2013 Atlanta Falcons: Will minor tweaks result in a Super Bowl run?

(AJC.com)

Matt Ryan was able to talk Tony Gonzalez into making one last run at a Super Bowl.

The Atlanta Falcons lost a 28-24 heartbreaker to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. Another great statistical season ended in disappointment for quarterback Matt Ryan, the NFL’s newest $100 million man.

The Atlanta Falcons offense may be even better than last year’s version with the addition of Steven Jackson and Tony Gonzalez returning. Matt Ryan passed for over 4,700 yards to go with 33 touchdowns. Ryan got rid of the playoff bugaboo last year, but with a new contract extension in place, more will be expected of him in 2013 and beyond.

Chances are good Ryan will have Julio Jones and Roddy White at his disposal for the very foreseeable future. White (92/1,351/7) and Jones (79/1,198/10) were ninth and eleventh in total receiving yardage, respectfully. Slot receiver Harry Douglass is a player who cannot be overlooked.

After hauling in a team-high 93 passes last season, the Fountain of Youth continues to serve tight end Tony Gonzalez well. The NFC Championship loss left such a bad taste in the mouth of the 17-year veteran, he was out of retirement by mid-March.

Bringing in three-time Pro Bowler Steven Jackson to replace Michael Turner will give the Falcons 29th ranked run game a boost. By all accounts, the Falcons ran Turner into the ground as Ryan developed as a passer. Jackson finished 15th in the NFL in rushing and surpassed the 10,000-yard mark.  A proven receiver out of the backfield, Jackson gives Ryan another pass-catching weapon. With Jones and White stretching the field, Jackson should be in line for his ninth consecutive 1,000 yard season.

The Falcons offensive line gave up 28 sacks last season, not bad for a unit which was being revamped on the fly. One spot open is at right guard, where as many as four players are vying for the starting job.

The Falcons secondary is the strength of a unit which finished 23rd in total defense. Replacing team sack leader John Abraham (10) with New York Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora (6) is a serious risk. Umenyiora isn’t as disruptive as he once was. Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon’s solid play, backed up by 79 tackles inched him closer to Pro Bowl status.

Safeties Thomas McCloud and William Moore became first time Pro Bowlers, but it was the play of Asante Samuel which stood out in the secondary. Samuel finished with only five interceptions, but he was allowed be the gambling corner he is known for thanks to the help behind him. Samuel was great in coverage and became the second fastest player to 50 interceptions in a career (146 games).

If teams can get to Matt Ryan early, their chances of victory improve. By the same token, he’s capable of running off 15-20 passes in a row if he finds a rhythm. Steven Jackson is going to be a different player in Atlanta, with as many touches as he had in St. Louis, but fewer carries. The defense has to get sack production from a young front seven, I’m not sure if the secondary can carry the defense for 16+ games. Not with New Orleans and some of the better passing teams on the schedule in 2013.

Expect the Falcons to battle it out with the New Orleans Saints for the NFC South crown.

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