2010 Atlanta Falcons preview

Gary Horton is the founder of Scouts Inc. and has spent more than two decades around the game of football. In advance of the 2010 NFL season, he offers a look at the offensive and defensive philosophies of every team, among other observations. ESPN television talent use these same files to help them prepare for the season. You can find all teams, as posted, archived to the right; you can find them on one page by going here.

Offensive Philosophy

Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey is a run-first, pass-second guy. He values toughness and versatility in his players, and he loves to eat up the clock with drives. We will see a lot of power run sets with a blocking fullback and two tight ends from the Falcons. However, as much as this looks like a conservative scheme, the Falcons will use creativity -- such as motion and even gadget plays -- to keep defenses off balance. Mularkey seems to feel that this offense is ready to go to the next level with some no-huddle sets, reverses, more deep passes, etc.

When the Falcons do throw the ball, it often comes off play-action and the run game. In 2010, they will take more deep shots than you might think with QB Matt Ryan. He has really improved in his ball handling, which is reflected in his good play-action fakes. This offense has a nice balance to it, and they have really improved in their ability to recognize and exploit good matchups. Many times the use of motion will set up favorable situations.

More Offensive Intel

• The Falcons like to attack defenses with the proven style of Michael Turner, and he will wear down opponents. He must stay healthy, though, which is not easy for a guy who looks for contact. After Turner, the Falcons will come back with their change-of-pace guy in Jerious Norwood, who has excellent speed and explosiveness. He can get to the corner, but durability is a question mark with him, too. They do have two other quality backs, Jason Snelling and excellent blocking FB Ovie Mughelli, and that gives them quality numbers for their run-heavy offense.

• The Falcons must improve inside in their run blocking. They were really bothered by defenses in 2009 that had a strong nose tackle and could collapse the pocket. That really hindered their inside run game and often forced the backs to bounce to the outside. In a run-oriented offense, the between-the-tackles lanes must not be taken away.

• Ryan has really improved at spreading the ball around to all of his targets, especially WR Roddy White and TE Tony Gonzalez. He's much better throwing to the middle of the field, which is good when you have Gonzalez there.

• Ryan is a meticulous playbook-studying guy, and his preparation is as good as it gets. He watches film constantly with Mularkey. This offseason, Ryan did some film study on Drew Brees and how he effectively uses the checkdown pass. Look for Ryan to have a nice 2010.

Defensive Philosophy

Atlanta is the epitome of your basic 4-3 front and Cover-2 defense, with coach Mike Smith overseeing an assignment-oriented and fairly conservative scheme under coordinator Brian VanGorder, who calls the defensive plays. They want size and physicality with their defensive tackles, good pass rushers off the edge and active linebackers who cover a lot of ground and make most of the tackles. The defensive backs must be physical and smart, and they are not asked to play a lot of man-to-man coverage.

The front four occupies blockers, and the back seven flies to the ball to make the most of the plays. They are not blitz-happy and they will pick their spots, but for the most part, they sit back and make offenses beat them. At times their physicality reminds you of the Baltimore Ravens, which is a unit Smith helped build years ago.

More Defensive Intel

• The Falcons would love to play more aggressive schemes and an attacking style with some blitzes, but that would require more single, man-to-man coverage, and they simply don't have the personnel to get that done. They have some problems on defense; they were ranked near the bottom of the NFL in third-down defense and big plays given up. The guys up front, like John Abraham and Jamaal Anderson, need to manufacture more sacks or else this secondary is going to get exposed.

• This defense tried early in 2009 to gamble and blitz more after that Cover-2 philosophy was utilized in 2008. They are now back to that more conservative approach to hide their weaknesses. It really limits the calls that VanGorder makes, but if the personnel improves, they will become more creative in the future.