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  1. NFC SOUTH Atlanta Falcons Fred Zerblis, OG, Colorado State Chris Chester retired this offseason, making his vacated spot at right guard the only hole on an otherwise excellent Falcons offensive line. Considering the strong pieces already in place at center and right tackle, it doesn't make sense for Atlanta to invest a high-round pick on a protected position. Zerblis has been a standout performer for Colorado State each of the past two seasons, as he combined to give up just 10 total pressures between 2015 and 2016 and did not yield a sack. He also excelled on run blocks this past year, as his 84.9 PFF run-blocking grade ranked eighth among all FBS guards with at least 250 run blocking reps. Competition level and lack of elite athleticism is likely to drop Zerblis to Day 3 of the draft, but his excellent awareness, angles and upper-body strength make him a good fit for Atlanta's outside zone-heavy scheme. Insider Link to Full Article
  2. Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn said one-time Pro Bowl cornerback Desmond Trufant, who underwent season-ending pectoral surgery back in the winter, will be held out of offseason workouts as a precaution. Trufant initially suffered the injury in a Nov. 3 win at Tampa Bay. He visited the doctors for a second opinion during the week of Nov. 29 and then followed up with the surgery. Such a procedure typically involves three to four months of recovery. "Trufant is coming along great,'' Quinn responded at the NFC coaches breakfast in Phoenix. "We won't have him practice during [organized team activities (OTAs)], but by the time we get to training camp, he'll be ready to go and battle.'' The Falcons are scheduled to begin the offseason workout program April 17. Trufant's return and anticipated full recovery is expected to enhance the defense going into the 2017 season, although Jalen Collins did an admirable job stepping in for Trufant this past season. The Falcons could move forward with Trufant and Collins playing outside in nickel situations with No. 2 cornerback Robert Alford then pushed inside to cover the slot. Trufant is on the verge of a lucrative contract extension expected to pay between $12 million and $15 million per year. The team exercised the fifth-year option on his rookie deal, meaning the former first-round draft pick from Washington is currently scheduled to make $8.026 million this coming season. "Tru is our No. 1 priority,'' Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said of Trufant. "That doesn't mean he's going to be the first [extension] done, of course. But that should [happen] during this spring sometime.'' In other injury news, Quinn addressed the status of several other players, including Julio Jones. The star wide receiver had a bunion removed from his left foot and faced four to five months of recovery following his March 6 surgery. Jones told ESPN that everything was on schedule for a training camp return. Quinn agreed. "Julio's doing good,'' Quinn said. "He had surgery on his foot, and that part is coming along really well -- the strengthening of his toe and the foot. Like most surgeries, the first part is the healing, and then comes the strengthening. He's starting to get into the strengthening phase now.'' Quinn spoke about defensive end Adrian Clayborn coming off of a biceps tear and defensive lineman Derrick Shelby coming off of an Achilles tear. "Adrian Clayborn ... he's doing well,'' Quinn said. "And then Derrick Shelby had an Achilles injury like the fifth week of the year. He looks good physically. He's actually changed his body. ... He looks different as a guy walking around. You can see the size, the strength. He looks great. .... All of them are in different phases of their rehab, but all we anticipate being fully ready.'' Starting right tackle Ryan Schraeder just got cleared to start running again after tearing a ligament in his right ankle during the Super Bowl. Starting center Alex Mack (fractured fibula), running back Tevin Coleman (ankle) and safety Kemal Ishmael (shoulder) are other key players coming off of injuries. The Falcons have to forfeit the first three days of OTAs this year for violating the NFL-NFLPA rules prohibiting excessive contact during offseason workouts last season.
  3. Atlanta Falcons starting right tackle Ryan Schraeder, who tore a ligament in his right ankle during his team's Super Bowl LI loss to New England, received medical clearance Tuesday to resume running again, a league source told Schraeder is expected to begin running next week. He's been lifting weights at the team facility five days a week since the end of February, working out alongside fellow offensive lineman Wes Schweitzer. The Falcons are scheduled to begin the offseason program April 17, and Schraeder is expected to participate. The injury, which did not require surgery, occurred in the second quarter of the Super Bowl, although Schraeder did not exit until his ankle finally gave out in the fourth quarter. Schraeder is one of several offensive starters coming back from injuries. Wide receiver Julio Jones, who had surgery to remove a bunion on his left foot, won't be available for offseason workouts but expects to be healthy in time for training camp. Center Alex Mack played through the Super Bowl despite a hairline fracture in his left fibula. Mack was not scheduled to undergo surgery. Also, backup running back Tevin Coleman injured his ankle in the Super Bowl. On the defensive side, Pro Bowl cornerback Desmond Trufant (pectoral surgery), defensive end Adrian Clayborn (biceps), defensive lineman Derrick Shelby (Achilles), and safety Kemal Ishmael (shoulder) are all coming off season-ending injuries. Cornerback Akeem King (foot) and wide receiver/returner Devin Fuller (shoulder) spent last season on injured reserve. A handful of Falcons have maintained a normal workout schedule at the team facility this offseason, including MVP Matt Ryan and backup Matt Schaub, who have been spotted running together ever since Schaub re-signed on March 8. Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman said he spends four days a week working out at the team facility. The Falcons have scheduled another team offseason camp session for next month. Ryan paid for all of his teammates to come together in South Florida last April for the inaugural camp.
  4. Atlanta Falcons two-time Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman vowed to move beyond his team's historic collapse in last month's Super Bowl loss to New England Patriots. At the same time, Freeman knows the empty feeling might stick for a while. "That's like a scar you'll see forever," Freeman told ESPN. "You'll always remember that scar. It's about, 'How can I shake back?' In life, you've got to always learn how to shake back and have another elite year." That the Falcons blew a 28-3 third-quarter lead in a 34-28 loss to the Patriots continues to be a topic of discussion this offseason. Critics still harp on the blunders, including then-offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan declining to run the ball late and Freeman missing a fourth-quarter block on Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower that led to Matt Ryan being sacked and losing a fumble -- resulting in a momentum-swinging touchdown for the Patriots. Freeman was asked if there was anything he would take back from the game. "Nothing," he said. "No play. Even the mistake I made with the missed block. When you look at a football game, you're talking about four quarters. You're talking about the best guys against the best guys on both sides of the ball. Mistakes are going to happen. If you're perfect in the NFL, something is not right. I don't know anybody who's perfect. "My mistake is a scar. I'm going to learn from it. I'm going to get better from that. That's how I look at it." Freeman said the loss will serve as inspiration heading into next season and beyond. The Falcons hope to make another strong run in 2017 behind reigning MVP Matt Ryan, wide receiver Julio Jones, Freeman and a rebuilt defense, led by the addition of two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Dontari Poe. "If I dwell on the Super Bowl like, 'Oh man, we lost,' already, I lost," Freeman said. "I'm worried about something that I can't control that's over with and that's in the past. It's peanuts to me. You just move on from it. But until you win the Super Bowl, ain't nothing else going to feel better than winning that Super Bowl. I guarantee it. I don't care if I get 1,000 yards, 10 Pro Bowls. If I don't win that Super Bowl, I'm going to always remember that one Super Bowl we lost."
  5. Dontari Poe is not an Atlanta Falcon, at least not yet. Poe, the top free-agent nose tackle and formerly of the Kansas City Chiefs, visited the Falcons' facility on Tuesday but left without a contract. It was the third stop on Poe's free-agent trek following visits to Indianapolis and Jacksonville. Now Poe is in Miami visiting the Dolphins, as ESPN's Josina Anderson reported. The fact that he hasn't secured a contract yet makes you wonder about his asking price. It also raises questions about his health, with reported concerns about Poe's back. If it is all about the money, it would be surprising if the Falcons get into a bidding war, considering general manager Thomas Dimitroff already implied the Falcons wouldn't make a big splash in free agency. Sure, Poe could have a great impact on a defensive line in need of help, and his athleticism is off the charts for a guy who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 346 pounds. But giving Poe, let's say, $10-$12 million in a one-year deal doesn't seem like the best option, even if another team is offering the same. His replacement in Kansas City, Bennie Logan, just received a one-year, $8 million deal that included $7.68 million guaranteed. The Falcons don't have a ton of cap space. The latest NFLPA figures have them at around $14.5 million. Meanwhile, the Jaguars have $47 million in cap space, according to numbers obtained by ESPN's Field Yates. The other two teams on Poe's list -- the Colts and Dolphins -- have $37 million and $18 million in cap space, respectively, according to NFLPA figures. We'll see how it all plays out from the Falcons' standpoint. They need to fill a hole at defensive tackle after cutting veteran Tyson Jackson and not re-signing veteran Jonathan Babineaux. They need a game-changing type player who can stop the run and has pass-rush ability. Poe has to the potential to be that guy, but will he consistently be that type of player? His production dropped the last two seasons after Pro Bowl showings in 2013 and 2014. The Falcons have gone the bargain route with their other free-agent signings thus far, so maybe spending big on one wouldn't be all that bad. But again, it's hard to imagine the Falcons getting into a bidding war, especially against the cap-rich Jaguars. Poe's willingness to accept a one-year deal seems to indicate the 26-year-old wants to prove himself and secure a lucrative, long-term deal after the 2017 season. Maybe the Falcons can convince him he'll have his best opportunity to shine playing for a team fresh off a Super Bowl. And maybe the Falcons can convince him to sign -- for the right price.
  6. With NFL-high in performance-based pay, Brian Poole gets hit up by Falcons 6:11 PM ET Vaughn McClureESPN Staff Writer Word spread quickly on Wednesday about Atlanta Falcons nickelback Brian Poole getting a nice bonus. Poole, an undrafted rookie out of Florida last season, led the entire league with $371,973.11 in performance-based pay. He topped Dallas Cowboys rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, who received $353,544.47. Falcons wide receiver Taylor Gabriel playfully nudged Poole via Twitter and got a hilarious response: Taylor Gabriel ✔@TGdadon1 @JustPooleN_It u owe me 100 Brian Poole ✔@JustPooleN_It lol I ain't got it! … Poole certainly earned it. He played in all 16 regular-season games and recorded 58 tackles, eight pass breakups, two fumble recoveries, an interception, and a sack. He also played in all three postseason games and had 15 tackles, two quarterbacks hits, and a tackle for loss. The performance-based pay system usually benefits players in their first NFL contracts, or minimum-salaried free-agent signings who become significant contributors. For those wondering, Poole made $453,500 during his first season, with a base salary of $450,000. Starting free safety Ricardo Allen was second on the team in performance-based pay at $342,712.65. Here are the top 10 for the Falcons, with rookies being four of the top six: PLAYER POSITION EARNINGS Brian Poole, CB (rookie) - $371,783,11. Ricardo Allen, SS - $342,712.65 Grady Jarrett, DT - $189,684.63 Deion Jones, LB (rookie) - $185,227.93 De'Vondre Campbell, LB (rookie) - $158,693.36 Austin Hooper, TE (rookie) - $154,689.15 C.J. Goodwin, DB - $141,837.48 Devonta Freeman, RB - $140,543.23 Justin Hardy, WR - $129,632.93 Robert AlfordCB
  7. And that's a wrap. The 2016 season ended moments ago, with the New England Patriots' 34-28 overtime victory over the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI. The Patriots and Falcons have now joined the rest of the NFL in the offseason, where preparations for the 2017 campaign are well underway. You know what that means, right? It's never too early -- or maybe, in this one case, it is just a bit -- for Power Rankings. What follows is an initial rendering from our ESPN voting panel (a group of more than 80 writers, editors and TV personalities) of how the league might stack up next season. Click here to see the final regular-season rankings of 2016. 1. New England Patriots 2016 record: 14-2 Why they're here: It's tough to pick against coach Bill Belichick to field an elite team -- especially after the Patriots compiled the league's best record in a season that began with quarterback Tom Brady's four-game suspension. Brady will turn 40 in August, but for the moment, he is backed up by two quarterbacks who won starts without him in 2016. More than anything, this season reaffirmed Belichick's unique ability to build a team out of what other teams might consider indiscriminate parts. What could change: The big question looming over the Patriots is when Brady will start playing to his age. It has to happen sometime, right? That will be the point when we start questioning the Patriots' short- and long-term fortunes. Trade rumors around backup Jimmy Garoppolo are illuminating. Would the Patriots really trade a player with such upside when their starter is nearing his 40th birthday? 2. Atlanta Falcons 2016 record: 11-5 Why they're here: The Falcons had the best offense in the league in 2016, and that does not appear to be a one-year wonder. Quarterback Matt Ryan led the NFL in QBR and won the league MVP, receiver Julio Jones was unguardable, and the tailback duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman were more than complementary. From a personnel standpoint, the Falcons are poised for another high-scoring season. What could change: The Falcons will suffer a big loss in offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who will leave to be the 49ers' head coach. Ryan has plenty of experience in changing offensive coordinators, but he clicked better with Shanahan than with any of his previous coaches. Personnel is the most important part of success, but changing schemes can be tricky. The Falcons' defense, meanwhile, had a deficient pass rush in 2016, which went largely unnoticed amid Vic Beasley Jr.'s 15.5 sacks. Atlanta ranked No. 27 in pressure rate (24.9), a weakness that could have more impact next season.
  8. This was not a great unit during the regular season, but Atlanta's pass rush has come on strong in the playoffs. Per ESPN Stats & Information data, the Falcons pressured Aaron Rodgers on 42 percent of his dropbacks. Atlanta had two sacks, seven quarterback hits and five tackles for loss. The Falcons picked their spots with when to blitz and kept Rodgers uncomfortable throughout the game. Figuring out how to best pressure Tom Brady will be at the top of Dan Quinn's to-do list this week.
  9. I'm on mobile so can't copy paste, but was pleasantly surprised ESPN actually took time to detail to the world the same thing we've known all season: that for all the praise Rodgers has been getting for his elite QB play, Ryan has gone toe to toe with him.
  10. Summary: Atlanta is scoring at a historic pace despite the toughest NFL schedule in terms of the DVOA of opposing defenses. By Bill Barnwell Atlanta very quietly has a scary offense The Atlanta Falcons are flying under the radar right now. Of course, saying any NFL team is "flying under the radar" is a little silly. It's 2016, and every NFL team is covered by multiple newspapers, radio stations and fan sites, with national coverage on top. Everybody's paying attention to everybody. Plus, by writing about the Falcons, I'm making it even less likely they're under the radar. That said, in terms of this year's playoff picture, an enormous amount of attention has been directed toward the Cowboys and Patriots, who are respectively locked in as the certain top seed in the NFC and the likely top seed in the AFC. They deserve the attention. There's a second tier of teams below Dallas and New England, though, and with the Raiders taking a hit after Derek Carr fractured his fibula this weekend, the Falcons likely belong at the very top of that tier. And somewhat quietly, they have as impressive a résumé as anybody in football, paced by one of the best offenses in league history. Wait ... there's evidence! Everybody knows the Falcons have a good offense, but is anybody really talking about how Matt Ryan & Co. have one of the best attacks the NFL has ever seen? What the Falcons have done this year has gone criminally underappreciated. They have scored a league-high 503 points through 15 games (a 33.5-point average) with one game to go at home against New Orleans, which is about the best possible recipe for a shootout. (Indeed, the Vegas line projects the Falcons to score 31 points next week.) Even before the Saints game, though, Atlanta's offense has been historic. Teams are scoring more than ever before, but the Falcons are outscoring the rest of the league with room to spare. To whit: Kyle Shanahan's offense is currently averaging 10.8 points more than the league average (22.7 points) and 4.4 points more than the second-placed Saints (29.1 points). To put that in context, we can standardize the points per game total and find that the Falcons are 2.6 standard deviations above the mean in terms of points per game, which puts them in the 99th percentile of offenses since the AFL-NFL merger of 1970. In simpler terms: There are only a few offenses in league history that have outscored their brethren more than the Falcons have against other offenses in 2016. With one game to go, after standardizing their points per game, the Falcons have the 12th-best offense since the merger. The best offense by this measure, as I wrote about at the time, would be the 2013 Broncos. No other offense has disturbed the top 10 since then, a group that includes great offensive campaigns from the Kurt Warner-era Rams (1999 and 2001), the Steve Young-era 49ers (1993 and 1994), the Tom Brady-era Patriots (2007 and 2012), and a few interlopers. Advanced metrics tell a slightly different story, if still a compelling one. DVOA has the Falcons' offense at No. 1 through 15 weeks at 25.6 percent, a figure which will likely rise once it accounts for Atlanta dropping 33 points and 408 yards on Carolina on Christmas Eve. While 25.6 percent is impressive, it's not all that much different from second-place Dallas at 22 percent. DVOA accounts for a couple of things on offense which pure points scored does not. First, it notes that the Atlanta defense has scored five touchdowns this year and doesn't credit the offense for those plays. Second, it separates out the excellent work of kicker Matt Bryant, who has been 33-of-36 on field goals and 51-of-52 on extra points this season. Bryant has been worth 9.0 points of field position on scoring plays through Week 15 this season, second in the league behind enormous outlier Justin Tucker (24.3 points). I would argue that a kicking play is part of the "offense," but either way, the Falcons are great at both. Beating the best The other thing DVOA notes about Atlanta's offense, crucially, is that the Falcons have played the toughest schedule of opposing defenses in football this season, making their raw points total even more impressive. They've played six top-10 pass defenses this season, including those of the Broncos, Seahawks, Cardinals, Chiefs and twice against the Buccaneers. Meanwhile, they'll get only three games against bottom-10 pass defenses, having already beaten the 49ers and Saints, with that return match against New Orleans to come. In those six games against top-10 defenses, the Falcons still managed to score plenty, averaging 30 points while turning the ball over just six times. Atlanta has given the ball up just 11 times this year, a stark change for an offense which averaged 27 turnovers per season over the previous three frustrating campaigns. The Falcons haven't been particularly fumble-lucky, either, having recovered four of the eight balls they've fumbled on offense. Atlanta has the league's fourth-lowest turnover rate on a per-possession basis, which is a huge reason why they're able to score so much. The Falcons don't come off the field, often because they gouge defenses on first down. They average a league-high 7.5 yards per play on first down (nobody else in the league is above 6.7 yards). Pro-Football-Reference has down-by-down data going back through 1994, and only one other team over that span, the 2006 Eagles, has averaged as many as 7.1 yards per first down play. Given how conservative teams were on first down in years past, it's very likely this Falcons offense averages more yards on first down than any team in league history. If you've watched Falcons highlights this year, you also know they've been quite capable of creating big plays. With the unexpected production of Taylor Gabriel, Atlanta has generated 34 plays of 30 yards or more this season, the most in football. They also have a league-leading 14 touchdowns of 30 yards or more. Gabriel has been responsible for five of those 34 plays, with all-world wideout Julio Jones adding in seven. Quite simply, the Falcons are a threat to score anytime they get the ball, regardless of game situation, field position or the strength of the opposition. Despite facing that league-leading slate of opposing defenses, Atlanta has come away with points on 52.4 percent of its drives this season. Nobody else in football is above 45.7 percent, and the league average is just 35.7 percent. ESPN Stats & Information has possession data going back through 2001, and the only team to score more frequently on its drives is the legendary offense of the 2007 Patriots, who are narrowly ahead at 52.7 percent. What's interesting here is Atlanta does all this with much of the same personnel they lined up with a year ago, although several additions have helped matters. New center Alex Mack has made an enormous difference up front in protecting Ryan, while Gabriel has been a threat to take screens and bombs alike to the house. Mohamed Sanu has been marginally more productive than Roddy White after signing a free-agent deal with the Falcons this offseason. But mostly, this is the same offensive talent pool. Atlanta was healthy last year, ranking second in the league in Football Outsiders' adjusted games lost statistic, and it has remained healthy with better talent this season. The Falcons' 11 projected offensive starters have combined to miss just 10 games this season, most of which have come from tight end Jacob Tamme, who was part of a rotation with rookie Austin Hooper and the professionally tall Levine Toilolo. Their five offensive linemen, crucially, have made it through 15 games without missing a single contest. They're on pace to go 80-for-80, a meaningful feat in the modern NFL. Ryan's MVP-worthy season All of this has given Ryan the opportunity to shine, and he has delivered a performance worthy of the MVP award. Ryan leads the league in QBR (82.1) and passer rating (115.5), ranking in both categories ahead of Tom Brady, who has thrown 99 fewer passes than Ryan as a result of missing the first four games of the season. Ryan is third in the league in completion percentage, but his average throw has traveled 9.3 yards in the air, while the guys above him (Sam Bradford and Drew Brees) are below 7 and 8 yards per pass, respectively. What's different this year, at least on the surface, is that Ryan has avoided giveaways and managed to piece together an offense when opposing defenses have shut down Jones. Take Week 3, when the Saints somehow limited Jones to one catch for 16 yards on seven targets. Ryan went 19-of-23 for 224 yards to his other targets, and Devonta Freeman ran for 152 yards on 14 carries. Jones has posted 60 yards or fewer in four other games this year, and Atlanta has won them all, averaging just under 32 points per game in the process. And with Jones missing against the admittedly middling defenses of the Rams and 49ers, the Falcons scored 40-plus points in each contest, albeit with two defensive touchdowns against Los Angeles. Ryan has been good in games against the league's best teams, a group of opponents that the Falcons actually stack up well against based on their regular-season performance. Atlanta was just 2-2 in the regular season against likely playoff teams, but it outperformed that record. The Falcons beat the Raiders 35-28 in a road game that required a late Raiders touchdown to appear closer. Ryan then led the Falcons to a 33-32 comeback win over the Packers with a touchdown pass to Sanu with 31 seconds left. The Falcons' two losses against likely playoff teams were extremely close. Ryan led the Falcons back with a brilliant third quarter in Seattle to take the lead, but he had a pass go off Jones' hands for a late fourth-quarter interception, setting up a Seattle field goal in a heartbreaking 26-24 loss. He also engineered a comeback against the Chiefs with a fourth-quarter touchdown that gave Atlanta a 28-27 lead with 4:32 to go, only for Eric Berry to intercept the two-point try and return it for a game-winning pick-two in a 29-28 crusher. That play may be enough to push the MVP out of Ryan's hands. The worries There are concerns, of course, which may hold the Falcons back. I haven't mentioned their defense yet, and with good reason: It's not very effective. Atlanta was 26th in defensive DVOA heading into Week 16. Those numbers also fail to account for the absence of star cornerback Desmond Trufant, who went down with a torn pectoral muscle and has been missing since Week 9. Optimistic fans might note that the Falcons have allowed only 115 points in the six games since that injury, but they've also faced the Eagles, Cardinals, Rams, 49ers, Panthers and Chiefs over that stretch. Things aren't much better going by raw numbers, either. Atlanta has allowed 24.9 points per game, which is 0.7 standard deviations worse than the league-average rate of 22.7 -- and while 2.2 points per contest doesn't sound like a big deal, and the old axiom of "defense wins championships" is simplistic, the Falcons would be the second-worst defense in the modern era to win a Super Bowl. Just three teams have won a Super Bowl with a defense allowing more points than the league average, with the 2009 Saints coming within four points of becoming the fourth. The only team worse on defense? The 2011 Giants, who allowed points at a rate 12.7 percent worse than league average. Atlanta is at 9.6 percent. The 2006 Colts were in the same ballpark, but they got Bob Sanders back for the postseason after their star safety missed 12 games that year with an injury. Sanders helped the Colts allow just 65 points over four games en route to the Super Bowl. But there's an upside here: There aren't any complete teams with dominant defenses lurking in this postseason. The Patriots might lead the league in scoring defense, but they're 19th in defensive DVOA. Dallas is just behind them in 20th. With Denver and Baltimore eliminating themselves with losses on Sunday night, the only top-10 defenses by DVOA en route to the postseason are the Giants (who have an ugly offense), the Seahawks (who aren't the same without Earl Thomas) and the Steelers (who are missing their best defensive player in Cameron Heyward). If there was ever a year in which a bad defense could make a run to Super Bowl lore, it's this one. One other knock against the Falcons is that they are somehow jinxed in the postseason or can't come up with big games when they need them, which is nonsense and a product of the ridiculous moving-goalposts school of playoff discussion. Ryan took flak earlier in his career for not winning in the playoffs, so when he did by leading the Falcons back to a dramatic come-from-behind win over the Seahawks during the 2012 postseason, it should have ended the discussion. Instead, the argument just shifted to Ryan needing to win a conference championship with this team, and if he does that, Ryan will need to win a title before most people will accept him as a true superstar, whatever that's worth. Atlanta can make its path easier by winning in Week 17. A victory over the Saints would give the Falcons the second seed in the NFC, granting them an opening-round bye and a home game before presumably traveling to Dallas for the NFC Championship Game. If the Cowboys slip in the divisional round and the Falcons win, Atlanta would then host the NFC Championship Game. Four years ago, Atlanta very narrowly missed out on a trip to the Super Bowl when a wide-open Harry Douglas slipped on a route heading upfield that could have resulted in a touchdown, giving Atlanta a three-point lead over the 49ers at home with minutes to go. Now, four years later, the Falcons and their incredible offense get their chance at revenge.
  11. Long read; lots of statistical analysis, but well worth the time.
  12. Panthers' LB Luke Kuechly hoping to play vs. Falcons 6:12 PM ET David NewtonESPN Staff Writer CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Carolina Panthers Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly hasn't given up on playing again this season, possibly even Saturday against the Atlanta Falcons. Kuechly was cleared from the concussion protocol last week after missing three starts, but was held out of Monday night's game against Washington because of concern for his long-term health. The 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year said he still hasn't been told he won't play against Atlanta, although coach Ron Rivera said he would err on the side of caution. "I'm crossing my fingers every week that they're going to give me the thumbs up to go,'' Kuechly said on Wednesday, his first press conference since suffering the concussion in a November 17 primetime game against New Orleans. "I'm going to prepare like I'm playing. I'm going to make sure I can be ready to go, but we'll see what happens moving forward with it.'' "I have said it a million times, I want to play and I want to be out there with the guys,'' Kuechly said. Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports If told he won't play the final two games, Kuechly said he "reluctantly'' will accept it. "I have said it a million times, I want to play and I want to be out there with the guys,'' Kuechly said. "I want to play, but they're the boss and I've got to listen to what the boss says. So whatever they decide is going to be the plan.'' This is the second straight year Kuechly has missed multiple games with a concussion. He sat out three last season after suffering a concussion in the opener at Jacksonville. He then played 22 regular-season games and three playoff games before receiving his second one. Kuechly said not once has he considered retirement, even though some pundits and players have suggested he should. "You appreciate those guys wanting what's best for you,'' Kuechly said. "It's a thing we're learning more about. I trust what our doctors have to say. I want to get out there and play. This most recent time, just like the last time, everyone said you're good to go." "I'm holding off that retirement word for a little ways down the road. It's something you appreciate everybody concerned with how you're doing, but whenever my opportunity comes back I'll be back out there.'' Kuechly also said he's not concerned about the potential implications, such as CTE, from multiple concussions that have come up in lawsuits by former players against the NFL the past few years. "I'm not worried about that,'' Kuechly said. "There's a lot to be learned from it. There's some studies that can say that, but I'm not a doctor and I trust what our guys say. I'm going to play football." "That's what I do. That's what I like to do. I'm not concerned with that stuff until somebody tells me otherwise.'' Rivera said he won't make a decision on whether Kuechly plays this week until Thursday or Friday. He understands Kuechly wants to play, but said sometimes you have to disregard the player's feelings and do what you and the doctors feel is best for him and the organization. "At the end of the day, there is a lot of information for me to gather,'' Rivera said. "Being smart, being prudent and we'll make the right decision." "He and I talk a lot. He wants to play. I told him I've got a lot of things I've got to weigh. That's where we leave it.'' Kuechly practiced full all last week and wasn't listed on Wednesday's injury report. He understands the staff is being cautious and praised the medical team for being thorough. He admitted it was tough when Rivera told him he wouldn't play on Monday. "I wouldn't say frustrating,'' he said. "Even last year, the same as this year, you just want to play. That's probably the most frustrating part if that's what you want to call it. "You want to be out there playing, because that's what you prepare the whole year for.'' Kuechly opened the press conference by saying he didn't want to revisit the night he was injured and the tears that were captured on television as he was carted off the field. But he did address the outpouring of support in terms of texts and messages from players from other teams and fans throughout the league. "The thing I appreciate about that situation was the amount of support people showed,'' Kuechly said. "You play a game and it's an intense game and a battle, but at the end of the day everybody understands it's just a game.''
  13. FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Keanu Neal won't back away from a challenge. If the Atlanta Falcons' rookie strong safety happens to be called upon Saturday to line up against talented Carolina tight end Greg Olsen, he's all for it. "It's just about being consistent and understanding what he's doing on certain routes,' Neal said of Olsen. "It's kind of eliminating certain routes that kind of hurt me last time when I went against him. It's really studying that and understanding what he's trying to do to me. This time around, I'll be ready for it." The Falcons drafted linebacker De'Vondre Campbell to match up against tight ends such as Olsen, but Campbell appears unlikely to play while going through the concussion protocol. Campbell didn't play when the teams met in Week 4, because of an ankle injury. Of course, the Falcons' play plenty of zone, which would entail guys being in the right spots to make sure Olsen doesn't have a free look. But if coach Dan Quinn opts for man-to-man coverage in certain situations, he might have to trust Neal to run with Olsen, even with Neal having some coverage hiccups in recent weeks. "With or without (Campbell), Greg’s a terrific player and somebody that warrants matchups and warrants talking about those kind of things," Quinn said. "When you play man to man, who do you feature on him and how do you play? We count on Keanu Neal a lot when we do a good bit of that, but not all the time. And then when you play your zones, you better have awareness for where Greg is at. "He’s that kind of receiver at tight end who can play it like a receiver. That’s why he’s able to split out and be outside in formations, so you’ll see corners on him, safeties on him, and linebackers on him just depending on the different places that they feature him. For us, he’s one of the more difficult matchups for sure." Olsen leads the Panthers with 71 catches for 992 yards, including three touchdowns. He is expected to play Saturday despite nursing an elbow injury. Plus, with just eight yards Olsen will become the first tight end to produce three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Back in a Week 4 loss to the Falcons (48-33), Olsen was shut out on three first-half targets, then finished the game with six catches for 76 yards on 13 targets, including a late, 14-yard touchdown from Derek Anderson. On that play he beat Neal, who stumbled in coverage. Quinn would be the first to note how Neal ran step for step with Olsen down the left sideline in the same game. "He’s done well, too," Quinn said of Neal's coverage. "I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t say that. Some of the ones that don’t go to him were covered well. He’s a terrific competitor. He is that type of player that 'I learn from this, I should’ve had different leverage.' It’s something when you correct it on the sideline, he’s got such intent to go get it right." Neal, known more for his hard-hitting, will have to be on point in those coverage situations as the 9-5 Falcons look to keep Olsen, Cam Newton, and the Panthers from spoiling their NFC South title hopes. "He's a deeper-route target and guy that they go to," Neal said of Olsen. "Once he gets backside of a formation or in certain areas of the formation, I just have make sure I understand what he's trying to do."
