Goober Pyle

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Goober Pyle last won the day on August 14 2016

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  1. It’s all about the ball. That’s the emphasis every Thursday when the Falcons practice. The ball, the physical oblong object itself, is the most important possession to each player. The offense does everything it can to secure it. The defense does what it can to take it away. The ultimate goal is to instill into each Falcons player’s mind that possessing the football is ever-important. And on Sundays, the idea is for these teaching moments to replicate themselves. Of course, coaching turnovers into existence is a hard feat. Coaches can drill techniques as hard as they want. But for a defender, the ball still has to bounce or move his way. On the offensive side, teams can’t account for the unforeseen turnovers, such as when the opposing defender simply makes a better play. Still, the emphasis is present every week because the numbers suggest that the team winning the turnover margin battle has a greater chance at victory. In fact, since head coach Dan Quinn took over the Falcons in 2015, the team has recorded a 70.8 winning percentage when it causes more turnovers than the other team does. “We teach it in the classroom; we teach it on the field,” Quinn said. “We talk about it every day because we know how important it is.” Here are some numbers to show how important turnover margin has been to Atlanta: The Falcons are 17-7 when it produces more turnovers than the other team. In each of Quinn’s four years, the Falcons are better than .500 in games when accomplishing this. Including Sunday’s loss to Minnesota, the Falcons are 7-14 under Quinn when they lose the turnover battle. Under Quinn, when Atlanta has drawn even in turnovers, the team is 12-8. The Falcons are 8-1 the past four years when recording a plus-2 turnover margin. Anything better than plus-2? The Falcons are 3-0. It’s not complicated. Turnovers created on defense combined with an offense that secures the ball usually delivers positive results. Only twice under Quinn have the Falcons won a game while posting a minus-2 or worse in turnover margin. Both games came in 2017 (at Detroit, vs. New Orleans). All of this information sets up the obvious conundrum. While it’s all about the ball at practice, it hasn’t always been the case during games. Including Sunday’s game, the Falcons are dead even in turnover margin since Quinn arrived in 2015. In his first season, the Falcons finished minus-7 in turnover margin. In 2016, the Falcons were plus-11, which was aided by a plus-5 showing against the Los Angeles Rams. In 2017, that number fell to minus-2 Last season, the Falcons finished the year plus-1 but were at minus-4 after 13 games. Turning the ball over three times against Minnesota, without creating one of their own, definitely played a major role in the outcome. And it’s something the Falcons once again will need to rectify heading into this week’s game against Philadelphia. “We all know the percentages. If you even go minus-1 in this league, it’s tough enough to win,” safety Ricardo Allen said. “Going minus-3, that’s just something you don’t want to do. It shows us as a defense, if they’re finding a way to get the ball from us, we have to find a way to get the ball back. We have to find a way to even it out. We have to try to keep digging at it, keep going at it. Teams understand we’ll be going for it, so they’re trying to cover it up more. We have to find a way to get it.” The Falcons, however, have ranked in the top 10 once under Quinn in turnover differential. That occurred in 2016, with their plus-11 mark tying for fourth-best in the league. Otherwise, the team ranked 27th in 2015, 19th in 2017 and tied for 15th in 2018. Each Thursday, the team works through various scenarios where the defense is trying to take the ball away. The defensive players practice punching the ball out, and they’ll work on the tip drill. Of course, the offense works through plays with the goal of not turning the ball over. “We do some turnover circuits,” cornerback Desmond Trufant said. “The offense is trying to keep it from us. We’re trying to take it from them. It’s an emphasis on who can get the ball the most and if they can keep it from us. The defense is always training the offense, the offense is always training us. We have to keep working on it and it will carry over into Sunday.” Of course, drilling and coaching turnovers, and simultaneously preventing them, won’t always show up on game days. Grady Jarrett forced a fumble when sacking Kirk Cousins, only for Minnesota to recover the ball. Sometimes the ball doesn’t bounce a team’s way on these kinds of plays. Considering Minnesota ran that particular play at its own 28-yard line, a turnover could have helped turn the tide. “Through the years, defenses have gotten better and better at trying to go after it because everyone knows the importance of it,” Quinn said. “If you win the turnover margin, you have an excellent chance to win it. Defensively, what happens, over the last 20 years, people are teaching it and going for it.” Atlanta’s three turnovers Sunday, conversely, were of the unforced variety. Matt Ryan’s first interception was thrown to Julio Jones in double coverage, although it is possible Ryan didn’t see safety Anthony Harris drop back after it looked like he might crash down in the box. Ryan’s second pick was a jump ball for Luke Stocker, which the veteran tight end never had a chance to bring down. Harris was the one who picked that pass off, as well, and was aided by some pressure in Ryan’s face. The Falcons’ third turnover came when Devonta Freeman coughed up the ball at the Minnesota 21-yard line in the second quarter. Such plays make it difficult to win games. Freeman said the Falcons need to do a better job of protecting the ball and taking advantage of their opportunities. “It’s more so a mindset,” Freeman said. “Once you establish the mindset with all the guys, including myself, you protect the ball. That’s the No. 1 pillar of our program, to protect the ball. We just got to do a better job of it. That’s it.” Successful teams do a great job of protecting the ball on offense and taking the ball away on defense. While the Falcons devote time each week to accomplishing this, the results have been hit or miss the past four-plus years. Only one game has taken place this season, so there is plenty of time for Atlanta’s fortune with turnovers to reverse course. “I bet if you went from Smyrna (little league) ball — they’re talking about ball security — to high school ball, to college ball, to us,” Quinn said. “The emphasis of the football is really significant. That’s how you do it on the field. You practice it, you drill it, you do it in the meeting rooms. And then it has to carry over to the games.”
