Monday Night Football returns to Ford Field for a very important week 16 game between the Lions and Falcons. This special pre-Christmas edition of MNF will be played on a Saturday night with one team potentially gifting themselves a playoff berth.
I caught up with Greg Huseth, editor at Blogging Dirty, to get an early preview of the Atlanta Falcons. My thanks to him for taking the time to answer my questions.
1. What is your initial reaction to the Falcons’ 2012 draft class?
Greg Huseth: I really thought it was a good draft class, especially when you consider that the Falcons were missing their 1st and 4th round draft picks. We desperately needed offensive line help, and with our first two picks we drafted offensive linemen, including center Peter Konz out of Wisconsin, a school known for producing offensive linemen. I felt that even if he is the only guy who started or even played extensively out of this draft class, it would be a big success. So far, Konz is still working with the second team, and hasn’t exactly been a force during this offseason. We’re not out of the preseason yet, so Konz could crack the starting line soon and provide some stability. But if he doesn’t help by starting at right guard this season, the draft class is a wash– for now.
2. Is there anything Falcons fans feel they need to see from Matt Ryan besides a playoff win at this point?
GH: Not really. We consistently seen accuracy, good decision making, excellent use of the no-huddle, and ability to fit the ball into tight windows. Some people think Ryan doesn’t have a strong arm, and I’ll admit it’s nothing like Jay Cutler’s or Matthew Stafford’s. However, he absolutely has the arm strength to make all the throws on the field, and arm strength isn’t everything. Just look at Philip Rivers and Drew Brees. I believe Ryan’s arm is actually slightly stronger than Brees. So I guess that brings me to the one thing Falcons fans need to see from him: accuracy on deep passes. If he improves even slightly in that phase of his game, he will be elite. Playoff wins aren’t everything (Mark Sanchez has a handful of playoff wins himself), but they would certainly help his perception around the league and with Falcons fans who aren’t yet completely sold on him.
3. Can the Falcons still rely on Michael Turner like they have in the past?
GH: I don’t think the Falcons can rely on Turner to pound the rock the way he did from 2008-2010. He has worn down from the tremendous number of carries over the past four seasons. He can still be productive as a goal line back, or can be counted on to move the chains as part of a running back tandem, but the huge reliance on Turner will not be the same anymore. The Falcons will use Jason Snelling and Jacquizz Rodgers in place of Turner some. I think the real sign Turner’s days as the featured back are over is the huge emphasis that is going to be put on the passing game starting this season. With Ryan at the helm, and the numerous receiving weapons, the Falcons won’t find it absolutely necessary to grind down the field on Michael Turner’s back. He will still have a role, but it will be diminished.
4. Curtis Lofton is out at linebacker, Asante Samuel is in at cornerback. Is the Falcons defense poised to take a step forward or backward?
GH: The Falcons defense wasn’t terrible in 2011, but it sure wasn’t very good. We were 16th in the league in points surrendured, 21st in Yards Per game surrendered, and 19th in sacks. All of those are pretty average, to below average. The biggest struggle was giving up third downs, where the Falcons were absolutely atrocious. I know that Samuel will provide better coverage in the secondary, and allow the Falcons to put three very good corners on the field. Nickel corner is where the Falcons have given up the most yards in the past. The big questions mark is whether or not Akeem Dent can replace Curtis Lofton at MLB. Lofton was a very sure tackler and a smart player, but he rarely came up with big plays, was very poor in pass coverage, and offered nothing in the way of pass-rush. Defensive play calling duties have been given to OLB Sean Weatherspoon, so all Dent needs to do is be a sure tackler, and provide something on top of that. I don’t expect great pass coverage, but I do know he can deliver big hits, and can bring a rush up the middle against the passer. If he pans out, it would make up for losing Lofton in free-agency. That, however, is a big if.
5. What are your expectations for the Falcons in 2012?
GH: The NFC South is improving, and unfortunately the Falcons haven’t done too much to improve in the last year. They still have the talent and potential to win the division, but given their extremely tough out of division schedule (including the AFC West, the NFC East, and your very own Detroit Lions in Detroit), it is going to be brutal to win the division with 9 wins. I think 9 wins is about right for the talent on this Falcons team. They are going to score a bunch of points this season, but they will also probably give up a lot of points due to the severe lack of pass rush this teams. 9 wins and a wildcard spot are my expectations, but certainly not my best-case scenario.
Head to Blogging Dirty for more on the Atlanta Falcons.