The Atlanta Falcons come into the 2010 season riding a wave of optimism, despite missing the playoffs last year. After finally posting back-to-back winning seasons, and with several key components back from a year ago, the Falcons are indeed flying high.
With key cogs to a potent offense back, healthy and rearing to go, conventional wisdom dictates that the offense will play the biggest role to the team's success.
Here, then, is a look at five reasons why the Falcons defense is prepared to take on all challengers on their way to becoming a top-10 defense in 2010.
5. Kroy Biermann
This high-energy defensive line member from Montana looks to continue progressing. He'll become a legitimate force on the field. Selected 154th overall in the 2008 draft, this small school prospect did not pass by Thomas Dimitroff. Biermann has shown flashes during his budding career.
By all accounts, he is showing promise while adding bulk to aid. He's becoming a complete package.
With John Abraham on the opposite side, and first-round disappointment Jamaal Anderson failing to make an impact, Biermann's role is key to the improved defense.
Biermann chipped in five sacks, six QB hits, and 14 QB pressures last year. He has more than just potential to post significantly better numbers, considering how porous the coverage was last year.
His teammates and coaches have been quick to praise Biermann and his desire to capitalize on the opportunity.
"Biermann has matured a lot and he's showing it on the field and he's also showing it out here," John Abraham said.
4. Peria Jerry
While Jerry hasn't greatly produced in his small, sample size of plays, he is crucial to the Falcons' success. In the limited time he played before suffering a season-ending injury, he took on double teams, showed good quickness, and displayed a high level of promise.
And while early reports are that he is not 100 percent healthy quite yet, the improved depth of the DT position ensures we get Jerry at the right time.
The Falcons defensive interior shows greater depth and talent with essentially two rookies, Jerry and Peters. This will help ease pressure off of John Abraham, and help open things up for the Falcons ends to excel.
3. Dunta Robinson
After six seasons with the Texans, Robinson became one of the league's highest-paid cornerbacks when the Falcons signed him to a six-year contract, with $25 million in guaranteed money.
Needless to say, expectations are high for the young cornerback.
The Atlanta Falcons secondary was oft-targeted by fans, critics, and media alike for their failure to stop the pass. Ranked 28th last season, the Falcons secondary gave up 55 plays of 20 yards or more.
To address these issues, longtime fan "favorite" Chris Houston was traded to Detroit, Brian Williams was re-signed, and the team drafted Dominique Franks in the fifth round.
With a bevy of promising youngsters at corner, the Falcons look to have both talent, depth, and the right mix of veteran play.
Tim Lewis, who replaces popular Emmitt Thomas as secondary coach, raved about Robinson.
"His natural defensive back ability is fantastic. We're thrilled and fortunate to have him. The leadership that he brings is fantastic."
With Dunta becoming the true No. 1 cornerback that the Falcons have so badly needed, Robinson is saying and doing all the right things early on.
"Right now I'm just trying to be a team player and buy into this system and learn the way they do things around here."
Along with Brian Williams's return to the lineup, Robinson and youngsters Brent Grimes, who had six INTs last year, and Christopher Owens provide the Falcons with a formidable top four.
2. Linebacking Core
Falcons middle linebacker Curtis Lofton headlines this group. He finished tied for sixth in league tackles with 133 last season. A budding star, but one that still needs work in coverage techniques, Lofton is the anchor of our defense.
Veteran Mike Peterson seemed to wear down in the later stages last year. But his leadership plays a huge role in both Lofton and Weatherspoon's development.
Stephen Nicholas will continue to build on last year's performance, where he posted 53 solo tackles and three sacks.
The linebacking core did experience a glaring issue in pass coverage. They were exposed by short routes underneath.
The Falcons selected Sean Weatherspoon with their first pick. Witherspoon is impressing veterans, and stands to contribute a great deal in the way of pass coverage ability.
Improvement in coverage is more than expected and will contribute to more QB hurries, more sacks, and more pressure.
1. John Abraham
It is no secret to Atlanta Falcon fans that John Abraham had a down year in 2009. Abraham eked out just 4.5 sacks. And when you remove his big game against Miami, the year seems a lot worse.
But as the old cliche goes, and especially in this case, statistics can be misleading. Abraham registered nine QB hits, with 33 QB pressures. Given the poor performance by the secondary, a split second added can spell a lot more sacks.
Further analysis of when these sacks occurred demonstrates the Falcons secondary weaknesses last year. Atlanta's pass rush on first down posted 11 of their 28 sacks, five on second down, and 12 on third down.
The most telling of that group would logically be third down, in which the defense ranked 21st in the league.
It seems logical on a clear passing down, such as third down, that our numbers should increase, given the infusion of talent and depth in the secondary.
John Abraham knows, more than anyone, that he disappointed last year. His sack production, which dropped from 16.5 to 5.5, created whispers that he's lost a step.
However, if you look back on these down years, Abraham has rebounded with a superior effort going back to his NY Jet days.
He will benefit from Jerry's return. The continued strong play of Babineaux, Biermann, and the improved depth along the defensive front will help. Abraham will benefit from improved coverage from both the secondary and linebacking units.
While the Falcons' projection into a top-10 defense seems premature, they did rank 10th or better in run defense, yards per carry, and fewest rushing touchdowns allowed.
With the changes to the secondary in the offseason, addressing the team's glaring weakness on defense, the Falcons will finish in the top 10 in team defense.