By Cody Strahm @CodyJStrahm on July 8, 2014
No one foresaw the Atlanta Falcons, who were establishing themselves as a perennial Super Bowl contender prior, stumbling to a 4-12 record in 2013. Likewise, no one will foresee the Falcons bouncing back by reclaiming their spot among the league's best teams in 2014 with a division title. But here are five reasons why Mike Smith's club will do just that this fall.
The Falcons were the epitome of a one-dimensional team in 2013, ranking seventh in passing offense, but dead last in rushing. A shoddy offensive line failed to provide Atlanta's backs with many holes to work with, but Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers didn't exactly make the most of their opportunities either. Both averaged a mere 3.5 yards per carry. Fourth-round pick Devonta Freeman has the all-around skill set to contribute immediately.
Not only did Atlanta struggle to generate much of a rushing attack, it couldn't stop opponents from gashing it on the ground. Frankly, the Falcons were the NFL's most inept team when it came to the running game. The signing of nose tackle Paul Soliai should help alleviate some of those shortcomings on the defensive side of the ball, though. Soliai should consistently be able to occupy blockers, freeing up linebackers to make plays on the runner.
Atlanta's pass-happy attack was often foiled by leaky pass protection a year ago. Quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked 44 times, the most sacks he's withstood in one season by far. Jake Matthews, the No. 6 overall pick of May's draft, possesses the polished ability to immediately give quarterback Matt Ryan more time in the pocket.
Although the Falcons had many more issues than poor health during last year's miserable 4-12 campaign, losing Julio Jones, who is one of the league's brightest young playmakers, for 11 games certainly didn't help their cause. Now that he's 100 percent again, the Falcons will have one of the sport's biggest difference-makers back in the fold.
Matt Ryan was steadily improving before last season's disaster. While his play was far from poor or mediocre in 2013, he left a little to be desired considering he's been tabbed a franchise quarterback. Getting his go-to weapons back healthy and more time in the pocket should allow to pick up where he left off in 2012. Ryan will have his most productive and efficient season to date, leading the Falcons to the NFC South title.
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