  2. For all the expectations surrounding Dan Quinn’s defense, there weren’t many personnel changes. Talent was added across the defensive line. The linebacker group remained the same, while Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal returned from season-ending injuries to reform one of the better safety tandems in the league. The one major personnel change came at the cornerback position. Robert Alford was unsurprisingly released following a dreadful 2018. As the front office opted not to re-sign Brian Poole, all indications were directed towards their promising young corner. Isaiah Oliver was going to be the starter alongside Desmond Trufant. The former first-team All-Pac-12 corner entered the season with plenty of buzz. His athletic traits and measurables mesh well with Dan Quinn’s preferences. With his long arms and ability to cover acres of space, Oliver is the type of corner that Quinn wants in his defense. What the coaching staff would like to see improvement on is his overall technique. Oliver can struggle to change direction in man coverage. His tendency of not playing with much aggressiveness can become problematic, particularly in run support. Both concerns were visible in Sunday’s loss against Minnesota. Breaking down Oliver’s game Oliver had the task of covering Adam Thielen, who has established himself as one of the craftiest wide receivers in the league. The responsibility of matching up with him for nearly a full game isn’t ideal for most cornerbacks, let alone one who doesn’t have much NFL experience. Oliver was fortunate Kirk Cousins only attempted ten passes. Based on a few plays, it was clear Oliver couldn’t hang with him. This realization isn’t surprising given what Thielen has accomplished. What left many frustrated was the young cornerback’s lack of tenacity. On Cousins’ lone touchdown pass, Oliver allowed Thielen to get leverage on him far too easily. One of Oliver’s biggest attributes is his size. Allowing an undersized receiver beat you with his physicality raises immediate questions. It wasn’t the first time he allowed Thielen to get the better of him. Dalvin Cook’s first touchdown run could have been prevented if Oliver had better instincts. Instead of reacting, Oliver opted to try to close down the outside. That led to him running into Thielen, which meant he couldn’t make the necessary open-field tackle. Challenges ahead Oliver will need to elevate his game quickly. In a game where he wasn’t tested often due to game flow, Oliver still managed to make too many mistakes. The Falcons’ ultra-talented offense won’t commit three turnovers. They will score plenty of points, which means the opposing team will attempt 30 to 40 passes a game. Oliver must show he is up for the challenge starting against Philadelphia. There aren’t many play callers more unpredictable than Doug Pederson. Putting defenders in precarious positions is what his offensive system embodies. Oliver must be prepared for a wide variety of RPOs, unorthodox play designs, and matchups. This will be a big test to see where Oliver stands as a prospect. A potential matchup against Alshon Jeffrey would be most fitting for him. Jeffrey is the type of receiver that Oliver can get physical with at the line of scrimmage. It’s a better matchup stylistically than covering the likes of DeSean Jackson or Nelson Agholor. Minnesota ran mostly 12 (two wide receivers, two tight ends) or 21 (two running backs, two wide receivers) personnel packages last Sunday. That left Oliver mostly on Thielen, while Desmond Trufant covered Stefon Diggs. Quinn may decide to have Oliver shadow Jeffrey, as Trufant rotates between the other two explosive wide receivers. Regardless of the matchups and schematic setups, Oliver is going to be in the spotlight this week. He needs to make an impact for Quinn’s defense to get back on track.
  3. It’s not an ideal way for an offensive lineman to spend Monday in the workplace. But members of the Falcons’ offensive line had no other choice but to pore over the game film from Sunday’s 28-12 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, which included many mistakes from the line. There were plenty of grunts and groans in the room, as anyone could imagine, considering the Falcons allowed quarterback Matt Ryan to take four sacks and seven quarterback hits. The phrase “I wish I had that one back,” or some variation of it, was muttered often. And, of course, at times a clip went up and players knew exactly what was going to happen before the play button was pressed. It’s not fun to relive those moments, especially when an offensive lineman is aware that his mistake is about to be on full display for his teammates and position coaches. But it’s a necessity to bring attention to these errors if the line wants to improve. “The film doesn’t lie,” left tackle Jake Matthews said. “If you have something to fix, you have to fix it. That’s what I’m focused on.” Matthews owned up to what he called a “disappointing” performance Sunday. On the Falcons’ first offensive play, Matthews surrendered a sack, which he said was his fault and resulted from a miscommunication. The Vikings initially lined up Everson Griffen on the defensive line with Anthony Barr behind him. Barr then moved down and lined up outside of Griffen before the ball was snapped. After the snap, Matthews initially went after Griffen before realizing Barr had a free rush at Ryan. The Vikings’ second sack came at the 1:54 mark of the second quarter, with defensive lineman Danielle Hunter avoiding a chip on the right side of the line. In the third quarter, Griffen got Matthews with a spin move before bringing down Ryan. In the fourth quarter, Hercules Mata’afa generated pressure up the middle, which caused the pocket to collapse. Hunter and Linval Joseph cleaned the play up. “This isn’t the way we wanted to start the season, so everyone’s pretty down,” center Alex Mack said. “Everyone’s pretty pissed, but we’ve got a long season ahead of us. There was some really good stuff on film. There was some bad stuff. We’ll fix that stuff, keep the good stuff and move on to next week.” Said Matthews: “I was frustrated that a couple of plays I wanted to go my way didn’t. I got to improve from it. The beauty of it is it’s a new week. We have another game this Sunday. We’ll get ready for it now and come out of it 1-1. That’s the plan.” The Falcons line, which surrendered 42 sacks in 2018, will need to regroup with a new face at right guard. And that won’t be easy, considering the circumstances. Chris Lindstrom, the rookie guard Atlanta selected 14th overall in the draft, suffered a broken foot during the third quarter of the opening-game loss. Lindstrom will miss, at minimum, the next eight games as he’s now on injured reserve. The good news for the Falcons is that he isn’t expected to miss the entire season. The timetable for Lindstrom’s return may depend on whether he can tolerate the pain that any soreness might bring once his broken bone is stabilized post-surgery. Dr. Kenneth Jung, a foot and ankle surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, said a broken bone in the foot typically takes six to eight weeks to heal. Sometimes the muscles around the fractured bone are also affected. “You can have some soreness in the bone, at that fracture site itself … those soft tissues can have soreness, as well,” said Jung, who also is a medical consultant to the Los Angeles Rams. “Typically not sharp pain, but aches and pains they have to work through, as long as everything is stable.” With Lindstrom out, coach Dan Quinn said Jamon Brown will receive the first look at right guard against Philadelphia. During organized team activities and minicamp, Brown practiced with the first team at right guard before Lindstrom supplanted him when training camp began. Brown, who was signed to a three-year, $18.75 million contract in the offseason, was a healthy scratch in Atlanta’s Week 1 loss, which he called “surprising.” The Falcons made the offensive line a priority in the offseason to ensure it had the right kind of depth in case injuries affected the first team. They will count on Brown to fill what is a huge loss up front, especially given how well Lindstrom was playing against Minnesota before his injury. Brown said he is up for the challenge of starting at right guard. While Brown didn’t play this past week, he was in the film room watching the game’s mistakes unfold again. After Monday’s film session, Brown said the line believes it can fix the miscues. “That was tough to watch,” Brown said. “But you never really cower away from those. Those losses are lessons. You just try to take that in stride. You watch that play you might have done bad on, you don’t look at how bad you did. You look at the coaching point and the part where I can be better.” At right tackle, Atlanta may still opt for a rotation between Kaleb McGary and Ty Sambrailo or Matt Gono. Gono, who missed the opener with a back injury, returned to practice Wednesday in a limited fashion. Quinn said the plans of a tackle rotation could change as Atlanta gets closer to game day. Ultimately, he wants to settle on having McGary play the position. “We don’t plan to stay that way,” Quinn said. “As long as the communication is right — if it was a concern of that, then we wouldn’t do that. Once we feel like, from a conditioning standpoint, that he can take over for the whole time, then Kaleb will do that.” McGary was pleased with his first NFL performance but noted that by no means was it phenomenal. He said he gained confidence by proving to himself that he can hang against a group of NFL first-team defensive linemen. Like Brown, McGary said Monday’s film review was tough but necessary. Once you go through the previous game’s mistakes, he said, it’s time to move on and focus on the upcoming opponent. “It’s serious, and it’s honest. You’ve got to tell the truth,” McGary said. “Whether it’s something you want to hear or not, the only way you can fix it is if you know you did something wrong. Fortunately, but unfortunately, as an offensive lineman, there’s no mystery if you messed up. You will always know. You just got to tell the truth. Everyone accepts that; everyone’s mature about it. If you messed up this play, fix the problem, don’t do that again.” While the Falcons seemingly upgraded the offensive line, it appears to be in flux for the short term. At the same time, one of the easiest things to do is read too much into how teams perform in season openers. Generally speaking, teams don’t jell until the fourth or fifth game. It’s not out of line to assume Atlanta’s offensive linemen will put forth a better performance against the Eagles. “It was never an issue where it was like, ‘Man, we’re in trouble,’” Brown said of the film session. “A lot of mistakes that were made could be simply fixed, whether it be technique or communication. It’s all small things, minor things that don’t put any worries in anyone’s head. It’s something we’re aware of and that we got to get fixed. “And we will.”
  4. This should have been taken care of PRIOR to the game.....#ICEDBLUEBALLS
  5. A year ago at this time, the Falcons were a trendy pick to reach or win the Super Bowl. The reasoning was clear. They had a proven veteran quarterback, a top-tier receiver, a solid ground game and an experienced defense. One by one, injuries crumbled that experienced defense. Overlooked was an aging and overmatched offensive line — particularly at guard and right tackle. The interior defensive line also became a weak spot, specifically against the run. When a team finishes 7-9, it’s hard to assume it’s ready to bounce back for a big year after one offseason. But the Falcons can boast a preseason narrative similar to last year’s. They still have the proven veteran quarterback and top-tier receiver. The ground game could be good again if Devonta Freeman is able to play in all 16 games. The Falcons bolstered the offensive line by adding James Carpenter, Jamon Brown, Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary. The defense returns its key injured players to go with new additions up front. Perhaps this is now an overlooked team compared with the attention it received a year ago. Atlanta’s players have looked to move past the forgettable 2018 campaign. It’s time to start anew with what could be a promising path to the postseason. What stays the same, what changes on offense? The Falcons brought back offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter for a second stint, although the system previously in place will largely remain the base scheme. Atlanta has done well with the outside zone to play-action scheme in the past, with head coach Dan Quinn wanting to keep this intact. Koetter, however, certainly will be able to place his stamp on the unit. The run scheme won’t change much. The primary focus will be on the outside zone. The object is to force a defense wide before the running back hits an open lane to run through as fast as possible. In previous seasons, the inside zone worked as a counter to the outside zone. Just when a team is getting used to the outside-zone run, Atlanta would hit a rushing play inside. Koetter has used plenty of inside zone runs in previous stops and might use those plays a good bit more. With the passing attack, Koetter’s penchant has been to get his receiving targets down the field. Koetter coached Matt Ryan from 2012 to 2014, so the two know what the other likes and dislikes. The Falcons’ philosophy still will be to run the ball to set up the play-action pass. But there will be some wrinkles that favor Koetter’s style of play-calling. Atlanta should see its receivers get vertical a bit more for big-play shots. And you can count on Koetter dialing up the screen game a good bit. Everyone knows what the top three receivers can do. Julio Jones has gone for more than 1,400 yards in five consecutive seasons. Mohamed Sanu is as reliable as they come, especially on third down. Calvin Ridley caught 10 touchdowns as a rookie. And tight end Austin Hooper has evolved into much more than a reliable safety net for Ryan. The key to this offense, however, is Freeman. When Freeman is at his best, the offense is as dynamic as they come. Freeman runs with great power inside and also has the speed to attack the edges. His ability to be a receiver out of the backfield and in the slot offers great versatility to the offense, which forces linebackers and safeties to account for him. But the most important part that will go into whether this year’s offense is successful will be the line. Quinn said Wednesday that he feels as good about the depth at this position as he ever has. Carpenter and Brown are still battling at left guard. McGary and Matt Gono appear to be the top two still competing at right tackle. The Falcons probably have a good idea who will start at those positions Sunday against Minnesota, although gamesmanship would require holding that information close to the vest. Time will tell if the offseason additions, through free agency and the draft, improve the offensive line enough to prevent Ryan from being sacked more than 40 times. What changes, what stays the same on defense? The biggest change will be two key defenders who will be on the field with their teammates for the first time since suffering injuries a year ago. Safeties Keanu Neal (ACL) and Ricardo Allen (Achilles) didn’t make it out of the first month of last season. They’re back and should make a huge difference. Tyeler Davison up front has been an underrated acquisition, especially in run defense. Allen Bailey recorded six sacks for the Kansas City Chiefs a year ago and should be a factor in the rotation. The Falcons also got bigger on the defensive line by bringing back Adrian Clayborn after he spent a year in New England. Clayborn is a great edge-setter but can also get after the passer — as evidenced by his six-sack game against Dallas two years ago. Another new aspect of the defense hasn’t been seen yet, but there has been quite a bit of chatter about new wrinkles. Players appear excited about trying out some different plays that haven’t been put on film before as Quinn takes over the defensive play-calling. “I can say there are some schematic changes we’ve done,” defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. “We’re excited to put together, as a team, some new things we haven’t done since I’ve been here. He’s definitely maximizing the skill level and the skill type to give us the best efficiency on the field together.” An aspect of the defense that will remain the same is Quinn’s desire to keep things simple for the players. While a certain play may appear complicated with a disguised look, the players shouldn’t have to do too much thinking on the spot. The design of the defense is for each player to react, and attack, quickly. “If you make the information good enough that it’s simple enough that your players can understand it and execute it, they’re comfortable playing as fast as they were when you picked them to come here and be the players in general,” Allen said. “I think the easier you can make it, and the more information that you can give players and the more detail you make things and the harder you can make practices, it naturally frees up the athletic player within the plays.” First four games It’s daunting for any offensive line to be forced to go against the Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles in consecutive weeks to open the season. But there is also ample opportunity to out-scheme the opponents beforehand because there isn’t any true game film yet. This potential advantage, of course, is available to both teams. The opener against the Vikings is a tough one, especially on the road and with the skill position players the Vikings possess on offense. Dalvin Cook is fully healthy and will run in a Gary Kubiak-influenced scheme, which should leverage his skills. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen will provide stiff opening-week challenges to the Falcons’ secondary. The Vikings’ front four of Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter, Linval Joseph and Shamar Stephen will look to make it tough on an Atlanta offensive line that has been in the midst of a rebuild. If the Falcons can come away with a win in Minnesota, it would serve as a big boost — especially with Philadelphia on deck. The Eagles and Falcons played thrillers in consecutive years, one in the divisional round of the playoffs and the other in last year’s season opener. The Eagles have a multitude of offensive weapons and a strong defensive line. But Atlanta will finally have home-field advantage. In Week 3, the Falcons get the Indianapolis Colts, who had to suddenly deal with Andrew Luck’s retirement. Jacoby Brissett isn’t inexperienced, but there could be an adjustment period. Atlanta lucked out — no pun intended — with this occurrence, especially with this game being on the road. And then the following week, the Falcons host the Tennessee Titans. There isn’t a ton of star power on Tennessee’s roster, but it should be noted this team was able to post a 9-7 record in 2018. Led by Derrick Henry, the Titans will look to establish the run and grind out games, an area the Falcons want to improve upon defensively. Second group of four games The Falcons figure to be in a good position if they enter the second quarter of the season at 2-2 or 3-1. That’s because this next stretch begins with trips to Houston and Arizona. The Texans haven’t had the most stable offseason, highlighted by the trade of Jadeveon Clowney to the Seattle Seahawks. Losing Lamar Miller for the entire season was also a brutal blow, which forced the franchise to see if Carlos Hyde has anything left as a running back. The Cardinals are a mystery, considering their new head coach, Kliff Kingsbury, has never coached an NFL game. They’ll start rookie quarterback Kyler Murray, who Arizona will hope is coming into his own by Week 6. After two consecutive trips, the Falcons get tough home contests against the Los Angeles Rams and the Seahawks in Weeks 7 and 8. These two games might be the most important of Atlanta’s season. A realistic goal for every good NFL team is to hold serve at home and go .500 on the road. Getting the Rams and Seahawks right in the middle of the schedule could factor into how the remainder of the season goes. Win those two, or even one, and there should be a great deal of confidence heading into the back set of eight games. Third quarter of the season After a Week 9 bye, Atlanta begins division play with a trip to New Orleans. The Falcons have seen their archrival win the NFC South in two consecutive seasons. That hasn’t been a pleasant thing to witness. New Orleans has won the past three games against Atlanta, so this is something the Falcons will hope to rectify. Week 11 will be another trip, this one to Carolina, with the following game at home against Tampa Bay. This is an important stretch, obviously, with divisional implications at stake. The Falcons follow the home game against the Buccaneers with a Thanksgiving home meeting against the Saints. The third group of four games will feature all NFC South opponents. A 2-2 outcome, at worst, is needed for Atlanta to feel good about itself heading into the final four games of the season. Homestretch In Week 14, the Falcons get the Panthers again. While Carolina should be improved, Atlanta swept the northernmost NFC South team a year ago. Containing Christian McCaffrey will be the key to making this happen again. In Week 17, the same applies in a second game against the Buccaneers. Bruce Arians will look to air the ball out to receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. But the first year of a coaching change is generally when a team is most vulnerable. Atlanta has won its past five games against Tampa Bay. Between those two divisional opponents are winnable games against the San Francisco 49ers (Week 15) and the Jacksonville Jaguars (Week 16). The 49ers should feature an improved offense as long as quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is healthy. The Jaguars will hope their offense is improved now that Nick Foles is at quarterback instead of Blake Bortles. While it’s a little early to project what each team will be this far out, the Falcons appear to have a favorable schedule to end the year with, especially if they can position themselves with a solid record in their first 12 games. Three potential breakout players DE Takk McKinley: McKinley had a solid first season as a rookie but followed it with one he described as disappointing. He dropped some bad weight and has looked fast since the offseason program began. It has also helped that he hasn’t had to spend the offseason rehabbing. He was finally able to participate fully in OTAs and minicamp for the first time as an NFL player. McKinley should finally live up to his first-round billing. LB Foye Oluokun: Oluokun proved to be one of the steals from last year’s draft class as a sixth-rounder. He’s entering the season as Atlanta’s top weakside linebacker and should be on the field quite a bit, especially on run downs. As a rookie, Oluokun totaled 91 tackles and was lauded picking up the defense so quickly. He’ll be counted on to do even more this season. CB Isaiah Oliver: The Falcons need Oliver to be a breakout player. Slated to start at cornerback in only his second season, Oliver will defend some of the NFL’s best receivers on a weekly basis. Oliver had a good offseason and appears ready for the challenge. He had some positive moments down the stretch last season and will hope that catapults him to a big sophomore campaign. Regular-season predictions Record: 11-5 NFC South champs? It’s tough to go against the Saints. So even with the Falcons’ 11-5 record, New Orleans gets the preseason nod by a game. Playoffs? Yes, as a wild-card team.
