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  1. Summary: Falcons did good! (Scroll to last paragraph for Falcons) Now that the Texans have hired Baltimore Ravens wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator David Culley as their next head coach, all of the seven available NFL head coaching positions are filled, thus completing the giant puzzle. When NFL teams decide to fire their coach and change their philosophical direction, they often look for something completely different. They search for something new to correct their past mistakes. The hiring gives us some insight into the organization’s thinking; it becomes a self-portrait with the picture of the man they hired. Who stands before us now tells us what is happening inside our favorite teams’ walls. When Jacksonville hired Urban Meyer, I wrote in detail about why Meyer and Trevor Lawrence made sense for the Jags. Now, it’s time to examine the other six hires. In the Texans’ case, the hiring of Culley is a clear signal that they wanted an adult in the room to help handle their ongoing Deshaun Watson problem as well as their internal culture issues. This was not a job for a young, inexperienced coach. Even though Culley has not been a head coach, he does bring a wealth of NFL experience when it comes to dealing with players. The fact that he has never called plays is also an indication that the Texans wanted someone who could be more of a CEO or oversee the entire operation. They wanted a real head coach who could address the on-the-field problems in all three areas — offense, defense, and the kicking game — as well as someone who could handle the many off-the-field issues that await the Texans this offseason. Culley will be spending most of his time fixing the player issues, addressing their unhappiness that permeates beyond Watson. Culley can relate to players, and will be able to create the honest relationships that the Texans need. The football “stuff” is not as important as the cultural development. If a leader cannot get the players to “buy-in,” then any offense or defense is not good enough. The Texans hired Culley to fix that area and he’ll hire other coaches, including potentially Josh McCown, to focus on the football side. Culley has dealt with difficult issues throughout his long coaching career. He was in Philadelphia when they had to deal with the Terrell Owens situation, and, much more seriously, he was hired by Kansas City in 2013, when the team was dealing with the aftermath of the Jovan Belcher suicide in their parking lot. Those two incidents will not help him solve this team’s problems, but they do show his experience in dealing with different kinds of heavy and complicated situations. While the Texans need someone measured and experienced, the Jets needed to bring someone in who would be an immediate shot in the arm after firing Adam Gase. Gase was awkward at press conferences, stoic on the sidelines, and because of his experience in Miami, he had a short shelf life to show the New York Jets fan base that he was a good coach. Gase should have never taken the position in New York. He needed more time to analyze his past failures in Miami and work hard to improve in those areas. Those failures reared their ugly head in New York, and when Gase didn’t improve the play of quarterback Sam Darnold, his fate was sealed. So the Jets searched for the opposite, wanting someone fan-friendly who could curry favor with the media, bring excitement to their team and help drown out the negativity. Robert Saleh can do all those things. He is emotional, excited and from the Pete Carroll school of positivity. Saleh specializes in defense — the Pete Carroll system of defense centered on having premium talent on the defensive line, aligning in the same front with a secondary playing a zone man concept. The system is simple, allowing players to play fast without thinking, only reacting. The talent makes the system work, not the design, so in order to make Saleh successful, the Jets will need an infusion of talent along the defensive line. Saleh does bring positivity — genuine positive behavior every day — to a Jets team that has been lacking it for a while. This style works for Carroll because he won many games and a national championship before arriving in Seattle. No one talked about Carroll’s time in New England or with the Jets; they only knew his approach worked at USC. Saleh has to prove he can adapt, adjust and be the problem solver, all while remaining positive, which is not an easy thing to do — just ask Dan Quinn. When Dan Campbell exploded at the introductory press conference announcing his hiring as the Lions head coach, it was fairly easy to understand what the Lions wanted. Campbell’s noticeable excitement, willingness to engage the media, and explain his life as a former player and now coach was a clear signal the Lions hated every minute of the Matt Patricia regime. Patricia was never genuine; he attempted to become Bill Belichick without really understanding how Belichick behaves. Belichick might be gruff and unfriendly with the media, but he never corrected their posture. Patricia went “all in” on becoming an actor, and the Lions, by hiring Campbell, went “all in” on finding a genuine leader who is not copying anyone. If you talk to anyone who knows Campbell, his behavior when introduced is not an act. He brings that same energy each day, which means players can expect him to be consistent. Campbell’s experience as a former player was a huge plus for the Lions, as they wanted someone who could understand what the players had to deal with each day and be respectful when having interactions, something that was not as frequent with Patricia. The Lions run their team much like they run the Ford corporation — which they own. They wanted a team’s CEO, who would hold players accountable in a respectful manner. Campbell fits the bill. The Chargers surprised everyone by hiring Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley. Staley was spectacular with his multiple fronts, coverages, and maximizing his talent in his first-ever coordinator role. The Chargers were perceived as a good defensive team under Gus Bradley, who runs the Pete Carroll system of defense, yet when you examine the numbers, the Chargers, for all their talent, were not productive on defense. They ranked 22nd in allowing third downs, 23rd in sacks per play, and 16th in yards per play and allowed 26.6 points per game. Injuries hurt their defensive unit at times; however, their biggest issue is their non-diverse scheme. They never created confusion on the opposing quarterbacks and made the game too easy. Rams head coach Sean McVay felt the same way last offseason, which led him to hire Staley — because his scheme creates confusion. The No. 1 job a defense must do before tackling is be proficient at disguise. They can never allow a great passer to know before the snap what coverage they’re in and what blitz to expect. When great quarterbacks can read the defense’s mail, they become even more dangerous. The Chargers knew this, so they made Staley the head coach, and surprisingly to me, allowed him to change the offensive staff. With Justin Herbert under center, the Chargers have a potential generational talent who could become an elite quarterback in the league. With a better offensive line and a defensive unit that can create turnovers, the Chargers can compete with any AFC team. Staley’s hiring addresses their main concern of defense, knowing that Herbert in any scheme on offense will work. The Eagles’ hiring of Nick Sirianni seems directed at fixing the Carson Wentz problem. It might appear to be cut and dry, but I don’t think that is the case. The Eagles know they have problems, cap problems and talent problems that cannot be solved in one year. They saw this opportunity as a chance for them to hire a smart young coach who understands the passing game and will grow into becoming their kind of head coach. The Eagles don’t want the head coach to carry their organization; they want their organization to carry the head coach. They want to supplement the head coach with their ability to use analytics in every setting, including game planning and during the game. The Eagles needed a coach who will follow their lead — be willing to be on the cutting edge of progressive thinking related to every aspect of the football team. Most successful coaches who have called plays or run an offense would not be attentive to their input. They might listen, then behave differently during the week or the game. The Eagles needed an intelligent young coach they could mold — which is why they chose Sirianni. The Falcons know they have serious cap trouble heading into next season and an aging quarterback in Matt Ryan. Solving the Ryan issue was at the forefront of their thinking; knowing they cannot move on from him until 2022, they wanted a coach to maximize his aging skill set. Arthur Smith solves that problem for today and offers hope for finding tomorrow’s quarterback. He understands how to run the ball effectively and become a balanced offense, not placing all the pressure on the passing game, which could help the defense. Smith was a coup for the Falcons, as he solved many of their issues and had other offers from other teams. Smith chose Atlanta, he was one of the hottest candidates available, and his talents match perfectly to what the Falcons need. All seven men face great challenges and their ability to succeed will depend on understanding why they got hired. Once they do, they can start working on how to best fix the myriad problems.
  2. The fact that the Falcons lost their opening game doesn’t guarantee they’re going to miss the playoffs again this season, nor that owner Arthur Blank is going to clean house. They lost their season opener in 2016 (to Tampa Bay coaches Dirk Koetter and Mike Smith) and then went on to finish 11-5 and reached the Super Bowl in a year when they were expected to go 7-9. So as tormented Atlanta sports fans project an image of the future that hasn’t happened yet, there’s hope to cling to. The difference between 2016 and 2020 is Dan Quinn was in only his second season as head coach four years ago. Even if his team fizzled and flopped, he was going to be given some latitude by owner Arthur Blank. He was given control of the 53-man roster and significant say in personnel and staffing decisions when he was hired from Seattle, so it followed that Blank would give him time to build the team and the culture that he wanted. That isn’t the case now. Quinn has had time. He was extended a lifeline after consecutive 7-9 non-playoff seasons, and in both years, the team started poorly. It’s why the Falcons’ disappointing showing in a 38-25 home loss to Seattle figures so prominently in Quinn’s job status. Blank sat and watched the game, masked up, from his suite in a mostly empty Mercedes-Benz Stadium. He wasn’t readily available for comment as he often is following games because there was no in-person news conference for him to attend, given protocols during the pandemic. It’s unlikely he’ll be made available to the media for questions about the team in the immediate future because he’s only doing interviews that are focused on subjects addressed in his new book, “Good Company.” (as he did with The Athletic two weeks ago). It’s also logical to assume Blank would rather let the season play out at least a few weeks before commenting publicly on Quinn. As a general rule, I don’t like speculating on coaches losing their jobs. The fact that I’m addressing this subject after only Week 1 may seem extreme. But this isn’t a normal season, and Blank isn’t a passive owner. He is not likely to let his team get buried early again, as it did with a 1-7 start in 2019. He came close to firing Quinn at midseason but opted to wait until at least after the Falcons’ game in New Orleans following their bye week. But then the Falcons stunned the Saints 26-9 in their best performance of the season, and an unexpected 6-2 second half unfolded. Quinn was saved. Blank likely won’t give Quinn so much room for error this season. The Falcons’ next three games are at Dallas, home against Chicago and at Green Bay. If they rebound, all is good. But if they play poorly and emerge with a record of 0-4 or 1-3, the owner may feel the need to make a change and respond to pressure from fans. Blank is not nearly as reactive as a sports owner as he used to be. Maybe it’s because of his age (he turns 78 in less than two weeks). Maybe it’s because he is more accustomed to the ups-and-downs of sports ownership. As I wrote in December when he confirmed Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff would be retained for another year, the old version of Blank would’ve cleaned house, but the new one is more likely to clinging to hope. But he remains very image-conscious. He cares about perceptions and certainly about fans. He certainly hasn’t balked at firing coaches or front office staff before. He understands how dramatically the Falcons have shifted off center stage in Atlanta since the Super Bowl season and the economic ramifications that go with that. As much as he likes Quinn personally, it’s unlikely Blank will hesitate to make a change this time because he knows doing so would make him seem unresponsive to fans (“stakeholders,” as he refers to them). He doesn’t want to see empty seats or hear boos in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The reason the first four games are so important is what follows on the schedule. Game 5 is Oct. 11 at home against Carolina, which is the Falcons’ most beatable opponent until, well, Game 8 at Carolina. The home game against the Panthers also may be the first game the team allows a limited number of fans to attend. Theoretically, it’s a good window to bring in an interim coach. It’s not the easy opening of a bye week when coaching changes are often made, but the Falcons’ bye isn’t until Nov. 15 (after nine games). Or Blank could sit and wait again. The schedule certainly eases up after the Green Bay game. There’s the home-and-home against Carolina, home against Detroit and Denver and at Minnesota. After nine games, it’s a replay of a year ago: a bye followed by a game at New Orleans. A late-season surge is even less likely than a year ago. Post bye, the Falcons play the Saints twice, Tampa Bay and Tom Brady twice, at Kansas City, at the Los Angeles Chargers and home against Las Vegas. The Falcons weren’t horrible against Seattle. But it was disconcerting to see some of the same problems of a year ago. The offense moved the ball but managed just one touchdown and 12 points in the first three quarters when the game was decided. Their defense showed an improved pass rush (three sacks), but the secondary exhibited several problems in coverage, Consider the final stat line of Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson: 31 for 35, 322 yards, four touchdowns, zero interceptions, an efficiency rating of 143.1. (You don’t need to understand how an efficiency rating works, just know that 158.3 is considered perfect.) The defense did not force a turnover, after finishing tied for 19th in 2019 (and 20th and 27th the previous two years). Atlanta looked closer to the team that started 1-7 in 2019 than the one that finished 6-2. Nobody expected a 1-7 start after the opening loss at Minnesota last season. Quinn prefers not looking back, but said, “I was extremely pissed after Game 1 last year. I think there’s probably a difference between discouragement and disappointment. When you’re discouraged, there’s some things (that have) to change. There were things in this game you would like to have over, the fourth downs, the turnover margin. There were also things I wanted to see improvement on. I expect us to make improvement as we go on.” Last year, he shook up the defensive coaching staff midway through the season, removing himself as the defensive coordinator. He said he wouldn’t hesitate to make changes again. “I would never have a hesitation in that space. It’s always all about the performance. I do sense this group is going to get better and better as we’re going.” The Falcons need to. He needs to. He may not be given as much time to turn it around again. https://theathletic.com/2067834/2020/09/15/schultz-arthur-blank-may-not-give-dan-quinn-as-much-room-for-error-this-time/
  3. https://theathletic.com/2019738/2020/08/24/rookie-rising-how-mykal-walker-has-established-himself-early-in-training-camp/?source=emp_shared_article In the months that followed their names being called in the 2020 NFL Draft, the rookies across the league went to work … remotely. The week training camp opened was the first chance any coach from across the league could get a live look at these new players. The story was no different for Falcons rookie linebacker Mykal Walker after he was picked in the fourth round by the Falcons. He called learning on a computer screen night and day from actually being able to run around a football field. He realized that very early on, in fact, saying his “Aha” moment came the day he was given Julio Jones as an assignment. The offense was running a play-action pass with Jones running to the corner. It was Walker’s job to be underneath Jones. Walker laughed. Even as he ran as fast as he could, Walker didn’t get to his spot. “I was like, ‘OK. I have to rethink,’” Walker said with a small laugh. “Julio is a little faster than what you see on tape.” But Jones’ explosiveness on that first day shouldn’t completely overshadow what Walker has been able to do since. He has intercepted a few tipped passes and as practices have gone on, Walker has worked his way up the depth chart. By Monday, he was running consistently in and out of the first-team rotation. At times, he was in with either Deion Jones or Foye Oluokun. Even as a rookie without a rookie camp or preseason game to make an impression, Walker is doing just fine. When asked how he has started so quickly in his first training camp that should lend itself to a slower start from rookies considering the circumstances, Walker said the work he did with assistant head coach/linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich in all of those remote meetings this summer played a big part. “For me to pick up plays, I just try to combine them as much as possible, and I think (Ulbrich) does the same thing,” Walker said. “I think he did a really good job of teaching me the scheme, and now I’m able to come out here and play fast.” The linebacker’s journey to the Falcons is an interesting one. It started at Fresno State, where Walker was anything and everything the Bulldogs’ defense needed him to be. Thinking back on his Fresno State days, Walker laughed, saying contrary to what he has shown with the Falcons so far in camp, he was actually a 220-pound defensive lineman for the Bulldogs. But he never quite stayed in one role as he was the embodiment of a hybrid defender. He played standing up and with his hand on the ground, on the end of the line or in a more traditional linebacker role. The Falcons want to see a more traditional role for Walker. That’s why he has been side-by-side Jones and Oluokun, a spot Walker said has been beneficial to him in recent weeks. On and off the field, he’s seeking out those two. “I’ll go in for my four plays and come out, and the first thing I want to (do is) walk right over to them,” Walker said, mentioning Dante Fowler Jr. as someone he has leaned on for specific tidbits in the pass rush, as well. Falcons coach Dan Quinn said the first thing you notice about Walker is his athleticism coupled with his length. The Falcons are taking an extensive look into just how they can capitalize on those two things in specific matchups down the road. “So, sometimes as a defensive player, whether it’s a linebacker or a safety, who can they guard? Who can they match up on?” Quinn said. “Not everybody matches up well on each player, but a guy with (Walker’s) length and speed, he’s certainly somebody that you’re looking for with tight ends, how they match up with him.” Quinn put Walker and fellow rookie Matt Hennessy in the same conversation, saying the linebacker and left guard are under quite a bit of pressure in camp. Along with cornerback A.J. Terrell, their transition into the league needs an acceleration button because of how important it is for the coaching staff to get them ready. They are going to be counted on to play early, Quinn said, and that means they have to be ready, which subsequently means the pressure is on to get them there. Walker commented on the challenges rookies are facing this year. He noted that, yes there are fewer opportunities to stand out, but he also said that he’s looking at it as just that … a challenge. “The challenge is on,” he said, “and I just take on the challenge. It’s never been about proving people wrong. It’s about proving myself right.” Practice observations and notes • The secondary continues to get after it. Matt Schaub threw two interceptions Monday, one by rookie Delrick Abrams and the other by Blidi Wreh-Wilson. Early in practice, Isaiah Oliver had a pass from Matt Ryan hit him right in the chest but couldn’t hang for another one. Kendall Sheffield, Terrell and Keanu Neal all flashed at times during the scrimmage with Neal doing some good things in response to the offense’s run game. • Jamon Brown was back at practice after going into concussion protocol last week and worked sparingly with the second team. Marlon Davidson is still out, and Quinn said Sunday Davidson likely will be out for a few more days with a knee strain. • Hennessy continued to take the majority of the first-team reps at left guard, and he seems to be settling in nicely between Alex Mack and Jake Matthews. • The Falcons are trying out a bunch of different combinations on the defensive line. Of course, there are the shoo-ins like Grady Jarrett and Fowler, but there was a steady rotation of defensive linemen suiting up to go against the first-team offense. Takk McKinley and Tyeler Davison made the most rounds with that first team, alongside Jarrett and Fowler, but players like Steven Means, Allen Bailey and John Cominsky also took significant snaps there. Quinn praised Cominsky earlier in the morning saying, “From the first practice with pads all the way up through (Monday), he has seemed like somebody that’s taking that jump” from Year 1 to Year 2. • The special teams were on a much fuller display Monday with everyone getting to see a bit more from kicker Younghoe Koo, who was 2-for-3 in field goals between 35 and 40 yards, and punter Sterling Hofrichter, who looked reliable in his handful of punts during the scrimmage with nice hang time and distance on a majority of the punt. Quinn said for Hofrichter, in particular, the next few weeks will be about putting him in different punting situations that he will face (timing, distance, where on the field he’s punting from, etc.), but Quinn said he has been pleased with the seventh-round pick so far. Brandon Powell and Chris Rowland continued to be the go-to players for punt returns, but Quinn did say before practice that Olamide Zaccheaus and Ito Smith will get reps in the future.
