August 9, 2012; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) drops back to pass in the first half against the Baltimore Ravens at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE

Pressure Points: Atlanta Falcons

So we begin the 2012 season, Falcons at Chiefs.

Now what do I mean by Pressure Points? To put this in as simple as terms as possible, no team is perfect and the Falcons are no exception to that rule.

As I’m sure most will agree, on offense, the Falcons are an excellent team, led by a rising star quarterback, a very talented receiving corps, solid pass blocking and a fairly decent ground game that features Michael Turner.  Matt Ryan is a quarterback who can make plays and possesses the necessary leadership and skills to can carry his team through adversity. Roddy White is widely considered to be among the league’s elite receivers.

Second year receiver Julio Jones has the potential to be just as dynamic as White if not moreso. Similarly, slot receiver Harry Douglas is a guy who can destroy you when left uncovered. Future HOF’er TE Tony Gonzalez can be counted on to catch a slew of balls each year, routinely make third down conversions, and help move the chains on a consistent basis.  Last season, Michael Turner rushed for 1340 yards averaging 4.5 yards a pop.

In a nutshell, the Falcons field a very potent offense stocked with playmakers.

The Falcons do not have many weak points but there are some chinks in the Falcons offensive armor. The first to note is perhaps the most obvious. Matt Ryan, just like any quarterback, is less of a threat when pressured.

Fortunately for Ryan, the Falcons offensive line has, as a unit, is pretty good. That said, their weakest link along that line however is also the most important: left tackle, which continues to be undermanned by likes of Sam Baker and Will Svitek. During this past offseason, the only significant move the Falcons made to address their offensive line was draft Peter Konz as the eventual replacement for 34-year-old C Todd McClure. Konz was expected to be the Falcons starter RG but has so far been unable to win it away from the heretofor lackluster Garrett Reynolds.

The Falcons offense, while solid in just about every respect, does have some concerns when it comes to veterans at or nearing the downside/end of their career. As already mentioned, McClure is 34. Tony Gonzalez is 36 (and considerably slower these days). Similarly, White, now 30, while still a productive and dangerous receiver, is also not as explosive as he once was.

Michael Turner, also 30, has been a workhouse for the Falcons, serving in the role of a true feature back (almost an anachronism these days), touching the ball nearly 1200 times over the last 4 seasons. Toward the end of last season, Turner’s production began to drop off noticeably. One has to wonder, like so many traditional feature backs, how much he has left in the tank. The Falcons did not do anything of any significance during the offseason to address this concern either.

With Turner, the Falcons are essentially one dimensional in the rushing attack. According to Football Outsiders stats, in 2011, Turner was most efficient when running inside the right tackle (ranking ninth) and outside the left tackle (ranking 12th).  Other than the aforementioned two lanes, Turner ranked towards the bottom of league in efficiency. In fact, the Falcons run game as a whole ranked 27th in efficiency. To perhaps put this is even better perspective, Turner’s overall efficiency ranked statistically below that of Jackie Battle’s last season, once again according to Football Outsiders.

Let’s recap the Falcons pressure points on offense.

Along the offensive line, I believe one can fairly say they are highly suspect at Left Tackle and Right Guard, and treading water with an aging Center.  Among their receiving corps, Tony Gonzalez seems to have slowed down considerably and Roddy White, while still good, seems to have lost a step. Similarly, at RB, Michael Turner’s tread is starting to showing signs of wear.

Now let’s talk about the Falcon’s defense.

I’ll start off by saying that the free agency acquisition of Asante Samuel (age 31), being paired up with Brent Grimes (age 29), gives Atlanta a “respect worthy” secondary.  I’d even go so far as to say that Grimes is probably one of the most under-rated CBs in the league. In terms of defending specific receivers, in 2011 according to Football Outsiders, the Falcons ranked, respectively, 30th, 12th, second, first, and eighth against #1 WR, #2 WR, Other WR, TE, and RB.

Overall, Football Outsiders ranked the Falcons as the 11th most efficient pass defense and now with the acquisition of Samuel, one might think there’s good reason to think they will be even better this season.

At linebacker, the Falcons defense took its biggest hit during the offseason with the loss of Curtis Lofton to free agency. Lofton had led the Falcons in tackles for the past two seasons and was a vocal leader for the team. So, I’ll just come right out and say the loss of Lofton is probably the most significant hit to the Falcons D unit and I rather expect that the loss of his presence will be felt in both tangible and intangible ways this season.

The Falcons’ front four on D are also pretty good. John Abraham (age 34) continues to man the RDE spot, and Ray Edwards (age 27) seems to be holding things down at LDE pretty well as well. Abraham is a perennial sack machine, last year getting 9.5 total. For his part, Edwards had somewhat of a down year and managed only 3.5 sacks. I’m inclined to attribute Edwards drop off in sacks largely to him needing time to acclimate to the Falcons defense and coaching staff, having come from the Vikings just the year prior.

Against the run, Football Outsiders ranked the Falcons DL as the third most efficient unit in the league last season.  They ranked #2 in stuff efficiency, 17th against power runs and 2nd level, and 20th against open field runs. Breaking this down even further along the gaps, the Falcons ranked seventh in defending runs outside the LE, fifth at defending runs that targeted the left A gap, 25th against runs that went between the guards, first against the right A gap, and second against runs outside the RE.

So there you have it. The weak points of the Falcons defense seem to be few. I really only potentially see a couple (if any?), the biggest of those being the loss of MLB Lofton and to what extent Dent and the rest of the Falcons defense can compensate for the void left. The other weakness seems to be their difficulty at stopping runs up the middle. Lastly, and this is somewhat of minor point, they seem to struggle some at tackling runners once they break through the line. I suspect that the loss of leading tackler Lofton may exacerbate this apparent weakness even further.

So there you have it, Addicts. I’ve laid out, to the best of my ability, where the Falcons weaknesses lie. Now it’s your turn to play coach and tell me what you do to exploit these perceived flaws? For example, with Hali out, who do you rush against Baker/Svitek?  Do you swap Houston to the other side? What role would you like see to Eric Berry in—guarding Gonzalez or rushing the passer? On the other side of the line, what is your plan of attack against the formidable Falcons D?

Sound off!!

 

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