Atlanta Falcons 2014-15 Season Preview

Steven Jackson-falcons-2014The Atlanta Falcons won just four games last year, and the team sought to revamp its lines to help improve on that nasty total. Matt Sims got destroyed due to the porous OL last season, and the Falcons were picked apart by the better defenses consistently. The Falcons will seek to be a tougher team to deal with on the lines, and if it doesn’t the team is going to be equally as putrid as last season.

Odds to win Superbowl: 40/1
Odds to win NFC: 22/1
Odds to win NFC South: +450

Odds courtesy of Bovada

Injuries were largely to blame for Atlanta’s tough time last year offensively. Matt Ryan managed just a 67.2 passer rating, but it’s tough to pin much of the blame on him. The team averaged just 77.9 yards rushing last season, but are trying to revamp that aspect with the trio of Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers and Davonta Freeman. Establishing a better running game will help Ryan just as much as being a tougher team on the line.

Ryan threw 37 percent of his passes under duress last season, and that’s just not going to lead to success. Even with that pressure, Ryan still completed 67.4 percent of his passes. How much better can that be this season? His mental toughness and decision making are excellent, and all he really needs is better play around him. Dominique Davis will back Ryan up, and Sean Renfee sits behind Davis as the third-stringer.

Jackson is now 30-plus years of age, and that’s the witching time for NFL running backs. His body is well conditioned, however, and that may give him some extended years of productivity. He had eight straight 1,000 yard seasons, and the Falcons desperately need him to return to that level of dominance. Freeman is great at running between tackles and should make a good impact as a rookie. Rodgers averaged just 3.6 yards per carry over the last three seasons, and Antone Smith is capable of some plays when he gets on the field.

Julio Jones has a chance to put together a great season after recovering from foot surgery over the offseason. He was on pace for 130 catches last year before suffering the injury. Roddy White is capable of a lot and Harry Douglas caught for 1,000-plus yards last year. Bear Pascoe will be the TE, but he’s got big shoes to fill with Tony Gonzalez gone. The receivers are definitely good enough to allow Ryan to shine.

The OL is still pretty darn bad, though. Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes weren’t ready to start as management hoped, and if they don’t really turn it around this season, the OL is going to be at blame once again for the team’s struggles. If a miracle happens and the line exceeds expectations, then Atlanta can become much more formidable than last year’s team.

The D has used a 4-3 and 3-4 scheme the last two seasons but will go mostly with a 3-4 this year. The team made four acquisitions to help adjust to that scheme and it should go a long ways towards improving the defense. Atlanta will use a lot of nickel coverage.

The Falcons ranked 27th in yards allowed last year, 29th in rushing, 27th in points allowed, 32nd in third-down percentage and 25th in sacks. That’s a team in the bottom third of every major defensive category. The DL has been restructured, but still has little chance to be anything more than mildly mediocre. The LB corp and secondary is also average at best, giving Atlanta a lot of work to do if its going to dramatically improve on last season’s defensive disaster.

Special teams are pretty good. Matt Bryant is a steady and consistent kicker. Matt Bosher is a very good punter and gets good hang time on his kicks. The return game will be great given that the Falcons now have one of the best return men in the NFL in Devin Hester. Javier Arenas is not too bad in his own right. Hester led the league in kickoff return average last season, and can also return punts if needed. He’s returned 13 punts and five kickoffs for TDs in his career.

The Falcons finished 10th in kickoff return average last season (24.4 yards) and 20th in punt returns (8.2). That could go from a weakness to a team strength.

Still, even with a great offensive group the Falcons are primed to struggle. Ryan is begging for better pass protection, and the RBs are going to need some holes created. The offense is still better than the defense, though, where Atlanta can expect a world of problems once again. The team was projected last season to be a contender and finished just 4-12.

It’s not enigmatic at all though, the lines were simply awful. If Jackson can re-establish himself as a premier running back, the Falcons could drastically turn things around. Even with last season’s failures, they are still given the 2nd best chance to win the NFC South by NFL oddsmakers at Bovada. It’s reasonable to expect 8-10 wins, which would constitute a big enough improvement and allow the team to further tinker with its still weak spots next offseason.

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