NFC Contender: Atlanta Falcons

One of the top threats to the Packers' throne are the Falcons, who are emphasizing speed on defense. Atlanta had one of the best defenses in the league last season but was torn to shreds by the Packers in the playoffs.

With four projected starters remaining from the pre-Mike Smith Era, the turnover for the Atlanta Falcons' defense under their fourth-year coach isn't quite complete.

Still, as the Falcons prepare for what could be a fourth straight playoff year — the franchise, remarkably, had never even registered consecutive postseason berths before Smith arrived in 2008 — there has been a transition of sorts.

The Falcons' defense has become noticeably quicker.

"We have some people," allowed underrated tackle Jonathan Babineaux, the longest tenured of the defensive starters, in terms of continuous service to the club, "who can get to the football. We're so much faster than we were a few years ago. And, hopefully, that will translate into more big plays."

Said free safety Thomas Decoud, one of the unit's unsung standouts: "Most of us have been in the system for a while now, and that helps you play quicker because you know what you're doing. But beyond that, we just want to be faster."

Smith has become all but obsessed with "explosive" plays (more than 20 yards) on offense this year. Less publicized has been a borderline fanaticism with allowing fewer big plays on the defensive side. But the Falcons actually surrendered just 48 gains of 20 or more yards in 2010, when they finished with the NFC's best record. Among playoff franchises, only Pittsburgh (36) allowed fewer. The average number of "explosive" plays permitted by the 11 playoff clubs other than Atlanta in 2010 was 56.9.

In the playoff loss to Green Bay, however, the Packers had six plays of at least 20 yards — including five during their 28-point onslaught that turned the game into a rout.

Smith, whose pedigree is on the defensive side of the ball, and coordinator Brian VanGorder continue to stress assignment recognition, overall knowledge, intensity, and discipline.

And, oh, yeah, speed.

Said second-year weak-side linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, the team's top-round draft pick in 2010 and a player who is expected to add quickness in 2011, his first season as a starter: "We want to use our speed to press the issue a little bit. It's probably not quite accurate to say that offenses dictated to us what we could do (in the past). But you want offenses to have to adjust to your speed, and I think we do have more of it."

Weatherspoon, who figures to provide an upgrade in pass coverage, should press the edges a bit more than predecessor Mike Peterson, the 12-year veteran who was re-signed as an unrestricted free agent but who was a bit of a dichotomy in 2010, often losing some discipline but still playing a little too cautiously.

Atlanta added left end Ray Edwards from Minnesota in free agency, and while the five-year veteran is rehabilitating from offseason knee surgery and has yet to appear in a preseason contest, he should be a solid complement to right end John Abraham, the Falcons' best sack threat. Peria Jerry, the 2009 first-rounder who figures to have regained his quickness now in his second year since the knee surgery that curtailed his rookie campaign, should provide inside push. And the Falcons feel that another 2009 draft choice who had struggled with injuries, strong safety William Moore, could be a star.

Moore had five interceptions in 2010, tying with Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes for the most on the team, as the Falcons totaled 22 steals. That was the most interceptions for Atlanta since 2002. The Falcons' defense was a plus-14 turnover differential, third best in the league.

But the team wants to do even better in 2011.

"When you play fast, you can force the other guy into mistakes. It adds to the pressure," said Grimes, a onetime undrafted college free agent who made the Pro Bowl last season, and who most observers felt outplayed more celebrated counterpart Dunta Robinson last season.

The season-ending playoff drubbing by Green Bay, in which the top-seeded Falcons surrendered 48 points, has lingered with members of the Atlanta defense. Not only could the Atlanta defense not stop the high-octane Packers' attack in that game, but the unit seemed to always be a step slower.

The coaches and players have set out to rectify that deficiency.

The scheme hasn't changed significantly under VanGorder, who is also in his fourth season as coordinator, but there has been more emphasis on playing faster.

The Falcons are better than their statistical ranking — they ranked as the No. 16 unit in terms of yards allowed but had the NFL's No. 5 unit in terms of fewest points surrendered — but they feel they haven't reached their potential yet. Atlanta hasn't been among the league's top 10 defensive teams since 1998, and hasn't ranked any higher than 14th since then, but quickness seems to be more important to the club in 2011 than quantitative measurements.

"What's the old saying, 'Speed kills?' We believe in that," said Weatherspoon.

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Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.

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