  4. https://theathletic.com/2025113/2020/08/26/this-kids-got-that-it-matt-hennessys-journey-to-a-spot-with-the-falcons/ By Tori McElhaney Matt Hennessy’s very first college snap taken at center was during the first game of his redshirt freshman season against Notre Dame in South Bend in 2017. The game itself wasn’t very memorable. Notre Dame was expected to win and did. Temple lost 49-16, but when Chris Wiesehan returned home, he remembers telling his wife, Renee, that a young Hennessy had impressed him. Better yet, Wiesehan said he told her that Hennessy was going to be a part of an NFL Draft someday. “This kid is going to play on Sunday night. I don’t know where. I don’t know when that draft pick will be. But he’s so talented athletically, and his focus, his character, his leadership skills are there. He doesn’t get rattled,” Wiesehan remembered telling his wife. “I said, ‘This guy is going to be an elite player.'” Wiesehan remembers the first time he saw Hennessy a couple of years before he made this prediction. It was at a recruiting camp when Hennessy was playing tackle for Don Bosco Prep in New Jersey. Hennessy’s measurables jumped off the page at Wiesehan right away. When he’s recruiting, Wiesehan likes his linemen lighter in terms of sheer pounds. He said he always can add weight later if the athleticism is there. He did it with Hennessy and just recently as the tight ends coach at Georgia Tech with the Yellow Jackets’ first tight end in more than a decade, Tyler Davis, who was picked by Jacksonville in the sixth round of this year’s draft. Looking back on that Notre Dame game, Wiesehan said he knew Hennessy had to get bigger and stronger, but since their introduction a couple of years before, Wiesehan also knew that the way Hennessy’s mind worked meant there was little that had to change mentally for the lineman to succeed. Wiesehan said he could see Hennessy at center, so in that recruiting camp, Wiesehan moved Hennessy to see what he could do. Wiesehan said Hennessy flourished at the spot even then, and Wiesehan offered Hennessy right on the spot. “I think his focus and his attention to detail (stand out) immediately,” Wiesehan said. “For those kids in camp, there is a lot of information getting thrown at them at a rapid pace, and Matt just simply absorbed that information, processed that information and applied the techniques that I was trying to throw at him. In one-on-one situations, I was telling him what to correct, how to correct it, and in the next rep he was working to apply those things.” But Wiesehan said Hennessy really came into his own and evolved into a true potential top-100 draft pick when he found his voice. In all actuality, that wasn’t who Hennessy was originally, Wiesehan said. Hennessy always was going to be the player who knew every call, knew every protection, but he was going to lead by his actions more than his words. This works for a lot of people, but Wiesehan needed Hennessy to have a voice, and when he finally found it, it transformed his game. “I was still growing,” Hennessy said, “but I would say spring of 2018, going into my second year starting, I really did. I found my voice.” He said he saw a shift in his confidence at that point. It’s what he leans on even now as he transitions to the pro game. When discussing the voice that Hennessy has established in recent years, Wiesehan laughed as he recalled that he told the Falcons Hennessy’s voice might be a little subdued in the beginning. “I was like, ‘This is a guy who’s going to go in as a rookie, and he’s going to shut his mouth,'” Wiesehan said. “He’s going to know every answer to the test, but he’s not going to be self-absorbed. He’s very self-aware. He understands a room of veterans and where he’ll fit in that room, but he will still go out and compete his butt off and won’t bow down to anybody, but he really has that self-awareness.” But Falcons coach Dan Quinn praised Hennessy even early in camp as the Falcons worked to establish him in the competition for the starting left guard position, where Quinn is not quite ready to name a starter. Hennessy has been featured there numerous times during the past few weeks of training camp, hoping to beat out James Carpenter for the spot. Quinn said the staff has thrown a lot of things at Hennessy during this training camp period without the cushion of any preseason games to fall back on. The Falcons are relying on rookies such as Hennessy, A.J. Terrell and Mykal Walker to make a difference immediately. That means they had to hit the ground running at the start of camp. Quinn said Hennessy, in particular, keeps answering each challenge tossed his way. At Temple, Hennessy was a decorated center, but the Falcons don’t really need him at center with veteran Alex Mack holding down that position. Funny enough, Hennessy said when he was making the move from tackle to center from high school to college it was Mack’s film that he really gravitated toward. Now teammates, Hennessy said he benefits greatly from just being around Mack every day and that he wanted to mimic Mack’s gotta-get-it-done attitude then and now. During the offseason when the rookies were learning all of the nuances of the Falcons’ scheme remotely, Hennessy said Mack checked in on him almost every day. Mack made sure Hennessy was up to speed on everything and answered his questions. Sometimes, Hennessy said, he wouldn’t know what question to ask, but Mack asked and answered it for him. “I have never been around a teammate who goes out of his way to help other people like that,” Hennessy said. “It’s been pretty remarkable.” In terms of making the move from center to guard, Wiesehan said it’s actually a move that could be beneficial to Hennessy in his first year in the league. While there has to be significant communication across the offensive line, there’s a lot of pressure on the centers to make the initial calls and adjustments and pass that information down the line. “I think for him to go play guard, there’s a little bit of relief there for a rookie,” Wiesehan said. “There’s a little bit of relief where he can just go out, get the calls, play football and play fast.” Wiesehan also noted what Hennessy said about playing beside Mack: It can bring only good things the rookie’s way. “Alex has been one of the best centers in the game for a long, long time. … For Matt to be in the same room with a guy like that and playing next to a guy like that,” Wiesehan said, “it’s only going to help him ascend.” And Wiesehan has had a firsthand account of Hennessy’s ascension since he first saw him at that high school camp those few years ago. The two have remained close since. When asked about his relationship with Wiesehan, Hennessy said Wiesehan has been there every step of the way, even when Wiesehan left Philadelphia to follow Geoff Collins to Atlanta when he took the head coaching job at Georgia Tech in 2019. The two talk a lot; they talked through all of the pre-draft jitters and continue to talk with training camp well underway. “He’s able to give me all the reminders I need just to stay in a good place mentally,” Hennessy said. From Wiesehan’s perspective, there’s one story that sticks out the most. It’s the night Wiesehan took Hennessy to the hospital in 2018. During a Friday walk-through before a Saturday game, Wiesehan noticed that Hennessy was in some discomfort. Asking him what was going on, Hennessy noted pain in his side. Wiesehan said Hennessy is the type of player who if he gets dinged up, you never would know it unless you looked at the training chart and saw that he went to the trainer for something. He just never complains about anything. So when Hennessy noted his side was bothering him, Wiesehan took him to the trainers and team doctors. With everyone coming to the same conclusion that everything seemed fine, Hennessy played the next day. Wiesehan said he actually played, grading out to a 93 or 94 if he remembers correctly. But a couple of days later, as Wiesehan sat at the Temple facility going over the run game for the week ahead late on a Monday night, he got a call from Hennessy. He was in more pain, so Wiesehan jumped in the car and took him to the hospital. Wiesehan remembers the concern he had, as Hennessy was in obvious discomfort, but the two stayed up all night chatting and bonding in that hospital room. The undisclosed issue wasn’t serious — Hennessy was back on the field playing as if he had never missed a beat two weeks later — but Wiesehan still remembers that night well. “That’s one that sticks in my mind about how much I love that kid,” Wiesehan said. “I will never forget that: how concerned I was, how concerned his parents were, and then he comes back and plays great a couple of weeks later.” Wiesehan has seen Hennessy play in game after game, and even now, as Hennessy prepares to hopefully start for the Falcons in his rookie season, Wiesehan has held on to the assumption that Hennessy could be an asset at the professional level. He told his wife so all the way back in 2017. It’s a perspective that’s never changed for as long as he has known Hennessy. “(There are) those moments where you’re like, ‘This kid’s got that “it,”‘” Wiesehan said. Practice observations and notes • Mack and Todd Gurley did not practice Wednesday on a scheduled day off for the two. Marlon Davidson, Olamide Zaccheaus and Qadree Ollison also were out, all sidelined due to injury. Davidson is still resting a knee strain. Quinn said Kurt Benkert was excused from practice Wednesday “for the very best of personal reasons.” His wife is expecting the couple’s first child and posted to Instagram on Tuesday that it might be her “last bump photo,” so take that information as you will. • The Falcons are continuing to play around with a bunch of different defensive line combinations. Allen Bailey, John Cominsky and Steven Means were in heavy rotation with Dante Fowler Jr., Grady Jarrett, Tyeler Davison and Takk McKinley. Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and Charles Harris also got some quality playing time on Wednesday. • The Falcons spent much of Wednesday working on third-down and red zone situations, particularly a couple of yards from the goal line. In the latter of those periods, Walker got to the quarterback quickly on a blitz, and it likely would have been a sack in a real-time situation. Also in that period, LaRoy Reynolds came up with a big stop on the 1-yard line, crashing pads with Ito Smith, who was trying to cut back through the gap. • The Falcons worked on field goal formations on Wednesday, and Younghoe Koo was 5-for-5 in his attempts.
  5. https://theathletic.com/2013434/2020/08/24/picking-over-under-win-totals-for-all-32-nfl-teams/ Link has totals for all the other teams, would have been a long post so only posted Atlanta. Also dont know if this writer has even watched a Falcons game, to say the ceiling for the offensive line is "mediocrity" is asinine and shows they know nothing about this team.
  6. In January, coach Dan Quinn had a frank discussion with Takk McKinley about what the Falcons needed from him when training camp rolled around in August. The coaching staff wanted him to be quicker and to be able to use his speed at full capacity at all times in a game. Weighing in between 265 and 270 pounds wasn’t working for him. McKinley said because of the way his body was shaped for much of the season last year that he wasn’t as fast or as quick as he should have been. He felt fatigued toward the end of games. He was wearing down a lot faster. What the Falcons staff challenged McKinley to do in the offseason was drop some weight as he rehabbed a nagging shoulder injury that he has been dealing with for years. It was time McKinley worked to get down to what he said was his college weight. “I had a motor then,” McKinley said. “I was flying off the edge with speed. I didn’t get tired as easy.” Now well into training camp, McKinley weighs in at 248 pounds after an offseason of intense cardio and dieting. “It’s definitely the best he’s looked,” Quinn said. An offseason day for McKinley started at 7 a.m. as he set out to rehab his shoulder after having surgery at the beginning of the year. His workouts were tailored to that shoulder, trying to build its strength and prevent future injuries. By 9 a.m., he was either on the bike or on the track. McKinley said he called up his former high school track coach to give him a cardio plan. Once he was able, McKinley said that every day was spent on the track. His diet, however, was what McKinley said was the biggest piece of his transformation. He used a meal plan program called Nutrition Solutions. To maintain his current weight, it’s a plan he’s using even now during training camp. “There’s no reason to work out if you’re still eating McDonald’s, Popeyes,” McKinley said. “Diet has been huge for me, and I’m sticking to it.” The uptick in cardio and the conscious effort to diet were two things McKinley said he didn’t focus on much during his other stints rehabbing his injured shoulder. But he called the Falcons’ decision to decline his fifth-year option a “wake-up call.” “It was more motivation,” he said. “It made me hungry. Not saying that I wasn’t hungry in the past; it was just ‘I gotta go prove it.’” Quinn said there are several players in the same position as McKinley, with something to prove. And when you take a look at the entire defensive line, there are a lot of players — Grady Jarrett aside — who fall into that category. Dante Fowler Jr. has to prove that last year’s success with the Los Angles Rams wasn’t a fluke, that his sack numbers in 2019 will be a consistent achievement. He has said he considers last year to be his rookie year, as he finally earned a full-season starting spot for the Rams and put up numbers that he believes his status as a first-round draft pick (with Jacksonville in 2015) warranted. He knows he has to stay on par, however, as this season creeps closer. And there’s a little extra motivation there for him, too. “Honestly, if I would have had three more sacks (last year), we would have been talking about it different: a Pro Bowl season, All-Pro type of year,” Fowler said. “But it didn’t happen like that, so I’ve still got some more work to do. I am just going to keep carving my tools and sharpening my knife every day.” Then there’s Tyeler Davison, who is pretty good against the run but needs to do more in terms of disruptive statistics and could be called upon in more ways this season than he has been previously. Can he be the complement Jarrett needs inside? There’s an untested talent like rookie Marlon Davidson, whom the Falcons are looking to play inside more after Davidson transformed his body before his final season at Auburn to be able to play defensive end for the Tigers. Can he make that transition early in Year 1 to be a needed addition? Quinn said he and his coaching staff are anxious to see what Charles Harris does the next few weeks as they play him on the left and right sides. What will those weeks of evaluations look like for Harris, and how will he compare with others? And what of Allen Bailey, Steven Means, Deadrin Senat and John Cominsky? Can any of them emerge to help the defensive line? But back to McKinley, who said he had too many “almost sacks” last year. The key this season is to finish, and maybe that should be the case for everyone as the Falcons’ defense looks to be more disruptive than it was a year ago, especially early. “If I finish, I don’t think nobody would be talking about the Falcons declining Takk’s fifth-year option,” McKinley said. “Finishing. That’s what the game is all about. You gotta finish.” Practice observations and notes • Todd Gurley and Alex Mack did not participate in Saturday’s padded practice. Both were scheduled for another day off to limit their workload and keep them healthy. Also not practicing was Davidson, who also did not practice Thursday. Quinn said Saturday morning that Davidson was working through a knee strain but that it is not serious nor do the coaches think it’s going to be a long-term worry. • Tackle Evin Ksiezarczyk was back in pads and practicing Saturday. He had missed a few practices, wearing a brace on his left knee, but he was working with the second team Saturday. • After releasing offensive lineman Scottie Deal on Friday, the Falcons signed tackle Ka’John Armstrong on Saturday morning. Armstrong was picked up by the Cleveland Browns as an undrafted free agent in 2019. He was cut during training camp and spent a part of last season on the Jacksonville Jaguars’ practice squad before moving to Denver to spend the remainder of the 2019 season on the Broncos’ practice squad. • Matt Hennessy received a large chunk of the reps at left guard with the first-team. While James Carpenter was rotated in periodically, it was definitely Hennessy who remained in that spot for the majority of Saturday’s practice. • Brian Hill had another good day. With Gurley resting, Hill was the top option at running back. In a protection drill with the running backs and linebackers, Hill looked textbook in a one-on-one matchup with Foye Oluokun. In the very next drill, when the offensive line was working with the defensive line on its run blocking, coaches praised Hill when he made a cut through a hole. • Hayden Hurst said Tuesday that he really has been trying to use Julio Jones and his knowledge to his own advantage, saying the coolest thing about Jones was how willing he has been to chat with Hurst about various coverages and routes. On Saturday, that budding relationship with the two was easy to see on the sideline. When the second and third teams were making their runs down the field, it was common to see Hurst and Jones having conversations on the side, obviously discussing certain techniques or routes. “Every time I come back to the huddle, I look at him and ask, ‘What did you think on that?’ or if we’re doing routes on air I’m like, ‘Hey, what do you see there?’” Hurst said Tuesday. “I mean why not? Why wouldn’t you pick a Hall of Famer’s brain? It’s cool having a guy like that at our disposal.” • Quinn said Thursday that while Chris Rowland and Brandon Powell would spend the majority of Thursday’s scrimmage as the team’s designated return men, the Falcons were going to try others in those spots. Ito Smith was working with Rowland and Powell during the team’s special-teams circuit early in Saturday’s practice. • After a few days spent recuperating a sore foot, Kendall Sheffield seemed back in full swing. With the Falcons using a few different lineups and combinations of defensive backs to evaluate different players, Sheffield was able to get a lot of reps in that second rotation of the first-team defense. • At one point in practice, the Falcons were playing around with a three-linebacker set with Oluokum, Deion Jones and Mykal Walker in together. Walker has made a number of good impressions in his first training camp, and it would seem the Falcons are trying to get the rookie more involved.
  7. Raheem Morris learned something early about Takk McKinley. A coach can’t just go up to him and tell him he’s doing something wrong. Emotional players often don’t respond well to attempted corrective measures. It’s best to first get a sense of the man’s mood. Move in slow. Read the room, even if there’s only one person in the room. “People struggle with Takk because of a lack of communication,” said Morris, the Falcons’ defensive coordinator. “But when you coach good players, and Takk is that, you know they’re going to be emotional. Ronde Barber was like that. Not Takk-ish, but emotional. When you tried to correct him on something, you were either with him or against him. So you had to know when to back off.” The Falcons are not backing away from McKinley. Not completely, anyway. They need him. He looms as one of the biggest wild cards this season, because if he can help elevate an anemic pass rush instead of being an unhealthy distraction, the Falcons are better off and so is he. So the Falcons are not backing away. But they have begun detachment by declining McKinley’s fifth-year contract option. They made the mistake of paying a fifth year to Vic Beasley, and they’re not going to risk millions on hope again. McKinley has talent, but there has been too much wreckage in three seasons to suddenly anticipate success. He’s coming off his third shoulder surgery in four years. He projected himself as a double-digit sack guy but has managed only six, seven and 3 1/2 in his three seasons. He has lacked focus, at times irritating teammates with inconsistent play. He had a strange episode in January 2019 when police in Los Angeles detained him for a mental evaluation after some sort of an issue that was never publicly explained. On Twitter, he has “liked” tweets suggesting that he wanted to play for Dallas and that questioned the futures of coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff. When Georgia’s defense was getting steamrolled by LSU in the SEC title game, McKinley tweeted, “Looking like us,” with a laughing emoji, which was completely accurate but probably not the message a player on a 3-9 team should be sending out to the public. But McKinley made the smartest move of his career in May: He closed his Twitter account. Quinn said the Falcons had no concerns about McKinley before the 2017 draft, but that’s not completely true. There was some division in the football operations department. Coaches loved his fire and athleticism. Scouts believed he had talent but expressed concern about his focus and his ability to stay on the rails emotionally. He was a risk. Ultimately, the Falcons spent the 26th overall pick on McKinley for two reasons: 1. They needed pass rushers; 2. Quinn was a defensive line coach by trade and had a lot of cachet because he was coming off a Super Bowl appearance in his second season. We will have to wait and see whether all the backlash, certainly the option rejection, has done McKinley some good. For now, he’s saying all the right things, conveying humility even in a remote news conference the other day. He has slimmed down to about 248 pounds, down about 20, in hopes of regaining speed off the edge. He says he is motivated. But nobody has played a game yet. Does the contract situation motivate him? “If we’re being real, it does,” he said. “I’ve got my reasons why it motivates me. I did have control, with what I could’ve done the first three years. They made their decision. That lit a fire in me, and that’s cool. It got me in the best shape of my life. It got me to make my game better. Hopefully, it will all work out for me.” His reaction on draft night in 2017 is easy to remember. When the Falcons picked him, he rose from a chair and held up a large picture of his late grandmother, Myrtle Collins, who was his biggest mentor during his broken childhood but had died six years earlier. As television cameras focused on him, emotions and tears flowed and McKinley shouted, “I made a promise to her! I told her! I was gonna go D-I. I’m gonna get out of Richmond! I’m gonna get out of Oakland! I was going to go to the NFL. I made that promise to her, and 30 seconds later she passed away. This is who I do it for. Come on, man!” And then, as the NFL Network’s Deion Sanders held a microphone to him: McKinley said, “It means every ******* thing. Excuse my language. Fine me later.” “Fine me later” went viral. There would be no fine from the league. It was great theater and the pure emotion we love about sports. McKinley closed his draft interview with “I love you grandma. It’s only the beginning.” But that moment surpasses anything he has done on the field, and on some level, he seems to acknowledge that. “Obviously, I wish my first three seasons could be 10-plus sacks,” he said. “But it doesn’t always happen that way. Life is a roller coaster. You feel me? Nobody’s life has just been up. It’s always up and down. It’s been very inconsistent, but that doesn’t mean I’m about to give up. I still believe in myself. My coaches believe in me. My teammates believe in me. My family believes in me. I know what I can do. For me, the biggest thing is finishing. I left a lot of sacks out there last year. This year I’m going to try to not do the same thing.” He said he had “too many almost-sacks,” adding: “If I finished, I don’t think anybody would be talking about the Falcons declined Takk’s fifth-year option.” But fear for one’s paycheck can be a great motivator. “You don’t realize, time flies,” he said. “I’m going into my fourth season, but (it feels like) I just got drafted. Sometimes as a pro you kind of forget. Like, ****, you feel like you’ve got time. But when the declined my option, it’s like, ‘Man, if I want to be in this league, I’ve got to do something better.’” So he ate healthier. He ran more. He led a more disciplined existence. Somewhere in there, fatherhood probably helped. On Father’s Day, he had an Instagram post holding his son, Journey, who was born July 26, 2019, with these words: “My son you have been the biggest blessing on this earth and I’m proud to be called dada. When you was born I told you that I refuse to be like my dad who decided not to be in my life. You’ll never have to worry about anything.” Maybe he woke up. Maybe he is learning to deal with failure. “I’m sure there’s a lot of that,” Morris said. “He wants to win and do all he can to help the team win. But he puts more of a burden on himself than he should, and at times that affects him in terms of how he plays the next couple of snaps.” McKinley clearly was stung by the Falcons’ decision on his option, as evidenced by an Instagram post three weeks ago: “They don’t believe in you.” Morris again: “Sometimes that can affect the athlete with a negative vibe. Sometimes it affects them with a positive vibe. He’s showing right now it’s affecting him in the right way.” McKinley said this offseason “made me hungry.” He thought he was hungry before, but it’s amazing what can happen when your career hangs in the balance. “One day I’m going to stop playing football,” he said. “I’d hate for that to be one to two years from now.”
