Are the Atlanta Falcons Finally "For Real"?: 2009 Team Preview

Mike Foster@michaelsfosterCorrespondent IJune 17, 2009

ATLANTA - AUGUST 22: Wide receiver Michael Jenkins #12 of the Atlanta Falcons enters the field during pre-game ceremonies against the Tennessee Titans at the Georgia Dome on August 22, 2008 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

The Atlanta Falcons put away the Michael Vick era rather promptly and with serious intent this past season.

The Birds' accolades included having the NFL Coach of the Year (Mike Smith), the NFL Rookie of the Year (Matt Ryan), two Pro Bowl selections in Roddy White and Michael Turner, a definite Pro Bowl snub in John Abraham, and most importantly, an 11-win regular season.

Though Atlanta's momentum dissipated into the thin, hot air of Arizona, the Falcons featured the determination, pride, and attitude of a championship team in 2008.

So, as you all well know, when a team starts to actually do something in Atlanta, we like to go bonkers and talk the highest of talk.

Right now, the feeling in Atlanta is high expectations...maybe even Super Bowl expectations.

The addition of Tony Gonzalez gives Atlanta a fantasy player's dream team on offense, however despite off-season implications Atlanta seemed to lose more than they gained on defense.

So where is Atlanta going to end up in 2009? Last year, they featured a good offense with a so-so defense. Heading into this year, they seem to have one of the most loaded offenses, but a less than impressive personnel on defense.

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Matt Ryan is definitely the new face of the franchise, and most people believe we finally have a quarterback who will stick around and win games for us on a consistent basis. Ryan showed the poise of a veteran last year.

Most people look at his stats, which include nearly 3,500 yards of passing and a 61 percent completion rate, but it was the stuff that does not go down on paper that led me to believe Ryan has a long and illustrious career ahead of him.

Atlanta asked Ryan to lead a hurry-up offense for the majority of the year, and he ran it extremely well. Ryan showed leadership on and off the field that Michael Vick never had the courage to exert.

Having a quarterback who not only performs, but has accepted his tag as a leader, is something all championship teams have and all non-championship teams lack.

Then you take a look at Atlanta's offensive line. They basically return last year's unit, minus Todd Weiner at tackle. The Falcons' offensive line, which has basically been the same for the past two seasons, went from allowing 47 sacks in 2007 to an astounding 17 in '08.

Not only that, but they helped push ahead one of the best running attacks in the NFL.

The skill positions on offense are completely loaded. Michael Turner leads the backfield after having a pro bowl season and leading the NFL in rushing touchdowns. Turner is listed as a top five fantasy player by just about every football pundit out there.

Behind Turner is one of the most overlooked playmakers in the NFL. Jerious Norwood has been a major spark on offense for the Falcons ever since his arrival in 2005.

Norwood is a threat to score everytime he touches the ball, and proved he is a game changer last season.

Norwood made the three biggest plays against the Rams in the final game of the year. Not having Norwood is like a pitcher not having a pitch other than a fastball. Norwood is extremely valuable.

At receiver, the Falcons a did not make a single change this offseason. The starters will be Roddy White and Michael Jenkins, and Harry Douglas and Brian Finneran follow.

White had his second straight 1,000+ yard season and will be coming into this year with more confidence than ever. Michael Jenkins went from being Mr. Useless to Mr. Valuable last season. Jenkins, much like White, proved that he can be a major offensive weapon.

I cannot remember Jenkins dropping a ball all of last year, but I can remember him making a number of amazing plays.

From catching a deep ball while getting yanked down by the facemask to making one of the biggest catches in franchise history, Jenkins has earned the respect of the coaches and fans.

Harry Douglas was another eye-popping performer from 2008. Douglas not only was an extremely impressive slot receiver in just his first year, but he ignited the return game, which had been miserable since the departure of Allen Rossum.

Douglas is a well-rounded receiver, and is purely a slot receiver. The Falcons' receiving unit ends with veteran Brian Finneran, who is a reliable target who uses his frame and height to get leverage on defenders. Finneran is a valuable situational receiver.

And then we add in future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez? This offense is on paper, n-a-s-t-y.

The Falcons' issues however seem to be on defense. Apparently, Atlanta will look for two to three, or even four rookies to start or get substantial playing time in 2009.

While Atlanta lost Keith Brooking, Michael Boley, Grady Jackson, Lawyer Milloy, and Domonique Foxworth, their only veteran signing on defense was to replace an outside linebacker with former Jacksonville standout Mike Peterson.

It appears the draft is where the Falcons looked for defensive staples (which raises a red flag to me). Peria Jerry will fill in for Grady Jackson at defensive tackle.

