Disappointing 2013 Season Had Some Bright Spots For Falcons
Fans of the Atlanta Falcons, just like team owner Arthur Blank, are looking forward to next season. And I don’t blame them. 2013 was a disastrous season. Though their record suggests that they struggled, the Falcons ended the season like they did in the postseason. They kept on battling during the final stretch of the season.
Last year around this time, the Falcons were one game away from earning a trip to Super Bowl XLVII. Going into the season, Atlanta seemed primed to dominate the NFC South again. QB Matt Ryan is still capable of pulling fourth quarter comebacks out of his hat (plus he signed a wealthy extension, which means he will be in Atlanta until at least 2018), Julio Jones is fast becoming an elite wide receiver, safety William Moore loves to body slam opposing receivers and Roddy White continues to add to what may be a future Hall of Fame career. More importantly, TE Tony Gonzalez returned for some unfinished business - getting his team over the hump and earning his first Super Bowl appearance. On paper, the offense seemed ready to dominate again.
But the season started on a weird note, beginning with the sudden offseason moves. Atlanta lost key players from the 2012 squad to free agency including like DBs Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson and OG Harvey Dahl. Atlanta also released Michael “the Burner” Turner, their wrecking ball of a running back, before eventually replacing him with future Hall-of-Fame workhorse Steven Jackson. The Falcons also used their first two draft picks on future long-term starting DBs Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. Aside from those moves, the team was pretty much solid coming into the preseason.
In the NFL, however, the injury bug can hit even the best of teams. DE Kroy Biermann and RT Mike Johnson went down with season-ending injuries in the preseason. Then, more players had to be placed on IR such as Jones and OT Sam Baker. White, Jackson and Sean Weatherspoon also struggled with injuries.
Meanwhile, Atlanta ran out of fourth quarter miracles. In fact, the team gave up 10-plus point leads often (especially against the St. Louis Rams, Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints) and ended up losing close games that they normally would win. Blame it on the lack of a pass rush - the Falcons were tied for 29th in sacks. They also picked the ball off only 10 times, tied for 29th as well. Add the fact that their running game was virtually absent, only averaging 77.9 rushing yards a game (ranking dead last).
Despite the fiasco with injuries, the defense and running game, Atlanta still managed to have a few bright spots this season. Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow, both undrafted free agents, are expected to be future starters in the linebacking corps. Worrilow lead the team in tackles, recording 127 of them. Bartu was no slouch either, making 85 tackles. Newly acquired DE Osi Umenyiora sacked the opposing QB 7.5 times, while forcing three fumbles and scoring off of an interception for the first time in his career. On the offensive side, WR Harry Douglas took the role of No. 1 deep threat and gained 1,067 yards to lead the team while Gonzalez was still showing people why he is a future Hall of Famer. Though he was not selected to play in this year’s Pro Bowl, Gonzalez still played well, scoring eight times while gaining over 600-plus yards for the 16th consecutive time in his career.
More importantly, the Falcons did not end the season without a fighting spirit. Between Week 12 and the last week of the season, they played nothing but good, close games, just like the 2012 team that went all the way to the NFC Championship Game. In those six games, Atlanta gave four playoff teams a run for their money (Saints, Packers, 49ers and Panthers, respectively).
With the rise of the two rookie linebackers and their return to playing hard for 60 minutes, I expect Atlanta to rise up and at least make a run for the playoffs next year. In order to do that, they must address the running back and pass rushing issues immediately in the offseason. When healthy, their offense is a force to be reckoned with and the defense can bring the noise too. I hope the core group can stay healthy this time so that this team can dominate once again.