When you hear the team name Atlanta Falcons, you think of the words January and failure. It’s a constant struggle as a die-hard Falcons fan for eleven years to see a team’s great talent passed over by simply not getting it done in the post season. It’s very understandable and it can’t be justified how poorly the Falcons have played in the playoffs in the past two years. What can be justified is how the Falcons starting 8-0 hasn’t been getting the respect or publicity that it deserves. We all know if it was the Patriots or the Packers were at 8-0 right now that most analysts would already have them in the Super Bowl as a lock, which is understandable to an extent. Now this is rare that I talk about one team, but it seems necessary and how Atlanta is misguided. I’m not going to go on a biased rant, because I’m aware of the failures and flaws that have been exposed over the years.

I saw the failure last year at Metlife Stadium with my very own eyes spending 270 dollars to see my favorite team in any sport score 2 points in a humiliating defeat to the Giants. I’ve gone through the pain of watching them let me down, even though I’m fortunate to see them play consistently good in the regular season compared to some other fans. Nevertheless what I’m going to explain is how the 2012 Falcons are for real and need to be given more credit for the adjustments they have made from the past few years.

Also I’ll be explaining how the references to the past two years need to be stopped as your main argument if you are going to argue Atlanta’s legitimacy in 2012. You can use it as a side note, but if you are going to use the past playoff struggles as your first complaint about Atlanta then that’s ridiculous.  They have had two primetime games this year along with popular afternoon games against the Eagles and Redskins. They’ve been on television enough for you to formulate a proper opinion on the 2012 Falcons if you watch football on a consistent basis. I’ll break it all down here and explain why the Falcons need to be considered as a legitimate contender to win the Super Bowl.

Arthur Blank and Mike Smith willing to change

Regardless of any sport, you’ll always have managers or owners that are stubborn to make changes. Let’s not forget that the Falcons were going on four winning seasons and still playing well for the most part in the regular season. Eventually the breaking point was hit after the loss to the Giants, but they went from a different perspective. Instead of spending millions of dollars in free agency on players like Mario Williams or finding a replacement for Michael Turner, they looked into every aspect of the franchise. The talent has been clearly there but the personnel clearly were not fitting. Mike Mularkey was the offensive coordinator since 2008 but was becoming a cancer to the team with his predictable play calling. Mularkey’s success was from run first offenses like the Steelers.. It was clear that his run first system wasn’t going to work anymore with a declining Michael Turner and a passing offense with arguably the best receiver to tight end combination in the league.

It was such a bad fit that even the players spoke out. Roddy White said at one point, the deep ball isn’t even part of the play book which was mostly a shot at Mularkey even though Matt Ryan did struggle with the deep ball last year. Julio Jones said the most notable thing about the game plan in 2011 was that he just ran a deep route most of the time and not much else. They pretty much gave up the entire 2012 draft for one player and you aren’t going to use him to his potential? It was things like that made me really let down by the 2011 season after a 13-3 season in 2010. Mularkey deserves his credit with how good the running game was from 2008 to 2010 with Michael Turner and Jason Snelling improving year by year. His time was up last year and the change to Dirk Koetter has been brilliant. Koetter is far more unpredictable and loosened up the playbook for the entire offense to be aggressive. Matt Ryan has been completing deep passes and is overall completing 68% of his passes this year, Jacquizz Rodgers has been used more, and Julio Jones is being used in just about every way from slants, screen passes, deep routes like he should have been doing from the beginning. Atlanta is now averaging 27.5 points a game this year and finally developing into one of the most feared offenses in the league. Ryan has made strides with adding muscle over the off-season, but it’s been clear how much of an impact Koetter has made. Kentucky has already taken notice and has showed interested in hiring him for next season.

The other change was at defensive coordinator with Mike Nolan taking over. I’ve always felt that Altanta’s defense was underappreciated considering they were always around the top ten in fewest points allowed every year. They held their own and made timely plays but it never seemed to fully achieve its potential. The soft zone defense that Brian Van Gorder loved to play was starting to frustrate fans and made the defense struggle against elite passing teams. Drew Brees had a field day against them on Monday Night in Week 16 and Atlanta was consistently in the 20’s when it came to pass defense. The pass rush was also average at best with John Abraham always doing his best to carry the load. Van Gorder’s lack of aggressiveness with blitz calls and predictable soft zone coverage made the defense known as “bend but don’t break”. After four years of dealing with, it was time for a change. Mike Nolan is known for his aggressive play calling and allowing his players especially in the secondary to freelance. Instead of keeping players in exact areas, he’s having cornerbacks blitzing, defensive lineman rotating around the line, and creating several matchups to confuse opposing offenses. The most infamous one that people are noticing is how the Falcons bring a safety to blitz like William Moore, then having athletic defensive end Kroy Biermann run back as a safety to totally throw off the quarterback. It’s very risky but so far it hasn’t led to any major plays and a few sacks including one against Peyton Manning in the 4th quarter on a critical 3rd down. Its things like that make Mike Nolan a genius and have really turned the Falcons defense around into being more of a force something that I always thought they had the potential to do. It always seemed like so many things were restricted then players were forgetting to rotate in the constant dreaded zone scheme. Of course players have stepped up and broke out, which will be mentioned below but Nolan deserves so much credit. As Thomas DeCoud said a few days ago, he mentions how it seemed like he was moving robotic at times when in coverage in the zone scheme. Now he’s able to show off his athletic abilities along with William Moore. Sometimes you just have to allow players to play rather than constantly scheme.

