Expectations are high for the Falcons and their fans after a season that was thought to be all about rebuilding, but instead netted them a playoff berth. In his first season as head coach, Mike Smith has stamped this team with his personality, and his toughness.
The players all bought in to it, and believe they can take it to another level this year. That being said, we know that, in the NFL, success in one season doesn't guarantee future prosperity.
As a matter of fact, many times teams that surprise one season end up taking a step back the next. That is what the Falcons have to guard against, and that will be the challenge for Mike Smith.
What I Like
Atlanta's offense, plain and simple. We know about Matt Ryan, but the offense is not built around what he can do. It is built around a physical, run oriented unit that wants to pound their opponent into submission.
The Falcons averaged 152 yards per game rushing, which is a tribute to their offensive line. They had no Pro-Bowlers at those positions, but their play as a group enabled Michael Turner to have a career year and make his first Pro Bowl, gaining 1,699 yards in the process.
Todd McClure, the center, is the signal caller and anchors the group that paved the way for Turner. This offensive line could be better this year which is scary.
When Atlanta is not running the ball, they can be equally as dangerous throwing it. Matt Ryan has proved he is a franchise quarterback and will get better, which is bad news for opposing defenses.
Roddy White went from draft bust to a dangerous wide-out, which is unheard of. Michael Jenkins is steady on the other side, and Jerious Norwood is a threat to take it to the house every time he touches the ball.
Add Tony Gonzalez from the Chiefs to this offense and now you open up the middle of the field for Matt Ryan. Lost in this signing is the fact that Gonzalez is a good run blocker as well.
I like the swagger Mike Smith has brought to the team. His insistence on playing a physical brand of football has invigorated the team, and made them more about playing basic football as opposed to an over-emphasis on schemes, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
I also like the division they play in. Tampa Bay has a rookie coach, quarterback issues and collapsed at the end of last year. Carolina's defense played matador defense at times last year and is no longer the force it once was.
Julius Peppers seems to want a out of Carolina and to start over elsewhere. The Falcons main competition for the division title should come from the Saints. Gregg Williams comes in to take over a porous defense, and probably transition them to a 4-3.
If the Saints get better on defense, and Drew Brees does what he normally does, they could win the division.
What I Don't Like
I don't like Atlanta's defense. Keith Brooking and Michael Boley are gone via free agency. Brooking is no longer an impact player, and Boley never lived up to what they thought he would bring after signing him as a free agent, so those were good decisions.
Overall, the Falcons ranked 25th against the rush and 21st against the pass. If you can't stop the run in this league you can't win championships, and, as of now, Atlanta has some gaping holes in the middle of their defense that need addressing.
Grady Jackson is also gone via free agency to Detroit, and while I believe it is a good thing to get younger up front, the pay off doesn't normally come right away. Hence the strategy to focus on defense in the draft and make strategic signings to piece together their defense.
They will look for contributions from their first round draft pick Peira Jerry on the defense line right away, and they also need an upgrade to Lawyer Malloy at the safety spot. Atlanta hopes William Moore, their second round pick out of Missouri can fit in and be the answer at safety.
Seven out of eight draft picks were on defense. They have huge question marks going into this season on the defensive side of the ball, and I believe that will hold them back from doing as well as they did last season.
Mike Peterson was signed to bolster the line-backing core and he should help, but he is not a permanent solution.
I don't like their schedule. It is tougher than last year, and now teams have enough film on Matt Ryan and will be more prepared to defend him in 2009. They play the AFC East, which includes New England, Miami, Buffalo, and the Jets. They have dates with Philadelphia, Dallas, and the Giants as well.
Chicago will not be easy now that they have Jay Cutler either. The Falcons will be tested week in and week out. With this kind of schedule, and their defense as it is, it will be tough for them to repeat what they did last year.
I don't like the perception that the Falcons will automatically do even better in 2009. It is good to be confident and have high aspirations, but the optimism should be guarded.
They are no lock to make the playoff's. Many times things do not fall right in place from year to year. John Abraham was healthy in 2008. That may not be the case in 2009. Other teams have made changes as well.
The Falcons will be competitive, and will depend on Matt Ryan and the offense to lead the way. The coaching is solid. Mike Smith and his staff know what they are doing. Nine wins is what what I see for them. Hopefully they exceed that and make the playoffs.