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Ryan’s contract at root of Falcons’ defensive mess?

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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The first order of business for the Atlanta Falcons’ new head coach will be to address the defensive side of the football.

“There is no question that (Mike Smith) and I worked closely together on building this football team and we’re very proud of what we’ve done over the five years, and the (last) two years obviously have not been what we wanted,” general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “I take a great deal of responsibility for what happens with this organization and the team-building that had taken place.”

While the Falcons don’t feel that they have a major rebuilding effort on their hands, they know more talented player are needed.

“We think we have some good players on this football team and we also know that I have made mistakes,” Dimitroff said. “I know that I’m going to be scrutinized for it. I know that I have over the last months looked at every different aspect of our football operation as far as what needs to be adjusted, as far as myself and my approach to things as well. I am responsible as much as (Smith) is for this organization, the success of this organization and the downfall of this organization.”

Dimitroff has mostly failed at getting defensive players after the Falcons signed quarterback Matt Ryan to $122.5 million contract after the 2012 season. They let all of the linebackers, including Curtis Lofton, leave. They also didn’t – or couldn’t – pony up to pay cornerback Brent Grimes. In the cheaper replacements, Dimitroff got what he paid for.

The Falcons were last in the league in yards allowed this season with an average of 398.3 and in passing yards allowed with 279.9 per game. The rushing defense, which gave up 118.4 yards per game (21st), also needs to be spruced up.

The interior of the defense is perhaps in the best shape, but the perimeter players in the front seven, the outside linebacker and defensive ends need to be upgraded.

The pass rush was nonexistent as the Falcons could only muster 22 sacks, which was tied for 31st in the league.

The were some bright spots on the defensive side of the ball. Cornerbacks Desmond Truant and Robert Alford appear to be keepers. Also, Kemal Ishmael came on his second season. He took over for William Moore at strong safety and played well. Ishmael led the team with four interceptions and was second on the team with 95 tackles.

The Falcons will be attractive to prospective coaching candidates because they have an established quarterback who is set to enter the prime of his career.

Even through two difficult seasons because offensive line woes, Ryan has played well. He completed 66.1 percent of his passes and he averaged 7.5 yards per pass attempt while throwing for 4,694 yards in 2014.

Running back Steven Jackson is under contract for next season, but has seen his better days. The Falcons will try to find his replacement in the draft or free agency.

Roddy White passed the torch to Julio Jones as the team’s top receiver, and Jones turned in a monster campaign with 104 catches for 1,593 yards and six touchdowns despite battling a hip injury down the stretch.

The offensive line, which went through eight different starting lineups because of injuries, was below par in 2014. Offensive line coaches Mike Tice and Wade Harman did a good job of disguising their weaknesses.

The line gave up 31 sacks and didn’t open up too many holes in the run game.

“We’re happy with a lot of them, we’ve got a lot of great players,” owner Arthur Blank said. “But do we have as many as we need? Probably not. Do we have holes? Probably, yes. How best to fill them will be in large part up to the new coach.”

Dimitroff was set to meet with the rest of Smith’s staff in the coming days, including offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, who packed up their belongings and left the building Monday despite still being under contract.

“The great majority, there’s only a handful of coaches who are not under contract currently for 2016,” Blank said. “Obviously, whoever the next head coach is, we will expect that individual to carefully assess our coaching staff, and we have a lot of very fine coaches.

“Whether or not if they all fit with their philosophies and style of the new head coach, only time will tell. I think that’s a decision that the new head coach will make. We certainly will make that staff available to whomever we select.”

Blank acknowledged that the Falcons have hired Joe Banner as a consultant. He formerly worked with the Eagles and the Browns.

Banner and the search-firm of Korn Ferry will assist through the transition.

“Primarily, we’ll be using our staff within the building,” Blank said. “We have a lot of very talented people and others, who have been through this drill.

“Joe Banner is somebody who has great experience in Philadelphia there and he had an incredible record there with their owner Jeff Lurie and coach (Andy) Reid. He’s very familiar to the Cleveland process and a lot of the more recent candidates.

Blank denied that the announcement that they had hired a search firm before the last game of the season was a distraction to Smith and the team in the regular-season finale.

“Korn Ferry has been involved in a number of searches over the last few years,” Blank said. “They can only do one club per year as you might expect. The last two years, they’ve brought two outstanding coaches to the NFL. One to the Texans in Bill O’Brien and one for Kansas City, coach (Andy) Reid.”

Team president Rich McKay and Blank will be working together on their fourth coaching search. The previous ones landed Jim Mora, Bobby Petrino and Mike Smith.

“I felt that Arthur did a fantastic job of kind of leading us through that search process,” McKay said of the Smith search. “We took our time and we needed to find a head coach and a general manager who were going to help first and foremost stabilize the franchise because the franchise was not stable.

“I don’t know that you can give Mike Smith and Thomas enough credit for not just stabilizing the franchise but bringing to it a whole new foundation of where we are. I think we need to look at this search as building from that foundation. We are in a good place. This is a good franchise that has a lot of tools in the shed to work from. This is not the franchise that they came into.”


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