With Nolan and Koetter in as coordinators, it has made the Falcons two things that they were seriously lacking last year, which are unpredictability and aggressiveness. The team was just set on beating you with fundamentals and conservative play, yet eventually it caught up to them when playing against the best teams in the league. When you don’t have a great pass rush, you’ll see top quarterbacks have time in the pocket to find their great wide receivers. Aaron Rodgers did that in the playoffs in 2010 and Eli Manning did it in 2011 to a lesser extent but he did make some big plays that absolutely shredded the secondary. As for the offense, I’ll give Mularkey some grief about not being able to work with a great offensive line in 2011. It was very average last year and the Giants defensive line manhandled them. That being said, you still have so many weapons and there is no excuse for two points against a team with a secondary that was getting shredded all season. When you look at the biggest change this season for the Falcons, it’s clear that the coordinators have made the biggest impact and implemented change for the better.

Breaking Out

I’m not going to talk about the offense because people get the idea by now. Everyone knows that Atlanta’s offense is close to unstoppable and nobody is really going to argue that. This column is meant to enlighten people on how Atlanta has improved from the perception of not having a good enough defense or personnel. I’ve explained the personnel so now it’s about defensive players breaking out. The common perception from fans was that Atlanta’s defense wasn’t good enough that it was just John Abraham’s pass rush and Brent Grimes being a shut down corner. People that really knew football realized that Sean Weatherspoon is a star in the making but other than that, the defense was just too average especially with free agent busts like Ray Edwards and Dunta Robinson (he’s stepped up this year and played well after the first two lackluster seasons).  The defense has had players finally playing up to their potential and making impact plays constantly. The young safety combo of Thomas DeCoud and William Moore has been outstanding this year. People are still to catch on to Moore’s hard hitting and DeCoud being a ball hawk. After being benched at one point last year, DeCoud is gaining serious Pro Bowl consideration with four interceptions and six pass defensed. With Dunta Robinson playing much better this season and Asante Samuel showing no signs of declining, Atlanta’s secondary has been playing consistently well without the best corner on the team in Brent Grimes (still annoyed by the loss, arguably one of my top three favorite Falcons).  For the first time in a very long time, Atlanta’s pass defense is in the top 15 in the league and as usual forcing turnovers with ten interceptions that is tied for 4th in the league.

Another breakout player has to be Stephen Nicholas, who is finally healthy and getting more opportunities. He’s been anonymous for long stretches in his career but with a bigger role, he’s been flying around making tackles in the backfield and making more of an impact. He’s made Thomas Dimitroff look wise for not paying a huge contract to Curtis Lofton to stay with the Falcons. Sean Weatherspoon was already being known as a star across the league and has been playing up to expectations. Of course not everything can be perfect defensively unless you’re a Chicago Bears fan. Atlanta’s pass rush is still too inconsistent and seems to struggle if John Abraham isn’t around or if the blitz isn’t coming. Jonathan Babineaux has been rejuvenated this year after struggling with injuries in 2011, which has helped but the pass rush still isn’t consistent enough which has been a common theme since 2004-2005 when the team last won a playoff game. One new thing that hasn’t happened in a few years is that the run defense has struggled more than expected. It has gotten better over the past two weeks, but you can say Atlanta has missed Lofton in that aspect. Still this is a passing league and Lofton’s coverage was pitiful whether it was man or zone. The defense is far from being in the top five but they’ve put the NFL on notice frustrating the likes of Peyton Manning and Phillip Rivers this season. The play of Moore, DeCoud, Nicholas, and Babineaux has made a major difference because any defense needs players to step up when the usually consistent players may have an off game or two. Other than Abraham, Samuel, and Weatherspoon the defense didn’t have any players as sure bets to be consistent all year after Brent Grimes was injured. The four players that I’ve mentioned have changed that and they are one of the major reasons on why the defense is only allowing 17.9 points a game, which is ranked 5th in the league.

