Casting a cold eye on the not-so-hot Atlanta Falcons

Stop the presses! Here's John Abraham! With an actual sack! (AP photo)

Stop the presses! Here's John Abraham! Sacking the quarterback! (AP photo)

The Falcons aren’t what we — and they — hoped they’d be, but they’re where they belong. They’re 7-7. They haven’t beaten a team that holds a winning record. They’ve lost only once to a team that carries a losing record. (Carolina is 6-8, and the losing in Charlotte on Nov. 15 stands as the day the season went from promising to disappointing.)

They haven’t been beaten by repeated bad bounces. They’re 3-2 in games decided by seven or fewer points. Of the two close losses — the Giants in overtime and the Saints here — they surged from two touchdowns behind to tie. They haven’t had a single game that they dominated snatched from them at the end. Sorry to say, they dominated only one game since early October.

Even with a more arduous schedule, we — and maybe they — figured this would be a better team than it was a year ago. (A better team with perhaps a worse record, but better still.) It was not. It was worse. Even before the injuries arrived in clusters, it was clear the 2009 Falcons lacked a separation gear. A year ago they could move the ball and score and  compensate for an unassuming defense. This year everything, even the placekicking, was unassuming.

The offense ranks 18th in yardage, 16th in scoring, 15th in passing and 20th in rushing. That’s the definition of mediocrity, and there was no reason for this offense to be that feeble. Tony Gonzalez was as good as advertised. (On his two trips to East Rutherford, N.J., he caught the touchdown pass to force overtime and the winning touchdown against the Jets.) Matt Ryan wasn’t as good as he was as a rookie. Michael Turner started slowly, got going and then got hurt.

The hope was that a redone defense would get better as it went. It never got good at all. The Falcons rank 20th in points against, 28th in total yardage, 20th in rushing yards, 28th in passing yards. That’s not even mediocre — that’s bad. Losing Peria Jerry and Brian Williams to injury hurt, but the greater loss was John Abraham. He just vanished. His sack against the Jets brought him to 4 1/2 on the season; two came in the opener against Miami.

A team with a shaky secondary needs a pass rush in the worst way, and that’s what these Falcons had — the worst pass rush ever seen. That failing might well change the emphasis of the 2010 draft. Rather than seek a cornerback, which for months has seemed the greatest need, Thomas Dimitroff might first pursue another pass rusher. (And that would make sense, given that there are more first-round defensive linemen in this draft than DB’s.)

What should be the Falcons' primary target this offseason?

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The hope was that by season’s end the new defense would have shown enough to get the Falcons into the postseason but, more important, augur even better for 2010. But we cannot look at this defense and say with certainty, “Given time, these guys will be great.” Curtis Lofton is a keeper. Jerry has potential. (So, believe it or not, does Chris Houston.) Lawrence Sidbury and William Moore are intriguing. But there’s still need up front, at the corner linebacker spots and in the secondary.

As hard as Dimitroff tried, he couldn’t fix everything in one draft, and the 2010 edition can’t be solely devoted to defense. The offensive line tailed off. Assuming Harry Douglas recovers from the injury suffered in training camp, there’s still the issue of Michael Jenkins: Is he a bona fide No. 2 receiver?

The optimists among us — hey, I was first among equals — believed the playoff run of 2008 was evidence of a team rebuilt overnight. Alas, teams are never rebuilt overnight. The Falcons weren’t 4-12 in 2007 because they had a roster of All-Pros, and two Dimitroff drafts weren’t going to flesh out everything at every position. Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but this is a process. And if the Falcons aren’t as far along as we and they hoped, that doesn’t mean they’re about to get lousy again. They have a framework.

They’re 7-7. They should finish 9-7. They should have that second consecutive winning season. And if, on the day Dimitroff was hired in January 2008, someone would have said, “In two seasons the jinx will be broken” … well, we’d have taken that, wouldn’t we?

308 comments Add your comment

SOUTH GA BIRD FAN

December 21st, 2009
11:15 am

a pass rusher i agree

Skram30082

December 21st, 2009
11:17 am

SECya

December 21st, 2009
11:17 am

Time will tell how much heart they can bring to rest of the season. Turned should sit out the rest of the year. Luckily enough we play two subpar teams in the next two weeks.

Mark Bradley

December 21st, 2009
11:17 am

Second, actually. So close, Skram.

