The job in the NFL offseason is to improve your team, no matter where you finished in the previous season. There is no status quo from one season to the next and the aim of free agency and the draft is to simply get better.
Based on the 2013 season for the Falcons, a lot of speculation was made about what direction the team would go when free agency began. Not too long into the signing period, we saw one of the areas the Falcons hope to improve with acquisitions: defending the run game.
Defending the run successfully is important for any defense to survive and give their team a chance to win. Last year’s 31st-ranked Falcons run defense has to improve and the major defensive signings signal an improvement in personnel that can defend the run. It’s important every season, but particularly next season as the Falcons prepare to face some of the top running attacks in football.
While we don’t know the schedule for 2014, we do know who the opponents will be. Of course, the Falcons will face NFC South rivals Tampa, New Orleans and Carolina twice next season and all three have had success running the ball against the Falcons. The Falcons held the Saints’ 25th-ranked run game in check, limiting them to a 90.5 yard-per-game average, but the Panthers (ranked 11th) and the Bucs (ranked 22nd) each found success, averaging 132.5 and 148.5 yards per game.
Carolina will always be a threat to run with Cam Newton at quarterback and Tampa welcomes running back Doug Martin back next season. Injuries limited Martin to just six games last season, but in 2012, he was the league’s No. 5 rusher, accumulating 1,454 yards.
The Falcons will also face two top-10 running attacks from last season. Green Bay (ranked 7th) and Minnesota (ranked 8th) each boast a Pro Bowl running back and feature the run game in their offense. Stopping Eddie Lacy and Adrian Peterson will be key in getting victories over both teams in 2014. In a tough cold-weather game last season, the Falcons held Lacy to 65 yards last season, but allowed him to score once and gave up 112 total rushing yards to the Packers.
Chicago is also on the schedule and while the Bears’ running game was only ranked 16th last season, their No. 1 back, Matt Forte, is consistently among the top rushers in football and finished second last season with 1,339 yards. Arizona doesn’t boast a potent attack (ranked 26th), but last season against the Falcons, they gained 201 yards on the ground.
Detroit features Reggie Bush and the Lions’ 17th-ranked run game last year was paced by Bush, who gained 1,006 yards, the 13th-ranked individual total in 2013. Last season was a down year for the Baltimore run game (ranked 30th) due largely to a down season by Ray Rice. If he can bounce back, the Ravens should expect a similar rebound in their run game. Rice finished 11th in rushing in 2012 and second in 2011.
Cleveland is another intriguing opponent for the Falcons improved run defense. The Browns clearly want to improve their 27th-ranked run game and brought in former Texans running back Ben Tate to hopefully do just that.
Should the Falcons find themselves in the postseason again, two of their likely opponents, Seattle and San Francisco, are top-5 running attacks and stopping the run at that time of the year is of the utmost importance. Wins in the regular season have to get the Falcons to the playoffs first, but Seattle and San Francisco look to remain legit contenders as long as their running attack is as dominant as it has been in recent seasons. If you can’t stop them, they’re tough to beat.
The signing of defensive end Tyson Jackson gives the Falcons D a versatile edge defender that can also move inside. He excels at run defense and last season, according to Pro Football Focus, Jackson was the No. 2 run defender for Kansas City with a rating of +15.5.
Paul Soliai should accomplish similar objectives. He’s a traditional nose tackle in a 3-4 defense, but he should be able to move around to accommodate coordinator Mike Nolan’s hybrid defense. Soliai was also the No. 2 run defender for his team, Miami, last season with a rating of +7.9.
The re-signings of Jonathan Babineaux and Corey Peters will also help improve the run game. They were two of Atlanta’s best run defenders last season and paired with Jackson and Soliai, the Falcons should have a formidable front line against the run. Babineaux was Atlanta’s No. 3 run defender (+7.3) and Peters was No. 2 (+7.8).