It looked like the Falcons had finally broken through.
But then last season when a few players were broken, some deeper cracks were revealed.
After turning consistent regular season success (56 wins from 2008-12) into their first playoff win under coach Mike Smith, the Falcons fell apart dramatically last year.
The injuries to star wideouts Julio Jones and Roddy White were the most evident, but the Falcons were also deeply flawed along both lines, and it began to show.
But this offseason, they have aggressively (how else) pursued a fix to the problems that doctors couldn’t work on.
They used the first hours of free agency to add heft to both lines, setting the stage for a shift to more of a 3-4 defense and the possibility of more of a run game.
Even with the retirement of tight end Tony Gonzalez, the Falcons ought to be able to score points with anyone.
Once Jones and White are back (they’re crossing their fingers on Jones being ready soon), Ryan should again be able to play pitch-and-catch with anyone in the league.
Fixing the offensive line will help, since it was the biggest problem last year other than injuries. They averaged a measly 77.9 rushing yards per game (last in the league) while allowing 44 sacks.
So the early spend on free agent guard Jon Asamoah and using their first-rounder on tackle Jake Matthews was an immediate upgrade for a line that needed toughness as much as bodies. They’ve installed those two on the right side, and hope that left tackle Sam Baker comes back a different player after knee surgery.
If nothing else, it should give running back Stephen Jackson a chance to look like himself again. The longtime Rams star saw his streak of eight straight 1,000-yard seasons snapped, and they brought in Devonta Freeman in the draft to add some between-the-tackles running depth (which they’ve lacked).
The Falcons haven’t completely escaped the injury bug, and suffered a huge blow when linebacker Sean Weatherspoon suffered a torn Achilles tendon in an offseason workout. That will push last year’s replacements and some rookies into more prominent roles.
Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu did yeoman’s work last year, and they’ll be pushed for playing time by a few rookies.
Fourth-rounder Prince Shembo looks like a player they can build around as well, but this is a group still in need of help, which might keep coming once cuts happen elsewhere.
The problems with the linebacking corps could be helped by the fact some of their linemen might be standing up more often.
While the Falcons have been reluctant to talk about it, this offseason’s additions made it clear they’re looking at more of a 3-4 look.
Early free agency pickups Paul Soliai (a traditional nose tackle) and Tyson Jackson (a five-technique defensive end), are traditional 3-4 fits, and the price tags don’t indicate they were brought in to be role players.
They also drafted Ra’Shede Hageman in the second round with designs on using him at end, though they have a versatile group.
They brought back defensive tackles Corey Peters, Peria Jerry and Jonathan Babineaux this offseason, giving them some versatile options as coordinator Mike Nolan gets to play mix-and-match.
They needed to shake it up, as they couldn’t stop the run last year, next to last in the league at 135.8 yards per game allowed.
The changes will also be interesting as they pertain to veteran pass-rusher Osi Umenyiora, who had 7.5 sacks last year. They’ll give him a chance to do that again, but are casting a wide net for anyone to create pressure.
They’re still sorting out the center position, with Joe Hawley and Peter Konz competing there through the offseason.
Konz was given the first crack at replacing the retired Todd McClure a year ago, but it didn’t last the year, with Hawley taking over before the end of the year.
They appear inclined to give Konz, a former second-rounder, one more chance, though Hawley might have the edge.
The retirement of Gonzalez will change the way they line up, as there’s not a like-for-like replacement at the move tight end spot.
They’ll use veteran Bear Pascoe as a blocker, though they have hopes for second-year man Levine Toilolo as a red zone receving threat. But the reality is they’ll replace Gonalez’s production by committee.
The Falcons made the sort of moves teams make when they’re a bit desperate.
The free agency splash lasted about a day, and then they were forced to fine-tune with spare parts such as their trade for backup quarterback T.J. Yates (though return man Devin Hester may still have something left).
The Falcons are talented enough in the passing game to always have a chance, and the additions to both lines should help.
But with Weatherspoon’s injury and a revolving door in the middle of their defense and a division that only got better this offseason, it might be tough for them to reclaim their spot near the top of the NFC South.
It will be curious to see what that means for the future, as coach Mike Smith is entering his seventh season, with one playoff win to show for it.
That’s nearing the point when people start grumbling (he can ask his new division neighbor Lovie Smith about that), so it will be interesting to see if Smith’s seat ever gets warm over the course of the year.
They’ve done nothing but win games under his watch, but the lack of a big postseason payoff could make him less secure than he might initially appear.