JTH

December 21st, 2009
11:20 am

D-line, cornerback, strong safety, O-line. In that order.

SOUTH GA BIRD FAN

December 21st, 2009
11:20 am

wow I was first and i read the article ! the next to opponents may be sub par but I expect it will not be easy at all Tampa bay had a defense yesterday . Still hoping for 9-7 , and if it happens two winning seasons in a row has to be considered a success !!!!
GO FALCONS !!!!!!!!!!!!!

Reid Adair

December 21st, 2009
11:21 am

I don’t believe it is as doom and gloom as some would like to think. Injuries have been an issue. I certainly understand that teams need to have back-ups in place for those situations, but the defense was going to be young enough. With Peria Jerry and William Moore getting injured, and that’s just two on the defensive side, a difficult task got a lot more difficult.

The disaster that the organization had become wasn’t going to be resolved overnight. There have been many signs (outside of wins) that things have indeed changed. I am confident that Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith have a good plan and that, overall, things are headed in the right direction.

Ryan S

December 21st, 2009
11:21 am

Could have mentioned a few missed Field Goals as well…those were just as huge as anything else mentioned above.

Ree Roe

December 21st, 2009
11:21 am

Honest & fair assesment. How about getting some more playmakers on offense too? Norwood is the definition of walking wounded & our receiving core strikes fear into noone. Defense needs another pass rusher, 2 starting corners & at least 1 more linebacker. And if the QB can raise his level of play next season we will again be in the playoffs.

-REEcently Roe?

Tale of Woe

December 21st, 2009
11:23 am

The Dallas game was a blow out. I think that was were the season went down hill.

AUG24

December 21st, 2009
11:24 am

A good pass rusher will go a long ways to helping this secondary. They need to make sure that they sign a veteran cornerback. We need more stability for the young secondary. One or two more pieces to the defense will help improve their play. Also, draft a young RB with speed. I don’t know that they will sign Norwood back due to his injuries.

rsm5150

December 21st, 2009
11:24 am

Just finish strong, and build on it in 2010. D line is what we need.

Steve Jones

December 21st, 2009
11:24 am

Agreed. One thing you forgot, Mike Mularchy was inconsistent. His play calling must improve and not be so conservative. We have the tools for a great passing game and yet there are just too many roll outs to Ryan’s right for a short gain or nothing at all. That ans he’s predictable. Was it against the Giants? where we ran the same running play 4 plays in a row before the half and were stopped every time. How about mixing it up a lot more Mike? We also need a corner back taller than 5 foot 9! No more of these midget CB’s. Too many times Grimes and co. have looked like Charles Dimry. I agree that we need to draft an offensive tackle but we also need a pass rush. How about making a run for Julius Peppers in the offseason, he’d play for Smitty and crew.

Bullwinkle

December 21st, 2009
11:24 am

This might seem like a little thing, but the Falcons need to win the next 2 games. The curse has to be broken before this franchise can excel.

Parrish

December 21st, 2009
11:25 am

I think the defense must be looked at. If the Admin believes Jerry will be a player, they need to look at the safety spots. In today’s NFL, a star safety can change the game (see Pitt without Troy or Baltimore without Reed). ATL needs a pass rusher, some CBs and some safeties. Basically, they need a lot and most of it is on defense.

Tyougg44

December 21st, 2009
11:25 am

Hey Mark, ya know, frame work is here, definitely a few O and D players away from Super Bowl contention….I firmly believe the Falcons will get there soon. However, dont fold the tent now against these last two teams….(please!) ONe more thing…you heard it hear first…New Orleans will be knocked out in the first playoff game! Got this feeling!

rob

December 21st, 2009
11:28 am

Absolutely, I told anyone that would listen that snapping the streak was a good season for us considering the schedule and the way the NFL is these days. Winning in Carolina would have us in the mix for the playoffs still, but honestly just ending the misery will be a huge step forward in the “process.”

Bone

December 21st, 2009
11:28 am

Must be vacation time. Folks, GET A LIFE!!!

Kris in Loganville

December 21st, 2009
11:28 am

Good article with valid points. But its hard to tell fans who dish out their cash, time, and energy to support a team that had so drastically improved last year only to come up so disappointingly short this year to be patient. I get it: We are in rebuild mode. But how much rebuilding is it going to take to get this team moving in a winning, lastingly winning, direction?

