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NFL team preview: Atlanta Falcons

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INSIDE SLANT

When training camp opened the Falcons wanted to improve on all levels of the defense.

The defensive line had to be stouter up the middle and the pass rush has to be rejuvenated.

The linebacker corps played the run well enough, but got scorched at times in pass coverage.

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The secondary was the main reason why the defense finished ranked 28th against the pass and underwent major renovations.

The return of Peria Jerry, the re-emergence of Trey Lewis and the drafting of Corey Peters has added more beef at the defensive tackle position. Defensive end Kroy Biermann appears to be on the verge of being a double-digit sack man. He's been a force in the preseason.

The team used the 19th pick in the first round of the draft to select linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. He's finding his way, but is strong in pass coverage.

Cornerback Dunta Robinson, the team's major offseason acquisition, was slowed in training camp by a hamstring injury. If he's not 100 percent, the Falcons' chances of improving against the pass diminish greatly. Robinson is expected to play on the right side and take away that side of the field. The expectations for Robinson are extremely high after the team signed him for $57.5 million over six seasons. If Robinson is not up to speed, the Falcons will have to sit back in zone coverage to protect their young corners.

The Falcons finished 26th in the league in sacks with 28 in 2009. They are counting on defensive end John Abraham to turn in a big season after his sacks dipped from 16.5 to 5.5. Abraham should benefit from a stronger interior defense. If Abraham can't make it back, promising young defensive ends Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury may get their big chances.

With a soft middle, leaky linebacker pass coverage and a secondary that had a penchant for giving up the big play, the defense had trouble getting off the field on third downs. They led the league third down conversion rate (45 percent, 97 of 214).

The coaches spent part of the offseason attempting to devise new schemes to help the defense get off the field on third down.

"We have to experiment because what we did last year wasn't acceptable," Smith said. "We have to look at different things."

During the preseason, they've flashed a 3-3-5, where the nickel back comes up in a linebacker-like role and sometimes blitzes off the edge. They've run several blitz combinations out of the package with mixed results.

"We tried to come up with a plan that is going to help us be more efficient on third down," Smith said.

COACHING: Mike Smith, 3rd year, 3rd with Falcons (20-13).
REMEMBERING: 2009 record: 9-7 (2nd in NFC South); did not qualify for the playoffs.
PREDICTING: 2010 regular-season record: 12-4 (1st in NFC South); lose in NFC title game.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Falcons are so happy with the defensive tackles that they released last season's starter on the cut down to 75 players. Thomas Johnson, who started 10 games and played in 13, was waived injured.

With Peria Jerry on his way back to recovery from knee surgery and the strong preseason play of Trey Lewis and rookie Corey Peters, the position now appears to be one of strength.

PLAYER NOTES

--TE Tony Gonzalez ranked second on the team in receiving yards with 867 and he set a new franchise record for receptions in a single season by a tight end with 83. Gonzales also finished with six TDs.

--WR Roddy White led the team in receiving yards with 1,153 on 85 receptions (13.6 average). He also scored a career-high 11 TDs.

--QB Matt Ryan completed 263 of 451 passes for 2,916 yards and 22 TDs for an 80.9 passer rating in 14 games. He set a career high with 329 yards against the 49ers in Week 5, while completing a 90-yard TD pass in the game (third longest in club history).

--RB Michael Turner led the team in rushing with 178 carries for 871 yards and 10 touchdowns. He totaled four 100-plus yard games, which included his third-highest single-game rushing total with 166 yards against Washington (Week 9).

--DE John Abraham had 5.5 sacks and now has 89.5 quarterback takedowns in his career. He also contributed 44 tackles, one forced fumble and one pass defensed.

--DT Jonathan Babineaux had a single-game career-high with 2.5 sacks against the Redskins last season and had a career-best 6.0 quarterback takedowns. He also contributed a career-best 58 tackles (44 solo), two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and two passes defensed.

DRAFT PICKS TO STICK

Rd. 1/19, LB Sean Weatherspoon, Missouri -- He's being groomed to start at the strong-side linebacker position, while also being taught the weak side. He likely won't come off the field and should be a four-down player.

Rd. 3/83, DT Corey Peters, Kentucky -- Suffered a knee sprain in the preseason, but is expected to get 10 to 20 snaps in the defensive tackle rotation.

Rd. 3/98, OL Mike Johnson, Alabama -- Suffered a knee sprain in the preseason. He will provide interior depth and be a starter down the road.

