32 to 1: No. 17 Falcons look to get mean after a soft 2013 (VIDEO)

The Falcons had a miserable 2013 season and are looking for more than a mild bounce back in 2014. Mike Smith returns for his seventh season as coach, and Mike Nolan remains in charge of a defense that finished 27th in the league last year. Atlanta brought in former Patriots and Chiefs personnel man Scott Pioli to assist GM Thomas Dimitroff in January, and the front office promptly acquired a group of nasty, big players on the offensive and defensive lines in free agency and the draft.

If there was a message being sent to the rest of the league with the signings of guard Jon Asamoah, defensive end Tyson Jackson and 350-pound defensive tackle Paul Soliai and the drafting of offensive tackle Jake Matthews and defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman in the first two rounds, it was that this team is going to be tougher, stronger and better up the middle. The Atlanta Falcons will not be pushed around at the line of scrimmage as they were in 2013. Oh, and quarterback Matt Ryan actually may stand a chance to again stand upright in the pocket on passing downs.

Atlanta came a few plays short of a Super Bowl appearance two seasons ago, yet finished with a 4-12 record in 2013. That doesn’t happen without at least a small amount of bad luck and misfortune. Injuries to Julio Jones, Roddy White, Steven Jackson, Sam Baker and Sean Weatherspoon seriously hampered the Falcons early in the season, and neither the offense nor defense recovered. If there was any positive to be taken away from a lost 2013, it was the unexpected contributions of linebacker Paul Worrilow and defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi. Both players will have the opportunity to compete for starting jobs in 2014.

Tony Gonzalez, the most consistent offensive performer from a season ago, is now doing TV for CBS, but there are high hopes that Levine Toilolo can serve as a suitable replacement at tight end.

The addition of HBO’s "Hard Knocks" cameras throughout training camp will ensure the Falcons are on everybody’s radar come September, but there are still questions at linebacker and in the defensive backfield. Weatherspoon, a talented linebacker who’s seemingly always on the cusp of stardom, has already been lost for the season with a torn Achilles suffered in June. The Falcons are used to this by now, though, and will adapt to the best of their abilities.

With a healthy Jones and White back in the lineup and some much needed new talent on both sides of the line of scrimmage, there’s no reason for the Falcons not to rebound from their forgettable 2013 season. Whether they can return to their 2012 heights is another question. 

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