The Atlanta Falcons finished the 2008 campaign way ahead of most people’s expectations, perhaps even their own. Entering the season with many glaring holes, the upstart Falcons soared to reach the postseason for the ninth time in franchise history. With the dramatic developments of young rookie quarterback Matt Ryan and first year starter Michael Turner, the revamped offense carried the team to an 11-win season.
Atlanta now faces an even greater challenge that tends to upend many surprise teams, and that is to sustain and grow upon the previous year’s successes to become a consistent winning organization. Considering the franchise has never had back-to-back winning seasons in its 42 years of existence, and one can quickly realize the challenges this team will face in 2009.
In 2008, the Falcons had a surprisingly prolific offense that put up 361 yards per game, good for sixth in the league. Atlanta showed incredible balance all season long with the NFL’s second best running attack and a rapidly improving passing attack. The Falcons offense was so good in 2008 that it covered up a rather glaring weakness with the team as a whole.
The defense was in the bottom third of the league in most defensive categories and really benefited from some timely (some call it lucky) turnovers and stops. This kind of production usually will not get the job done in consecutive seasons, and upgrading the defensive unit on all fronts was priority number one entering the 2009 season.
The addition of Pro Bowl Tight End Tony Gonzalez pretty much ensures that the Falcons will score points this season, leaving the question, “Can they stop anybody?”
Team GM Thomas Dimitroff made it clear from day one that building the team is a process that would take multiple years to achieve. Year one was marked by a strong effort to upgrade the offense, sometimes forcing the defense to make do with what they had. This year, the priority of getting younger and faster marked the Falcons’ offseason acquisitions through free agency and the draft.
Cutting ties with veterans and fan favorites Keith Brooking, Lawyer Milloy, and Grady Jackson left a defense without clear leadership and a number of glaring holes. Add that with the fact that the team was unsuccessful in renewing the contracts of Michael Boley and Dominique Foxworth, the team stared down the almost impossible challenge of filling up to five starting spots on an already struggling defense.
The first step to rebuilding the defense was finding some new veteran leadership to help guide the certainly younger defensive core. Head coach Mike Smith and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder turned to a familiar face from their days together in Jacksonville when the team signed free agent Mike Peterson.
Peterson looks to transition to the outside in Atlanta’s 4-3 base scheme, a position that he has crosstrained in for multiple years in Jacksonville. He should undoubtedly bring more speed to the weak side, while also having enough strength to hold strong against the run. Maybe most importantly, Peterson adds vocal leadership to a defense that was seriously lacking in that department.
The Falcons turned to the draft with many immediate needs left unfilled in a relatively quiet free agency period. Looking to improve on the league’s 25th ranked rushing defense, Dimitroff and his staff took Peria Jerry with the 24th pick in the draft.
Jerry, a dominating perpetrator in the interior of Ole Miss’ defensive line a year ago, should provide an immediate impact by not only rushing the passer, but also helping stop the run by holding multiple gaps as the team’s starting nose tackle. The team now can rotate Jerry and 330 pound Trey Lewis next to last year’s surprising star Jonathan Babineaux.
The unit that at times looked like a weakness a year ago might end up a strength heading into the new season.
In the second round, the Falcons knew they needed a future replacement for Lawyer Milloy at strong safety. With the 55th pick in the draft, the Falcons took the best safety available by selecting Missouri’s William Moore. Moore was scouted heavily by the Falcons the last couple of seasons at Missouri, and before last year, looked like a potential top 10 pick. Injuries and scheme changes ate into Moore’s stats a year ago; however, his rare blend of size, speed, and ball skills made him too tempting to pass on for the Falcons staff.
Eric Coleman really shined a year ago at free safety, so Moore now has the opportunity to challenge second year Thomas DeCoud for the second starting safety spot. Either way, the Falcons’ secondary will be much younger and faster in 2009, which could be either a good or bad thing.
The strong side linebacker position looks to be solved in-house, as the team has a few experienced and intriguing options already in place. Stephen Nicholas looks to be the starter this season, and will add more strength and toughness at the point of attack. This was a quality that the team lacked from the position a year ago, and eventually led to the benching of starter Michael Boley.
If Nicholas struggles in his transition from backing up the weak side to starter on the strong side, Coy Wire could be have another opportunity. He started a few games last year and delivered a respectable effort. If these guys struggle with the increased playing time, it could be a long season for Falcons fans everywhere.
The team’s defense, on paper, really has no noticeable holes heading into training camp for 2009. The team had to replace many key leaders and will deal with five new starters as a result. The depth chart looks to be set in stone, but the team will hope the new faces will rise to the challenge and find success for next year. If all goes well, Atlanta should be improved on all fronts.
Football is an inexact science, as we all well know. A few injuries or early struggles in key spots may force a few positional changes. Depth could be an issue with the linebacker core, as Mike Peterson, Curtis Lofton, and first year starter Stephen Nicholas do not have many experienced backups outside little used Coy Wire. Look for the team to potentially add another veteran for more depth somewhere down the line.
The team could also use another interior pass rusher to help give Babineaux some breathers. Peria Jerry and Trey Lewis have had frequent injury problems in the past, and this could be an issue when you look at the rest of the DT's on the roster. DE Jamaal Anderson might be used again this year as an alternative option on passing downs on the inside, helping alleviate this problem to a degree.
Corner was an issue heading into last season and was fixed with Dominique Foxworth. He is gone this season, so Chevis Jackson will be relied upon to start opposite Chris Houston. Jackson looked strong in his limited opportunities last season and should be a pleasant surprise.
Brent Grimes and rookie Chris Owens will compete for the nickel spot, and either way, this very young core might be boom or bust heading into this season. If the defensive line struggles again this year to get pressure on the QB, look for opposing offenses to attack the very young and inexperienced secondary early and often.
All in all, the 2009 Atlanta Falcons have many reasons to be optimistic. They should have one of the more dynamic offenses in the league and a younger, faster defense that should be improved from a year ago.
On paper, all of the holes look to be filled for the upcoming season; however, this may change when one considers all of the new faces on defense. If the rookies play up to the level that last year’s rookies did, and the second year guys like Thomas DeCoud and Chevis Jackson step up and continue to improve, the Falcons should be a much better team than they were a year ago, a scary thought for the rest of the NFC.
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