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2013 Atlanta Falcons Team Preview: Gonzalez Returns for Another Playoff Run

Mike Wendt

Mike Wendt

Mike Wendt writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

State of the Franchise

Few teams entered the 2012 campaign under more pressure to win in the playoffs than the Falcons. On the heels of an underwhelming 24-2 loss to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Giants in the playoffs the previous season, coach Mike Smith and QB Matt Ryan faced plenty of criticism for their inability to win when it mattered. The pair joined forces in 2008 and although they became the first rookie head coach and quarterback combo to compete in the playoffs in their inaugural season since 1945, the duo entered the 2012 season a combined 0-6 in the postseason.

Fueled by an explosive offense and a desire to quiet their critics, the Falcons won their first eight games, and stood as the leagueís only remaining undefeated team at the seasonís halfway point. Despite falling to division-rival New Orleans in Week 10, the Falcons coasted to a 13-3 mark and the NFCís top seed. Determined to finally get a playoff win under his belt, Ryan led the Falcons to a 20-0 halftime lead in the Divisional Round, only to watch Russell Wilson and the Seahawks storm back to take the lead with 31 seconds remaining. Unfazed, Ryan completed two quick passes to get the Falcons within field goal range, and Matt Bryant drove home a 49-yard attempt to send the team to the NFC Championship game.

Although the Falcons fell to the 49ers in the NFC title game, the organization is optimistic about its chances in 2013. All of Matt Ryanís favorite receiving weapons return, including future Hall-of-Fame TE Tony Gonzalez, who inked a two-year deal during the offseason despite previously stating that he was 95 percent sure that the 2012 season would be his last. The teamís biggest change on the offensive side of the ball came at running back, where the Falcons replaced an aging Michael Turner with the slightly younger Steven Jackson.

While the offense may click on all cylinders out of the gate, the Falcons will trot out plenty of new faces on the defensive side of the ball. Familiar faces like DE John Abraham, along with cornerbacks Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes are long gone. The team hopes that DE Osi Umenyiora and a pair of rookie corners (Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford) can help shore up a defense that ranked 23rd in the league in passing defense in 2012. The Falcons made defense a priority by selecting defenders with six of their first seven draft picks. If the young talent can mesh with proven leaders such as linebackers Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas, the team will once again contend for the top seed in the NFC. The window for winning a championship in the NFL is often short-lived, and the Falcons hope the 2013 season ends with a trip to the New Jersey Meadowlands, where Super Bowl XLVIII will take place.

Offseason Moves

KEY ACQUISITIONS

Steven Jackson - RB, Rams

Despite the fact that heíll be 30 when Week 1 rolls around, the Falcons hope the former Ram will be a significant upgrade over Michael Turner.

Osi Umenyiora - DE, Giants

Should provide a huge boost to a pass rush that ranked 28th in the league in sacks last season.

Desmond Trufant - CB, Washington

(Round 1, 22nd overall)

Steps into a depleted secondary and will be called on to contribute immediately at right cornerback.

Robert Alford - CB, Southeastern Louisiana

(Round 2, 60th overall)

Much like his rookie counterpart, heíll compete for a starting defensive back position, and he could flourish on special teams.

KEY LOSSES

Michael Turner - RB, FA

Although his YPC dipped to a career-low 3.6 in 2012, he still posted double-digit touchdowns for the fifth year in a row.

John Abraham - DE, FA

Was a cap causality this offseason as the Falcons gear up to offer Matt Ryan a hefty contract extension.

Dunta Robinson - CB, Chiefs

The Falcons decided to release Robinson (80 tackles) with three years remaining on his contract in a cap-motivated move.

Brent Grimes - CB, Dolphins

Tore his Achillesí in the season opener in 2012 and heíll look to re-establish himself in South Beach.

Team Notes

GONZALEZ RETURNS

Tony Gonzalez has amassed plenty of records over his 16-year career, but many wondered if the standout TE would ever know what itís like to win in the postseason. Gonzalez finally earned his first playoff win last season when the Falcons slipped past the Seahawks in the Divisional Round, but the team couldnít parlay that win into a Super Bowl appearance as the Falcons fell to the 49ers after jumping out to a 17-0 lead. Whether it was because he felt like heís still got something left in the tank, or because he was left wanting after being open on a failed fourth down attempt late in the NFC Championship, Gonzalez decided to postpone retirement by signing a two-year deal to remain with the Falcons through 2014. He had eight touchdown receptions in 2012, his most in four seasons with the team. Despite turning 37 this offseason, Gonzalez will remain one of QB Matt Ryanís favorite targets in the red zone.

THE RODDY AND JULIO SHOW

Few receiver combinations were as explosive as Roddy White and Julio Jones in 2012. The duo combined for 171 receptions, 2,549 yards and 17 touchdowns, as they helped Ryan set career marks in nearly every passing category. White has been a model of consistency over recent years, posting at least 85 receptions, 1,100 yards and seven touchdowns in each of the last four seasons, but Jones looks like he could be the breakout star in 2013. The upcoming season marks the third year in the league for Jones, which is often the season receivers on the rise make the so-called leap to the next level. In a potent offense and coming off an impressive enough sophomore campaign, attaining said next level would grant Jones elite status at his position.

REVAMPED DEFENSE

The Falcons will likely offer Ryan an extension sometime in the next year, and they took necessary steps to clear some cap space by parting ways with a few veterans. RB Michael Turner, DE John Abraham and CB Dunta Robinson all received their walking papers in the offseason, and the team elected not to re-sign CB Brent Grimes. The Falcons brought in DE Osi Umenyiora to bolster the defensive line, but the team will rely on a pair of rookies to fill the void at cornerback. Atlanta drafted Desmond Trufant 22nd overall, and the team believes the versatile cornerback will make an impact from the start. The Falcons also used their second-round pick on a corner, this time selecting Robert Alford out of Southeastern Louisiana. If the rookies can adjust to the speed of the NFL, they could play a major role in helping get the Falcons back to the playoffs.

Value Meter

Rising: Matt Ryan set career marks in completions, attempts, yards and touchdowns in 2012. With no changes to the receiving nucleus, the stats will be there again this year.

Declining: Steven Jackson may have difficulty finding running lanes, as the Falcons lost two starters from last seasonís offensive line.

Sleeper: Jacquizz Rodgers may not be on everyoneís radar, but the versatile tailback could shine if he earns a bigger role in the offense.

Supersleeper: Harry Douglas only caught 38 balls last season, but he could blossom if he gets more targets, a plausible scenario in the event of an injury.

IDP Watch

Stephen Nicholas - LB

After leading the Falcons in tackles in 2012, heís poised for another big year.

Osi Umenyiora - DE

The Falcons force teams to play from behind, meaning the ex-Giant should see numerous pass-rushing opportunities.

Sean Weatherspoon - LB

Approached 100 tackles despite missing three games last season. He should top triple digits in 2013 if he stays healthy.

TEAM DEFENSE

RotoWire Rank: 22