Hot spots for the Atlanta Falcons

July, 28, 2012
7/28/12
9:33
AM ET
METAIRIE, La. -- I’m about to fly to Atlanta. Then, I’ll be driving up to the Falcons’ training camp complex in Flowery Branch. (Note to New Orleans fans: We’re not done with the Saints yet. Their Camp Confidential profile is scheduled to run Monday).

I won’t arrive until after Saturday morning’s practice concludes, but I should be able to catch the late-afternoon session, and will be with the Falcons through Monday. Every camp has storylines, and the Falcons are no exception.

Here’s a list of five things I’ll be watching during my visit:

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Bob Donnan/US PresswireAtlanta quarterback Matt Ryan might throw a better deep ball if his protection improved.
Matt Ryan’s arm: There are a ton of critics out there that say Ryan doesn’t have the arm to throw the deep ball. I’ve always disagreed with that. While Ryan’s arm might not be as strong as Cam Newton’s or Josh Freeman’s, I think it’s strong enough. I’d put him on a par with New Orleans’ Drew Brees, who has had plenty of success with long passes. I think the real problem is that Ryan’s offensive line didn’t protect him long enough to give him time to effectively throw the deep ball last season. But I’m going to pay particular attention to Ryan’s arm this camp to make sure my eyes aren’t deceiving me.

The left tackle situation: This is a natural follow-up to the item on Ryan. Left tackle was a big problem last season. Sam Baker, who was taken in the same draft as Ryan to protect the quarterback’s blind side, lost his starting job to Will Svitek last season. The Falcons are giving Baker first crack at the job this season, and the company line is that he was hurt worse than fans realized last season. The Falcons know more about Baker’s medical situation than we do, so we’ll take their word for it -- for now. But the Falcons can’t really turn back to Svitek this season, because he has no upside. Baker needs to go out and show why he was a first-round pick in 2008.

Dirk Koetter’s offense: I was critical of some of the things former coordinator Mike Mularkey did, and so were a lot of Atlanta fans. But we’re about to find out if Mularkey really deserved blame or if it was the personnel he had to work with. I’m pretty sure Koetter has been given instructions to open up the offense. That doesn’t mean simply throwing more deep passes. It means more variety all the way around. Things like screen passes and a running game that features a little bit of speed, not just power.

Jacquizz Rodgers: This is a follow-up to the part I just mentioned about speed in the backfield. I saw Rodgers in camp last season, and it was hard to tell much because he was working with the third team. I saw him in some regular-season games, and it was hard to tell much because his playing time was minimal. But the one thing that jumped out about Rodgers even in those situations is that he’s very fast. The Falcons need to take advantage of that and use him as a runner and a receiver. Michael Turner is going to be the main runner on this team, but the Falcons need some variety in their backfield.

Mike Nolan’s defense: Former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took just as much heat from fans as Mularkey. Nolan’s got a strong background, and everything he’s hinted at suggests he wants to build a more aggressive defense. With guys like Sean Weatherspoon, Corey Peters, John Abraham, Asante Samuel, Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson, he’s inheriting plenty of talent. But some of those guys didn’t always play up to their potential in the past. Nolan’s best chance for success might be to light some fires to get this defense properly motivated.

Pat Yasinskas | email

ESPN Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter

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