  8. https://theathletic.com/2008911/2020/08/19/joe-whitt-jr-s-secondary-coming-alive-early-in-falcons-training-camp/ When asked what his first impression of new secondary coach Joe Whitt Jr. was, Falcons cornerback Isaiah Oliver didn’t have to think very long or very hard before coming up with an answer. According to Oliver, the answer jumped out at him right away upon his first few interactions with Whitt. Without a second thought, Oliver immediately had high praise for one of the Falcons’ offseason additions. “He’s probably the smartest DBs coach that I’ve ever come in contact with,” Oliver said. “That’s just (knowledge) about the position, about the schemes, about the defense, what the offense wants to do, what they’re trying to do, things like that.” Oliver said in the short time that he has known Whitt and had the chance to be coached by Whitt his new secondary coach already has opened a whole new avenue to the game that Oliver didn’t know he could access before their meeting. He spoke specifically to how Whitt breaks down the game, almost a play smarter, not harder mindset (don’t worry, the defensive backs are playing as hard as ever right now, even this early in camp). Oliver said Whitt emphasizes that every player plays to his leverage, and coach Dan Quinn said earlier in the day that is what makes Whitt stand out as a secondary coach in the first place. “One of the things I admire about Joe from a teaching standpoint is it’s so clear, no gray, this is what we’re going to do and we’re going to tailor it to each individual’s strength,” Quinn said. With Whitt, football is a game of wits. And to a certain degree, the Falcons’ secondary has to be thoroughly caught up on any playbook adjustments … both sides of the playbook. Oliver explained the depth this group has gone over the game with Whitt, and it’s extensive: Know where your help on the field is, know what the quarterback’s reads are, if you’re in this specific coverage, know the quarterback wants to look backside, know split safeties, single safeties and where the quarterback wants to go with each. Oliver said Whitt is highlighting all the nuances that you don’t necessarily think of on every single play. He knows that in the end, those nuances and that knowledge are the difference-makers. Another drilling technique Whitt incorporates is the increased use of the JUGS machine. Every practice starts with every defensive back running through drills with the JUGS machine. It’s something Oliver said he hadn’t seen a whole unit use before until Whitt joined the team. From a teaching standpoint, Quinn said Whitt isn’t reinventing the wheel with the Falcons. It’s more about telling the wheel when to start rolling than it is showing it how. “Think of it like a playbook. ‘Here’s all the plays, but when do you use the certain plays? So, for those guys, when do I off-hand-jam? When do I back off? When do I challenge at the line? And, what do I do well?'” Quinn said. “All of those things factor in. I wouldn’t say it’s one new technique (that Whitt is teaching), as much as it is applying things at the right time.” So far, the secondary seems to be a group that is having the most fun at training camp: The players are breaking up passes, coming up with interceptions. They look more like the secondary that ended the 2019 season rather than the one that started it. That’s good news for the Falcons, and Oliver implied that good news starts with Whitt. “Having Coach Whitt here, just his knowledge of the game and his knowledge of the position I think it’s helped us a lot,” Oliver said. “I think we’ve had a good few days. We just have to keep it up, keep it consistent and keep going.” Practice notes and observations • Todd Gurley and Alex Mack were back out at practice after a scheduled day off on Tuesday. Both were active within their own position groups even without suiting up Tuesday with Mack actually holding what Quinn called a “silent count clinic” with the other offensive linemen after practice because communication didn’t look exactly how they want it to. Twenty-four hours later, Mack and Gurley were right back where they are expected to be by Week 1, with Mack snapping the ball to Matt Ryan, who handed it off to Gurley. • With the dynamic duo of Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley set in stone as the No. 1 and No. 2 receivers in 2020, the No. 3 spot was up for grabs entering training camp. By Wednesday’s practice, it seemed as though Russell Gage could be that player. Every practice begins with a special teams circuit. During that circuit, the Falcons’ offensive playmakers (Ryan, Gurley, Hayden Hurst, Jones and Ridley, etc.) go to work on another field, staying loose while running various routes. Gage joined the group on Wednesday. • Speaking of making plays, during the early part of practice the Falcons were working on some shallow goal routes with the wide receivers and defensive backs. Early in the drill, Ryan thread the needle with a pass that slid right between two defenders to Hurst at the goal line. It was a play that showed a particular trust in quarterback and tight end early in camp. • Even with Mack back in full swing on Wednesday, the Falcons wanted to see some full-speed reps with Justin McCray at center as he took snaps with the first- and second-team units. • Along with singing the praises of his new secondary coach, Oliver also spoke to another new addition to the secondary: Darqueze Dennard. Dennard imparted some teaching points to Oliver regarding certain offensive looks. Oliver said he already has seen the impact a veteran like Dennard can have “in a rather younger DB room in comparison to other teams around the league.” Spending the majority of his time at nickel, Dennard adds a certain level of experience to the group, and with Keanu Neal back as well as Damontae Kazee and Ricardo Allen, the secondary is deep. • Continuing on with storylines of the secondary, Quinn said in his morning news conference that it does his heart good to see Neal back out on the practice field doing so well. For one, Neal always has been a presence in the secondary, but Quinn said he also has seen Neal gain more confidence as the days go on, becoming more nimble and agile as he gets stronger and more confident relying on his repaired and rehabbed Achilles tendon. He’s in almost every rotation with the first defense, and with Dennard at nickel, the Falcons have deployed a rotation of Neal, Kazee and Allen deep. • Tyeler Davidson and Charles Harris got first-team looks with the defense through the majority of Wednesday’s practice. On Tuesday, Quinn said he was anxious to see what Harris could do opposite Dante Fowler at defensive end and that the next couple of weeks were going to be important to figure out exactly what Harris can provide the pass rush. Davidson has slotted in nicely beside Grady Jarrett at tackle. • There are many who should be excited about what Chris Lindstrom can do in his second year in the league, and Quinn sure seems to be, saying Lindstrom is “off to a **** of a start” in camp. Things seem to be firing on all cylinders for Lindstrom: His quickness is where it should be, and he’s processing the defense at a heightened speed. The right side with Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary already looks a bit more secure, but calling out Lindstrom in particular, Quinn said he “looks like one of those players ready to take the big leap.” What a move it was to get this guy on the coaching staff with such young talent. If all this talk is true, our secondary is going to be scary good towards the back end of the year when everyone is gelling...
  9. https://theathletic.com/2011434/2020/08/20/its-all-coming-back-keanu-neals-return-and-what-it-means-for-falcons/ As Dan Quinn looked out across the practice field on the first day of training camp, he smiled. Maybe it was a smile at being out on the field amidst so much uncertainty as to whether a season actually could happen in 2020. Maybe it was a smile because the weather in Flowery Branch has been relatively mild the past couple of weeks, without the thick humidity August is known for in Georgia. But follow Quinn closely, and you’ll see that his smile forms when his eyes land on one specific player. Back healthy and in a uniform once more, that player is Keanu Neal. “It makes my heart feel good to see him on the field,” Quinn said. It’s easy to understand why after the injuries that have befallen Neal: an ACL tear in 2018, ending his season just as it began, and then a ruptured Achilles just three games into the 2019 season. We don’t have to dwell on what was because Neal isn’t. He stayed ready for his comeback, through every surgery and every rehab session. Still, on that first day, Quinn had to pull him off to the side. “On the first day I was just so excited for him,” Quinn said. “I said, ‘You really worked your *** off to put yourself back on the field, to put yourself into this spot.’” Neal looks a bit different than he has the past two years. Normally, he has been in the 220-225 weight range. At the start of this year’s camp, however, he’s down to 212. Neal said he’s back closer to his rookie weight. He’s lighter on his feet, too. That, Quinn said, was by design, and it was a decision that Neal is feeling the effects of now that the Falcons have started ramping up their live scrimmage reps. “I slimmed down for a reason, just so I could move better,” Neal said. “It’s been working out really well. I’m moving around a lot better. I’m moving around like myself. I am excited with where I’m at.” Physically, Quinn and those around Neal would say you would never know this is the same player who, in back-to-back years, suffered injuries that have altered many careers singularly, let alone together. In 2020, Neal doesn’t look like an injured player. But there still is a little bit of catching up for Neal to do and do quickly, and he knows that. It isn’t his physical shape that he’s focusing on during the first week of padded practice. But as Quinn said, it’s his “football shape” that Neal is honing in on currently. “When I say that, I’m talking about the eyes, the technique, his run fits,” Quinn said. Like anything, football is habitual. It has its moments that for someone playing the game and in the thick of it every day are things they don’t have to think about. The body acts before the mind has to tell it to. It’s like a musician playing an instrument. If the maestro stops playing for two years, when they finally do pick their instrument back up, it’ll take a few minutes to get the feel of the instrument again and to fall back into practice. After two years working back from his injuries, Neal is picking his instrument back up, and he’s returning to maestro form. “Throughout these first couple of practices I have noticed things where I will be in the play, and it will happen and then afterwards I’ll be like, ‘Dang, I could have done this,'” Neal said. Then, the chords start returning to him, and the melody starts to form again. And now? “Recently, I kind of told myself that I have started to get my groove back,” Neal said with a smile. It’s all coming back to him, he said. He’s starting to see the plays form in front of him. He’s starting to fall back into his habits. And Neal doing so is one of the best things that could happen for the secondary. The question now is as Neal returns back to form, what does that mean for the secondary with players like Damontae Kazee and Ricardo Allen having held things down in Neal’s absence? It’s actually not all that complicated, according to Quinn. The coaches know what strength each player has, and they know the situations in which each player thrives. The focus is on fine-tuning exactly when to bring them together. Allen has the “football smarts,” he’s very effective in specific coverages where there’s a disguise. Kazee has terrific ball skills. He has the ability to break out of the middle of the field and make a play. Neal is a natural in man-to-man coverage. He’s an enforcer, someone the Falcons can have down in the box, disrupting an offense. “So, trying to find the moments to put them in the best spaces, that’s what these next few weeks are about,” Quinn said. “Fortunately for us, those are three guys that really work in concert together well — their communication, their ability on the field. So, it’s been good to have all three of them on the field, and that will be the case for a number of different packages.” The coaches and Neal’s teammates have been waiting for Neal’s return. Now that it’s here, there’s much to discuss about what it means for the safeties, but it seems no one is more excited to figure that out than Neal. “It’s just understanding different roles,” Neal said about his position group. “We are all going to play in different spaces. So, it’s going to be cool and unique to see how they use us this year.” Practice notes and observations • Marlon Davidson, Jamon Brown and Evin Ksiezarczyk did not participate in Thursday’s scrimmage. Quinn announced Wednesday that Brown was in concussion protocol. Davidson and Ksiezarczyk were at practice but were in jerseys and shorts observing. Ksiezarczyk had a brace on his left knee but appeared to be moving around without issue. Davidson also didn’t seem to be in any visible discomfort walking around the sidelines. • Chris Rowland and Brandon Powell got the nod on punt and kickoff returns. Quinn said there will be others rotated in to test in those roles, but Thursday’s scrimmage was specifically blocked off for Rowland and Powell to get the majority of those reps. Also of note, Powell did some good things working out of the slot with the second- and third-team offense. He was targeted a few times and made a couple of nice grabs. • After spending much of Wednesday with the second-team offensive line, Matt Hennessy worked primarily with the first team at left guard on Thursday. James Carpenter and Matt Gono spent much of Thursday with the second-team offense. Carpenter and Hennessy, however, switched teams for the final period of practice, which saw the Falcons working on their end-of-game play with around a minute on the clock. • Brian Hill had a solid morning taking handoffs from Matt Schaub. After a nice run to the outside that set up the lone touchdown of the scrimmage, Hill showed he could be shaping up to be a real No. 2 behind Todd Gurley. Asked about Hill, Quinn said he is “100 percent a guy on a mission.” That showed a bit on Thursday. • John Cominsky got a few more looks with the first-team defensive line, particularly in the final few periods of the scrimmage. Allen Bailey was also someone who was in the rotation a bit more on Thursday. • It was noted Wednesday that even with Alex Mack returning to center after a scheduled day off, Justin McCray was still taking snaps at center. That changed a bit on Thursday as McCray spent much of the day at right guard with the second and third teams. • Mykal Walker continues to turn a few heads during his first training camp. Thursday’s practice ended after Blidi Wreh-Wilson broke up a pass intended for Powell. The ball tipped into the arms of Walker for his second interception of camp. It was a moment that also came off the back of another turnover the defense forced in the end-of-game situation. Prior to Walker’s interception, Calvin Ridley lost the ball after catching a short pass from Matt Ryan, and Foye Oluokun recovered the fumble. It was an exciting end to practice for the defense, particularly for the linebackers.
  10. https://theathletic.com/2011434/2020/08/20/its-all-coming-back-keanu-neals-return-and-what-it-means-for-falcons/ As Dan Quinn looked out across the practice field on the first day of training camp, he smiled. Maybe it was a smile at being out on the field amidst so much uncertainty as to whether a season actually could happen in 2020. Maybe it was a smile because the weather in Flowery Branch has been relatively mild the past couple of weeks, without the thick humidity August is known for in Georgia. But follow Quinn closely, and you’ll see that his smile forms when his eyes land on one specific player. Back healthy and in a uniform once more, that player is Keanu Neal. “It makes my heart feel good to see him on the field,” Quinn said. It’s easy to understand why after the injuries that have befallen Neal: an ACL tear in 2018, ending his season just as it began, and then a ruptured Achilles just three games into the 2019 season. We don’t have to dwell on what was because Neal isn’t. He stayed ready for his comeback, through every surgery and every rehab session. Still, on that first day, Quinn had to pull him off to the side. “On the first day I was just so excited for him,” Quinn said. “I said, ‘You really worked your *** off to put yourself back on the field, to put yourself into this spot.’” Neal looks a bit different than he has the past two years. Normally, he has been in the 220-225 weight range. At the start of this year’s camp, however, he’s down to 212. Neal said he’s back closer to his rookie weight. He’s lighter on his feet, too. That, Quinn said, was by design, and it was a decision that Neal is feeling the effects of now that the Falcons have started ramping up their live scrimmage reps. “I slimmed down for a reason, just so I could move better,” Neal said. “It’s been working out really well. I’m moving around a lot better. I’m moving around like myself. I am excited with where I’m at.” Physically, Quinn and those around Neal would say you would never know this is the same player who, in back-to-back years, suffered injuries that have altered many careers singularly, let alone together. In 2020, Neal doesn’t look like an injured player. But there still is a little bit of catching up for Neal to do and do quickly, and he knows that. It isn’t his physical shape that he’s focusing on during the first week of padded practice. But as Quinn said, it’s his “football shape” that Neal is honing in on currently. “When I say that, I’m talking about the eyes, the technique, his run fits,” Quinn said. Like anything, football is habitual. It has its moments that for someone playing the game and in the thick of it every day are things they don’t have to think about. The body acts before the mind has to tell it to. It’s like a musician playing an instrument. If the maestro stops playing for two years, when they finally do pick their instrument back up, it’ll take a few minutes to get the feel of the instrument again and to fall back into practice. After two years working back from his injuries, Neal is picking his instrument back up, and he’s returning to maestro form. “Throughout these first couple of practices I have noticed things where I will be in the play, and it will happen and then afterwards I’ll be like, ‘Dang, I could have done this,'” Neal said. Then, the chords start returning to him, and the melody starts to form again. And now? “Recently, I kind of told myself that I have started to get my groove back,” Neal said with a smile. It’s all coming back to him, he said. He’s starting to see the plays form in front of him. He’s starting to fall back into his habits. And Neal doing so is one of the best things that could happen for the secondary. The question now is as Neal returns back to form, what does that mean for the secondary with players like Damontae Kazee and Ricardo Allen having held things down in Neal’s absence? It’s actually not all that complicated, according to Quinn. The coaches know what strength each player has, and they know the situations in which each player thrives. The focus is on fine-tuning exactly when to bring them together. Allen has the “football smarts,” he’s very effective in specific coverages where there’s a disguise. Kazee has terrific ball skills. He has the ability to break out of the middle of the field and make a play. Neal is a natural in man-to-man coverage. He’s an enforcer, someone the Falcons can have down in the box, disrupting an offense. “So, trying to find the moments to put them in the best spaces, that’s what these next few weeks are about,” Quinn said. “Fortunately for us, those are three guys that really work in concert together well — their communication, their ability on the field. So, it’s been good to have all three of them on the field, and that will be the case for a number of different packages.” The coaches and Neal’s teammates have been waiting for Neal’s return. Now that it’s here, there’s much to discuss about what it means for the safeties, but it seems no one is more excited to figure that out than Neal. “It’s just understanding different roles,” Neal said about his position group. “We are all going to play in different spaces. So, it’s going to be cool and unique to see how they use us this year.” Practice notes and observations • Marlon Davidson, Jamon Brown and Evin Ksiezarczyk did not participate in Thursday’s scrimmage. Quinn announced Wednesday that Brown was in concussion protocol. Davidson and Ksiezarczyk were at practice but were in jerseys and shorts observing. Ksiezarczyk had a brace on his left knee but appeared to be moving around without issue. Davidson also didn’t seem to be in any visible discomfort walking around the sidelines. • Chris Rowland and Brandon Powell got the nod on punt and kickoff returns. Quinn said there will be others rotated in to test in those roles, but Thursday’s scrimmage was specifically blocked off for Rowland and Powell to get the majority of those reps. Also of note, Powell did some good things working out of the slot with the second- and third-team offense. He was targeted a few times and made a couple of nice grabs. • After spending much of Wednesday with the second-team offensive line, Matt Hennessy worked primarily with the first team at left guard on Thursday. James Carpenter and Matt Gono spent much of Thursday with the second-team offense. Carpenter and Hennessy, however, switched teams for the final period of practice, which saw the Falcons working on their end-of-game play with around a minute on the clock. • Brian Hill had a solid morning taking handoffs from Matt Schaub. After a nice run to the outside that set up the lone touchdown of the scrimmage, Hill showed he could be shaping up to be a real No. 2 behind Todd Gurley. Asked about Hill, Quinn said he is “100 percent a guy on a mission.” That showed a bit on Thursday. • John Cominsky got a few more looks with the first-team defensive line, particularly in the final few periods of the scrimmage. Allen Bailey was also someone who was in the rotation a bit more on Thursday. • It was noted Wednesday that even with Alex Mack returning to center after a scheduled day off, Justin McCray was still taking snaps at center. That changed a bit on Thursday as McCray spent much of the day at right guard with the second and third teams. • Mykal Walker continues to turn a few heads during his first training camp. Thursday’s practice ended after Blidi Wreh-Wilson broke up a pass intended for Powell. The ball tipped into the arms of Walker for his second interception of camp. It was a moment that also came off the back of another turnover the defense forced in the end-of-game situation. Prior to Walker’s interception, Calvin Ridley lost the ball after catching a short pass from Matt Ryan, and Foye Oluokun recovered the fumble. It was an exciting end to practice for the defense, particularly for the linebackers. Im loving all the positives coming from the defenseive side. If (and thats a big if) Neal can stay healthy, this secondary might just be a force to be reckoned with by midseason.
