Outlook: Things are getting hot in the deep south. Atlanta has the league's most exciting player, a bright young coach and a defense that saw an influx of talent to a unit that was ranked 14th in the NFL last year. Expectations are high in "Hotlanta" and the fans are clamoring for a Super Bowl and soon.
Head coach Jim Mora was a surprise pick in 2004 to lead the Falcons. He got mixed reviews as a defensive coordinator in San Francisco, but he proved the detractors wrong by leading Atlanta to their best finish in nearly a decade. He is an aggressive coach who is young enough to relate to players, but enough of a disciplinarian to get the most out of his guys when he needs them to focus.
QB Michael Vick started to come into his own down the stretch, finally starting to grasp the complex West Coast offense toward the end of the season and it showed in a blowout playoff win versus the St. Louis Rams in early January.
The defense will be improved with the addition of MLB Edgerton Hartwell who would have been a Pro Bowler in Baltimore had it not been for a guy named Ray Lewis. His playmaking abilities will showcase themselves and standout OLB Keith Brooking will be that much better because of it.
Quarterback: Vick has long been known as a playmaker, but more for the plays he makes with his legs and not his arm. Well, thing began to change late in 2005 and if minicamps are any sort of gauge, he is continuing to evolve into a very good signal caller.
In 2005 he completed 56.4% of his passes (low by WCO standards) for 2,313 yards, 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He also used his legs for a whopping 902 yards and three more touchdowns.
He's still a little too quick to run, but when you have the physical tools Vick has, it's hard to blame him. Offensive coordinator Greg Knapp and quarterbacks coach Mike Johnson have worked with the fifth-year signal caller to make his reads quicker allowing him to find the open receiver in the pattern instead of just taking off and getting whatever he can.
Behind Vick is second-year QB Matt Schaub. Shaub played well for a rookie when Vick was held out down the stretch to prepare for the playoffs. He completed just 47.1% of his passes while throwing one touchdown and four interceptions. He is talented, but if Vick were to go down, the Falcons playoff aspirations would go down with him.
Running Back: Surprisingly the best running game in the league last year belonged to Atlanta. The team accounted for 167 yards per game on the ground in 2004 and saw the re-emergence of nine-year veteran Warrick Dunn as playmaker.
Dunn rushed for 1,106 yards and nine touchdowns while also grabbing 29 passes for 293 yards while splitting carries with T.J. Duckett. Dunn ran hard between the tackles, which hasn't exactly been his forte over the years. He showed excellent explosion in the open field and his leadership was a welcomed addition for a young offense.
Duckett continues to be a nice change-of-pace back to Dunn's scat-back style. Duckett gets most of the carries down near the goal line accounting for 509 yards and eight touchdowns. He still hasn't established himself as the feature back that was envisioned when they took him with the 18th choice in the first round of the 2002 draft. One reason why Duckett doesn't get more playing time is because he isn't a great receiver and he still needs to improve his pass-blocking.
Wide Receiver: When he was brought over from Buffalo in 2003, Peerless Price was seen as the go-to receiver that the Falcon offense needed. Two years later, he may be on the outside looking in for a starting position.
Last year, Price finished second on the team with 45 receptions for 575 yards and three touchdowns. One of the major reasons he was able to sign his big contract two years ago was his deep speed and his ability to get behind the defenders. The wide-open attack up in Buffalo allowed him to exploit defenses and make big plays. In the Falcon offense, he doesn't have the strength needed to get off the jam and make catches in traffic. He plays better with defensive backs on his hip rather than against zone coverage.
Pushing Price for playing time will be second-year WR Michael Jenkins and rookie Roddy White. Jenkins only caught seven passes for 119 yards, but in the offseason minicamps Jenkins has looked much more fluid in his routes and his strength sets him apart from the other receivers on the roster.
White doesn't have Jenkins' size, but he might be even stronger. White is a former wrestler who excels at beating the initial jam and running with the ball in his hands. He isn't very good at reading coverages, but that will improve with time. He is a speedster who will stretch the defense when he is in the game.
Veterans Dez White and Brian Finneran add decent depth to the wideout corps and both are good possession types who can find holes in zones when needed.
The leading receiver for the Falcons last year was TE Alge Crumpler. He and Vick seem to have a symbiotic relationship and Crumpler has become Vick's go-to guy when he gets in trouble. Crumpler is one of the most athletic tight ends in the league and he has excellent hands. His ability to stretch the seam allowed him to catch 48 passes for 774 yards (an unheard of 16.1 yard average) and six touchdowns. He is a perennial Pro Bowler who makes this offense that much better.
Offensive Line: The only real surprise this offseason was that the Falcons didn't address their troubles along the offensive line. 2004 saw the team lead the league in rushing, but that was more because of the scheme and the fact that teams had to account for Vick, more than it was excellent blocking by the line.
At tackle, Todd Weiner and Kevin Schaffer are solid starters, but Schaffer took a step backwards as a pass-blocker in 2004. Weiner, who came over as a free agent from Seattle in 2002, is the team's best lineman and he is an excellent run-blocker who led the way for most of the big running plays.
