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Thursday, September 1, 2011
Previewing and predicting the Falcons

By Pat Yasinskas
ESPN.com

We’re up to second place (we're going in reverse order) in our NFC South predictions and I’m going with the Atlanta Falcons.

Here’s the link to their complete preview page.

This was the toughest call of all. A big part of me wanted to go with the Falcons to win the NFC South. They were 13-3 last season and, on paper, they’ve gotten better. I think the Falcons will make the playoffs, but I think New Orleans will win the NFC South.

Here’s what I wrote about Atlanta.

Five things you need to know about the Falcons:

1. Julio Jones is going to be the real deal: The Falcons paid a hefty price to trade up for the rights to draft the receiver from Alabama. But this was a very well-researched decision. Last season's playoff loss to Green Bay showed the Falcons needed a receiver who could stretch the field and take some of the defensive attention away from Roddy White. Former starter Michael Jenkins was not a downfield threat and defenses knew that. Jones' speed means defenses have to account for him on every play. That's going to help White enormously, and Jones' presence is also going to have a trickle-down effect that will help quarterback Matt Ryan, tight end Tony Gonzalez and running back Michael Turner.

2. Harry Douglas will have a big year: The undersized wide receiver finally will get to enjoy a full season playing the position where he's best. That's slot receiver and Douglas can thank Jones for allowing that to happen. The Falcons wanted to use Douglas exclusively in the slot last season, but Jenkins was hurt early in the season. That forced Atlanta to play Douglas outside, where he's not nearly as effective. With White and Jones on the outside, Douglas should be able to get some favorable matchups against third corners, safeties or linebackers.

3. The gloves are coming off Ryan: His first three seasons have been very nice, but Ryan has yet to win a playoff game. That's something the Falcons are painfully aware of and all of their offensive moves this season were designed to help make him more dangerous. The lockout also might have been a blessing in disguise. It gave the coaching staff more time to evaluate its decisions and one of the realizations was it's time to allow Ryan to do more. The Falcons have openly admitted they're going to look to throw downfield more often, and you also might see more of the no-huddle offense.

4. It all starts up front: The Falcons repeatedly used the word "explosive'' when they added Jones, but they also wanted to add an explosive player on defense. In their eyes, they did with the signing of defensive end Ray Edwards. They first made a run at Carolina's Charles Johnson, but backed off because the price was too high. Edwards has never been a dominant pass-rusher. His career high in sacks was 8.5 and that came while he was playing on a defensive line with Jared Allen, Pat Williams and Kevin Williams. Can he suddenly become a double-digit sack guy? Maybe, but that's not absolutely necessary. The Falcons simply want a decent pass-rusher to line up opposite John Abraham. If Edwards can take a little blocking off Abraham, the Falcons would be happy if he produces somewhere around 8.5 sacks.

5. This finally might be Mike Smith's defense: It's a bit ironic that Smith is a coach with a defensive background, but he's never been able to fully play the aggressive style of defense he wants. In 2008, the team was focused on building an offense first. In 2009 and '10, some parts were added, but injuries got in the way of big results. Defensive tackle Peria Jerry, a first-round pick in 2009, and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, last year's top pick, are healthy now and cornerback Dunta Robinson should have more passes thrown his way now that Brent Grimes is established as a solid starter. Smith might have the pieces now to truly play his style of defense.

DIVISION FINISH: 2 Drafting Jones and signing Edwards show the Falcons believe they were only a few players away from contending for a Super Bowl title. They might be right, but I'm not picking the Falcons ahead of the Saints until they win a playoff game.