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Preseason power rankings: No. 13

The intelligent fellows at FootballOutsiders had a great nugget in their football annual that should concern Atlanta Falcons fans. (And Dolphins fans for that matter.)

Since 1978, 17 teams have improved by seven or more wins in a season. Only one, the 1998 Jets, improved again the following season. On average, the teams declined by four wins after their huge breakout.

The 2009 Falcons, of course, are the only team on the list with Matt Ryan. Ryan’s presence makes up for a lot of other concerns in Atlanta because the kid has a chance to truly special, starting now.

Ryan was arguably the most impressive rookie quarterback since Dan Marino. Quality quarterbacks routinely see explosive improvement in their second-year numbers, but Ryan’s rookie stats were already impressive across the board.

We don’t know Matt Ryan’s ceiling yet, and that should scare the rest of the NFC South.

Also scary: Ryan should have an easier time in the red zone after the Falcons added tight end Tony Gonzalez, who has defied the aging process during his Hall of Fame career.

Losing slot receiver Harry Douglas for the year hurts, but the Falcons should let Ryan throw more than last season, when they led the league in runs on first down and in the first half.

Ryan’s development should make life easier on running back Michael Turner and an underrated no-name offensive line. The Falcons will just have to be careful not to overwork Turner after giving him a risky 376 carries last season.

Turner is a solid runner, but not as good as his numbers in 2008 would indicate. Look for a decline without so many Western division cupcakes on the schedule. The Falcons would be well served to get back Jerious Norwood as involved as possible as a change of pace.

While the offense looks loaded, the Falcons aren’t sure what they have on defense. That’s where defensive-minded second-year coach Mike Smith used seven of his eight draft picks, and just added two veterans for the secondary: Tye Hill and Brian Williams. Getting leftovers from bad defensive backfields probably won’t solve their problems.

If defensive end John Abraham doesn’t stay healthy, the Falcons don’t have a pass rush. 2007 first-round pick Jamaal Anderson looks like a full-fledged bust, but this year’s first-rounder, defensive tackle Peria Jerry, appears to be a keeper. Otherwise, there isn’t a lot to get excited about on this defense.

Ryan will have to carry the Falcons, which is a lot to ask of a second-year player.

He may not improve Atlanta’s win total because of a much tougher schedule (NFC East included), but Ryan could break another historical trend: The Falcons are trying to have back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in team history.

Key player: It’s Ryan, but we’ve already spent too much time talking about him. Let’s go with Abraham, who is the team’s best defensive player by far.

Rookie to watch: Jerry. The rookie will be the key figure in Atlanta’s effort to improve their rush defense.

Best veteran acquisition: Gonzalez. He and Roddy White could be the best wide receiver/tight end combo in the league.

Key game: Week Fourteen, vs. Saints. We like these two rivals to battle for the division title all year.