It seems simple to me. They have a great coach and lots of player talent. But for all the big dollars being tossed to these guys, you would expect better. Some can barely hold on to the ball (White), some can barely throw a ball (Ryan), some don’t see a ball coming (Houston), and others just seem to be playing for fun every Sunday. Unless these guys adopt a method of winning consistency, they will only get worse.

Mark Bradley

December 21st, 2009
11:29 am

The Dallas loss was a bad one, but I expected the Falcons to lose there. I didn’t expect them to lose in Charlotte. That was the first time I actually said to myself, “Something’s wrong.”

Grumpy

December 21st, 2009
11:30 am

9-7 gets you in the playoffs in many years. 9-7 would break the “back to back winning seasons” streak, which everyone is sick of hearing about. Everyone knew the schedule was tougher. No one could have predicted all the injuries.

All things considered, I’m OK with 9-7. Not happy to miss the playoffs, but still hopeful things are on the right track.

8-8 or 7-9? That would be a bummer.

Jay

December 21st, 2009
11:31 am

I actually felt that missed field goals had a major impact on 3 games. Take those three games and mark them as wins and this is a totally different season. The injuries also were a heavy toll – which tells me there’s much more to do in depth. The defense is the issue. We have to have a strong pass rush to help some passable DBs. The great thing is, we have some key players, we still have a bright future and I believe we will indeed win the last two games of the season. This is a different team than any prior Falcons I have watched in 30 years.

Mark Bradley

December 21st, 2009
11:31 am

I picked the Falcons to go 10-6, so I overshot even if they finish 9-7. And I also picked them to win the NFC South because I really didn’t think anybody else was apt to pass them. But the Saints sure did, didn’t they?

willie martinez

December 21st, 2009
11:34 am

we must be getting old if we’ve been around to see the saints come this far after their history. even worse than the falcons.

nickz

December 21st, 2009
11:34 am

Our CBs are embarassing…as is our pass rush (if you can even call it a pass rush). Those are the two key areas we need to address, if we can’t cover WRs and can’t sack the QB, then we’ll be in the bottom of the league in defense every year. Douglas will help at WR and Michael Jenkins is not a #2 reciever, replace him as well.

Tyougg44

December 21st, 2009
11:35 am

ya know , have the Falcons ever beat a team that a former Falcon left the past year to play for? hmmmm…..Boley, Falcons lost, hometown hero falcons lost….if to we would have had a kicker all season worth his weight…would have another win or two….Giants…Saints….I think the game that disusted me the most was when Turner fumbled against Pats…and the Falcons just GAVE UP! Trade John ABe…he is done…send ole 98 with him too a bust…houston…I have no confidence in….Turener when health…dont seem motivated as he needs to be…fluke last yr…

Larvell "SugarBear" Blanks

December 21st, 2009
11:36 am

Mark I agree with you for the most part but the birds are going to have to address their kicking game in the upcoming draft. I am not sure who is out there but they cannot keep refilling this position with “retreads” from other teams.

I agree with you that they are going to need to address the WR corp. Look at what Pitt was about to do in this draft. They walked away with sleepers such as Limas Sweed and Mike Thomas. Their contributions were unequaled. Finally, addressing a Pass Rusher is a premium. These guys are few and far between. Not to mention a FS on the same order a Ed Reed or Troy P.

JackP

December 21st, 2009
11:36 am

Mark: great column. You nailed it. The Falcons, at best, are not a high caliber team. Maybe they would have one more victory if Ryan was healthy and able to play the entire season. They need a lot of repairs if they expect to rebound next season.

Parrish

December 21st, 2009
11:38 am

I thought 9-7 was the best-case scenario coming in, and they can still get there, but my brother and I (both season ticket holders) figured this year the playoffs were not going to happen. Last year the national media failed to mention the sub-par defense, but those in ATL knew it was bad and they won in spite of it. This year the offense took a step back and this is the by-product of that.

DawginLex

December 21st, 2009
11:38 am

I totally disagree with any sentiment that says this Falcons team has underachieved. Yesterday’s game would have been a 20+ point blowout loss under the old regime.

These guys are playing until the end even though they are eliminated from the playoffs. Not having Ryan and Turner for the entire season has killed them. They beat New Orleans at home with those guys playing.

This team has character and it comes from the coaching staff and I applaud them for the effort.

