Know Thy Enemy: Atlanta Falcons

That’s right, this is an article about the Atlanta Falcons. Wait, don’t throw things at me just yet. Hear me out first. I’m just as against the Falcons as any other Bucs fan. With training camp not quite here yet, the offseason is perhaps at its most calm. All sorts of predictions have been made about how the season will go for the Buccaneers, and I’m definitely guilty of that as well. However, only so much can be gleaned from looking at a team inside a vacuum. Regardless of how well the offseason goes, training camp included, it comes down to how the team performs against their actual opponents.

The other three teams in our division make up nearly half of our regular season games, each meeting us two different times throughout the season. The other ten games are important, but these key divisional battles will go a long way to a coveted and much hoped for playoff spot. Over the next three articles, I’ll be looking at our fellow NFC South brethren. How each of their seasons go, including games against Tampa Bay, will mean just as much to our playoff contention chances. To start, let’s take a look at the only NFC South team to have a season even worse than ours in 2013.


Atlanta Falcons

Last season didn’t go as the Falcons had planned, to say the least. In many ways, 2012 was the year the Falcons had been waiting for. In the beginning of that season, they steamrolled their way to an 8-0 start. Six of these eight games were won by a margin of six points or more. The Falcons seemed unstoppable. By the end of the season, they’d boasted an absolutely impressive 13-3 record. I proudly remind everyone, that last week and their third loss came at the hands of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Atlanta had already clinched the playoffs, so an argument can be made about their effort level. Nonetheless, it’s a victory I remember fondly.

Like them or not, the Falcons dominated their way to the playoffs. Atlanta narrowly defeated the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round. The feat is made more impressive with the knowledge of just how close the Seahawks were to a dominant Super Bowl winning season. However, the Falcons had an equally difficult hurdle in the NFC Championship. They went up against the San Francisco 49ers, who were arguably the most deeply stacked and consistently talented team in the league. They might still be. The 49ers have been to three conference championships in the last three years. Unfortunately for the Falcons, their luck in 2012 wasn’t the same as the teams which faced San Francisco in 2011 and 2013.

The Falcons started the game strong and built a respectable 10-point lead early on. However, the 49ers defense came out in the second half and absolutely shut Matt Ryan and company down. The Falcons were held scoreless for the entire second half as the 49ers made up the difference and finished a victory with a score of 28-24. The 49ers were going to the Super Bowl, but the Falcons had their culmination snatched away from them. The offensive monster was silenced by superior defense. This fact speaks volumes about the direction football is going.

Last year in the Super Bowl, a powerhouse offense for the ages went to the championship. Led by Peyton Manning, the Denver Broncos put the league on notice. Statistics flew off the charts with every game. However, they were absolutely neutralized by the Seattle Seahawks defense when it all mattered. The Broncos defense was not pitiful, but they’d put all their cards on the offense. They bet it all at the expense of balance, and it blew up in their faces. This sort of self-destruction that we got to see over the course of a single game took place over the entirety of the Atlanta Falcons 2013 season.

Much like the Denver Broncos, the Falcons built themselves for offense and nothing else. Falcons wide receiver Roddy White made some ominous comments all the way back in 2011. White simply said, “We’re going to out-score everybody.” That’s all fine and good, if nothing bad happens to your offense. In 2013, it felt like every bad thing short of Matt Ryan being eaten by a shark happened. Injuries, accompanied by a poor excuse for an offensive line, tore them apart.

When their regular season began, Roddy White was already fighting through a high ankle sprain. The problems continued when running back Steven Jackson, their new hope to make everyone think they just might have a running game, got sidelined for six weeks with a hamstring injury. By week five, White was beginning to recover and Jackson’s return was only a few weeks out. Then, utter disaster struck. The pride and joy of the Falcons offensive weapons, wide receiver Julio Jones, suffered a career ending foot injury. Their offense was limping along in more ways than one, and an already inferior defense also got hit with injuries.

While their defense certainly lacked the starpower of the offense, the players there held their own as best they could. When linebacker Sean Weatherspoon went out with a foot injury and defensive end Kroy Biermann suffered an achilles injury, the few remaining pieces fell apart. The Falcons offense, broken and bruised, still managed to finish the season seventh overall in passing yards. However, this made little difference when coupled with the worst rushing attack in the entire league. The defense fought hard not to be the worst in rushing defense, coming in second to worst by the end. Their passing defense ranked 21st in the league. It’s not last, but it certainly wasn’t good. All this culminated in the Falcons pitiful 4-12 record to end the season.

Injuries and a completely nonexistent foundation caused the Falcons’ 2013 Super Bowl aspirations to crumble beneath their feet. The Falcons have been hard at work this offseason in an attempt to remedy some of their issues. The obviously incompetent offensive line has already been heavily revamped. The acquisition of former Kansas City Chief Jon Asamoah gave them an instant starter. The signing of ex-Buccaneer Gabe Carimi and return of their 2010 third round pick Mike Johnson from injury will add needed depth.

Perhaps the most important offensive line change came on the coaching end. The seasoned Mike Tice was hired as the team’s new offensive line coach. Tice cut his teeth in many different teams within the NFL, including a stint as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings. Most recently, Tice on the staff of Lovie Smith’s Chicago Bears as his offensive coordinator after being promoted from the position of offensive line coach. Like Smith, Tice spent the last year away from coaching. He’s come back, and been given a potential hall-of-famer in Jake Matthews as the team’s first round draft pick. Tice couldn’t have imagined a better welcoming gift.

The Falcons offense will struggle to create a new identity following the retirement of veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez. While it could change in an instant, the Falcons have the rest of their weapons back on the job as of right now. Julio Jones, Steven Jackson and Roddy White are all expected to be healthy. Combine this with a consistent offensive line and the Falcons offense may just be back in business like before. If they remain healthy, they’ll be a significant challenge for the Buccaneers defense when they collide on Thursday, September 18th to start the third week of the regular season.

Mike Tice has a long road to making a respectable offensive line, but he has the bare bones to complete such a task. Only time will tell, but the freshly constructed line likely won’t have enough synergy just yet to handle the onslaught of the Tampa defensive line led by Gerald McCoy. Matt Ryan will fight hard, but I see interceptions in his future. After the Buccaneers open the season against the fierce Panthers defense, I see the offense enjoying their opportunity against the still flawed Falcons defense.

While height isn’t everything, I’d like to see how the Falcons handle the Twin Towers of Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans. Especially considering that not a single one of their eight cornerbacks currently on the roster is more than six feet tall. All of this makes victory in the Buccaneers’ two games against the Falcons this upcoming season very within reach. With significant pressure on Matt Ryan and the exploitation of a lackluster and inexperienced defense, I’d say the odds are definitely in favor of the Buccaneers trouncing the Falcons twice this season.