  11. https://theathletic.com/2005756/2020/08/18/what-hayden-hursts-baseball-background-has-to-do-with-falcons-communication/ When it was announced on Monday that the Falcons would not have fans attending games at Mercedes-Benz Stadium through September, it wasn’t much of a shock to anyone. Many teams across the NFL already had said fans would not be allowed in stadiums to watch games. The Falcons had a plan in place to potentially allow 10,000 to 20,000 fans into games, with PSL and season-ticket holders being sent a survey to fill out ranking which of the first four home games they would most like to attend. But that plan was put on hold as the Falcons’ first two home games against Seattle and Chicago will be held without fans. But on Tuesday, Dan Quinn spoke to the challenge of playing in a stadium without fans, mainly how the ambient noise a crowd provides won’t drown out the verbal cues of the offense. Asked about how this could change an offense’s approach to communication, Quinn said it’s an interesting question with an answer he actually sees ties in elsewhere. “Code words and hand signals — we’ll have to dig deep into our baseball backgrounds,” Quinn said. When Quinn realized that, he went to pick Hayden Hurst’s brain. Hurst was a baseball player before he was the 25th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. In fact, that was the second time Hurst heard his name called in a draft setting. After leading The Bolles School to two state titles and after pitching in the Under Armour High School All-American Game, Hurst was selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 17th round of the 2012 MLB Draft, and he reported to Pittsburgh’s Rookie League shortly thereafter. So Hurst knows a thing or two about the non-verbal communication tactics used in baseball. And that’s exactly what Quinn wondered about as his mind started churning with new communication ideas in the wake of the announcement of no fan attendance at games in September. “What are the indicators? How does it work for some of the signals?” Quinn asked. “Because we’re certainly not going to, every week, keep some of the same code words and hand signals.” Because of the situation, Quinn said simply there will be more cat and mouse games played this year than in years prior. When asked about that conversation, Hurst smiled. “He did kind of pick my brain the other day,” Hurst said. “It was a little blast from the past going through the baseball signals like a third-base coach would.” When it comes to those non-verbal cues and the role they could play in games played without fans, the Falcons’ newest tight end said quarterback Matt Ryan is already pretty well-versed in his communication tactics. Hurst said Ryan even keeps the other offensive players on their toes. “You have to keep your head on a swivel because Matt calls out his cadences, calls out his checks pretty quickly, so you have to be in the playbook, be in your iPad and understand what’s going on,” Hurst said. “… Getting with Matt in the offseason was huge, just familiarizing myself with the playbook and understanding how he is going to call the cadence and call things out. That was probably the best thing that I could have done this offseason was hook up with him.” Hurst explained that Ryan can sometimes be verbal, vocalizing his checks and alerts. Other times he’s non-verbal, signaling the same things. Obviously this is an every-quarterback-everywhere type of skill, but perhaps, without fans and much ambient noise, that latter skill could become more prominent this season. In fact, maybe it’s worth it for Hurst to take a trip down memory lane with Quinn to tell tales of his days in the Pirates’ organization. This season, there may be more of a need to lean more heavily on a sign sequence like that of a third-base coach to a batter or even a catcher to a pitcher. But baseball wasn’t the only callback Hurst made when speaking to the media on Tuesday morning. He also referred to his college days at South Carolina when referencing the scheme Atlanta uses offensively. He said it’s less like Baltimore’s — truth be told it’s “totally different” — and more like South Carolina’s, the program where he walked on in 2015 after storing away his baseball glove. Baltimore’s offense revolves around Lamar Jackson. It’s a run-heavy system, with Hurst saying the Ravens’ offense is really good at power-and-gap schemes, moving players and reducing defenders through gaps. With an offense centered around players like Julio Jones, Atlanta’s offense is much different. “I think it is exactly what I was doing in college,” Hurst said. “I am pretty **** excited about it.” The excitement Hurst feels about being in Atlanta’s offense radiates off him. It’s an energy others have commented about before Hurst even got the chance to during the third week of training camp. He’s excited because, strictly from a scheme standpoint, everything starts outside. Hurst said Jones is going to be “a first-ballot Hall of Famer” who gets a lot of attention from safety help over the top while Calvin Ridley is going to continue to “do his thing.” “It opens up the defense for me. If I can use my speed and athleticism, then I am definitely going to get open on linebackers and be physical with safeties. There’s going to be a lot of singled up stuff for me,” Hurst said. In another sense, because of how quick, how vertical Hurst plays for a tight end, he believes he can draw attention to himself. In fact, that was something Hurst and Jones noted out on the field at practice Tuesday, just how much Hurst could free up Jones. And if the Falcons give defenses no choice by featuring Hurst, it could be a situation that works in the offense’s favor. Regardless, Hurst feels he’s exactly where he needs to be, especially with Quinn picking his brain about his baseball roots. “I just have to keep doing my job,” Hurst said, “because I think there’s going to be a lot of balls coming my way.” Practice observations and notes • Todd Gurley and Alex Mack were not dressed out in helmets and pads for the first day of padded practice. They were on the field but did not participate in any drills or scrimmage situations. Brian Hill and Justin McCray took the majority of snaps in their place. It was a scheduled off day for Gurley and Mack. • Jamal Carter was activated off the reserve/COVID-19 list. This means the Falcons now have 80 players on their active roster, with no players currently listed on the reserve/COVID-19 list for the first time since the start of training camp. • Kendall Sheffield was limited in practice last week with what Quinn called a sore foot. Sheffield started working in drills on Tuesday, and Quinn said, “He’ll ramp back up over the next few days” of practices. • The Falcons’ rookies are doing some good things early in camp with fourth-round pick Mykal Walker picking off a tipped pass from Matt Schaub in practice Tuesday. First-rounder A.J. Terrell continued to show he may be a good fit in the starting lineup in the secondary as he broke up a few more passes after pulling down an interception last week. • Quinn said before practice began that “the padded days have always been devoted to the big guys,” meaning now that the pads are on, the coaches can get a much clearer sense of what they have to work with at the line of scrimmage. One of the biggest questions this staff has to answer in that area is at left guard, and the battle for that position will be one to keep an eye on as practices move forward. Both Matt Gono and James Carpenter were rotated in with the first group Tuesday.
  12. https://theathletic.com/1989140/2020/08/11/twenty-for-2020-ranking-the-falcons-most-important-impactful-players-part-i/?source=dailyemail Editor’s note: Part I of this ranking includes pick Nos. 20-11. Part II will publish Wednesday with the second half (Nos. 10-1) of the list. The Falcons are entering a season in which the team expects to do more, be more. And the Falcons will need to, as questions remain after a lackluster 2019, especially after a 1-7 start. With training camp well on its way, let’s take a look at 20 players whose increased impact from 2019 to 2020 could be the difference-maker for Atlanta as it heads into a year that has many must-wins on the docket. Without further ado, let’s dive in. 20. Darqueze Dennard Notable point of 2019: Dennard’s three-year, $13.5 million deal with Jacksonville fell through. Talking to the media on Friday, coach Dan Quinn finally had the chance to discuss the newest addition to his secondary after the Falcons picked up Dennard as a free agent last week. It’s thought that Dennard will fit into a starting role almost seamlessly, but the Falcons are trying to figure out how best to use him. “The fact that he’s played nickel, that’s been a big help for us, but he’s made his living playing outside,” Quinn said. He went on to say the Falcons likely will need a few weeks to make sure they have Dennard in the right space to be successful. It will be a time of trial and error as the Falcons move Dennard inside and outside, but expect Dennard’s role to look a lot clearer by the end of the month. ATL - CB Darqueze Dennard 2019 STATS TKLS 37.0 93rd TFL 2 29th PASSES DEF 5 81st 19. Isaiah Oliver Notable point of 2019: The changes Oliver made halfway through the season when the coaching staff was shaken up. Oliver’s trajectory in 2019 followed that of the team, particularly the defense. Simply put, he got better as the year went on, and the further away the team got from that 1-7 start, the better Oliver looked. The issues Oliver was having early in 2019 were technical, the connection between his feet and hands lacking. Statistically, that lack of crispness in technique showed, as he allowed 30 receptions for 427 yards and three touchdowns through that eight-game stretch in which the Falcons won only one game. After Joe Whitt joined the staff, Oliver saw major improvements, as Whitt looked specifically to work on that technique. With the technical blunders behind Oliver, 2020 is the time to see him be more disruptive in his third year in the league. He has had just one interception during his two seasons, and for the defense to be more formidable, that number has to rise. And with a more settled-in Oliver, perhaps it can. ATL - CB Isaiah Oliver 2019 STATS TKLS 62.0 17th PASSES DEF 11 22nd FF 1 14th 18. Tyeler Davison Notable point of 2019: Only two quarterback hits and one sack throughout the season. The struggles the Falcons had getting to the quarterback in 2019 are well documented, and that falls on the shoulders of the defensive line. Davison was solid against the run in 2019, but expecting more production out of the veteran in those disruptive categories of a defense is a likely progression. It also seems as though Davison’s influence could impact a player such as Grady Jarrett. With Jarrett having a season last year that garnered him more respect as an undersized defensive tackle, how successful can he be when teams seek out ways to stifle him? That’s where Davison comes in. The better Davison is at keeping an offensive line unbalanced, the more it frees up Jarrett. The Falcons need the two working simultaneously to be in peak form. ATL - DT Tyeler Davison 2019 STATS TKLS 58.0 15th TFL 3 123rd SACKS 1.0 142nd 17. Keanu Neal Notable point of 2019: There wasn’t one, and that’s the problem. You just want to see Neal healthy again. That’s it. Now in the final year of his contract, it was clear what he could do for the secondary when he signed it, but a different Neal emerges in 2020 after the significant injuries he has sustained. His absence left a gaping hole in the secondary, one the Falcons have been working to fill for two years. It allowed for the rise of Ricardo Allen, but one could never quite shake the feeling of wondering how good the secondary could be with Neal in it. Having both available in 2020 would mean good things for the Falcons. If anything, it would mean that the secondary finally feels complete. The defense as a whole looked better as the 2019 season went on, so how would that trajectory continue to rise with Neal back in the fold? That’s the question a healthy Neal would provide the answer to. And if there’s no drop-off from two seasons on the injured reserve, it’s easy to think the answer would be a good one. 16. A.J. Terrell Notable point of 2019: A large contingent of Falcons fans didn’t want Terrell as the first-round pick in the draft. Maybe that sets up Terrell as an underdog with something to prove. That label can make someone dangerous. Quinn said just last week that the more you’re around Terrell, the more you start to see traits that stand out, particularly his dedication and willpower to improve. Everyone likes to think they’re a hard worker, but Quinn said with Terrell, you really feel that drive — a competitive fire, as Quinn called it. “Let’s face it: To come in and play corner not only in our division but in the NFL early on, you better have your game right and the competitive part altogether,” Quinn said. “He has all of those things, so that’s the thing that stands apart to me because physically he’s certainly able to, and now putting all the whole thing together, that competitiveness that he has. He is just kind of down for fighting, especially at the line of scrimmage, and that’s certainly something that I know is a part of his game.” With potential starting spots up for grabs, time will tell just how far Terrell can go with that fire in his rookie year. 15. Takk McKinley Notable point of 2019: The Falcons declined his fifth-year option for 2021. Picking up Dante Fowler Jr. this offseason to assist in the pass rush was an important step the Falcons needed to take for a notable change in that area following the 2019 season. But what also needs notable change is McKinley’s role. Ideally, McKinley would provide the Falcons with more pressure as he works opposite of Fowler. Numbers that look closer to those of McKinley’s rookie year or second year would be a good goal. Even starting five more games from his second year to his third, McKinley’s total tackles didn’t differ too much, and his sack count dropped from seven in 2018 to just 3 1/2 last year. If things are to stick for McKinley in Atlanta, he needs 2020 to be a year when the defense can’t see success without him, and so far that hasn’t been the case. ATL - DE Takkarist McKinley 2019 STATS TKLS 30.0 87th TFL 7 54th SACKS 3.5 69th 14. Kaleb McGary Notable point of 2019: McGary started 16 games, and the Falcons stuck with him through some early learning curves. He’ll be better for it. McGary needed reps and time. For better or for worse, he got that in 2019 in his rookie season. At times, he looked like the rookie he was, but history has shown that when it comes to linemen, the first year can be the toughest. And it probably would be a safe bet that the McGary who shows up in his second year will look more polished and knowledgable. Also, as Jeff Schultz wrote in our 53-man projection roundtable, it’s difficult to know the cause of McGary’s early struggles: the learning curve of a rookie season or the offensive line’s issues as a whole. Either way, more stability lies in both notions, and that could mean good things for McGary. 13. Foye Oluokun Notable point of 2019: De’Vondre Campbell left Atlanta as a free agent. This leaves the door wide open for Oluokun. As a former safety at Yale, Oluokun had some adjusting, rearranging and learning to do in his first couple of seasons in the league. Now established at linebacker, the first name to roll off the tongue when referring to Campbell’s replacement was Oluokun, who is ready to take the next step to stand side by side with Deion Jones. When Jones was hurt in Oluokun’s rookie season, Oluokun stepped up to fill the void. Now, he’ll work to lead in his own right. The Falcons can hope Oluokun will start the 2020 season in much the same way he finished the 2019 season. Like many of the defensive players on this list, Oluokun shined brighter the longer the season burned on. In fact, 80 percent of his season total in tackles came in the final eight games. The expectation for Oluokun to fill the void left by Campbell is there, but the question is whether he will. Truth be told, it should be expected as part of his natural progression. ATL - ILB Foyesade Oluokun 2019 STATS TKLS 62.0 67th TFL 2 133rd FF 1 37th 12. Chris Lindstrom Notable point of 2019: A broken foot left the rookie sidelined for much of his first season in 2019. Healthy again, could Lindstrom be an important key in the offensive line’s search for more consistency? Just last week, NFL Network’s Brian Baldinger broke down a quick clip of Lindstrom playing against the San Francisco 49ers last season, saying simply in a short video uploaded to Twitter, “What a difference Lindstrom made for this offense.” Indeed, Lindstrom was able to be a big helping hand for Atlanta during the final weeks of the season. With McGary at tackle and Alex Mack at center, Lindstrom fit nicely between the two and seemed to help McGary more and more as each week passed. In the run game, those final four games saw Devonta Freeman have two of his highest yards-per-attempt averages for the season, with five of the first seven games seeing Freeman’s average drop below 3.0 yards per carry. That’s not to say Lindstrom’s inclusion on the offensive line changed everything for Freeman and the Falcons’ run game, but looking back at the film, it definitely didn’t hurt to have Linstrom beside McGary. Lindstrom enters his second season hungry for more chances like those. It will be interesting to see Lindstrom’s impact if he’s able to go full time with the offensive line. 11. Ricardo Allen Notable point of 2019: In yet another year without Neal, it was Allen who kept the secondary afloat. Allen has taken a leadership role at practices as of late. Without coaches at the strength and conditioning periods, it’s Allen the group looks to for structure, cues and to set the pace. It’s a title he feels as though he has earned. “We always talk about setting a standard, and that standard may look different for everybody, but being someone who’s been around, and I’m someone I feel like has worked from the bottom, and I scraped for everything I got, I feel like I have a lot to offer,” Allen said. But he also noted that there’s something to be said about the sense of urgency the entire defense feels heading into 2020. Allen was one of Atlanta’s top tacklers last year with 85 combined tackles, averaging around five per game. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t being pushed. He said when there’s as much competition as there is in the secondary right now, everyone’s level of play has to naturally go up. As the final name before getting to the top 10 on this list on Wednesday, Allen’s impact is representative of a player who waited for his turn to thrive. Now, he’s the one the group looks to. ATL - FS Ricardo Allen 2019 STATS TKLS 84.0 16th TFL 5 11th INTS 2 16th
  13. https://theathletic.com/1994663/2020/08/13/falcons-focused-on-their-responsibilities-on-and-off-the-field-during-pandemic/ A small chuckle escaped from behind Grady Jarrett’s mask during his first media availability last week. He was asked what his plans were to build a bubble around himself during training camp as the Falcons — and the rest of the NFL — get back to work on the field. There seems to be merit in what leagues like the NBA are doing amid the pandemic, enacting a bubble of sorts around the league and strictly monitoring who is allowed in and out of that bubble. The NFL doesn’t have that luxury. So, the responsibility falls to each player to put a bubble around himself as training camp gets underway. It was a noted responsibility that Dan Quinn spoke about when he opened training camp last week. He said he was on a video call earlier that day with the rookies, and he called on them to be “the best teammate they’ve ever been.” “Because we’re not only trying to take care of one another, but we’re looking after your families, too,” Quinn said. “We’ve got to make the best decisions off the field.” When Jarrett was about taking individual responsibility to not see anyone outside of practices, his answer was a little different than Quinn’s. Again, Jarrett chuckled. “I might be by myself most of the time anyways, so it’s not going to be big for me. I’m kind of enjoying it,” he said as another chuckle escaped. “It gives me another excuse to say I can’t go out or do anything if I’m invited somewhere, so I’m enjoying it, and I think it might even help me be a better player.” Finally, being an introvert is starting to pay off. And as the week moved on and a new one began, more Falcons players expressed similar sentiments, joking that they don’t see anyone anyway so nothing has really changed. By the time Julio Jones took to the Microsoft Teams airwaves Thursday, he was singing the same tune. “There was really nothing out of the ordinary for me because I work out by myself, and I kind of just do my job,” Jones said. “… For myself, I go home to the same people. I’m away from everybody. “I’m here to just do my job.” Asked about his thoughts regarding what is happening in college football, Jones said he gets it. He’s a professional. The players around him at training camp are, too. They’re taking on the responsibility that was assigned to them, but Jones said he sees how complying with the same rules is much more difficult for college student-athletes. They have classes to go to and dining halls to eat in. Many of them are in college towns surrounded by thousands of other students their age. When they go home, they likely are not going home to their families. Their “home” is a dorm room or an apartment complex. “Especially kids, when you are 18, 19 years old, it’s hard to be away from this person, be away from that person,” Jones said. “Here, we have our families that we can go home to and make sure everybody is staying with the same people, whereas when you are in college you don’t know where somebody is going. It’s too much of a risk, and the team is way, way bigger as far as on a college level than an NFL level.” On Wednesday, Quinn was asked about the ripple effects the cancellation of certain college conferences’ seasons would have on the NFL as it moves toward another draft year. First and foremost, Quinn said, his heart went out to those players and coaches who had been putting in the work since getting the go-ahead to practice again. “I really thought about the players,” Quinn said. “They’re going to need their coaches’ help more than they ever have.” But when asked about the effect on the NFL, Quinn said he just doesn’t know. There are too many hypotheticals. And, really, the here and now for the Falcons’ 2020 season has enough trouble on its own. That brings us to the second week of training camp. Strength-and-conditioning periods have now morphed into full practice time. Helmets are on, and there are many evaluations the coaching staff has to make during the next few weeks without any preseason games to go off of before Week 1. Quinn said it will be up to the staff to create competitive, unscripted moments in practices to replace the live reps players would have had in preseason games. But how significant are those preseason games in getting ready to play in September? Veterans are split on the question. Matt Ryan said, there are positives and negative drawbacks to this unique preseason, but because the Falcons have so much continuity from last year to this year, he said he doesn’t see it as a big issue. Plus, they’ve done this before. “We all did this in college,” Ryan said. “(We) got ourselves ready for the season and went out and played Week 1 without any preseason games, so we’ll be all right. We will get ourselves ready, and I think Dan has a really good plan, too, to try and mimic some of what we would normally do during the preseason.” He did add, however, that he likes having preseason games. They help knock the rust off, he said. When asked about the effect this could have on the new players coming in, Foye Oluokun looked back at his own journey as the 200th pick in the 2018 draft. If these unprecedented circumstances had happened during his rookie year, he said, it would have been “difficult” to come in and stand out right away. “I definitely felt for them, especially those undrafted free agents because I view myself as an undrafted free agent just coming out of a small school, and I don’t know how much film they really watched on me, so everything I did I had to prove to them,” Oluokun said. “But I had from April (to show what I could do). I was drafted on April 28th, something like that, and as soon as I got drafted it was maybe a week, and I was back in this facility doing rookie training camp. So, going through the circumstances they do now, they weren’t able to get as many eyes on them, so every little thing they do is important because one thing that I realized early was that everything you do is evaluated as a rookie or even as a vet. They’re always watching you.” That evaluation process, if possible, only intensifies as the preseason morphs into player-vs.-player dynamics, instead of Falcons-vs.-opponent games. Jones brings it full circle. When asked about creating a bubble around himself, he said it clearly: He has a job to do, and not seeing anyone outside of his own family is a part of that job. The same can be said for his feelings about preseason games. While he didn’t have any injuries to work through this offseason, he said he’s ready to play whenever. “I’m conditioned for this, helmet on or helmet off,” Jones said. “I can go out there and play that first game without practice or anything. I can do it. It doesn’t matter. You have to be a professional at the end of the day.” A professional with introverted tendencies, perhaps, but a professional nonetheless.
