Brian McIntyre: That would be middle linebacker Curtis Lofton. A second-round pick last season out of Oklahoma, Lofton was an immediate starter between veterans Michael Boley and Keith Brooking. Those two have moved on, so not only will Lofton be a three-down linebacker (he was often removed on passing downs) who'll be asked to make plays from sideline to sideline, he's now quarterbacking the defense. He will have some help from veteran Mike Peterson, a former Jaguars linebacker who re-joined Mike Smith in the offseason.
Q: There's been a lot of turnover in the secondary; how big of a weakness do you anticipate it being?
BM: With Domonique Foxworth and Lawyer Milloy long gone, the Falcons' secondary is a fairly small and inexperienced group. The front office has addressed this in recent weeks by acquiring 2006 first-round cornerback Tye Hill from the St. Louis Rams and signing veteran cornerback Brian Williams, who played for Mike Smith when he was coordinating the Jacksonville Jaguars. Despite those additions, and using three of their eight draft picks on defensive backs, the secondary could be the Achilles' heel of the Falcons' defense this season.
Q: How big of an impact do you expect first-round pick DT Peria Jerry to make?
BM: He's a rookie, so expectations should be tempered a bit, but Jerry will start next to Jonathan Babineaux and play a major role in improving the Falcons' 25th-ranked run defense. At 294 pounds, he's not the biggest nose tackle going, but he has excellent quickness that allows him to disrupt plays before they get started, and he's strong enough to occupy multiple blockers, freeing up his teammates so they can make plays.
Q: Are the Falcons good enough for this team to make a run at the Super Bowl?
BM: If Matt Ryan's development takes the next step, and Turner, White and Gonzalez turn in the seasons that are expected of them, the offense will uphold its end of the bargain. The defense still has a ways to go before the Falcons can be considered a Super Bowl-caliber team. That's not to say that it can't happen this season. The 2008 Arizona Cardinals rode a high-powered offense into January before the defense finally coalesced and allowed them to come within a few minutes of a Super Bowl title. Mike Smith is a terrific defensive mind and there's a lot of talent on that side of the ball, it just hasn't happened as of yet.
Q: Do the Falcons have a return man the Dolphins should be worried about?
BM: The Falcons' return game took a hit when second-year wide receiver Harry Douglas tore his ACL early in training camp, but Jerious Norwood has the sort of game-changing speed the Dolphins' kick coverage units should be wary of. If he gets just a little bit of space, which the new rule eliminating three-man wedges are expected to create, he can take it to the house.