Published August 20, 2012
| Sports Network
It's probably not the habit that Mike Smith is happiest about.
After entering the NFC Playoffs with double-digit wins in consecutive years, the Atlanta Falcons' head coach has seen his team's would-be runs cut short with ugly one-sided losses to the eventual Super Bowl winners.
The 2010 Atlanta unit won 13-of-16 regular-season games and captured both the NFC South divisional title and the conference's top seed, only to emerge from an opening-round bye and give up 48 points on home turf to Aaron Rodgers and his sixth-seeded Green Bay Packers.
Twenty-two days later, the Packers were world champions.
In 2011, the Falcons were a more anonymous quantity, with three fewer wins and a Wild Card entry instead of a divisional crown. But the exit was equally unceremonious via a 24-2 smothering to the New York Giants, who'd sneaked into the tourney with a 9-7 record.
But in four weeks time, Big Blue corralled itself a trophy.
Needless to say, the consecutive unhappy endings have expectations focused less on simply returning to the postseason and more on accomplishing something other than a short-term clunker.
"I think in this league, it's all about winning in the second season," Smith said. "We've done a very nice job through our first four years, [quarterback] Matt [Ryan] has won a lot of football games for us. Unfortunately, we haven't coached well, we haven't played well in the playoffs, and that is something that we are going to try to stop this season."
As Smith alluded, Ryan has shouldered much of the blame for the Falcons' inadequacy in the season's fifth month after having been under center for the aforementioned two losses as well as a 30-24 playoff defeat to eventual NFC champion Arizona as a rookie back in 2008.
The former Boston College standout and third overall draft pick has been beyond reproach while going 43-19 between Septembers and Decembers, completing over 60 percent of his passes in three of his four seasons and nudging his touchdown total up each year -- from 16 in 2008 to 29 last season.
In the three playoff starts, though, he's had more interceptions (4) than touchdown passes (3) and never reached the 200-yard threshold (he twice topped out at 199 yards) that he's met or exceeded no fewer than 41 times during the regular season -- and 12 times in 2011 alone.
Ryan spent the offseason preparing for the rigors of extra games and reported to training camp with an additional seven pounds of muscle on his 6-foot-4 frame.
"I've gotten stronger and hopefully more durable," he said. "The main focus was trying to be in the best possible shape to really play at a high level in November, December and January. It's a league where one team and one quarterback are happy at season's end. We haven't been that one team yet. But we're primed and ready to be a great football team."
Ryan's downtime dedication has drawn the attention of the passer's immediate supervisors.
"I don't know if they've taken a before-and-after picture, but you can definitely see the noticeable difference with Matt," Smith said. "If you're stronger at the beginning of the season, you're going to be stronger at the end. It's very important for us, because we feel like we've got to be more consistent and play better at the end of the season."
Also impressed was Thomas Dimitroff, the team���s general manager.
"Matt's approach to this offseason has been admirable," Dimitroff said. "He has really set out to strengthen himself physically and understands the importance of being strong and having endurance down the stretch. He's put more time in here this offseason than anyone.
"There's no doubt in my mind that Matt is an upper-echelon quarterback."
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Atlanta Falcons, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 RECORD: 10-6 (2nd, NFC South)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2011, lost to N.Y. Giants in NFC Wild Card
COACH (RECORD): Mike Smith (43-21 in four seasons)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Dirk Koetter (first season with Falcons)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mike Nolan (first season with Falcons)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Matt Ryan, QB (4177 passing yards, 29 TD, 12 INT)
DEFENSIVE STAR: John Abraham, DE (35 tackles, 9.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles)
2011 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 10th overall (17th rushing, 8th passing), 7th scoring (25.1 ppg)
2011 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 12th overall (6th rushing, 20th passing), 18th scoring (21.9 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: CB Asante Samuel (from Eagles), FB Lousaka Polite (from Patriots), OG Peter Konz (2nd Round, Wisconsin), S Chris Hope (from Titans)
KEY DEPARTURES: FB Ovie Mughelli (to Rams), MLB Curtis Lofton (to Saints), WR Eric Weems (to Bears), TE Reggie Kelly (free agent), CB Kelvin Hayden (to Bears), S James Sanders (to Cardinals)
QB: In case the point hadn't already been driven home, Ryan will clearly have a significant role in determining whether the Falcons wind up in this season's final game in New Orleans or somewhere shy of the Super Bowl. He logged career-bests in passing yards (4,177), touchdown throws (29), passing yards per game (261.1) and quarterback rating (92.2) in 2011 and enters this season with the same high-octane wideouts (Julio Jones and Roddy White) who helped make those numbers possible. Backing Ryan up are the same reserves as in 2011, 10-year veteran Chris Redman and fourth-year man John Parker Wilson. Redman got on the field in five games last season, completing 18-of-28 passes for 188 yards and an interception.
