5 Biggest Areas of Concern for the Atlanta Falcons Heading into Training Camp
When a team goes 4-12 like the Atlanta Falcons did in 2013, there are quite a few areas of concern. But the biggest ones are what normally stand out. The top areas of concern are the ones that would lead to fans saying, "If this was better, the team would win way more often."
And while improving their defensive tackles and defensive linemen was important, that part of the team looks like a strength right now in the run game. So this will focus on the areas that the Falcons still have concerns about heading into training camp.
The Falcons' running game was one of the worst in the NFL last year because Steven Jackson went down early in the year for quite a few games. He wasn't able to break 1,000 yards rushing for the first time since his rookie season and wasn't able to pass 300 yards receiving for the first time since 2007.
Jackson will have to stay healthy during the 2014 season. However, even if he does, he's on the decline and the Falcons need to get some contributions from the other backs on the roster. So training camp will consist of seeing what Antone Smith, Devonta Freeman and Jacquizz Rodgers bring to the table.
Jason Snelling's retirement will also leave a hole behind Jackson as a power back. Jerome Smith will have to compete with veteran Josh Vaughan for the role of thumping reserve. Antone Smith is a great gunner and did well in limited action, but he shouldn't see more than a couple of snaps a game.
Rodgers has a ton of natural talent as a change-of-pace back, but there's no reason for him to play anything more than that. He's not a pure all-around starter because he doesn't have either the breakaway speed or size and strength to be a three-down back.
On the other hand, Freeman does. He weighs over 205 pounds on a 5'8" frame. He's similar to Warrick Dunn in that he has excellent breakaway speed and deceptive power for his frame. If the Falcons can get him up to speed as a pass-blocker and receiver, he could legitimately beat out Jackson for the starting role.
Replacing Tony Gonzalez's Production
It’s always tough when you try to replace a Hall of Fame player. Even if that Hall of Fame player looked like he was just above average last season in his final year, the Falcons need to make sure they have someone who can at least replace some aspect of what Tony Gonzalez gave them.
They do have some candidates, whp will have to show up effectively during training camp. Of those players, the one who’ll get the first crack at the starting job is Stanford graduate Levine Toilolo. The 6’7", 265-pound giant will have to show that he’s as good as he is tall if the Falcons want him to replace Gonzalez.
Toilolo needs to show that he can be the same kind of red-zone monster that Gonzalez was. He needs to show that he’s at least as good, if not a better, as a blocker as well. The Falcons also need to see what they have in Mickey Shuler, Bear Pascoe and the rookie free agents Brian Wozniak and Jacob Pedersen.
Wozniak and Pascoe are more than likely going to battle for a role of blocking tight end. Neither one of them is a great receiver, but they both have solid hands and should be good underneath targets for the Falcons in 2nd-and-short and 3rd-and-short situations.
Shuler and Pedersen both fit the H-back role as the kind of tight end who floats around the formation and creates mismatches with his speed against linebackers and safeties. The Falcons need just one tight end to look like he can take the starting role, though. If they get that, they may never replace Gonzalez, but they could at least get production from the spot.
Replacing Sean Weatherspoon on and off the Field
When Sean Weatherspoon went down, the Atlanta linebackers went from looking like a potential strength to looking like a potential weakness in the eyes of most national media. Bleacher Report’s own Matt Miller even called the Falcons linebackers the worst in the entire NFL.
This is a bit harsh, considering the circumstances, for the Falcons linebackers are mainly rookies, second-year undrafted free agents, Kroy Biermann and a third-year project player in Jonathan Massaquoi. Despite a poor overall defensive showing, the Falcons linebackers showed potential in 2013.
Joplo Bartu will have to prove that he is more than just a one-year talent, and Massaquoi will have to take the next step in his development and start looking more like Cameron Wake or Elvis Dumervil than like the pure run-stuffer he looked like in 2013.
Biermann will have to prove that he’s ready to return to action after the Achilles injury he suffered in 2013. But the biggest jump will have to be made by Paul Worrilow. He’s going to have to show that he’s ready for the green dot and de facto captainship of the defense.
He’ll have to take that next step on the field and show that he can cover more ground in the passing game. But if anyone is up to the challenge, it’d be Worrilow. Worrilow is going to be a great middle linebacker in the NFL. The only question is whether it’s going to happen sooner rather than later.
Where the Pass Rush Is Going to Come from
Atlanta’s pass rush in 2013 was one of the worst in the NFL. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), they had just 37 sacks, 33 hits and 150 pressures during the 601 total pass plays they defended. That means they pressured quarterbacks just 36.6 percent of the time.
That will have to improve drastically for Atlanta's scoring defense to improve. More pressure will also mean more poor decisions and turnovers for the Falcons defense to switch the field. The Falcons need to get off the field quickly on every defensive series, or else it will be a long season.
One way to improve the pass rush is to improve the run defense and force teams into 3rd-and-long and 2nd-and-long situations. By forcing longer-yardage situations on second and third downs, the defensive front seven can pin their ears back and get after the quarterbacks.
Adding Paul Soliai, Tyson Jackson and Ra’Shede Hageman this offseason should easily help with the run defense by simply adding more bulk up front that wasn’t previously there. The Falcons will need their linebackers to continue to take the next step in the run game as well.
If all of that happens, blitzing linebackers and edge players like Jonathan Massaquoi, Kroy Biermann and Osi Umenyiora could be in for a year where all three come close to double-digit sacks. This along with Mike Nolan’s "40 sacks from 10 guys" philosophy on defense should help improve pass rush.
Offensive Line Revamp
The Atlanta Falcons' biggest hole in 2013 was the turnstile at right guard and right tackle. Add in poor play from an inexperienced Lamar Holmes at left tackle, and Atlanta needed to make some wholesale changes across its offensive line.
In 2013, the Falcons allowed Matt Ryan to get hit 45 times on top of the 40 sacks allowed, according to ProFootballFocus.com. Oh, and Ryan was also pressured 206 times for a total of 301 quarterback disruptions on his 703 dropbacks, meaning he was pressured 42.8 percent of the time.
The run game wasn’t much better, as Atlanta had the least amount of rushing yards in the league and 24th best yards per carry average in the NFL. The offensive line needed to drastically improve, so the Falcons went out and got Jon Asamoah in free agency and drafted Jake Matthews No. 6 overall.
Atlanta will also get Sam Baker back from a knee injury that sidelined him for all but three games in 2013. The combination of getting Baker back and having Asamoah and Matthews on the right side of the line should give Atlanta one of the better offensive lines it has had in years—at least on paper.
The group will have to show it is getting the requisite chemistry needed to be a top-level offensive line during training camp. It will also have to show that it is much better than it was in 2013—although, that shouldn’t be too hard. Atlanta’s 2013 offensive line was… well, offensive.
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.