  14. https://theathletic.com/1984507/2020/08/09/schultz-thomas-dimitroff-on-the-season-under-performance-jobs-on-the-line/ The Falcons are five weeks away from their season opener against Seattle, assuming there is a season to be played. It will be a pivotal year for coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who teamed up for a Super Bowl run in 2016 but have followed that with a second-round playoff exit in 2017 and postseason misses the past two seasons. The Falcons went 7-9 last season but had their playoff hopes buried early by a 1-7 start that nearly cost Quinn his job and prompted a midseason shuffle in the defensive coaching staff and significant roster changes following the season. Key decisions included cutting Devonta Freeman and Desmond Trufant despite salary cap hits, not re-signing Vic Beasley or De’Vondre Campbell, declining the fifth-year option on Takk McKinley, signing Todd Gurley and Dante Fowler and acquiring tight end Hayden Hurst to fill the free-agent loss of Austin Hooper. What that leads to is uncertain. The Falcons have been wildly inconsistent the past three seasons, which is not a positive reflection on either the players or Quinn, who needs to turn things around during this highly restrictive time of a pandemic. The NFC South also now includes Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski in Tampa Bay. I spoke to Dimitroff on his outlook for this year, what he would consider a successful season and his perception of what it would take to save jobs, including his own. Do you believe there is going to be an NFL season? Yes. A full season? I can’t give an answer on that. I don’t know. There’s a lot of complications in this, and we have a lot of people who are working diligently on it. I can only speak to our own operation in the building, and I really appreciate what we’ve done there. The logistics of the building are completely different, and it’s been encouraging to see how our players have been mature and handled it with focus and consistency. Like I’ve told you many times, that’s what this team needs this year. Given baseball changed its structure and protocols, and some teams are still struggling, do you understand why some would doubt football, a high-impact sport, can pull it off? I can understand why people on the outside looking in would have their doubts, with an 80-to-90-player roster and 25 to 30 coaches and 30 other administrators. That’s a lot of people to be working through. So, of course, I see the complications. Let’s go on the assumption for the rest of this discussion that there’s a season. How would you define success? There’s no question that this needs to be a winning season, and we need to continue to improve in a lot of different areas. A winning season technically could be 8-7-1 and you miss the playoffs. We need to be back in the playoffs. We’re a talented football team. We need to get back to where we know we can go. We’re a talented, confident football team, and that’s what’s expected. No question about it. Our owner has high expectations, as do I and Rich McKay and Dan Quinn. What was closer to reality last year: The 1-7 start or the 6-2 finish? The 6-2 finish. Why? Because we’re a good football team. We have a good talented group of coaches. We have vision. We’re a thoughtful organization. We started off slowly, of course, but we have a lot in our quiver to be much more of a 6-2 team. As you and Quinn drilled down, what were the core issues for what happened last year and for that matter the year before? Was it only because of staffing and coaching mistakes or was there something going on in the locker room? There was nothing else going on in the locker room. We had to adjust what we needed to adjust. Dan adjusted our coordinator situation, and I thought that was a major move in the right direction. At the beginning of the year, there was too much uncertainty with regard to how the defense was operating and we did a really good job of recovering from that. Putting Raheem (Morris) in that spot, a man who is a very good defensive-minded person, the way he interacts with the players, I thought that was a big part of our recovery. He and Dan work well together and can communicate with each other, and I thought that was a difference-maker. Do you believe the team is better than it was last year? I do. Because? Because I believe we have a lot of talented football players, and I believe we’ll be that much more focused and that much more accountable and consistent. I’m seeing that, and I believe it. We’ve stressed it. There are certain people here, and there are certain people not here anymore, and it all folds into what I believe will be an all-around better football team and a full package. So you would agree that focus and accountability was a problem last year? Any organization that starts out 1-7, there are focus issues and concerns, and they need to be fixed. Unfortunately, it took us a while to get to that spot, but we did it. Dan did a marvelous job with resurrecting this team at the back end because we did become that much more focused, not only on the field but off the field. Navigating this offseason, I just feel like there’s that much more focus now, and that’s an important thing for our football team. What would you view as either the biggest key or question mark going into the season? It’s the same answer. It’s taking all the talent that we have on this football team, and we need to mix that with a very adept coaching staff and have acute focus, sound accountability and consistency. So you believe you have the talent to be a playoff team? There’s no question. Do you have the talent to win the division? We have the talent to be a very good, top tier team in this league. If it doesn’t happen, is that solely on coaching? No. Absolutely not. This is a team game, and the expectations are for players to play up to their abilities, coaches to coach up to their ability, the GM to be up to his ability. All are vital. We all need to come with our A game, our A focus, our A accountability, our A consistency. Would you agree that players have underperformed in the three seasons since the Super Bowl, and if so, to what degree is a head coach responsible for that? Unfortunately, there has been underperformance in the last three years, and some of those players are no longer here. That’s up to Dan and myself to determine who is the best fit for this team moving forward. Head coaches get blamed for underperformance. Is it justified that Dan has been blamed? No. I don’t believe Dan should be blamed for the underperformance that we’ve had by a number of players on this football team since ’16. But isn’t that the head coach’s job? Ultimately, it’s the head coach’s job, but he also has assistant coaches who are responsible for their position groups who are vitally important as well. Really, what I want to say in all this is, we understand by virtue of the position, of course, Dan is going to take blame for certain things and I am going to take blame for certain things. From a coaching perspective, you have almost 25 coaches, and they all have their responsibility. This isn’t a one-man situation at a lot of levels. All of us looking at ourselves across the board, head coach and general manager, all the way through the coordinators, the position coaches, the directors and the scouts, we all have to do our job to the best of our ability. As do our players. I’m coming right back to what I said at the beginning. You can’t have three or four or six or 10 doing this and 10 doing that in any organization to be successful. Should there be a bar that the team has to reach to save jobs? If so, what should that bar be? There should always be a bar, and it should be a substantial bar, to determine the success of a football team. It’s not my responsibility necessarily to determine what jobs are being saved or lost. If you don’t make the playoffs, and you’re Arthur Blank, should changes be made at head coach and/or general manager? Arthur has a strong presence here. He’s the owner of this football team and, contingent on the success of this year, he has big decisions to make, legitimate decisions to make.
  15. https://theathletic.com/1978973/2020/08/06/schultz-why-grady-jarrett-is-the-way-he-is-and-why-falcons-need-more-like-him/ Before anybody knew really who Grady Jarrett was, before he helped elevate a floundering college football program to a national force and an NFL team to near Super Bowl champion, he was off the grid. Major college scouts never ventured out to Conyers because Rockdale County High School wasn’t a Georgia program known to produce high-level talent. The program had one winning season in Jarrett’s four years. Nobody was going to come to watch him. So he went to them. “We had a camp. I think it was before his senior year,” Dan Brooks said. An invitational camp? “No. It was open,” Brooks said. “If it was an invitation deal, we might not have invited him. We didn’t know a lot about him before he came in, other than he could run, and he was a great high school wrestler. People thought he was too short.” This was early in June of 2010, early in Dabo Swinney’s tenure at Clemson. Brooks was the Tigers’ defensive line coach. He watched Jarrett take on bigger linemen in drills and, “He ripped everybody there. I kept telling Coach Swinney, ‘Come here and watch push rush drills.’ We picked the best offensive linemen we had in camp to go against him, and I don’t think Grady lost one (drill) the whole time. I said, ‘We gotta take this guy.’ They said, ‘He’s too short.’ I said, ‘No, he’s not too short!’ I don’t care how tall they are if they play like that.” Brooks won the debate. Swinney made an offer. Jarrett committed to Clemson. Scouting services listed him as a “two-star” or a “three-star.” They also listed him at 6-foot-2, which stretched the truth, which is just what Jarrett wanted. Not that it mattered. He soon proved to everybody what he could do on a football field. I bring this story up now because the Falcons are coming off two miserable and underachieving seasons. Jarrett fits into the category of players who probably is taking this the hardest. He plays beyond what the measurables suggest he should, just as he played beyond what recruiting services thought and what NFL scouts projected, as evidenced by the fact he lasted until the fifth round in 2015. There were 136 players taken before him. The Falcons’ first two picks in that first draft with Dan Quinn as coach: Vic Beasley and Jalen Collins, two players whose physical talents proved to far outweigh their desire and determination. The Falcons always liked Jarrett, but even they never projected he would become a fixture in their starting lineup, a leader of their defense, a Pro Bowler and an “undersized” defensive tackle who sacked Tom Brady three times in the Super Bowl. Jarrett so far outplayed his modest rookie contract that general manager Thomas Dimitroff would not have been surprised if the player complained about his salary and nudged him for a new deal. It never happened. “I’ve never met a player who was more mature in the contract process than Grady Jarrett,” Dimitroff said. “I don’t think I’ll admire anybody more in that setting, He handled it, head-on, no moaning, no agitation. I don’t know how many people would’ve navigated that the way he did. All the times he and I spoke about the team and leadership, he never once pulled me aside to talk about his contract — not that he couldn’t have.” The Falcons rewarded Jarrett before the 2019 season with a four-year, $68 million contract. He was universally recognized as not only a player of NFL caliber but one you build a defense around. But there wasn’t joy in the season that followed. The only thing that frustrates Jarrett more than losing is seeing teammates underachieve. He never would publicly throw anybody under the bus. But the truth is the Falcons had too many players who went south after the 2016 Super Bowl season. They either were not as dedicated as him or were worried more about their paycheck than leading teammates and winning games. Look at some of the players who were let go after the past two seasons, including Beasley. Look at Devonta Freeman, whose then-agent spoke out about his contract during Super Bowl week and never consistently played at the same level after he got the big contract. The losing ate at Jarrett last season, just as it ate at him at Rockdale County. Having varied experiences, from high school to four double-digit-win seasons at Clemson to extreme highs and lows with the Falcons has helped him process things. But it’s not easy. “On a personal level, no matter how good or bad things are going, I’ll always try to be my best and prepare in a way to where I can put my best foot forward no matter how it is,” he said. “Whether things are going good or bad, you always have to try to lead your teammates and encourage them. You can always be better and things could always be worse. So you’ve got to be thankful for where you are. I just want to be that consistent player to try to help us reach the postseason every year and to never give up, no matter the circumstances.” As for the frustrations of consecutive 7-9 seasons, including last year’s 1-7 start against the backdrop of high expectations, Jarrett said, “As a competitor, you always want to play for the championship. You want to win a lot of games. But I wouldn’t compare past success and making it like a frustration point for me. It’s just a point of motivation to try to get better and to try to get back to where I know we can be.” It’s the week-to-week, year-to-year focus great athletes have. But last season’s losing and constantly being one of the few stand-up guys in the locker room after games weren’t easy. After a 37-10 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, Julio Jones had a fiery postgame speech to teammates and said players were at fault for the 1-6 start, not Quinn. It was notable that Jones, Jarrett and Ricardo Allen, three team leaders, left the stadium without speaking to the media, effectively requiring other players to come out. It clearly bothers Jarrett when others don’t get the most out of their talent because that’s not the way he’s wired. “I don’t want to speak for him,” Dimitroff said. “But given his drive, his personality, his grit, his whole makeup, I’m sure people like that really struggle because they know how good this football team can be. It takes more than just pure talent. It takes being on the front foot and pushing through for everyone. That I’m sure would be agitating for someone like Grady, given his makeup.” Brooks is now retired. He last spoke to Jarrett at a Clemson football function in March, but the two frequently text each other, and Brooks said early on at Clemson he spoke to Jarrett about the frustrations of playing on a losing team. “He and I had a lot of long talks about him trying to motivate teammates to be better,” Brooks said. “Rockdale County didn’t have a run of great success. But he was successful in wrestling, an individual thing, which was something he could control. He was under-recruited because they didn’t have other players, they hadn’t had success, and he had to overcome those things.” Brooks also believes the past two seasons frustrated Jarrett. “He really tries to be a leader but it’s in a real positive way,” Brooks said. “I’ve never been in that locker room. But (at Clemson) he could challenge guys to be their best in my little segment group, in my room or on defense. If he’s talking to a linebacker, it’s, ‘I’ve got this gap, you’re supposed to have that one.’ He could challenge guys to be better. So I’m sure it’s worn on him.” The player nobody wanted, the player Georgia and Georgia Tech didn’t notice until it was too late, went on to become an All-ACC pick and team captain at Clemson. The Tigers, who went 6-7 in Swinney’s second full season as coach in 2010, had an aggregate record of 42-11 with two Orange Bowl appearances in Jarrett’s four seasons. His tenacity, his “motor,” reminded many of his father, Jessie Tuggle, the former Falcons’ linebacker who similarly played beyond his dimensions and expectations. Jarrett had “everything you were looking for,” in a defensive lineman, Brooks said. “Everything except the height,” Brooks said. “But he helped us get that program to where it is today.” In college, Jarrett told anybody who would listen that he was 6-2. Brooks told him he was 6-0. They would go back and forth. “I had a conversation with him once. I said, ‘Grady, when you go to the combine, and you back your butt up against the wall, and they make you take your socks and shoes and everything else off and put a clipboard on top of your head, they’re going to call out 72,” Brooks said. “Do you know what that is?’ He said, ‘Coach. I know what that is. But I’m 6-2.’” Jarrett went to the combine. He officially measured at 72.75 inches. So, 6-1-ish. “Being a quote/unquote undersized guy, I always kept a chip on my shoulder,” Jarrett said. “As I got better and better and started having success, (the chip) never left. So I never got complacent.” He was asked if he had any concerns about the NFL season unfolding despite COVID-19. His response was like a page torn out of his book of daily meditations. “‘I have confidence, and I have faith, not fear, in everything in my life,” he said. “So I’m going to prepare to have a full season. At the end of the day, what’s going to happen is going to happen. I’m going to focus on being in the league that I’m in and that we are going to have success.” The Falcons need more like him.
