NFL Team Previews: Atlanta Falcons

Since Atlanta Falcons’ head coach Mike Smith came to town in 2008, the city has been given a football winner. The Falcons have won 43 games over the last four regular seasons, they’ve been to the playoffs three times and won the NFC South once. But one thing is missing and that’s a postseason victory. Can Atlanta make 2012 the year they continue the success of the Smith era and then build on it with January success? TheSportsNotebook breaks down the Atlanta Falcons…

OFFENSE: This team’s skill position talent is fit for a Fantasy League, with Matt Ryan settled in on the second tier of quarterbacks, right below the elite of Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady. Ryan has premier targets in Roddy White and Julio Jones, who can catch the ball on possession-type routes and also stretch the field. 36-year-old tight end Tony Gonzalez still has gas in the tank, and produced 875 receiving yards last year. Michael Turner is now 30-years-old at running back, but he’s still as good as anyone at running between the tackles and making the first man miss. Then add in the fact that all this talent plays in a nice climate-controlled dome and you have the formula for a lot of points.

It’s getting the blocking to enable these playmakers to work their magic that’s going to be Smith’s challenge. The Atlanta offensive line is spotty, soft at the left tackle spot and a problem at one of the guards. The players they have that are good—veteran center Todd McClure, left guard Justin Blalock and right tackle Tyson Clabo aren’t outstanding. So you have a line with no obvious strengths and some clear weaknesses.

DEFENSE: The defense has two obvious strengths and in a passing-oriented league, it doesn’t get much better than having a potentially great front four and two outstanding corners. Atlanta needs Ray Edwards to step it up at defensive end after a disappointing ’11 season where he registered just 3.5 sacks, but Edwards is only 27-years-old and should be able to bounce back. You can pair him up with John Abraham, another fine pass rusher at the opposite end. Then Justin Babineaux can bring pressure from the interior. Even the one soft spot, tackle Corey Peters, is only 24 and can make strides forward this season. On the corners, you’ve got Brent Grimes and new acquisition Asante Samuel, each able to cover man on man.

When you have these kinds of playmakers at the key spots, it becomes much easier to fill in the other spots. Sean Witherspoon does a nice job getting pressure from his weakside linebacker post, and there’s basic competence at safety from William Moore and Thomas DeCoud. The spot it would be nice to see improvement at would be middle linebacker, where Akeem Dent is 24-years-old and still developing his ability to read, react and cover at an NFL level.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN PROJECTION: 9—I’m got some trepidations over the Falcons this year. Last year’s playoff flameout, a 24-2 loss in New York, was a big disappointment and you wonder if there comes a point where the postseason disappointments become a psychological burden in the regular season. But if you look at the talent on hand, Atlanta’s got the horses and that same disappointment can also be a motivator. I’m going Over.