Falcons face challenge to take next step in postseason.
By Alex MarvezFoxSports
The "dirty bird" was their trademark celebration en route to Super Bowl XXXIII.
The Atlanta Falcons need to rediscover that rhythm after opening playoff losses three of the past four years.
The Falcons are on a run of unprecedented success, posting four consecutive winning seasons for the first time in franchise history under head coach Mike Smith. But each of those campaigns ended in major disappointment.
Atlanta, which didn't qualify for the playoffs at 9-7 in 2009, was bumped from the postseason by Arizona (2008), Green Bay (2010) and the New York Giants (2011). All three of those teams did reach the Super Bowl, with the Packers and Giants winning championships. The Falcons, though, had better regular-season records than each of their opponents. Equally devastating, Atlanta played some of its worst football of the season in those losses.
Such failings are the motivational fuel for the 2012 Falcons.
"It’s time for us to march past that first game," defensive end John Abraham said at Falcons training camp. "I think once we get that first game there’s going to be no stopping us.
"It’s just getting that first dance out of the way. You know you’re nervous the first time you dance with somebody. You get that out of the way, you feel comfortable. Now it’s time for us to two-step, get down and boogie.”
Abraham should be dancing in the streets about Atlanta's change in defensive coordinator. While the Falcons don't have a complementary pass-rusher on their roster, Mike Nolan is installing a more complex system designed to bring the heat from multiple angles and formations. This should help a third-down defense that Smith admits needed upgrading from 2011.
"I think it’s going to be 10 more people (rushing), not just me," said Abraham, whose 112 career sacks are the most among active NFL players. "How Mike has it set up, everyone is coming — cornerbacks, safeties, linebackers. It’s not just going to be d-line. We have people capable of getting to (the quarterback) so we’re using everyone possible on the team to go.
"We’re probably going to show some different looks here and there. You’ve got to. Once you become one-dimensional and vanilla, teams tend to tear you apart. They know what you’ve been doing and what’s going to happen in certain situations. I don’t think we’re that type of team at all this year.”
Atlanta's offense also could look noticeably different with a new coordinator to replace Mike Mularkey, who left to become Jacksonville's head coach. Dirk Koetter will try to deploy more of a deep passing game to utilize the skills of rising second-year wide receiver Julio Jones. There also may be more of a running back-by-committee approach with workhorse Michael Turner now 30 years old.
For the unit to have success, improvement is needed from the offensive line and quarterback Matt Ryan. Smith is encouraged that the lanky Ryan has gained weight and increased his strength in offseason workouts entering his fifth NFL season.
Just like his teammates, Ryan also knows he must save his best for last. Ryan has proven one of the NFL's most efficient quarterbacks the past two seasons, especially when it comes to avoiding turnovers, with only 21 interceptions compared to 57 touchdowns.
His career playoff statistics aren't nearly as impressive. During last year's 24-2 playoff loss to the Giants, Ryan struggled to complete deep and intermediate throws and Atlanta's offense failed to convert in three critical short-yardage situations.
"It comes down to little things — executing four, five, six plays within a game," said Ryan, who had an even worse playoff outing against Green Bay the previous season. "That changes you losing in the first round or going on to win a Super Bowl.
"When I look at last year as a whole, I think that’s what we needed to do better. That’s been our emphasis going into camp this year.”
Abraham said the desire to atone for recent postseason flops "kind of makes you want to fast-forward to the playoffs now so we can play." First things first, though. The Falcons have to stay focused on getting to Abraham's "dance" in what should be an improved NFC South.
“We know we have to break through that proverbial door in the playoffs. That’s big," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "It seems as though in the media there’s quite a bit of banter about what we don’t have, whether it’s we’re not tough enough or a resilient enough team or we don’t finish enough.
"We have a lot of players going into their fifth, sixth, seventh year. I think they’re a little agitated with it, too. They want to make sure they can do something beyond winning regular-season games. There’s an edge there.”
And maybe some dancing shoes, too.
Alex Marvez interviewed John Abraham, Matt Ryan and Thomas Dimitroff with co-hosts Randy Cross and Bill Polian on SiriusXM NFL Radio