Falcons outlook: 10 wins, maybe division title

Mike Smith took an early look at the challenges in the first part of his team's schedule.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – It's rare to get Falcons head coach Mike Smith to look ahead but on Monday as his team began the first week of regular season practices, he talked about the challenges presented by the team's first "quarter" of the schedule.

Over the 16 games, the Falcons will face four quarterbacks who have won Super Bowls, including New Orleans' Drew Brees twice and the New York Giants' Eli Manning, who has won two.

Of those first four games, Smith observed that three of the quarterbacks have played in Pro Bowls: Denver's Peyton Manning, San Diego's Philip Rivers and Kansas City's Matt Cassel. In assessing the difficulty of the Falcons' schedule, it's almost easier to count the teams with quarterbacks who have not earned Pro-Bowls berths: Tampa Bay, Arizona, Carolina and Washington, which has a rookie starter. At that, the Bucs' Josh Freeman and the Panthers' Cam Newton have both been named alternates, indicating some kind of pedigree for almost every quarterback the Falcons will face this season, including Redskins' rookie Robert Griffin III coming off a Heisman Trophy-winning season. (The Cardinals' John Skelton is the outlier.)

With Smith having averaged nearly 11 wins in his first four seasons in Atlanta that is what can happen with the NFL's scheduling formula.

"Gosh, I think all four of them have been pretty challenging in terms of our schedules and some schedules look one way at the beginning of the season and they could be completely different when you get five, six games into it," he said on Monday, though his first schedule was relatively light, based on the '07 team's 4-12 mark. "I think it's challenging early on through the first quarter of the season because we're going to play three very good quarterbacks that have gone to Pro Bowls in the first quarter… But I don't think it's any more challenging than any other year.

"There's always the unknown when you start out the regular season."

In trying to assess whether the Falcons could win their second NFC South title under Smith, perhaps the greatest unknown is that of defending champion New Orleans. Will the Saints collapse without Sean Payton at the helm, as he has been suspended for the season for bounties having been paid out under his watch with the intent of injuring opposing players?

That is the greatest variable. What is known is that the Falcons ought to improve over last season when they went 10-6 and lost to the Giants 24-2 in an NFC Wildcard Playoff Game. Yet whether that translates into an improved record against such a daunting schedule remains to be seen.

The Falcons should be better in a number of ways, particularly in the area that has lagged the most in Smith's tenure – the defense. New defensive coordinator Mike Nolan brings an entirely new scheme, one that will pressure quarterbacks more. But it's not just Nolan's scheme that could make the Falcons better. It's his communication style.

Former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was a first-time NFL coordinator during his four seasons under Smith and his style at times was to berate players.

"At first, it was night-and-day because you know Brian," said starting safety Thomas DeCoud, who does a spot-on VanGorder impression. "He was a boisterous guy, a loud guy and he'll get after you. Mike, he'll get it corrected in the film room. He'll let you mess up. He won't chew you out and it was kind of weird that first week. Me and (fellow safety William Moore) were like, ‘Uh, where's all the yelling?' But then we got acclimated to it and it's a really good environment for us.

"We love playing under Mike."

Here's a guess that Nolan's defense will help the Falcons in categories that proved their fatal flaws under VanGorder: Third-down efficiency and pass defense. VanGorder's units never ranked above 20th in the NFL in pass defense. Last season, the Falcons tied for the fourth-worst mark in the league in third-down efficiency at 44 percent.

Another factor in their potential improvement is a new player on starting offensive and defensive units that remain virtually unchanged: cornerback Asante Samuel. Smith would not say on Monday who the starters will be at corner, but if the Falcons do what they did all preseason, then Samuel will play the left corner in the team's nickel package, but not the base defense, with right corner Dunta Robinson moving to nickel and Brent Grimes going from his customary left spot to the right side. Samuel is a four-time Pro-Bowler and marks a light-years improvement over the cast of characters who have worked in the Falcons' nickel spot over the last five seasons.

"I think we're better because we're a more mature team," Smith said of his new roster. "We've gone through five draft classes and when you go through five draft classes, I think you have a nucleus of players on your team that you've drafted, that your personnel department and coaches have gone through the process of evaluating them…

"We've got a lot of guys who have played a lot of football and even though, chronologically, they're young, they've got a lot of snaps underneath their belt and I think experience is a very important factor, especially early in the season."

On offense, the Falcons might not have brought in an anointed genius as an offensive coordinator – as Chicago once did with Mike Martz, which ended up with middling results – but new man Dirk Koetter might have the antidote for the offense's greatest weakness. That would be Sam Baker who plays the critical position of left tackle. With Koetter's use of the screen game and less of a reliance on the Michael Turner-based power running attack, the Falcons will use scheme instead of personnel to keep quarterback Matt Ryan safely protected.

And if Ryan is safely protected the Falcons ought to be able to make improved use of the vertical pass and that means second-year wide receiver Julio Jones should become a game-breaker. Added to a stable that includes perennial Pro-Bowler Roddy White, excellent third wide receiver Harry Douglas and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez and the offense might finally realize its potential of becoming that elusive word: explosive.

All of this, of course, is predicated on the Falcons' health at key positions, as any NFL team's season is. Turner almost expectedly will regress statistically, but that should be offset by gains in the passing game, along with a more prominent role for running back Jacquizz Rodgers.

In the end, the Falcons should win a minimum of 10 games, possibly 11, and ought to qualify for the playoffs for a fourth time in five seasons. Depending on the Saints' foibles, they should be a 50/50 prospect of winning the division.

As to whether they finally get over the hump and win a postseason game for the first time in eight seasons, well, this correspondent can't see that far into the future.