Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Falcon Crest

*** As for my "Midnight Train" series, it'll have to be put on hold for now. I'm in a new apartment, and my resources are somewhat limited. However, here's my NFL preview for my hometown Atlanta Falcons ***

2005: You know, after the Minnesota game, there was reason to be excited. The Falcons had a turnover differential of +4 for the season, a 3-1 record, and only a loss to a very good Seattle team. Unfortunately, the Minnesota game would be the high point of the season. Our offense wouldn't play as well, and our defense would go from an elite performance into defensive hell. The low point of the season had to be the final game against Carolina. How terrible. However, I blame some of the Falcons' misfortunes on bad luck. Or at least, the disappearance of it. In fact, I'm gonna make a bold statement:The '05 Falcons didn't play that much more poorly than the '04 Falcons. In fact, if you look at overall performance, both teams were probably 8-8 teams, but the '04 squad really had things that went their way. The '05 offense was better, the best it's been since '02. The '05 defense, however, was much worse. I don't think the '04 defense was that great, but it was good. 2002 was the only time in the Vick era that our defense has truly been special.

Strategy and tendencies: The Falcons are a stubborn team. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers use 3 receiver sets less often than the Falcons. No team runs the ball in the first half more than the Falcons. Only 3 teams ran more period, and that was probably b/c they had late leads to help. One was the Steelers, another was the 11-5 Bears, and the third was the 13-3 Broncos. So, needless to say, no team prefers to run as much as the Falcons, though some do out of necessity. The Falcons, when they run, try their best to protect Warrick Dunn - we used a fullback on 83% of all rushing attempts. The Falcons almost never opt to pass in short yardage situations, and even when behind late in the game, still prefer to run. That may change as our receiving corps develops and if/when Vick grasps the offensive scheme. Also, the Falcons were one of the best teams in the NFL in the redzone, much in part to TJ Duckett - the only place he excelled. On defense, the Falcons rarely, if ever, blitz a defensive back. We don't get many sacks from the linebackers either, although that could change with Hartwell's return. The Falcons' biggest defensive strength is DeAngelo Hall, as they were the 5th best team in terms of #1 CB vs. #1 WR. He didn't just shut down TO - he nearly shut down everyone he was up against. The Falcons' hidden strength remains to be special teams, as they've been one of the 6 best units in the league in 4 of the last 5 years.

The QBs: Matt Schaub has turned into a very good backup quarterback, and the Falcons have been wise to hold onto him. He most certainly could help nab them a shot at Adrian Peterson or MarShawn Lynch in next year's draft to replace Warrick Dunn, who doesn't have a lot of gas left in the tank. Still, Schaub is as good an example as any of Atlanta's troubles at WR. For anyone who thinks Vick struggles to find receivers, his completion percentage edged Schaub's by 2.9%. As for Vick, he has made some strides, and improved last year, in my opinion. He's on the cusp of something special, but there's still a big leap ahead of him. I do think this is the year he eclipses 3000 yards, and I've never said that before. At #3 is either DJ Shockley or Bryan Randall. Randall is probably the better option to play should some very bad things happen, but DJ has the real future as a serviceable backup. By '07, he could easily be Vick's backup, with Randall still at #3.

The RBs: Warrick Dunn. I sure do like the guy, but I hope you took pictures last year, because this ain't happening again. If I'm wrong, I'm ecstatic. I just can't see a 31 year old coming off a 5.1 yards per carry, 1416 yard season, even remotely matching it. I expect 4.0, 1000 yards this season. It's not Dunn's fault, just the nature of the game. Trading Duckett doesn't leave a huge hole in the offense per se, but he was valuable near the goal line for the most part. Vick ran a lot less last year, but he was still very, very good when he did, and was probably one of the better running backs in the league, so to speak. Justin Griffith is a good go-to guy, and the Falcons know how to use him. Interestingly, our best runner on a per-play basis last year was Matt Schaub, almost laughingly getting 78 yards on 7 running plays. Newcomer Jerious Norwood has speed to burn, and he's almost a carbon copy of Warrick Dunn. When he spells Dunn, he'll fit perfectly. However, don't expect any Duckettness from him. I sometimes get the feeling he runs scared like Barry Sanders used to. Not a problem unless you're at the 1 yard line trying to push it over.