William Moore, who was an underacheiver in his senior season at Mizzou will start in place of Milloy. Also, Christopher Owens seems to be a guy that could potentially start at corner.

The only guy we can really trust as of now in the defensive backfield is Erik Coleman at safety. Coleman led all Falcon defenders in interceptions last year.

Other options for corner include second-year player Chevis Jackson or the mighty mite Brent Grimes. Jackson showed some play-making potential at nickel back last year, while Grimes was a hit-or-miss corner who saw less action as the season went along.

The biggest concern for me is that Atlanta's apparent staple corner, Chris Houston, still has not proven a reliable player despite all of his talent.

Houston is a better cover corner than DeAngelo Hall was. However, for some reason, Houston had trouble making plays on the ball last year.

It appeared to be more of a confidence issue than anything. A lot of times, great coverage still led to completions because Houston would not turn to make a play on the ball. If Houston can fix a few minor issues, he could become quite a player.

The defensive line is definitely Atlanta's strongpoint. Peria Jerry was a stud defensive tackle at Ole Miss and is expected to make an immediate impact.

The other defensive tackle, Jonathan Babineaux, has become one of the more solid players on the defense.

We all know how good John Abraham is, especially after recording 16.5 sacks last year. However, Jamaal Anderson appears to be the frontrunner for starting at the other end for Atlanta this year. Anderson has struggled in his first two years as a rush end.

Other options at the defensive end position are Chauncey Davis, who has been way more productive than Anderson, or the rookie from Richmond, Lawrence Sidbury.

The linebacker positions seem to be pretty solid. Curtis Lofton, a second-year player from Oklahoma, will be asked to start at middle linebacker again this season. Lofton was not a standout player last year; however, he did not make many bad plays either.

Mike Peterson was the Falcons' big signee on defense during the off-season, and is expected to start outside linebacker. Peterson was the Jaguars' top linebacker consistently for the past few years, and was coached part of that time by Atlanta's head coach Mike Smith.

The other outside linebacker is the only other spot that scares me. Coy Wire is projected to start at that spot as of now. Wire filled in for Michael Boley during the final fourth of the season last year. He made a handful of very solid plays, and became a favorite over Boley.

However, Wire has not hit the field quite enough for us to know whether he is a stud or a fluke. Other options for the position include Stephen Nicholas, who was one of Atlanta's more prized draft choices from 2007.

Overall, if the Falcons' defense can do more than just fill in for the lost souls, than Atlanta should be one of the top NFC teams. The offense is sure to be nearly unstoppable, but the defense must prove they can do more than just force turnovers.

With a young group of defensive starters, it will be interesting to see how that turns out. Atlanta did lose veteran leadership last year, however that veteran leadership was starting to look old and rusty.

Combine a youthful and athletic defense with one of the most potent offenses, and the Falcons are definitely looking "For Real."

Team Depth Chart (Projected)

Quarterback: #2 Matt Ryan, #8 Chris Redman, #3 DJ Shockley/ (R) #4 John Parker Wilson

Tailback: (PB) #33 Michael Turner, #32 Jerious Norwood, #27 Thomas Brown

Fullback: #34 Ovie Mughelli, #44 Jason Snelling

Receiver: (PB) #84 Roddy White, #12 Michael Jenkins, #83 Harry Douglas, #86 Brian Finneran, #14 Eric Weems

Tight End: (PB) #88 Tony Gonzalez, #87 Justin Peelle, #89 Ben Hartsock

Tackle: #72 Sam Baker, #73 Harvey Dahl

Guard: # 77 Tyson Clabo, #63 Justin Blalock

Center: # 62 Todd McClure, (PB) #61 Jeremy Newberry

Defensive End: (PB) #55 John Abraham, #98 Jamaal Anderson, #92 Chauncey Davis,  (R) #90 Lawrence Sidbury

Defensive Tackle: #95 Jonathan Babineaux, (R) #94 Peria Jerry, #97 Trey Lewis

Middle Linebacker: #50 Curtis Lofton, #51 Tony Gilbert

Outside Linebacker: #53 Mike Peterson, #54 Stephen Nicholas, #52 Coy Wire

Cornerback: #23 Chris Houston, #22 Chevis Jackson, (R) #21 Chris Owens, #20 Brent Grimes, (R) #35 William Middleton

Safety: #26 Erik Coleman, (R)#24 William Moore, #29 Jamaal Fudge, #28 Thomas Decoud

Kicker: #1 (PB) Jason Elam

Punter: #9 Michael Koenen

Kick Return: #32 Jerious Norwood

Punt Return: #83 Harry Douglas

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