2006 NFL Season Preview: Falcons Fly On with Vick, West Coast Offense

With the preseason in full swing and the opening weekend less than a calendar month away, now is the perfect time to glance in at all 32 NFL franchises and get a scoop on what to expect this season. I will be grading every team on all three phases of the game: offense, defense, and special teams. I will also take a look at the coaching staffs of all 32 teams, including the 10 new Head Coaches and evaluate the impact they might have on their team’s success. Then I will outline some key position battles and some names you may or may not know about to watch for the upcoming season.

Hopes were high for the Falcons after 2004, where they were a playoff team and the best team in the NFC South at 11-5. They made the NFC Conference Championship after destroying the Rams in the divisional round, but lost in Philly. Everyone thought it was the beginning of big things for the Falcons, but they took a step back this year only finishing 8-8 and missing the playoffs. Coach Jim Mora has pledged a return to simplicity for the Falcons, which for them is running the football and playing stout defense. They have a few key additions to the defensive unit to help bolster their different lines, and the offense has another year inside the West Coast offense under their belts. Some detractors are ready to jump on Michael Vick and the Falcons should a slow start occur, so you have wonder if this team can get into enough of a groove early to keep those critics away.

Offense

Jim Mora came over from San Francisco with Offensive Coordinator Greg Knapp to install a simplified version of the West Coast offense which focused more on running than it did on short passes. Although the record didn’t necessarily reflect it, the offense once again improved its overall standing in the NFL. They boasted the league’s best running attack for the second consecutive season, both under Knapp. They gained an impressive NFL-high 2,546 yards on the ground (159.1 average per game) and 4.8 yards per carry. The passing game must continue to improve, and that all starts with Michael Vick and his continued growth in the offense. They have to show a commitment to improvement with their receivers and their relationship with Vick, because the passing offense is the weak link in this offense.

QB: Michael Vick is one of the most dynamic athletes in the NFL. Now that we have that out of the way, we can further dig into Vick and his abilities. He’s got a cannon for an arm and it looks effortless for him to throw the deep ball. However, Vick only has a career 54% completion rate and still struggles at times with reading NFL defenses. He’s an amazing athlete who is able to tuck the ball and run, and can actually run designed running plays. In fact, he almost rushed for 1,000 yards in 2004, finishing just 98 yards shy of the mark. This is now his sixth year in the league and his third in the West Coast offense. Reports out of camp have him getting a better grasp of the offense, but will it translate on the field. He’s got the weapons at WR and TE, and even has Warrick Dunn, who is a good receiving back. He’ll have to show the improvement, or the Falcons will have a decision to make regarding their future. Matt Schaub has been more consistent in the offense and although Vick does present quite the defensive matchup problem, it’s all about winning games. If they discover the glass ceiling with Vick, it could get ugly in Atlanta.

RB/FB: They have two backs who can hurt you. Warrick Dunn has been nothing short of outstanding for the Falcons since coming over from Tampa Bay. He’s a lightning-fast runner who has the ability to break any play for a long score. He earned a Pro-Bowl nod in 2005 and rushed for 1,000 yards for the second consecutive season. For a change of pace, they bring T.J. Duckett into the game, who’s power game allows the Falcons to run north-south between the tackles. Duckett has scored 27 touchdowns over the past three seasons for the Falcons and is a consistent threat inside the red zone. Between the two of them, it’s easy to see why they have the top ranked running attack. Meanwhile, Justin Griffith is a solid lead blocker who is one of the NFL’s best receiving fullbacks. He can open holes for the running backs and punish defenses with an occasional carry or two. He contributed 21 receptions in 2005 and will once again be a force in the West Coast offense that the Falcons play.

