With the Bengals kicking off their preseason against the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday, we took a few minutes to chat with David Choate, site manager with the Falcoholic -- SB Nation's Atlanta Falcons website. You can read my responses to questions at the Falcoholic.
Matt Ryan signed a huge contract over the offseason. Do you think there's more pressure on Ryan now with that deal?
Absolutely. Even those of us who have defended Matt Ryan against bogus charges like "he can't win the big game" need to see him win a number of big games from here on out to justify that contract.
Ryan's a gifted quarterback surrounded by weapons, and he's absolutely the key to the success of this Falcons team. They had to pay him like a top quarterback and he's likely to produce at that level, but given the scrutiny he was already subject to, the pressure is going to increase. It's Super Bowl or bust for Matt Ryan over the next few years.
The Falcons were so close to beating the 49ers in the NFC Championship game, taking a 17-0 lead. Then the 49ers had a monster second-half running the football. Do you think this year's Falcons is a stronger team that would have prevented the 49ers comeback last year?
I don't know if the Falcons this year are stronger than 2012's squads, but they've addressed the major weaknesses that allowed that comeback to happen. That might be good enough.
The two main reasons the 49ers were able to roar back were because of the defense and the lack of a running game. By adding Steven Jackson, the Falcons have unquestionably added talent to the position and given themselves a back who should have more juice in his legs than Michael Turner. That alone will help them hold on to significant leads in a way they could not in 2012.
On the defensive side, the Falcons are cross-training players at different positions where they may be able to paper over weaknesses, and they spent the bulk of their draft capital upgrading on Dunta Robinson and adding pieces to the pass rush. With Mike Nolan in the fold, this should be a good, opportunistic defense again, but one that can bring the heat off the edges and stop the run better. You shouldn't see 17-point leads evaporate with such frightening ease again this season.
If there is a weakness identified with the Falcons over the offseason, did they do enough to fix it?
I think you can see above, but the jury's out. The Falcons didn't add a true impact defender aside from Osi Umenyiora, and it's anyone's guess whether he'll prove to be an upgrade over John Abraham at defensive end. The secondary has the chance to be very, very good with Desmond Trufant, but he's adjusting to the speed of an NFL game. Malliciah Goodman has looked amazed at DE but hasn't gotten much run against the starters. And so on.
The potential here is terrific, and if 2-3 of these guys pan out in a hurry, the Falcons will have gone a long way toward fixing those defensive weaknesses. Linebacker still looks iffy, though, and they're going to have to get some stuff done through smoke and mirrors.
How huge was Tony Gonzalez's decision to return this year?
Enormous. The Falcons had no clear successor, Gonzalez is a huge weapon on third downs and in the red zone and he can teach Levine Toilolo and Chase Coffman the ropes. The hope is that he'll have another great year (80+ receptions, 800+ yards, 6+ touchdowns) and ride off to the sunset with the Falcons having a clear plan at tight end going into 2014.
We're not expecting much from the starters on either team. Who are some of the backup players that you're looking forward to watching?
The ones you'll really want to watch are, in no particular order:
Lamar Holmes: The right tackle will get some real run with Mike Johnson out for the year. He's looking for a starting job and has all the tools to get one, but we haven't seen enough from him yet.
The Linebackers: Brian Banks is the story of the year—give him a Google—but Joplo Bartu, Nick Clancy and Paul Worrilow have all looked good as UDFA options. The Falcons desperately need someone to step up to give them quality depth at a thin position.
Robert Alford: The rookie cornerback has amazing tools and has looked very good early in camp. We're looking for him to sustain his success against a real live NFL team and carve out a role this season.
If the regular season started today, how would you rank the Falcons in the NFC?
I think they have to be considered one of the Top 3-4 teams in the NFC. You can make strong cases for the Seahawks, 49ers and Packers, and I wouldn't argue if you wanted to rank all three ahead of the Falcons on paper at this point.
The 49ers are the most complete team, the Packers have legendary talent at key positions and the Seahawks are just very good top to bottom. The Falcons can hang with any of them and beat the Seahawks last year, so I'll go #3 right now. The Falcons do, of course, have the talent and drive to be the top team, but I want to see how they gel on the field.
What are your general expectations for the season?
Super Bowl or bust sounds a little demanding, no? I expect another deep playoff run at minimum, growth for young players and Matt Ryan and generally the sense that this team continues to improve. If they want to push for a Super Bowl berth, this might be the year, given the way the NFC South is improving as a whole.