  6. These are interesting times for Arthur Blank. His NFL team — the Falcons, who are coming off a non-playoff season — begins a new year Sunday in Minnesota. His MLS club, Atlanta United, won the league championship in only its second season and is starting to get its footing after a few bumps under new coach Frank de Boer. In his personal life, Blank went through a divorce from his third wife, Angela, and recently overcame a recurrence of prostate cancer, which he initially battled in 2016. Blank sat down Tuesday with The Athletic to discuss all of those issues, as well as ongoing contract negotiations with Julio Jones, which appear to be nearing resolution; the futures of Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff; criticism some NFL owners are receiving for supporting President Trump; and mandating PSLs for all tickets sold at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. When we set up this interview, my assumption was the Julio Jones contract would be done. Our assumption, as well. What can you say other than you hope a deal gets done? I think we’re very, very close. I’d be surprised and disappointed if we didn’t get it done this week. If you walked into a sportsbook, what day would be the favorite for the signing? I don’t know that. But it’s very reasonable to assume it gets done this week. What tells you that? Just where the negotiations are and the discussions are. Is this just posturing? It’s just a dance. There’s a lot of money involved for Julio. He deserves a lot of money, and we’ll make sure he gets it. We have to make sure he gets in a contract and a construct that’s fair to him and respectful to him and everything he’s done for us and will do going forward but respectful to the franchise, as well, and continues to give us the flexibility to make sure we have other pieces around the entire team. We need to have a winning formula. It’s not about one player. It never is, not even the quarterback. Last year, Matt (Ryan) didn’t have a great offensive line; he got hit 104 times and sacked 42 times. So we have to do the right thing for the franchise, and we definitely want to do the right thing for the players, including Julio. When was the last time you put forth an offer to Julio’s people? They’ve been going back and forth on a daily basis now. You don’t seem concerned at all. This has been an on-going situation for really two years. I’m not concerned. We made an adjustment last year. Julio played well and had a great year for us, and this year he’ll play well and have a great year for us. We’ll get the contract resolved. You don’t have a concern that if it’s not resolved this week, he may sit out the season opener? I don’t have that concern. He’s scheduled to meet with the media Thursday. Well, then, you can ask him about it. Maybe he’ll have a reason to be celebrating Thursday. How important is this season to the futures of head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff? You’re asking me if they’re on the hot seat. I never know how to define “hot seat.” I have great confidence in coach Quinn. I have great confidence in Thomas. You look back — Thomas has been with us since 2008. Coach, his first year was an average year because we were going through a transition, second year we were in the Super Bowl, third year we were in the playoffs. Last year was not a good year, but most of that I would attribute to the injuries that we had and lack of performance on the offensive line. But I think they’ve addressed that in the offseason, both in free agency and the draft. Barring any unforeseen injuries, which sadly is the nature of the sport we’re in, it’s not pingpong — maybe there’s injuries in pingpong, I don’t know — I think we’ll have a very competitive team this year. I like where we are. I like where we are offensively and defensively. Dan has taken over the responsibility of defensive coordinator and will call the plays himself, which I think will make a huge difference. All the players we had last year are coming back. I’m pretty optimistic about both sides of the ball. I think special teams will be good. I like the fact Money Matt (Bryant) is back with us. I felt badly for both Giorgio (Tavecchio) and Blair (Walsh). Maybe one of them will be in our future; you don’t know. Will bringing back Bryant require some adjustments financially with other contracts? It always requires some adjustments. We’re right at the edge of the salary cap, which is where we’re supposed to be. That’s where I want us to be. I want to spend every dollar we can to get the best players we can to give us the best chance to win. So the answer is: It will take some creativity. Between Thomas and (director of football operations) Nick (Polk), I think they’ll do that. They have to do it, I should say. Barring injuries, is there a minimum bar for success you’re looking at? Not really. You want the team to be competitive every week. I think we’ll win our share of games. The only people I’ll conjecture with are my kids. They’ll guess, I’ll guess, but that’s between me and my children. You’ll have to get it out of the game. I think we’ll have a competitive team, and if you get in the playoffs, single elimination, anything can happen. We have an experienced quarterback who’s playing at a high level, and physically, mentally he’s in a great place. We have a great receiving corps, running backs, the offensive line has been improved. I feel good about where we are. But so probably does every owner the week before the start of the season. Switching sports: Frank de Boer has been your soccer coach for about eight months. Any thoughts on the job he has done, considering the bar was much higher when he took over? There was no bar at first — there was a bar we envisioned but hadn’t established, and it turned out in the first two years, we exceeded that in every way we could. Frank has done an excellent job, in my view. When you change a coach, no matter which version of football you’re talking about, there’s always adjustments: the scheme, the players, players get to know the coach, the coach gets to know them, the chemistry issues. What can they do well? How can they adjust to my scheme? Is it a minor adjustment or major? In our case, it wasn’t major, but it wasn’t no adjustment. Frank has gotten to know our players now, and they’ve gotten to know what’s important to him. I think our team is peaking at the right time now, going into the playoffs. We’ve won three cups in the last 365 days. We couldn’t have a better year than that, and we want to continue to build that going forward and continue to win cups. I’m very happy with him. He understands us. He appreciates our fans and appreciates the players and what they’ve given to him. What were your thoughts when you saw reports of problems with players over his style or personality? None, really. I took that with a grain of salt because some of that was pulled out by the media. Some of the players don’t speak English fluently, and even Frank sometimes will use a word that’s not exactly the meaning. But I think when you have an elite group of players and everybody wants to play, everybody doesn’t understand why they’re being taken out of a match, but the coach has done a good job just explaining that and developing relationships with them. I think it’s fine. It takes a little bit of time for that to happen. He took some heat when he said he doesn’t favor equal pay for men and women in international soccer. Were you concerned, given your history of being inclusive and supporting such issues? I think Frank clarified his comments on that. I talked to him about that same subject several days before. We had a dinner at our house with several players and staff. Obviously, Frank believes, I believe and, hopefully, all our organizations and businesses believe the men and women are equal in terms of their competency and their abilities, and you pay people based on what their value is to the