There seems to be quite a bit of optimism about the Atlanta Falcons boasting a more balanced offensive attack this season. One skill-position player even told me he expects it to be "50-50" in terms of run and pass plays.
Sounds nice, but I'm not buying it.
Even if the Falcons come out running in the preseason, I won't believe in such balance until I see it during a meaningful game. I won't subscribe to it until I see a conscious effort to run the ball in the first quarter or on first down.
Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has acknowledged a renewed emphasis on the run game. But a crafty playcaller such as Koetter knows protecting quarterback Matt Ryan and allowing him to sling the ball to the likes of Julio Jones and Roddy White is what helped the Falcons get one step from the Super Bowl two years ago. It's the same type of aggressive attack I expect will allow the Falcons to rebound from last year's 4-12 implosion and get back into playoff contention -- if the defense can at least contain opposing offenses.
New offensive line coach Mike Tice put it best when I spoke with him during organized team activities.
"We're not going to be a run-first football team, by any means, with those two great receivers and that great quarterback," Tice said bluntly. "But when that man -- my buddy Dirk Koetter -- dials up the run, we better be able to run it for four yards."
I'm by no means suggesting this will be a repeat of last season, when Ryan attempted a career-high 651 passes and the Falcons averaged a mere 3.9 yards per carry on a league-low 321 rushing attempts. The Falcons played their share of games from behind, forcing Ryan into even more throwing situations, and the ground game was barely existent to begin with, particularly after Steven Jackson was slowed by a hamstring injury.
I expect Ryan to be among the top five quarterbacks in passing yards for a third consecutive season. I just think he will put up those numbers under better circumstances. I expect we'll see more of the Ryan we saw in San Francisco last season, when he carved up the 49ers, completing 37 of 48 passes for 348 yards and two scores. I also expect the Falcons to be among the league's top 10 in scoring, like they were in 2010, 2011 and 2012 (fifth, seventh and seventh, respectively). Last season, they dipped to 20th with an average of 22.1 points per game.
Of course, Ryan and the offense have to be smart and take what opposing defenses give them. It's just hard to imagine them running the ball down a team’s throat the entire game.
A lot depends on the new-look offensive line. We should get a better feel for the unit during training camp, particularly when the Falcons have their joint practices with the Tennessee Titans and the Houston Texans. But the Falcons didn't sign Jon Asamoah and draft Jake Matthews with the intent of becoming a grind-it-out team. It's about protecting Ryan and giving him adequate time to find his receivers and go deep. And his deep ball has been on point this offseason. Just ask undrafted rookie receiver Bernard Reedy, the recipient of many of those sharp throws.
Ryan was pressured on a league-high 204 of his dropbacks last season. That can't happen again. The line has to hold its own, even with the intense pressure it will face in the NFC South from the Saints, Panthers and Buccaneers.
There are other variables to consider. Will Jones return to full form after a second surgery on his right foot? Will White avoid the nagging injuries that plagued him last season? Will tight end Levine Toilolo's contribution in the red zone make Tony Gonzalez a distant memory? Will left tackle Sam Baker's left knee hold up an entire season?
If the answer to at least the first two of those questions is "yes," then I see no reason why the Falcons shouldn't have success through the air.
I'm not disregarding the contribution of the running backs in the grand scheme. Tice brought in some new running concepts from his years of expertise. I believe Jackson has one more solid year left in him. I believe rookie Devonta Freeman can have an immediate impact. And I believe Jacquizz Rodgers has great value in the screen game, which is essentially an extension of the run.
But when it comes to the Falcons' offensive success this season, I'll simply take a pass.