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Atlanta Falcons 2011 Season Preview

The Atlanta Falcons hit every green light last season until crossing the median and getting blindsided in the playoffs.

That obstacle in the divisional round of the postseason was of course, eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay. The field-stretching Packers had the opposite game plan than Atlanta, which primarily opted to run first before letting quarterback Matt Ryan do his thing in the pocket last season.

Turns out a pass-happy offense can win it all.

So how did that philosophy work out for Ryan and the Falcons? A 48-21 trouncing by the Packers at the Georgia Dome was the end result for NFC South champion Atlanta, which had been the conference's No. 1 playoff seed after a 13-3 mark in the regular season.

All the pieces seemed to be in place for a Super Bowl run before the Falcons put forth one of their more unattractive performances of the season at the worst possible time.

Another season is on the horizon for the Falcons, and not too many changes were made in the team's attempt to get over the hump. And who could blame owner Arthur Blank and his wise general manager Thomas Dimitroff after Atlanta's pre- playoff success?

Still, Dimitroff may have tipped his hand on a change in mentality when he gambled on moving up 21 spots in April's NFL Draft to select talented University of Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones. In order to move from 27th to sixth in the draft, the Falcons sent their 1st (27th overall), second-(59th) and fourth- round (124th) picks in 2011 as well as first and fourth-round selections in 2012 to the Cleveland Browns for a rookie who now has immense expectations.

"We felt very strongly about the move up for a player that we believe truly adds the explosive, urgent athleticism that we were looking to improve on this team," Dimitroff said. "We feel like Julio is a fine addition to our offense and will continue to help provide Matt with the tools that we need going forward as an offense and as a team."

The foundation is there in Atlanta with Ryan, Pro Bowl wide receiver Roddy White, running back Michael Turner, future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez and a handful of talented defenders. The belief is the addition of Jones will make the offense even more explosive and may even change head coach Mike Smith's run-oriented ways.

Smith has won 33 games in three years at the helm, but his teams have been bounced in their first game of the playoffs in both 2008 and 2010. A 9-7 ledger in 2009 prevented the Falcons from extending their season past the 17th week that season.

That could all change this time around, as there's been plenty of hype hovering over Flowery Branch about the 2011 Falcons.

Veteran defensive end John Abraham was given some help in the pass-rushing department when Atlanta inked free agent Ray Edwards to a five-year deal this summer. The ex-Viking, who kept himself in shape to maul quarterbacks by taking up boxing during the lockout, hopes to knock out a few linemen on his way to the pocket with his new team. His presence should take pressure off of Abraham, who experienced plenty of double teams a year ago yet still led the Atlanta defense with 13 sacks. With Kroy Biermann still with the team, Atlanta figures to now have a solid rotation for fourth year coordinator Brian Van Gorder, who likes to dial up the blitz.

The defense finished 10th in the NFL against the run last season, allowing 105.9 yards per game, and has a pair of young playmakers in the secondary in cornerback Brent Grimes and safety William Moore, both of whom led the Falcons with five interceptions apiece in 2010.

Atlanta fans are hoping both sides can come together and bring the Lombardi Trophy home. If they do, the odds are certainly in the Falcons' favor for 2011.

Below we take a capsule look at the 2011 edition of the Atlanta Falcons, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:

2010 RECORD: 13-3 (1st, NFC South)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2010, lost to Green Bay in NFC Divisional Playoff

COACH (RECORD): Mike Smith (33-15 in three seasons)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mike Mularkey (fourth season with Falcons)

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Brian VanGorder (fourth season)

OFFENSIVE STAR: Roddy White, WR (115 receptions, 1389 yards, 10 TD)

DEFENSIVE STAR: John Abraham, DE (40 tackles, 13 sacks, 1 INT)

2010 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 16th overall (12th rushing, 15th passing), 5th scoring (25.9 ppg)

2010 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 16th overall (10th rushing, 22nd passing), 5th scoring (18.0 ppg)

KEY ADDITIONS: WR Julio Jones (1st Round, Alabama), TE Reggie Kelly (from Bengals), DE Ray Edwards (from Vikings), P Matt Bosher (6th Round, Miami- Florida), RB Jacquizz Rodgers (5th Round, Oregon State)

