Often when people look to see if a team has improved, they will measure it with wins and losses. And while that is not a bad way to do so, it is not a true measure of a team’s ability. Because you’re not playing the same schedule year to year, and even the teams that you do play annually aren’t always the same quality as they were in previous years. Every NFL season brings a new and different set of challenges, and to simply measure them by how many games you’ve won or lost doesn’t accurately gauge whether you rose to meet those challenges.
Here are five areas that I think the Falcons need to improve in if they want to be able to say they have improved as a team from 2011 and previous years. These are five areas that you could set apart as mini-goals for this team. And if they were to accomplish all five by the end of the year, I believe this will result in more regular season wins for the Falcons as well as a greater chance of winning in the postseason. And not just winning one game in January, but potentially many multiple so that they could possibly be winning come February.
1. Matt Ryan Needs to Take the Next Step as a Passer
The next step for Matt Ryan involves mainly his ability to throw the deep ball. The vertical aspect of Ryan’s game has been sorely lacking in every season of his career except as a rookie. Ryan does not need to be the world’s best vertical passer, but he needs to be competent, and that has simply not been the case the past three years. His inability to hit the deep ball I believe left some wins on the table last year against some good teams (e.g. New Orleans and Houston), and being able to add that aspect to the Falcons offense could take it into the stratosphere. The Falcons have relied on ball-control for much of the past four years under Mike Mularkey. Expectations are that new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter will veer away from that with his more pass-oriented attack that emphasizes the vertical game. But in order for that to work, Ryan has to become a more reliable and consistent throwing downfield. He has players with the abilities to make the plays in Julio Jones and Roddy White, and it’s really now on Ryan’s shoulders to take advantage of it.
Often people will cite numbers as an indicator of Matt Ryan taking the next step as a passer. But numbers don’t affect football games. Defenses don’t care whether or not Ryan completes 61% or 64% of his passes, nor do they respect that his TD-INT ratio is 2:1 versus 3:1. But what they do care about and respect is if a player like Julio Jones is capable of taking the top off their defense. They have to adjust their coverages for that, not his passer rating or yards per attempt.
So by year’s end, if Ryan has improved his numbers, but is still one of the least effective vertical passers in the league (which he has been for three consecutive years), then he hasn’t taken that next step.
2. Michael Turner Must Bounce Back
While much of the blame for the Falcons below average rushing attack in 2011 falls on the offensive line, and deservedly so, there is still a part that falls at the feet of Michael Turner. Turner is a declining player. Anybody that has read numerous articles on this site has heard this before. Regardless of his production, when you watch him play it should be clear to most that he is not the same player that he was a few years ago. He has taken a lot of hits, and it has made him less effective and less explosive a runner as he once was.
In his younger days, Turner would break a 10-20 yard run from time to time, but between those instances he would be able to reliably get you 3-5 yards every other carry. At this point in his career, while still able to break those longer runs, he cannot reliably get those yards in between. What used to be consistently 3 and 4-yard gains, now tend to go for 1 and 2 yards.
It’s affected how teams play the Falcons. The better defensive teams in the league don’t have to bring that eighth man in the box like before in order to stop or contain Turner. That leaves that defender free to affect the passing game. They need to find a way to bring that defender back to focusing on Turner in order to open up things for other players.
While the Falcons don’t have to return to a time where they were a run-first team to make this possible, they do have to be more effective and efficient running the ball when they choose to do so. And that relies heavily on Turner being able to turn back time and become a more impactful player on the ground. What that brings is balance to your offense. Traditionally the Falcons have sought balance in the sense of having an equal number of runs and passes. True balance is more along the lines of the team’s ability to hurt you in multiple ways. If the defense focuses on the pass, then they’ll run it down your throat. If you focus too much on the run, then the defense will be exposed via the passing game. That’s something that the Falcons have never really had in the past four years, and it will be important for Koetter to try and establish this season.
Basically at the end of the year, Turner needs to have earned the nickname “Time Turner” because he was successfully able to turn back the clock on his own abilities.
3. The Offensive Line Play Must Step Up
The Falcons offensive line was the team’s Achilles Heel last year. Not only could they not give Ryan ample protection in the pocket, they could not create enough push up front to provide the balance on the ground for Turner. The Falcons are trotting out the same starting five this year that they began last year with. The same starting five that proved to be overwhelmed in the majority of the first six weeks of the season that they played together. The same starting five that had two of its number benched because they were ineffective. So of all the keys to success this one might be the hardest one to fathom improvement.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. And that’s essentially the predicament the Falcons find themselves in. If there isn’t any improvement up front this year, then the powers that be in Flowery Branch have no one to blame but themselves.
