on the board a lot more often than what they did this week.

Tony G's Still Got It

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    Tony Gonzalez took a backseat to the Julio Jones show throughout preseason, but he was front and center in the offense on Sunday.

    Gonzalez caught five passes for 53 yards and a touchdown against his former team. One went for a key third-down conversion and he juked away from a defender for a big gain on another. He also did his trademark dunk over the goal post following his touchdown catch, showing the world he's still a tight end to be feared at 36 years old.

    The future Hall of Famer may not put up the same dominating numbers he's had throughout his career in Dirk Koetter's three-wide offense, but he will definitely play an integral role in the Falcons' quest to the Super Bowl this year. 

Special Teams Are Special in a Good Way

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    As was the case throughout preseason, the Falcons were dominant in all phases of special teams against the Chiefs.

    Kicker Matt Bryant made all four of his field-goal tries, Matt Bosher's lone punt of the game traveled 52 yards and four of his kickoffs went for touchbacks.

    On kickoff return, Jacquizz Rodgers gained 77 yards on his first return while his second went for 27 yards.

    By all accounts, special teams continues to be one of the Falcons' biggest assets.

No Need for Akeem Dent

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    Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas were the stars of the day on defense.

    Weatherspoon recorded seven solo tackles and a sack, while Nicholas was the team's leading tackler with 12 total tackles and an interception.

    Missing out on the fun was Akeem Dent.

    The Falcons starting middle linebacker was declared active but rarely saw the field in his first game as a starter. He recorded zero statistics on the day. 

    Mike Smith was the source of great criticism after Dent suffered a concussion on a special teams play in preseason, but it would appear that criticism was a little off-base: Dent is a starter on paper, but it looks like he'll be playing very few snaps on defense if Nolan continues to use the 4-2-5 set as often as he did on Sunday.

Coaching Makes a Big Difference

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    The Falcons defense looked unchanged through two quarters of the game. The front four couldn't get consistent pressure and the secondary gave up pass after pass.

    Then, a miracle happened: Mike Nolan made halftime adjustments.

    It's something the Falcons sorely lacked when Brian VanGorder was in Atlanta, but that looks to be a thing of the pass now with one of the league's best coordinators now in charge.

    Nolan was able to make the necessary changes to his schemes and play-calling, and it showed on the stats sheet. Atlanta's second-half defense recorded one forced and recovered fumble, two interceptions and a three-and-out. Kansas City's only second-half points came with seconds left in the game.

    What a difference coaching makes.