Disappointing seasons always cause writers, broadcasters and fans to seek out the weak links in units that perform below accepted standards.
Often, however, those receiving much of the blame have generally done what was asked of them on the field. Such is the case with Keion Carpenter, who played last season at strong safety, a position most defenses describe as free safety.
Carpenter was the deep man, usually lining up 10 to 15 yards off the line of scrimmage. His job generally called for him to prevent balls from being thrown over the coverage.
Why, then, is Carpenter a fall guy for Atlanta's demise on run defense?
"That's what I'd like to know," Carpenter said. "We lost some veteran players from the year before -- guys like Ed Jasper, Travis Hall and Chris Draft. They were a big reason we had a lot of the success we had. When you replace them with rookies or other guys lacking experience, you're asking people to do things they might not completely understand.
"It takes time, real game experience, for guys to become successful in this league."
Carpenter not only plans to play in 2006; he hopes the Falcons will bring him back for his fifth season with the team.
"Of course I want to stay here," he said. "We have a home here. I'm comfortable in the scheme. I believe I'm good at what I do, and I know we just need to make a couple of changes and tweak a few things to become a dominant defense again."
Despite undergoing reconstructive knee surgery that made him miss the entire 2004 season, Carpenter started each of the 15 games in which he played. He dropped eight potential interceptions, however, including the harrowing turn of events in which he dropped Rex Grossman's interception at the Atlanta 1.
"Nobody feels worse about dropping those picks than I do," Carpenter said. "What kind of season do you think people would've said I had if had I caught seven or eight picks instead of two? I'm not complaining, believe me, because that responsibility falls squarely on me. I should've made those plays, all of them, but I didn't.
"All I'm saying is that I can get better. I want to get better. I've got a lot of football left in me."
Carpenter is equally defensive of teammate Bryan Scott, who played the free safety position most defenses define as "strong." A second-round draft choice from Penn State in 2003, Scott lost his aggression after a Week 5 concussion in '04. He stayed in the lineup, but the Falcons were able to mask his decline with a stout run defense that helped them advance to the NFC title game.
Such was no longer the case in the final nine games of '05. Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams, Samkon Gado, Carnell Williams and DeShaun Foster took turns hammering the right side of an Atlanta line that collapsed as Brady Smith and Ed Hartwell nursed injuries and the Falcons were without Jasper, Draft and Hall.
--The Falcons' current top-three offseason needs:
1. Safety: Head coach Jim Mora and president-general manager Rich McKay seemingly went out of their way last offseason to proclaim that Keion Carpenter, Bryan Scott, Ronnie Heard and even, uh, Rich Coady had enough combined experience to compensate for whatever weakness they had in wear and tear. The club will make no such proclamations, or mistakes, this time around. In addition to Huff, Southern Cal's Darnell Bing and South Carolina's Ko Simpson project as first-rounders on many mock boards. Bing, like Huff, is an explosive hitter, but both showed occasional lapses in recognizing formations or tendencies. If that's the case in college, adapting to the demands of the NFL won't come so easily. Simpson has more speed than Bing and closes pretty fast in coverage, but his lack of experience could make the Falcons look elsewhere at No. 15. If Atlanta takes a running back, cornerback or even a defensive end with its first-round pick, Ohio State's Donte Whitner, Purdue's Bernard Pollard and maybe Greg Blue of Georgia might be available in the second.
2. Running Back: Looking toward 2007 and the potential departure of Warrick Dunn or no less than a reduced role, it's important that the team have a player of his caliber, size and elusiveness to learn from a three-time Pro Bowl selection in '06. That makes Memphis' DeAngelo Williams a good fit at No. 15 overall. Right now, there seems no chance that T.J. Duckett would return with a new contract. His decline in the final five games was frightening. Averaging 1.1 yards over Atlanta's 1-4 finish sent scouts scurrying for answers heading into this draft. Waiting until the second round could be worth the risk if Wisconsin's Brian Calhoun is still available. Calhoun, like Williams, resembles Dunn more than, say, LenDale White, a big back whose frame is more akin to Duckett.
3. Cornerback. Mora and his staff covet speed, which could make someone like Clemson's Tye Hill an intriguing pick at No. 15. Jason Webster is locked in as the right-side starter opposite first-time Pro Bowler DeAngelo Hall entering the season. Webster, however, is a consummate team player and one who never grumbles about his role. He would make a perfect tutor for Hill, or if the Falcons wait until latter rounds to address the position, Miami's Devin Hester is a third-round possibility and Georgia's DeMario Minter either a third- or fourth-rounder. DRAFT SCOUT SKINNY
Considering that the Falcons aren't in the market for a running back like Reggie Bush or a quarterback like Matt Leinart, no player intrigues the team more than Virginia Tech's Jimmy Williams.
Unless Williams commits some kind of embarrassing mistake off the field between now and draft day, there is absolutely no chance he would be available at No. 15.
Trading up seems less likely given how much money the club has tied up in a handful of talented veterans, so it's more reasonable to project Memphis running back DeAngelo Williams, Minnesota running back Laurence Maroney, Clemson cornerback Tye Hill or defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka of Boston College as possibilities.