10 Keys to Atlanta Falcons Returning to Super Bowl Form in 2014-15
Arthur Blank thought he was getting a team that would be heading to a Super Bowl in 2014. Instead, the Atlanta Falcons are scratching their head wondering how to get back to playoff form next season and what moves they will have to make to get there.
The biggest issues come from a lack of talent in key roles. Atlanta would be wise to proactively attack the following 10 weaknesses.
Get a Running Back Who Can Be a Workhorse
Steven Jackson was supposed to be the workhorse running back the Falcons were missing when Michael Turner was cut this past offseason. However, he has been fighting through injuries all season and has given Atlanta a total of 255 yards on his 74 carries. He's also gained just 128 yards on 20 catches.
Atlanta had some contributions from Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling that were solid. But the Falcons didn't have one guy who could carry the load. Atlanta needs to get someone who can be that 20-carry guy they really need.
There are a ton of options in the coming draft, but one of the best is James White from Wisconsin. He could come in and be a perfect platoon player with Rodgers as the semi-power back. He also shouldn't go too early in the draft.
Another option could be for the Falcons to just sign someone as an undrafted player and hope he wins the job. With Snelling and Jackson both over 30 years of age by the end of next season, the Falcons should try to get a good bit younger at running back while they look for their workhorse.
Get Julio Jones Healthy and Ready for a Run
With Julio Jones injured, the Falcons lose an explosive threat on the offense. Not only that, they lose a guy who other teams have to game-plan for. So Atlanta needs to make sure he is 100 percent healthy from his foot injury going into the 2014 season.
Julio was on pace for 131 catches for 1,856 yards and six touchdowns in the 2013 season when he went down with the foot injury. With a healthy Julio, the Falcons have a guy who can be an explosive option, make all the tough catches and who is a No. 1 option.
The Falcons have a top-five receiver in the NFL in Jones when he's healthy. So get him healthy, make sure he's ready and start to win some more games.
There's already been one game—against New Orleans—since his injury that the Falcons looked like they could have won with him on the field.
Add Another Explosive Weapon to the WR, TE or RB Corps
Atlanta's offense has just one truly explosive threat on offense—Julio Jones. Sure, Harry Douglas can provide some deep passes when he's called upon, but Atlanta needs multiple threats all around the team who could take one to the house at any time. It's something New Orleans has that Atlanta doesn't.
New Orleans has 45 20-plus yard passing plays this season. Atlanta has just 32. New Orleans has 11 40-plus yard passing plays this season. Atlanta has just eight. Atlanta needs to add an explosive element to the offense so that it can start scoring more on offense.
That's a big reason why the Falcons should bring in someone like Andre Roberts at wide receiver, Jace Amaro, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Eric Ebron at tight end or even a weapon like Dri Archer. Not only could they help add an explosive element on deep passes, they could also work the underneath routes into big gains.
With these elements, the Falcons could win the NFC South again. Only this time, they won't need to rely on Jones as their only option. Douglas has shown that he can be an asset on the deep ball, and they can bring in someone who can take screens the distance.
Prioritize Pass Protection on the Offensive Line
Matt Ryan is the franchise. He's the one whom the Falcons will live and die with. And Atlanta needs to protect him much better than it has this season. In 2012, the Falcon had his best year of his career and was sacked 26 times, hit 42 times and pressured 122 times.
In 2013, through just 11 games, he has been sacked 23 times, hit 32 times and pressured 132 times. That means he's on pace to be sacked 33 times, hit 47 times and pressured 192 times. That's an increase of 27 percent in sacks, 12 percent in hits and 57 percent in pressures from 2012.
This is completely unacceptable. Atlanta needs to protect the franchise. It needs to make sure it has the best five pass-blockers out there at all times. If those end up being guys who may not be the best run or screen blockers, so be it.
But the Falcons need to keep Ryan upright and make sure that he can attack opposing defenses every single chance he gets. Who those five are is a mystery, but the Falcons do have the talent on the line with Sam Baker, Lamar Holmes, Justin Blalock and Joe Hawley. They just have to get healthy.
Figure out How to Create Better Push with the Offensive Line in the Run Game
Atlanta is one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to running the ball. The Falcons are 31st in the league in yards per game at 74.7 and 22nd in the league in yards per carry at 4.0. And while there has been improvement over the past few weeks, it needs to continue.
Atlanta needs to start giving Matt Ryan a legitimate rushing attack to combine with his passing abilities. With just 20-23 carries per game going their way, it needs to figure out how to gain closer to 85 yards and not 75 yards on those carries.
And that all starts up front. With the current unit, the Falcons are mixing and matching their players way too much. But if they can figure out how to get a road-grading right guard (or even turn Peter Konz into a talented guard in a zone-blocking scheme), the running game could get that much better.
