Falcons begin camp with Super Bowl hopes
The Atlanta Falcons tried four times to win a playoff game under coach Mike Smith before reaching the NFC championship game last season.
Anything shy of the Super Bowl will be a big disappointment this year.
The Falcons loaded up in the offseason by luring Tony Gonzalez out of retirement, signing Steven Jackson and Osi Umenyiora and drafting cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford.
They still lack a proven pass rusher on the left side of the defensive line opposite Umenyiora. Other concerns are a lack of depth at linebacker and second-year center Peter Konz as a first-time starter.
Even so, the Falcons believe Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff have put together a roster that can seriously compete for the Lombardi Trophy.
One mantra this season is to get Gonzalez, the NFL's No. 2-career leading receiver and career-leading tight end, to New York for the Super Bowl. He waited 16 years to finally win a playoff game and returned for a final season after Atlanta finished 10 yards shy of winning the NFC title.
The team also hopes to re-sign franchise quarterback Matt Ryan to a long-term contract so to avoid the situation becoming a distraction.
Five things to know as the Falcons prepare to open training camp this week in Flowery Branch, Ga.
1. BREAKOUT SEASON FOR JONES: Receiver Julio Jones could be on the cusp of becoming one of the league's top star receivers. Jones made big improvements last year in getting separation from defenders, reading coverages and understanding where Ryan needs him to run if a route needs adjusting. If he and Roddy White stay healthy, the Falcons' dual-threat wideouts could improve their combined numbers from last season - 171 catches, 2,540 yards and 17 touchdowns. But to keep the offense focused, Atlanta needs to re-sign Ryan soon. The team doesn't want to have him turn down an offer, and like Baltimore's wait-and-see approach with Joe Flacco, have to cut veteran players next year to fit an even bigger deal for Ryan under the salary cap.
2. NO WEAK-LINK LINEBACKERS : Sean Weatherspoon calls the defensive sets and emerged last year as the unit's leader on and off the field. But injuries sidelined him for three games last season and for five games as a rookie. Akeem Dent and Stephen Nicholas, the two other mainstay linebackers in coordinator Mike Nolan's multiple schemes, return but all three have plenty of room for improvement. San Francisco's air attack easily exposed Nicholas' difficulties in the NFC championship loss. Of the six other linebackers in camp, only Robert James has experience.
3. SHORT-YARDAGE SOLUTIONS: The Falcons hope Jackson's arrival fixes two big problems in the running game. Jackson's predecessor, Michael Turner, did a solid job in his first three seasons, but short-yardage situations were an embarrassment in both 2011 and '12. Arguably worse was Atlanta's difficulty in running to control second-half leads and time of possession by converting third downs. Jackson is the NFL's leading active rusher and says he's as good on fourth-and-1 as he is in breaking tackles and reaching the second and third levels of the defense. Second-year fullback Bradie Ewing is a first-year starter who missed last season with a knee injury.
4. QUESTIONS AT DEFENSIVE LINE, SECONDARY: Like Jackson, Umenyiora has impressed Smith and his new teammates by arriving early, staying late and helping young players understand their roles. Umenyiora replaces right end John Abraham, who was released as the NFL's active sacks leader, but the Falcons still lack a consistent pass rush presence at left end. Kroy Biermann, Jonathan Massaquoi, Cliff Matthews and rookies Malliciah Goodman and Stansly Moponga are all candidates to start. In the secondary, starting left cornerback Asante Samuel needs to stay healthy with Trufant, the likely starter on the right side, and second-round pick Alford are inexperienced.
5. NO HOT SEAT, BUT IT'S NOT EXACTLY COOL: Smith has won more games than any Falcons coach, and he accomplished the seemingly impossible when his 2009 team was the first in franchise's 44-year history to post consecutive seasons. He's created a good vibe in Atlanta if you consider that established stars like Gonzalez, Jackson, Umenyiora and Samuel are eager to play for Smith, but he must find a way to avoid another disappointment in January. Last season's crushing defeat in the NFC championship game still resonates, and that can't happen again.
Online: AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org