WR/TE: They suffered a blow at wide receiver when Brian Finneran suffered a season-ending knee injury when he was performing a drill in camp and planted his leg, only to collapse in pain. Finneran was one of the Falcons’ best receivers last season, making 50 receptions for just over 600 yards. Michael Jenkins will have to pick up the slack, and after having a career season in 2005, the prospects are looking good. 36 catches last season and improving route running make him a more viable target in 2006. Roddy White will be on the opposite side, and he’s had the best camp this preseason. He is looking to step up to the potential that made him a first-round pick in 2005. He had 29 catches last season and is primed to improve in 2006. Jerome Pathon and Adam Jennings will see additional time now that Finneran is out and both have a chance to make an impression with the team as a slot receiver. The tight end position is locked down by Alge Crumpler, who is one of the top receiving TE’s in the NFL. He’s an excellent blocker and has incredibly soft hands for a tight end. He earned his third consecutive Pro-Bowl selection last season and continues to be Vick’s favorite target with 65 receptions in 2005.

OL: The offensive line is solid, as it must be when you’ve got the top rushing attack in the league. Their center is the heart of the line. Tod McClure is a hard-nosed blocker who currently is playing with a 64 game playing streak. His importance is evident as he is the signal-caller on the line. The left side of the line is held down by left tackle Wayne Gandy and left guard Matt Lehr. Gandy was recently acquired by the Falcons for safety Bryan Scott and a draft pick from the Saints. He is a solid veteran who will lend intelligence and experience to the line that has already been one of the NFL’s best for a few seasons. Lehr, meanwhile, signed before the 2005 season from the Rams and he started 15 games for the Falcons. A solid performer who isn’t extraordinary in any one aspect of the game but solid throughout. Kynan Forney and Todd Weiner are starters on the right side of the line. Forney has started in all 16 games for three consecutive seasons now for the Falcons and remains a vital part in the rushing attack. An athletic player who can pull and block effectively, he excels at run-blocking while still solid against a pass rush. Weiner is physical and has been solid protecting Vick’s blindside, a job most right tackles don’t have to deal with. Weiner is also excellent in run-blocking and is very agile, able to get outside and attack the second tier of the defense on rushing plays.
Overall Grade: B-

Defense

Ed Donatell came over, and like many other defensive minds, impacted the Falcons’ unit almost immediately. They went from having the worst defense in the NFL in 2003 to having the 14th ranked defense in 2004, Donatell’s first season with the club. Donatell has instilled a defense which values pressure on the quarterback and a heavy dose of blitzes from seemingly any position on the field. He would blitz from the corner, inside the line, and all over while having the ability to drop others back in coverage. With tough cover guys on the ends and a steady linebacking corp, he was able to leave many defenders alone in man coverage at times and that allows this blitzing scheme to be so successful. This unit saw three players make trips to Hawaii after the season, CB D’Angelo Hall and DT Rod Coleman earning their first selections, while LB Keith Brooking earned another trip. Look for much of the same in 2006 with new acquisitions on the line and in the secondary to create immediate impact for the entire unit.

DL: The biggest pick-up for the Falcons this offseason was John Abraham, the three-time Pro-Bowl defensive end from the New York Jets. Has 53.5 career sacks and is widely regarded around the NFL as one of the best pure pash rushers off the end. A college linebacker, Abraham gives you the speed on the end but the ability to drop into coverage, a must for the zone-blitz that Mora and Donatell love to use from time to time. He will command extra attention on his side, hopefully making it easier for Patrick Kerney on the other side as well as Rod Coleman down the middle. Kerney is a end who plays the run and pass equally efficiently and prides himself on continuous active pursuit on defense. His motor never stops, something that you love in an end. Rod Coleman made his first career Pro-Bowl last season and led all interior lineman in the NFL with 10.5 sacks. He will partner with Chad Lavalais, who is an athletic playmaker known for being an effective run-stopper.

