Potential Answers for the Atlanta Falcons' Biggest Offseason Question Marks
The Atlanta Falcons, like many teams, entered this offseason with a lot of questions. Some were answered already by players returning from injury, while others were addressed through moves made in the draft and free agency.
Unfortunately, some don't look like they have been answered at all. The biggest questions from 2013 will have to be properly addressed, and soon—otherwise, the Falcons could be looking at their first back-to-back losing seasons since 2006 and 2007.
Will the Falcons Have an Improved Running Game?
In 2013, the Falcons had the worst rushing attack in the NFL. They ranked last in rushing yards per game and were 24th in average yards per carry. The lack of commitment to a rushing attack, combined with poor run blocking, were the main factors that hurt the Falcons' rushing attack.
Steven Jackson's injury wasn't helpful for the rushing offense, either. On the bright side, the Falcons rarely fumbled the ball last season, putting the ball on the ground just once all year. This season should be much improved for Atlanta. The offensive line should be much better, for instance, after replacing three starters from 2013's team.
Adding the speedy Devonta Freeman and a healthy Jackson to Antone Smith and Jacquizz Rodgers won't hurt, either. Atlanta possesses the talent to have a very good running game this year—they just have to stay committed to it.
How Will the Falcons Replace the Future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez?
The biggest question in Atlanta’s 2014 offense is how they can replace the production from Tony Gonzalez over the middle and in the red zone. The first thought is that Levine Toilolo can replace some of that red-zone production with his long frame and basketball background.
However, he’s untested and will be a work in progress there until he starts to establish himself. Mickey Shuler, Bear Pascoe, Brian Wozniak and Jacob Pedersen don’t settle this question either. So the Falcons will need contributions outside of their tight ends.
Julio Jones, Roddy White and Harry Douglas will all have to line up and produce from the slot. With their speed mismatches on linebackers and physicality mismatches on safeties, this could be the ideal situation for Atlanta. But they have to rely on Douglas coming close to last year’s production.
Will Atlanta's Offensive Line Still Be the Worst in the League?
After looking completely incompetent as both pass- and run-blockers in 2013, the Falcons needed to make some wholesale changes along the entire offensive line. The first and perhaps most important change was made during the 2013 season when Joe Hawley took the starting center role from Peter Konz.
Justin Blalock was a true rock at left guard all year, and while he isn’t a top-10 guard in the league, he's still an above-average starter. With a healthy Sam Baker and a more experienced Lamar Holmes, the line looked better before making any moves.
Then the Falcons made a statement that they needed a talent infusion for their line with their personnel decisions. Minor signings like Mike Johnson and Gabe Carimi for depth were overshadowed by the major signing of Jon Asamoah to lock down right guard for the foreseeable future. Add in a potential Hall of Fame-level talent in Jake Matthews, and Atlanta drastically upgraded the talent on the line.
It wasn’t just the talent that was upgraded, though. The Falcons also chose to get tougher by hiring Mike Tice as the offensive line coach. With his tough-but-fair coaching style, the offensive line should be much nastier than it has been under head coach Mike Smith.
In the seventh year of Thomas Dimitroff and Smith running the Falcons, they should finally have a line that can take care of Matt Ryan while also creating rushing lanes for Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers, Antone Smith and Devonta Freeman.
Atlanta's Extremely Inexperienced Linebacker Depth Going to Be a Hindrance?
When you take out an injured Sean Weatherspoon and the recently signed Tim Dobbins, the Falcons' off-ball linebacking corps has a combined two years of experience after also trading Akeem Dent. Both of those years were hard-earned in last year’s debacle of a season by Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu.
The combination of Prince Shembo, Yawin Smallwood and Marquis Spruill gives Atlanta a unique set of linebackers. However, much like running backs, rookie linebackers can create an impact early if called upon. Worrilow and Bartu are perfect examples of that from their 2013 performances.
The Falcons will be able to mold these linebackers into exactly what they want. While they won’t have the experience at linebacker that they had in 2013, it will be for the best when these linebackers start to improve upon their recent collective performance.
Where Is the Falcons' Pass Rush Coming From?
The biggest question relating to the Falcons' defensive success this year comes from the ability to create a pass rush. The Falcons passed up multiple opportunities to trade up and get either Jadeveon Clowney or Khalil Mack in the 2014 draft.
So they will have to rely on their interior defensive linemen to create push in the middle to open up lanes for blitzers to create pressure. Guys like Tyson Jackson, Ra’Shede Hageman and Jonathan Babineaux will have to take on doubles to allow outside pressure to get home.
Atlanta doesn’t seem to have that dominant outside threat. However, don’t be shocked if the Falcons get big contributions from third-year player Jonathan Massaquoi. He’s the dark horse to break 10 sacks and look like a legitimate long-term option as the Falcons' star rusher.
Also, Osi Umenyiora should be in a much better spot as a rotational pass rusher and could wind up getting close to double digits himself. The Falcons should also have quite a few guys with four or five sacks on the roster while generating pressure both inside and outside.
The Falcons' pass rush may not have that one big name, but as a whole, they should be able to provide pressure that will allow quarterbacks less time than they had in 2013. If the scheme works to perfection, the Falcons could wind up with 40-45 total sacks, despite not having a premier rusher.
All stats used are from Pro Football Focus' Premium Stats (subscription required), ESPN.com, CFBStats or NFL.com. All combine and pro day info is courtesy of NFLDraftScout.com. All contract information is courtesy of Spotrac and Rotoworld.
Scott Carasik is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. He covers the Atlanta Falcons, college football, the NFL and the NFL draft. He also runs DraftFalcons.com.
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