Editor's note: This is the fourth installment of a six-part series ranking the different position groups of the Falcons' 2017 opponents.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Matt Ryan is coming off of an MVP season in which he had career-best numbers across the board: 69.9 completion percentage, 4,944 passing yards, 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions. In 2017, opposing secondaries will do everything they can to shut down the Falcons quarterback.
Ryan picked on some of the best defensive backs in the NFL last year, but that won't matter much come Sundays this fall. It's a new season, and the Falcons are on to 2017.
Few teams are able to match the offensive firepower that Atlanta passing attack can produce, and slowing it down requires near-perfect execution by a defense. The Falcons will be tested by some of the best groups in the league this fall, however.
Looking ahead to the upcoming season, here are my top five secondaries that the Falcons will match up against.
5. Detroit Lions
- When they play in 2017: Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, in Detroit
- Key players: Darius Slay (CB), Glover Quin (S), *Teez Tabor (CB), Tavon Wilson (S)
- Summary: Depth was a major problem for the Lions in 2016, especially when a hamstring injury in Week 7 hampered Slay for the second half of the season. In Slay, Quin and Wilson, Detroit had a pretty good trio of players, but it didn't have much elsewhere. The Lions gave up 33 touchdowns, the second-most in the NFL, and allowed a league-high 72.7 completion percentage.
- Outlook: In rookie cornerback Teez Tabor, Detroit is hoping it has found a player who can round out its starting defensive backfield. If some of the other young pieces in the Lions' secondary take the next step in their development, the unit may finally have some depth. Quin has 16 interceptions since joining Detroit in 2013, so he's the player to keep tabs on.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- When they play in 2017: Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017, in Atlanta and Monday, Dec. 18, 2017, in Tampa
- Key players: Brent Grimes (CB), Vernon Hargreaves III (CB), J.J. Wilcox (S), Keith Tandy (S)
- Summary: Falcons fans don't need to be reminded of how good Grimes can be, but the 33-year-old cornerback had a career year in 2016. He had four interceptions last season and 24 total passes defended. Tampa Bay had 17 interceptions, tied for fourth in the league, but it gave up over 250 yards per game.
- Outlook: Grimes' great season made life hard for Hargreaves during his rookie year. The former Florida Gator saw more passes thrown his way (113) and gave up more completions (80) and yards (1,069) than any other player. Despite these stats, he made some nice plays and the Bucs should be optimistic about his growth. Wilcox and Tandy form an underrated safety duo, and improved play from Hargreaves should help this unit overall.
3. Minnesota Vikings
- When they play in 2017: Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017, in Atlanta
- Key players: Terence Newman (CB), Xavier Rhodes (CB), Harrison Smith (S), Trae Waynes (CB)
- Summary: Minnesota's defense was one of the NFL's best for much of last season, and that certainly applies to the secondary. At 38 years old, Newman put together a very good season and earned a top-10 grade from Pro Football Focus among cornerbacks. Rhodes also continued his emergence and Smith is a well-established safety in this league. The Vikings gave up 207.9 yards per game last year, the third-fewest in the league, and 22 touchdowns.
- Outlook: It's a risky proposition to enter an NFL season with a 39-year-old cornerback, but Minnesota has a good contingency plan in Waynes. 2016 second-round draft pick Mackensie Alexander could see more time this fall at cornerback, and Rhodes seems primed to become a true star.
2. Seattle Seahawks
- When they play in 2017: Monday, Nov. 20, 2017, in Seattle
- Key players: Kam Chancellor (S), Earl Thomas (S), Richard Sherman (CB), Jeremy Lane (CB)
- Summary: Outcome aside, last year's battle between the Falcons and Seahawks in Seattle was one of the NFL's best games. Thomas' injury had a huge negative impact on Seattle's secondary, but the other pieces continued to play at a very high level. The Seahawks allowed 225.8 yards per game in 2016, eighth among the league's teams, and their 16 touchdowns allowed were the third-fewest.
- Outlook: Few units are as well-known as Seattle's secondary. While it might have taken a slight step back from its "Legion of Boom" days, Sherman and Co. are still a group that should garner respect from every team. The addition of rookies Shaquill Griffin and Cedric Thompson will give the Seahawks newfound depth and youth.
1. New England Patriots
- When they play in 2017: Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017, in Foxborough
- Key players: Devin McCourty (S), Malcolm Butler (CB), Stephon Gilmore (CB), Duron Harmon (S)
- Summary: A breakout year from Butler, who had a combined 16 interceptions and pass breakups, plus continued high-level play from McCourty gave New England one of the best secondaries in the league. The Patriots gave up 237.9 yards per game in 2016, ranking them 12th in the NFL, and 21 touchdowns, tied for 8th among teams.
- Outlook: The addition of Gilmore is what earned New England the top spot on this list. With Butler and Gilmore, the Patriots have a duo capable of locking down a team's top two receiving options. Safety Patrick Chung had a down year in 2016, but he's been a reliable safety for the Patriots for much of his career. New England runs a good bit of three-safety personnel packages and resigned Harmon, who played at a starting-caliber level last year.