Head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan got their first playoff wins together and the Falcons have compiled 36 wins over the past three seasons. Ryan has helped the Falcons become a perennial favorite to win the NFC South, something the franchise has accomplished twice in the last three years. The one more commonly known as "Matty Ice" was entering a contract season and the Falcons took care of their prized QB with a five-year extension in July.
Ryan's deal is reportedly worth $103.75 million, with the Boston College product receiving $59 million guaranteed and scheduled to make $63 million over the first three years of the deal. A two-time Pro Bowl selection, Ryan is coming off his best statistical season, notching career bests in touchdowns (32), passing yards (4,719) and completion percentage (68.6) in 2012.
"My goal, and my mindset has been the same since 2008," Ryan said. "It's about winning a championship. And it's about getting rings. I'm just happy I'm gonna have the opportunity to do that here."
The future is bright for Ryan and the Falcons as they prepare for another season with the usual suspects, especially on offense. Roddy White and Julio Jones are arguably the best wide receiver tandem in the league and veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez is back for what is expected to be his last season. Gonzalez knows what's at stake with Atlanta and wanted to be a part of something special.
Gonzalez took to Twitter to voice his pleasure: "The lure of being on such a great team and organization, along with unbelievable fan support was too good to pass up."
With running back and touchdown machine Michael Turner no longer with the Falcons, the team needed to bolster that area and added veteran Steven Jackson in the offseason. Jackson cemented his legacy with the St. Louis Rams and is hoping to ignite Atlanta's stagnant ground attack, which was 29th in rushing yards a year ago with 87.3 ypg. Much like Gonzalez, Jackson is no spring chicken and knows his time is coming up. He has been used in all facets during the preseason and will give defenses trouble in the passing game.
"It reminds me of my younger years when I was used more as a receiver out of the backfield," said Jackson, who is tremendous upgrade from Turner. "It allows me to use more tools in the shed that I have and possess. It allows me to work on things I haven't done in a number of years."
The defense did some tinkering, too, and no longer has key contributors in defensive end John Abraham and defensive backs Brent Grimes, Chris Hope and Dunta Robinson. So the Falcons brought in seasoned vet Osi Umenyiora to fill Abraham's spot and drafted cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. Atlanta added a few more defenders in the draft and needed reinforcements for how shaky Mike Nolan's unit played in 2012, finishing 21st in rushing yards allowed (123.2), 23rd in pass defense (242.4) and 24th in yards allowed (365.6). The Falcons, though, were fifth in points allowed (18.7) and fifth with 20 interceptions.
Atlanta was also 28th in sacks last season with 29.0 and is hoping the addition of Umenyiora will bolster that area. Umenyiora was certainly happy to join the reigning NFC South champions.
"This team is the most talented team I've seen in my life, probably," Umenyiora said. "But it's not going to be about coaching. It's going to be about what the players are able to do, and you need that veteran leadership. You need guys who have been in those games and can tell you about exactly what happened."
2012 RECORD: 13-3 (1st, NFC South)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2012 (lost to San Francisco in NFC Championship Game)
HEAD COACH (RECORD): Mike Smith (56-24, sixth season)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Dirk Koetter (second season)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mike Nolan (second season)
KEY ADDITIONS: RB Steven Jackson (from Rams), DE Osi Umenyiora (from Giants), CB Desmond Trufant (draft), CB Robert Alford (draft), DE Malliciah Goodman (draft)
KEY DEPARTURES: DE John Abraham (released), RB Michael Turner (released), CB Brent Grimes, S Chris Hope, CB Dunta Robinson (released), QB Luke McCown, C Todd McClure
QB: With a new contract in tow, Ryan won't have to worry about financial stability and can focus on getting the Falcons over the hump. Ryan (4,719 yards, 32 TD, 14 INT) took every snap last season and rightfully so. His 68.6 completion percentage was a career high and so were his 141 rushing yards. Don't expect Koetter to have many plays where Ryan scrambles out of the backfield, but fans should anticipate Jackson opening up the passing game some more. Ryan already has an outstanding supporting cast and there's no reason why the Falcons shouldn't compete for a Super Bowl title this season. The New Orleans Saints could pose as a major threat now that head coach Sean Payton is back after his league mandated one-year suspension. Also, Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers appear to be on the rise. But for now, the NFC South belongs to Ryan and the Falcons. If they can get the ground attack going, the passing game could be even more dangerous.
Backup duties are in the hands of East Carolina product Dominique Davis, obviously a sharp dropoff from Ryan.