  16. https://theathletic.com/1974546/2020/08/04/dante-fowler-jr-ready-to-meet-expectations-with-intensity-in-2020/ It was 2012 when Dante Fowler Jr. and Todd Gurley faced each other on a football field for the first time. Not yet pros and still a couple of years away from entering the NFL Draft conversation, Fowler and Gurley were gearing up for the annual Georgia-Florida game in Jacksonville, Fla., as freshmen just looking for something to prove. Fowler remembers that first game against his now friend quite clearly. He remembers it because Gurley racked up 118 rushing yards. Or as Fowler put it, “He literally ran all over us.” The next year, Fowler was starting for the Gators and stood in the way of any success Gurley garnered that day. “I didn’t take it easily what he did to us the last year,” Fowler remembered feeling. “So, I was on him super hard.” Fowler had six tackles that day. He said one of them actually ended in a heated moment with Gurley, which makes sense considering Gurley caught a 73-yard touchdown pass and was well on his way to another 100-yard day on the ground, too. He had been a thorn in the Gators’ side for two years now. “We kind of got into a little scuffle in a pile-up,” Fowler said with a laugh. “I had tackled him, and we were fighting a little bit.” Fast forward to 2020, and the two can’t say enough good things about each other. “I’m smiling behind this mask because that’s my guy …” Gurley said during his media availability Monday (the same day that he shares a birthday with Fowler, funny enough). “He has always been a good teammate, always been a good guy and a great competitor, too.” Some 24 hours later, Fowler spoke to his relationship with Gurley relaying memories of Georgia-Florida days past (note: Fowler will call it Florida-Georgia whereas Gurley calls it Georgia-Florida, and if you have any familiarity with the rivalry, you know why). Fowler said he has come up through football with Gurley. They were in the same draft class. They’ve been teammates with the Los Angeles Rams, and now they’re together once more after being picked up by the Falcons this offseason. He said simply, “It’s crazy how the world works.” Truth be told, the Falcons needed them together again in 2020 and need a lot out of them individually: specifically, more rushing yards from Gurley and 2019’s sack count from Fowler. Rushing yards and sacks were areas the Falcons significantly lacked last year having Devonta Freeman only average 3.6 yards per rush and the defense earning just the second-fewest sacks in the NFL. While the Falcons are still figuring out Gurley’s workload this training camp, the same time period for Fowler will be spent going full speed. In fact, the defensive end said things have been moving at an incredibly fast pace the past few days as the team is finally able to get off Zoom and Microsoft Teams calls and out on the field. “They are kind of drilling on us, putting the pressure on us to really know everything because we have to be on top of our stuff,” Fowler said. “We don’t have time to try to teach everything because that’s stuff we’ve already been through in virtual meetings. Now that we’re here we will probably do a virtual meeting the night before, and then that next day, we are going to walk right through at 8 o’clock in the morning.” Time is of the essence right now for Fowler and the defense. The good news for Fowler is that the Falcons’ staff has a clear plan laid out for him. There were some who assumed Fowler’s role with the Falcons would look similar to the way Jacksonville used him, but Fowler said the Falcons are planning to use him more in the ways Los Angeles did. “They let me stand up and put my hand in the dirt,” Fowler said of his time with the Rams. “In Jacksonville, I just had my hand in the dirt the whole time. So, I’ll be able to stand up, move around sometimes, but they’ll also let me put my hand in the dirt and pin my ears back.” Fowler seems to prefer that style of play. He said by allowing him to play that way, the Rams’ coaching staff put him in the right situations to thrive. “They weren’t stubborn; whatever they could do to get sacks and make the team better, that’s what they did,” he said. And Fowler likely would be the first to say he blossomed last year as he was really able to dig his feet in for the first time as a pro. He led the Rams with 11.5 sacks, and his 19 tackles for loss were nothing to ignore. It was the first time many felt he lived up to his first-round draft pick status. And maybe even Fowler would agree. After five years in the league, Fowler joked that he likes to say last year was actually his rookie year since it was his first year as a starter, wiping away his first couple of years in the league. He’s not naive to the fact that those early years didn’t go as planned. But as he looks back, he explains if he was going to have setbacks, he would rather have them happen early because he has been able to grow from them. “I’m ready to be a pro for another 10 years,” he said. The expectation for Fowler has always been high, and he finally reached those heights in 2019. As 2020’s season draws near, there’s a new set of expectations for Fowler: mainly that he repeats the success he had in 2019. This uptick in sacks and pass rush ability is something the Falcons need, and it’s something they spent good money on Fowler to get. He said he still has work to do, trying to sharpen his knife every day, but as he looks ahead to 2020, maybe he looks at it in the same way he looked at that 2013 Georgia-Florida game against Gurley — with a little more intensity. “I feel good,” Fowler said. “I know what my expectations are. I know what I’m going to do. I’m ready to ride with my boys.” One of those boys just happens to be Gurley, again.
  17. https://theathletic.com/1972022/2020/08/03/todd-gurley-is-not-rushing-through-the-early-days-of-training-camp/ It might be a tad bit ironic that in the midst of a pandemic Todd Gurley’s birthday looks fairly similar to the way it always has. As the first Falcons player made available to the media following the team’s first practice Monday, Gurley was asked about six questions via a Microsoft Teams video chat before calling everyone on the call out for their lack of birthday spirit. “First of all, none of y’all have told me happy birthday yet, so I’m kinda upset with you guys,” Gurley joked. “We may be done with this interview right now.” We weren’t. Gurley answered about six more questions after that. Some media members even volunteered to sing “Happy Birthday” to the running back at the end of the call. That didn’t happen either, and that was probably for the best. We write and speak for a living. There’s a reason we aren’t paid to sing. No one wants to hear that rendition of “Happy Birthday.” But in a year in which nothing seems normal, Gurley’s birthday was. Gurley said having a birthday on Aug. 3 usually means he spends his day on a football field. Since his high school days, a practice or workout of sorts has been on the schedule for that day. Maybe that’s why he felt particularly grateful to have a practice schedule for his 26th birthday. Something finally dripped with a little bit of normalcy while everything up to this point has been saturated with change and adjustments. “A lot of people want to die to play this game so for me to be 26, and it (to) be my sixth year in the league and still get an opportunity to play running back, do something I love, do something I’ve always done, I’m always appreciative and grateful,” Gurley said. “There ain’t no better way to come back than on my birthday and be able to go back to work, having a new team, new teammates, new everything, so it’s pretty cool.” The past year for Gurley has been quite the ride as he worked through his yearly recovery process and got picked up by the Falcons. In recent weeks, he has become a source in relaying players’ feelings about playing during the pandemic. Gurley has been outspoken about his thoughts and feelings toward the league and its COVID-19 policies and procedures, wanting to make sure the players’ concerns are heard. There’s a lot of negativity that could have been swirling in his mind, but Gurley said his one positive motivation through it all was to just get back out on the field if and when he was able to. “A lot of guys would be down right now if we didn’t have a chance to play football or go out there and try to do camp because that’s kind of how we’ve always been,” Gurley said. “We’ve had a schedule our whole life, and knowing you have a job, but not being sure that it’s going to actually happen, it gets the best of people so I feel like I’ve been handling it pretty well, just staying positive.” Some of that positivity stems from the situation at hand with the Falcons with Gurley saying he could tell right away the environment was similar to the one he left with the Los Angeles Rams. He said in this business one thing can always be said about coaches: If players don’t like them, new players find that out early. In the case of Dan Quinn, Gurley said he hasn’t heard a bad word spoken about him yet. “I didn’t really have to meet him or talk to him too much to kind of already get a gist of who he is,” Gurley said. On his own call last week, Quinn said he was especially looking forward to getting to know his new running back. Quinn said Gurley was in “fantastic shape” both from a physical and mental standpoint and had a good grasp of the offense already. What Quinn was unsure about at the time, however, was Gurley’s preseason workload. He likened Gurley to Julio Jones, saying Gurley is no different than Jones in regards to making sure they are only taking the best reps, the ones they absolutely have to have. But Quinn also added that it’s not a one size fits all type of plan. “For me getting to know Todd, I’ll have a better sense after the next few weeks of us together,” Quinn said. “What’s the right amount (of reps)? How many back-to-backs? All those things we’ll take into consideration, but (we have) no process together on that yet until we spend some time together.” It’s not a process the Falcons are willing to rush. It’s not one Gurley is either. Monday’s practice was almost like the first day of a new job (which technically, it was, although his office is a bit greener than the rest of ours). It may have been his birthday, but that’s not the reason he’s not looking ahead to the season just yet. There’s a lot to do before then, and who knows what tomorrow will bring? It seems every day during this pandemic brings something new. “I just focus on the day, man,” Gurley said. “Today is Day No. 1. I’m not worried about February. I’m not worried about September. I’m just focused on getting adjusted, getting to know my new teammates, learning about everybody, the whole staff on the Falcons and then just taking it day by day. I don’t look too far in the future. I live for the day and prepare for tomorrow.”
  18. https://theathletic.com/1958630/2020/07/28/schultz-dan-quinn-needs-a-turnaround-but-its-a-tough-time-to-pull-it-off/ Dan Quinn is all about positivity. This might not seem possible for someone who works in the presumed most dangerous sport during a pandemic and for a team that has failed to make the playoffs the past two years and has had declining win totals in the past three and for an owner who came this close to firing him last season. But Quinn is different. The man could be standing alone on a dusty plain, in the path of stampeding rhinos, and scream to the beasts, “I love your passion! I love your brotherhood! What a great opportunity for me to …”* (* Lost transmission.) So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that as the Falcons trickle into Flowery Branch for testing and, eventually, training camp, and, hopefully, eventually, an NFL season, Quinn is oozing with confidence. He likes the NFL’s testing protocols. He likes his team. He likes what he thinks his players have accomplished in personal workouts and virtual meetings. At some point, if there’s a season, we’ll learn how much substance there is to this confidence, but in the past two seasons, against the backdrop of a similarly cheery outlook, the Falcons were playoff dead before the Thanksgiving turkey reached the table. I asked Quinn on Tuesday about being in the midst of so much uncertainty, from the pandemic to his own coaching tenure, as camp opened. His response was 100 percent pure DQ. “It’s a fair question, and I definitely get it,” he said. “Having two difficult years, it just crushes you emotionally. I just kind of make it, I’m going to have the best week here. I try to make the big things small. I’m definitely optimistic, but it’s not rose-colored glasses, either. I know where we’re at. I know what we’re doing. I know the difficult challenge ahead of us. But I guess my optimism also fires me up, thinking, I know this is something we can do after being here a while. That’s a good feeling. You’re excited because you want to prove it.” Where some see sunshine on the horizon, others see dust being kicked up by an approaching herd. It’s difficult not to like Quinn. He is as good and genuine a person as you’re going to find in professional sports, especially the NFL. It’s the reason players love him, even if last season affirmed there are limits to his personal connectivity with those players. That likability is, in part, what bought him an extra week or two with owner Arthur Blank last season. But Quinn has made mistakes, and he needs to do better or he’s going to lose his job. The Falcons started the 2018 season 1-4, then went 4-9. They started the 2019 season 1-7. There were late-season winning streaks, but, whatever. Players deserve some level of credit for not mailing it in when both seasons were lost, but there were no real stakes for the team in either second half. The victories carry little weight. All that mattered is they finished 7-9. All that mattered was how they started. That falls on Quinn. Regardless of whatever personnel shortcomings the team had — and, in the case of the 2018 season, some significant player injuries that occurred — nobody can deny that those on the field underachieved. There also were coaching mistakes, some stemming from Quinn’s staffing decisions. It’s important to bring this up now because after backsliding for the past three years — from 11 wins to 10 to 7 and 7 — Quinn and his players will face a difficult start in 2020. The first four opponents: Seattle, Dallas (road), Chicago, Green Bay (road). Quinn’s task: In the midst of COVID-19 protocols, without a normal training camp atmosphere, without an NFL preseason, without even scrimmages against other teams to use as a measuring stick, the coach needs to cultivate a strong bond with the players and correct team flaws to prevent the early-season faceplants of 2018 and 2019. How difficult will it be to build improvement in this environment? He said “a lot of” the success will stem from the individual offseason work by the players in their individualized programs, and there is some truth to that. But there were players last season who, despite their previous offseason’s work, despite singing Quinn’s praises, often came out absent in games. The Falcons are banking on the impact of second-half staff changes, including the shift of Raheem Morris to defensive coordinator, carrying over. But it’s never that simple. There’s also the pandemic factor. More than a dozen NFL players have opted out of the season, none from the Falcons, yet. Quinn’s interestingly worded statement on that: “I haven’t had those conversations (with any players) at this time.” The team is already down one player. One rookie, fourth-round pick and safety Jaylinn Hawkins, has been placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Teams aren’t permitted to disclose a player’s medical status, so the Falcons did not announce whether Hawkins tested positive or is merely in quarantine after being exposed to somebody with the virus. But it is known that Hawkins passed previous tests, so the exposure had to come in the previous one to two days. Either way, disruptions are possible in the coming weeks, and the core of last year’s team often did not play like a tight group. Many logically would look at the high-contact sport of football and in a non-bubble setup and think: The NFL can’t possibly get this done. But Quinn said, “I feel like their time here is the safest time in the day because they know the population here, and there’s lots of guidelines. I’m not saying it’s perfect by any means. But (the concern is more about) the time away from it.” These are not optimum conditions for a turnaround, but in Quinn’s world it just makes for a better comeback.
  19. https://theathletic.com/1960547/2020/07/29/what-the-falcons-rookies-have-been-up-to-where-theyre-going-as-camp-begins/?source=dailyemail If you’ve been a college student within the past five years or so, or you have a college student in your home, you are likely familiar with Kahoot. If you are not familiar with the term, don’t worry; it has no foundation in any college drinking game (that I know of). What it is, however, is an online classroom of sorts that allows professors to create customized quizzes that everyone in a class can connect to for some game-based learning. Essentially, students connect via a link to the quiz from their phones or computers. Quizzes normally are timed, and students have a few seconds to read a question and choose a multiple choice answer. The answers are compiled by the service and displayed via a bar graph depicting how many students chose each answer. It’s a simple tool used by teachers everywhere. Some of the Falcons’ rookies may have thought their Kahoot days were behind them when they left their respective universities not too long ago, but the pandemic changed that as everything went remote, including the start of their professional football careers. The past few months have seen the cancellation or rearrangements of important steps rookies normally take in their first few months after the NFL Draft. In 2020, there were no mini-camps, no chances for coaches to see their new crop of players play full speed. Instead, the players were on calls learning the ins and outs of their new organizations and taking Kahoot quizzes. These video call sessions were tailored to each individual player. There was a lot of film watching, players and coaches going back and picking apart the players’ college tape. These weren’t long lectures; instead resembling 25- to 30-minute Q&A periods or film breakdowns followed by a short break and then back at it again. In his first news conference of the training camp season, Falcons coach Dan Quinn likened these rookies’ summer experiences to what the players faced in college. “They’ve been in a football class for a few months,” he said. “Now, here we are at the end of the semester, and now we are able to see what they can do.” No more Kahoot quizzes. Testing season has arrived with training camp. “We’ve done a lot of teaching,” Quinn said of the past few months. “This will be the first time moving forward that we’ll have to do some of the corrections from practice, and those are moments that you like to be in-person for so you can make some eye contact.” Falcons' 2020 draft class Up to this point, no rookie or coach in the league has had that luxury, which is why there is a lot of added stress to this year’s training camp period for these first-year players. There’s already a thought circling that 2020 is the year of the veterans because of everything stacked against rookies entering the league in the midst of a pandemic that has reshaped their first few months as pros. Even while acknowledging that notion, Quinn said he has been impressed with the background knowledge this group came in with, stating he really wanted to test these players to see exactly where they are entering training camp. He said mentally, they passed their first couple of days. But the focus now shifts from what they know to what they can do. “Now, the reaction times are the things that you haven’t had a chance to see, how quickly a player can break on a ball, how quickly they can transition and diagnose plays,” Quinn said. “It’s one thing to understand the concepts. And it’s a whole other thing to go into the format.” Doing those evaluations through practices without having preseason games or exhibitions to lean on prior to the season starting does have its added challenges for players and coaches. Quinn said he recently went back through in his mind and asked himself: “What is the typical amount of reps a rookie might have played in the preseason through the years?” The Falcons had been in talks to schedule joint practices with Buffalo and Miami during the 2020 preseason, but with those no longer available, Quinn said his goal was to give these rookies a similar number of reps that they would have gotten by that time. Those reps just have to be manufactured now where they would have happened organically before. And while there is stress on the coaching staff to be able to do that, there’s even more stress on the rookies to take these very limited chances and make them count. “It’s also a stressor for the player, too, especially the player fighting for a roster spot, you know, ‘When are my moments to prove myself? To show what I can do?'” Quinn said. “So, put yourself into that spot, as well, not just us evaluating but the stress on them. “So, we’re going to try to create some moments that are situation-specific, that will be non-scripted. We’ll do the very best we can to create a game-like situation, a scrimmage so to speak. And we’ll do as many of those leading up to the season as we can. So, that’s the first step to it — to provide moments where it’s not scripted, you don’t know the play, let’s go match up and see how we do. We’re going to try to make as many competitive moments as we can, especially for the players that need a lot of evaluations.” Just like those Kahoot quizzes, time is ticking. While Quinn knows this window of evaluation is a lot smaller than in years past, he said he’s not going to rush through it. “You’re not going to come in and go zero to 120 on the first day,” Quinn said. “We’re going to make sure it’s like climbing a ladder, you don’t skip the rungs as you’re going. Let’s make sure we hit the steps. We need to be at our best moving forward when the season goes, not on Monday, and there’s a lot of work that will go into that.”
