Originally posted on Football Nation  |  Last updated 8/17/12
The Falcons have become a NFL-version of the movie Groundhog Day over the past three seasons.

Just as Phil (yes, like the groundhog Phil) spends day after disappointing day reliving Groundhog Days that end so terribly wrong, the Falcons find themselves reliving the same disappointing ending to a promising season every year during Matt Ryan’s tenure.

The Falcons’ duo of general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith have, much like Bill Murray’s character Phil, made changes to attempt to break the frustrating cycle in which they were stuck.

Smith has brought change to the structure without upsetting the roster of a team that has achieved consecutive playoff berths for the first time in the history of the franchise.

After offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey was named head coach of the Jaguars, he took with him quarterbacks coach Bob Bratkowski. Much like Bratkowski’s once-explosive offenses were criticized in Cincinnati for becoming stale and predictable, so was Mularkey’s in Atlanta.

While retaining parts of the offense that have brought Matt Ryan his greatest success – the no-huddle offense and a levels-concept passing game – new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has shown this preseason that he is not afraid to shake a few things up. Second-year running back Jacquizz Rodgers, a shifty play-making back, has become more involved with promising results.

Involving Rodgers in the passing game has opened up Tony Gonzalez to not be limited to a role as Ryan’s safety valve. Against Cincinnati, Gonzalez finished with three receptions for 44 yards in limited time, a 14.7 average that is much more explosive than in previous seasons.

Koetter’s offensive scheme has also exploited Julio Jones’ freakish ability that combines a thick 6-3, 220-pound frame with 4.3 speed.

By involving Jones in all aspects of the passing game, teams can not simply play him with a cushion: guarding against the screen, go-route or three-step passing game. In his second year, Jones has improved his concentration in traffic to make tough catches.

When the defense plays cautiously, bracketing Jones to limit his yards after the catch, Roddy White finds more space in which to run the precise intermediate routes that make him the model of consistency.

The biggest question heading into the season for the offense was their struggling offensive line. Left tackle Sam Baker, for whom the Falcons traded two second-round picks and one fourth-rounder to move up in the 2008 Draft, struggled last season after dealing with injuries.

He was bumped down to right guard upon returning and and still struggled. He has looked better this preseason, but still has to prove that he is a cornerstone left tackle for the franchise as he enters the final year of his rookie deal.

Pete Konz, a center at Wisconsin, was drafted with the plan of making him the starting right guard. While he has yet to crack the starting lineup, he has looked good with the twos while the first team has struggled to keep the pocket intact.

Despite the broken pocket Ryan has worked in for most of the preseason, his awareness and ability to keep his eyes downfield have allowed him to dodge the shrapnel. He has improved his core strength in order to deal with the rigors of a long season, but the best way to keep him healthy for the stretch run is to keep him upright.

On the other side of the ball, the Falcons eschewed first-time defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder for Mike Nolan, a 3-4 specialist whose experience in hybrid defenses is well-suited to a roster built for a 4-3 look. Gradually the team has shown more 3-4 this preseason, with defensive end John Abraham playing the majority of the second week of the preseason standing up as a rush linebacker.

With Nolan’s roots in Baltimore, he has used Abraham’s quickness to create mismatches from the greater flexibility of playing out of a two-point stance, which caused him to wreak havoc against well-respected Cincinnati left tackle Andrew Whitworth. Abraham has also played surprisingly well in Nolan’s fire-zone coverage, looking fluid in his drops.

The addition of Asante Samuel prevents teams from avoiding Brent Grimes, while allowing Dunta Robinson to play closer to the line of scrimmage in the slot. Robinson’s physicality is best utilized covering slot receivers, and he is in better position make stops in the running game.

Atlanta’s pair of playmakers from Mizzou, linebacker Sean Witherspoon and strong safety William Moore, have played looser in this preseason. Witherspoon has made his share of disruptive plays in the backfield and against the run and on the blitz. He still has room for improvement in coverage, but has shown marked improvement so far.

Another player who is not at his best in coverage, Moore has played underneath more in this scheme and is free to do more of what he does so well: run and hit. Having the steady presence of middle linebacker Akeem Dent and his heady play frees up his surrounding defenders to play disruptively.

