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Know Thy Enemy 2009: Atlanta Falcons - Sunday, October 11

I've decided that I'll post these Know Thy Enemy posts each Wednesday.  At that pace we'd wrap up the 11 non-divisional opponents the week of the final preseason game.  I noticed we actually didn't finish our list last summer, so I think that's a reasonable goal this time around.  I forgot to ask last time, but if you'd like certain additional bits of information in these posts let me know in the comments.  These are meant as more broad overviews, but I'm certainly open to changes.

This week we move on to the Atlanta Falcons.  The Vikings Falcons are represented at SB Nation by Dave the Falconer over at The Falcoholic.  The Falcons have managed quite the on-field and PR turnaround in the wake of Michael Vick's departure from the team and I'd imagine Falcons fans are in quite the happy place at this point in time.

The Falcons put together quite a turnaround last season.  The additions of Matt Ryan and Michael Turner completely turned the franchise around.  They already had a potential franchise wide receiver in Roddy White, but the additions of Ryan and Turner turned this team from 4-12 to 12-4 11-5.  John Abraham's re-emergence as a sack machine definitely added to that and the Falcons had them rolling before running into an Arizona Cardinals team that was getting especially hot at the right time.  The team will be looking to build on a monster 2008 and avoid a sophomore slump after an impressive Rookie of the Year campaign.

After a season in which their rushing and passing offense showed impressive improvements, the Falcons used the draft to address a defense ranked 23rd in the league.  In fact, they used all 8 picks 7 of their 8 picks on the defense.  If John Abraham can maintain last year's monster performance, Falcons are hopeful first round pick Peria Jerry will help turn their defensive linemen into the best in the NFC South.  Another intriguing addition, at least in my mind, was the addition of Mizzou safety William Moore in the second round.  There was a fair amount of buzz around him and Falcons fans seem convinced he'll be the starting strong safety this season.

The team did not ignore the offense, even as it rolled to 8th in the league.  In fact, they went so far as to adding future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez.  Gonzalez is coming off yet another monster season in Kansas City, finishing with 96 receptions, 1,058 yards and touchdowns.  Although he just turned 33, Gonzalez has not yet lost a step.  If Gonzalez continues at his current level of play, that Falcons offense could be mighty impressive (cue the complaining for the 49ers not acquiring him).

The team saw important cogs like LBs Keith Brooking and Michael Boley and CB Domonique Foxworth depart in free agency.  Brooking was an older veteran who were replaced by the likes of Mike Peterson, also a veteran.  A switch of veterans should not hurt them all that much.  Boley and Foxworth were both still young.  While they did make some secondary additions in the draft, it'll be interesting to see how they replace Boley.  Right now it appears as though Coy Wire and Stephen Nicholas are competing for the job.

2009 Questions & Answers
The big question is whether Matt Ryan will put together a sophomore campaign like or better than his rookie season, or if he'll suffer the dreaded sophomore slump.  I'd say the addition of Tony Gonzalez would likely help mitigate that given that he is awesome and all.  While the team could certainly struggle in 2009, I really think this offense could be pretty filthy this season.

One question that could get in the way is Michael Turner.  Turner finished 2008 with 394 total carries between the regular season and postseason.  That is a dangerous load to carry and the Falcons will likely need to figure out a way to get Jerious Norwood more involved in the offense.  He had 95 carries for 489 yards in 2008, but might need to add a decent chunk of carries to keep Turner fresh.

On defense, John Abraham has been rather up and down throughout his career.  If he can maintain last season's pace that'd be great, but if not, the question becomes who picks up the slack.

@ San Francisco
The 49ers last faced the Falcons in 2007, a much different time that saw the Falcons quarterbacked by Joey Harrington.  Joey Heisman didn't do much of anything in the game, but looked better than Alex Smith in a 20-16 Atlanta victory.  Much has changed and this game will come just after the the quarter-pole of the season, with much on the line for both teams.  In our second discussion post, ProfessorBigelow and I both saw this as a 49ers loss.  If Matt Ryan doesn't have a sophomore slump and the Falcons defense shows some gradual improvement, I see this as potentially one of the toughest games all season. 

Equally important, it will be a huge measuring stick.  If the team is playing well the 49ers should be 2-2 at this point, and even then 3-2 is just so much better than 2-3.  And, of course, heading into the bye week, the team has an opportunity at a 2-game winning streak given that they play the Rams at home the week before.  Either way, this is a huge game early in the season.