Mike Smith Head Coach Atlanta Falcons

Last season the Falcons continued to make strides toward their ultimate goal of winning the big game. The team has clearly made their decision to ride Matt Ryan as far as he will take them. And nobody is suggesting that it is a bad idea. He has continued to improve as a quarterback, and along with the other improvements they have made, the team hopes this is the year that they take the final step.

Dirk Koetter came in as the new offensive coordinator last year and everyone wondered how they were going to mesh together, but no one is wondering anymore. Last year was the best one of Ryan’s career, setting franchise records for yards (4,719), attempts (615), touchdowns (32), completions (422) and 300-yard games (7) and earned his second Pro Bowl selection. He earned the name “Matty Ice” for his ability to perform under pressure and deliver in the 4th quarter. He looks to continue to develop as a quarterback and his best play may still be in front of him.

The team let go of workhorse Michael Turner after five highly productive seasons with the team. In his place they acquired Steven Jackson from the Rams, a highly productive player in his own right. Jackson has reached one of the milestones for a running back in the NFL, 30 years old. However, that doesn’t mean he can’t still perform at a high level. He is better at catching passes out of the backfield than Turner was and because of that he’ll be a better fit in the offense. He’s a real pro’s pro. He does everything that is asked of him and then some.

“He does things the right way”, one scout said. “He does it not because you have to ask him, but because he knows it’s the right way to do it.”

When the team traded five draft picks to Cleveland in 2011 to move up and draft Julio Jones there were a lot of skeptics. It’s not a good philosophy to have for your whole team, but as a single move it turned out very well. In only his second season Jones blossomed into a Pro Bowl player. With Jones continuing to develop and White still playing at a high level the Falcons have arguably the most impressive wide receiver duo in the league. Those two guys on the outside allow Gonzalez to face single coverage a lot, and we all know how Gonzalez is able to eat up single coverage, even at his age.

The Falcons remain a team that stayed true to a traditional 4-3 defense under Mike Nolan. However, he did mix it up occasionally with a 3-4 and even the 3-3-5 at times. One thing that was obvious though was the units inability to effectively handle the read option last year. The NFL is known to be a copycat league and for the time being, the read option is probably only going to get more popular. With that in mind the coaching staff sent the team to Clemson to study on the best way to stop it. How often do you see a professional go study with a college level team? I think it is great and only proves that the team doesn’t allow their egos to get in to way of progress. A great move.

The defensive line isn’t bad, but they have something to prove as well. The team released their leader in sacks, Abraham, and picked up Umenyiora from the Giants to replace him. Umenyiora is coming off two so-so seasons in New York and the team hopes he can return to the form he once displayed. I think he will still be a solid player for the next few seasons, but he won’t be what he was. The unit also boasts one of the most underrated defensive tackles in the league in Babineaux. Since 2005 he has the most tackles for loss (49.5) among all active players at his position.

The secondary is in a state of uncertainty after parting ways with three of their top corners in the offseason. Robinson, Grimes and Owens are all playing with different clubs this year. The unit got younger by drafting Trufant in the first round and Laford in the second. Both will benefit by playing alongside Asante Samuel, a guy who knows a little bit about being with a winning team after his days in New England, so the while the unit may still be a little subpar this year they are going to develop.

The Falcons have really seen their offense come into its own with the development of Ryan. They have the ability to go the length of the field in one play or with a sustained drive at any time of the game. The addition of Jackson will only add to that. They are the front runners to win the NFC South but if they hope make a deep playoff run they are going to need their defense to match the performance of the offense.