QUARTERBACK: Starter -- Matt Ryan. Backups -- Chris Redman, D.J. Shockley.
Ryan passed for more than 3,400 yards and was unflappable as a rookie signal caller. Ryan showed his ability to throw all of the passes and master the entire offense. He took every snap except for those that went to running back Jerious Norwood in the Falcons' Dirty Bird Wildcat formation. He was adept at picking up the blitz and getting the ball out to his hot receivers. He did appear to falter a bit down the stretch, but that was expected given that he'd never had to play 21 games in one season. Redman is a steady pro who can fill in for a spell. Shockley is still unproven at the NFL level.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- RB Michael Turner, FB Ovie Mughelli. Backups - RB Jerious Norwood, RB Jason Snelling, RB Thomas Brown.
Turner answered questions about him being a workhorse by running for almost 1,700 yards. He held up under the heavy workload and showed his ability to grind it out and break the big play. Norwood showed signs of becoming a dependable third-down back and solid pass catcher out of the backfield. His durability was once again a factor as he was not the same after suffering a rib injury against Denver. Fullback Ovie Mughelli is a solid lead blocker for Turner. Snelling is a hard-charging runner whose playing time increased. He's real solid in pass protection and good on screen passes.
TIGHT END: Starter -- Ben Hartsock. Backups -- Justin Peelle, Marcus Pollard, Jason Rader, Keith Zinger.
Hartsock was having a solid season blocking and helping the run game before he injured his toe and was placed on injured reserve. Peelle stepped up in the passing game and gave the Falcons a respectable threat on bootlegs and waggles. But the Falcon tight ends' inability to get open down the field allowed defenses to focus on the wide receivers. Pass-catching was an issue. So much so that Atlanta picked up the veteran Pollard near the end of the season and actually threw him some passes in the playoff game.
WIDE RECEIVER: Starters -- Michael Jenkins, Roddy White. Backups -- Harry Douglas, Brian Finneran, Laurent Robinson, Eric Weems, Chandler Williams.
White followed up his 1,200-yard season with a 1,300-yard campaign. He runs all of the routes. He was able to get open deep and run underneath routes. White still has a penchant for the occasional dropped pass. Jenkins' year got off to a great start when he hauled in Matt Ryan's first pass of his NFL career for a 62-yard touchdown. Things got even better when he was given a contract extension. He set a career-high for yards receiving. White and Jenkins also got some help from rookie Harry Douglas, who worked the slot receiver spot in three- and four-receiver formations.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LT Sam Baker, LG Justin Blalock, C Todd McClure, RG Harvey Dahl, RT Tyson Clabo. Backups -- Todd Weiner, Wayne Gandy, Quinn Ojinnaka, Nate Bennett, Renardo Foster, Mike Schenk, Michael Butterworth, Pat McCoy.
The unit came into the season as a much-maligned crew, but left with league-wide respect. They were able to reduce their sacks from 47 to 17. McClure held the unheralded unit together. Blalock appeared to come into his own under the tutelage of veteran line coach Paul Boudreaux. Baker opened the season as the starter at left tackle but ended up sharing the position with Weiner because of injuries. Undrafted free agents Harvey Dahl and Tyson Clabo held down the right side of the line and developed a reputation of playing until the end of the whistle.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters - DE John Abraham, DT Grady Jackson, DT Jonathan Babineaux, DE Jamaal Anderson. Backups -- Chauncey Davis, Kroy Biermann, Jason Jefferson, Kindal Moorehead, Simon Fraser, Trey Lewis, Tywain Myles.
Abraham arguably turned in his best season with a career-high 16.5 sacks. He started all 17 games and played through thigh and shoulder injuries. Babineaux has a breakout season at under tackle. He was able to get penetration and was around the ball. Jackson was solid against the run, while Anderson started at end, but played some tackle. The rest of the unit got plenty of playing time, starting with Davis and Kroy Biermann. Lewis (knee) spent the season on injured reserve. He showed signs of being a big player at nose tackle, which may mean the end of Jackson's on-again, off-again time in Atlanta.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- OLB Michael Boley, MLB Curtis Lofton, OLB Keith Brooking. Backups -- Coy Wire, Tony Gilbert, Stephen Nicholas.
The linebackers were thought to be the strength of the defense. But the play of Brooking and Boley was lacking.
Wire replaced Boley in running situations late in the season. The lack of the unit's ability to make impact plays was very noticeable and forced Atlanta to play a bend-but-don't-break style. The linebackers did most of the bending. Nicholas has a big upside and will get his chance to perform. Gilbert was inactive for all 17 games.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - CB Chris Houston, SS Lawyer Milloy, FS Erik Coleman, CB Domonique Foxworth. Backups -- Chevis Jackson, David Irons, Brent Grimes, Glenn Sharpe, Thomas DeCoud, Antoine Harris, Jamaal Fudge, Von Hutchins, Darius Vinnett, Eric Brock.
Safeties Milloy and Coleman were the heart and soul of the unit, basically serving as linebackers in run support. In coverage they were asked to play over the top of the young cornerbacks, who struggled in man-to-man coverage. Foxworth started nine games and was clearly the team's best cover corner. DeCoud may get his shot as he has better range, while Hutchins (broken foot) should provide some toughness to the CBs if he's able to make it back.
SPECIAL TEAMS: P Michael Koenen, K Jason Elam, LS Michael Schneck, PRs Harry Douglas, Brian Finneran, KR Jerious Norwood.
Koenen's great hang time on his punts helped the coverage unit set a new league record for fewest yards (49) on punt returns. He was able to directional punt, put balls close to the sidelines and land some inside the 20. Elam was the steady pro that the team expected. He's still capable of making the clutch kick and still has some distance on his kicks. Douglas took over for Adam Jennings as the punter returner and did a respectable job. Finneran was also used on punt returns expected to land inside the 20-yard line. Norwood was again one of the league's top kickoff returners.
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