RB: Turner will no longer be wearing an Atlanta uniform and the team will miss the pounding effect he had on defenses. Turner, though, came up small in the playoffs after racking up 10 rushing scores in the regular season. Hoping to cure those woes is Jackson. Jackson (1,042 yards, 4 TD) has eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark in each of his last eight seasons, but hasn't rushed for more than six TDs over the past four. Perhaps a new city and scheme can revive the veteran's legs as well as his pass-catching ability. A life span for an NFL running back isn't long and Jackson has defied the odds.
With Jackson now incorporated in the offense, Koetter has so many options to go with, including backup running back Jacquizz Rodgers, who is entering his third season. Rodgers (362 yards, TD) is a shifty back with speed and quickness and is also used out of the backfield. A mismatch for most defenders, Rodgers should see an increased role in 2013.
WR: How can an offense go wrong with White and Jones? White (1,351 yards, 7 TD) has been a picture of durability in his career, having not missed a game in 128 chances. White has racked up 1,000 or more yards in each of the past six seasons and has caught seven or more TD passes in five straight seasons. He caught 92 passes in 2012, his lowest total since 85 in 2009. White, though, sustained an ankle injury in the preseason, but should be ready to go in Week 1.
Jones (1,198 yards, 10 TD) is a perfect compliment to White and has a slight edge talent-wise between the two. Jones is one of the fastest receivers in the game and was worth moving up the draft board to get. The Falcons did receive a scare with Jones in training camp and the wideout has been dealing with tightness in his hamstrings. Had the injury occurred in the regular season, Jones may have missed a game or two. For now the Falcons will err on the side of caution and gradually get Jones ready for the season opener. Not known for falling victim to injuries, a healthy Jones is what the Falcons need to achieve success.
Harry Douglas (396 yards, TD), Jackson and Rodgers will be at Ryan's passing disposal as well.
TE: Gonzalez had to be lured from the idea of retirement in the offseason. He came back because he knew the potential of this offense and that the Falcons are all about winning. Gonzalez (930 yards, 8 TD) can still produce in the twilight of his career thanks to a strict workout regimen and will once again be one of Ryan's top targets. Gonzalez had a team-high 93 receptions in 2012, one more than White, and the longtime Kansas City Chief has accumulated at least six TD catches in each of the previous five seasons. The chiseled Gonzalez, who is back for a 17th NFL season and a 13-time Pro Bowler, missed part of training camp to deal with family commitments and has the confidence in Koetter, who said there is no concern on Gonzalez's conditioning for missing time. Gonzalez is slated to play on Aug. 24 at Tennessee and holds NFL records at his position for receptions (1,242), receiving yards (14,268), and touchdown catches (103).
Levine Toilolo was drafted in April and has a great mind to pick in Gonzalez.
OL: Now that the Falcons have invested a boat load of cash in Ryan, the offensive line has an even bigger task in protecting the face of the franchise.
Ryan was sacked a career high 28 times last season and has been sacked at least 23 times in each of the past three years. For how many times Ryan was put on his back, he managed to have a career year. Right tackle Tyson Clabo was released and Lamar Holmes is expected to take over. Holmes was drafted in the third round last year and the Falcons did not select an offensive lineman in April.
Young lineman Peter Konz will move from right guard to center after veteran Todd McClure retired, while Justin Blalock and Garrett Reynolds will start at left and right guard, respectively. Sam Baker is penciled in at left tackle. There are still positions to be won across the line and the Falcons hope they can sort through the uncertainty during training camp.
Losing tackle Mike Johnson to a season-ending ankle injury doesn't help and he was supposed to compete for a starting job. Undrafted rookie Ryan Schraeder is expected to compete at right tackle and hopes to impress offensive line coach Pat Hill.
"We're getting better working together as a group, but we keep shifting guys in and out moving guys to different positions," Hill said. "I think that's going to help us down the road."
DL: The Falcons lost sack master Abraham this offseason due to financial issues and hope the addition of Umenyiora will soften the blow. Abraham is getting up in age, but yet again so is Umenyiora (42 tackles, 6 sacks). Umenyiora's sack total was down last season and he had nine in 2011 and 12 the year before. He said this is the most talented team he's ever been on and even won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants.
Atlanta struggled to stop opposing ground attacks and was 21st in rushing yards allowed (123.2) and 24th in total yards allowed (365.6). Starting left DE Kroy Biermann (52 tackles, 4 sacks) was second behind Abraham's 10 sacks and has an increased role in 2013.
