Three ways to fix the Patriots and Falcons

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick directs his team against the New York Jets during the third quarter of their AFC Divisional NFL playoff football game in Foxborough, January 16, 2011. REUTERS/Adam Hunger (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

It turned out to be a disappointing year for the two No. 1 seeds in the NFL playoffs. The Falcons were completely overmatched by a much better Packers team on Saturday night, while the Jets outplayed the Patriots on New England’s home field on Sunday.

But these two teams did a lot of good things this season, which is why they combined to win 27 games and earn the top seeds in their respective conferences. All is not lost for either of them, but the Packers and Jets proved that both Atlanta and New England must improve this offseason.

While there are more changes that certainly need to be made for both teams, below are three ways to fix the Falcons and Patriots.

1. Add more pass-rushers.
Add more pass-rushers. Wow, thanks, Anthony. Add pass-rushers? Sure thing. I’ll just hop on down to Target and pick some up. Are they still down aisle three?

I know, pass-rushers don’t fall off trees and they need time to develop. But the Patriots’ biggest concern coming into the season was their inability to rush the QB. Their lack of a pass rush wasn’t the only reason they lost on Sunday, but teams won’t win many games when they can’t get to the quarterback. They didn’t sack Mark Sanchez once and that, in part, led to him throwing three touchdown passes. If Sanchez was able to do what he did last weekend, what do you think Ben Roethlisberger, Jay Cutler or worse yet, Aaron Rodgers would have done to the Pats had they advanced?

As for the Falcons, John Abraham and Jonathan Babineaux turned in great seasons but Kroy Biermann faded after having some early-season success. Abraham isn’t getting any younger and while Atlanta’s coaching staff has done a nice job keeping him fresh and healthy throughout the past three seasons, the Falcons need another bona fide edge rusher. The development of rookie linebacker Sean Weatherspoon should help, as should a fully healthy Peria Jerry. Backup DE Lawrence Sidbury has a ton of raw talent as well, but GM Thomas Dimitroff must add to his defensive line this offseason, whether that comes via the draft or free agency.

Atlanta Falcons’ wide receiver Roddy White (84) is hit by Green Bay Packers’ cornerback Tramon Williams (38) and drops a pass in the second quarter of their NFC Divisional NFL playoff football game in Atlanta, January 15, 2011. REUTERS/Rich Addicks (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

2. Add more offensive speed.
I’m not going to harp too much on the Patriots’ offense because that unit was as good as they come this season. The Pats had a bad game against the Jets, but credit Rex Ryan for coming up with a tremendous game plan. On Sunday, Bill Belichick got away from what his offense did best all season, which was using his tight ends to exploit the middle of the field. But how good would New England’s offense look if it added a true deep threat like it had before Randy Moss quit?

This is an area that the Falcons definitely need to address. Roddy White is a top-5 receiver but he needs someone opposite him to stretch the field. Michael Jenkins is highly underappreciated for what he does in the run game as a blocker and he always seems to make a big third down catch when the Falcons need it most. But his inability to stretch defenses is hurting the offense. Atlanta thought Harry Douglas was going to be the guy to test defensive backfields a la Mike Wallace and Jeremy Maclin, but he failed to make an impact this year after spending all of 2009 on I.R. due to a knee injury. If Douglas isn’t the guy, the Falcons need to draft a speedster in the early rounds – someone who can develop quickly. Also on this note, offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey must adjust his overall approach. He won the Sporting News’ offensive coordinator of the year, but Dom Campers and Gregg Williams owned him over the past month. It’s fine if the Falcons want to remain a balanced team that relies on the run to set up the pass, but they had zero passing plays of 50 yards or more this season. That’s inexcusable. Mularkey’s offense relies on five-to-seven-yard stop routes, which won’t get it done against good defenses – especially in the postseason. He must adapt next year and give Matt Ryan more freedom to take shots down field. (Or if Ryan has already been given freedom, than he must be better.)

3. Stay the course on defense.
This really isn’t a “fix” per se but it fits this overall piece. The Patriots’ young core of Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Devin McCourty, Jermaine Cunningham and Kyle Love really developed over the course of the season. The same can be said for the Falcons’ Curtis Lofton (who had already established himself as a playmaker in his first two seasons), Sean Weatherspoon (although hurt for several games in the middle of the year), Corey Peters, William Moore, Thomas DeCoud (who arguably took a step back after a breakout ’09 campaign) and Brent Grimes. But the Patriots and Falcons need to be patient when it comes to their defenses. Inexperience on that side of the ball proved costly for both teams last weekend, but with more seasoning these could be two very good units. Atlanta defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder must also get more aggressive with his secondary, which constantly plays off the ball to avoid giving up big plays. The Falcons didn’t give up a 50-plus yard pass play to Aaron Rodgers on Saturday night but they did allow 31 pass completions in the short-to-intermediate game. So what’s the use of defending the vertical game if the opposing quarterback is torching you underneath? Hopefully next season, VanGorder will develop as a game planner and trust his fast but young defense to make plays.

These are two good teams – there’s no doubt about it. But it’ll be interesting to see what steps they take to improve over the offseason.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom.

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