What Can the Atlanta Falcons Still Learn from Disappointing 2013 Season?

Chris Trapasso@ChrisTrapassoAnalyst IOctober 10, 2013

ATLANTA, GA - OCTOBER 07:  Quarterback Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons reacts after a fourth quarter touchdown against the New York Jets during their game at the Georgia Dome on October 7, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

No one saw a 1-4 start in 2013 coming for the NFC's defending No. 1 seed, but the Atlanta Falcons' season is not lost. 

While they'll be extremely hard-pressed to catch the sizzling 5-0 New Orleans Saints in the division, a wild-card spot isn't out of the question. 

Regardless of what happens to Mike Smith's team from here on out, let's examine what the Falcons will still be able to learn about their team over the final 11 games of the regular season. 

Matt Ryan Without a Healthy Julio Jones and Roddy White

The Falcons signed quarterbacked Matt Ryan to a, well, rather large extension this offseason. His contract is now worth up to $113.75 million, with $59 million guaranteed. 

Annually improving his passing statistics since 2009, which culminated in a 4,719-yard, 32-touchdown, 14-interception 2012, the 28-year-old quarterback deserved the substantial pay raise. 

The team announced on Wednesday that Julio Jones is out for the year. Not only was he Ryan's top receiver, he was leading the NFL with 41 receptions after Week 5. 

How will Ryan respond? How will he produce without his emerging superstar wideout? 

Here's a quick look at how the Ryan-Jones connection fared in 2012 (rankings based on receivers who took at least 50 percent of their respective team's snaps): 

To break it down further, the table below provides perspective on the impact Jones had in his second professional season:

Ryan's future in Atlanta is not even remotely in jeopardy, especially after the huge extension. But with Jones out for the rest of the season, the Falcons will have ample time to assess how dependent the quarterback is on his best receiver. 

If Ryan can keep his the offense rolling—Football Outsiders indicates that the Falcons are fifth in yards per drive—it'll say a lot about his individual ability under center.

Also, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that Roddy White could miss time with a hamstring pull:

Rain it pours: Falcons concerned WR Roddy White could miss at least one game, possibly more, due to left hamstring he pulled Monday night.

— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) October 9, 2013

With Jones done for the year and White possibly out for some time, the Falcons and Ryan have found themselves in quite the precarious situation at 1-4.

It'll be interesting to see how the veteran quarterback responds. 

Young Defensive Players

The Falcons defense, a unit that wasn't tremendous but good enough a season ago, has been dreadful to start the 2013 campaign. 

According to Football Outsiders, no team has allowed more points per drive and only the San Diego Chargers have allowed more yards per drive through five games.

Unsurprisingly, the secondary has been dreadful as well. 

Cold Hard Football Facts reveals that Atlanta has allowed an average quarterback rating of 108.1only the Washington Redskins and San Diego Chargers have been more vulnerable in that department. 

So, while it's a bit premature to believe the entire franchise is focusing more on the future than the present, now would be a great time for the Falcons' coaching staff and members of the pro personnel department to zero in on the young defensive players on this roster.

Robert Alford, the team's 2013 second-round pick, has played only 133 snaps at cornerback compared to the 308 snaps first-round pick Desmond Trufant has logged.

ATLANTA, GA - OCTOBER 7: Kellen Winslow #81 of the New York Jets makes a catch for a touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome on October 7, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Nothing against Asante Samuel, but over the course of the next two months, getting Alford more snaps would be beneficial to his development and long-term viability.

Jonathan Massaquoi, a 2012 fifth-round pick and situational defensive lineman, has been on the field for only 160 snaps this season. 

He's another young player who should get more burn as the season progresses. 

Lamar Holmes

Sep 8, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; Atlanta Falcons cornerback Robert Alford (23) breaks up a pass intended for New Orleans Saints wide receiver Kenny Stills (84) during the first quarter of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

As it currently stands, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) has rated Falcons left tackle Sam Baker as the least effective offensive tackle in the NFL among players at his position who've taken at least 25 percent of their respective team's snaps. 

Oddly enough, the 2008 first-round pick was extended through the 2018 season in March. 

To be fair, Baker's dealt with a knee injury this season. In his place, Lamar Holmes, a 2012 third-round pick, has stood in at left tackle. Unfortunately for Atlanta, the youngster hasn't been much better. 

Here's a look at his performances in the two-plus games during which he's been asked to protect Ryan's blind side:

Aug 24, 2013; Nashville, TN, USA; Atlanta Falcons tackle Lamar Holmes (76) on the sideline during the second half against the Tennessee Titans at LP Field. Tennessee won 27-16. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Scary stuff.

Baker's knee could bother him for the remainder of the regular season, so there's a chance Holmes may be forced back to left tackle on occasion. 

Regardless of which edge of the line he's protecting, the Falcons can spend the next 11 games evaluating Holmes' play to decide how he fits into the team's futureespecially if the team will be looking to address the tackle position at the draft. 


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