Preseason predictions don’t always materialize into regular-season reality, but prior to the start of the 2013 NFL season, many surmised the Atlanta Falcons would be a strong contender to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLVIII.
After posting the top record in the conference last season, the Falcons got over one hump by posting their first postseason victory during the Thomas Dimitroff-Mike Smith-Matt Ryan regime, upending the upstart Seattle Seahawks in Atlanta.
Expectations were sky-high entering this season after the Falcons lured longtime Rams running back Steven Jackson to their backfield, providing toughness and dependability to an offense that was already among the most explosive through the air. Jackson left Atlanta's Week 2 game with a thigh injury that has his status for this Sunday up in the air, a difficult loss for the Falcons and one that has thrust Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling into larger roles. Though Snelling and Rodgers filled in admirably this past Sunday, the Falcons were defeated by the Dolphins in Miami, dropping them to 1-2 out of the gate. A visit from the New England Patriots is next, on Sunday night.
At the top of the organization is a familiar face, as Falcons general manager Dimitroff was formerly the director of college scouting for the Patriots after working in a number of personnel roles prior to that. Dimitroff has been a grand-slam hire in Atlanta, starting with his decision to select Ryan with the third pick in the 2008 draft. Many wins and one huge new contract later, few are questioning whether he made the right choice.
Below is a further primer on the high-octane Falcons.
Head coach: Mike Smith (sixth season)
Offensive coordinator: Dirk Koetter
Defensive coordinator: Mike Nolan
THREE PLAYERS TO KNOW, OFFENSE
1. QB Matt Ryan. A legitimate franchise quarterback, the Falcons’ commitment to Ryan was reinforced this offseason when they extended his contract and paid him a boatload to remain as the centerpiece of their organization. He has a powerful arm, terrific accuracy, an abundance of intelligence and is a natural leader. The former Boston College Eagle has all the requisite tools to lead this team for many years to come and will put stress on any defense he faces.
2. WR Julio Jones/WR Roddy White. This two-headed monster is off to a bit of a slow start because White has been dealing with a high-ankle sprain, but any defense that lets up on this duo at all will pay in a big way. White is a ferocious route-runner with competitive catch skills and the zip to work down the field vertically as well, while Jones has track speed and big-play ability that has tormented defenses already this season. Tackling Jones is a difficult chore, and the Patriots must be ready to put an umbrella on him, as he’ll get behind a safety before a defensive coordinator can even blink.
3. TE Tony Gonzalez. An ageless wonder, Gonzalez has been the gold standard among pass-catching tight ends for a significant stretch of his career. While not the same athlete he was early on in his playing days, Gonzalez is an exceptional middle-of-the-field threat who has rare hands -- throw it his way, he’ll catch it. The Patriots must be on alert for this sure-fire Hall of Famer when Atlanta gets into the red zone; Gonzalez is lethal there.
THREE PLAYERS TO KNOW, DEFENSE
1. S William Moore/S Thomas DeCoud. It isn’t always a good thing when your safeties are among your leading tacklers, but that’s not a knock on DeCoud and Moore, a pair of physical starters that Atlanta counts on to form its defensive rearguard. Both can affect the game as run and pass defenders, with each also playing a physical brand of football that many receivers don’t like to come across. The Falcons are really beaten up in their front seven, but Moore and DeCoud quarterback the secondary.
2. CB Desmond Trufant/CB Robert Alford. Brent Grimes left Atlanta to sign with Miami this offseason, and cornerback vaulted toward the top of the Falcons’ needs (it might well have been a top need even if Grimes had stayed). So Dimitroff took a pair of cornerbacks with his first two picks in this year’s draft. The early results have included some positive plays, as Alford snagged an interception in his season debut, while Trufant has been a starter in each game as well. Former Patriot Asante Samuel rounds out the team’s top trio of cornerbacks.
3. DT Corey Peters. It’s hard to miss the big-bodied Peters in the middle of the Falcons' defensive front, as the fourth-year pro is a disruptive interior presence who helps to build the first wall of run defense. Given the numerous injuries Atlanta has dealt with already this season, they’ll need the 6-foot-3, 305-pounder to hold his ground in the middle. Thus far he’s been up to the task, with 12 tackles through three games.
OTHER NOTES: The Falcons have been decimated by injuries, as top linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is on injured reserve with the designation to return, while stud defensive end Kroy Biermann, offensive tackle Mike Johnson and fullback Bradie Ewing are among those who are out for the season. ... Starting left tackle Sam Baker joined Jackson among the key offensive contributors to miss Week 3. ... The Falcons are a tough out in their own building, winning 12 of their past 13 regular-season home contests.