- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Staff Writer
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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The leadership seen on the Atlanta Falcons’ practice field these days was hatched in the locker room of a former Arena Football League team.
Two years ago, that's where Matt Ryan, Curtis Lofton, Sam Baker, Harry Douglas, Kroy Biermann, Thomas DeCoud, Chevis Jackson and a handful of others dressed. Now, Ryan’s the quarterback, Lofton’s the quarterback of the defense, Baker and DeCoud are key starters and Douglas, Biermann and Jackson are expected to play bigger roles.
“We’re a super-tight group,’’ said Lofton, who has started at middle linebacker since his rookie year and has used camp to emerge as the unquestioned leader of the defense. “When you’re a rookie, you don’t get to be in that [main] locker room. You’re down in the Georgia Force locker room. That’s where it started for us. It’s kind of like we had our own little team. All of us went through our ups and downs, and we all leaned on each other and it’s just continued that way.’’
The Force is gone and the Class of 2008 has taken over the main locker room. This class already has done some very good things, namely leading the Falcons to the first back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history. But last year’s 9-7 campaign was a bit of a disappointment for a team that had hoped to follow an 11-5 season in 2008 with another playoff berth.
This offseason, the team’s marketing department came up with a new advertising campaign, “Rise Up.’’ The slogan is plastered on billboards in the Atlanta area, and a television commercial with actor Samuel L. Jackson passionately delivering the message plays frequently on stations throughout the market.
“I think 'Rise Up' is a good theme for our organization,’’ Ryan said. “I’ve been here for two years, and I feel like we’ve done a good job. But I feel like we have the kind of talent to take it to the next level.’’
In other words, the Class of 2008 believes the third year is when it’s time to take over the real locker room and fully take control of what happens on the field. That’s why the Falcons are embracing, not running away from, the “Rise Up’’ campaign.
“We have something special going on here,’’ Lofton said. “Everyone knows it. We feel like we’re about to rise up to the occasion and hopefully make it to the Super Bowl.’’
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Is the defense really ready to rise up? The Falcons' defense was not very good the past two seasons. The front office and coaching staff are well aware, and that’s why the defense has looked different in camp.
There are many positive signs. The Falcons aim to be more aggressive. The overall team speed is better. The energy and enthusiasm the defense shows is reminiscent of New Orleans last preseason when new Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams had his unit chasing after every loose ball. There also seems to be a growing swagger to a defense that simply had none the past two years. Part of that is coming from rookie linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, a talking machine who seems destined to be a starter at one of the outside spots. Weatherspoon’s energy seems to be rubbing off on Lofton, who seemed a bit stoic in his first two seasons. They celebrate after big plays, a trend that’s spreading throughout the defense.
Atlanta’s secondary has been revamped, with the signing of cornerback Dunta Robinson to a big free-agent contract being the key addition. There is a lot of work to be done, but the early impression is the defense has a whole new look and attitude
“We can be great,’’ DeCoud said. “We can be one of the best defenses in the league. If everyone builds the confidence and the swagger and keeps building up each other, we can be one of the elite defenses in this league.’’
2. Where will the pass rush come from? The biggest moves the Falcons made in the offseason were adding Weatherspoon and Robinson. That should help the secondary and linebacker corps. But the Falcons didn’t make any dramatic moves at defensive end after a season in which the pass-rush production was disappointing.
The Falcons studied that area closely and decided to stick with the ends they already had. Atlanta firmly believes that veteran John Abraham (who dropped from 16.5 sacks in 2008 to 5.5 last season) still has plenty left. He came to camp in outstanding shape and has shown signs he can return to dominant form. The Falcons also believe Biermann has grown in his first two seasons and might be ready to emerge. They think second-year pro Lawrence Sidbury is still a work in progress, but believe he’s about ready to start delivering results.
But the biggest reason the Falcons didn’t import any defensive ends is because they believe players at other positions will help make the rush better. With defensive tackle Peria Jerry returning from injury and the arrival of third-round pick Corey Peters, the Falcons believe they can create more of a surge in the middle, freeing up the ends. Weatherspoon also has the speed to apply pressure on blitzes, and coaches believe the arrival of Robinson and improved play in the secondary will create more opportunities for coverage sacks.
3. Are Ryan and the offense ready for the next step? Many thought Ryan took a step back in 2009 after a stellar rookie season. The Falcons don’t think Ryan regressed, but they do expect him to take a big step forward this season.
Ryan and the offense were handcuffed from the start last season. Harry Douglas, expected to be a big factor as a slot receiver, went out with a knee injury early in camp. Running back Michael Turner, who admits he didn’t take great care of himself last offseason, got banged up early and missed close to half a season. Ryan also dealt with a toe injury and the offense never really hit its stride.
Douglas, Turner and Ryan are healthy and the presence of Pro Bowl receiver Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez means the Falcons should be able to do what they want on offense. They still are going to be a run-heavy team because of Turner’s skills. But Douglas’ return gives the Falcons someone who can stretch the field and open things up for White and Gonzalez. Look for offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey to structure this offense to play more to Ryan’s strength as a passer.
Defensive tackle Corey Peters. With Jerry coming off the injury and Jonathan Babineaux suspended for the season opener in Pittsburgh, the Falcons used a third-round pick on Peters. They thought they were getting depth, but they might have more than that. Performing better than expected, Peters can play the run and generate pass-rush push in the middle and could be in the starting lineup on opening day. Even if he’s not, Peters is going to get a lot of playing time because the Falcons are serious about rotating defensive linemen. They’ll also slide defensive end Jamaal Anderson inside at times, giving them four quality defensive tackles.
Strong safety William Moore. After missing almost his entire rookie season with an injury, the Falcons hoped Moore would grab the starting job. But Moore has been banged up again and hasn't had a lot of practice time. The Falcons thought Moore could provide an upgrade over veteran Erik Coleman. But, at least in the short term, it looks as if the Falcons will be sticking with Coleman as the starter.
The starting cornerback spot opposite Robinson remains unsettled. But the Falcons are content with that because they think the preseason competition there has been healthy. Christopher Owens probably has a slight lead on Brent Grimes. But Grimes, the best natural athlete on the team, is putting up a good fight and making flashy plays. Veteran Brian Williams is coming back from a knee injury and provides an experienced and dependable alternative. But the best way for the Falcons to move forward as a defense might be to go with Owens as starter and Grimes as nickel back.
The one bright spot from injuries to Turner and fellow running back Jerious Norwood last year was the Falcons discovered that Jason Snelling can be a decent backup. The Falcons plan to be careful not to overuse Turner, and Norwood’s durability has been an issue throughout his career. Turner will get the bulk of the carries and, if Norwood’s healthy, he’ll get playing time because he’s a home-run threat. But Snelling also has earned playing time. He has the trust of the coaching staff and can do a little bit of everything out of the backfield.
The Falcons aren’t ready to make any immediate changes to their offensive line. With an eye toward the future, they drafted guard Mike Johnson and center Joe Hawley. Right guard Harvey Dahl and right tackle Tyson Clabo could become free agents after this season, and center Todd McClure is nearing the end of his career. Johnson has had a decent training camp and Hawley is off to a slow start. But the Falcons believe both rookies have potential and versatility. Each could get playing time this season.
Fifth-round pick Dominique Franks hasn’t been mentioned a lot in the cornerback competition, but he has been better than expected. Franks isn’t a candidate to start, but he has shown potential. He also could be an immediate factor in the return game.