Issue No. 1: How much of an impact will Tony Gonzalez make on their offense?
Answer: When watching Atlanta's offense last season, one thing stood out. They clearly needed a physical presence in their passing game that was willing to go over the middle and could also be a factor in the red zone area.
Journeyman TE Justin Peelle started 11 games for the Falcons last season, but only produced 15 receptions. Clearly, general manager Tom Dimitroff knew he needed to find an upgrade at tight end, so he traded for perhaps the best player at that position over the past 20 years in Gonzalez.
With Gonzalez aboard, teams will now have a tough time figuring out how they will cover all of Atlanta's passing weapons if they're on the field at the same time. For instance, if Michael Turner is in the backfield, Roddy White is out wide with Gonzalez on the field, how will teams try to defend this? And I haven't even mentioned Harry Douglas playing in the slot.
If Gonzalez wasn't added this year, I think teams would have started to load up the box against Matt Ryan and made him throw. With Gonzalez in the fold playing underneath and White down field, I can't see how teams can double team either of them. With those two players as big factors, Turner and Jerious Norwood will get better rushing lanes to run through.
While tight ends haven't exactly flourished statistically under offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey during his tenure as a coordinator, head coach, or tight ends coach, Gonzalez will still be active. The best numbers achieved under Mularkey were from Jackie Harris (62 receptions) in 1995 (Mularkey coached the tight ends for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that season) and in 2006 (Mularkey was the offensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins that season) from Randy McMichael (62 receptions). The difference between those two tight ends and Gonzalez is that he commands the ball and defenses must account for him anywhere he's on the field. He's clearly the missing link for this offense to be complete.
Issue No. 2: Can the defense take a big step up this season?
Answer: This is by far the biggest issue that this football team has to deal with in 2009.
Last season, the Falcon defense finished 24th in yards per game, ranked 21st overall against the pass, and ranked 25th overall against the run.
Getting consistent pressure on the quarterback seemed liked a daunting task as this defense posted a very average 34 sacks. While veteran DE John Abraham posted 16 sacks, no other defender posted more than four sacks. Head coach Mike Smith and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder must find another way to get pressure on the quarterback. In nickel situations, third-year DE Jamaal Anderson moves inside and backup DE Chauncey Davis replaces Anderson outside, but Anderson and Davis combined for only six sacks last season.
The run defense lost mammoth interior lineman Grady Jackson in free agency, but the hope is that first-round pick Peria Jerry will pick up some the slack. One of the underrated stars of this defense is fifth-year DT Jonathan Babineaux. He'll give the defense some badly needed push up front and is capable of being a disruptive force against opposing offenses.
At linebacker, the coaches are probably dealing with a star in the making with second-year MLB Curtis Lofton. But questions remain outside. Veteran LB Mike Peterson will line up for Smith at WLB, a position he really has seen little time at during his 10 years of play. Smith knows Peterson well from their time with the Jacksonville Jaguars together, but Peterson, 33, has to prove he has something left in the tank. What Peterson certainly is capable of providing is good leadership. At SLB, third-year pro Stephen Nicholas is slated to start, but he didn't start a game in his first two seasons. The team also lacks any discernible depth at any of the three linebacker positions.
The secondary is a part of the defense that really needs to show significant improvement this season. While the back four defenders didn't give up a lot of touchdowns, they gave up a decent amount of yards last season. Who starts opposite third-year CB Chris Houston remains an issue. While some believe it will wind up being Von Hutchins, some believe he's better off playing in nickel situations or at safety. Former undrafted free agent Brent Grimes began last season as a starter, but he got benched and never really recovered. The hope is that second-year CB Chevis Jackson will push Hutchins during training camp. At safety, the team decided not to re-sign veteran Lawyer Milloy and will likely go with second-year S Thomas DeCoud, who barely played last season.
The bottom line is this defense has way too many questions to answer again. It's probably going to be a while before the defense becomes a strength and not a weakness.
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