The 2011 season was a huge disappointment for the Atlanta Falcons. After a 13-3 season in 2010 expectations were high going into 2011. The Falcons posted a less than impressive 10-6 regular season record and went out of the playoffs at the first attempt for the second year running. Therefore questions are being asked about the Falcons ability to take that next step.
So what’s the difference between the 2011 Atlanta Falcons and the 2012 unit?
The Roster is largely unchanged; the biggest loss of this off season was the departure of middle linebacker and defensive play caller Curtis Lofton.
Lofton has been replaced by former Seahawk Lofa Tatupu who will compete with 3rd year linebacker Akem Dent for a starting spot.
If Tatupu can replicate the play he showed in his early days in Seattle, it’ll definitely be an upgrade. Dent could also be an excellent player and time will tell on both. Many things have been said about Lofton, but he lead the team in tackles in the last two seasons.
With the Falcons having so many of their own free agents to decide on and very little cap space to play with, a big free agent arrival such as Mario Williams was never on the cards. The Falcons did what they had to; they kept cornerback Brent Grimes, resigned their best pass rusher, John Abraham and held onto solid back up players who have contributed, such as Jason Snelling and Kroy Biermann.
The Falcons one major new addition was cornerback Asante Samuel, who at the cost of only a seventh round draft pick is an absolute steal. The pick up of Samuel brings a player who will make breaks on the ball and get turnovers. This will also enable Dunta Robinson to move inside to play more bump and run rather than zone coverage, where he was less productive. Safety Chris Hope was also signed and adds experience and depth.
Despite not winning a playoff game after 3 visits in 4 years, major changes to the roster were not needed. This team has plenty of talent but need to be put in the right situations in order to win the big games. With the players it has, the offense needs to be more explosive and not quite so conservative. The defense that has failed to pressure opposing quarterbacks which has put the secondary in bad situations.
The main area of change in Atlanta this off season has been with the coaching staff and in particular the co-ordinators. Mike Nolan replaces Brian Van Gorder on defense. On offense Dirk Koetter replaces Mike Mularkey under which this offense became stale and predictable..
The choice of Koetter did little to inspire fans but his overall plan for this offense would seem the right way to go, a power running game and a downfield passing attack that includes screen passes that have been something of a rarity in the Falcons playbook in the last few seasons.
In truth Koetter had precious little to work with in Jacksonville. In 2011 the Jaguars offense ranked last in the league in yards gained and 28th in points scored. There wasn’t exactly a glut of exciting offensive co-ordinators available to the Falcons and although the jury may still be out on the choice of Koetter the early signs are encouraging.
On Defense the Falcons have made what could be the best signing of the off season when they appointed Mike Nolan to run their defense. Nolan who has most recently been the advocator of the 3-4 defense was quick to point out that he has also run the 4-3 defense in roughly half of his 25 years in the league. For the record the Falcons will stick with the 4-3 but will use multiple alignments and schemes to get the best out of a defense that will be much more aggressive than it was under Van Gorder.
The Falcons still have a question mark on their pass rush, Abraham is now 34 and Ray Edwards was a huge disappointment last year. Multiple blitz schemes under Nolan will help. The impressive Sean Weatherspoon is now the leader of a defense that has enough talent to be a top 5 unit under Nolan’s tutelage.
The Falcons should be one of the favourites in the tough NFC conference but until they can win that elusive first playoff game question marks will remain.
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