With three weeks left in the season, the Falcons fired head coach Dan Reeves, and soon after the regular season had ended they hired then San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Jim Mora, Jr.
The Falcons also hired Rich McKay to replace Reeves as the GM and he has put his personnel stamp on this team and then some. The Falcons were one of the most active teams during free agency signing 11 free agents from other teams as well as 9 of their own.
The Falcon front office is hoping Mora can energize the defense, which has playmakers in DE Patrick Kearny and MLB Keith Brooking, but still surrendered a league-worst 237.5 yards per game through the air along with 26.7 points per game (30th in the league).
Offense: First and foremost, Vick is a difference-maker behind center. In 2002, when he started 15 games, he threw for 2,936 yards and 16 TD’s with 8 INT’s. His ability to run and make plays is what sets him apart. In 2002 he also ran for 776 yards and 8 TD’s. He has great vision and a cannon for an arm, and when he breaks the pocket he has the speed and moves of a RB.
When Mora came aboard he brought with him offensive coordinator Greg Knapp who has started to install the West Coast offense. Vick seemed to take to the new offense well in the team’s mini-camps, but he is aware that he needs to improve his accuracy. For his three year career he has only completed 52.2% of his passes and since most QBs complete better than 60% of their passes in the West Coast offense, he has a lot of room for improvement.
Looking to help Vick with that completion percentage will be a talented, yet under-achieving corps of WR’s. Price needs a rebound season after producing only 64 receptions for 838 yards and 3 TD’s in 2003. His route-running was suspect and he had trouble picking up the offense last season after signing his big-money deal. He should be helped by Vick’s ability to keep plays alive. Expect him to top 85 receptions for at least 1,200 yards in the new offense.
Opposite Vick will likely be WR Brian Finneran. He is a possession receiver who works the middle of the field well. He uses his big body to shield the defender from the ball and he is great in traffic, but lacks deep speed. He missed five games because of injury in 2003 so his stats were down, but he still only registered 26 receptions for 368 yards and 2 TD’s.
The ideal situation for the Falcons would be for late first-round selection WR Michael Jenkins to compete with free-agent Dez White, who comes over from the Bears, and push Finneran for playing time. If Jenkins or White can replace Finneran on the outside, Finneran can move inside in the three-receiver sets.
The Falcons feature one of the NFL’s up and coming TE’s in Alge Crumpler. He finished second on the team with 44 receptions for 552 yards and 3 TD’s. He has the speed to stretch the middle seam of the defense and has improved his run-blocking. He is the complete package and when Vick was healthy, Crumpler was one of his favorite targets.
The stable of RBs basically is a contrast of styles. Eight-year veteran Warrick Dunn is the starter and he is used as a receiver out of the backfield as well as a runner. Last year he rushed for 672 yards and 3 TD’s, while also catching 37 passes for 336 yards and 2 TD’s. He is a slasher who plays bigger than his slight frame. They like to use him on draws and quick pitches so he can get outside the tackles.
T.J. Duckett is the big back who pounds the interior of the defensive line and who gets most of the short-yardage and goal line carries. He led the Falcons with 779 yards and 11 TD’s. He needs to improve his hands in order to be considered an every-down back.
The line may be the weakest aspect of the offense. The line lost four-year starter Travis Claridge to Carolina during free agency, but the Falcons did not think that Claridge fit their new blocking schemes. Third-year veteran Kevin Shaffer takes over for Bob Whitfield at LT, but the most important player, RT Todd Weiner returns. Weiner protects Vick’s blindside and he was signed in 2002 specifically because of his long arms and quick feet. The other line spots are manned by Kynan Forney at RG, Todd McClure at C, and Eric Beverly at LG. With the line learning a new blocking scheme, Vick may need to scramble more than the team wants him to.
Defense: This unit was a huge disappointment in 2003 and Mora is hoping to change that. He brings with him an attacking style of defense that believes in stuffing the run first with the line and letting the LB’s make most of the plays. He also expects his DBs to hold up in man coverage, something he may not have the bodies for at this time.
The entire CB crew is completely different. Veteran Ray Buchanan left via free agency and the Falcons brought in four-year veteran Jason Webster to take his place. Five-year veteran Tod McBride (10 passes defensed) is listed as the other starter, but look for first-rounder CB DeAngelo Hall to push for immediate playing time. Hall has the change of direction, ball-skills and quickness to be effective right away and should be starting sooner rather than later. At the safety spots, Corey Hall, who came over from Cincinnati is the starter at FS and second-year S Bryan Scott will fill in at SS. Scott is a converted corner, who has size (6’1” 220 lbs.) and speed to match up against slot receivers. Scott could really open some eyes in 2004.
The aforementioned Brooking
is the leader of the Falcon defense. He is like a heat-seeking missile on running
plays and can cover backs out of the backfield as well. Brooking led the team
with 144 tackles. His intensity sets the tone for the entire defense and he
leads by example. Chris Draft is the MLB and he makes all the calls. Draft finished
second on the team with 122 tackles, and added 2 sacks and 1 INT. Matt Stewart
is the strong-side LB and he led the team with 10 tackles for loss.
