Q: The Falcons had a lot of injuries in 2013, and as a result, had a very disappointing season. Offensively, they looked good against the Saints in week 1. Beyond health, where have the Falcons improved from 2013?
A: The keys for the Falcons have been on the offensive line, the addition of rookie running back Devonta Freeman, the addition of Devin Hester at receiver and a little bit of a shift in the way the team runs its offense.
Freeman isn't a huge factor yet, but he's a tough runner and pass catcher who adds another dimension to the Falcons' backfield. The offensive line features Jon Asamoah at right guard, who is already a major upgrade on the likes of Garrett Reynolds and Peter Konz a year ago. Lamar Holmes looks improved at right tackle and Jake Matthews was holding his own as a rookie left tackle before leaving with an injury.
Hester's the most intriguing addition in some ways, and one that could help define the post-Tony Gonzalez era in Atlanta. The Falcons are willing to dabble more in four receiver sets now, and they can put a lot of speed and talent on the field with Hester as the fourth guy. With a little more time and more willingness to extend plays by rolling out of the pocket, Matt Ryan can take advantage of those weapons.
Q: One of the Falcons issues in 2013 was protecting Matt Ryan (44 sacks). Is the line improved? And how have they looked in preseason and week 1?
A: There's no question the line has looked improved, though the Bengals will be their stiffest test yet. If Jake Matthews can't go, they'll give Gabe Carimi help on the left side, and he'll be the man you want to attack.
By and large, though, this line is significantly improved from a year ago, and looks like it has the potential to be an above average unit for the Falcons in 2014. That gives the entire offense a lift, and they'll need it given how the defense is shaping up. I'm sure you'll want to hear more about that.
Q: The 2013 Falcons defense was toward the bottom of the league in every statistical category. How has the defense improved/has the defense improved in 2014?
A: The defense still looks distinctly lackluster. The Falcons didn't add a single impact pass rusher and their upgrades on the defensive line (Tyson Jackson, Paul Soliai, rookie Ra'Shede Hageman) were just okay against the Saints a week ago. The secondary is sharper with another year for rookie cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford plus the addition of sure-tackling Dwight Lowery, but this is a defense that is going to struggle to contain good offenses in 2014, no matter how you slice it.
You can see why we're so excited about the offensive improvement, then.
Q: At age 31 and coming off an injury riddled season, can Steven Jackson still be an effective every down back? And how do you see the carries being split amongst the Falcons backfield?
A: I think he can still be an effective back as the lead dog in a committee, but he's not a 20 carry player at this stage of his career. The Falcons are smartly mixing in speedy Antone Smith, effective pass catcher Jacquizz Rodgers and promising rookie Freeman early, and they'll continue to get those guys a handful of snaps each in every game. Jackson remains the lead because he's the closest thing to a bruising power back, and for one week at least, he looked like he still has some juice in those legs.
Q: What are the strengths and areas of concern for the 2014 Atlanta Falcons?
A: The strengths are definitely the passing game, which looks unreal, alongside a stronger ground game and potentially excellent special teams unit. The entire defense outside the secondary looks like a glaring weakness.
Q: If you were game planning against the Falcons, where are the vulnerabilities that you would attack?
A: I'd attack the linebackers, who are not great in coverage. Paul Worrilow tackles extremely well and Jonathan Massaquoi has potential as a pass rusher, but otherwise that unit is the defense's weakest. I'd definitely attempt to get your playmakers in space, because this team can still struggle mightily with tackling.
On offense, I'd aim to shut down the ground game and force the Falcons to go one-dimensional. Matt Ryan may have ascended into the top tier of NFL quarterbacks this season, so perhaps you'll pay for that decision, but it's worth trying.
Q: Where do you see vulnerability in the Bengals that the Falcons will look to exploit?
A: To me, the interior of the offensive line looks like the place to attack, with rookie Russell Bodine and guard Clint Boling. The Falcons just so happen to have some effective pass rushing options in Jonathan Babineaux, Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu capable of coming up the middle, so I'd make that a huge priority. Attacking your tackles seems like a fool's errand.
I'd try to force the Bengals to throw to the less desirable options in the passing game by taking away A.J. Green and Bernard, to the greatest extent possible.
On defense, you can't really attack the front seven, so I'd try to get Julio Jones or Roddy White on an island with Terrence Newman. He's still an effective cornerback, but both of those guys are mighty effective receiving options, and Jones in particular is incredibly difficult to stop with one-on-one coverage.
Q: On Sunday, the Falcons will win if...
A: They get some pressure on Dalton, force a couple of mistakes and manage to keep Bernard in check while on defense. If they spread the ball around effectively and keep the ground game rolling on offense.
Q: On Sunday, the Falcons will lose if...
A: They can't get to Dalton and they let him connect with his favorite options all day long. If they're forced to go one-dimensional on offense and if they struggle in pass protection.
Q: Who is a player most Bengals fans won't know, but should know, or should look for on Sunday?
A: I'm not sure many Bengals fans will know the name Paul Worrilow, but he's been a tackling machine at ILB for the Falcons and should continue to be.
Q: Where do you see the Falcons finishing in the NFC South in 2014?
A: I've got them second in the division with a record of 9-7. I'm hoping for better, but realistically that defense is probably a limiting factor.
Q: What is your prediction for Sunday's matchup between the Bengals and Falcons?
A: I've got the Bengals walking away with the win by a score of 30-27.
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