LB: Definitely a strength for the Falcons. They start with weakside linebacker Keith Brooking, who is one of the NFL’s elite at the position. His streak of consecutive Pro-Bowls tallied to five with last season’s nod. Led the Falcons in tackles for the fifth consecutive season and is considered to be a total throwback to the glory days of linebackers. Guys who were hard workers and never gave up on a single play. He looks to have more help from 2005 free-agent pick-up Ed Hartwell from Baltimore, who had his season cut short with an injury just five games in. He is an incredible run-stopping force and is one of the most physical linebackers in the NFL. The other outside position will be contested hard by Demorrio Wililams, who had an incredible 2005 season, and Michael Boley. Williams played all 16 games last season and had 132 tackles. Boley also started the final 11 games last season for the Falcons after Hartwell went down with injury, but will have to battle to get that position back with Williams.

CB: D’Angelo Hall is one of the best cover corners in the league. He has consistently improved in each of his two seasons. Hall earned his first Pro-Bowl nod in 2005 and expects to be a consistent presence at the postseason all-star exhibition from now on. He’s a tough and works hard and is athletic, usually covering the opposing team’s best receiver. He was crowned the NFL’s fastest man in the 2006 Pro Bowl competitions, and rightfully slow. He is faster than even Michael Vick, considered to be the team’s fastest player before Hall arrival. Opposite him will be Jason Webster, who also has exceptional speed and is physical in playing the running game. Webster will have less pressure on him because of Hall, but will have competition in 2006 second-round pick Jimmy Williams in preventing the all-Virginia Tech cornerback battery. Lawyer Milloy, the veteran, comes over from Buffalo to provide the Falcons with an exceptional safety who can play the run and takes all the right risks in the passing defense. He will team with Chris Crocker, who is also new on the team after playing last season with Cleveland. He’s a solidifying presence out there, and can provide the Falcons with a solid player who can handle all aspects of the game.
Overall Grade: A-/B+

Special Teams

K/P: This is actually an incredible story. Michael Koenen, who was last season’s punter and kickoff specialist, is also going to compete this preseason for the placekicker job as well. He handled the long kicks last season and if he performs well could handle the very rare double duty for the Falcons. He was a solid punter after being signed as an undrafted rookie last season. He’s got the leg to do both, and it would be awesome to see him do so. He will have competition at placekicker from Tony Yelk, but is the favorite right now. Koenen will have to work on his accuracy in field goals, though.
Overall Grade: C+

Coaching Staff

Head Coach Jim Mora is a good motivator who had a good 2004 season before seeing his Falcons take a step back last season. He will not accept that kind of performance again from them this season as they need to be consistent to compete in the NFC South. Mora is a old-school guy with new school tendencies. He loves aggression on the defensive side of the ball and solid, clock management on the offensive side. Greg Knapp will be responsible for the further development of Vick and the offense, but he’s been the commandeer of the NFL’s two-time defending rushing champs. Ed Donatell and Mora have an understanding that defense should be aggressive and force the offense into mistakes.
Overall Grade: B+

Position Battle to Watch

WR: With Finneran out, the battle for number one in this offense will be interesting. Jenkins and White both have something to prove, being high draft picks for the Falcons. Don’t forget that there is veteran Jerome Pathon, who could crack the starting line-up should one or both of these players struggle early.

OLB: Michael Boley and Demorrio Williams both played well last season, which will make this decision even more difficult for the coaching staff. I would go with Williams, who was more of a playmaker and did play the position last season. Williams made 132 tackles and consistently made plays, including a blocked kick that he returned for a touchdown.

PK: Michael Koenen is adequate, but the Falcons will have to make the decision on whether or not they want him pulling the double duty. If not, then look for Tony Yelk to be the field goal kicker for the Falcons.

Player to Watch

Michael Koenen, K: Like I said, I love this story. It’s amazing that in this day and age, they worry about someone pulling a double-duty like this. He’d only have to kick a few punts a game, which wouldn’t drain him for placekicking duties. I would love to see an NFL team in 2006 make the call to have one guy do both. Plus, it could open up a spot for a deserving position player in a place where they might need depth, like receiver or defensive line.

Bold Predictions
Record:
9-7
Offensive MVP: Alge Crumpler
Defensive MVP: Keith Brooking

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