By TPR Staff

All season, all we heard from NFL talking heads was that they were a paper tiger. They hadn’t beaten anyone convincingly enough to think that they were a threat to anyone in the playoffs; even with home field advantage. But when forced to put their money where their mouth is, the Falcons ended up about ten yards shy of the Super Bowl. All of this against a team that many believe was vastly superior to them.

In a season that saw the Falcons improve in almost every way, it all ended with a heartbreaking loss in the Georgia Dome in the NFC championship game. There were bumps in the road, to be sure, but I think many will agree that Atlanta exceeded expectation in 2012 and we’ll take a closer look at both sides of the ball now.

Offense

Easily the most improved portion of the Falcons this season from 2011 was on the offensive side of the ball. I know it’s beating a dead horse to bring it up as I always do, but my prediction of it being addition by subtraction after dumping offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey turned out to be quite accurate. New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter decided to allow his quarterback to go up top with the football and use his explosive weapons to boost an offense that seemed stagnant in 2011.

This finally allowed Matt Ryan to go from good quarterback to one of the best in the league; and even had his name in MVP consideration the first half of the year. Giving Koetter a lot of credit is fair; but it doesn’t take an offensive wizard to realize that using Julio Jones as a decoy to set up the run like Mularkey did was quite foolish.

Allowing Ryan to be a field general resulted in his best season as a pro in which he posted career high numbers in passing yards, touchdowns, completion percentage and overall rating. In turn, this finally allowed the big draft day trade for Julio Jones to get the credit it deserved. With nearly 1,100 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns, Jones was named to the pro bowl and put on one of the most dominating performances at his position in postseason history against the Niners.

The run game did suffer mightily in 2012 and at times it caused the offense to go through long, stagnant stretches where the team would go through complete quarters without a first down. With Michael Turner’s time in Atlanta seemingly up, this is something they’ll look to improve on in the draft and free agency.

Grade: A

Defense

When cornerback Brent Grimes went out for the season with an achilles injury after the first week of the season, it appeared the team would have to lean on their offense mightily. But newcomer Asante Samuel was able to hold up his end of the secondary while Dunta Robinson, who still didn’t live up to his contract, performed the best he has since signing with Atlanta. Pretty much everyone stepped up in Grimes’ absence and the Falcons excelled at turning the ball over.

Finishing 24th in the league at yards allowed, yet being 5th overall in points allowed speaks volumes to this unit’s ability to turn the ball over. Some don’t like the “bend, but don’t break” analogy to a defense that gives up a lot of yards, but it certainly rings true with a defense that turned the ball over 31 times in 2012.

Where the Falcons defense hurt them was against the running game. Seemingly anyone could have a big day running the ball against Atlanta and it cost them in the NFC title game that saw them unable to hang onto a 17 point lead at home. They were 21st in the league against the run and the pass rush, outside of John Abraham, was invisible most of the time. As a unit, they only brought down the opposing quarterback 29 times all season.

Grade: C

Overall

To call the season a disappointment after 13 wins and being so close to pulling off the upset against the Niners would be a but harsh. There are those who wonder if Mike Smith should start to be held accountable for the playoff failures and I think that if they had lost against Seattle, he’d start next year on the hot seat. But he’s changed the culture in this franchise and he’s likely to stick around quite a while longer. Many forget that the team had never posted back to back winning season before Smith took the reins. Since then, they’ve posted five straight winning season.

The hardest part for Atlanta will be replacing what Tony Gonzalez brought to this team both on the field and in the locker room. He’s one of the greatest ever and was still playing at such a high level; to see him walk away after being that close to playing in the Super Bowl will hurt both him and his teammates.

This team should focus on better linebacker play, a pass catching tight end and a bruiser at running back and they’ll be right back here next year. They’re about as close as you can be without getting to the big dance.

Grade: B

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