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Falcons enter critical third year of Dimitroff's master plan

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Three draft classes and three years of free agency.

That's the timetable Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith set for being able to make a serious run at the Super Bowl.

Though Atlanta has notched back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history, Dimitroff said that's been nothing more than foundation building. We'll see what this team is really made of this season.

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"We had very definitive lines and ideas about the building of this football team and one of the aspects that was very important to us was to be consistent in our thought process and not be swayed by the emotions of the season and offseason signings and such," Dimitroff said. "We've adhered to our policy close enough to a T. We haven't abandoned anything when things went a little bit awry.

"We're in our third year and we're getting closer to where we want to be. As we finished our third OTA session this spring, this team had an element of confidence and swagger about them. They believe that they can truly play with anyone in this league and compete with anyone in this league. That is important."

Dimitroff said Atlanta is without a glaring hole at any position for the first time since his arrival. There might be a lack of depth here and there, but the roster is fortified for the most part. Much like conference champions Indianapolis and New Orleans, Atlanta can withstand an injury at nearly any position other than quarterback.

The Falcons should be good this season. Unseat-the-Saints as NFC South champs good? Maybe. This is a division that has never had a repeat champion since its inception in 2002. New Orleans seems poised to snap that streak, but Atlanta presents the biggest threat to the Saints.

The Falcons have their franchise quarterback in Matt Ryan, who, like Dimitroff and Smith, is entering his third season with the organization. Running back Michael Turner is already in shape, something he wasn't until a few days before gashing New Orleans for 151 yards in a 35-27 loss to the Saints in Week 8 of last season. More importantly, Atlanta now has depth and options on defense, due in large part to the free-agent acquisition of cornerback Dunta Robinson and the first-round selection of multi-purpose outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon.

The process of getting to this optimistic point started when Dimitroff and Smith were hired in 2008, shortly after the Michael Vick dogfighting scandal and Bobby Petrino's in-season flight from the carnage.

"We knew that we really needed a quarterback to kick off that first season, and with that we were going to build around that quarterback for years to come, and we were going to make sure we were going (to) provide all the tools we could for him to succeed," Dimitroff said.

"That was going to be our focus and then start with a young, aggressive, vibrant defense that would grow into a passionate defense with a swagger about them. Mike Smith is a defensive coordinator at the core and knows defense. He thrives on defense. I believe that with putting the money and time in on the offense while growing and evolving this defense, we were going to have a shot at being a perennial playoff contender."

While the surprising Falcons went 11-5 in Dimitroff and Smith's first year behind a patchwork defense, Ryan (who won Offensive Rookie of the Year) and Turner (who was a Pro Bowler), it was time to take things to a new level in 2009.

Dimitroff traded a second-round pick to Kansas City for future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. With Gonzalez and emerging Pro Bowl wide receiver Roddy White, Ryan and the Falcons seemed poised for even greater success.

But White (who still put up great numbers) was distracted by the desire to get a contract extension, Turner enjoyed the offseason a tad too much, and the purging of veterans on defense in favor of young players didn't pan out. Atlanta still won nine games, but it didn't make the playoffs and took a step backwards -- especially Ryan, who seemed less comfortable behind an offensive line that occasionally struggled with some massive 3-4 fronts early on and then was weakened by injuries.

The fairly young defensive line and secondary weren't overly productive (Atlanta finished 28th vs. the pass) in part because Dimitroff's first two draft picks in 2009, defensive tackle Peria Jerry and safety William Moore, played only four combined games due to injury. The grand plan and Dimitroff's draft savvy hit a snag of sorts.

Now comes the fusing of those two seasons in order to prove things have been done right. Dimitroff and Smith might not have strayed from their plan, but this third season will tell if the plan was correct.

Here is Dimitroff's position-by-position breakdown and why he thinks his roster finally doesn't have a glaring weakness:

QB: Ryan has begun to show signs of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees, telling offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey plays he wants to call and ones the team should stay away from. His learning curve has shortened, and he realizes now is the time to make this his team. Ryan's leadership is unquestioned, and he garnered even more respect from teammates by finishing out last season despite suffering a turf toe injury.

RB: Turner is buoyed by Jason Snelling, a similar big-bodied back who a lot of teams wouldn't mind having run the rock for them. Atlanta wants desperately to utilize the speed and breakaway ability of super-fast Jerious Norwood in open space, but he's seemingly always nicked. Turner is motivated to get back to Pro Bowl form after the ankle injury that cut his season short has healed.

