by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Sometimes, cross-sport analogies can prove illustrative. Such as the case with a couple of Atlanta’s big-league teams. And much like the hometown NBA Hawks, the NFL Falcons have progressed to a playoff-quality level, but taking the next step to the championship-caliber stratosphere has, thus far at least, been a bit too steep.

Three of HC Larry Drew’s, er, make that Mike Smith’s, four Falcon editions since 2008 have advanced to the postseason, and Atlanta has been an early KO victim each time. Worse, the past two years have featured humbling beatdowns administered by playoff opposition (Packers by a 48-21 count in 2010, Giants 24-2 winners last January).

Still, progress is being made at the Georgia Dome. Since debuting as an expansion team in 1966, Atlanta had never made consecutive playoff appearances in its history until a year ago. The Falcons continue to take baby steps toward becoming a Super Bowl contender, although fans are now clamoring for more of a Bob Beamon-like leap.

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Las Vegas oddsmakers are suggesting the sort of breakthrough Atlanta fans are dreaming about is not especially far-fetched, considering the respectful season prices affixed to Mike Smith’s team. Including in the NFC South, where the Falcons (at 7/5 to win the division) are rated close behind holders New Orleans, and where recent history suggests the Saints are going to have a hard time repeating (no team has won back-to-back titles in the NFC South since the league re-aligned for the 2002 campaign).

Atlanta is hardly the longest shot on the board, also priced at a reasonable 14/1 to win the NFC and 25/1 to win the Super Bowl. Season-wins have been posted at 9 ½ at the majority of Nevada wagering outlets.

No one can fault QB Matt Ryan, now 41-19 as a starter since taking over the starting job immediately upon his graduation from Boston College, for the Falcons not getting over the hump the past few years. But for Atlanta to move into the NFL elite class, most sources concur that improvements must commence on the stop unit.

To that end, Smith enlisted veteran coach Mike Nolan (left) to become the platoon’s new coordinator in the offseason and authorized whatever sweeping changes Nolan deemed necessary to push the Falcons closer to elite-team territory.

Smith, a devout 4-3 man, has embraced Nolan’s “multiplicity” of looks that alternate between 3-4 (Nolan’s preferred alignment) and Smith’s 4-3. The Falcons’ nickel package had also been so porous prior to Nolan’s arrival that Smith was amenable to almost any alterations that could alleviate the problem.

Expect more three-man fronts on passing downs after the Falcons ranked 29th in third-down defense last fall, although the pass-rush rotation needs to provide more help to yeoman-like DE John Abraham (right, chasing Carolina's Cam Newton last October), who will be 34 this fall. Nolan is also spending summer figuring out the best combinations on the corners after adding ex-Eagle Asante Samuel in a pre-draft trade. Samuel’s addition at the least provides more depth at the CB spots with holdovers Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson back in the fold.

Although only glimpses of the new defensive philosophy were on display in the Falcons’ first two preseason games, NFC South sources anticipate Atlanta utilizing a greater assortment of stunts and blitzes than prior to Nolan’s arrival.

There is also a potential hole in the run defense after MLB Curtis Lofton moved to the Saints in free agency. Nolan and Smith were counting upon former Pro Bowler Lofa Tatupu, attempting to make a comeback after sitting out 2011, to step into that potential breach, but a July weight room injury tore one of the ex-Seahawks’ pectoral muscles and prompted his release.

Veteran Mike Peterson, who can play all LB positions, was re-signed in the wake of Tatupu’s injury to hopefully provide added depth, but he might get back into the starting lineup sooner than expected if Akeem Dent, the projected MLB, is sidelined for any extent of time after suffering a concussion in the preseason opener vs. the Ravens. Dent also sat out the subsequent August 16 game vs. the Bengals, and his status for the remainder of the preseason, and even the regular-season opener at Kansas City, is up in the air.

The strike force featuring QB Ryan, RB Michael Turner, and WRs Roddy White and Julio Jones remains potent, although there have been a few adjustments since a year ago. Coordinator Mike Mularkey left for the head coaching job in Jacksonville, which effectively (though not officially) traded its former o.c. Dirk Koetter to the Falcons in return. Koetter plans no real schematic changes to the offense, although he will likely emphasize more vertical routes, getting the ball to receivers on the move, and integrating a heavier screen package into the attack-end mix.

Smith and Koetter would also like to see improvement on the OL that allowed Ryan to get hit too often a year ago. Although without a pick in the draft until the second round, Atlanta went for the big uglies once on the clock, taking Wisconsin’s C-G Peter Konz in the second round and Southern Miss T Lamar Holmes with the next pick in the third round. There has been a free-for-all during throughout training camp for the tackle positions that Smith declared up for grabs in the offseason.

The workload for the heavy-duty Turner (right), who gained 1340 YR a year ago but has now carried the ball a whopping 635 times the past two seasons, is likely to be lessened under Koetter, although NFC insiders indicate that Turner doesn’t have quite as much wear-and-tear as most 30-year-old RBs due to his years of being underused in San Diego as a caddy for LaDainian Tomlinson. Nonetheless, expect more carries for second-year Jacquizz Rodgers, a small but effective open-field runner, although early reviews for the infantry have been less than glowing after subpar efforts in the first two preseason games.

There is another not-to-be-overlooked concern in the backfield, however, after FB Ovie Mughelli, a superb blocker, departed in the offseason, and expected replacement Bradie Ewing went down with a torn ACL in the preseason opener vs. Baltimore. Ex-Georgia Tech battering ram Mike Cox now takes over the position by default.

On the plus side, Ryan has found a new dynamic go-to receiving target in 2nd-year ex-Alabama wideout Julio Jones (left), who has hinted at a major breakthrough after catching 54 passes at nearly 18 yards per reception a year ago and has continued to wow observers early in the preseason. Jones’ emergence has made it almost impossible for opposing defenses to tilt toward the productive Roddy White, who caught 100 passes in 2011. Meanwhile, vet TE Tony Gonzalez still apparently has plenty of tread left on his tires after catching 80 mostly-underneath passes a year ago.

Special teams remains above-average, especially PK Matt Bryant, who had a franchise-record streak of 30 straight field goals extend into last season. Auditions were continuing through August for new kickoff and punt returners, however, after the valued Eric Weems departed for the Bears in free agency.

Although Smith’s Falcons were just 8-8-1 vs. the line a year ago, they were a pointspread force the previous two seasons when combining for a 22-11 mark vs. the number in 2009 & 2010. Atlanta has also been able to make the Georgia Dome something of a fortress, covering 6 of 8 as host a year ago, 11 of 17 since 2010, and 17 of 25 chances at home since 2009.

Summary...The idea that the Falcons have hit a plateau as a one-and-done playoff entry is shared by many league observers, who wonder how Atlanta might take the next step to serious Super Bowl contender status. The Falcons aren’t that far away from the mountaintop, but to get there this season would require a stop unit upgrade that would likely coincide with the introduction of some new concepts implemented by first-year d.c. Miike Nolan. The offense, especially with Julio Jones emerging as a big-play receiving target, should be good enough to at least get Atlanta knocking on the championship door again this fall. Gaining entry, however, will require a bit more from the defense.

Note also that Mike Smith’s first four Falcon teams have all finished better than .500 and only once failed to reach double-digit wins (and that was 9-7 in 2009), so it doesn’t require much arm-twisting to look "over" the 9 ½ -win total.


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