2008 Record: 11-5If it weren't for the Miami Dolphins winning the AFC East, the Atlanta Falcons would have been the most surprising team of 2008. Matt Ryan and Michael Turner led this team from the bottom of the league to leading the Arizona Cardinals at halftime in the playoffs. Yes, they had a terrible, terrible second half of that game. But nevertheless, if you would have told anyone in Atlanta that they would be in the playoffs in early 2009, they would have sent you to an institution.
The new offense, keyed by Mike Mularkey's run-first offense scheme, that you may remember from the Jerome Bettis days of the early 2000s. The same scheme produced Michael Turner's fantastic season last year, and I don't have any doubt he'll have similar success this year. Turner is augmented by speedster Jerious Norwood, who is a dangerous threat when he spells Turner.
The Falcons offense, and in turn Matt Ryan's development as a quarterback, may take a step back this year if contract issues with #1 receiver Roddy White don't get worked out. Harry Douglas went down with a knee injury in camp, making Michael Jenkins (50 rec, 777 yds, 3 TDs) the only returning receiver working with Ryan in camp right now.
The Falcons offense should continue to improve as Ryan grows, but it wouldn't be surprising to see them take a bit of a step back, particularly given their difficult schedule this year.
The Defense, however, will be the story for Atlanta this year. In the offseason, they lost linebackers Keith Brooking (DAL) and Michael Boley (NYG), defensive linemen Rod Coleman (NO) and Grady Jackson (DET) and cornerback Domonique Foxworth (BAL). The Falcons spent 7 of their 8 draft picks on defensive players, including first round pick DT Peria Jerry (Ole Miss). Jerry should add a solid inside presence to compliment Jamaal Anderson and John Abraham. Abraham had a stellar season last year with 16.5 of the teams 33 sacks. The team is still looking for more out of former first round pick Jamaal Anderson, who only posted 2 sacks last season. He needs to make progress if the Falcons defense is going to continue to improve.
Half of the Falcons secondary is gone, and they are hoping that suitable replacements can step in. William Moore (S-Missouri), Christopher Owens (CB- San Jose St), and William Middleton (CB-Furman) were drafted to help with the depth issue. The most enticing draft pick might be Lawrence Sidbury (DE-Richmond). If Anderson fails to perform, Sidbury may see time. He has the potential to be a force, and it will be interesting to see how the Falcons employ him. Then again, they may try to convert him to an OLB to fill another gap in their defense.
The Falcons defense, which was weak in pass coverage last season (21st in Pass Def, 27th in INTs), might be even worse this season with some starters missing. The Falcons run defense wasn't anything to write home about either (25th in Run Def, 23rd in Rush TDs), meaning it could be a long season, if the Falcons ball-control offense isn't able to keep the defense off the field. In a division with a stellar running team (Carolina) and a stellar passing team (New Orleans). Can the Falcons offense put up enough points and run enough clock to stay with these two? That remains to be seen.
Ian's Prediction: 7-9
For all intents and purposes, everything seems in place for the Falcons to take a step back this season. That doesn't mean this isn't a team without potential. However, as a young team going through the rebuilding process, there will be some growing pains. The Falcons definitely out-performed their expectations last season, and they lost some players on defense that will hurt them this year. If there is any relief in the Falcons schedule, it comes at the end when they play 4 of their last 6 at home, with road games in Tampa and New Orleans. The difficult stretch is in the heart of the schedule when they play @Dal, @NO, Was, @Car, @NYG. Atlanta might make a run at the end of the season, but they might already be too far out of the hunt for it to matter. The most intriguing game of the schedule comes in week 1 when Atlanta faces Miami in a battle of the two surprise teams of last season.