The NFC South may now be the most competitive division in football, top to bottom, thanks to the surprisingly fast emergence of Cam Newton as an NFL-ready weapon. But the team poised to take the biggest step forward is the team now facing the slowest start.
The Atlanta Falcons looked very good in the second half of a cathartic Week 2 win over Michael Vick and the Eagles. But same flat performance against the Bears in Week 1 resurfaced in Week 3 against the division rival Bucs. Now Matt Ryan and the Falcons find themselves in last place in the NFC South with a 1-2 record and the worst point differential in the division.
Atlanta went all in on Julio Jones in the draft, seeing him as the last piece of the puzzle that could put the Falcons over the top as a potential Super Bowl contender. While Julio has been pretty good, this team that was supposed to be able to play with anyone has fallen flat in the opening three weeks.
Simple question for the TGS crew: "What's wrong with this Falcons team?"
We chime in with our answers after the break.
Will: Because he's the quarterback, Matt Ryan will be the lightning rod for all criticism about the team. But that's a little unfair. He's a good if not great QB who can elevate his play for stretches of time, but is a part of the whole rather than the driver of this team.
The biggest problem with this team is that it's soft on defense, particularly against the pass. The Falcons have been leaning on John Abraham for too long, trying to squeeze every last ounce of productivity out of him without seriously grooming a replacement. And clearly, Dunta Robinson wasn't the answer in the secondary. Now with a mere five sacks in three games, they can't generate pressure, and can't get a stop when they need one.
Matt: I don't know if there's anything necessarily "wrong" with Atlanta except for the difficult schedule they've played so far. Chicago, Philly, and Tampa Bay were all 10 win teams last year. Perhaps there is a letdown from their postseason home embarrassment against Green Bay, but I don't think it's anywhere close to panic time yet.
Give Atlanta some time to work Jones into the offense a little more and rediscover Michael Turner and they should get back on track.
Shane: We've seen teams go all out for "the final piece" before. I'm intimately familiar with the Jaguars attempt to find the final piece in the 2008 draft. That sort of philosophy doesn't work. The Falcons traded far too much for one WR, a position I believe to be over-rated. Great receivers are rare. That's true enough, but solid receivers are a dime a dozen.
The Falcons are still a good team, and they deserve to be given some time to bounce back, but they also play in a very tough division and conference. They better not take too much time, or they'll be left out in the cold in January.
Anthony: All I know is that the Atlanta Falcons are the defending NFC South champions until someone knocks them off. That hasn't happened yet. The team has a new expensive toy (Julio Jones) and they are learning how to work him in their system.
Right now, they are over-focused on the passing game; 68% of their plays were passes. Last year, they only passed 54 % of the plays and put the ball in the hands of Michael Turner "the Burner." Defensive performance is worrisome. So was the quality of the team's early opponents. Let them play, then let's revisit mid-season.
I am in the camp that says Atlanta gave up too much to acquire Julio Jones. He is off to a fine start, but I doubt that he will justify what Atlanta gave up to get him.
Lawrence: Nothing is wrong with the Falcons. It is three games into the season, and three games into the career of Julio Jones.
While they did give up an absurd amount of talent to get Jones, he seems to have been worth it. He ripped apart a solid secondary of the Bucs on Sunday, as he went for six catches and 119 yards. This was up against Ronde Barber and Aqib Talib. Not exactly easily exploitable corners.
The biggest issue with the Falcons is their defense. This is nothing new, but it still needs addressing. Stephen Nicholas, Curtis Lofton and Sean Weatherspoon are not exactly an imposing linebacking corps. Dunta Robinson seems to have been a mighty waste of money on the corner.
So where do they go from here? They have Seattle this week, so lets hope that is a W. But then Green Bay, Carolina and Detroit. No sure things down the road.
Editor's note: The Falcons gave up their first, second, and fourth round picks of 2011 as well as their first and second round picks of 2012 to trade up ahead of Washington and St Louis for Julio Jones. In terms of NFL draft trade value, that is roughly 2,400 points wrapped up in one pick, plus the opportunity cost of not picking until the third round in 2012. Ask the 2010 Panthers how that worked out for them...
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