Thursday, January 2, 2014
Atlanta Falcons season wrap-up
By Vaughn McClure
Arrow indicates direction team is trending.
Final Power Ranking: 26
Preseason Power Ranking: 4
Biggest surprise: Paul Worrilow came to the Falcons as an undrafted rookie from Delaware just trying to make an impression on special teams. Injuries at linebacker gave him an opportunity to step into the lineup, and he proceeded to earn a starting job. His back-to-back 19-tackle performances against Carolina and Seattle made doubters start to take him seriously. Worrilow's ability to play multiple linebacker positions impressed the coaching staff. He reached double digits in tackles in six straight games from Weeks 9 to 14. He has become a better blitzer and improved his coverage skills, although Worrilow would be the first to say he still has a long way to go.
• NFC season wrap-ups: N | S | E | W
• AFC season wrap-ups: N | S | E | W
Biggest disappointment: The offensive line as a whole. Although the group lost Todd McClure to retirement, Tyson Clabo to the Miami Dolphins and Mike Johnson to a preseason injury, the line was expected to show improvement throughout the season. Such wasn't the case, at least not until the year was nearly over. Losing left tackle Sam Baker to season-ending knee surgery didn't help, although Baker obviously wasn't the same player he was last season before being placed on injured reserve. Tackles Lamar Holmes and Jeremy Trueblood, guard Garrett Reynolds and center Peter Konz were all benched at some point during the season. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter helped cover up the line's inability to pass block consistently by asking quarterback Matt Ryan to take shorter drops and deliver the ball quicker. But the Falcons couldn't mask the line's inability to run block. The Falcons have to upgrade the line either through free agency or the draft.
Biggest need: While the offensive line definitely needs to be addressed, the Falcons have an equally pressing need on the other side of the ball. Opposing quarterbacks had it rather easy this season as the Falcons failed to generate much of a pass rush. General manager Thomas Dimitroff no doubt has done his homework on possible pass-rushers capable of having an immediate impact as a disruptive force. Free agency could be an option, but the name most talked about is South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the most physically gifted player in the draft. But draft positioning might be an issue if the Falcons desire to add Clowney. Dimitroff has rolled the dice in moving up in the draft before (see Julio Jones).
Team MVP: Is there any doubt? Tony Gonzalez opted not to retire in order to chase that elusive Super Bowl ring. When the Falcons became the first team to be eliminated from playoff contention, Gonzalez didn't sulk or regret his decision. He simply continued to go out and perform at a high level every day, showing the younger players what true professionalism is all about. Gonzalez played through the pain of a nagging toe injury and didn't miss a game. The only time he truly rested was when the Falcons went with an extra tackle and asked him not to block on certain plays. Despite facing double-teams throughout the season, the 37-year-old Gonzalez continued to find ways to get open and be the sure-handed receiver he's always been. The offense will miss his unique skills. The team will miss his galvanizing leadership.
GRADING THE ATLANTA FALCONS
Although Matt Ryan surpassed Steven Bartkowski to become the Falcons' career leading passer with 23,472 yards, Ryan would be the first to say he failed to reach expectations after signing a six-year, $103 million contract. He threw a career-high 17 interceptions and was sacked a career-high 44 times.
New acquisition Steven Jackson was slowed by an early-season hamstring injury but ran with more authority toward the end of the season. Still, the Falcons as a whole didn't provide enough balance with the running game and finished dead last in the league in rushing at 77.9 yards per game.
Losing Julio Jones to a season-ending foot injury severely depleted the group. Harry Douglas stepped up with his first 1,000-yard season, but he was far from flawless. And Roddy White didn't find his rhythm until the end of the season while battling ankle and hamstring injuries. He did catch 43 passes for 502 yards and two touchdowns over the final five games.
Retiring tight end Tony Gonzalez was the only true constant on offense as he finished second on the team with 83 catches and first with eight touchdown receptions. He wasn't called upon to block a lot, and the Falcons could have used a true blocking tight end. Contributions from rookie Levine Toilolo and Chase Coffman were minimal.
Allowing Ryan to be sacked the third-most times in the league was one thing, but the line also struggled to open any holes in the running game. The fact that left guard Justin Blalock was the only regular starter not to get benched was telling. An overhaul is needed, although rookie right tackle Ryan Schraeder has some upside.
The Falcons allowed opponents to convert 45.93 percent on third down, and an ineffective pass rush had a lot to do with it. In terms of sacks per pass play, the Falcons ranked 25th of 32 teams. Defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux was the only consistent performer, but his pressure didn't result in sacks.
Safety William Moore was solid and came up with some big turnovers and first-round cornerback Desmond Trufant displayed his star potential. But as a whole, the group contributed to the Falcons, surrendering 41 plays of 25-plus yards, including 26 plays of 40-plus yards. Safety Safety Thomas DeCoud admitted tackling was an issue for him.
Matt Bosher was solid a punter, Matt Bryant was fairly reliable as a kicker and Antone Smith was a beast in coverage. But the Falcons needed to break a few long ones in the return game, although Robert McClain was close. Penalties hurt too.
The grade could have been lower, but Mike Smith and crew did the best with what they had based on significant injuries and inexperience. Smith also motivated his players enough not to quit, even after being the first team eliminated from playoff contention. Coordinators Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan will be back next season but need to tweak some things. Failures on the lines led to the Falcons' parting ways with offensive line coaches Pat Hill and Paul Dunn and defensive line coach Ray Hamilton.