Previewing and predicting the Falcons

By now, you already know the Atlanta Falcons aren’t predicted to come in fourth, third or second place in the NFC South. They will win the division, according to the consensus of ESPN.com’s panel of experts.

Here’s the link to the Falcons’ preview page, and you’ll see there the panel was split in its thoughts on the Falcons. I had them finishing second and Adam Schefter ranked Atlanta third, but that wasn’t enough to pull the Falcons out of the top spot because every other panelist had them finishing first.

Here’s what I wrote about the Falcons:

Five things you need to know about the Falcons:

1. An all-new look: Although the Falcons have had four straight winning seasons, they are kind of starting over on offense and defense. They've got new coordinators in Dirk Koetter (offense) and Mike Nolan (defense), and it's clear there is a lot of pressure on the Falcons to win a playoff game for the first time since coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan arrived in town. With players such as Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers, Ryan has plenty of weapons. It's Koetter's job to figure out how to get more explosive plays out of this offense than predecessor Mike Mularkey. It's a similar story on defense, where Nolan inherits quite a bit of individual talent, but he needs this unit to establish a more aggressive identity than it had under Brian VanGorder.

2. The under-300 club: The Falcons repeatedly have said they want to limit Turner's carries and keep him fresh throughout the season. But that doesn't mean the Falcons suddenly will abandon the running game or Turner. You can bet Turner isn't going to get anywhere close to the 376 carries he had in 2008, but I still see him getting somewhere between 230 and 250 carries. The Falcons might throw the ball a little more often than in the past. But the difference will be made up by Rodgers. He didn't play a lot as a rookie, but the Falcons have big plans for him this season. He can do some things in the passing game that Turner can't, but Rodgers also is going to get some runs between the tackles.

3. It's all on the line: A lot of people talk about the pressure on Ryan and Smith. But I think the real pressure is on the offensive line. That unit was perhaps the most disappointing group last season. Ryan didn't throw the deep ball as much as the Falcons wanted, almost entirely because the offensive line couldn't protect him long enough. Other than bringing in offensive line coach Pat Hill and drafting Peter Konz, who might or might not start right away, the Falcons didn't have much turnover on the offensive line. The key is left tackle Sam Baker. He lost his starting job last season, but the Falcons say Baker was limited by injuries and is healthy now.

4. Help wanted: For far too long, Atlanta's pass rush has been defensive end John Abraham and not much else. That has to change, because Abraham is 34, and even if he has another good season, the Falcons need to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Defensive players have indicated they expect to blitz a lot more in Nolan's scheme. Linebackers Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas have enough quickness to be effective pass-rushers, and some members of the secondary will be asked to blitz at times. But the real key will be defensive end Ray Edwards. He didn't produce much after signing as a free agent last year. But as with Baker, the Falcons say Edwards wasn't healthy last season and is now.

5. What's left in the tank? After the Falcons traded for Asante Samuel, there was a report that Philadelphia coach Andy Reid parted with the veteran cornerback because he sensed a steep decline. Samuel has taken exception to that, and the Falcons wouldn't have made the move if their personnel people sensed a serious problem. The Falcons aren't looking for Samuel to be the player he was five years ago. They just want him to be a role player as another strong cover corner to go with Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson.