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Packers 2016 Schedule Preview, Vol. 7: Atlanta Falcons added speed to defense

Thanks to several draft picks, Atlanta should have a much faster defense - but can the young players’ brains keep up with their feet?

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Jacksonville Jaguars Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The seventh opponent whom the Green Bay Packers will face in 2016 are the Atlanta Falcons. The Packers will travel to the Georgia Dome in week eight, coming fresh off a four-game homestand that spans five weeks (with the bye week in the middle). Unfortunately for the Packers, this contest will be the first of a five-week stretch that sees them at home just once.

Atlanta finished second in the NFC South last season, ending the season at 8-8. They did so with a defense that was around the league average in most statistics and an offense that was 7th in the NFL in yards gained but just 21st in points scored. The Falcons also were a terribly streaky team in 2015; they started 5-0 and were 6-1 two weeks later, but lost seven of their final nine games, including a six-game losing streak.

Although the Falcons’ rushing game was strong early on behind Devonta Freeman, he slowed late in the season and just barely eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards and 4.0 yards per carry on the year. He did add nearly 600 receiving yards, however, making him an excellent threat out of the backfield to pair with All-Pro wideout Julio Jones - Jones led the league in receptions (136) and receiving yards (1,871). Still, Atlanta scored 30 or more points just twice all season, and did not do so once after week four.

The Falcons looked to improve both their offensive line and the overall speed of their defense this offseason. Here’s a look at the moves they made and what they expect for training camp from The Falcoholic, SB Nation’s Falcons blog.

Atlanta Falcons

Notable free agent additions

C Alex Mack, WR Mohamed Sanu, OLB Courtney Upshaw, DE Derrick Shelby

Notable free agent departures

SS William Moore, WR Roddy White and DT Paul Soliai.

Draft picks expected to contribute as rookies

Strong safety Keanu Neal should start, LB Deion Jones is competing for the starting middle linebacker role, and fourth rounder De’Vondre Campbell is trying to earn the starting weakside linebacker spot.

Biggest offseason addition

Without question, Alex Mack. Atlanta’s interior line play was a liability last season, and having a center of Mack’s caliber to anchor the line should make a tremendous difference. The Falcons paid Mack accordingly, too.

Biggest storyline heading into training camp

Almost certainly the rookie linebackers. That position group has been a weakness for the Falcons, and in Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell, Atlanta added the speed Dan Quinn needs to execute his defense effectively. Both have opportunities to unseat veterans and earn starting roles.

Under-the-radar storyline heading into training camp

The kicker competition! No, seriously. Matt Bryant has been with the Falcons for years, and he’s won a lot of games for this team. Last year, he was significantly impacted by injury, landing on injured reserve toward the end of the season, and the Falcons will have an undrafted free agent rookie, Nick Rose, in camp who can challenge Bryant for the job.

Notable injuries heading into training camp

Devin Hester is continuing to recover from surgery to address the turf toe that sidelined him for a chunk of last season. Rookie Devin Fuller has been working through a hamstring injury. Right guard Chris Chester was dealing with a shoulder injury during OTAs and minicamp, and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett has some tendinitis in his knee that slowed him down this offseason.