When asked during the offseason to explain the performance of the 2011 Atlanta Falcons, head coach Mike Smith has routinely described the team as inconsistent.
It's an appropriate description of what happened on both offense and defense at times last season. The Falcons could rarely find their rhythm as the regular season progressed. There were flashes of promise and excellence, but it rarely did more than glimmer.
At one point the Falcons' defense was the third-best in the NFL in defending the run. They ended the season at No. 6, still respectable, but not at the level they were at when they were playing their best.
Many were confused by Atlanta's uneven performance during last season, largely because virtually the entire core of the team returned from 2010 with one significant addition in defensive end Ray Edwards. One stat that shows the Falcons took a step back, especially on defense, is points allowed.
Last season the Falcons were a middle-of-the-pack team, allowing 22 points per game. Over their final three games they averaged 31 points allowed. They averaged 21 points allowed at home and 22.9 on the road. This was done with virtually the entire defense returning from the 2010 season that saw them finish with an average of 19.8 points allowed per game, sixth-best in the league.
The points allowed number from 2010 is impressive, but despite that, they still ended the season a little loose. Their last three games' average was 25 points. On the other hand, they were especially dominant on the road, allowing 18.6 points per game.
Heading into 2011, the Falcons defense was expected to continue to improve based on the continued addition of talent and the maturation of young players like Sean Weatherspoon, William Moore and Kroy Biermann. The trend was there to establish such an expectation.
In 2009 the Falcons average 20.9 points allowed per game, 17.2 at home and 23.4 on the road. Setting up their 2010 success perfectly was their dominant performance to end that season. In the final three games of the '09 season the Falcons averaged 6.7 points allowed per game.
In 2008, the first season under Smith, Atlanta allowed 20.9 points per game, 20.5 at home and 21.2 away.
The trend of improvement that began in '08 stopped in 2011, when the Falcons' defense allowed the most points on average since Smith took over as head coach.
With most of the starters expected back for the Falcons in 2012 and a new defensive coordinator to teach a fresh scheme, there's still reason for optimism with Atlanta's defense.
New defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has a history of improving a team's defense in numerous ways. Points allowed on defense is one of them.
In 2010 when Nolan assumed the DC position in Miami, he steered the Dolphins from 24.4 points allowed per game in 2009 to 20.8 in his first year. In 2011, he lowered that number to 19.6.
As Denver's coordinator in 2009, he improved the Broncos an astonishing eight points, from 28 to 20.2.
If Nolan can register a four-point decrease for the Falcons in 2012 like he accomplished in Miami in '10, Atlanta's average would be 18 points per game, a number that would've been fifth-best in the NFL last season.
Numbers like that and possible improvements such as those, could be a reason explaining why the Falcons' front office elected to re-sign so many contributing players on defense this offseason. The talent appears to be there and they've performed at a high level before. With the addition of a new defensive mind, one that has had tons of success in the NFL, the handwriting may be on the wall for 2012.