The line is important because it has to be able to match up with top pass rushes to allow the actual playmakers on the field to make those plays. Without time to do so, Matt Ryan can’t throw the football, and thus players like Jones, White, and Tony Gonzalez are negated. And without push, the Falcons cannot have the balanced offensive attack featuring Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers that will make them extremely difficult for opponents to defend against. Essentially the offensive line is one of the primary lynchpins for allowing the first two keys I mentioned above happening.
4. The Pass Rush Must Improve
I can’t remember the last time the Falcons had a truly dynamic and dangerous pass rush. I don’t know if it’s been in this decade. I think you might have to go back to the 90s when the team had the “Bomb Squad” featuring Chuck Smith, Lester Archambeau, Travis Hall, among others when you can say that the Falcons last had a fearsome pass rush. Six years ago they went out and traded for John Abraham thinking that teaming him up with Rod Coleman and Patrick Kerney was going to provide that. That year, all three players missed significant time due to injury, with Kerney walking the following year and Coleman never returning to form. And since then, Abraham has basically carried the Falcons pass rush, with the occasional help from Jonathan Babineaux and Kroy Biermann. Abraham still remains the only player that opposing units have to fear. Everyone else to date has just been a complementary guy.
The problem is that against the top offenses in the league, you have to find ways to pressure the quarterback. Quarterback play in today’s NFL is so good, that pressure is really the only way to combat it. And the Falcons have failed miserably in that regard over the years. They’ve added players like Ray Edwards, Corey Peters, Peria Jerry, and hoped guys like Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury would develop, but so far that hasn’t worked too well for the team.
While the Falcons pass rush did improve a year ago, it still was unable to affect the quarterback in the important games. Players like Edwards, Peters, and Biermann were extremely quiet if not invisible in many of those games, particularly in the second half of the season. Both Abraham and Babineaux are on the decline due to age and injuries starting to add up. Players like Edwards, Peters, Jerry, Biermann, and Sidbury can’t simply maintain the status quo. Mike Nolan’s more aggressive scheme could potentially help them, but the Falcons aren’t going to be able to blitz their way to success. Because blitzing the elite passers in the league is only going to get you burned more often than not. So the onus remains on the guys up front and most if not all of them have to make significant strides this year. Every game, these guys are going to have to create pressure and generate sacks. Ideally, if you read the Moneyball Reviews on this site after each week, you should see at least one pressure, sack, or hit attributed to all seven of these players mentioned.
5. The Falcons Need to Avoid the Injury Bug
This is the most fluid of the keys because it’s the most random and impossible to predict. And it’s a key for all NFL teams. And every year, there are several teams that are bitten by it, and several that are not. Thankfully for the Falcons, most years they have been in the latter group. I’d like to say that is due to their excellent strength and conditional program and staff, but it could simply be due to blind luck. So much of the previous keys I mentioned are about bucking the status quo, but this is one area where I hope the status quo is maintained.
As mentioned earlier, injuries are something to avoid for all 32 NFL teams. But a reason why it may be slightly more important for the Falcons than say your average NFL team with playoff aspirations is because of their lack of depth. The Falcons draft day trades over the past three off-seasons have hurt their depth. Losing a first round pick, a pair of second rounders, and a pair of fourth rounders, in the trades that brought Tony Gonzalez and Julio Jones to Atlanta has had major ramifications in regards to their depth. That’s five players that would be on this team today, likely with some of them being starters and the others being key backups.
The Falcons have good players at the top of their roster. Several guys that can and should potentially make the Pro Bowl this year. But at the bottom of their roster, they have just as many guys that by many team’s standards would be marginal roster types. Essentially players that would be on the practice squad in your typical NFL city.
Another problem for the Falcons has been that they have not developed a strong pipeline of the developmental guys from the practice squad to the roster. Besides Eric Weems, this team has not added and developed their undrafted talent to start making contributions on the roster over the last four years. Players like Brent Grimes, Tyson Clabo, Harvey Dahl, and Weems himself were developed by this staff, but acquired by the previous regimes. Because they have been unsuccessful finding their own versions of those players over the past four years, it has also really hurt their depth.
And because of this, potentially this team is a few nicks and bruises away from being fairly mediocre because the gulf between their best players and the backups is so huge in a lot of key areas. One or two players missing a game or two may not be a big deal. But if you get to three, four, or five guys missing multiple games, the Falcons could be in big trouble.
I believe that if at the end of the year, we can say several if not all of these things…
1. “Matt Ryan made significant strides as a vertical passer and became one of the better guys in the league in that arena…”
2. “Michael Turner turned back time and looked like his younger self with his hard-running and explosiveness…”
3. “The offensive line improved immensely and was perhaps the best we’ve seen since Mike Smith took over…”
4. “The pass rush was strong and reminiscent of the days when the ‘Bomb Squad’ was pressuring guys…”
5. “The Falcons avoided injury and got nearly all of their key players to remain healthy…”
… Then this team could really be on the verge of something special in 2012.