10 Biggest Issues Facing the Atlanta Falcons This Offseason
The Atlanta Falcons suffered through their worst season under head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan last season, going 4-12 and finishing last in the NFC South. After making the NFC Championship game in 2012, the Falcons had their worst season since 2007.
This offseason, the Falcons will need to make major changes if they hope to find themselves back in the NFC Championship game, or even the playoffs for that matter.
Before last season, the Smith/Ryan era of Atlanta Falcons football had seen nothing but success. Since the two joined the team in 2008, the Falcons were 56-24, with playoff appearances in four out of the five seasons and no losing seasons.
All of this made the disastrous 2013 season come as a shock to most in the NFL.
Going into the 2014 season, the Falcons still have their franchise quarterback in Matt Ryan and two dominant receivers in Roddy White and Julio Jones. Everything else on the Falcons roster is a question.
The Falcons have addressed some of those questions this offseason, but some have been left unresolved. Here are the 10 biggest issues facing the Atlanta Falcons.
10. Restoring Confidence
After a terrible season like the one the Falcons suffered through in 2013, it can be hard to get the team to believe they can win again. Luckily for the Falcons, their winning ways aren't too far behind them.
However, the Falcons do have a young team, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive leaders like John Abraham, Asante Samuel and Mike Peterson, who were around for the Falcon defense during the successful days of the Smith/Ryan era, are gone.
The Falcons defense will have to rely on young players to step up and take on leadership roles in 2014.
9. The Return Game
The Falcons have long lacked an explosive player in the return game. Last season, the Falcons failed to score a touchdown off either a punt or kickoff return.
This offseason, they added return specialist Devin Hester to the team. It's never a bad idea to add the all-time record holder for return touchdowns to your team, but Hester may be past his prime.
In his first six seasons in the league, he scored 12 return touchdowns. However, during the last two seasons he has scored just one.
8. Steven Jackson
When the Falcons acquired Steven Jackson last offseason, they thought they had solved the issue of their running game.
Instead, the running game dropped to dead last in the league, and Jackson found himself riddled by nagging injuries. When Jackson did play, he was ineffective. He averaged only 3.5 yards per carry.
The Falcons need Jackson to play like he did in St. Louis if they want to make it back to the playoffs.
7. Keeping Everyone Healthy
The Falcons were decimated by injuries in 2013. Roddy White and Julio Jones were both shut down for the season. Steven Jackson was often injured as well.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Falcons were a mess. At one point, the entire linebacking corps that started on opening day was injured, and the Falcons were forced to start three rookies.
Like any team in the NFL, the Falcons have to keep their key players healthy if they want to succeed.
6. Replacing Sean Weatherspoon
Sean Weatherspoon, perhaps the Falcons' best defensive player, ruptured his Achilles tendon during a workout this offseason. The injury will force the linebacker to miss the entire 2014 season.
This is a devastating blow for a team that finished 27th in total defense last year. Weatherspoon missed nine games last season and the Falcons hoped his return to the lineup would boost the hapless defense.
Unfortunately, the Falcons will now have to find answers elsewhere.
5. Pass Defense
The Falcons defense was bad last year. Every way you look at it, it was bad. The pass defense ranked 21st in yards allowed and 29th in touchdowns allowed.
This year, second-year cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford will be asked to lock down receivers. Unless the defensive line gets more pressure on the quarterback this year, it's going to be another long season for the young secondary.
4. Run Defense
Like I said, the Falcons defense was bad. The run defense was one of the worst in the league last year. They finished 31st in yards allowed and 18th in touchdowns allowed.
The poor play can be partly be explained by injuries, but there were other issues as well.
Linebacker Paul Worrilow burst on to the scene last year for the Falcons. He finished the season with 127 tackles, but the Falcons next three leading tacklers were all members of the secondary.
For the Falcons to be more effective against the run, they're going to need their linebackers and defensive line to make more plays.
3. Replacing Tony Gonzalez
Ever since he came to Atlanta in 2009, Tony Gonzalez has been Matt Ryan's security blanket. The future Hall of Famer finished his last season with 83 receptions, 859 yards and 8 touchdowns.
Without Gonzalez, the Falcons will need someone else to step up and catch those tough balls over the middle. Harry Douglas will most likely replace Gonzalez's targets, but the Falcons have done little to replace the tight end position.
Levine Toilolo, Mickey Shuler and Bear Pascoe will compete for playing time this offseason.
2. The Running Game
The Falcons had the worst running game in the league last year. All of the Falcons running backs combined to score 11 touchdowns and they ran for 3.9 yards per carry.
Part of the blame has to go to the offensive line, but the running backs did little to help their own cause.
The Falcons didn't add any new running backs this offseason, so hopefully they've made some scheme changes that will allow Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers to be more effective. Otherwise, it's going to be another season of three yards and a cloud of dust for the Falcons running game.
1. The Offensive Line
The offensive line was brutal in Atlanta last season. Besides having the worst running game in the league, the line did a terrible job protecting Matt Ryan. Ryan was sacked 44 times and often found himself under pressure.
The Falcons have tried to address their offensive line issues by drafting offensive tackle Jake Matthews in the first round of this year's NFL draft.
For the Falcons to make any real improvements this season, they have to get better play out of their offensive line. Hopefully, Matthews can lead the charge, but it's going to take a collective effort if real progress is going to occur.