organization. I think the biggest issue with women’s soccer, and I said this to Frank, is I think it needs to be supported more on a global basis. That’s the essence of the issue. The success of the Women’s National Team in World Cup soccer and continued growth around the world — my son Josh took a two-week trip to Europe and spent some time with the women’s team in Lyon, France — it’s coming together. But there’s a history there, and it’s going to take a while. I would hope at some point in time equity would be there, regardless of gender, based on the model. Women’s soccer at the collegiate level is becoming more significant, and hopefully, that will continue to be a pipeline for women’s soccer at the professional level. You turn 77 in a few weeks. You seem to be in good health. I could lose a few pounds maybe but, yeah, my health is good. My cancer is gone. Hopefully, it will stay that way. You went through a scare with prostate cancer in 2016. And I had a reoccurrence last year, so I dealt with that. Did you have chemo or some kind of treatment again? It wasn’t chemo. But whatever the treatments were, I went through exactly what the doctor recommended and came out with a good result, so I’m happy about it. How did that impact you? Last spring it impacted me in terms of my schedule a little bit. But I would encourage all men to stay on top of their PSA. Get it checked frequently, and if you have any issues, deal with them sooner rather than later. Have you changed your diet or routine in any way? Yeah, there are some things I do now that I didn’t before. There’s a lot of issues in terms of what’s the cause of prostate cancer, and nobody is exactly sure. But I know it’s early detection cancer that you can deal with and get good outcomes from. Sometimes people go through a health situation and it causes them to step back and reflect. Did that happen to you? As you get older, I think you quite normally go through that. Probably dealing with that illness, it focused me a little bit more. I try to make every day an important day, every day a valuable day, every day a day with blessings, a productive day for myself, my family, businesses, people I care about. Your father passed away at a young age, correct? Yes, 44 (of a heart attack). I was 14. It was tough on me, my brother, Michael, and my mother, obviously, who was only 37 at the time. Staying on a personal level, in January it was reported that you and your wife, Angela, were divorcing. But you’ve also been seen together recently. Did something change? Obviously, we decided we shouldn’t be married, but we definitely should spend time together. I enjoy being with her; she enjoys being with me. I love her; she loves me. We enjoy social time. We also enjoy shared work in terms of our foundation and things she’s heavily involved in, including the transition of the military back home. Is that unusual that a couple would get divorced but still enjoy that kind of relationship? It’s a little unusual, but we get along really well, and we have shared interests. When you blend a family, it’s not always easy. But she has great kids. I love her kids, she loves my kids, and we spend time together. It’s all very public. And I have a great relationship with (second wife) Stephanie. We’re doing an event here for the Boys & Girls Club. She’s happily married, but we spend time together with our three children and in a variety of ways. Divorce is not death. People who are divorced still can have healthy, productive relationships — caring, loving relationships — at least around the things they still share together. At the risk of stereotyping, it’s not uncommon for highly driven, successful people to struggle in their personal lives. Is it fair to say this is an area in which you have struggled? I think that is a stereotype. I think we also see a lot of people who don’t come from a lot of wealth, and they come from broken homes. So I don’t think it has anything to do with being successful. Divorce is caused by many factors. When you get married, you always hope you’re going to be married forever. That certainly was true with my first wife, Diana, and I. But I’d rather celebrate the fact that I have great relationships with all three of them. I celebrate my life with them and my children with them. I’m not going to focus on those things which took place in my life that weren’t exactly what I wanted. I learned from them, I’ve moved on and I’m focused on today and tomorrow. On another subject, you bought a $180 million yacht. Did I get the price right? No, but that’s OK. It’s not important. Was this a bucket list item? Not really. I spent 30 years enjoying (late former Atlanta developer) John Williams’ boats. He was a close friend, almost a brother to me. Every year we would sail with him; he would give us a boat to use for the weekend, and we did. I always loved spending time on the water and spending time with the family in that setting. John and I started to do this together, and then, sadly, he got sick and passed away a year and a half ago. John’s memory is with me on the boat. It’s called “Dream Boat.” We had 17 family members all throw names into a bucket, and it turned out to be a really good name because it’s that kind of experience. Were you recently on a long trip? I was gone for two weeks. We were in Italy mostly, the Amalfi Coast. Just being away, being on the water. Part of nature that you’re connected to. Being on the water is almost a spiritual experience for me. The family loves it, and I love doing things with them. ****content omitted***** Since you moved into Mercedes-Benz Stadium, some fans have taken exception to your PSL policy and not selling single-game tickets. Do you believe the policy is in conflict with your fan-first philosophy? It’s not really in conflict with it. There hasn’t been a stadium built in a long time that doesn’t have PSLs, and a third to half the clubs in the NFL have PSLs. It gives season-ticket holders certain rights. We look at the value of the ticket and the value of the PSL together and make sure that the experience is going to be affordable for our fans. Whatever we feel, we feel, but fans across the NFL and Major League Soccer voted us No. 1 in fan experience. To be clear, the issue isn’t about having PSLs. It’s about having a stadium with 100 percent PSLs and not holding back any single-game tickets for a general sale, even a small block. You don’t see a need for that? No. There are no plans to ever? I wouldn’t say ever to anything. We have to look at what’s the right model based on where our fans are and what we’re hearing from them. We’re always open to changes and being responsive to what fans are telling us. (Editor’s note: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Tim Tucker recently reported the Falcons have approximately 1,500 unsold tickets, ranging in price from $750 to $5,000 for the season, including PSL cost. The team will continue its policy of selling those tickets only to groups of 10 or more.) Everybody seems to hate four or five preseason games. Should that change? Not everybody hates them. Players who are trying to make teams don’t hate them. There are coaches who don’t hate them because they need to evaluate them. But do there need to be four? No. It’s too many. Is the only trade-off for owners a long regular season? Whatever the CBA negotiations lead to, whether it’s an expanded season or expanded playoffs, I’ve said this publicly: An equal amount of weight has to be given to player safety, first and foremost. It can’t be a dilution of that commitment. But how the (preseason) is traded off for other opportunities, there’s certainly some flexibility in that area. How much longer will Arthur Blank be a sports owner? Hopefully a long time. My hope and aspiration is to keep these great teams in the hands of family — I can’t say forever, but for the foreseeable future. I love doing what I’m doing, and I love competing for our fans.
