FLOWERY BRANCH, GA. -- There is no doubt the Atlanta Falcons have gotten tougher this season just based on the bigger bodies along the offensive and defensive lines and the nastier attitudes players have brought to training camp.
But will that translate to a return trip to the postseason in 2014?
The Falcons still have some questions to answer, some wrinkles to iron out after last season's 4-12 finish. If all goes as planned, Matt Ryan will play like one of the top-tier quarterbacks in the league because he won't have to throw under such duress and he'll have his top threat back in Julio Jones. If all goes as planned, the running backs, led by Steven Jackson and rookie Devonta Freeman, will help give the Falcons much-needed offensive balance.
If all goes as planned, newly added defensive linemen Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson will help shut down the run, forcing opponents to be one-dimensional and allowing defensive coordinator Mike Nolan to find creative ways to get pressure on quarterbacks and create turnovers.
And if all goes as planned, Devin Hester will prove he's still the greatest return man in the game and will help the Falcons win a few games simply on his own dynamic talent.
We'll see how it all unfolds.
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
1. Jones' return: You can't overstate how much Jones means to this offense. The Falcons sorely missed his big-play ability last season as opposing defenses had it easy. With Jones back and looking fully healthy coming off a second foot surgery, the Falcons have their explosion back. Jones put on 10 pounds of muscle and still has his breakaway speed. Where he really might thrive more than ever is the red zone, given that Ryan no longer has Tony Gonzalez as his security blanket. Also expect Jones to draw his share of defensive holding penalties against outmatched cornerbacks.
2. Jake Matthews' arrival: The rookie first-round pick brings more stability to what was a pathetic offensive line last season. Throughout training camp, the right tackle has been like a brick wall in pass protection and has been equally impressive as a run blocker. There are still questions about how the line will fare as a whole. But there's no doubt Matthews has perennial Pro Bowler written all over him. With veteran right guard Jon Asamoah next to Matthews, the right side of the line should be the least of the Falcons' concerns.
3. No-nonsense coaches: Offensive line coach Mike Tice and defensive line coach Bryan Cox are new to the staff -- and they don't take crap from anyone. Some players need a kick in the butt rather than positive reinforcement, and Tice and Cox have no issue raising their voices. The players seem to respect them both. The offensive linemen have taken well to Tice tweaking their techniques. Maybe the defensive linemen aren't so enthused about Cox making them do up-downs after mistakes, but it's only going to make them more mentally focused.
THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM
1. Although no one should doubt Nolan's unique ability to be creative with his packages, the simple fact is the Falcons don't have a dominant pass-rusher. Sure, Jonathan Massaquoi has a lot of promise and veteran Osi Umenyiora slimmed down and seems to have a good year left in his body, but there's not a guy who strikes fear in opposing offensive tackles. With Drew Brees and Cam Newton in the division and Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco also on the schedule, pressure will be imperative.
2. There continues to be a concern at inside linebacker. Paul Worrilow should be fine and will have a place in the lineup for a lot of years to come. But Joplo Bartu, currently alongside Worrilow in the 3-4 setup and in the nickel defense, has some strides to make. Bartu has had a good training camp and can cover tight ends with no issues. But he's still learning on the fly, coming from outside linebacker last year. The Falcons have a lot of faith in rookie Prince Shembo, but he's also transitioning from outside to inside and will have a learning curve. There's a lack of depth at the position, too, with Sean Weatherspoon (Achilles) and rookie Marquis Spruill (ACL) out for the season.
3. Injuries took a toll on the Falcons last season with players such as Jones, Jackson, Weatherspoon, Roddy White and Kroy Biermann all either being shelved for the season or at least missing games. The injury bug has again bit the Falcons in training camp with three players (safety Dwight Lowery, linebacker Pat Angerer and offensive tackle Terren Jones) suffering concussions, two players (Gabe Carimi and Tim Dobbins) suffering ankle injuries, and one player (Spruill) tearing an ACL. The Falcons can't have a rash of major injuries this season. If they do, at least they'll have better depth than a year ago.
Although 6-foot-3-inch, 302-pound center Joe Hawley was pushed around a little bit in the preseason opener against Miami, the Falcons can live with that for a couple of plays a game because Hawley brings so much toughness and is so quick and athletic when it comes to pulling.
Some folks wondered about White's health because he seems a little hobbled and continues to wear a light brace on his left knee. But White showed no ill-effects against the Dolphins and looked like the Roddy White of old.
No one is panicking over Hester fumbling the ball in his first exhibition. The defender got a good hit on him. Hester, historically, has been secure with the ball on returns.
Safety Kemal Ishmael continues to impress the Falcons, specifically with his tackling. If Lowery's concussion issues resurface, Ishmael should be more than capable to handle a starting role next to strong safety William Moore.
Explosive running back Antone Smith deserves more touches. Enough said.