Alain Poupart: Just how good is Matt Ryan, and did the Dolphins make a mistake in not drafting No. 1 overall instead of Jake Long last year?
McIntyre: Matt Ryan is the real deal. Not only does he possess all the physical attributes teams look for in a starting quarterback (good size, strong arm, mobility), he has the decision-making skills, poise, maturity, and leadership you want in the face of your franchise. Ryan was remarkable last year, winning the Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, but he's just scratching the surface of what he's capable of.
Did the Dolphins err in not taking Ryan first overall? I wouldn't put it that way. Quarterback and left tackle are arguably the two most important positions on the field, and in Jake Long, the Dolphins selected a Pro Bowl-caliber left tackle that will cost them less money over the next few years. Ryan had a solid supporting cast already in place when Atlanta chose him, so it can't be assumed he would've posted similar numbers in his rookie season had Miami chosen him.
Poupart: How much of a concern is there in Atlanta that Michael Turner was used too much last year and therefore might slip in 2009?
McIntyre: Football Outsiders' "Curse of 370" is very real, so there is a reason to be concerned about how Michael Turner will respond after a 376-carry season. A saving grace is that Turner only had 228 carries in his four seasons with the Chargers before signing in Atlanta, but the Falcons know that heavy a workload for one back is unsustainable, so they are planning to reduce his carries by getting Jerious Norwood more involved in the running game.
Poupart: How big of an effect do you think the addition of Tony Gonzalez will have on the offense?
McIntyre: After years of steady production from Alge Crumpler, the Falcons three tight ends last season combined to catch just 19 passes. So adding a future Hall of Fame tight end, who caught nearly 100 balls in the Kansas City Chiefs' 28th-ranked pass offense last season, is a huge addition. Gonzalez will be a frequent target of Ryan's on third downs and in the red zone, and he'll also open things up for Roddy White and Michael Jenkins.
Poupart: How big of a factor in the offense will former Dolphins wide receiver Marty Booker be?
McIntyre: White starts alongside Jenkins, and Brian Finneran is a solid possession receiver. Booker is the team's fourth receiver, which is a more diminished role when you consider that Tony Gonzalez will rarely, if ever, come off the field.
Poupart: How good at pass blocking at the Falcons offensive tackles?
McIntyre: The Falcons line as a whole did an outstanding job of protecting Ryan last season (17 sacks in 434 attempts) , and with 2008 first-round offensive tackle Sam Baker back and healthy, that figures to continue. When the Falcons hosted the San Diego Chargers in Week 3 of the preseason, Ryan attempted 20 passes and wasn't sacked once. He buys himself a lot of time with his quick decision-making and mobility, but the line does a pretty good job of keeping pass rushers out of his face.
Poupart: Other than DE John Abraham, who's the best defender on this team?
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 off-season.
Poupart: There's been a lot of turnover in the secondary; how big of a weakness do you anticipate it being?
McIntyre: With Dominique 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
Poupart: How big of an impact do you expect first-round pick DT Peria Jerry to make?
McIntyre: 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.
Poupart: Are the Falcons good enough for this team to make a run at the Super Bowl?
McIntyre: 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.
Poupart: Do the Falcons have a return man the Dolphins should be worried about?
McIntyre: 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.
Poupart: What are the expectations for the Falcons this season?
McIntyre: After earning a Wild Card berth in 2008, the expectations are for the Falcons to take the next step and win the NFC South. With the additions they made during the off-season, anything short of that would be considered a disappointment.
Poupart: What is your prediction for the game, and why?
McIntyre: I expect to see a tough, physical game, with the Falcons using their ground game to wear down the Dolphins defense and control the time of possession. Playing at home, where the Falcons went 7-1 in 2008, is a factor and I think a late Jason Elam field goal will give the Falcons a 20-17 win over the Dolphins.
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