  7. With this being the 54th season for the Atlanta Falcons, here are 54 thoughts on the initial 53-man roster, broken down by position. Quarterbacks 1. Matt Ryan looked as good as he has in, perhaps, his entire career this preseason. At 34, there isn’t any sign he’s slowing down. The best example was against the New York Jets, with defensive coordinator Gregg Williams sending multiple blitzes Ryan’s way. Ryan took three sacks and eight hits but still managed to go 10-for-14 for 118 yards. He took his shots but still completed his passes, and while he didn’t complete four of his throws, three of those were dropped. He theoretically could have gone 13-for-14 with a touchdown while under a great deal of duress. 2. For all of the old man jokes thrown Matt Schaub’s way, he proved he can still be the backup. After a rough Hall of Fame Game performance in which Schaub played with third- and fourth-teamers, the longtime veteran bounced back with strong showings against the Dolphins and the Jets. Schaub has been in the league long enough that he won’t be rattled in any moment. While he may not be the player he was during his prime with the Texans, he can be relied upon to finish a game or get through a short stretch if Ryan is forced to sit due to injury. 3. While Danny Etling was waived Saturday, the Falcons will try their best to add him to the practice squad. Atlanta needs at least three quarterbacks at practice and would love to keep Etling in the fold. In fact, the Falcons wanted to sign him after he went undrafted in 2018, only for the Patriots to take him in the seventh round. Running backs 4. It seems like those not paying close attention to Atlanta are overlooking Devonta Freeman. For the first time in a while, he’s completely healthy. Considering his big salary, the timeshares of old are probably unlikely now that Tevin Coleman is in San Francisco. Freeman is a three-down back who can make plays as a runner and as a receiver. It’s time for Freeman to be featured more than he has been in previous years. 5. If anything does happen to Freeman, Ito Smith should be able to take on a bigger load. Although Brian Hill showed the most improvement during the past year, Smith, when given the opportunity, showed he’s the clear No. 2 back. His agility and vision, combined with being an excellent receiver out of the backfield, are reasons why Atlanta was able to part ways with Coleman. 6. Hill did everything asked of him during the offseason and then some. Adding some pass-catching ability to his game took him from the bubble to a lock. 7. The Falcons love Qadree Ollison as a change-of-pace back. With good size and vision, he offers an old-school between-the-tackles style of runner Atlanta hasn’t had in quite some time. He showed Thursday he can play fullback as well. Fullbacks 8. The Falcons elected to keep Ricky Ortiz even though he’s dealing with an ankle injury. There may not be a harder-working player on the team. His best highlight this preseason was when he sealed an outside rusher on a short-yardage touchdown against Miami. Tight ends 9. Austin Hooper’s numbers have improved each season. As a rookie, he caught 19 passes for 271 yards and three touchdowns. In 2017, he caught 49 passes for 526 yards and three touchdowns. After an offseason in which he followed Ryan to various workouts around the country, he had 71 catches for 660 yards and four touchdowns in 2018. In a contract year, Hooper could be in for an even bigger statistical jump. 10. Luke Stocker was given the starter treatment beginning with the first preseason game. He figures to have a big role as Atlanta’s top blocking tight end. His addition proved to be one of the reasons why the Falcons parted ways with Logan Paulsen. 11. Another reason Atlanta could afford to cut Paulsen is the emergence of Jaeden Graham, who spent all of 2018 on the practice squad and wasn’t expected to make a big jump in just one year. But the Yale product showed good strength as a blocker and solid athleticism as a receiver — highlighted by a leap over a Jets safety. He followed up with first-team action against Washington. Graham’s second-year jump also allowed the Falcons to part ways with Eric Saubert, who was traded to New England earlier in the preseason. Saubert did not make the Patriots’ 53-man roster. Wide receivers 12. Julio Jones doesn’t have a new contract yet. This is surprising. That’s really it regarding Jones, who has had more than 1,400 receiving yards in each of the past five seasons. 13. Calvin Ridley caught 10 touchdown passes as a rookie with a lot of his success coming against the New Orleans Saints. In those two games, Ridley had a a combined 239 yards and four touchdowns. 14. A reliable third-down target, Mohamed Sanu is coming off one of the best seasons of his career — 838 yards and four touchdowns. He also has thrown a touchdown pass in each of the past two years. Having completed seven of his eight throws for 233 yards and four touchdowns, Sanu boasts a perfect career passer rating of 158.3. 15. If Hill isn’t the most improved player on Atlanta’s roster, that nod could go to Russell Gage. Although Gage’s preseason concluded early with a hip injury, he made considerable gains as a wide receiver. Not utilized much as a downfield weapon at LSU, Gage has flashed big-play ability all offseason. He could start the season opener against Minnesota as the team’s fourth wide receiver. 16. It’s hard not to go with a proven veteran when the opportunity presents itself, and if anything happens to a starter, Justin Hardy has enough of an established relationship with Ryan to step in and keep the offense rolling. 17. The decision came down to Olamide Zaccheaus, Christian Blake, Devin Gray and Marcus Green for the sixth and final wide receiver spot. The Falcons went with Zaccheaus, an undrafted rookie out of Virginia. It’s likely due to the team not believing Zaccheaus would make it past waivers if he were cut. Atlanta will hope to place Blake, Gray and Green, a sixth-round draft pick, on the practice squad Sunday afternoon. Offensive linemen 18. The biggest question remaining with the offensive line is who will start the opener at right tackle. A case could be made for any of the three options — Ty Sambrailo, Matt Gono and Kaleb McGary — to do so. This upcoming week of practice will decide who gets the early nod, even if the competition continues into the first month of the regular season. 19. Sambrailo didn’t have an ideal preseason. He was injured against the Jets and sat out the final two exhibitions. His tape against the Jets probably looked worse than it should, namely due to the blitzes Williams dialed up in a preseason game. 20. Gono did a good job against quality competition in the dress rehearsal against Washington. An undrafted free agent out of Wesley, a Division III school, Gono spent 2018 on the 53-man roster but didn’t play. Although Gono said he still needs to improve his pass sets, his preseason performance was encouraging. 21. McGary didn’t get any preseason action until Thursday’s game against Jacksonville, and even then, he went against a bunch of players who didn’t make the Jaguars. Still, his showing was encouraging as he displayed his penchant for power in the run while keeping Etling clean in the pocket. At some point this year — whether it’s next week or later — McGary probably will get the starting job. But considering he missed a good chunk of practice time, the team may want to ease him into action. 22. If you want to watch a tactician at work, keep your eyes on Jake Matthews play after play. 23. Alex Mack is still one of the most technically sound centers. He turns 33 in November. 24. The Falcons were comfortable with Chris Lindstrom, the No. 14 pick, starting at right guard the moment the preseason began. Lindstrom got great experience and will open the year with the first unit. 25. With James Carpenter injuring a hip flexor midway through the preseason, Jamon Brown, mostly a right guard before joining Atlanta, was able to get good experience on the left side of the line. Now healthy, Carpenter is back in the competition, which could still go either way. Much like right tackle, the first week of practice will be a deciding factor for who gets the first start against the Vikings. 