RB: Providing an encore to a 1,340-yard, 11-touchdown season is the task for feature back Michael Turner, who averaged 83.8 rushing yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry over the entire 2011 campaign, but logged more than 3.6 yards per carry just once in the final seven games. Smith is on record saying Turner's load will be lessened this year in favor of speedy 22-year-old Jacquizz Rodgers, who had 205 rushing yards and 21 catches in his first season after being selected in the fifth round of the 2011 draft. Jason Snelling is also back after logging 44 carries for 151 yards last season. Fullback Bradie Ewing was selected in the fifth round of April's and was expected to challenge Mike Cox for the starting position, but a year-ending torn ACL in the preseason opener scuttled those plans.
WR/TE: Ryan returns under center with a plethora of targets that includes Jones, who caught 54 passes for 959 yards (17.8-yard avg.) as a rookie after the Falcons traded up to get him with the No. 6 overall pick of the 2011 draft. He's joined by the 30-year-old veteran White, who caught 100 balls for a team-best 1,296 yards and scored eight times last year. It was the second straight season of triple-digit catches for White, who amassed 115 receptions a year earlier and raised his yards-per-catch average from 12.1 to 13.0 in 2011. He also posted a league-high 15 drops, however. Harry Douglas again mans the slot after making 39 catches for 498 yards last season, while Canton-bound tight end Tony Gonzalez caught 80 balls for 875 yards in a bounce-back year after compiling 70 catches for 656 yards a season earlier.
OL: The Falcons used second and third-round picks in this past draft to shore up a widely-criticized offensive line which many claimed was neglected a year earlier, when the team gave up a collection of draft choices to move up and get Jones. Returning starter Tyson Clabo and Mike Johnson are listed ahead of 2012 third-rounder Lamar Holmes at right tackle, while second-rounder Peter Konz could start as a rookie over Garrett Reynolds at right guard. Thirteen- year veteran Todd McClure remains in the fold at center, while left guard Justin Blalock and left tackle Sam Baker also return. The latter was limited to just 12 games and six starts last season because of a back injury.
DL: Veteran end John Abraham (35 tackles) continued a career's worth of passer pressure in 2011, registering 9 1/2 sacks in 15 games and forcing four fumbles. On the other side, Ray Edwards (33 tackles) managed just 3 1/2 sacks in his initial season in Atlanta after inking a big free-agent deal to exit Minnesota. Rookie fifth-round draft pick Jonathan Massaquoi entered the preseason listed third on the depth chart at left end, beneath Edwards and pass-rush specialist Kroy Biermann (37 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT). Jonathan Babineaux (21 tackles, 1 sack) and Corey Peters (26 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT) return as starters in the middle of the Falcons' 4-3 alignment, though Peters is questionable for the start of the season due to a foot injury. A 2009 first-round pick, 295-pounder Peria Jerry (10 tackles), is listed second behind Babineaux at left tackle.
LB: Leading tackler Curtis Lofton (147 tackles) was lost to New Orleans via free agency in the offseason, which leaves 2011 third-round choice Akeem Dent (20 tackles) as the front-runner to claim his old spot at middle linebacker. On the outside are holdovers Sean Weatherspoon (115 tackles, 4 sacks) and Stephen Nicholas (35 tackles), who combined for 150 tackles and four sacks in 2011. Among the second-stringers are veteran middle man Mike Peterson, who was signed to another one-year deal in the offseason after playing 15 games and making 24 tackles while picking off a pass a season ago. He'll provide insurance in case Dent struggles in his first try as a starter.
DB: The big name to enter the Falcons' fold in the offseason is cornerback Asante Samuel (34 tackles, 3 INT), who came over via a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles for a seventh-round pick and immediately agreed to rework his contract to $18.5 million over three seasons. He'll join returning corner Brent Grimes (49 tackles, 1 INT), who allowed just a 44.3 completion percentage last season compared to Samuel's solid 47.5 percent clip with the Eagles. The returning starters at safety are William Moore and Thomas DeCoud. Moore has missed 18 games in three seasons, but made 54 tackles and picked off two passes in 12 contests in 2011, while DeCoud had 86 tackles and four interceptions while suiting up for all 16 games. Nine-year man Dunta Robinson (49 tackles, 2 INT) looks like a nickel-coverage defender for 2012 following Samuel's addition.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Backup running back Rodgers inherits kick-return duties from Eric Weems, who returned 24 kicks for 563 yards (23.5 avg.) in 2011 before signing with the Chicago Bears in the offseason. Weems also returned 32 punts for a 9.8 yard average and is set for replacement by slot receiver Douglas, with kicker Matt Bryant (27-of-29 FG, 126 pts) and punter Matt Bosher (42.7 avg.) returning to their previous roles.
PROGNOSIS: The Falcons look stronger in the NFC South based on the offseason challenges faced by division-rival New Orleans, and the prolonged postseason foibles have to serve as a spur for maximum motivation to return for another chance for playoff redemption. Assuming Ryan, Jones, White and Turner remain healthy, enough offensive firepower to provide for at least a chance to erase those pockmarks has to be expected. And if Ryan takes the "he's an elite quarterback" step now twice taken by a certain NFC signal-caller in New York, he and Atlanta's final trip to Louisiana may actually be a little later than the scheduled Week 10 date with the Saints in early November.