  20. https://theathletic.com/1953310/2020/07/28/ten-things-a-football-nerds-guide-to-the-2020-atlanta-falcons/?source=dailyemail Going into the bye last season, it seemed like only a matter of time before the Atlanta Falcons announced major organizational changes. At 1-7, they were the biggest underachievers in the league. But Dan Quinn shuffled around some members of his coaching staff — most notably moving Raheem Morris from wide receivers coach to secondary coach — and the Falcons went 6-2 in the second half of the season. Owner Arthur Blank announced before Week 17 that Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff would return in 2020. Now after back-to-back 7-9 seasons, the pressure is on for a turnaround. During the offseason, Atlanta signed edge rusher Dante Fowler and running back Todd Gurley. The Falcons also traded for Hayden Hurst. And Morris officially has been elevated to defensive coordinator. So what will it take for Atlanta to get back to the postseason? Below is a preview of the Falcons’ upcoming season that includes analysis of 2019, their offseason moves and their offensive and defensive schemes. Expected points added (EPA) and coverage data is courtesy of Sports Info Solutions. You can find a primer on EPA here or just view it as a success metric that measures a play’s impact on the score of the game. All other numbers are from Sportradar, unless otherwise noted. 1. The Falcons finished 15th in offensive efficiency last season — their second-lowest ranking in Matt Ryan’s 12 seasons as the starting quarterback. And that was with the benefit of good injury luck. The Falcons ranked fifth in Football Outsiders’ adjusted games lost metric. While Quinn’s big change came on defense, it’s fair to wonder whether he should have taken a closer look at Dirk Koetter’s performance as offensive coordinator. Koetter is in his second stint with Atlanta. During the first one, the Falcons finished 12th, 14th and 10th in offensive efficiency. That’s four years with Koetter calling plays for a Ryan-led offense and mostly mediocre results. The Falcons used 11 personnel (one RB, one TE, three WRs) on 59 percent of their offensive snaps last season. They were in 12 personnel (one RB, two TEs, two WRs) 15 percent of the time, 21 personnel (two RBs, one TE, two WRs) 12 percent and 22 personnel (two RBs, two TEs, one WR) 4 percent. Offense (new starters in green) POSITION PLAYER WR Julio Jones WR Calvin Ridley WR Russell Gage LT Jake Matthews LG James Carpenter/Matt Hennessy C Alex Mack RG Chris Lindstrom RT Kaleb McGary TE Hayden Hurst QB Matt Ryan RB Todd Gurley The biggest competition will come at left guard where it’ll be either veteran James Carpenter or third-round pick Matt Hennessy. The Falcons will get Chris Lindstrom back at right guard after he was limited to five games as a rookie because of a foot injury. Atlanta sent a second-round pick to the Ravens for Hurst. The Falcons let Devonta Freeman walk in free agency and signed Gurley. When Atlanta uses 21 and 22 personnel, fullback Keith Smith will get on the field. The Falcons also took a flier on wide receiver Laquon Treadwell. One way to gauge whether a team is pass heavy or run heavy is to look at what it does on early downs when games are still competitive. The Falcons ranked 15th in pass frequency. In terms of success, the Falcons ranked 18th in both EPA per dropback and EPA per rush on early downs. But since passing is more efficient than rushing (and offers more upside with Ryan at quarterback), the Falcons likely would benefit from throwing the ball more on early downs. 2. The Falcons were not a good rushing team last season, ranking 22nd in efficiency. Freeman led the team with 656 rushing yards but was among the least efficient backs in the league. Among the 50 backs who had at least 75 carries, Freeman ranked 48th in EPA per rush. He produced a positive result on just 31 percent of his attempts, which ranked last. Falcons rushing efficiency CATEGORY EPA/RUSH RANK Shotgun 0.04 15th out of 30 Under center -0.12 20th 11 personnel -0.06 23rd 12 personnel 0.01 7th out of 29 2-RB sets -0.17 N/A The one area where the Falcons had some success was running out of 12 personnel. Their projected tight ends for 2020 are Hurst, Jaeden Graham and Khari Lee. Using a fullback in 21 and 22 personnel produced terrible results for Atlanta. Football Outsiders uses a metric called adjusted line yards to measure run blocking. The Falcons ranked 24th. And their backs didn’t maximize the opportunities they had to break big runs. Atlanta ranked 25th in second-level yards and 27th in open-field yards. As for Gurley, he carried 223 times for 857 yards last season, averaging 3.8 YPC. He ranked 39th out of 50 backs in EPA per rush. There were a couple of encouraging metrics. One was that he produced a positive result on 43.9 percent of his carries, which ranked 15th. The other was that he broke a tackle on 17 percent of his attempts, which ranked 20th. The Falcons are counting on their young offensive linemen to improve and for Gurley to offer upside. But overall, this looks like a mediocre run game. 3. Here’s how Ryan’s overall 2019 performance stacked up. ATL - QB Matt Ryan 2019 QBR 57.6 14th ANY/A 6.08 19th DVOA 7.0% 14th EPA/PLAY 0.1 18th EPA/play accounts only for plays where each team had a win probability of at least 20%. He was by all accounts a mediocre starter. Next Gen Stats tracks a metric called completion percentage above expectation. It looks at the probability of a completion on every throw, based on factors like how far the throw is, how open the receiver is and how much pressure the quarterback is under. It then comes up with an expected completion percentage and compares that number to the quarterback’s actual completion percentage. Ryan ranked 11th out of 39 quarterbacks. He produced a negative result (sack, fumble or interception) on 9.9 percent of his plays, which ranked 23rd among starters. Football Outsiders uses adjusted interception rate to measure how often quarterbacks throw balls that should be picked off. They remove interceptions that can be blamed on wide receiver drops and Hail Mary attempts. But they add interceptions that are dropped by defenders. Ryan’s 2.9 percent adjusted interception rate ranked 18th among starters. He also fumbled nine times. 4. Here’s how Ryan performed in a number of different categories: Breaking down Matt Ryan CATEGORY EPA/DROPBACK RANK Vs. man 0.02 14th Vs. zone 0.11 14th 11 personnel 0.07 10th 12 personnel 0.04 15th out of 22 In pocket 0.1 10th Out of pocket -0.37 22nd out of 23 Play-action 0.03 26th He was better against zone than man, but the league-wide ranks were identical. The coverage that gave Ryan the most trouble was Cover-3 (a three-deep zone with four underneath defenders). Ryan ranked 21st among starters in EPA per dropback when facing Cover-3. The Falcons’ passing numbers were similar in both 11 and 12 personnel. Ryan got into all kinds of trouble when he left the pocket, performing as one of the worst quarterbacks in the league in those situations. Atlanta ranked 25th in play-action frequency, and those plays didn’t give them much. Ryan performed well when throwing downfield, ranking eighth in EPA per dropback on passes that traveled at least 20 yards. The problem? The Falcons didn’t throw downfield a lot. Just 3.8 percent of Ryan’s dropbacks resulted in downfield completions, and that ranked 21st. Atlanta’s lack of explosive plays reflects poorly on Koetter. Ryan produced an explosive play (20 yards or more) on just 7.9 percent of his dropbacks, which ranked 30th. How does that happen on a team that has Julio Jones? 5. Speaking of Jones, here’s a look at how the Falcons’ pass-catchers performed last season: Falcons pass-catchers in 2019 PLAYER YARDS YDS/ROUTE RANK Julio Jones 1,394 2.52 5th out of 111 Calvin Ridley 866 1.75 42nd out of 111 Austin Hooper 787 1.73 15th out of 67 Russell Gage 446 1.24 82nd out of 111 Devonta Freeman 410 1.34 26th out of 58 Mohamed Sanu 313 1.18 87th out of 111 Jones continues to be among the best — if not the best — wide receivers in the NFL. Calvin Ridley was a fine No. 2 and could see increased opportunities in 2020. Russell Gage caught 49 balls but averaged just 9.1 yards per reception and ranked 82nd in yards per route run. Hurst is the big new addition. He averaged 1.8 yards per route run last year, which was 12th among tight ends and slightly better than Austin Hooper (1.73). But Hurst had just 349 receiving yards. The best-case scenario would be him matching Hooper’s production from 2019. Up front, the Falcons ranked 29th in ESPN’s pass-block win rate metric, which measures how often protection holds up for at least 2.5 seconds. They’re counting on right tackle Kaleb McGary to take a step forward in his second season. Getting Lindstrom back healthy should help. But center Alex Mack turns 35 in November. With Jones and Ridley, Ryan has talented players to target, but it’s tough to project a big leap for the Falcons unless the offensive line is much improved. 6. It was a tale of two seasons for the Falcons’ defense. Quinn took over as defensive coordinator before the 2019 season and was a disaster. During the first half of the season, the Falcons unofficially led the NFL in coverage busts and plays when two defenders confusingly stared at each other with their arms up while opponents scampered to the end zone. According to the Football Outsiders’ Almanac, the defense ranked 29th in the first half of the season. After Quinn handed the keys over to Morris, the results were much better. Atlanta ranked 10th in the second half of the season, although it’s worth pointing out that it was facing an easier schedule. Overall, the Falcons’ defense settled in at 20th in efficiency and had just about league-average (18th) injury luck. The Falcons played nickel on 69 percent of their snaps and were in base 25 percent of the time. Defense (new starters in green) POSITION PLAYER Edge Dante Fowler DL Grady Jarrett DL Tyeler Davison Edge Takkarist McKinley LB Deion Jones LB Foye Oluokun CB Kendall Sheffield CB A.J. Terrell CB Isaiah Oliver S Ricardo Allen S Keanu Neal The big free-agent addition was Fowler. The Falcons used a second-round pick on versatile defensive lineman Marlon Davidson, who could be counted on immediately to provide some interior pass rush. Atlanta also has Allen Bailey to rotate in at defensive tackle. Foye Oluokun played 30 percent of the snaps last season and will take over for De’Vondre Campbell at linebacker. The Falcons selected cornerback A.J. Terrell with the 16th overall pick and will pair him with Kendall Sheffield and Isaiah Oliver. Safety Keanu Neal suffered a season-ending Achilles’ injury last year. He has appeared in four total games during the past two seasons. 7. The Falcons ranked 14th against the run last season. Football Outsiders uses a metric called adjusted line yards to measure defensive line play against the run, and Atlanta was 19th. Falcons run defense PERSONNEL EPA/RUSH RANK Base -0.1 14th Nickel -0.02 17th Vs. 11 0.06 24th Vs. 12 -0.23 4th Vs. 2-RB sets -0.04 N/A The Falcons were mostly mediocre against the run across the board. They held up well when teams tried to run out of 12 personnel. Campbell led the Falcons with 71 tackles against the run, followed by Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones, who combined for 13 tackles for loss. Overall, Atlanta’s run defense will most likely be middle of the pack and perform similarly to last season. 8. Quinn comes from the Pete Carroll tree, which typically means a lot of Cover-3 (a three-deep zone with four underneath defenders), but the Falcons changed things up. They actually played man coverage at the fifth-highest rate of any defense. Atlanta was heavy with its single-high safety coverages (Cover-1 and Cover-3), playing them at the third-highest rate. Falcons pass defense: Man vs. zone COVERAGE EPA PER DROPBACK RANK Man 0.14 28th Zone 0.12 23rd The Falcons’ performance was similar, regardless of whether they were playing man or zone. Cover-1 (man coverage with a single deep safety) was their most popular coverage, but the Falcons ranked 26th in EPA per dropback when playing it. They ranked 19th when playing Cover-3. And they were the worst defense in the league when they tried to switch things up and play Cover-2 (a two-deep zone with five underneath defenders). Falcons pass defense by personnel PERSONNEL EPA/DROPBACK RANK Base 0.45 28th Nickel 0.07 23rd Vs. 11 0.06 23rd Vs. 12 0.3 31st The Falcons got crushed when they faced the pass out of their base defense. They also struggled against 12 personnel. Limiting explosive plays was a problem for Atlanta. The Falcons ranked 24th in EPA per attempt when opponents threw the ball 20 yards or more downfield. Overall, they gave up explosive plays (20 yards or more) 11.1 percent of the time, which ranked 25th. Here is how the Falcons performed against different positional targets: Pass defense vs. different targets TARGET DVOA/EPA WR 32nd TE 6th RB 13th Opposing wide receivers lit the Falcons up. They ranked 31st in EPA per attempt to outside wide receivers and 24th when slot receivers were targeted. The Falcons were mediocre against running backs and good against tight ends. As for personnel, Sheffield played 67 percent of the defensive snaps as a rookie. Oliver was a 16-game starter. The Falcons parted ways with mainstay Desmond Trufant. Terrell almost certainly will be asked to play a big role as a rookie. 9. The advanced numbers suggest that the Falcons’ biggest issues were more in coverage than with their pass rush. Atlanta ranked second in ESPN’s pass-rush win-rate metric, which tracks how often the defense gets pressure within 2.5 seconds of the snap. But the Falcons were 28th in percentage of dropbacks with a sack or QB hit. Why the discrepancy? Opponents got rid of the ball in 2.5 seconds or less on 54.5 percent of their dropbacks against the Falcons. That was the highest percentage any defense faced. It signals that the coverage was leaky, and receivers were getting open quickly. The glass-half-full perspective would be that the pass rush could put up big numbers if the coverage improved to even mediocre levels. Vic Beasley had an eight-sack season but left for Tennessee in free agency. Jarrett was the Falcons’ best defensive player, producing 7.5 sacks and 16 quarterback hits. He ranked second among defensive tackles in pass-rush win rate, behind only Aaron Donald. Takk McKinley had 3.5 sacks and 13 quarterback hits. The Falcons did not pick up his fifth-year option, so this could be McKinley’s final season in Atlanta. As for Fowler, he has had an up and down career but will be just 26 going into Week 1. Last offseason, Fowler had to settle for a one-year deal to return to the Los Angeles Rams. It paid off. He produced career highs with 11.5 sacks and 16 quarterback hits. The numbers weren’t empty either. Fowler ranked ninth among all edge rushers in pass-rush win rate. The Falcons ranked 21st in blitz frequency. They gave up a first down on 36.6 percent of the plays in which they blitzed, which ranked 22nd. Overall, this group has potential. Jarrett is one of the best defensive tackles in the league, and if Fowler can perform like he did last season, they’ll be a tough tandem to block. The Falcons could be really good if McKinley emerges or if Davidson looks good as a rookie. But again, last year showed that a strong pass rush can be negated if they can’t cover. Atlanta needs to find a way to force quarterbacks to hold on to the ball longer in 2020. 10. In terms of in-game decision-making, it’s a small sample, but Quinn has somehow not won a challenge (0-for-6) in the past two seasons. He was, however, on the aggressive end with his fourth-down decision-making. The Falcons had the fifth-best injury luck last season but ranked 24th in fumble luck. They were tied for 24th in turnover margin and ranked 28th in special teams efficiency. The Falcons went 3-4 in one-score games. Atlanta has the toughest projected strength of schedule in the league going by Vegas win totals. William Hill has them at +600 to win the NFC South, well behind the New Orleans Saints (+100) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+140). Their over/under for wins is 7.5. The Falcons have some upside. If Ryan can get hot, and if the pass rush can tee off on opposing quarterbacks, earning a playoff spot and even winning the division are realistic outcomes. If Atlanta misses the postseason for the third straight year, the organization likely will enter an offseason of significant change.
  21. https://theathletic.com/1958278/2020/07/28/dan-quinn-breaks-down-policies-and-procedures-as-falcons-return-to-work/ On a video call Tuesday morning, Falcons coach Dan Quinn joked with the 2020 rookies that they weren’t even born when driving laws didn’t mandate seat belts be worn at all times like they are today. “When I was a kid,” Quinn said, “you were climbing from the front to the back, you didn’t need a seat belt. But now, you wouldn’t even think about going anywhere without a seat belt. “Wearing a mask? That’s our seat belt.” Tuesday marked the official return of the final wave of veteran players to the Falcons’ practice facility in Flowery Branch to get its first of two COVID-19 tests done before strength and conditioning workouts begin next week (players being tested must be negative for two tests before being allowed entrance into the facility). Rookies, quarterbacks, injured players and coaches were all tested last week, and the rookies began walkthroughs with the staff on Monday and Tuesday. But Tuesday afternoon, the Falcons announced rookie safety Jaylinn Hawkins was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list. The organization is not permitted to comment on a player’s medical status and may not disclose whether a player on the list is in quarantine or has tested positive for COVID-19. Quinn spoke Tuesday afternoon before the news about Hawkins was released and broke down some of the protocols that have been set in place for the start of training camp. Logistics for better social distancing practices In a quick note, Quinn joked that the past few days have almost felt like moving old furniture into a new house as the staff works to figure out the best way to socially distance during in-person meetings throughout the next few weeks of training camp. With some meetings now moving to a face-to-face setting instead of via Zoom or Microsoft Teams video calls, various position groups had to move out of their original meeting rooms to places with more space. For example, the offensive line will meet in the team’s draft room while wide receivers will meet in the team room. “The position groups that had more players, you needed bigger spaces to do that,” Quinn said. He said scheduled full team meetings will be held in the indoor practice facility. “I think (it will be) like a clinic setting where we have some chairs out and do it in the indoor field,” Quinn said. “That way we will put a screen up there and do some of it that way.” How practices change with no preseason games and exhibitions Quinn said he had not had any conversations with players about opting out of the 2020 season, so with that in mind, he and his staff will have a slew of decisions to make regarding roster construction once training camp begins. Without preseason games and exhibitions, Quinn said there will be changes to the way the coaching staff and players attack training camp and the way coaches evaluate the players. He explained that with preseason games coaches get to see the unscripted moments, a luxury teams do not have this year after the NFL canceled preseason games. The staff is going to have to replicate that as much as it can in practices and scrimmages so it can get the full picture of a players’ potential. “Those scrimmage days, I think, are going to be an important part of the evaluation because that’s the very best that we can do at the moment,” Quinn said. “We’re gonna try and create those opportunities and moments to let those players do their thing and get a real chance to evaluate.” Quinn said these will be meticulously planned moments to evaluate specific players because those will be the only chances this staff will see players against players. They will be player-specific matchups, so coaches can answer the question of what happens, for example, when a running back faces off with a linebacker. “We’ll do a little setup. Let’s put runners on second and third and put the guy at the plate at practice, so to speak,” he said. Questions regarding roster construction In a memo sent to clubs obtained by The Athletic, teams may begin training camp with 90 players on their active list as has been the rule in years past. But if they so choose to keep 90 players, they must split the team into two groups: rookie and first-year players in one group and veterans in another. Clubs must reduce that number to 80 on or before Aug. 16. If a team chooses to reduce its roster to 80 before Aug. 16, players can practice together. When asked about this new rule, Quinn said this is a decision the Falcons are weighing. “If you split, there’s a good chance your rookie players wouldn’t know a veteran player because they wouldn’t be there together,” Quinn said. “So, how quickly do you want to act on that, (adding someone like) A.J. (Terrell) and Marlon (Davidson) to the group?” Where the hole in protocols can be found Quinn said he felt that when the players are at the facility that time will be the safest part of their day. The players know the people they are around, they know everyone in the building has received two negative tests, and they know there are protocols and guidelines everyone must follow. He said it’s not a perfect situation, but having safety protocols in place is something that can’t be said for everywhere these players can go once they leave the facility. That is where the questions arise because without a bubble protocol like in the NBA, MLS, NHL or WNBA, it falls on the players to make a conscious decision to limit their circle. “It’s been helpful to know that there’s lots of space, lots of testing, lots of protocols, meals separated. Coming in, you just have to follow the rules. You know, you put your mask on and follow the rules, and everything kind of takes care of itself,” Quinn said. “Away is where I think it’ll feel different.” And this leads to an important note Quinn had for the team during this time … “Be the best teammate you’ve ever been” There is a certain responsibility every player and coach have to one another now that training camp is set to begin. Quinn said that he has learned the past few months that you can do all of the right things, take all of the right steps and still have a positive test. The team has protocols in place and should be ready for when that moment comes, but it’s important everyone is on the same page in the meantime. And that page is everyone being disciplined even when the players and coaches leave the facilities. “A lot of us are going to have to be the best teammates we have ever been because we’re not only trying to take care of one another but we’re looking after our families, too,” Quinn said. “We’ve got to make the best decisions off the field.”
