Falcons must improve to avoid playoff mishaps
Minutes after his team was eliminated from the playoffs, Falcons head coach Mike Smith said that the process of improving for the 2012 season would start the next day.
Smith admitted on Monday that the team took a step back in 2011 -- which was fairly obvious since the Falcons went 13-3 the season before, winning the NFC South and earning a first-round bye, whereas they finished 10-6 this season and qualified for the postseason as a wildcard team. Nonetheless, both seasons ended in disappointing losses in their first playoff game and the franchise has numerous trouble spots to fix.
Progress in the NFL is not always made in a straight line. In Sean Payton's first season as head coach in New Orleans, the Saints went 10-6. The next two seasons they were 7-9 and 8-8 before winning the Super Bowl after a 13-3 season in 2009.
Smith will have his hands full. His first priority will be to hire a defensive coordinator to replace Brian VanGorder, who departed on Monday to accept the same job at Auburn University. Smith might also have to replace offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, who is a candidate for several NFL head coaching positions.
Then there is free agency and the Falcons have a number of key players whose contracts are up, including defensive end John Abraham, center Todd McClure, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton and cornerback Brent Grimes, a Pro-Bowler in 2010.
"The first thing that we have to do is we have to evaluate our roster from top to bottom and have meetings in terms of the evaluations of our players from this season," Smith said on Monday. "We've got a lot of decisions to make in regards to players that are reaching free agency. The second thing is that the all-star games have already started. Some of our members of our staff have been down there watching the different all-star games. We have the East-West game and the Senior Bowl coming up at the end of the month and then we will turn our focus to the (draft) combine.
"The combine will take place at the end of February, six days in Indianapolis. And then after that, our focus will go to workouts, where we'll go out and watch guys in their workouts all around the country and put our draft plans together."
It's about 60 days until the start of free agency and less than three months until the draft. The Falcons will have to improve without a first- or fourth-round pick this year, as they traded those to move up and pick wide receiver Julio Jones in 2011.
Here are four areas that need improvement for next season:
Whether Mularkey returns as offensive coordinator or not, the Falcons need a more coherent offensive approach. Smith re-affirmed on Monday that the Falcons will be a run-first, possession-oriented team.
"The philosophy is no different than what we've had in the past," Smith said. "We want to control the line of scrimmage both in running and throwing the football. We wanted to be more explosive."
That was the reason why the Falcons traded up for Jones, but it did not materialize in the way that was anticipated. During the regular season, the Falcons finished seventh in points-per-game (25.1) and eighth in passing yards (262). Those marks represented both progress and regression, as the Falcons ranked 15th in passing yards last season (222.9 per game), but scored more at 25.9 points per game.
The problem is that two of the teams with which they are in direct competition -- either in terms of the division or the conference -- to get to the Super Bowl, New Orleans and Green Bay, ranked first and third in passing yards, respectively, this season and second and first, respectively, in scoring at 34.2 points per game for the Saints and 35.0 for the Packers.
With talented parts such as quarterback Matt Ryan, running back Michael Turner, tight end Tony Gonzalez and wide receivers such as Jones and Roddy White, the Falcons need more production in terms of points. Whether they decide that means a new play-caller -- regardless of whether Mularkey gets a head job -- remains to be seen.
A great deal of discussion has centered on whether the loss of former right guard Harvey Dahl, who left via free agency for St. Louis, was the source of so many of the unit's problems. With left guard Justin Blalock and right tackle Tyson Clabo also hitting free agency before the season, general manager Thomas Dimitroff said he would have been happy to keep one of those players. Two was a bonus. Three seemed impossible.
If the Falcons had picked Dahl over Blalock, the left side of the line might have had even more problems, as left tackle Sam Baker lost his job during the season for lack of effectiveness. The real issue was that none of Garrett Reynolds, Joe Hawley, a natural center, or even Baker -- for the limited plays he got at right guard after losing his starting job -- were able to adequately fill the position.