  14. During the preseason, there were actually quite a few folks around here calling for Quinn's head, telling us he would be fired by season's end, etc. ESPN has just released an article ranking each HC's job security. Here is the scale they used... 5: Hot seat: Out if the season is a big disappointment4: Warm seat: Not safe if the season is a disappointment3: Lukewarm seat: Not under fire but not disaster-proof2: Cool seat: Safe barring a total disaster1: Cold seat: No way he'll get fired And here is Dan Quinn: Atlanta Falcons Dan Quinn: 1 Owner Arthur Blank just gave general manager Thomas Dimitroff an extension that runs concurrent with Quinn's deal through 2019. Dimitroff was the guy on the hot seat -- not Quinn. Like Blank said before, Quinn will be his coach for many years to come. Getting to the playoffs this season and possibly winning a game or two will only solidify Quinn's standing. -- Vaughn McClure
  15. The psychology behind Matt Ryan's breakthrough Matt Ryan has carried the Falcons to the top of the NFC South with a 6-3 record. AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez 8:15 AM ET Seth WickershamESPN Senior Writer Facebook Twitter Pinterest Email print comment THERE'S A REVEALING moment in Steve Young's great new autobiography, "QB: My Life Behind the Spiral," that made me think of Matt Ryan. During the 1991 season, Young's first year as a starter with the San Francisco 49ers, the quarterback visited Bill Walsh. Young needed help. A few days earlier, after a bad loss to the Raiders, he'd sat in his parked car for hours, crippled by the pressure of replacing Joe Montana. Young called friends for support, and then, at 3 a.m., having run out of people to call, he cried alone. Now, in the office of the retired head coach who had believed in him more than anyone, Young hung his head, expecting a measure of empathy. Instead, Walsh scolded him. "All you do is take the blame!" Walsh said. "What am I supposed to say?" Young said, incredulously. "It's not my fault?" EDITOR'S PICKS What to make of the NFL's biggest QB surprises Are the hot starts from the Cowboys' Dak Prescott and the Raiders' Derek Carr sustainable? Here's which eye-opening quarterbacks you should buy and sell headed into the season's second half. After all, Young believed like an article of faith that a quarterback was only as great as his willingness to be weighed down. To account for the chaos of 21 bodies flying around on each play and unfailingly rise above, to be superhuman and immortal and, not for nothing, make it look easy. But Walsh was telling Young that he was wrong. "There's such a thing as being over-accountable," Walsh said. It was conflicting and counterintuitive, but it made sense. Young needed to learn the hardest lesson for any good quarterback striving to be great: He needed to learn how to let go. OK, SO WHAT does that have to do with Matt Ryan? Well, Ryan said something over the summer that, on the surface, sounded ridiculous. Back then, of course, nobody knew that his play would be off the charts this year, that he would become a favorite to win MVP, that he would end his slide toward becoming his generation's Norm Snead. Ryan has always been hyperaware of expectations and transparent about his desire to live up to them. He thinks deeply about what it takes -- what it means -- to be a great quarterback. For years, when he discussed his craft, it was fascinating as he delved into the magnitude of responsibility on each play. But it was also a little sad. You could feel the pressure building inside him as he spoke, almost making the game a little more complicated than it needed to be -- the curse of the over-invested. That's what made his comments over the summer so interesting. Ryan -- coming off the worst season of his career -- told my colleague David Flemingthat his new "thing" was to "see spots" rather than "worry so much about where defenders should be or where they're supposed to be or all those kinds of things." "Instead of getting loaded down thinking, 'In this coverage I'm going here, in that coverage I'm going there,' with so many hybrid players, so many variations of schemes and so much pressure up front and all the things that defenses can do, the way to combat all that is to see spots," he said. A lot of people ripped him for that statement. It seemed like a regression or a waving of the white flag -- nonsense that a spread quarterback would say. What quarterback reinvents himself by announcing that he no longer reads defenses? But when the season started, and Ryan began to light up opponents at a rate unprecedented in his career, it was clear that this wasn't a concession at all. It was a breakthrough. Matt Ryan's 82.3 Total QBR ranks third through the first eight weeks. Brian Blanco/Getty Images OVER THE SUMMER, TMZ caught Ryan in Beverly Hills. As you might imagine, it was awkward. Ryan, polite and earnest in front of a camera, is not exactly a TMZ guy. His wife, Sarah, was so nonplused that she dropped behind him on the sidewalk, drifting almost out of view. TMZ stalked Ryan around Rodeo Drive, making small talk, and the weirdness of it left only one question: What was Matt Ryan, the least L.A. guy ever, doing in L.A.? It turned out Ryan was doing for the first time what Tom Brady has done every offseason since 2013, what Drew Brees and Andy Dalton and Carson Palmerhave also done in recent years: He was visiting with Tom House and Adam Dedeaux, two of the more renowned quarterback gurus. Over six weeks in the offseason, House and Dedeaux gave Ryan his own specialized improvement plan, cleaning up everything from his release to his diet. For most of House's career as a guru, he was careful to refer to himself as a "throwing coach," not a "quarterback coach." He worked on mechanics, not minds. But as his practice has expanded in demand, it has also expanded in scope. House puts quarterbacks through psychological testing, similar to therapy, to measure how they handle failure and how they view themselves. Now, only Ryan knows how he views himself in confession. Only he knows how hard the past few years have been, as he has grown accustomed to early vacations, not playoff appearances, the past three seasons. He's always looked young, precocious -- but now he's 31 and in his ninth year, his face a little more weathered, his psyche a little more hardened. It's reasonable to guess that he viewed -- and views -- himself as a work in progress, having achieved a lot, but he knows there's still so far to go. All quarterbacks, especially the great ones, go through crises in confidence. As with Young, we usually learn about them much later, after their playing days are over and their legacy is secure. Ryan has always said the right things publicly, even when he was taking bullets for teammates -- especially when he was taking bullets for teammates. On the play that probably haunts him more than any other -- the incomplete pass at the goal line that lost the 2013 NFC Championship Game -- his primary option ran the wrong route, crippling it from the start. Ryan dutifully accepted responsibility for it, a little over-accountability, as Walsh would say. But players later told me that Ryan made the correct read. In that pivotal meeting years ago, Walsh told Young that no matter what he is conditioned to believe, it takes 11 guys to