A Reminder To Critics

This doesn’t apply to 2010 because nobody can defend losing that badly as a number one seed. Even though they weren’t the favorite to win the Super Bowl for the Falcons to get blown out of their own building against the Packers in the divisional round was ridiculous. On the other hand, it still makes me shake my head on why people bring up 2011 as a season that the Falcons were actually a legitimate threat. They were just a good team at best in 2011 that really underachieved losing to most of their top competition like the Texans, Packers, and Saints (twice). The best win they had would probably be on the road against Detroit. They were just an underachieving team that couldn’t beat any legitimate contenders in regular season that passed on to the post season. They had a major opportunity to make an impact against the Saints on Week 16 to prove that they could possibly be the dark horse in the NFC but instead the game was over by the early 4th quarter and the Saints ran up the score on them. You could bring up 2010 on complete disappointments for the Falcons, but in 2011 they were simply not good enough. The offensive line was below average through out the season, Michael Turner was starting to decline, Julio Jones couldn’t stay healthy, and the defense was once again steady but couldn’t keep up with great offenses. With the way they lost to the Giants, I can understand why people want to say how much it was a major let down for the Falcons but they weren’t favored going into that game and certainly didn’t prove anything to be on the level of the 2010 team or now. Matt Ryan is still 0-3 in the playoffs and that will stay there for a few months, but other than 2010 both teams weren’t considered to be teams that could challenge for a Super Bowl. 2008 was his rookie year and it was considered the most shocking surprise ever in Falcons franchise that they won 11 games after being projected by many to win at most 3 or 4 games. You could bring up the playoffs all you want when it comes to disputing the Falcons, but other than 2010 they weren’t going to win the Super Bowl.

Those are three major points that I wanted to point out. Don’t consider this as a rant from a fan, but consider it as just enlightening you about the only undefeated team in the NFL and how things changed. I’m sure your team has been misguided in someway by too many people over the past few years, but your team isn’t undefeated right now. I’m not saying the Falcons will win the Super Bowl and go 19-0 altogether. I’ve always been a realist and my expectations this year was to win one playoff game. If the Falcons still manage to win a playoff game in the divisional round but lose in the NFC championship, it will still be a successful season for me. The NFC has never been this stacked with great teams in my 11 years of being a football fan. The days of seeing NFC teams make the playoffs at 8-8 or 9-7 are long gone. With teams like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Green Bay the NFC will be a war zone to get into the Super Bowl.

Another thing with the Falcons is that they are far from perfect all around. I’ve been preaching the improvements but they still lack a few essential things in the playoffs which could come back to cost them. The old saying is how football is won in trenches. With an average offensive line and a defensive line that is inconsistent, the Falcons could really struggle against the 49ers or the Giants once again when it comes to dealing with an elite pass rush and a great offensive line. Both sides of line on Atlanta aren’t on the level of the teams I’ve mentioned above, which does concern me. The running game has been mostly below average this year although Michael Turner can still show at times that he still has something left in the tank. Every team has their flaws, which is why I don’t see Atlanta going undefeated. The point of this column is to give a team that deserves respect and publicity for their improving. Ownership deserves credit for having the guts to get rid of both coordinators despite four straight winning seasons. They may have played the worst combined winning percentage of opponents so far this season, but to start the season 8-0 is still impressive however you look at it.  Since some of you may be curious, there are only three games that I’m worried about that can ruin the undefeated season. The road games against New Orleans and Tampa Bay have upset alert written all over it. New Orleans and Tampa Bay are starting to gain momentum with their respective high-powered offense. The other game is obviously the Giants because they are the champs and a lock to make to the playoffs again this year. A few of you may be wondering why am I not picking Detroit. They are very overrated to me and too undisciplined to beat a Falcons team that will be very focused on a primetime Saturday night game in Week 16 to clinch either a first round bye or home field advantage most likely.

This is rare and it’ll probably the only solo column related to just one football team. I may do a few more solo football columns other than Allen & The Ace every Wednesday. I’m planning a comedy column at the end of the year known as “The All Knucklehead Team Of The Year”. I’m going to have to do some research and it may be tough to form an offensive line but I’ll do my best to make a team out of the biggest idiots from this season. If you want a spoiler, DeAngelo Hall and Antonio Cromartie will be forming the most dangerous cornerback duo in history of any team. What I mean by dangerous is dangerous to your IQ on how idiotic they are when they open their mouth. Other than that, I’m not sure what other NFL related stuff to do other than Allen & The Ace so keep reading that. If the Falcons manage to go undefeated, or win the Super Bowl or even make the Super Bowl, I’ll probably write a column about it. Hopefully for the haters out there, you start to believe in Atlanta more that this team has changed. If you are a Falcons fan or believer, then you got the idea already or even more convinced. That’s the beauty of football, so many different opinions and debates, which makes it great. You just have to ignore the biased or clueless idiots. I wish all of you a great weekend and thanks for reading. Feel free to comment or argue below, I’m all for hearing your reasons if you think Atlanta is a legitimate contender or you still aren’t convinced. Just provide some reasoning and valid backup please! 

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