The Falcons certainly had an exceptional season in 2012, although they did fall short of their ultimate goal. They certainly had some weaknesses on both sides of the ball that opponents were able to exploit. They also left some questions marks at starting roles with cuts this offseason. With that in mind, which players need to step up for the Falcons in 2013?
The key weakness for Atlanta's offense in 2012 was their running game. Basically, they didn't have much of one. They finished the season 29th in the league for rushing yards per game with 87.3. The Falcons acknowledged this with the decision to cut Michael Turner following the season, and the subsequent signing of Steven Jackson in free agency.
Jackson will need to step up for the Falcons, as the threat of an effective rushing game takes a lot of pressure off of Matt Ryan. If you just replace Michael Turner's stats from last season with Steven Jackson's stats in St. Louis in 2012, the net increase in rushing yards would put the Falcons at 22nd in the league instead of 29th. It's an improvement, but there are some key issues that suggest Jackson's impact in Atlanta will be more significant. First of all, Matt Ryan is inarguably a better quarterback than Sam Bradford, and the Falcons receivers are much more threatening than the St. Louis receivers. It's a little more challenging to stack the box when you know you have to try to cover Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez.
Another key to offensive success will be the performance of the offensive line in 2013. With key players Todd McClure and Tyson Clabo departed, it's time for young players along the line to step up and contribute. Mike Smith has indicated that second-year player Peter Konz is currently expected to start at center. Sam Baker will again start at left tackle, Justin Blalock will start at left guard, and Garrett Reynolds will step back into the starting right guard role that he held prior to a season-ending injury in 2012. Lamar Holmes will compete with Mike Johnson for the right tackle spot. Konz, Holmes or Johnson, and the rest of the line will need to perform at a high level to effectively protect Ryan this season.
On defense, the two most glaring weaknesses for the Falcons last season were the pass rush and a lackluster run defense. The Falcons cut John Abraham, their most productive pass rusher, and lost defensive tackle Vance Walker, very effective in 2012, to free agency. In addition, the Falcons lost a starting cornerback when they cut Dunta Robinson, and they did not re-sign cornerback Brent Grimes in free agency.
To address the pass rush issues, the Falcons signed Osi Umenyiora as a free agent, but Umenyiora can't do it all by himself. The Falcons also drafted defensive end Malliciah Goodman, and statements by Thomas Dimitroff indicate that Goodman should be prepared to start opposite Osi. Goodman will definitely have to step up in 2013 if that is the case.
The Falcons woes against the run last season are no secret. According to Pro Football Focus premium stats, only nine defensive players graded positively against the run over the course of the regular season and postseason, and of those nine, the Falcons did not retain five of those players (Dunta Robinson, Vance Walker, Mike Peterson, Chris Owens and Brent Grimes.) However, of those five, only Robinson and Walker saw a significant snap count last season.
The Falcons run defense has to improve if they want to succeed in 2013. Middle linebacker Akeem Dent seemed to settle into his role as last season progressed, and he ended up being one of the nine players with a positive grade against the run. Basically, everyone that struggled against the run last season, which was most of the defense, needs to step up in 2013 to stop the run.
The other key player who needs to step up in 2013 would be cornerback Desmond Trufant, drafted in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft to start opposite Asante Samuel. Many fans did not love Dunta Robinson's performance in coverage, but he hit like a truck and was a solid contributor as a starter. Trufant will likely be targeted a great deal, and he will need to adapt to the speed of the game and be ready to contribute immediately.
The whole team is going to have to perform at a high level in order to attain the level of success they're hoping for this season, but those are a few key areas where the team needs improvement over last year's performance, or where the Falcons lost a starter and have a young player moving into the role. Which players do you think will need to step up for the Falcons in 2013?