Although Dent suffered a minor concussion in the first preseason game, veteran Mike Peterson has filled in admirably while Dent recovered in Week 2 of the preseason.
Worst-Case Scenario The worst-case scenario for the Falcons this season is the same, predictable ending that has plagued them during the Smith-Ryan years: an outstanding regular season followed with an early exit from the playoffs.

Atlanta does have a tough schedule, including the NFC East, while their division features two upcoming teams who have yet to turn the corner, Carolina and Tampa Bay. The Saints are still the Saints and will not be the train wreck that the sports-watching world supposes, but Atlanta will still squeak out a division title.

Even though they will win the division in this scenario, the worst-case Falcons are still a flawed team. Michael Turner’s heavy workload of past seasons will continue haunt him, and he will deal with a myriad of injuries, rendering him ineffective. Rodgers can be an every-down back, but neither he nor Jason Snelling can replicate Turner’s excellence between the tackles and in short-yardage situations.

A sketchy offensive line will not only fail to open holes, but also will prove a large impediment to the passing game. Matt Ryan will not have time to let downfield passes develop, but that is irrelevant if he is missing his deep threat.

After a tantalizing preseason in which Julio Jones shows why many ranked him above A.J. Green in the 2011 Draft, the injury bug bites again and he misses significant time throughout the season. Teams can once again key in on Roddy White with Harry Douglas not being suited to move outside from the slot.

The Falcons’ defense is opportunistic, but will never be confused for a grinding, Tampa 2 scheme. With the Falcons’ running attack unable to eat up the clock, the defense will be forced to spend more time on the field than it was built for.

With such a formidable array of NFC teams, the Falcons will once again become the elite team that never was – like Jim Kelly’s huddle-free Buffalo Bills, but without the Super Bowl appearances.

After all that doom and gloom, let's take a look at what this Falcons franchise is capable of.
Best-Case Scenario With the new offensive and defensive systems working within the already-existing framework, the Falcons’ new coordinators will remodel both units to emphasize the strengths of each while preserving a solid foundation.

On the defensive side, Jon Abraham will experience a late-career renaissance in this scenario, terrorizing quarterbacks when rushing, with Peria Jerry and Jonathan Babineaux collapsing the interior pocket. Both Jerry and Babineaux will take advantage of the attention paid to Abraham’s roving presence, and the defensive tackles will occupy blocks in the middle. They will keep Akeem Dent and Sean Witherspoon clean and able to make impact plays in the run game.

With all the pressure up front, Brent Grimes and Asante Samuel can do what they do best: jump routes and prey on hurried throws made under duress. While Samuel’s gambling nature causes him to give up a big play on occasion, he is right more often than wrong and puts the ball in the more-than-capable hands of Matt Ryan.

Because Julio Jones will burst onto the scene by being open more often than a Waffle House, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez will find plenty of open space throughout the field.

Although the no-huddle passing game will be in all the headlines, the real story will be Jacquizz Rodgers. The pocket-sized dynamo will not assume a starting role, but his contributions in both the run and pass will allow the no-huddle offense to sustain drives and keep their defense off the field.

By moving the chains in the running game and keeping the clock ticking with high-percentage pass receptions, Rodgers is the key to allowing a turnover-dependant defense to stay fresh on the sidelines.

After winning tough road matchups in Kansas City and Philadelphia, a Falcons team that loves southern home-cooking will finish off with four of its last five games in the Georgia Dome. By beating Detroit and Tampa Bay in Weeks 16 and 17, respectively, the Falcons will build momentum going into the playoffs.

Turner will still have fresh legs after a time-share in the regular season. He will help wear down opposing defenses throughout the playoffs. At the same time, their vertical big-play ability is on par with anyone in the NFC. The Falcons will battle their way into the Super Bowl and steal the thunder of the division-rival Saints by playing for a championship in New Orleans.

Like Aaron Rodgers before him, in his fifth season Matt Ryan will finally take his place amongst the league’s elite quarterbacks with a Super Bowl win.

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