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Shutdown Countdown: Atlanta Falcons get tougher on both lines

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(Yahoo Sports)

(Yahoo Sports)

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order or our initial 2014 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the preseason begins with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton.

There's something to be said about admitting a problem with the roster and taking decisive action to fix it.

For the Falcons, the biggest problem was that neither of their lines were very good. The offensive line lacked any standouts. The defensive line was getting pushed around, giving up an eye-opening 4.8 yards per carry last year.

So the Falcons attacked the issue. Defensive end Tyson Jackson was signed from Kansas City, and massive defensive tackle Paul Soliai was added from Miami. Defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, one of the bright spots on the line, was resigned. The Falcons added free agent guard Jon Asamoah. Then in the draft, the Falcons took offensive tackle Jake Matthews with the sixth overall pick, and defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman in the second round.

That's how you turn a weakness into a potential strength.

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Jake Matthews (USA Today Sports Images)

Jake Matthews (USA Today Sports Images)

Is it enough to turn the Falcons back around? Atlanta was a little lucky in going 13-3 in 2012, and all that luck turned against the Falcons last year. Key injuries and a few tough early losses derailed them. They went 4-12.

The truth of the 2014 Falcons probably lies somewhere in between the 2012 success and the 2013 debacle. Fixing the lines helps. But there's still the matter of a poor pass rush. And even if Tony Gonzalez didn't dominate like he did early in his career, he caught 409 passes for 4,187 and 35 touchdowns in five years with the Falcons. He had a typical 83-859-8 season last year. Levine Toilolo might replace Gonzalez, and he has 55 career yards. That's a big hole. Also, losing linebacker Sean Weatherspoon for the 2014 season to an Achilles' injury this offseason is a major blow.

At least the Falcons will be a bit tougher up front. That's a start.

2013 review in less than 25 words: Atlanta lost four of its first five, with the losses by a combined 19 points, setting up a 4-12 disaster.

Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: I like what the Falcons did this offseason, so I'll say it's better. Though it is hard to overlook losing Gonzalez on offense and Weatherspoon on defense. But, as mentioned before, Atlanta is better on both lines. They're also younger in the secondary after moving on from cornerback Asante Samuel and safety Thomas DeCoud.

Best offseason acquisition: The investment of a high pick in a strong offensive tackle has a pretty high rate of success, and good luck finding anyone who thinks Matthews won't be a longtime starter in the NFL. Matthews, who seamlessly moved from right tackle to left tackle last season at Texas A&M, doesn't have the huge athletic upside of second pick Greg Robinson but it would be a shock if he was a bust. For a while the Rams were rumored to be looking at him with the No. 2 overall pick, and for good reason. He'll start on the line from opening day probably well into the 2020s for Atlanta.

Achilles heel: The Falcons had two fairly big defensive issues last year. First, they got gashed against the run. Second, they couldn't rush the passer. The run defense should be better, but very little pass rush help was added. There's only so much you can fix in one offseason. The Falcons were rumored to want to move up in the draft, maybe to No. 1 to take Jadeveon Clowney or even to get Khalil Mack, because they need an edge rusher. Neither happened, and the Falcons took Matthews at sixth overall. A good pick for sure, but it still leaves Atlanta with basically the same pass rush that had just 32 sacks last year, which was just one more than the worst total in the NFL.

Position in flux: When the Falcons signed running back Steven Jackson, the risk was clear. He turned 30 before last season and had about 2,400 career carries with the Rams. The Falcons were hoping for a couple more good years before he faded. Instead, Jackson got hurt, was limited to just 157 carries and had a career-low 3.5-yard average. Getting hurt doesn't necessarily mean you're finished, but there has to be that concern now. The team drafted Devonta Freeman out of Florida State, and it's possible he cuts into the now 31-year-old Jackson's work, if nothing else to keep the old man fresh. It will be interesting to see early on how sold the Falcons are on Jackson still being a workhorse back.

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Joplo Bartu (USA Today Sports Images)

Joplo Bartu (USA Today Sports Images)

Ready to break out: Linebacker Joplo Bartu got an unexpected 13 starts last year as an undrafted rookie from North Texas, and held his own. He had 85 tackles and helped fill some holes on an injury-plagued team. When Weatherspoon went down, it provided an opportunity for Bartu. He'll be at a different spot this year, playing more of a 3-4 inside linebacker role than on the outside in a 4-3, but unless Atlanta signs a veteran before the season, Bartu has a prime opportunity to establish himself in the Falcons' future plans.

Stat fact: Through five games last season, Julio Jones was on a pace for 131.2 receptions and 1,856 yards. He didn't get to play the final 11 games because of a foot injury that required surgery, and all eyes will be on Jones to see if that issue comes back, or if it causes him to lose a step.

Schedule degree of difficulty: The Falcons play in a pretty tough NFC South. That, plus games against the NFC North and AFC North, are a reason they have the 11th toughest schedule in the NFL this year. It starts off with a doozy too, a home battle against rival New Orleans.

Burning question

This team’s best-case scenario for the 2014 season: If you can chalk up 2013 to injuries, and like their offseason moves, there's no reason the Falcons can't be good again. Any team with Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Jones and Harry Douglas (who really took advantage of opportunities to gain 1,067 yards) will score points. The defense lacks stars, but was it that great when the Falcons were 10 yards from a Super Bowl two years ago? It's easy to envision a scenario in which a career year from Ryan makes Atlanta relevant again.

And here’s the nightmare scenario: The biggest issue is the defense. The improvements on the line might be negated by the loss of Weatherspoon. They can't replace his playmaking ability. The Falcons also can't rush the quarterback, and aren't a lock to improve much on a paltry 10 interceptions from last year. If Jackson really has hit the wall and Freeman isn't ready, the entire success of the team falls on the passing game. Ryan and Co. are good, but it would be asking a lot. 

The crystal ball says: The Falcons are going to be better this year, but I still prefer the other three teams in the South. There are too many questions on defense for Atlanta to consider the Falcons a playoff team in a tough NFC. They'll outscore a few teams, and they'll be fun to watch, but that's not enough for me to get behind them as a true contender.

Previous previews:
32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31. Oakland Raiders
30. Washington Redskins
29. Cleveland Browns
28. Minnesota Vikings
27. Buffalo Bills
26. Tennessee Titans
25. Houston Texans
24. Dallas Cowboys
23. New York Jets

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdowncorner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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