Atlanta Falcons 2010 Season Preview: A Return to the Postseason?
Even with the injuries at the end of 2009 to star running back Michael Turner and quarterback Matt Ryan, the Atlanta Falcons managed to make franchise history. When the team won three straight games to finish the season, it secured a 9-7 record and completed Atlanta's first-ever back-to-back winning seasons.
Just winning is not enough anymore. The Falcons have Turner and Ryan healthy, two great pass-catchers in Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, and general manager Thomas Dimitroff has bolstered the defense with acquisitions like Dunta Robinson and solid draft picks. A deep playoff run is the only thing that will satisfy the Falcons this season.
Offense -- Ryan, entering his third season, has all the attributes of an elite passer. He's big and strong-armed, has patience, is a workout warrior and spends as much time in the film room as Martin Scorsese. The third season of a quarterback's career is said to be one when he puts everything together. The Falcons believe Ryan's primed to do this, so they'll open up the playbook and let him have more opportunities to throw the ball downfield.
During the offseason, Turner slimmed down. He still has the mass of a steam train, but now the mass is mostly fit, not flab. This is going to help him stay healthy and explode through the line and over a few linebackers. White and Gonzalez are Pro Bowl caliber players. White will attempt to log his fourth straight 1,000 yard receiving season and Gonzalez, upon his first catch of the year, will join the elite 1,000-career reception club, a group that's handed out only six membership cards in the history of the NFL. The team is also extremely happy to have Harry Douglas back from injury and occupying the slot position. The Falcons have a ton of weapons at their disposal this season. Heat Index: 9
Defense -- If the Falcons planned to make the playoffs this season, something had to be done with the pass defense. So the Falcons went out and signed the best free-agent cornerback on the market in Robinson, who instantly has made a difference, both on the field and off as a mentor to a young secondary. The Falcons also used their first pick in the draft to land Sean Weatherspoon, a linebacker with a constantly running motor, who's not only quick to the ball but excels in pass coverage. He will complement Curtis Lofton, who has played his way to the top of the league in tackles.
Up front, Atlanta needs to find someone opposite of John Abraham to get to the quarterback. The team feels that third-year end Kroy Biermann is just that guy. Biermann logged five sacks last season and tallied three in the preseason this year. There are still question marks, both in the secondary opposite of Robinson and in the middle of the line since Peria Jerry hasn't played enough to determine whether he's worthy of the first-round pick from 2009. Heat Index: 7
Special Teams -- Matt Bryant emerged from the Falcons' kicker competition, but his preseason misses have the team concerned. His leash will not be long during the regular season. Punter Michael Koenen has the ability to boom kicks, but also seems to have games where he looks ineffective and lost. His low net average needs to improve in 2010, and Koenen has the ability to do just that. Eric Weems will handle both the kickoff and punt-return duties as the team is going to ease Douglas back from injury. Heat Index: 6
Coaching -- It has taken head coach Mike Smith just two seasons to fix one of the biggest problems in franchise history: compiling back-to-back winning seasons. He and general manager Thomas Dimitroff have worked hard putting together a roster of energetic players with hardly a hint of character issues. The team is still a work in progress, especially on the defensive side of the ball, but with plenty more wins than losses in free-agent acquisitions and draft picks, the future looks bright. Heat Index: 9
Intangibles -- Dimitroff has tweaked a system he learned in New England and turned a bunch of successful free-agent signings and trades into an elite group of football players. On his watch, the Falcons have welcomed Gonzalez, Turner and Robinson, and enjoyed successful drafts to boot. With Dimitroff at the helm, Atlanta is always a step ahead of the competition. Heat Index: 10
Total Heat Index: 41/50 -- What killed the Falcons in 2009 could pop up and do the same in 2010. Injuries are devastating, and this Falcons team, while extremely talented, isn't deep enough to handle the pressure of losing a bunch of big names like they did last year. If the Falcons can stay healthy, and Weatherspoon and Robinson can spark the defense, Atlanta can play with the best of the best in the NFL.