Bill Shanks

Falcons could be explosive

ATLANTA -- Folks say defense wins championships in football. But if the Atlanta Falcons are going to win anything this year, it might have to be with an explosive offense.

Sure, the Falcons made changes to the defense, and it should be better. The Falcons were next-to-last in the NFL in rushing defense last season, so it can’t get much worse. The addition of free agents Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson for the defensive line of scrimmage will make it hard for opponents to run at will as they did last season.

But the Falcons got great under head coach Mike Smith when they could stop the run on defense and rush the ball on offense -- which is what Smith said they had to do to be successful when he took the job in 2008. Last year, with Michael Turner gone and Steven Jackson hurt, the Falcons got away from that.

They didn’t have much choice, really. Jackson was never the same as he battled a hamstring injury. Jacquizz Rodgers did not step up, and the revolving door on the offense line did not help either. That’s why Atlanta was last in the NFL in rushing yards per game in 2013.

The Falcons drafted Devonta Freeman in the fourth round of May’s NFL draft, and with Jackson hurt again, Freeman might have to step up and be the man from day one. That’s not something you want to put on a rookie running back, but the Falcons might not have much of a choice. Rodgers still can’t prove he deserves work as the starter at running back.

Atlanta is going to rely once again on quarterback Matt Ryan’s ability to get the ball downfield to his receivers for points. Roddy White and Julio Jones are both back after playing in a combined 18 games last season. They want to think they make up the best receiving duo in the NFL, and this is the year to prove it.

But there’s more than White and Jones to catch the ball. Tight end Tony Gonzalez is gone, but the depth is still there on the roster. Atlanta’s third best receiver led the team in yards a year ago. Harry Douglas makes the receiving corps a three-man discussion, and after a 1,000-yard season last year, Douglas will command respect on the field.

As I write this from the Georgia Dome, Devin Hester has just caught a touchdown pass from Ryan in the exhibition game against the Tennessee Titans. The Falcons truly believe the return specialist can be a significant weapon this season, and Hester showed that getting the first six points of the game.

What NFL team has a group of receivers better than that? It will be hard to find one, and that’s what could make the Falcons dangerous this season.

Of course, the offensive line is a key part of this. It must keep Ryan on his feet to get the ball to his targets. Ryan was on the ground too much last season because of his shaky offensive line, so for the receivers to have separation, he must remain upright.

Until the new-look defense, with all of its different schemes and techniques from defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, comes together, the offense will be key for the Falcons. That’s why getting Jackson back and keeping Ryan and his receivers healthy will be tremendously important for the Falcons to light up the scoreboard.

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