WRs/TE: Gonzalez is nearing the end, but he caught 83 passes in his first season with the team and showed that he's still one of the top tight ends in the league. What could open up the field for him is the return of Wes Welker-like slot receiver Harry Douglas. They could form an interchangeable over-under tandem that will leave one of them covered by an outside linebacker most of the time they're on the field together -- a favorable matchup either way. White is one of the NFL's top wideouts, but fellow starter Michael Jenkins needs to bounce back from an inconsistent season that took some starch out of the passing game.

"I was very impressed with Roddy White's spring," Dimitroff said. "He wasn't worried about the contract, and he was focusing. He and Matt took it to another level, as far as developing that connection."

OL: This will be the third year this mean-tempered group will be together. Right guard Harvey Dahl is one of the nastiest players in the league, but he needs to stay healthy. He is coming off a bad foot injury. Center Todd McClure is the only player with some age on him, but he's still got something left. Left tackle Sam Baker, drafted in the first round with Ryan in 2008, has never reached his potential because of injuries.

"Though he's battled some injuries, I truly believe he has the potential to be an upper echelon left tackle," Dimitroff said of Baker, who has started 19 of 22 games, while missing 10 due to injury.

DL: The defensive tackles could make or break the Falcons' season. Jonathan Babineaux is a solid three-technique tackle but Atlanta really needs to get steady play and a full season out of Jerry, who was making headway before wrecking his knee just two games into the season (the Falcons won't disclose the injury, other than saying it wasn't to his ACL). Atlanta drafted Corey Peters in the third round to rotate with Jerry and expect a lot out of him.

"The interior is going to dictate our creativity and pressure on the outside," Dimitroff said.

Former eighth overall pick Jamaal Anderson, an end, will see more time at tackle this year. He is viewed almost solely as a run-support end and will be moved inside on passing downs because of the emergence of Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury as pass rushers. This could be Anderson's last season with the Falcons. What Dimitroff is most jacked about is John Abraham, who struggled to get just 5.5 sacks last season after registering 16.5 in 2008.

"I maintain that John Abraham still has fuel in his tank and can still be disruptive," Dimitroff said. "I believe he's in good shape, and he has a chip on his shoulder that he's not a player of the past."

LBs: The loquacious Weatherspoon can talk as good a game as anyone, but he's the three-down, pedal-to-the-metal, versatile playmaker this defense lacked at the second level. He could give this unit some much-needed personality. But he has to find his way onto the field. He will compete at both outside linebacker spots, however, the odds are he'll end up playing more on the strong side, where Stephen Nicholas started last season. MLB Curtis Lofton came into his own a year ago, and weakside linebacker Mike Peterson is still highly effective against the run. Weatherspoon, though, is a potential difference-maker, and he was drafted with the Saints in mind.

"Prototypically he'd be a fine Will (weakside) linebacker in this league," Dimitroff said of Weatherspoon. "He can run, he can scrape, he can get to the ball, but he can flip his hips and turn and get into coverage with running backs and tight ends, which are incredibly important (skills) for us as far as our being able to defend some of the teams in our division -- namely the New Orleans Saints."

DBs: Robinson was signed to a six-year, $57 million contract this spring, and the Falcons feel as if they already are getting a return on their investment.

"This year, we step back and we know that one of our missing links was to have that veteran corner," Dimitroff said. "Let's be realistic about it, he's not going to knock down every ball, no corner in this league can do that -- but, by virtue of the presence and speed of Dunta Robinson, he's going to dissuade quarterbacks from pulling up and tossing the ball on him.

"The team is excited, whereas last year, I felt the general feel of our secondary was, 'What's going to happen next?' Now (the attitude is) we have some athletes and speed here, and we should eliminate some of the big plays. Hopefully we'll eliminate a lot of the big plays and not be ranked 28th in pass defense."

Things are still a little dicey at the other cornerback, where Brian Williams, Chris Owens and Brent Grimes will battle for the starting job. Grimes had six interceptions last season, but Owens might be tougher against the run and have more long-term upside. At safety, the Falcons are hoping that Moore can find his way onto the field at strong safety. Erik Coleman is the starter, but Moore's intimidating style is something they'd like on the back end. Rangy free safety Thomas DeCoud could begin his surge to many Pro Bowls this season.

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