Todd McClure mans the pivot and is only adequate because he is undersized. Kynan Forney lines up at right guard while Michael Moore and Matt Lehr will battle it out in training camp for the starting left guard spot.
Barry Stokes adds depth at tackle while Martin Bibla can play any one of the three interior spots.
Defensive Line: This unheralded group ran circles around offenses last season and fans should be prepared for more of the same as they return three of the four starters.
Brady Smith and Patrick Kerney form an excellent tandem at the defensive end positions. Kerney struggled in 2003, posting only 6.5 sacks, but rebounded in 2004 registering 13 sacks and finishing fourth in the league in that category. He was also very good against the run, something that had been his Achilles heel because of his lack of size.
Smith was the perfect compliment to Kerney on the other side, posting 6.5 sacks and holding strong at the point of attack.
One of the most pleasant surprises was the play of DT Rod Coleman. Coleman posted an incredible 11.5 sacks from his tackle position, finishing second in the NFL for interior defensive lineman. Coleman also had an interception and returned it 39 yards for a touchdown. He will combine with Chad Lavalais, who will be starting for the first time, to get the push needed to disrupt offenses.
Second-round draft choice Jonathan Babineaux along with free agent acquisition Brandon Mitchell will add depth along the line. Mitchell can play both end or tackle, but he is not starting material.
Linebackers: As mentioned, Hartwell immediately upgrades this unit. Last year, Chris Draft was average in the middle and Hartwell's size should make the difference in stuffing the run.
Hartwell posted 97 stops last year with one fumble recovery in Baltimore. In 2002, his second season in the league, he finished with 144 tackles while starting 15 of 16 games. Hartwell is an excellent tackler, who is quick to diagnose plays and can shed blockers well. He is a liability in coverage, but that isn't why they paid him the big money. He is in Atlanta to do one thing, stop the run and keep teams from concentrating on Brooking.
Brooking is underrated, only because a lot of people haven't seen how devastating he can be on a regular basis. One more year like he had in 2004 and everyone will know who Brooking is. Brooking posted 102 tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles and three interceptions. He's solid against the run or the pass and he is the emotional leader of the defense.
Opposite Brooking will be second-year OLB Demorrio Williams. Williams saw spot duty last year at the strongside linebacker position and he had a decent rookie campaign, getting 45 tackles and three sacks. He is undersized and tends to get lost in traffic, but he has excellent speed and hustles all the time.
Ike Reese and Michael Boley are the backups at the outside spots, but they are a significant drop-off from the starting tandem. Jordan Beck is the backup to Hartwell.
Defensive Backs: FS Bryan Scott is the leader of a deep and talented secondary for the Falcons. Scott finished second on the team with 87 tackles and posted an interception as well. He is a big-hitter and sure tackler. He makes all of the defensive calls and coaches appreciate his knowledge of the defense and consider him a coach on the field.
Keion Carpenter is penciled in as the starter at strong safety, but Ronnie Heard was brought in as a free agent during the offseason to challenge him.
At corner the Falcons are very deep, with DeAngelo Hall and Jason Webster as the starters and Kevin Mathis and Allen Rossum set as the nickel and dime corners. Hall is the big playmaker of the group. He missed the first six games of his rookie season with a small fracture in his hip, but came on at the end of the season posting two interceptions with one touchdown and six passes defensed.
Webster led the team with 10 pass breakups and was an excellent coverage corner. Mathis started most of the season opposite Webster, but this year he will be the nickel corner. He is a playmaker in his own right, intercepting two passes and taking both in for scores.
Special Teams: Jay Feely left via free agency so the Falcons went out and picked up reliable Todd Peterson who had been in purgatory the last two years while kicking for San Francisco.
Peterson has an average, but accurate leg. He's made 78.2% of his attempts over his 11-year career. Kicking outside is not conducive to his talents and with the calmness of the Georgia Dome, Peterson should be just what the doctor ordered.
Toby Gowin replaces Chris Mohr and is a drop-off productivity-wise. Mohr was adept at pinning teams inside their own 20 and Gowin will need to do a lot of work in this area.
While Rossum has improved as a defensive back, his main contributions have been as a return specialist and he continued to make a difference in field position with his 21.9 yard average on kick returns and 12.4 yards average on punt returns. He finished second in punt returns in the league and recorded one touchdown with a long of 75 yards.
Final Prediction: The NFC South continues to be one of the toughest divisions in the NFL. The Falcons are the team to beat, but Carolina, Tampa Bay and New Orleans all improved in the offseason.
With Vick improving and staying healthy and an improved defense the Falcons will be tough to beat. Jenkins, White and Price need to establish themselves as playmakers on the outside. If they can do that the Falcons will be nearly impossible to stop on offense. However, if Vick is injured it could all come crumbling down.
Mora is a solid coach and should be able to lead the Falcons to another division win even if they don't improve on their 11-5 record from last year. The fact that Philadelphia may have dropped back a little bit, may help Atlanta move on to the next level and play for that ever-elusive Super Bowl ring.
Scott Eklund writes and reports for Seahawks.NET and Dawgman.com. Feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opponent Preview: The Atlanta Falcons
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