The key for the the remainder of the Atlanta Falcons' 2013 season is going to be figuring out how to get the franchise back on track for 2014.
Atlanta's record now stands at 2-7 with a 33-10 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Week 10. If there was any sliver of hope for the Falcons to turn around their season, that game was the nail in the coffin.
When you have the sort of season that the Falcons are having, there are going to be a lot of changes coming in the offseason. But there are several things the Falcons can do in the calendar year of 2013 to help put themselves in a better position for 2014.
1. Start Jacquizz Rodgers
The Falcons have been unable to get veteran running back Steven Jackson going this year. He missed four games with a hamstring injury, and his return to the lineup in the past three weeks has been underwhelming.
In the past three games, Jackson has rushed for 74 yards on 33 carries for an average of 2.2 yards per carry.
In the past four games, Jacquizz Rodgers has also rushed for 74 yards, but only on 18 carries, an average of 4.1 yards per carry. The Falcons are clearly getting more consistent production from Rodgers in recent weeks.
The Falcons need to realized that Jackson should be utilized primarily as a situational rusher, potentially getting reps in short yardage where his size and power are more effective.
Rodgers' small stature prevents him from being a workhorse running back at this level, yet the Falcons need to think about giving him the majority of carries. His quickness, burst and ability to make defenders miss potentially open up more second-level runs for the Falcons offense.
Simply put, the Falcons rushing attack this year has been unable to sustain anything. With Rodgers, the threat of the big run is much greater and thus gives the Falcons offense better opportunities to be productive.
Jackson's age is also working against him. He's 30 right now, and his play currently suggests that if he is kept by the Falcons next year, it will be only as a situational player. Rodgers is 23 and thus has much greater long-term upside for the Falcons.
It behooves them to find out just how much more of a load Rodgers is capable of carrying. That could determine just how important the running back position is next offseason.
2. Utilize More Zone Blocking
If or when the Falcons make a switch to Rodgers as their lead tailback, it should be coupled with a shift in their blocking scheme to utilize more zone blocking.
Rodgers is a much more effective outside runner, and his small stature and quick-cutting ability make him an ideal fit for an offense that utilizes a lot more stretch plays, the hallmark of the zone-blocking scheme.
Over the years, the Falcons have tried to add more size along their offensive line, evidenced by the additions of Peter Konz, Lamar Holmes and an undrafted free agent like Terren Jones the past few years.
But it has yet to pay off, as the Falcons rushing attack the past few years has been among the league's weakest.
It would be unrealistic to expect the Falcons, who have been primarily a man-blocking team for the past six years, to suddenly make a switch and be the Houston Texans or Seattle Seahawks, two prominent and successful zone-blocking offenses, the rest of the year. But mixing in more zone blocking would benefit Rodgers and potentially Jackson as well, who was effective last year with the St. Louis Rams running stretch plays.
The bottom line is that the current blocking scheme isn't getting the job done, and the Falcons need to be open to change.
3. Play Ryan Schraeder
In conjunction with modifying their blocking scheme, the Falcons need to get increased reps for undrafted rookie Ryan Schraeder.
Schraeder flashed potential this past summer, nearly unseating Lamar Holmes as the starting right tackle after Mike Johnson went down with injury. Since then, Schraeder has spent most of the season on the bench.
The Falcons don't need to start Schraeder but should work to ease him into the lineup. Jeremy Trueblood hasn't been bad at right tackle this year, but he's not going to be an option moving forward for the Falcons. He's simply a stopgap player and thus platooning him with Schraeder would be a smart move.
Schraeder also possesses good size and athleticism and could potentially be a better fit in a zone-heavy blocking scheme than players like Holmes and Trueblood.
The Falcons need to find out what they have in Schraeder, and that can only occur by putting him on the field.
4. Start Paul Worrilow at Middle Linebacker
Another undrafted rookie who has merited more reps is linebacker Paul Worrilow. He has filled in admirably for an injured Sean Weatherspoon at weak-side linebacker the past few weeks.
Worrilow has turned in two consecutive 19-tackle performances the past two games. If Weatherspoon returns to the starting lineup next week, the Falcons need to continue to get Worrilow reps.
Worrilow spent the preseason primarily working at middle linebacker behind Akeem Dent and played well, flashing good range and instincts.
Dent simply has done little in a year-and-a-half to showcase that he is a long-term option at middle linebacker. Worrilow, as an undrafted rookie, looks much further along than Dent, who is now in his third year in the NFL.
At the very least, the Falcons will have to open up the competition at middle linebacker next offseason between Worrilow and Dent. But it's time that they get a jump on that competition by benching Dent and promoting Worrilow to permanent starter alongside Weatherspoon in the middle.
5. Add a Veteran Wide Receiver
One of the key problems the Falcons have struggled with is the loss of Julio Jones at the wide receiver position. In five games with Jones in the lineup, quarterback Matt Ryan had a passer rating of 100.9, among the best in the league.
In four games without Jones, Ryan's passer rating has fallen to 76.7, which is among the league's worst.
It's clear that the Falcons need a playmaking receiver to have an effective offense. The plan that the young receivers behind Jones would be able to step up and provide that has clearly worked against the Falcons.
The player the Falcons tapped to replace Jones on the roster was journeyman Brian Robiskie. Robiskie has spent the past three games inactive and is not contributing. It would be better for the Falcons to part ways with Robiskie and find a more explosive young receiver who can start to contribute on Sunday with the eventual goal of solidifying depth next year.
Several of these moves and changes are potential examples of the Falcons admitting they've made some mistakes. And whether or not they are willing to change will be highly indicative of whether the Falcons can get back on track in 2014.
But if they continue to show complete faith in players like Steven Jackson, Brian Robiskie, Jeremy Trueblood and Akeem Dent, it will be a strong indicator that the Falcons still are making the mistakes that have gotten them in their current predicament.
Even with 2014 a year away, decisions the Falcons make now in 2013 could have a significant impact then.
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