No one saw a 1-4 start in 2013 coming for the NFC's defending No. 1 seed, but the Atlanta Falcons' season is not lost.
While they'll be extremely hard-pressed to catch the sizzling 5-0 New Orleans Saints in the division, a wild-card spot isn't out of the question.
Regardless of what happens to Mike Smith's team from here on out, let's examine what the Falcons will still be able to learn about their team over the final 11 games of the regular season.
The Falcons signed quarterbacked Matt Ryan to a, well, rather large extension this offseason. His contract is now worth up to $113.75 million, with $59 million guaranteed.
Annually improving his passing statistics since 2009, which culminated in a 4,719-yard, 32-touchdown, 14-interception 2012, the 28-year-old quarterback deserved the substantial pay raise.
How will Ryan respond? How will he produce without his emerging superstar wideout?
Here's a quick look at how the Ryan-Jones connection fared in 2012 (rankings based on receivers who took at least 50 percent of their respective team's snaps):
|Targets||Catches||Yards Per Catch (Rank)||Yards After The Catch (Rank)||TDs (Rank)|
|127||79||15.2 (15)||491 (6)||10 (6)|
To break it down further, the table below provides perspective on the impact Jones had in his second professional season:
|% of Targets||% of Completions||% of Passing Yardage||% of Touchdowns|
Ryan's future in Atlanta is not even remotely in jeopardy, especially after the huge extension. But with Jones out for the rest of the season, the Falcons will have ample time to assess how dependent the quarterback is on his best receiver.
If Ryan can keep his the offense rolling—Football Outsiders indicates that the Falcons are fifth in yards per drive—it'll say a lot about his individual ability under center.
Also, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that Roddy White could miss time with a hamstring pull:
Rain it pours: Falcons concerned WR Roddy White could miss at least one game, possibly more, due to left hamstring he pulled Monday night.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) October 9, 2013
With Jones done for the year and White possibly out for some time, the Falcons and Ryan have found themselves in quite the precarious situation at 1-4.
It'll be interesting to see how the veteran quarterback responds.
Young Defensive Players
The Falcons defense, a unit that wasn't tremendous but good enough a season ago, has been dreadful to start the 2013 campaign.
Unsurprisingly, the secondary has been dreadful as well.
So, while it's a bit premature to believe the entire franchise is focusing more on the future than the present, now would be a great time for the Falcons' coaching staff and members of the pro personnel department to zero in on the young defensive players on this roster.
Robert Alford, the team's 2013 second-round pick, has played only 133 snaps at cornerback compared to the 308 snaps first-round pick Desmond Trufant has logged.
Nothing against Asante Samuel, but over the course of the next two months, getting Alford more snaps would be beneficial to his development and long-term viability.
Jonathan Massaquoi, a 2012 fifth-round pick and situational defensive lineman, has been on the field for only 160 snaps this season.
He's another young player who should get more burn as the season progresses.
As it currently stands, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) has rated Falcons left tackle Sam Baker as the least effective offensive tackle in the NFL among players at his position who've taken at least 25 percent of their respective team's snaps.
Oddly enough, the 2008 first-round pick was extended through the 2018 season in March.
To be fair, Baker's dealt with a knee injury this season. In his place, Lamar Holmes, a 2012 third-round pick, has stood in at left tackle. Unfortunately for Atlanta, the youngster hasn't been much better.
Here's a look at his performances in the two-plus games during which he's been asked to protect Ryan's blind side:
|Snaps||Overall Grade||Pass-Blocking Grade||Run-Blocking Grade|
|Week 3 at Dolphins||73/73||-7.2||-6.3||-0.4|
|Week 4 vs. Patriots||54/76||-0.1||+0.5||-1.0|
|Week 4 vs. Jets||73/76||-2.4||-2.0||-1.4|
Baker's knee could bother him for the remainder of the regular season, so there's a chance Holmes may be forced back to left tackle on occasion.
Regardless of which edge of the line he's protecting, the Falcons can spend the next 11 games evaluating Holmes' play to decide how he fits into the team's future—especially if the team will be looking to address the tackle position at the draft.