Parrish

December 21st, 2009
11:41 am

“Turener when health…dont seem motivated as he needs to be…fluke last yr…”

Silly statement. Turner is a player, but he has a ankle that is wrecked. His year was not a fluke. Hell, he has 870 yards this year with two games to go and he missed a ton of time. If healthy he rushed for 1,200+ this year.

Mark Bradley

December 21st, 2009
11:41 am

Jason Elam made 29 of 31 field goals last season. Then he starts missing. I didn’t see that coming. I don’t know how anybody could have.

But I probably would have changed PKs a week sooner than the Falcons did. You just can’t keep missing in the NFL.

srsly y'all

December 21st, 2009
11:41 am

srsly, keep the streak alive. what’s the point of breaking the streak just to sit @ home and watch the playoffs. I’m honest when i say that i don’t think the falcons deserve to break the streak.

finally who would have thought that the hawks are the best sports team in atlanta. then the trashers (who will most certainly make the playoffs and go further than the 1st round). I would be shocked in the braves make the playoffs next year.

Marcus

December 21st, 2009
11:42 am

MB,
I agree with the 2010 draft assessment. I had been prodding just about all official AJC.com bloggers (you, Schultzie, DOL, and D3) for a couple of months on next years draft outlook. Dont see a “bona fide” CB (discounting E.Berry/Taylor Mays both of whom plays S) projected as drop dead early- 1st round talent, unless somebody REALLY wows folks at the Combine or the All-star games. 2 of the guys who closest fit the game-changer CBs (J.Arenas) are shorties like theones we already have.
Question is: Even if we draft one or more of many DL talents and the hopeful comback of P. Jerry, there is still the needs in the secondary, and we are absent a 2nd round pick, but may pick up compensatory picks (rounds TBD) based on losing FAs from last off-season. We have tough, but undersized DBs who get handled by the bigger WRs we see more regularly.
DEs and/or CB should be priority 1 and 1A, but we still have the issue of backup/change of pace RB and OL. Norwoods contract is supposedly up this year, and I openly wonder if he has been healthy enough to show Coach Smith enough to stay around?
In a dream world,

srsly y'all

December 21st, 2009
11:43 am

finally – to the falcons players & staff – enjoy the upcoming time off !! y’all earned it !

Fish2774

December 21st, 2009
11:43 am

Mark, I can tell you where the pass rush went! It went up I-75 TO Detroit and his name was Grady Jackson. Regardless of age and conditioning Grady demanded a double team from the opposing offense. Which alouded Abe to take a more agressive approach. 360 makes a big difference from undersized defensive lineman weighting 290-300 lbs. We don’t have a dominate lineman that demands the double team.

SlimG

December 21st, 2009
11:43 am

No. Jenkins is not a No. 2 but complimentary. Who do you think is No. 1? Don’t say Roddy White…..he may be a 2, we need a tall, tough, good handed 1 to go to. Gonzo will stay if we beef up three holes. Safety/Nickel back, 1, and a Dlineman that can stop the run and ;push up the middle. Abraham was doing his job, just no push in the middle.

real fan

December 21st, 2009
11:45 am

Actually I think the defense showed alot of character these last two weeks. Especially against the Jets. Gotta hand them this win. And it was a nail biter . But they have proven to me at least that they have haert and character . 9-7 would be a HUGE triumph in Atlanta. Certainly enough for a still shaky fan base . Enough to get respect on a national level . Maybe even enough for some out of state jersey sales (without #7 on it ).And if we keep it up, maybe some REAL sports writers will start covering us. Yes we are on the right path finally . And I for one am enjoying the evolution.

Benjamin

December 21st, 2009
11:46 am

I said early in the year that if Atlanta finished 10-6 or 9-7 and still made the playoffs, I’d walk away happy this year. And I stand by that, because of the back-to-back thing finally being broken.

That said, we do have some work to do this offseason. I have complete trust in the braintrust that’s been assembled here — Smith and Dmitroff are a good combination to have, and I respect Blank a lot as both an owner and a person — but we do need to make some personnel improvements in some areas. We need a difference maker at CB, for example, and a little work on the O-line would be helpful, as well.

I do think, long-term, the Falcons are in a good place because of their leadership at the top and their young talent. If Matt Ryan becomes just a solid NFL quarterback, I’ll take that, but we still need to get some guys in here who are durable and talented…

Buddy Curry made every tackle

December 21st, 2009
11:47 am

Bradley, save it. We have an excellent opportunity to go 9-7 this year. A year in which we have had significant injuries. This team plays hard every Sunday, and for this franchise that’s a huge step in the right direction.