succeed. The quarterback is the most important piece, but not the only one. Nobody wants to admit it, especially when the greats routinely transcend dire circumstances, but it's true. When scouts opine on what's different this year about Ryan, they are drawn toward the technical stuff: How House helped add a little distance on his deep ball and how Ryan's instinct to go for the jugular is meshing in the second year with a coaching staff that, unlike the Falcons' previous one, considers a red zone field goal as a kind of moral failing. But the biggest difference is subtle, noticeable only to those who have studied him. He is liberated. He is unfazed. He is not thinking. He is carrying his team. Atlanta's defense is horrible, and Ryan has led the Falcons to games of 35, 45 and 43 points on the road. But he doesn't seem encumbered by it. In late October, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers came to Atlanta. Rodgers has always been Ryan's measuring stick, as Montana was for Young, and it always ate at Ryan that Rodgers came of age in a 2011 playoff win at Ryan's expense. This time, though, Ryan fit a bomb between two defenders for a touchdown to third-string receiver Taylor Gabriel in the first quarter. And in the fourth, Ryan threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Mohamed Sanu with 31 seconds left. It's taken years, and any theory might be undone by another second-half collapse, but it's no stretch to say that, right now, Ryan has realized that being a truly elite quarterback is not about trying to be the next Montana or the next Rodgers. It's not about deciphering every defense. It's not about folding his hands into origami as the play clock winds down to check into the perfect play. It's about unlocking what's already ingrained in him. Matt Ryan threw for 288 yards and three touchdowns against Green Bay in Week 7. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images I THOUGHT OF Young's book again when I watched Ryan's best pass of the year. It was against the Broncos in Week 5. Ryan dropped back and threw a seam route to running back Tevin Coleman. It was one of those throws that every quarterback can make in practice, but only a few can make in a game. Coleman was covered by one defender when Ryan threw the ball, and by three when he caught it. Yet he was open. Ryan threw to a hole that only he saw. It was the type of throw that goes beyond simply exploiting a mismatch. It was the type of throw that a quarterback has to get used to and grow into. It was all faith and fearlessness. Coleman scampered all but untouched for a 31-yard touchdown that would prove to be the decisive points. OK, so what does that have to do with Young? You see, there's another revealing moment in his book. It takes place in that same 1991 season, when during one game, Young didn't see Jerry Rice open downfield for a touchdown. Mike Holmgren, the offensive coordinator at the time, asked why Young didn't throw it to him. Young explained that, at 6-foot-1, he struggled to see over the linemen on deep routes. Holmgren replied that Rice was where he was supposed to be, and that Young needed to throw it anyway. Even if he couldn't see Rice, Young needed to trust him. What's more: Holmgren told Young that he would never be a great player until he learned to do so. Nobody can imagine how risky, if not impossible, that task is to execute: to take all of the pressure of being a quarterback in the NFL, of replacing a future Hall of Famer, of trying to live up to the expectations of yourself and everyone else, to throw the ball to a guy you can't see. It was a leap of faith that Young could conceptualize only after he compared it to his actual faith. As a Mormon, Young wrote, he always "believed in things I couldn't see." Now, if he could believe in the "unseen on the football field it might be a solution to my predicament as a player." So Young worked on throwing to windows, not receivers. It was not only a breakthrough. It not only simplified the game. It was a relief that only the greatest passers experience. Young coined a term for it: "Throwing blind." That's what all the quarterbacks termed it, until a generation later, when Matt Ryan, on the verge of a breakthrough himself, was mocked for adhering to the same ideology -- only he referred to it by a slightly different name. "Seeing spots," he called it.
  16. Don't know if this was posted. Didn't see it but I love this teams bond.
  17. I bolded the parts I thought were interesting. It seems that their weakness on offense matches our weakness on defense.
  18. Falcons score legit win in Denver but not done out west pla DENVER -- One could feel the calmness in the Atlanta Falcons' approach, from the way Matt Ryan took the field for warm-ups to the way the Falcons attacked the vaunted Denver Broncos defense on their very first drive. If there were any doubts whether the Falcons could contend with the defending Super Bowl champs, those doubts evaporated into the Mile High air when Ryan connected with speedy running back Tevin Coleman for a 48-yard pass play, helping to set up Devonta Freeman's opening 1-yard score less than five minutes into the game. Running back Tevin Coleman dives for a touchdown in the third quarter of the Falcons' 23-16 victory over the Broncos. Dustin Bradford/Getty Images Yes, the life was sucked out of the crowd and the Broncos early by a Falcons team looking to show the NFL world this hot start is no fraud. The Falcons are now 4-1 and have won four in a row after humbling the previously unbeaten Broncos Sunday, 23-16. So knocking off the champs means the Falcons are legit Super Bowl contenders, right? Well, let's pump the brakes on those thoughts. The Broncos played with a rookie quarterback in Paxton Lynch, who looked clueless at times, starting for the injured Trevor Semian. But the Falcons winning the first half of this grueling, back-to-back trip out west was another step toward earning more respectability. Beat Russell Wilson and the Seahawks in Seattle next Sunday and "Super Bowl contender" will become a normal part of the vocabulary when discussing the Falcons. You don't beat teams like Carolina, Denver and Seattle in consecutive weeks by accident. What you need to know in the NFL Maybe the most promising aspect of Sunday's win, outside of the tremendous performance by the running backs catching the football, was how the defense showed up strong. Former first-round draft pick Vic Beasley Jr., who has been the target of criticism for having less of an impact than most anticipated, had a breakout performance with 3.5 sacks. He showed his tremendous speed off the edge and made the day that much more difficult for the inexperienced Lynch. And if the Falcons, who had six sacks against the Broncos, can establish a consistent pass rush to pair with that potent offense, there's no telling what type of success this team could have this season. The pass rush helped cover up the variety of injuries at linebacker. And the combined 180 receiving yards for Coleman, Freeman and fullback Patrick DiMarco helped the offense flow without Julio Jones being a major factor for the second time this season. Jones didn't have his first catch until the third quarter and finished with two catches for 29 yards. We'll see what's in store next for the Falcons, but it's hard to doubt them now