Guerry Clegg commentary: Falcons take steps to get tougher

March 15, 2014 

It's almost never constructive when the owner of a pro sports team imposes his (or her) insight on those entrusted to make such decisions.

But Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank was absolutely right in his assessment after the trainwreck that was the 2013 season.

Head coach Mike Smith dismissed the assertion that the Falcons were not tough enough. Blank did not.

Said Blank: "I think, at the end of the day, if I asked you … give me a brief definition of what toughness is, I think you might say something else, but you might say to me it's how you control the line of scrimmage. Can you run the ball? Can you stop the run? … And I don't think we did either one of those things very well this year. So I would say, if you looked at toughness from that perspective, I don't think we were as tough as we needed to be.''

Even if Blank, Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff didn't completely agree with what the problem was, at least they've all been unified as to the solution. Both lines must be overhauled if the Falcons are going to reclaim their standing among the NFC's elite.

So when the bell rang to open the free-agent market last week, the Falcons signed offensive guard Jon Asamoah and defensive end Tyson Jackson from the Kansas City Chiefs and defensive tackle Paul Soliai from the Miami Dolphins.

Whether they will be an improvement remains to be seen. Osi Umenyiora seemed like an obvious upgrade at defensive end last season. but Umenyiora turned out to be nothing more than an expensive third-down specialist.

But based on their reputation, the newest Falcons share a common trait: toughness.

The assumption is they will use their first two picks of the draft to take another offensive lineman and a defensive player -- either an end, a pass-rushing linebacker such as UCLA's Anthony Barr, or possibly a strong safety.

With the sixth overall pick in the draft, the Falcons are assured of being able to land a premier player to fill one of those spots. Whether it's an offensive tackle such as Auburn's Greg Robinson or Texas A&M's Jake Matthews or a pass-rusher such as Kony Ealy of Missouri, Khalil Mack of Buffalo or Barr, it really doesn't matter. Any of them would be an improvement over what they had last season.

There's a good chance someone less heralded but equally impactful will be available when the Falcons pick in the second round.

It's impossible to plug every hole in one offseason, for any team, let alone one that finished 4-12. But the additions the Falcons have made and expect to make, along with the healthy return of offensive tackles Mike Johnson and Sam Baker, defensive tackle Kroy Biermann and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, should make them tougher.

The dynamics of the NFC are changing. The two best teams, Seattle and San Francisco, are also the two most physical teams. Until last season, the Falcons had a reputation for being tough and physical. Michael Turner ran for 1,699 yards in 2008, his first season with the Falcons, and led the NFC in rushing in 2010 and '11.

But the offense has become softer. Some of that was Turner's declining skills. But a lot of it was the team drifting away from what they were doing so well. They let veteran linemen leave and tried to replace them with younger players.

They need to get stronger and tougher on both sides of the ball. And that starts up front.

-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You may write to him at sports@ledger-enquirer.com.

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