ATLANTA — Mike Smith believes the foundation for the 2010 version of the Atlanta Falcons was set in the closing weeks of last season.
The Falcons, coming off an 11-5 playoff season in Smith's first year as head coach, were 6-7 and already out of the playoff hunt when they put together three straight wins to close the season.
The stretch included road wins at the New York Jets and Tampa Bay. The win over the Buccaneers on Jan. 3, gave the Falcons a 9-7 final record for their first back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history.
"I told our guys this was not the last game in 2009 season, it was the first game for the 2010 season," Smith said, remembering his pep talk to his team before the game in Tampa Bay. "It was, in the calendar year, 2010 and we needed to start 2010 off in the right fashion.
"It got us over the hump in terms of back-to-back winning seasons. But with that being said, we were very, very disappointed with the final results of the season last year just because our internal goals were much, much higher than just having a winning season."
The higher goals have carried over into the third season for Smith, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and quarterback Matt Ryan. Clearly, anything short of a return to the playoffs will be a disappointment.
Just ask owner Arthur Blank, who says he was excited about the long-awaited consecutive winning seasons but now is looking for more.
"Now I'm excited about rings," Blank said.
If their defense improves, the Falcons may have enough talent and balance on offense to challenge the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints in the NFC South.
Running back Michael Turner lost about 15 pounds and says he is back at his listed weight of 244. He missed five of the last seven games last season with an ankle injury but looks healthy and quicker in training camp. Turner was most effective as a straight-ahead runner last year, but he has been able to turn the corner on outside runs in camp.
Turner finished second in the NFL in 2008 with 1,699 yards rushing and set a team record with 17 touchdowns. He had 871 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns last year.
"I think Michael came into this offseason with the mindset that, hey I'm not going to be a one-year wonder, I'm going to be a very productive running back and a very productive player for a very long time in this league," Smith said.
Pro Bowl receiver Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez each had more than 80 catches last year.
Ryan's season still was a mild disappointment as his 58.3 completion percentage ranked only 23rd in the league. He missed two games with a toe injury and finished with 2,916 passing yards, 22 TDs and 14 interceptions.
There are other stars on the offense, but Ryan remains the key.
"We're in year three of the process, so we should advance what we want to do," Smith said. "Of course the quarterback is the guy who runs the offense. Matt has gotten to a point where we feel very, very comfortable with what we've done so far and we plan on adding things this season."
The Falcons hope Ryan, the 2008 NFL offensive rookie of the year, places himself among the league's top quarterbacks this season.
"He is looking great," said Gonzalez of Ryan. "He is doing really well. He has really improved and I am happy with the way he is going. Just got to keep him healthy and the sky is the limit with him. It is just a matter of when and not if. He will be one of the best. It is just about getting that experience."
The New England Patriots visited the Falcons for combined practices last week after working with Drew Brees and the Saints last week. Coach Bill Belichick didn't hesitate to group Ryan with Brees.
"They're similar in that they're real good," Belichick said, adding "They're as good as anybody in this league."
Left tackle Sam Baker, who was drafted after Ryan in the first round in 2008, also is a third-year starter. All five starters return on the offensive line. Ryan also is protected by veteran fullback Ovie Mughelli.
There are questions at receiver behind White, who had 1,153 yards and a career-high 11 touchdowns last season. Michael Jenkins, the projected No. 2 receiver, suffered a right shoulder injury early in camp and is questionable for the start of the season.
Harry Douglas showed big-play potential as a receiver and return specialist in 2008 before missing the 2009 season with a knee injury. Douglas drew compliments in the combined workout with the Patriots and may be the team's strongest candidate for a breakout season.
Eric Weems and Brian Finneran also return at receiver. Rookie Kerry Meier might have joined the rotation at receiver before suffering a season-ending knee injury last week. Smith says the team has ample depth without looking for help at the position.
The Falcons signed free agent Dunta Robinson to be the shutdown cornerback the team lacked last season. Rookie first-round pick Sean Weatherspoon could win a starting job at outside linebacker. Even if he doesn't start, he'll likely be on the field on passing downs.
A key is defensive tackle Peria Jerry, the 2008 first-round pick who missed most of his rookie season with a knee injury. Jerry has been watched carefully in training camp.
The Falcons tied for 26th in the NFL with only 28 sacks in 2009. End John Abraham, who set a career high with 16.5 sacks in 2008, had 5.5 sacks last year. He is convinced he hasn't lost a step.
One problem was the lack of pressure from the other end. Jamaal Anderson, who had only one-half sack as a starting defensive end last year, is spending most of his time at tackle. Kroy Biermann may join Abraham as the starting ends.
Anderson may help inside on passing downs.
"I think he's embracing his role as a defensive tackle," Smith said of Anderson. "I think he's going to be more productive this year in the tackle position. He has been changing his body a little bit. He has put on over 20 pounds. I think that's going to help him when he plays inside."
Robinson, who signed a six-year, $57 million deal after six seasons with Houston, likely will join Brent Grimes or Brian Williams as the starting cornerbacks.