The Atlanta Falcons look like one of the worst teams in the NFL through five games into the season. In order to start winning again, they will have to get four of their top players to return to their former Pro Bowl or Pro Bowl-caliber forms.
The biggest names that have been struggling aren't Matt Ryan or Tony Gonzalez, though. Those two, along with the recently injured Julio Jones, have been carrying the Falcons offense for the first five games of the season.
Atlanta needs to get the rest of the offense up to speed, starting with tackle Sam Baker and Ryan's protection on the outside. They need Roddy White and Steven Jackson to get healthy and perform to their potential. And they need Thomas DeCoud to live up to last season's Pro Bowl selection.
S Thomas DeCoud
In 2012, Thomas DeCoud was one of the best safeties in the NFL and was continually making big plays in the secondary. He accumulated six interceptions and four pass deflections while allowing just two touchdowns.
He allowed a passer rating against of just 66.3. However, he proved to be a poor tackler, missing 24 of his 108 tackle attempts last season (a 22.2 percent fail rate). He's actually improved in that aspect in 2013, missing just four tackles on 27 attempts (14.8 percent fail rate).
Unfortunately, the passer rating against went in the opposite direction and now stands at 158.3—which is a perfect QB rating. Allowing a perfect rating is almost inexplicable, especially for a player coming off such a stellar season. DeCoud needs revert to last season's form and again start making plays on the ball.
And the Falcons need him to do it sooner rather than later. The poor angles he took in the run game have been less evident this year. His tackling has been much better. All he really needs to do is get his coverage back in line.
Then, DeCoud and William Moore can go back to being the top-notch safety pairing of last season. For Atlanta's pass defense, improvement in its safety play is critical, especially when it comes to covering tight ends and slot receivers.
WR Roddy White
Roddy White has been fighting an ankle injury through the first five games of the year and now has a hamstring injury. His performance has seen a significant drop-off this season, as he has just 14 catches for 129 yards and has yet to score a touchdown.
Last season, White had 31 catches for 481 yards and three touchdowns at this point in the season. The bye week couldn't have come at a better time, as it's going to allow him even more time to fully heal from the ankle injury.
The loss of Julio Jones for the rest of the season will also mean more targets for the ninth-year receiver out of UAB. With more targets, a healthier White should resume the level of production that Falcon fans are used to seeing. But he has to recover from the hamstring setback.
There was hope among Atlanta faithful that White was getting close to 100 percent—possibly even being ready for Atlanta's Week 7 divisional matchup against Tampa Bay—but an update from ESPN's Adam Schefter might chill that optimism:
Still, once White does finally get 100 percent healthy, he should be able to help carry the offense. Until then, the Falcons' passing game needs someone else to step up, though it's almost impossible to replace the production of both White and Jones.
OT Sam Baker
Sam Baker has been on the injured list for the past three weeks of the season with knee and ankle injuries.
The problem is, even when he's played, he's been terrible.
He's been so bad, in fact, that ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required) rates Baker as the NFL's worst offensive tackle based on the two games he played, giving the left tackle a minus-13.8 overall grade, including an 87.3 pass-blocking mark, third worst in the NFL.
To make matters worse, only 17 tackles have allowed their quarterback to be pressured more often. And every single one of them has played more snaps. Baker has to turn it around, because with Lamar Holmes grading out to being an NFL average tackle, the former USC Trojan could be out of a job soon.
However, the Falcons don't have any true talent at right tackle. And with the money they are paying Baker, they could easily flip him to the right side, where he wouldn't face pass-rushers who are as talented as the ones attempting to pressure Ryan's blind side.
Technically, Baker is talented, and the pass-rushing facet from the right side of the line should be pretty easy for him to adjust to. The run-blocking side is more of a concern since he's not a true drive-blocking tackle. However, he's got the ability to use his quickness and size on screens, which could help open up deep routes.
If Atlanta does end up moving Baker to the right side and Baker ends up performing well on there, the Falcons could then work on developing a group that could more effectively and efficiently protect Ryan.
RB Steven Jackson
After posting a solid performance in the first game of the season against the New Orleans Saints, Steven Jackson has yet to see the field outside of a handful of plays against his former team, the St. Louis Rams. His 16 touches for 122 yards against the Saints illustrated how productive the veteran can still be.
His absence has been particularly noticeable in the red zone. Without him, the Falcons offense has been one of the worst red-zone units in the NFL. His presence alone could have really aided a team that's been struggling to score in that area of the field.
In one goal-line situation in Week 5 against the New York Jets, running back Jacquizz Rodgers was stuffed short of the end zone as time expired at the end of the first half. A similar short-yardage breakdown occurred against Miami. In both instances, Atlanta's inability to get tough yardage in the red zone deprived them of points, and Jackson's rugged inside running style could have made a big difference.
For a team in need of consistency and a spark, Jackson getting healthy would be the biggest thing that could happen. He would be able to take games on his shoulders and carry the team. If he can get healthy for this stretch run, Atlanta could end up with a much better record than anyone anticipates.
They would be able to rely on his all-around abilities as a running back and receiver and on his threat to break a big play. Combine those skills with an ability to hit the hole hard and fight for extra yardage and Jackson could be exactly what the Falcons need to boost their play in the red zone.
Scott Carasik is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. He covers the Atlanta Falcons, NFL and NFL draft. He also runs DraftFalcons.com.
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