KEY DEPARTURES: WR Michael Jenkins (to Vikings), TE Justin Peelle (released), OG Harvey Dahl (to Rams), P Michael Koenen (to Buccaneers), RB Jerious Norwood (to Rams), WR Brian Finneran (not tendered), DE Jamaal Anderson (to Colts), CB Brian Williams (not tendered), S Erik Coleman (to Lions)

QB: Ryan is coming off a historic season in which he set franchise records with 357 completions on 571 pass attempts, and he set career-highs with 3,705 passing yards and 28 touchdowns against nine interceptions for a 91.0 quarterback rating. The numbers were good enough to earn Ryan a trip to the Pro Bowl, but the fourth-year pro still enters this season in search of a first- ever playoff win. Ryan does own an impressive 33 regular-season victories, tied with Hall of Famer Dan Marino for the most by a quarterback in his first three seasons since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, and was a dominating 19-2 on his home turf prior to January's loss to the Packers. With a solid corps of weapons at his disposal, including first-round draft pick Jones, it's fair to say Ryan is equipped to make an deeper run in the playoffs this year. The Falcons still have veteran Chris Redman as a backup, though they hope he never gets on the field unless it's for mop-up duty. John Parker Wilson, signed as an undrafted free agent in 2009, will again serve as the No. 3 quarterback.

RB: Many believe Ryan is the centerpiece to the Atlanta offense, and maybe that will be the case if Atlanta opts to pass more, but Turner deserves that title right now for his consistent ability to move the chains over the past three seasons. The 5-foot-10, 245-pounder is a bulldog in cleats and finished sixth in the NFL with an 85.7 yards per game average on the ground in 2010. Turner was also third in the league with an NFC-best 1,371 rushing yards and collected 12 touchdown runs, while his 334 carries were second only to his career-high 376 touches back in 2008. The first running back in franchise history to record three consecutive seasons with 10-plus rushing touchdowns, Turner does not possess breakaway speed, but his power and durability have made him a two-time Pro Bowl selection. The Falcons re-signed running back Jason Snelling to add depth at the position and provide Turner with a reliable backup. He tallied 87 carries for 324 yards with two touchdowns last season, while adding 44 receptions for 303 yards and three scores in 14 games. Expect rookie Jacquizz Rodgers, a fifth-round pick out of Oregon State, to see action as well. Fullback Ovie Mughelli, one of the game's best lead blockers, will again do the dirty work in paving the way for the running backs.

WR/TE: White (1389 yards, 10 TD) enjoyed a career year in 2010 and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl because of it. He hauled in a career-best and franchise- record 115 passes and has recorded 1,000-plus receiving yards in four straight seasons. White also has 10 or more touchdown catches in consecutive campaigns and will once again serve as Ryan's primary target. The 2005 first-round pick of the Falcons is only the third player in team history to record 100 or more catches in a season and last year became the fastest player in team history to reach 1,000 yards in a campaign after reaching that mark at St. Louis on Nov. 21. With Michael Jenkins, who had 41 catches and two scores last season, gone to Minnesota via free agency, slot receiver Harry Douglas (22 receptions, 1 TD) and return specialist Eric Weems will have more opportunities to contribute. They'll both be behind Jones on the depth chart, though, after the Falcons gave up a ton to snare the youngster early in April's draft. Jones dazzled at the combine and has done the same so far in training camp, and had already moved into the No. 2 role behind White at the start of preseason. Gonzalez (70 receptions, 6 TD) contemplated retirement before deciding to come back for a 15th NFL season, and is still a reliable option at age 35.

OL: Guard Harvey Dahl, now in St. Louis, was the biggest loss along an offensive line which deserves so much more credit than it garners for its ability to create space for Turner and give Ryan enough time to make the proper reads. Ryan was sacked an NFC-low 23 times in 2010 and the Falcons finished 15th overall in passing and 12th in rushing, in large part due to the work up front. Left guard Justin Blalock and Pro Bowl right tackle Tyson Clabo were both brought back, with promising third-year pro Garrett Reynolds expected to take over Dahl's spot at right guard. Seasoned center Todd McClure, a 13-year veteran, and left tackle Sam Baker round out the starters. Atlanta took guard Andrew Jackson (Fresno State) in the seventh round of April's draft to add depth and athleticism -- something Gonzalez also brings to the line on blocking downs or schemes. Tackle Will Svitek and guard Mike Johnson are the main backups who must be ready to contribute at a moment's notice if injuries mount on an unit that has its work cut out for the upcoming campaign, since Atlanta is considered one of the favorites in the NFC.