Rd. 4/117, OL Joe Hawley, UNLV -- A real mean and nasty player. Being groomed to be the heir apparent to center Todd McClure.

Rd. 5/135, CB Dominique Franks, Oklahoma -- Has a shot at winning one of the return jobs. He'll have to contribute on special teams.

Rd. 5/165, WR Kerry Meier, Kansas - Was making a strong bid for a roster spot before tearing his ACL. He'll spend the season on injured reserve.

Rd. 6/171, S Shann Schillinger, Montana - He won the backup free safety spot and will contribute on special teams.

UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Matt Ryan. Backups -- Chris Redman, John Parker Wilson.

Ryan had battled through a nasty turf toe injury in his second season in the league. After the injury, he returned to guide the franchise to back-to-back winning seasons. In 14 games, he completed 263 of 451 passes for 2,916 yards, 22 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. When Michael Turner went down with a high right ankle sprain, Ryan had to shoulder more of the offensive load and that's when he had interception problems. Ryan incorporated future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez into the offense while still getting the ball to WR Roddy White. Redman was re-signed to back up Ryan. He was solid in three games when Ryan was out with his turf toe injury.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- Michael Turner, FB Ovie Mughelli. Backups -- Jerious Norwood, Jason Snelling.

Turner practically spent the night at the team's facilities over the offseason. He lost some weight and restructured his body after missing half of last season with a high right ankle sprain. He appears to have that extra gear to get around the edge that was missing at the outset of last season. Norwood is back as a speedy third down back. His hip flexor problem flared up in the preseason, but is currently under control. Look for the Falcons to try to get him more passes out of the backfield and create some mismatches with linebackers. Jason Snelling stepped in and showed that he could be a dependable backup. Mughelli remains one of the league's most underrated lead blockers.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Tony Gonzalez. Backups -- Justin Peelle, Keith Zinger.

Gonzalez, 34, needs one catch to reach 1,000 in his storied career. He became a central part of the offense and has helped with the development of Ryan. Gonzalez was effective on third downs and inside the red zone, either as the target or the decoy. Look for another big year as he has not shown any signs of slowing down. He's backed up by Peelle, a solid blocker and crafty route running. Zinger is a punishing blocker, who's worked on his pass catching ability.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Michael Jenkins, Roddy White. Backups -- Harry Douglas, Brian Finneran, Eric Weems.

White, if he posted another 1,000-year season, will become the first receiver in team history to post four consecutive 1,000 yard receiving seasons. He caught 85 passes for 1,153 yards and 11 touchdowns last season and was added to the Pro Bowl late. White posted those numbers while being the focus of most defenses. Jenkins, who suffered a shoulder injury during training camp, had a very solid 50-catch season. Douglas is back after missing last season with a torn ACL. He'll be working out of the slots is a dangerous deep threat and great seam route runner. Finneran and Weems will provide deep and help out on special teams.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Sam Baker, LG Justin Blalock, C Todd McClure, RG Harvey Dahl, RT Tyson Clabo. Backups -- T Will Svitek, T/G Garrett Reynolds, C/G Joe Hawley, G Mike Johnson.

The starting group returns while a couple of rookies will provide depth. McClure, who will break the franchise record for most consecutive starts in the opener, is the heart and soul of the unit. Baker and Blalock are extremely sturdy and attack defenders. Dahl and Clabo are maulers on the right side. What the unit lacks in star power, it makes up for with sheer guile and determination. The only concern along the line is Dahl, who's coming back from a high ankle sprain that required offseason surgery. Clabo has a 53-game consecutive streak. Mike Johnson and Joe Hawley were drafted to provide depth and to be groomed as eventual starters. Johnson is a guard and Hawley is a center. Reynolds and Svitek will be the backup tackles.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LE Kroy Biermann, LT Peria Jerry, RT Jonathan Babineaux, RE John Abraham. Backups -- DT Trey Lewis, DE Lawrence Sidbury, DT Corey Peters, DE Chauncey Davis, DT/DE Jamaal Anderson.

The long and winding search to put a pass rusher opposite of John Abraham appears to be over. Biermann, a fifth-round pick in 2007 out of Montana, was a force in the preseason. He's making moves and using leverage like a 10-year veteran. He figures to win the defensive end spot opposite of Abraham as the team may decide to give up on Anderson and use him as a rush defensive tackle in passing situation. The team does not appear overly worried that Abraham's sacks deceased from 16.5 to 5.5 last season. They figure he can get the pass rush ramped back up with a better interior push from the likes of Jerry, Babineaux and Peters.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB Mike Peterson, MLB Curtis Lofton, SLB Sean Weatherspoon. Backups -- OLB Stephen Nicholas, OLB Coy Wire, MLB Spencer Adkins.