26. If McGary wins the starting job, it wouldn’t be out of the question to wonder whether Sambrailo or Gono start practicing at guard, simply to cross-train them in the event of injury. One of the Falcons’ primary areas of focus this offseason was to ensure depth and competition along the offensive line and to ensure the issues that popped up a year ago don’t occur again. 27. With Mack cemented as the team’s center, Wes Schweitzer received a lot of time with both the first and second teams as his backup. Schweitzer was drafted as a guard but he may as well be considered a center with how much playing time he has received there this preseason. Defensive linemen 28. Takk McKinley took a former teammate’s advice when it came to eating better, deciding the fewer legs the animal has, the better it is to consume. He lost some bad weight in the process, didn’t have to rehab an injury this offseason and looks ready to put forth the kind of season many expected of him after he was drafted in the first round in 2017. 29. Dan Quinn placed a lot of faith in Vic Beasley, as well as himself, by deciding to pick up Beasley’s fifth-year option. Beasley had a sack against the Jets and looked fast off the edge this preseason. He’ll hope that translates into much-improved production. 30. Grady Jarrett got paid well this offseason — $68 million for four years. The Falcons are very happy they were able to get the deal done considering how important Jarrett is to the franchise. It was a negotiation they were very concerned about until an agreement was struck 70 minutes before the franchise tag deadline. 31. Helping Jarrett inside will be Tyeler Davison, who might just be the most important offseason acquisition Atlanta made. Davison’s presence should shore up its deficiencies against the run, which were problematic, especially late in games, a year ago. 32. The other big addition Atlanta made on the defensive line was to add Allen Bailey, who spent eight seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs. Bailey waited patiently for Atlanta to take care of some other contractual obligations before signing. 33. Jack Crawford is entering the final year of his contract but had the best season of his career in 2018 with 35 tackles and six sacks. With the additions Atlanta made up front, combined with Quinn calling plays, Crawford could be in for an even bigger year. 34. The Falcons traded up two spots to take Division II prospect John Cominsky in the fourth round at No. 135 overall. They did so because they loved his game because they believed Dallas was going to take him at No. 137 overall. Dallas traded out of the spot after Atlanta took Cominsky. 35. Deadrin Senat saved his best football for when it mattered most. Entering his second season, Senat, a third-round pick in 2018, made the 53-man roster over Justin Zimmer and Durant Miles. Linebackers 36. Deion Jones spent the preseason rehabbing his injured foot. Although he hasn’t played in a preseason game, he’s in a good spot mentally. He’ll be ready to go against Minnesota. 37. De’Vondre Campbell figures to be in for a big payday after this season. The question remains whether Atlanta will be the team that can afford his contract. Possibly due to the other defenders around him, Campbell is one of the Falcons’ most underrated players when it comes to his national profile. 38. The steal of Atlanta’s 2018 draft class was Foye Oluokun. Poised to be Atlanta’s top will linebacker, Oluokun was a sixth-round pick. He is one of two former Yale players — joining Graham — on the roster. 39. Duke Riley quietly put together a solid preseason. Highlighted by a goal-line tackle against Washington, Riley said he has improved a good bit with his situational awareness. 40. Jermaine Grace put together too good of a preseason to not be on the initial 53-man roster. His speed at linebacker and his ability to cover on special teams might make him tough to deactivate on game days. It was probably a tough call for Atlanta to go with Grace over Bruce Carter, who offered a veteran presence inside the locker room last season. Cornerbacks 41. During the offseason, Desmond Trufant’s name came up repeatedly as someone could be in for a big season. Trufant’s speed will keep him in plays. His biggest focus has been to be physical at the line of scrimmage and to not bail from rerouting receivers too early. He has done a good job of that in practice and will look for that to carry over into games. 42. Isaiah Oliver, Atlanta’s second-round selection in 2018, will get his first opportunity to be a starter. Oliver has an almost 7-foot wingspan that gives him great length to be physical at the line of scrimmage. His area of emphasis has been staying on top of routes once he’s no longer able to make contact with receivers. 43. Atlanta moved Damontae Kazee from safety to nickel to keep his ball-hawking skills on the field. In Atlanta’s scheme, a lot of principles of playing safety apply to the cornerbacks. Kazee was a cornerback in college, so some believe this move could further aid his development. 44. Kendall Sheffield already might be the fastest player on Atlanta’s roster. He said he ran a 4.26-second 40-yard dash in college at Ohio State, which is believable when you see him move at full speed. He’s coming off of a hamstring injury. 45. Jordan Miller figures to have a role on special teams at the start of the year as the Falcons continue to develop him at cornerback. If not for injuries, Miller could have been taken well before the sixth round, which is when Atlanta selected him. 46. While he’s an outside cornerback only, Blidi Wreh-Wilson has proved to be reliable when called upon. He got the veteran treatment during the preseason, which was an early indicator his roster spot was safe. Safeties 47. Ricardo Allen (torn Achilles) and Keanu Neal (torn ACL) are definitely the feel-good stories of Atlanta’s preseason. It’s rather amazing to think the two had major injuries less than a year ago but are full-go to start the season. Science sure has come a long way. 48. While there are some better athletes on this roster, Allen’s loss might have been the toughest to absorb last year. Allen acts like an on-field coach and is usually the one ensuring everyone is lined up correctly. Neal is an imposing presence at strong safety, considering his hard-hitting abilities against the run and pass. The Falcons missed having a box safety of his caliber in 2018 and are surely thankful to have him back. 49. With Allen and Neal sidelined for the year, Sharrod Neasman got great experience with Atlanta’s defense in 2018. If something happens to either starting safety this year, the Falcons know they have someone with familiarity backing them up. 50. Kemal Ishmael’s primary reason for being on the roster is on special teams. But with J.J. Wilcox going down with a torn ACL on the first day of training camp, Ishmael moved from linebacker to safety — his original position when he entered the NFL — to back up Neal. If needed on defense, Ishmael can play either position and has done so this preseason. Special teams 51. Reporters rarely talk to long snapper Josh Harris. That’s a good thing. When you talk to the long snapper, something bad has probably occurred. 52. Matt Bosher boomed a 60-yard punt against Jacksonville on Thursday. He also can tackle better than the average punter. Just ask Atlanta’s new return man. 53. Speaking of which, Kenjon Barner felt Bosher’s wrath when he was with the Carolina Panthers last year. Barner is opening as Atlanta’s primary return specialist. Whether he handles both kickoffs and punts, or just one, remains to be seen. 54. Money. Matt. Bryant. He’s back.