Rookie LB Demmorrio Williams will play mostly special teams in 2004 with the possibility of seeing time as the nickel linebacker with his speed and instincts.
The defensive line struggled in 2003. DE Patrick Kerney dropped from 10.5 sacks in 2002, to 6 in 2003. Teams were able to double-team him because of the lack of a pass-rush from the other parts of the line. Kerney is solid against the run, but the Falcons need him to regain his pass-rush form. The other defensive end is Brady Smith, but look for either Will Overstreet or Travis Hall (5 sacks) to push him for time.
Ellis Johnson mans one of the tackle spots and while Ed Jasper is listed as the starter at the other spot, free agent pickup Roderick Coleman should be able to edge him out by the end of fall camp. Johnson was great when QB’s dropped back to pass. He registered 8 sacks from his under-tackle spot and played adequately against the run. Jasper is more of a run-stuffer, but still got decent push against the pass.
Special Teams: Kicker Jay Feely had a horrible year in 2003, but don’t look for that to continue. He connected on only 70.4% of his attempts and finished the season with an abysmal 89 points. His normal averages of 76.9% accuracy and 114 points should not be out of reach with this offense. Look for a bounce-back season from Feely.
Punter Chris Mohr is a directional kicker who averaged only 39.9 yards per punt, but was able to down 19 punts inside the 20-yard line.
The last time the Seahawks and Falcons met: It was 2002 and the Seahawks were coming off two tough losses. The Hawks traveled 2,700 miles to facethe Falcons at the Georgia Dome.
Two interceptions by CB Ken Lucas off first-year starting QB Michael Vick set the tone early and an amazing pursuit tackle by OLB Anthony Simmons on Vick showed the budding superstar that the Hawks were not going to roll over for the surging Falcons.
Seattle started the scoring, with RB Shaun Alexander going over from three yards out to take the lead halfway through the first quarter. It didn’t take long for the Falcons to answer, with KR Allen Rossum going 91 yards on the ensuing kickoff.
Vick and TE Alge Crumpler hooked up for a 20 yard TD pass, when the Seahawks blew their coverage leaving Crumpler all alone on the right sideline.
Seahawks rookie TE Jerramy Stevens made an appearance and caught a 5-yard Hasselbeck pass to cut the score to 17-14 shortly after halftime, and then CB Willie Williams stripped Vick of the ball on a blitz, picked up the pigskin, and returned it 25 yards for another TD. Seattle K Rian Lindell added a field goal and it seemed the Seahawks were headed for a win, but Vick and the Falcons had different plans.
Vick proceeded to pick apart the Seahawk defense on the final drive of regulation, something all-to-familiar in 2002, and evened up the score with 17 seconds left on the clock sending the game into overtime.
It appeared the Seahawks would let another game slip though their fingers when the Falcons won the toss and drove down to the Seattle 28 yard line. K Jay Feely pushed the kick wide right and the Seahawks were back in business.
Hasseleback took advantage completing a tough pass to WR Koren Robinson that got the Seahawks within field-goal range. However, Alexander made that point moot when he took a handoff over the right side through a gaping hole and rumbled 27 yards for the winning TD. Final score; Hawks 30, Falcons 24.
On the day, Hasselbeck was 22 of 31, for 298 yards with no INT’s and 1 TD. Robinson had 9 receptions for 143 yards and Alexander finished the day with 127 yards rushing and 2 TD’s.
RB Warrick Dunn had a solid day running against the Hawks (who didn’t in 2002?), running for 101 yards on 20 attempts, but other than the last drive, Vick was held in check most of the day.
This game was the beginning of the three-game stretch that helped the Hawks begin the 2003 season with momentum.
2004 Projection: The Falcons are everyone’s darlings heading into the season. With a healthy Vick back, it isn’t hard to see why. However, Vick doesn’t play defense, and this team might be a year away from doing some really special things. Mora struggled some as the defensive coordinator in San Francisco so it will be interesting to see how his defenses perform in Atlanta. That being said, you have to be excited by some of the moves they made during the off season.
Hall, Williams and DT Chad Lavalais, all rookies, should all see significant time as they add speed and youth on the defensive side of the ball. On offense Jenkins could be an explosive element opposite Price, as long as he is able to pick up the offense.
The questions remain…Can the defense get pressure on the opposing QB on a consistent basis? Will Vick be able to stay healthy? If Vick were to go down who would be the starting QB? Will the acquisitions be enough to propel this team to the top of one of the toughest divisions in football?
I don’t see the Falcons running away with anything. They have a dynamic player in Vick, quality at many of the skill positions on offense, but they lack a dominant offensive line. On defense they have a few playmakers, but still questions abound whether they can be better in 2004 (they couldn’t be worse). Look for the Falcons to battle the Carolina Panthers for the division title with the possibility of getting into the playoffs as a wildcard. 2005 might be the year this team really takes off. 10-6 would be a great record for the “Dirty Birds”.
.NET Reporter Scott
Eklund writes for Seahawks.NET every week. Feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.