COMMENTARY | It was not that long ago that the Atlanta Falcons had yet to put together back-to-back winning seasons, much less consecutive playoff appearances.
Since 2008, under the current regime of general manager Thomas Dimitroff, head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan, the franchise is perfect when it comes to finishing above .500 and has been to the postseason three straight and four of those five years. Last season, the Falcons tied for the best record in the NFL at 13-3 and won the NFC South for the second time in three years.
However, a long-awaited return to the Big Game continues to elude the organization. Has the Super Bowl become two dirty words for the former Dirty Birds?
Regardless, it is on to 2013, and here we will take a look at five players who could be critical to the team's success this upcoming season. While in some cases the obvious will be stated, in other instances the focus will be on a newcomer to the team or a performer looking to rebound from a disappointing year.
So here are five players to keep an eye on this season when it comes to the Atlanta Falcons:
QB Matt Ryan: The transformation from young quarterback to commander of the Atlanta offense has been a steady process. Case in point is that Ryan has increased his touchdown pass total each season, from 16 in his rookie year of 2008 to 22 (2009), 28 (2010), 29 (2011) and finally 32 scores in 2012. And when you consider that wideouts Roddy White and Julio Jones and tight end Tony Gonzalez all had more receiving yards than running back Michael Turner had rushing yards this past season, this is an attack that relies more on Ryan than it ever did.
RB Steven Jackson: Many will point to Turner and say that the workhorse slowed down considerably last season, hence his release this offseason. But the fact also remains that the team throws the ball a lot more than it used to. And perhaps that's where Jackson comes in. The former St. Louis Rams star has not only rushed for 1,000-plus yards in eight straight seasons but has totaled 407 receptions during his nine-year career. Don't be surprised if Jackson plays a bigger role as a pass catcher than a runner with his new club.
WR Julio Jones: Dimitroff and the organization gave up plenty to move up in the first round in 2011 to get Jones and the move has paid off to date, to say the least. In two years with the club, the former Alabama standout has totaled 133 catches for 2,157 yards and 18 scores in 29 regular-season contests. While his yards-per-reception last season (15.2) dipped a bit from his rookie campaign (17.8), it's also worth noting that 16 of his 18 scores have come in his last 20 contests.
DE Osi Umenyiora: The Falcons were looking to bolster their pass-rush, but did they get the job done? This offseason, the team parted ways with veteran defensive end John Abraham, who led the club with 10 sacks in 2012. But defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's unit totaled only 29 sacks last season. Umenyiora totaled 75.0 sacks and was named to a pair of Pro Bowls in 10 years with the New York Giants. But even if he tops his total of 6.0 sacks in 2012, is that enough to make the Atlanta pass-rush truly formidable?
SS William Moore: The physical defender teams with fellow Pro-Bowler Thomas DeCoud to give the Falcons arguably the best safety combination in the league. And when you consider that Atlanta allowed only 14 touchdown passes last season despite the lack of an overwhelming pass-rush, the secondary may deserve even more kudos. And it is also worth noting that Smith's club totaled 20 interceptions in 2012, half of those by the DeCoud (6) and Moore (4) safety tandem.
So what can we expect from the Falcons in 2013? Can the team be the first to ever win back-to-back NFC South titles? And who else will play an extremely pivotal role in the team's fortunes this season? Expectations are high this season for the NFC's No. 1 seed in 2012.
Russell S. Baxter has spent the last 40-plus years watching football. He is the founder of ProFootballGuru.com, writes for numerous websites and publications across the country and is blessed with an encyclopedic memory. Ready to talk NFL? Follow him on Twitter at @BaxFootballGuru.
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