Here's a capsule preview of the Atlanta Falcons' 2013 season, a much-anticipated campaign full of Super Bowl promise.
Three Things To Know
1. Replacing Michael Turner with Steven Jackson will make a huge difference
Last season, the Falcons ranked 29th in net rushing yards per game, as Turner, who finished third in the MVP voting in 2008, fell off a proverbial cliff with his production.
His yards-per-carry reached a career low of 3.6, which was down almost a yard from the previous season. It speaks volumes that he remains unsigned at this juncture, a sign that his career effectively could be over.
His declining ability to run the ball and limited receiving skills greatly hampered an offense taken over by new coordinator Dirk Koetter last season. The Falcons still finished eighth overall in total offense.
On the other hand, Jackson, a physical specimen if ever there was one, has not shown the same signs of decline. In the second preseason game (against the Ravens), he ran the ball eight times for 42 yards (5.3 per carry); and in the third exhibition contest, Jackson ran 12 times for 51 yards (4.3).
Jackson also showed his receiving ability, catching all three targeted balls against the Titans (for 15 yards). He also caught the only balls thrown to him against Baltimore (13 yards).
Given his versatility in the passing game, Jackson should help the Falcons crack the top five in total offense this season and, perhaps, scoring offense, as well.
2. The defense will improve vastly over last season
Whether the Falcons use personnel like Kroy Biermann, who appears poised to move from defensive end to outside linebacker, differently or actually transition to a 3-4 front could be a semantic game.
Under the guidance of second-year defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, the Falcons should be more multiple confusing opposing quarterbacks, likle Peyton Manning last season and better-schooled in Nolans philosophy, which should definitely lead to improvement.
In some ways, thats not stepping out on a limb. The Falcons ranked 24th in total defense, including 29th against the run. If they can move up in those rankings, say, five spots, it could make a huge difference.
Safety Thomas DeCoud, who earned his first berth in the Pro Bowl last season, believes the Falcons defense would be more deceptive and more effective this year.
3. The schedule is extremely difficult
Starting off with the Saints on the road is no picnic. Nor is facing the Patriots on a nationally televised home game.
Lengthy travel awaits in the form of trips to Arizona (Oct. 27) and San Francisco (Dec. 23). Seattle, a popular pick for the Super Bowl, visits Nov. 10 in a rematch of playoff combatants.
What stands out the most is the December schedule: Three of the five games come against playoff teams from last year including road tilts with the NFC champion 49ers and formidable Packers (prime-time start at usually frigid Lambeau Field).
Lastly, coming off the short week after making the cross-country trip to San Francisco on a Monday night, the Falcons finish up against Carolina in what could be a key division game. It won't be a cakewalk, by any means.
Matt Ryan: In 2012, Ryan led the NFL in completion percentage (68.6) and missed the 5,000-yard passing mark by 281 yards or 17.5 yards per game. Mark it down: The newly minted 100 million man will hit the 5,000-yard mark this season.
Tony Gonzalez: The 17-year veteran had some incredible games last season, including a 13-catch, 123-yard, one-TD effort against the Redskins (Week 5). He finished with 93 catches, 930 yards and eight touchdowns. No doubt Gonzalez could play beyond this season, if he desired.
Will his production slow down? Dont bet on it.
Defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi
The second-year player out of Troy and Central Gwinnett High impressed in the preseason with three sacks, including one instance when he recorded a sack, forced fumble, fumble recovery and touchdown all in one play.
Look for him in sub packages on passing downs. The Falcons might have finally found the situational pass-rusher that has eluded them for years.
Defensive tackle Peria Jerry
It appears that Jerry (2009 first-round pick) has finally returned to form after a significant knee injury. Last season, he had been supplanted in the rotation by Vance Walker, who signed a lucrative deal with the Raiders during the offseason.
Jerry gives Nolan the luxury of going with a three-man front, along with Corey Peters and Jonathan Babineaux to play a 3-4 with Biermann and Osi Umenyiora in outside linebacker roles.
Pass defense: In the Mike Smith era, the Falcons defense has never finished higher than 20th against the pass. Last season, Atlanta ranked 23rd. If the Falcons can crack the top 20 or, heaven forbid, the half of the league they will vastly improve.
Red zone efficiency: The Falcons scored 58.73 percent of the time inside the red zone last season, 4.58 percent above the league average. However, on goal-to-go, they were 66.67 percent, 3.8 percent below the league average. The hope is that Jackson can help them improve there.
Giveawaytakeaway ratio: The Falcons are not built to be a top-five defense in terms of total yards allowed. They are built to outscore opponents, to get the occasional stop but most of all to create turnovers.
Thats why safeties DeCoud and William Moore both ended up playing in the Pro Bowl last season their ability to cause and recover fumbles and intercept passes.
The duo helped the Falcons finish plus-13 in that category, tied for fifth in the NFL. If they do not finish that high again, they will struggle.
1. The Falcons will go 9-7 but playoff glory remains within reach
Sticking with my preseason prediction ... the Falcons have the talent and coaching staff to reach the Super Bowl and claim a Lombardi Trophy, but certain pratfalls await.
The schedule is one. So is the possibility of injuries to certain key players, such as left corner Asante Samuel, who seems increasingly injury-prone at age 32.
Starting two rookie cornerbacks (Robert Alford, Desmond Trufant) is hardly a well-worn path to a Super Bowl. The offensive line is troublesome. One wrong hit on Ryan could upend the whole deal.
As with every Super Bowl team, everything has to align in exactly the right way.
2. Jackson will average 4.5 yards per carry and set a personal single-season mark for combined rushing and receiving touchdowns
Jacksons best season was 2006 when he rushed for 1,528 yards, caught 90 passes for 806 yards and totaled 16 touchdowns (13 rushing). Dont expect him to surpass the yardage or receptions tallies, but 17 touchdowns is not impossible.
Turner rushed for 12 touchdowns, as recently as 2010, and only had one career receiving touchdown last year. Jackson averaged 4.4 yards per carry in 2011 but has not been above that mark since his rookie season, playing on many poor St. Louis teams.
With so many other weapons on offense than he had with the Rams, 4.5 is within reach.
3. Offensive tackle Jeremy Trueblood will start his share of games
Second-year right tackle Lamar Holmes just seems to have struggled too much. Plus, it seems unlikely that Atlanta brought a veteran like Trueblood in simply to sit on the bench.
The Falcons have had open competitions in the past. If Holmes has a bad game, it could open the door to Trueblood, who has started 84 career games.