Since then-unknown NFL assistant coach Mike Smith arrived in Atlanta as the head coach before the 2008 season, the Falcons have been one of the league’s top franchises. Thanks in large part to the drafting of quarterback Matt Ryan out of Boston College, the Falcons have had a winning season all four years under Smith and reached the playoffs in three out of four.
But for all that success, Smith, Ryan and Co. still don’t have a playoff victory, going 0-3. Last season, the team was embarrassed in the wild-card round at the New York Giants, losing 24-2. Most still consider Ryan one of the top young quarterbacks in the league, but the pressure is on him to finally win a playoff game or two and truly reach elite status.
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Despite that ugly offensive output in the playoff game, offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey was hired as the new head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars this offseason. So what did the Falcons do? They hired Jaguars offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter for the same position in Atlanta. Koetter’s Jags ranked last in the league in total offense and yards passing in 2011 and 29th with its average of 15.2 points per game. To be fair, the Jaguars were breaking in raw rookie QB Blaine Gabbert.
In addition, Falcons defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder left to take the same job with Auburn. To replace him, Atlanta hired former 49ers Head Coach Mike Nolan. He spent the past last two seasons as Miami's defensive coordinator. Prior to that, he served four years as the 49ers head coach. Nolan has a terrific pedigree as a coordinator.
The firepower is clearly here. The Falcons ranked No. 10 in yards per game last year and seventh in points at 25.1 – that’s more points per game than supposed explosive offenses in Philadelphia, Houston and Dallas. The plan is for Ryan to be more aggressive throwing downfield in Koetter’s offense this season. He certainly has the weapons in receivers Roddy White (110 catches, 1,296 yards, eight TDs, but he also led the NFL in drops) and Julio Jones (54-959-eight as a rookie) as well as ageless tight end Tony Gonzalez (80-875-seven).
Expect a diminished workload for workhorse running back Michael Turner. He led the league in carries in two of the past four seasons and was second in the league with 301 carries last season. But Turner is 30 now, which is usually the magic number for when running backs slow down. The Falcons will give more carries to second-year back Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling, who is also a great receiver out of the backfield.
Plus, frankly, the team is planning to throw more in 2012. It’s the way of the new NFL. But beware Falcons bettors: Atlanta is 22-3 when Turner runs for more than 100 yards and 4-6 when Ryan passes for more than 300 yards.
The Atlanta defense was just middle-of-the-pack last season in yards allowed and ranked 18th in allowing 21.9 points per game. The Falcons haven't ranked among the Top 10 in yards allowed since 1998, their only Super Bowl season, but Nolan could well change that. Smith prefers the 4-3 scheme, but Nolan will use more of the 3-4 on passing downs in order to better disguise coverages and blitzes. Nolan needs to get this unit off the field after it allowed 44.1 percent conversions on third downs last year, near the bottom of the league.
In addition, the Falcons ranked 19th last year with 33 sacks. To help out stud pass-rusher John Abraham, Nolan will bring the pressure from linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties. Nolan can afford to take some chances after the team acquired cornerback Asante Samuel this offseason. With Samuel, Grimes and Dunta Robinson, the Falcons are rich in quality cornerbacks who can cover on an island. In four seasons in Philadelphia, Samuel had 23 interceptions.
There have been times during training camp when Grimes has moved from his usual left cornerback position to the right side as Nolan tries to mix and match looks. Robinson will primarily play in the nickel, which he prefers. Atlanta will use five defensive backs upward of 60 percent of the time. Grimes, incidentally, is 100 percent recovered from the right knee surgery he had in November that caused him to miss three of the last four regular-season games and the playoff loss to the Giants.
2012 Atlanta Falcons Schedule Analysis
The Falcons have the eighth-easiest schedule this season by an opponents’ 2011 winning percentage of .488. Atlanta plays only four teams that had a winning record last year, tied with New England for the fewest in the NFL.
Atlanta’s bye is Week 7 and the Falcons have a legitimate opportunity to enter the off week at 5-1. The Falcons are very tough to beat at the Georgia Dome and should be favored in home games vs. Denver (Peyton Manning still shaking off the rust in Week 2), Carolina and Oakland. And two of the three road games are vs. non-playoff teams Kansas City (game is currently a “pick’em”) and Washington (rookie QB). The only game I mark down as a likely loss is Week 3 at San Diego.
Coming out of the bye, things get much tougher with road games at Philadelphia and New Orleans and a home matchup vs. Dallas. Weeks 11-12 bring non-playoff clubs Arizona and Tampa Bay before another matchup with the Saints that could decide the NFC South. New Orleans swept the Falcons last year, although one game went to OT.
In December, the Falcons finish at Carolina (swept the Panthers in 2011), a playoff rematch at home vs. the Giants, at Detroit (Falcons won there by a TD last season) and conclude at home vs. Tampa Bay for the second year in a row (teams split in 2011, each winning at home).
2012 Atlanta Falcons NFL Futures Odds
On 5Dimes, Atlanta is +2700 to win the Super Bowl, +1200 to win the NFC and +550 to play in the conference championship game. Atlanta’s top Super Bowl “matchup” is vs. New England at +5750. To win the AFC South, the Falcons are +140. “Over/under” win totals: 8.5 (over -210 favorite), nine (over -130 favorite) and 9.5 (under -150 favorite).
2012 Atlanta Falcons Predictions
What is it with the city of Atlanta? Their sports teams are generally good but never great – see also the Braves and Hawks. That’s what the Falcons have been the past four seasons. You get the sense that patience is wearing thin with Smith and Ryan. And the NFC South title could be there for the taking with the turmoil going on in New Orleans, the Bucs coming off a terrible season and the Panthers still growing under Cam Newton.
I see a 10-6 record for the Falcons, which will probably be a game behind the Saints for the division but should be enough for a wild-card spot. I can’t see the team going any farther than that. It’s another good but not great season in “Hotlanta”.
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