DL: As previously stated, Abraham (41 tackles, 13 sacks) got some help with the addition of Edwards, a big, chiseled end who signed a five-year deal to serve as the team's left-side starter. He tallied 139 tackles (43 solo), 29 1/2 sacks, 11 passes defensed and six forced fumbles in five seasons with Minnesota, and started 14 contests for the Vikings a year ago. While it's clear the Falcons needed to address their pass rush off the edge, Biermann (29 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT) and fellow end Chauncey Davis (24 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) are solid players who provide depth to the rotation, and the team is high on rookie Cliff Matthews (7th Round, South Carolina) as well. Tackle Jonathan Babineaux (27 tackles) was second on the team with four sacks in 2010, and Corey Peters will start alongside him after a productive 2010 rookie campaign in which he played all 16 games and registered 33 tackles and a sack. The line will no longer have former first-round pick Jamaal Anderson, who was released in July and later signed with Indianapolis.

LB: Better play up front means the Atlanta linebackers will have an easier time shedding blocks and chasing down ball carriers. The durable Curtis Lofton (118 tackles) has posted 100 or more tackles in back-to-back seasons at middle linebacker, and entered training camp in excellent condition after undergoing surgery on both his knees in the offseason. Sean Weatherspoon (42 tackles, 1 sack), the Falcons' first-round pick in 2010, showed great talent and strong pass-coverage skills as a rookie and is ticketed for a starting role on the weak side, while Dimitroff re-signed strongside regular Stephen Nicholas (78 tackles) and veteran Mike Peterson (79 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) while adding middle linebacker Akeem Dent (3rd Round, Georgia) in the draft to give Atlanta arguably the deepest corps of linebackers in the NFC South. Peterson, who's entering his 13th NFL season and third with the Falcons, started most of 2010 at weakside linebacker but will likely be used in a reserve capacity this year.

DB: Grimes (87 tackles, 5 INT) earned his first career Pro Bowl nod after posting a single-season franchise-high 23 passes defensed a year ago. After signing a one-year tender as a restricted free agent in the offseason, he'll put himself in position for a lucrative long-term deal if he enjoys a similarly productive campaign. Free-agent addition Dunta Robinson (55 tackles, 1 INT) didn't quite live up to the big contract he signed with Atlanta prior to last season, but the ex-Texan's speed and skills still make him a strong complement to Grimes. Those two cornerbacks must play well if Atlanta is to make another run at a division title, considering the pass-heavy Saints and Buccaneers rising star quarterback Josh Freeman also reside in the NFC South. Moore (71 tackles, 5 INT) and free safety Thomas DeCoud (75 tackles, 1 INT) give the defensive coaches several options because they both cover and defend the run, though there's less experienced depth at the position after seven-year vet Erik Coleman was released in February.

SPECIAL TEAMS: With punter Michael Koenen jumping ship to the division-rival Buccaneers, rookie Matt Bosher (6th Round, Miami-Florida) will both take over those duties and also handle kickoffs. Weems will resume his role as the main return man after averaging an outstanding 27.5 yards per kick return and 12.8 yards on punts, and one of the Pro Bowl honoree's three return scores in 2010 came in the playoff loss to Green Bay. Kicker Matt Bryant is back for his third season in Atlanta and went 28-for-31 on field goal tries in 2010, including an 11-for-11 clip from 20-29 yards away, while making all 44 of his PAT attempts. Rodgers may also be used some in the return game, while veteran long snapper Joe Zelenka, who's spent the majority of his career with the Jaguars, returns for a 13th professional season.

PROGNOSIS: The Falcons traded away a good portion of their upcoming draft picks to select Jones and are hoping he doesn't turn out to be another Freddie Mitchell, Rod Gardner or Malcolm Kelly. Putting him alongside White sends a clear statement to the rest of the league that Atlanta will mix in even more passing this season. Ryan couldn't be more happy with the move, saying the Falcons have to make explosive plays when the opportunity presents itself. Turner will still see his fair share of carries in offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey's system, and that ability to both run and stretch the field should make Atlanta one of the NFC's most potent offenses. The Falcons also took steps towards shoring up the other side of the ball with the Edwards signing and there's plenty of confidence about the returning defenders. Atlanta played well enough to earn a first-round bye in the playoffs last season, and the few changes it's made since may just put the Falcons over the top in 2011.