FLOWERY BRANCH – Since returning from the playoff loss to the New York Giants, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff has gone through two days of non-stop meetings with head coach Mike Smith and other members of the football operations department.
In a wide-ranging Q&A with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Tuesday evening, Dimitroff discussed his spending on free agents Dunta Robinson and Ray Edwards, the Julio Jones trade, quarterback Matt Ryan, what the team will be looking for in a new defensive coordinator and how they’ll attain a breakthrough in the playoffs.
Q: As you’ve had some time to reflect, what are your thoughts on how the season ended?
A: We came into this season with very strong expectations both internally and externally. We made some aggressive moves both in the draft and free agency. Our expectations were for us to be very productive on both the offensive and defensive sides [of the ball]. We had a solid regular-season by finishing 10-6. We had an opportunity to get into the second season and once again, unfortunately, we came up short in the playoffs. That leaves us all, once again, with a bad taste in our mouths.
Q: How would you evaluate the money spent over the last few years in free agency on cornerback Dunta Robinson and defensive end Ray Edwards?
A: First of all, we were aggressive with the acquisition of Dunta Robinson. Our expectations were for Dunta to come in here and have a presence as a physical corner, help us make plays on the ball and prevent teams from racking up a lot of yards against this defense. Dunta has shown that he can produce for us. Unfortunately, this year our defense was inconsistent and at times so was Dunta. I still believe that we’re getting solid production out of Dunta Robinson in his game. With Ray Edwards, our thought was to bring a defensive end into our organization who brought elements of grit, toughness and competitiveness. We feel strongly that he has done that. He was outstanding [against] the run. He had a presence that we haven’t had at left defensive end in the run game this year. As per his pass rush numbers, obviously both he and we would have liked his pass rush numbers to up around the eight to 10 area. Unfortunately, that didn’t come to fruition. But again, we’re confident that Ray can come back next year with one more year under his belt; with a different system and produce for us.
Q: How do you evaluate the offensive line, especially considering a comparison to a year ago?
A: Unfortunately, for the offensive line we started out with challenges. We struggled in Chicago early on in the season and Matt [Ryan] was exposed to a number of hits that he shouldn’t [have been] exposed to. With that said, we settled down well. We made appropriate adjustments along the way during the season. That enabled us to protect Matt better with each game. We finished sixth overall in sacks allowed so we definitely saw a marked improvement as the season progressed. With that said, we still need to develop as an offensive line. We need to make sure that we get the toughness and physicality out of the offense that we desire from year-to-year. It’s a very, very important part of our offense. We need to continue to protect our franchise-quarterback and we need to continue to move the defensive line so that we’re able to provide holes and opportunities for our run game; be that six inches or six yards.
Q: What’s your view of Matt Ryan in comparison to the league’s best – Aaron Rodgers, Peyton and Eli Manning and Drew Brees?
A: I’m very impressed with Matt Ryan and how he continues to grow from year-to-year. I think he continued to grow this year. I thought he had a fine season. As you know, Matt had the franchise-mark for passing yards this year. I thought he navigated through some difficult times and some challenges with some of our inconsistencies with our offense this year. He stayed positive and he continued to produce well. I think in my mind, there is no doubt that Matt Ryan is one of the top 10 quarterbacks in the National Football League.
Q: Can the running game be what you need it to be with Michael Turner, considering all of his carries over the last few years?
A: Michael continues to produce well for us. He amassed over 1,300 yards for us for the second straight season. When we have called his number, he’s stepped up and got the tough yards. We’ll always continue to evaluate our running game to see what we need to [improve in order] to have a multi-faceted and versatile football team; both in the run and the pass game.
Q: In hindsight, was giving up all of the (five) picks for Julio Jones worth it?
A: We said when we made the very aggressive move on Julio Jones, that this was not only a move for the here-and-the-now. This was a move for long term success of this organization and I believe 100 percent in what we did being the right move for this organization at this time in our evolution. Obviously, Julio Jones had a standout season for a rookie. He had more touchdown grabs — [eight] — than any rookie this year. Despite missing three games, he had the most prolific season for a Falcons rookie in our team history. We are very confident that he’ll continue to grow with Matt in this offense. He’ll continue to be a standout football player and help us produce for years to come.
Q: Can this defense, as constructed, compete for the Super Bowl title?
A: I believe that our defense has continued to improve since 2008. Obviously, there are still areas that we can improve upon. We need to continue to pressure the quarterback. We need to continue to get our hands on balls and capitalize on interceptions. With that said, I love the tenacity of this defense. I’m encouraged by the direction of this defense. Like I’ve said since the very beginning in 2008, we will always continue to look to see where we can upgrade our talent across the depth chart and specifically on the defensive side of the ball.
Q: What will you all look for in your new defensive coordinator?
A: I appreciate everything that Brian VanGorder has done for this team over the last four years. He’s put his heart and soul into helping to create a very aggressive and passionate defense. I personally appreciate that. Moving forward, this defense needs to continue its growth and evolution as a passionate and fiery defense, one that is going to fly to the football, disrupt, be opportunistic and capitalized on opportunities to turn the game around; flip the game in critical situations. We’ll look for a coordinator who will compliment Coach Smith and his approach to putting that type of aggressive defense on the field. Obviously, that coordinator is going to work hand-and-hand with Mike Smith in helping to create a very aggressive defense. Our hope is that we will, in the very near future, land that individual who we think is very appropriate with his approach to helping this defense grow.
Q: What has to happen differently for the Atlanta Falcons to have a breakthrough in the playoffs?
A: As a general manager, it’s my responsibility to step back and analyze what went on throughout the football operations. Not only on-the-field, but off-the-field as well; in the personnel department and from a coaching perspective. I believe that myself and Mike Smith will have [many] discussions, along with Arthur Blank to discuss what we need to change and what we need to adjust moving forward. This team needs to continue to be much more focused and consistent on offense in all facets of the game. Both in the offseason and in-season. We need to be an opportunistic football team through and through. I am, as well as Mr. Blank and Mike Smith, are very driven to make the adjustments needed to provide the fan base with a team that they can be proud of.
–D. Orlando Ledbetter, The Atlanta Falcons beat blog