We have a real coach. A man who holds his players accountable. They will play for him, and he has their back, but there is no doubt about who is in charge. Again, that is a huge building block.

I’m actually proud of the Falcons. Everyone is disappointed that the playoffs were missed, but if they were healthy, we’d be there. Hold your heads up Falcon fans, we have a real coach, a real quarterback, and a real gm. This team is being built to last, and with the current leadership, it will consistantly win. We have NEVER been able to say that!!!

Benjamin

December 21st, 2009
11:47 am

Slim, Roddy’s a number one in my book. He’s not in the top five receivers in the NFL, obviously, but he’s good enough to be a 1 on most teams.

That said, Jenkins is still a question mark to me.

B

December 21st, 2009
11:48 am

Why this piece now?? Why aren’t you praising the team for its never before seen resiliency? A team that quit on Glanville, Jones, Reeves, Mora and Petrino fought in a meaningless game on the road. A dome team playing outside, up north in December. You are a pig, a prig and spine-free. Jerk

C-Moe

December 21st, 2009
11:49 am

I know that we need to bolster our defense, but you can never have enough offensive firepower. The Falcons should draft C.J. Spiller: speedy running back (a compliment to Turner) as well as a good kick off returner. I like Norwood but he has become an injury waiting to happen.

At the same time our Offensive Coord. must call plays that get the ball to speedy backs, like Norwood, in space (i.e. screens, short passes, evening lining them up in the slot)

Parrish

December 21st, 2009
11:49 am

Roddy is the #1. Yes, he needs to stop dropping balls, but let’s not act like he isn’t a #1. His numbers the past three years have been very strong. This year they are down, but so are the numbers of every offensive player.

Tiger Woods' Wing Man

December 21st, 2009
11:49 am

Parrish

December 21st, 2009
11:52 am

“I know that we need to bolster our defense, but you can never have enough offensive firepower. The Falcons should draft C.J. Spiller: speedy running back (a compliment to Turner) as well as a good kick off returner. I like Norwood but he has become an injury waiting to happen.”

The Saints are better this year than they’ve ever been and it is because they have a defense to go along with the offense. ATL doesn’t need a CJ Spiller, they need a Revis, a Reed or a Jared Allen.

Marcus

December 21st, 2009
11:52 am

In a dream world, I would luv to get:
TE Aaron Hernandez (Florida) – eventual backup to Gonzo
RB CJ Spiller (Clemson) or LaGarrett Blount (yes, that one from Oregon – presume Burner clone)
DB – who knows??!? but UVA DB Ras-I Dowling at least has the size (6 ft. plus, 200 lbs.) to give us a fighting chance vs. bigger WRs.
DE- luv TCUs Jerry Hughes

Long Ball

December 21st, 2009
11:52 am

Hey Mark, how about an article on who may be on the team next year and who may not?

Fish2774

December 21st, 2009
11:53 am

Every week someone bashes Roddy White? If your look at it with from a realistic point of few. It’s not about the receiver’s. Pittsburgh, New England, Baltimore, and the Colts never really had so called #1′S. They had playmakers. Take Minnesota, they had Moss, Carter, and Reed what did they win “Nothing”. Cuz a good defense can neturalize a good office.

FranktheFalcon

December 21st, 2009
11:54 am

The thing is that the Falcons are laying the groundwork for a good, consistent franchise. I agree that they have temporarily disappointed themselves and us. The injuries to Turner and Ryan certainly didn’t help. The awful FG kicking cost us a game or two. With all that has happened, we will still go 8-8, or 9-7. I am extremely proud of our Falcons!!! They played really hard yesterday against the Jets and hung in there and somehow managed to win. The Jets defense was as good as advertised. How about the Jets secondary! Revis, in particular. We need at least one addition like that to OUR secondary. The encouraging thing is how GREAT our DEFENSE played!!! That gives us hope for the future! True, we need to add 3-4 new starters to our defense next year if we plan on going deep in the playoffs. But the thing is that we have outstanding coaches who have intensity and as a result, our players come out and play hard every game. The best measure of coaching is: Does your team play hard every game? The answer to that is a resounding YES. I thing that we will win 11 or 12 games next year!!!