The Falcons remain a team on the rise, Saturday night’s cliff-dive notwithstanding. They’ve gone from 4-12 to 13-3 in four seasons. They should grace a Super Bowl very soon. They don’t need wholesale change, but they do require the following nips/tucks.
1. Cut the malarkey. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey was named the NFL’s top assistant by Sporting News, but let’s check the numbers: The Falcons were sixth among 32 NFL teams in total offense in 2008, Mularkey’s first season here; they were 16th last season, which could be partially ascribed to the injuries suffered by quarterback Matt Ryan and tailback Michael Turner. They were 16th again in 2010 — 16th with five Pro Bowlers.
Yes, Mularkey’s method has merit: When his offense is allowed to control the clock, the Falcons are nigh-unbeatable. But the better opponents didn’t allow Turner to break them down, and those were the games the Falcons lost. Should Mularkey wind up being someone else’s head coach, it wouldn’t be the worst possible news. If he stays, he must adjust. Because opponents — the good ones, anyway — have adjusted to him.
2. Get faster. Play faster. The Falcons have a Burner — that’s Turner’s nickname — but no true burner. They have no deep threat on the order of the Eagles’ Jeremy Maclin or the Steelers’ Mike Wallace. We mention those two because each had a reception against the Falcons of at least 58 yards. The Falcons didn’t have a completion of 50 yards all season. A stretch-the-field wideout must be targeted in either free agency — Malcom Floyd of San Diego, perhaps? — or the draft.
Beyond that, there’s the matter of tempo. Smith is forever preaching the need to play at a fast pace — every coach does — but his offense too often seems ponderous. This doesn’t mean the Falcons should use the no-huddle offense before every snap of every game, but they need to acquire more speed and then demonstrate — Dimitroff’s word here — greater urgency.
3. Free the face of the franchise. For all Ryan’s success, he sometimes gives the impression of having been overcoached. Note how his default mode when forced to look beyond his first receiver is to throw a five-yard pass. Note how Aaron Rodgers’ default mode Saturday was to throw a 20-yard pass.
It’s one thing to preach caution when you’re handing your team to a rookie, as the Falcons did with Ryan, but that was in 2008. He’s a three-year starter now, a Pro Bowler. Having seen Ryan lead this team to three consecutive winning seasons and two playoff berths, his coaches should trust him enough to throw deep and author the occasional improvisation. We’re not talking about him turning him into a sling-without-conscience Brett Favre, but a little more fire from Matty Ice would be welcome.
4. Procure more pressure. For all the hand-wringing over the secondary’s no-show against Rodgers, the crux of the issue is elsewhere. The Falcons had 31 sacks in 16 regular-season games to rank 22nd in the league, 13 of them by John Abraham. Kroy Biermann, the other starting end, managed three. The Falcons’ linebacking corps had four sacks, which suggests Brian VanGorder’s men don’t blitz often enough or well enough. (Surely the development of Sean Weatherspoon will be a boon here.)
Abraham turns 33 in May. His career has not been a study in consistency: He had 16 1/2 sacks in 2008, 5 1/2 in 2009. The Falcons must land a suitable replacement soon. Pass rushers aren’t easy to find, but the Georgia end-turned-linebacker Justin Houston might be available late in Round 1. He’s not quite as big as you’d like an NFL end to be — he’s 6-foot-3, 254 pounds — and he might not be an exact fit in VanGorder’s 4-3. But he can bring the heat.
5. Don’t panic. As shattering as the loss to Green Bay was, it wasn’t a reflection of a flawed design. The design simply needs more time to coalesce. The Falcons were the NFC’s No. 1 seed, but their record was inflated by a schedule that allowed them four games against the woebegone NFC West. (The Saints, who won 11 games, and Tampa Bay, which won 10, similarly benefited.)
On merit, the 13-3 Falcons probably should have been 11-5. That they got slightly ahead of themselves doesn’t mean they’re not on track. With the proper tweaks, they’ll get where they want to go.
By Mark Bradley