WRs: I'm not sure who to call #1, be it Michael Jenkins or Roddy White. Last year, Jenkins was supposed to be our #1, but we never threw to him. He wasn't particularly good, but he sure wasn't bad. His catch % needs to improve from it's current level of 51, but that will happen as both he and Vick gain experience. White, on the other hand, has much more talent and looks like our future #1. Last year, he was VERY good in the redzone, and considering he was a rookie, wasn't that bad. Especially with little time at training camp. He's a speed guy and would be best utilized on deep routes but he displayed the kind of ability at times that makes me think he could be very good as a #1. Which brings us to... Ashley Lelie. He's built like White, has speed like White (faster, I think), but just hasn't capitalized on that talent in the same way. He's a burner, that much is certain. Only Taylor Jacobs of the Redskins last year was more exclusively a fly route guy than Lelie. He has good size, so I'm not sure what has held him back, but the Broncos coaching staff AND fans realized quickly that he was only good for one thing. When he comes down with catches, they'll be big gains. As long as the Falcons understand his apparent weaknesses (like Duckett's) and utilize his strengths, he should be a very good #3 receiver. Our tight ends may be blockers, but I'll cover that in the O-line section. Crumpler the receiver is one of the best in football. He doesn't make as many of his catches (55%) as most of the best (Gates' 64% or Gonzalez' 67%), but Vick relies on him more than most. He threw to Alge more than any WR on the team. With the maturation of Jenkins & White and the addition of Lelie, Alge should be able to become a tad more obscure, and thus more deadly. Duckett was a surprisingly good receiver, despite the Falcons rarely throwing to him. Dunn remains a pretty good receiver, hauling in 78% of passes, but he never did much once he caught the ball. Justin Griffith is our best threat out of the backfield in the receiving game, as he had 3 TD catches last year as a solid redzone target. Unfortunately, Vick relied on him a bit too much and brought down his production, but he's a weapon nonetheless.

Offensive Line: I really like the way we block for our running game, and obviously the line is a strength. However, I'm a little iffy on losing Kevin Shaffer, but hopefully Wayne Gandy will buy into and execute what we do. The only direction in which we struggle to run is straight up the middle, but we're among the best in the league at running at or outside the tackles. That's another reason Norwood has a big future here. One could ask that they protect Vick more, and while they aren't an elite pass blocking line by any means, many of the sacks are Vick's fault. Someone needs to teach him how to drop back, b/c he often runs into blockers and pressures himself.

Defensive front 7: Ok, if anyone tries to pass on Atlanta, they're going to run into problems. Patrick Kerney, John Abraham, Rod Coleman, Jonathan Babineaux, Demorrio Williams, Ed Hartwell, and Keith Brooking ALL play better against the pass than the run. Today, the Falcons added Grady Jackson, a tackle who can stuff the run. Not only does Jackson make the play against the run more often than anyone else in Atlanta, but he puts himself in position to more often. That's gonna translate to big things for this defense. If Michael Boley can be a force against the run from the outside, hopefully it'll force the opposing teams to pass more, which is good for Atlanta.

Secondary: The addition of Chris Crocker means more support for the rushing defense, and honestly DeAngelo Hall isn't that bad against the run. I personally think he's a very good corner, but he still has some holes in his game. I mentioned that #1 WRs struggled against Atlanta, but that is as much because of other factors as of DeAngelo. For example, the Falcons were pretty much the easiest team to run against, so why pass? Second, the safeties were SO bad at, well, everything, it'd be wiser to throw to them. Jimmy Williams has a lot of basics to learn before he's ready to start, but he's very talented. Jason Webster is underrated and he'll be good to have back. Lawyer Milloy won't help against the run, but he'll be better against the pass.

Special Teams: I've already said that ST is Atlanta's underrated specialty, except you'd be surprised where they're so good. Most people think I'm referring to Allen Rossum, and while that was the case in 2004, it no longer is. Atlanta was actually pretty bad last year in the return game. Where they make their bread & butter, however, is kicking. Michael Koenen looks like one heck of a talented kicker, and when coupled with Atlanta's very good coverage team, the Falcons have a deadly kicking unit. They finished 1st in the NFL on Net Kicking yards last season and 4th in Net Punting. Todd Peterson was good, and I'm not sure why we let him go. I'd like to see Koenen have the shot to double up, b/c he certainly has the talent.

Overall: This team has a lot of big question marks, but enough talent to win games regardless of how the questions are answered. My gut feeling says wild card.

The 5 biggest questions that will decide where between the 7-9 threshold and the 12-4 mark they'll finish:
5. Will anyone step up on the return game and restore Atlanta to it's once proud status as a team to be feared when kicking to?
4. Will someone fill TJ Duckett's shoes as the big guy in the red zone?
3. Can Michael Vick continue to improve with the offense, staying healthy and spreading the ball around?
2. Will a receiver establish himself as a legitimate, trustworthy #1?
1. Can the Falcons stop the run?

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