Weatherspoon appears headed for the starting strong-side spot and Nicholas will be used as a nickel rush linebacker. It's a role Nicholas thrived in last season when he had 3.5 sacks. Weatherspoon has been trained at both outside positions. He appears to be the eventual replacement for Mike Peterson, who turned 34 this offseason. Weatherspoon will be a four-down player who can play in the base, nickel and on special teams. Lofton, the team's leading tackler, appears to be on the verge of stardom in the league.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Brent Grimes, RCB Dunta Robinson, FS Thomas DeCoud, SS Erik Coleman. Backups -- Nickel CB Christopher Owens, SS William Moore, CB Dominique Franks, CB Brian Williams, FS Shann Schillinger.

Brent Grimes and Chris Owens ended last season as the starting cornerbacks. Look for Owens to land the nickel spot. Grimes was strong in the preseason and will open as the left corner opposite Robinson, who was picked up in free agency and is expected to have a major impact on the unit. He may match up man-to-man when the Falcons face some of the top flight receivers in the league. DeCoud should continue to develop in his second season as a starter. Coleman shifted over to strong safety last season. William Moore, a strong safety taken in the second round of the 2009 draft, missed most of his rookie season with knee and hamstring injuries.

SPECIALISTS: PK Matt Bryant, P Michael Koenen, LS Joe Zelenka, KR Eric Weems, PR Harry Douglas.

Bryant won the field goal kicking battle; he was steady after replacing Jason Elam last season. Koenen averaged 42.9 yards per punt last season. He only had three touchbacks on 61 punts. Weems handled the punt and kickoffs last season. Zelenka has steadied the long snapper position.
 

Tagged: Falcons, Bengals, Cowboys, Broncos, Dolphins, Vikings, Ravens, Steelers, Todd McClure, Brian Finneran, Keith Brooking, Pat Williams, Antoine Winfield, Jon Kitna, Brett Favre, Ryan Longwell, Mike Peterson, Tony Gonzalez, Jim Kleinsasser, John Abraham, Leonard Davis, Steve Hutchinson, Sage Rosenfels, Chris Redman, Kyle Kosier, Lito Sheppard, Javon Walker, Bryant McKinnie, Andre Gurode, Marc Colombo, Ben Leber, Justin Peelle, Joe Zelenka, Matt Bryant, Jason Witten, Terence Newman, Kevin Williams, Jimmy Kennedy, E.J. Henderson, Montrae Holland, Bradie James, Greg Lewis, Tony Romo, Igor Olshansky, Madieu Williams, Roy Williams, Dunta Robinson, Michael Jenkins, Bernard Berrian, Jeff Dugan, Jared Allen, Michael Turner, Mat McBriar, Benny Sapp, Anthony Herrera, Tyson Clabo, DeMarcus Ware, Marcus Spears, Roddy White, Jonathan Babineaux, Jeremiah Ratliff, Marion Barber, Will Svitek, Michael Koenen, Thomas Johnson, Chris Kluwe, Greg Camarillo, Harvey Dahl, Tarvaris Jackson, Brandon Williams, Jason Hatcher, Chad Greenway, Cedric Griffin, Ryan Cook, Ray Edwards, Miles Austin, Stephen Bowen, Alan Ball, Jason Snelling, Trey Lewis, Stephen Nicholas, Doug Free, Adrian Peterson, Anthony Spencer, Justin Blalock, Sidney Rice, Brent Grimes, Eric Weems, Felix Jones, Mike Jenkins, Tyrell Johnson, Martellus Bennett, Matt Ryan, Tashard Choice, Kroy Biermann, John Sullivan, Harry Douglas, Thomas DeCoud, Erin Henderson, Darius Reynaud, Jasper Brinkley, John Phillips, Jason Williams, Asher Allen, Chris Owens, Stephen McGee, Victor Butler, Lawrence Sidbury, Percy Harvin, Peria Jerry, Phil Loadholt, William Moore, John Parker Wilson, Kevin Ogletree, Dez Bryant, Everson Griffen, Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, Chris DeGeare, Shann Schillinger, Joe Webb, Chris Cook, Sean Lee, Toby Gerhart, Dominique Franks, Sean Weatherspoon, Mike Johnson, Corey Peters, Sam Young, Joe Hawley, Danny McCray, Bryan McCann, Barry Church

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