Malliciah Goodman and Stansly Maponga were drafted in April to battle at the end spots, while Jonathan Babineaux (31 tackles, 3 1/2 sacks) will hold down his left defensive tackle spot. Babineaux is Atlanta's best interior lineman and must produce at that spot. Collapsing the pocket and applying pressure up front is what Atlanta needs to keep its defense off the field.
Peria Jerry (14 tackles) and Corey Peters (15 tackles) are the Falcons' options at right defensive tackle. As previously stated, the front line of this unit must produce and will struggle at times against division foes Tampa Bay, Carolina and New Orleans.
LB: With a few standouts gone in the secondary, the Falcons' linebacking core is arguably the best on defense. The Falcons struggled in coverage in the playoffs and second-leading tackler Sean Weatherspoon (96 tackles, 3 sacks) suffered a dislocated finger on his left hand during training camp. That shouldn't bother Atlanta's signal caller on defense and he has proven his toughness and grit already. Weatherspoon drilled Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III last season and gave him a concussion. The hard-hitting Weatherspoon is Nolan's most athletic player on that side of the football and it wouldn't be a surprise if the defensive coordinator calls his number on blitz packages more often this season.
Stephen Nicholas (97 tackles, 2 sacks) will start opposite of Weatherspoon on the left side, while Akeem Dent (64 tackles) is slated to run the middle. The main area of concern for Atlanta's linebackers is depth. And that will be a problem in the NFC South.
DB: The Falcons were awful in pass defense last season, finishing 23rd in the league (242.4). It could get worse with Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson out of the mix and possible rookies in Desmond Trufant or Robert Alford earning a starting job. Trufant will probably win the job, but Alford pushing veteran defensive back Asante Samuel (36 tackles, 5 INT) isn't likely.
Samuel, though, will need help from safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore now that a youth movement is forming in the secondary. DeCoud (76 tackles, 6 INT) led the Falcons in interceptions last season and was re-signed last March. Moore (75 tackles, 4 INT) inked a new five-year deal this past season and earned his first career Pro Bowl selection in 2012. Moore is expected to have an even bigger season under Nolan, who introduced the defense to a new scheme.
"Last year, I won't say we were freelancing, but last year at times we were doing things and we knew where we were going, but we didn't know why we were doing it," Moore said. "But now, we totally understand the disguise and the total package as far as moving around. That comes with another year under our belt on this defense. You've got to remember that was only one year under that defense."
SPECIAL TEAMS: The always-reliable Matt Bryant will handle kicking duties and made 33 of his 38 attempts last season. Bryant, who nailed a 49-yard game- winning field goal with 13 seconds remaining in the NFC Divisional Playoff game versus Seattle, was 4-for-4 from 50-plus yards out and made all 44 of his PAT attempts, but will not be kicking off.
That job belongs to punter Matt Bosher, who averaged 47.1 yards per punt on 60 tries last season.
Rodgers returned 23 kicks for 592 yards (25.7) and has the job again. Defensive back Dominique Franks had 21 punt returns for 163 yards (7.8). Both return men will be relied on to get Ryan and the offense in key field position, but Ryan has proven that no matter where the offense starts he's not concerned. Bosher will hold and Josh Harris is slated to be the long snapper.
COACHING: The Falcons have a unique and talented trio of coaches in Smith, Koetter and Nolan. Koetter is in charge of the offense and his job couldn't get any better with what he has to work with. Besides a lowly run game from a year ago, Ryan and the aerial attack is arguably the best in the NFC, and that includes Green Bay, Washington and San Francisco. Perhaps the addition of Jackson is what the Falcons need to be more balanced. He'll also be used out of the backfield, too.
"Well, this team was pretty dynamic when it came to throwing screens, taking advantage of the defense being overly aggressive. We have a number of playmakers on this team, wherever I can fit in on the package, whether it's being a decoy or catching the screen making something happen down the field. I just have to learn every position."
Nolan's defense got by thanks to a high-powered offense and needs tinkering in a few areas. The secondary and pass rush are a major concern and could hinder Atlanta from going deep into the playoffs. Pat Hill has a tough job adjusting to some new faces across the offensive line and Terry Robiskie has the easiest as wide receivers coach. Defensive backs coach Tim Lewis and defensive line coach Ray Hamilton don't have it so easy, however.
THE SKINNY: Whether the Falcons return to the NFC Championship Game relies solely on their defense. The offensive line underwent some changes, but that shouldn't stop Ryan from connecting with his dream duo at wide receiver and future Hall of Famer Gonzalez. The addition of Jackson in the backfield can only make the Falcons better and they must take advantage in the next few seasons because the running back is on the decline. It won't be easy capturing another NFC South title with other members of the division on the rise.