After coming up just short of a Super Bowl appearance last season, the Atlanta Falcons are poised for another playoff run in 2013. The Falcons have become a perennial contender with Matt Ryan under center, but taking the next step could prove to be a challenge.
Atlanta has made the playoffs in four of the last five years, and it won its first playoff game since 2004 last season. The Falcons remain among the top contenders in a deep NFC. Reaching the status of perennial playoff contender is a significant accomplishment, but now, the Falcons are challenged with taking the next step.
Reaching the Super Bowl isn't as easy as having one or two things go right, but here are a few things which could help Atlanta get there and a few others which could lead to a disappointing season.
3 Steps To Success
1. Steven Jackson takes the offense to the next level
Atlanta didn't do much in free agency, but the Falcons did attempt to boost their running game by signing former St. Louis Ram Steven Jackson. Atlanta finished last season eighth in the NFL in offensive yards per game, but were 29th in rushing. As a team, the Falcons averaged 3.7 yards per attempt, the fourth-worst in the NFL.
Now, Jackson will attempt to revive Atlanta's ground attack. He's rushed for at least 1,000 yards in eight consecutive seasons, but his numbers declined last season as well. Jackson averaged 4.1 yards per attempt last and, there has to be some question as to how much he has left with nearly 2,400 carries on his NFL resume.
With a potent passing attack, the Falcons don't need Jackson to be an All-Pro, but they do need to be better than 29th in the league. Michael Turner averaged 3.6 yards per attempt last season, can Jackson top that?
2. Osi Umenyiora makes good on his claim
Atlanta finished near the bottom of the NFL in sacks last season, and it signed Osi Umenyiora to help solve that problem. Entering his 10th year in the NFL, Umenyiora would appear to be on the downside of his career, but that's not how he sees it.
During an appearance on the NFL Network in March, Umenyiora said he was going to win Defensive Player of the Year this season. A bold statement from the 31-year-old, especially coming off a down season. Umenyiora finished last season with six sacks, but that was in a part-time role. If he's able to excel playing an every-down role for Atlanta and even be part of the discussion for Defensive Player of the Year, the Falcons' defense could improve considerably.
3. Sean Weatherspoon has a bounce back year
After racking up 115 tackles, four sacks and eight pass deflections in 2011, Sean Weatherspoon positioned himself among the best young linebackers in the NFL. He wasn't, however, able to maintain that level of play in 2012 as his numbers dropped across the board and he missed three games due to an ankle injury.
In 2011, Pro Football Focus gave Weatherspoon a plus-19.9 overall grade, one of the highest for any outside linebacker. That grade dropped to minus-4.6 last season. Weatherspoon was a liability against the run at times, but is still just 25 years old. The Falcons aren't deep at linebacker and a productive Weatherspoon would go a long way to solving the defensive woes from a year ago.
3 Feats Toward Failure
1. Aging skill players decline
The Falcons have a talented offense, but aren't the youngest group in the league. Jackson will be 30 when the season starts, Roddy White is 31 and Tony Gonzalez is 37. All three players are coming off productive seasons, but decline can come suddenly in the NFL. Julio Jones should be able to pick up some of the slack, but the Falcons aren't the deepest team in the league.
What if Gonzalez finally begins to wear down or White isn't a 85+ reception receiver anymore? The Falcons can likely survive gradual decline, but if Gonzalez, White or Jackson take a significant step back next season, Atlanta may find it doesn't have the depth to make up the gap.
2. The defense doesn't improve
Atlanta finished the 2012 regular season with the fifth-best scoring defense in the league. An impressive result considering the Falcons finished 24th in yards allowed. A bend-but-don't-break defense, combined with 31 takeaways, allowed the Falcons to limit points despite giving up chucks of yardage.
While it may have worked last season, it's not exactly a formula to rely on. The Falcons won seven games by a touchdown or less last season. If their defense breaks a little more than it bent last season, the Falcons may find themselves fighting for a playoff berth rather than clinching home-field advantage.
If Umenyiora can jump start the pass rush and Weatherspoon and others can bounce back from down seasons, the Falcons could be a lot better defensively next season. But if not, the offense may have to be ready for a few more shootouts.
3. Atlanta struggles in the NFC South
Despite winning the division easily, the Falcons were 3-3 against the NFC South last season. New Orleans, Tampa Bay and Carolina should all be better this season and could pose an even bigger challenge for the division. All four NFC South teams should be playoff contenders this season. If Atlanta slips up, especially in the division, it may not have the margin for error it had last season.
The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and as long as the Falcons have a healthy Ryan they should be in contention. The Falcons, however, have bigger goals than just being in contention and with key players aging and Ryan due a massive contract extension, the window to win a Super Bowl may be closing.
With Umenyiora and first-round pick Desmond Trufant, the defense should be better, even if it's not elite. The offense will have to remain a potent attack, but with Ryan, Jones, White and others that isn't hard to fathom. Even with a tougher schedule the Falcons should contend for double-digit wins and the NFC South division title.
Another double-figures win season and a fifth playoff berth in six seasons would be nice, but the Falcons' season will be defined by postseason success. They failed to capitalize on home-field advantage last season and may not be afforded the same luxury this season.