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2005 preview: Falcons

NFC South predictions
1. Atlanta
2. Carolina
3. New Orleans
4. Tampa Bay
Atlanta Falcons
Head coach: Jim Mora Jr., second season
2004 record: 11-5
2004 rankings: Offense, 20th (317.8 yards/game); Defense, 14th (325.4 yards/game)
2005 strength of schedule: 32nd
From SportingNews.com: NFC South overview

After all the hand wringing over Michael Vick playing in the West Coast offense last year, the Falcons and their star quarterback found a comfort zone as the season went along. Though it was clear Vick still hadn't mastered the passing game (56.4-percent passing and a 14-12 touchdown-to-interception ratio), his talents complemented tailbacks Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett nicely.

The defense, under coordinator Ed Donatell, provided the biggest lift, as it pressured opposing passers and got vastly better over the previous season. Although the Falcons advanced to the conference championship game in a weak year for the NFC, they had the makings of a team that should make a push for a return in 2005.

OFFENSE

With Vick, Dunn and Duckett, the rushing game is superb, and that shouldn't change any time soon. Offensive line coach Jeff Jagodzinski has been brought aboard to help shore up Vick's protection, which is just the first step toward improving his performance in the passing game. To compete with Philadelphia and Carolina in 2005, Vick must become more efficient in coordinator Greg Knapp's system.

It's hard to tell whether Vick's struggles are leading to the poor production of some of his receivers, or if guys like Peerless Price aren't fitting in. Whatever the problems, they need to be solved before Atlanta can challenge for a trip to the Super Bowl.

Speedy receiver Michael Jenkins will get the opportunity to start opposite Price, but he has little experience. At this point, the Falcons may have to cross their fingers and hope one of the younger guys – Jenkins or rookie Roddy White – can provide a better complement to Pro Bowl tight end Alge Crumpler. If neither can, it's doubtful Price or Dez White will suddenly emerge as the star wideout Atlanta has lacked.

DEFENSE

The defensive line was stellar last year, racking up 30½ sacks between defensive tackle Rod Coleman (11½) and defensive ends Patrick Kerney (13) and Brady Smith (six). It's hard to imagine that group playing much better, but if Coleman remains dominant, the line is certainly capable of sustaining that type of aggressive play.

The linebackers were greatly improved with the signing of underrated middleman Ed Hartwell, who rarely received the accolades he deserved while playing next to Ray Lewis in Baltimore. Hartwell and veteran Keith Brooking will be a good tandem.

It's hard to knock strong side linebacker Demorrio Williams before he's had a chance to start, but he is small for the position. The secondary will essentially be the same group as last season, but cornerback DeAngelo Hall has looked very good this offseason and could end up being the stellar No. 1 cornerback the defense lacked last year.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Kicker Todd Peterson and punter Toby Gowin are serviceable but not great. Allen Rossum is one of the league's best punt returners, but the Falcons could use an upgrade on kickoff returns. Rookie DeAndra Cobb will get the chance to win that job.

PREDICTION

The Falcons will finish 12-4 and first in the NFC South.