Like the Texans and Redskins above them in the draft order, 2013 was a season of huge disappointment in Atlanta. Their 2012 campaign ended in a heartbreaking defeat at home to the San Francisco 49ers, after a 13-3 record had seen them secure the number one seed in the NFC. A 4-12 record and 3rd place in the NFC South was a long way short of what was expected. Injuries played their part, but even shorn of key players the Falcons will be sorely disappointed to have fallen so far, so quickly. They will be expected to bounce back quickly in 2014.
Quarterback Matt Ryan performed reasonably well under center throughout the campaign, with 4515 yards and 26 touchdowns through the air. His two leading receivers both missed significant playing time through injury, limiting their ability to successfully move the ball on offence. Roddy White managed 66 receptions for 711 yards, whilst 2012 star rookie Julio Jones was limited to just 41 catches for 580 yards. In their absence, the ‘slack’ was picked up by Harry Douglas (85 catches, 1067 yards and two scores) and the evergreen Tight End, Tony Gonzalez. In the former Kansas City Chief’s last season as a pro he proved as reliable as ever, hauling in 83 passes for 859 yards and an impressive eight touchdowns. It was on the ground that Atlanta struggled. Big Free Agent acquisition Steven Jackson was not as effective as had been hoped. The former Ram racked up just 543 yards at 3.5 yards per carry, yet still led the team in rushing. Coach Mike Smith may look to bring in more competition for Jackson in an attempt to improve the league’s worst rushing attack.
Ranked 27th overall in allowing 379.4 yards and 27.7 points on average per game, the Falcons know that an improvement on defence is essential in 2014. With just 32 sacks made by the whole team, players capable of putting pressure quarterbacks were lacking. Aside from Osi Umeniyora’s 7.5 sacks and Corey Peters’ 5, there was little to worry opposing offences. Paul Worrilow led the team with 127 tackles, significantly higher than the next best (William Moore and Joplo Bartu both logged 85). Rated equal 29th in the league for both sacks and interceptions, the Falcons gave up 4541 yards through the air at the same time and 2173 yards on the ground. Big improvements will be needed over the offseason to allow an offence restored to fitness to try and make their mark.
Kicker Matt Bryant hit 88.9% of his Field Goals, whilst only missing one kick of less than 50 yards. Jacquizz Rodgers and Robert McClain were tasked with returning kick offs and punts respectively. Rodgers averaged 23 yards per return, McClain 10.2.
Coach Smith is another lucky to hold onto his job after a dismal year. He, at least, has a bank of solid work behind him and is now set to enter his seventh season as the top man in Atlanta. But he must realise that changes need to be made to the team, especially on defence. Whether that comes in the form of coaching changes, a scheme change, player changes or a combination of all three remains to be seen. What is certain is that Smith cannot afford another year of mediocrity in 2104. One bad season can be recovered from; consecutive poor years start to become a pattern and costs coaches their jobs very quickly.
DRAFT/FREE AGENCY NEEDS
Atlanta’s biggest potential losses in Free Agency could see defensive lineman Jonathan Babineaux and tackle Jeremy Trueblood leave the team. Both saw a reasonable number of snaps in 2013, with Babineaux active on 924 and Trueblood 641. It is the probable retirement of Tight End Gonzalez that will leave the biggest hole to fill, both on and off the field. With that in mind, the Falcons can be expected to pursue an impact making replacement in the form of a physical, pass catching Tight End. As mentioned above, they may be tempted to look at bringing in competition at running back as Ryan will need increased production there to take the pressure off the passing game. An upgrade on the offensive line could help here.
But it is on defence that the Falcons need to be the most active. They need to try and recruit playmakers in the secondary to try and increase their ability to generate turnovers. The defensive line also needs surgery. Jadeveon Clowney is not expected to fall this low in the draft, but if he does the Falcons would be delighted to add a player of his calibre to their roster. If, as expected, he is already off the board then expect them to look elsewhere to upgrade the struggling defense.