Factor in a returning Sam Baker on the left side and a hopeful re-signing of Joe Hawley—who in two games has outplayed Konz on the season—at center, the Falcons could have a legitimately good offensive line again.
Somehow Replace Tony Gonzalez
Tony Gonzalez looks likely to retire after the 2013 season. And the Falcons need to make sure they have a proper replacement for him. As much as fans want to see Levine Toilolo develop into something, the Falcons need to actually use him at the end of this season.
If the staff doesn't believe that Toilolo is the guy, the 2014 draft is going to be deep in top-level tight end talent. But the Falcons should also have a ton of cap space in 2014. Enough to where if they can sign Jimmy Graham, they should be able to fit him under the cap.
And just how scary would an offense be with Graham—or a guy like him in Jace Amaro from Texas Tech—Julio Jones, Roddy White and multiple other explosive options in the receiving corps?
Get a Dynamic, Explosive Pass-Rusher from the Edge
The Atlanta Falcons have had at least one dynamic pass-rusher who could get 10 sacks in a season since 1999 when they drafted Patrick Kerney. Between Kerney and the 2006 acquisition of John Abraham, Atlanta has had two guys who could get after a quarterback every play and force defenses to scheme against them.
However, with Osi Umenyiora the Falcons don't have that dynamic pass-rusher. They don't even have a second-tier pass-rusher. At best, they have a guy who can get seven sacks in a season and multiple solid blitzers instead of a premier guy who forces game plans around him.
That's why the team needs to make getting a monster like Jadeveon Clowney its highest priority. The 6'6", 275-pound defensive end is a Bill Walsh 4-3 prototype who just happens to be able to line up standing in a 3-4 at rush linebacker or have his hand in the dirt as a 4-3 end.
Mike Nolan would love to have someone of Clowney's caliber on his defensive line who could create many opportunities for the talented South Carolina force. Add back Kroy Biermann from injury and some more talent along the line, and Atlanta could have a dominating pass rush if it can just get the explosive centerpiece.
Get a Big Defensive Tackle for Running Downs, Pass-Rusher for Passing Downs
Corey Peters is one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL at drawing double-teams and allowing his teammates to gain glory from them. By personal count, he's taken double-teams on 67 percent of his pass rushes and 64 percent of his running downs.
He still is just behind Jonathan Babineaux in tackles—Babineaux has 31; Peters has 30—and Peria Jerry in sacks—Jerry has 3.5; Peters has 3.0. Because of all of that, Peters should be the only one of the three re-signed this offseason. However, Atlanta needs to give him some support.
Ideally, the Falcons get a big-bodied tackle for running downs like Linval Joseph in free agency or a Daniel McCullers in the draft. Either guy would allow the Falcons to have someone to take on the double-teams more effectively than Peters does and free Peters up in the 3-technique.
In addition to that, Atlanta needs someone who is a true pass-rusher from the 3-technique to rotate in and spell the monster they would bring in. Ideally, someone like Stephon Tuitt or Lamarr Houston who could also play defensive end would be the best-case scenario.
Atlanta needs to start getting better push on the inside and start taking care of its linebackers. The only way to do that is by bringing in a pair of defensive tackles who can team with Peters to create pressure and take double-teams together on the inside.
Get a Dynamic Linebacker Who Can Do What Kroy Biermann Does
For how talented Kroy Biermann looked in 2012, his role was only looking to expand in 2013. But in the St. Louis game in Week 2, he suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in his ankle and hasn't seen the field since.
Coming back from an Achilles tendon injury is tough, and Atlanta needs someone who can replace him if he can't come back full strength. This is where Atlanta should look at some of the top defensive end and linebacker prospects in the draft.
Guys like Jeremiah Attaochu, Kyle Van Noy, Anthony Barr and Khalil Mack would be insanely good prospects for the role. Another option could be trying out Chase Thomas in the same role.
But Atlanta needs to make sure it has the talent on the field who can do what Biermann does—someone who can rush the passer effectively but also play well in coverage; someone who can shut down the edge runs and tackle efficiently.
Right now, the defense is missing that without Biermann healthy, and as much as Joplo Bartu has been trying to fill the void, he's just not the same caliber player.
Get an Explosive Returning Talent Who Can Take One to the House
Jacquizz Rodgers, Harry Douglas and Robert McClain are all excellent return men and have been showing solid ability to make sure that the Falcons maintain good field position. However, none of them are explosive touchdown threats when back deep for a kick or punt.
With multiple options in the coming draft like De'Anthony Thomas or Dri Archer, the Falcons could take someone on the third day of the draft who would be able to come right in and add explosiveness to the offense as well as the return game.
If Atlanta could get someone who is able to return a touchdown as both a punt and a kick returner, it would be an explosive team in all three phases. That's something they have been missing in the Mike Smith era, but something all Super Bowl winners have.
Scott Carasik is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. He covers the Atlanta Falcons, NFL and NFL draft. He also runs DraftFalcons.com.