The Falcons need to find out if Mike Johnson, a third-round pick in 2010 who lost the job out of camp to Reynolds then was placed on season-ending injured reserve, is up to the task. Offensive line coach Paul Boudreau said the most significant leap a lineman makes, especially physically because of an NFL strength and conditioning programs, is from his first to his second year. Johnson missed that opportunity because of the lockout.
If Johnson is not the answer, the Falcons need to find another. They passed on Brian Waters, cut by Kansas City during camp, and Waters ended up making the Pro-Bowl with New England.
Only five teams allowed fewer sacks than the Falcons' 26 and that's impressive, considering they got beat for 13 in the first three games. The line also helped Turner finish third in the league in rushing. However, in too many critical situations in critical games -- the first Saints' game and in the playoff game against the Giants -- the Falcons could not get one yard when they needed it.
With VanGorder gone, the next defensive coordinator will somehow have to improve the pass defense. Since the arrival of Smith, whose background is as a defensive coordinator, the team has never finished better than 20th against the pass. Again, against teams like New Orleans and Green Bay, that proves a major liability that is often too much to overcome. (The Falcons are 1-5 against New Orleans the last three seasons and 1-2 against Green Bay, including the playoffs, during the last two.)
Grimes earned a Pro-Bowl berth in 2010 but he missed the regular season finale and the playoff game under circumstances that Smith has yet to fully explain. Grimes underwent what was deemed a "minor" procedure on his knee and missed three games before returning on Dec. 26 against the Saints. Despite his value to the team, his return is not 100 percent guaranteed. At the other spot, Dunta Robinson might benefit from a coordinator who would allow him to play man-press -- which made him a top free agent after his tenure in Houston -- as opposed to the Falcons' current style of using more of a soft zone and back-pedalling technique. Nickelback continues to be a work in progress and a trouble spot with Christopher Owens and Dominique Franks. This spot also has cried out for a capable free agent, as Brian Williams briefly helped to bring stability in 2009 and '10.
At safety, William Moore, while showing obvious athletic talent and grabbing five interceptions in 2010, has proven somewhat injury prone, playing in only 30 games in three seasons. The other, Thomas DeCoud, a free agent, seemingly blew coverages far too often. James Sanders, brought in as a reserve this season after New England cut him, could be a starter next season and more effective in a full season with the team.
Again, maybe a new coach or coaches with new ideas benefit this group.
This is an area that could be addressed by scheme. The Falcons tend not to blitz much out of their nickel defense in passing situations, relying instead on a four-man rush and often dropping seven players into coverage. In that sense, the decision that Smith chooses to make as his new coordinator will make a major impact. Only 10 teams had fewer sacks than the Falcons' 33.0 and while Smith often said that sacks don't matter, the lack of pressure did show up in a less-than-stellar pass defense.
Abraham, who will be 34 next season in his 13th as a pro, was limited somewhat by injury in 2011 despite being the team's dominant pass-rusher since his arrival in 2006. Whether the Falcons choose to pay top dollar for an aging performer -- as they did on offense with Tony Gonzalez -- remains to be seen.
Ray Edwards, with his 3.5 sacks, was a disappointment. So has been tackle Peria Jerry, the first-round pick in 2009. Tackle Jonathan Babineaux, who also was somewhat limited by injuries, should be back and, if healthy, could be in store for a better 2012.
Tackle Corey Peters has made himself a bright spot and third-year man Lawrence Sidbury (four sacks) could be ready to take over for Kroy Biermann (2.5 sacks), who will be a free agent, in terms of getting more plays.
Many thought the Falcons would use their first-round pick in 2011 to select a pass-rushing defender. Instead, to the shock of many, they chose to trade up and pick Jones. Taking a pass-rushing linebacker or defensive end would seem to be a strong play for their second-round pick in April. Going the free-agent route, with the high dollars commanded, would seem to be a riskier route for a much needed upgrade.