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Questions, questions: All 32 NFL teams have them heading into the 2006 season. Today, we're addressing the Falcons' burning question:
Does this team have better balance on both sides?
Offensively, the team was run-first again in '05, boasting the league's No. 1 rushing attack at an impressive 4.8 yards per attempt. Defensively, however, it was "run-last", tied with St. Louis in allowing 4.7 yards per attempt.
For the Falcons to return to the playoffs, they'll need a more dynamic passing game and a much-improved run defense. With their personnel and schemes, both tasks will be challenges.
When talking Atlanta football, you need to start with Michael Vick. He was more of a pocket passer in '05, with 305 rushing yards fewer than he had in '04 in as many starts, 15. But the results were mixed. While his passer rating went up in certain games, it didn't help produce more wins.
Really, there's nothing wrong with the run-first approach, because it helps keep a defense that's predicated on speed and aggressiveness better rested. Vick, Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett are all capable of producing consistently prolific combined efforts.
The key is getting a semblance of a threat downfield to keep opponents from ganging up. Tight end Alge Crumpler has done that a bit with the mismatches he creates, but he doesn't pose a vertical threat.
That's why there's much riding on young wide receivers Michael Jenkins and Roddy White. Both are big targets with good hands -- they just need to reach their potential. If Jenkins blossoms into a deep option and White can work the possession game, the offense would be completely different. There's also valuable veteran Brian Finneran as the No. 3.
With those kind of pass-catchers, the offense is in better shape for showing better balance. The changes made on defense don't inspire the same confidence.
Former Jets end John Abraham and rookie cornerback Jimmy Williams bolster the pass rush and secondary coverage, respectively. Lawyer Milloy provides a physical body at strong safety, and the healthy return of Edgerton Hartwell will give the Falcons solid range at middle linebacker.
This unit is perfectly built to make its living on big plays -- sacks and takeaways. The defenders swarm to the ball all over the field -- especially on the fast track of the Georgia Dome -- and force offenses into mistakes. But against those offenses that remain methodical at pounding the ball on the ground, the Falcons can get overworked.
While playing with a lead is key to keeping a defense aggressive, the Falcons don't get those big pass plays on offense early to get those leads. That allows teams to use Atlanta's own power rushing attack against it.
Unfortunately, the Falcons' two toughest foes in the NFC South are built that way. The Buccaneers and Panthers both have defenses constructed to contain Vick, and both plan to run the ball often with young Williamses -- Carnell and DeAngelo. The Saints, with Reggie Bush flanking Deuce McAllister, also have good rushing potential.
Though there should be some marked improvement on both weaknesses, it's unlikely the offense-defense cycle will click enough for the Falcons to push them above .500 in such a difficult division.