  22. New Falcons beat writer for The Athletic https://theathletic.com/1944948/2020/07/22/how-the-falcons-are-planning-for-limited-seating-at-games-in-2020/?source=emp_shared_article Don Rovak said when his family of four goes to Falcons games during the season, it can be split into two demographics of game-goers. His sons, who are 12 and 14 years old, like their space. “Usually the biggest gripe for them is someone tall sitting in front of them,” said Rovak, who is the vice president of ticket sales and services for the Falcons. But his wife falls into another category. Like many others, games are social events for her. She’s there to have a drink with some friends or to chat up a stranger or two. It’s a chance to get to know more people, to high-five the person sitting next to her in the excitement of the moment. Rovak said if he were to take her to a game in 2020, it probably wouldn’t be a fun experience for her as it had been in the past. Simply speaking, all the things that draw her to a game, “that’s not going to exist,” Rovak said. As of the third full week in July, Rovak, his team and all of the Falcons’ organization are planning on having limited capacity seating during the season. It’s important to note that this is the plan right now. During a pandemic, time has had a way of changing plans, so the Falcons’ plan very well could change at any point prior to the season starting or even once it does. But the Falcons are hopeful they’re doing right by fans with the plan they have currently set up. Last week, an outline of that plan was sent to Falcons’ PSL and season ticket holders. “I think the big positives are if anybody missed a PSL payment this past year or has an upcoming PSL payment for next year and they want to extend that financial agreement to the backend of their deal they can do so,” Rovak said. “So, basically, we will only be collecting one of the PSL payments over the course of the two years. Another benefit that we communicated was for anybody who is keeping their money on the account and moving their money towards next year, they would get a price freeze for 2021.” He said in a normal year, that would be an average deal, but it could be a bigger deal next year with the NFL expanding to a 17-game regular season with the potential for a ninth home game in 2021. But looking specifically to the 2020 season, Rovak explained the next steps the organization is planning on taking will give the group a better understanding of what it will really be undertaking once the season begins with limited fan seating for games. Beginning on Wednesday, PSL and season ticket holders will receive a survey to fill out regarding their interest in attending the first four home games of the season. If they do wish to attend games, they will rank, in order, their preferences for which games they would like to attend. For reference, the first four home games of the season are against Seattle, Chicago, Carolina and Detroit. Capacity will be limited to between 10,000 and 20,000 fans, which Rovak said is around 20 percent of the seats that can be used in the stadium. He said the operations team has been walking Mercedes-Benz Stadium to figure out exactly how many seats can be accommodated. What it has decided on is an almost checker-board-like seating. So, if you take the 70,000 seat venue, there will be pods of seat sizes ranging from one single seat to a group of six seats together spread out across the stadium. These pods will be designated with different price categories, so when PSL or season ticket holders are chosen for one of those first four games, they will have to select seats within their price category. So, who will be chosen for which games and how many games of those first four will a single PSL or season ticket member be allowed access to? Rovak said the team is hoping the surveys can help answer that question, but the organization is currently projecting that most season-ticket holders will be able to go to one, maybe two, of those first four home games. When asked which way he felt fans are leaning between not feeling comfortable to go to games vs. being absolutely willing to go, Rovak said he thinks there will be more fans upset they didn’t get chosen to go to one of those first four home games than the ones upset that they have to opt out completely on their own accord. “That’s my personal belief because I just think when I picture who I am going to be hearing from more, we are going to be hearing from fans that have been going to games for 20 years and now, ‘You’re only allowing me to go to one game in the next two months? That’s ridiculous,'” Rovak said. “I think we are going to hear from that guy a lot. And I feel for that guy. It pains me.” Rovak said this is why teams have these big stadiums: to fill them. But obviously with a season-ticket base of 55,000 to 60,000 but a single game capacity of only 10,000 to 20,000 pleasing everyone just isn’t possible. “We have thousands of season ticket members who haven’t missed a game in four decades, and it sucks,” Rovak said. The reality of the situation is that if chosen, this isn’t really a golden ticket. Rovak said he and his team are trying to be as honest as possible with game-attending fans about what their expectation could be if chosen to attend games. There’s a certain responsibility a fan has to keep others safe, as well. “Coming to a football game this year — in September — is going to be very different,” Rovak said. “It’s going to be: You have a mask, nobody is sitting next to you, we are not going to encourage those social spaces, there’s not going to be a big pregame show, there isn’t going to be access on the field. You’re going to have to come, and you’re going to have to really like football. … To some people, that’s awesome. To other people, like my wife, it’s not.” From a business model standpoint, Rovak believes even with the unfortunate short-term effects of the pandemic that the long term plans won’t be much impacted and that every decision made was with the fans in mind. He hopes that comes across. “This should set us up to be in a really good place in 2021,” he said. “Listen, none of us want to deal with limiting capacity in 2020; we much prefer selling out the full venue, but at the same time it allows us to focus on the servicing of our fans now but also I think having a long-term retention because we expect to get a pent up demand for next year.”
  23. https://theathletic.com/1862904/2020/06/09/schultz-matt-ryan-on-social-justice-colin-kaepernick-and-a-strange-offseason/ These past several weeks of sports’ virtual reality, from team meetings to news conferences, reached Matt Ryan’s home Tuesday. The Falcons’ quarterback met with Atlanta media members Tuesday via his son’s iPad mini. It wouldn’t seem like an ideal backdrop for Ryan to open up, but he had a number of interesting comments, including what moved him to start a GoFundMe page to support the black community (he donated $500,000, and the fund has surpassed $1 million); his thoughts on police brutality and regrets about not paying more attention to issues in the past, Colin Kaepernick, the Falcons’ future and even a joke about the possibility of fake crowd noise being pumped into empty stadiums next season. Ryan is the most recent high-profile white athlete to step up in a major way. The interview lasted 40 minutes. Some comments have been edited for redundancy and grouped by subject. Take it all in. There’s some good stuff here. On his social action effort, police brutality and self-reflection On his GoFundMe account surpassing $1 million: “I’m obviously really excited about the response the last four or five days. I’m overwhelmed by everyone’s generosity and commitment to wanting to make change. My hope is to make a real impact on the city of Atlanta and this community and make a start at improving the current climate and the current situation. There’s a lot that needs to be done.” His role as a team leader, as it relates to social justice issues: “The biggest thing is encouraging everybody to talk and have discussions about their feelings and to listen. It’s like anything in life. When issues come up, it’s better to get them out in the open and discuss and go through why certain people are feeling a certain way. That to me as a leader would be the thing I would encourage. Get people together, open the forum for discussion and encourage people to listen to people and to be empathetic and learn from others’ experiences.” Dan Quinn said he felt his past actions in social action have felt “hollow,” compared to today. Have you also felt a greater need for pushing the dialogue forward? “I absolutely feel that way. Part of responding now is acknowledging that what I’ve done to this point hasn’t been good enough. I can’t really change what I’ve done, and I do wish I would’ve done more. But I can change, and I can be better moving forward. That’s more of where my mindset has gone to — to not just sit on the sidelines and silently have people’s backs. The time has come where silence isn’t good enough. That’s what I’m hoping to do, hoping to have an impact, moving forward.” Have there been any discussions with teammates over kneeling before games? “That hasn’t come up. I expect to see that, for sure, in different ways throughout the season. Most of the discussions have been about what is going on right now, talking about the images, the protests, the police brutality. That’s really where our concentration and effort has been. As we get closer to the season and that opportunity comes up, it’s going to be about unity within our team and creating an open forum for teammates.” On what tangible changes he wants to see: “That’s been an ongoing discussion with a number of people. One of the things I’ve learned is I like to surround myself with people smarter than I am and are more informed on situations than myself, and that’s been the process the last couple of days. I have some meetings set up with people who are more informed on where you can get the most impact.” On where he would like money to go: “One of the things that has come up with teammates and friends is police brutality. I’m certainly looking into ways that you can address that and having discussions with people who know more about it than I do.” On his comfort level wading into current issues: “Whether it’s positive or negative reactions to what you’re doing, if you believe it’s the right thing to do, that’s what matters. I believe this is the right thing to do, and I stand with my teammates and with my friends.” On a specific moment that drove him in this direction: “The George Floyd video — that was incredibly tough to watch. It’s watching that, it’s a number of different things that have come up in the last few months, it’s having talked with guys about this for the better part of a decade. It’s just a culmination of all of it. And just being in a virtual setting and listening to guys talk. For whatever reason, it just felt like the right time. It was time to do something different because what I was doing wasn’t good enough.” On the Falcons’ virtual meeting with Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms: “The mayor was unbelievable. Listening to her and her reaction on all this has been admirable. She’s certainly somebody moving forward I’d love to have conversations with her about, where impact can best be made and things we can do to improve the climate here in Atlanta.” On impactful conversations with teammates: “What has opened my eyes is how many guys have had such similar situations come up, in terms of racial profiling, and how uncomfortable it is listening to them, how uncomfortable it was for them. There have been so many guys who have had the exact same treatment. More than anything, that’s the thing that has hit home for me.” Colin Kaepernick On whether he should be on an NFL roster and the league’s treatment of the quarterback: “Part of the comment that was made by the league the other day is they’ve made mistakes in treating this and how they’ve handled peaceful protests and players voicing their opinions. I think they recognize they’ve made mistakes there. As far as Colin being back in the league, he should have every opportunity to. He created awareness. It’s taken some time, but people are becoming more active in terms of their response to it. From that standpoint, his protest is being heard at this point. It might’ve taken too long. But he should have every opportunity to have a job and a spot in this league.” On it taking four years for more players to speak up about Kaepernick: “I think finally we’ve gotten to a point of enough is enough. I wish it would’ve been sooner. I wish awareness collectively and speaking out would’ve been sooner. I’m just happy we’re in a space now where we can begin to make some changes and to push this in a direction that improves the lives of our friends and teammates and people within our community.” On football, including no mini-camps, Gurley and Koetter On his workouts with Todd Gurley and Hayden Hurst: “I’m excited about both of them. I’ve probably been able to work with Hayden a little more than Todd. I’ve been incredibly impressed with Hayden’s work ethic. He has great speed, great athleticism. He wants to be a great player. The effort, the attitude all that stuff is there. He’s gotten to know some of our teammates, which is a great thing. I spent some time with (Gurley) in California and was able to spend a couple of weeks getting to know him a little better, getting a feel for him as an athlete. He’s extremely versatile out of the backfield. He looked great. He looked healthy and ready to go. The thing that struck me the most though was how smart of a player he is and his ability to retain information and to not have to circle back on things the next day. If I told him once how we were trying to work something or route concept or what we were expecting (from) him, he doesn’t forget it. So I’m impressed with both those guys.” On the impact of not having OTAs or mini-camps: “I feel really good. I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of our guys, specifically individually, early on, practicing social distancing, making sure groups were not too big. I feel like there’s an advantage to the intimacy of working with just one guy at a time and for us to be able to spend an hour-and-a-half or two hours together and go through things in a methodical and deliberate way. In certain ways, maybe we’re ahead. When you’re in the normal structure of the offseason, there are time constraints. So there are positives. The one area where we’re probably behind is on the field in terms of work with our units together. That’s going to be the same for everybody.” On whether, given this offseason, having more veterans benefits Falcons: “I think it does. There are not a lot of guys who have to learn a new system. There’s a sense of familiarity with the coaching staff, with the playbook, player-to-player. All of those things are a positive for us.” On differences working with offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter in 2019 as opposed to previous seasons: “It’s a completely different system in terms of terminology from the first time we worked together. In terms of knowing what to expect from each other, having worked together before we were in sync. I feel like he’s much more comfortable in this system in Year 2, just having a feel for the terminology, why we’re doing certain things. It feels like to me he’s a lot further along and feels comfortable with it.” On what the 2020 season will look like and if he would be comfortable playing in full stadiums: “I have no idea how it’s going to look. I’m sure it’ll be different from any other I’ve been a part of. As far as playing in front of full-capacity stadiums, you have to trust people who are better informed of making those decisions than I would be. If they say we’re healthy and we have a good process set up, I have to trust (them). I’ll trust the people who are experts.” On possibly playing in empty stadiums with fake crowd noise: “I’m not sure our organization should be talking about pumping in crowd noise. I think we had a small issue with that a little while ago. But whatever they want to do with me, I’ll be ready to go.” (The Falcons forfeited a fifth-round 2016 draft pick and were fined $350,000 for pumping in fake crowd noise at home games in 2013 and 2014.) On being in the same division with Tom Brady: “Yeah. It’s like, ‘Man, really?’ The NFC South. It’s going to be a tough division. Tom’s a great player. Any time you add a guy who’s won that many championships, that many games, you know he’s going to be tough to beat. It’s about us, though. We have to have ourselves ready to go because I have to believe we’re right there with all of those teams. They have to deal with us, as well.”
  24. https://theathletic.com/1836596/2020/05/26/its-a-smart-group-while-young-falcons-dbs-are-confident-heading-into-2020/ In what has been a unique NFL offseason, players mostly have been on their own when it comes to staying in shape and staying up to date with the playbook. A few Falcons teammates wanted to make sure they were up to speed with everything during this time when no players or coaches, outside of those receiving rehab and treatment, are allowed at the team facility. Therefore, a group of receivers and defensive backs organized some practice time against one another in the open air of some local parks, back when parks initially were open and after re-opening from a temporary closure due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Third-year cornerback Isaiah Oliver has been among those Falcons teammates frequenting a park or vacant field to log some practice time absent of coaches. With cornerback Desmond Trufant leaving in free agency, this will be a young cornerback group returning, with Oliver, just three years removed from when he was selected in the second round of the 2018 draft, the oldest of the projected top three at the position. Oliver said the key this offseason has been to work his upper body and lower body in sync. That was an area of improvement for Oliver during the final eight games of the 2019 season, and that will continue to be an emphasis so that his progression can continue upward. “The biggest thing was connecting hands and feet at the line of scrimmage, in press technique and things like that,” Oliver said. “I’ve been working on that. I’ve been able to get out to some fields, in limited time, obviously. On a couple of days I’ve been able to get with other guys and some receivers to work the techniques and things like that. I’ve definitely been doing that the last couple of weeks.” Defensive backs working out with Oliver have been Damontae Kazee, Jordan Miller and Chris Cooper. Receivers who have been competing in one-on-one and pass skeleton simulations with the defenders have been Calvin Ridley, Russell Gage, Olamide Zaccheaus, Christian Blake and Devin Gray. Without the ability to attend practice, there hasn’t been much else for any of the Falcons’ players to do besides work out at home or at a local gym if one has opened up near their residence. For the teammates who stayed in the Atlanta area this offseason, they’re trying to find any way to ensure they’re ready when the time comes to report to the team facility. “We know what we all have to work on individually,” Oliver said. “But it’s kind of different when there are no coaches or no real practice structure to it. And the competitive aspect, there are some competitive juices that come out of it, as you would expect. We’re all there to compete, and we all expect to win every rep that we do. But it’s still within staying safe and staying healthy. We’re not going to hurt each other. I think we’re capable of doing that, so it’s good work.” With Atlanta deciding to release Trufant, the cornerback position will be one to keep a close eye on during the preseason. As it stands, Oliver, Kendall Sheffield and rookie A.J. Terrell are the projected starters. The only cornerback on the roster who is older than 27 is Blidi Wreh-Wilson, 30, who seemingly would be the first off the bench. Given the fact that Oliver is 26, Terrell is 24 and Sheffield is 23, this is a group that certainly has trended younger with Atlanta’s decision to release Trufant. “It is a young group, but I feel it’s a smart group,” Oliver said. “Even guys like Sheffield and Jordan Miller, guys who are at the level of understanding the defense very well, just having only been in the system for one year. Losing a guy like ’Tru, a guy who’s been playing in the NFL for (the past seven years) and has been playing at a high level consistently the whole time is definitely going to change some things. But I definitely like the group that we have.” While the top three cornerbacks are all but set, how they are used in Atlanta’s defensive packages remains to be seen. In 2019, Sheffield concluded the season manning a starting spot opposite Trufant. Replacing Trufant in the base package could either be Oliver or Terrell. “I’d say personally I feel like I’m going to come in and make an impact and just make my presence known,” Terrell said. “I’ve already got a winning gene inside me and being able to show that to the coaches and join the brotherhood and just make things what it’s supposed to be. Make it great.” Thus far, Oliver said he has been impressed with Terrell during virtual team meetings. “Obviously, we haven’t been able to practice with A.J., but being in meetings with him, he’s a guy who is eager to learn, he’s smart, and it seems he can understand the defense really well,” Oliver said. In nickel packages last season, the Falcons had Sheffield to cover the slot, which could be a likely scenario once again. Although Oliver only has seen time as an outside cornerback, head coach Dan Quinn has mentioned Oliver can defend the slot if needed. At the same time, with a healthy allotment of safeties, Atlanta could opt to play more of the big nickel package, which would put three safeties on the field at the same, with one of those safeties — more than likely Ricardo Allen — playing the nickel spot. In 2019, the Falcons finished 22nd in the NFL, allowing 244.9 passing yards allowed per game. During the final eight games of the season, however, Atlanta ranked 15th, dropping that average to 228.6. In addition, 10 of Atlanta’s 12 interceptions came during those final eight games. The hope is that the secondary, as the entire defense, will be able to carry over the lessons learned from last season’s poor start and keep history from repeating itself. When Raheem Morris moved from receivers coach to defensive backs coach, a big change occurred. Even with Morris moving to defensive coordinator, it’s likely he will remain involved with the defensive backs. “The biggest thing was (Morris) really wanted us to do what we felt like we were really good at doing,” Oliver said. “Whether that be a certain technique or playing receivers a certain way, he kind of wanted us to feel comfortable in whatever it is we were doing, and then work on that one thing. He didn’t want everyone to do the same things. We’re all different types of players.” Said Allen: “We were pushing for greatness, but we were pushing more for statistics than just playing like I know how we could have been played. When (Morris) moved over, him being able to help us as much as he can, telling us exactly what the offense is trying to do against us and teaching us because he was over there for so long, exactly what wide receivers and quarterbacks were trying to do against us.” The Falcons hired longtime NFL secondary coach Joe Whitt Jr. to take over the defensive backs. When Whitt went over last year’s Falcons tape, he noticed the communication errors that plagued the group in the early going. He said he doesn’t want that to happen under his watch. “I coach a certain way. I’m very demanding,” Whitt said. “I want to make sure that when we go out there we’re giving ourselves the best chance to win. We don’t need communication errors. It’s too hard to win in this league so we don’t want to beat ourselves.”
  25. https://theathletic.com/1814404/2020/05/14/dirk-koetter-we-definitely-need-to-run-the-ball-better-than-we-did-last-year/ File this one in the "No Sh*t Sherlock" column.... Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter offered a blunt assessment of the Falcons’ ground game. “We definitely need to run the ball better than we did last year,” he said. Atlanta finished the 2019 season ranked 30th in the NFL with an average of 85.1 rushing yards per game. A couple of factors worked against the Falcons throughout the season. During the first eight games, Atlanta found itself trailing by two scores or more seven times. That forced the Falcons to abandon the run much earlier than they would have liked. And when Atlanta did try to run the ball, it couldn’t churn out the kind of yards per carry it needed to be a true threat. In Atlanta’s first eight games, it averaged only 68.5 rushing yards per outing, which ranked 29th. While that number did improve to 101.6 rushing yards per game during the final eight games, Atlanta still finished in the bottom half of the league in this category for the second consecutive season. While the Falcons aren’t able to work with any players during what Koetter called “the most unique offseason in NFL history,” the overall objective will be to better establish a running game in 2020. An effective run game opens up the pass, particularly with play-action, which is when Atlanta feels its most dangerous on offense. “Your run game sets up the play-action game,” Koetter said. “It never fails every year when you go back and look at the cut-ups, the play-action game is where the explosive plays come. I think 30 percent of our play-action were explosive plays. Your play-action is going to be better if you’re running it better. We have to run the football more efficiently. We just have to do a better job there. It takes all 11 guys. We have to coach it better; we have to execute it better.” Changing up their personnel a bit, the Falcons parted ways with running back Devonta Freeman and brought in Todd Gurley, a two-time All-Pro running back who does have a lingering knee issue. Although he played in 15 of 16 games for the Los Angeles Rams in 2019, Gurley averaged 17 touches (14.9 rushes, 2.1 receptions) per game, which was a career low in a single season. At the same time, 17 touches might be what the Falcons envision for Gurley. A year ago, Freeman averaged 17.3 touches (13.1 rushes, 4.2 receptions) per game. In the majority of head coach Dan Quinn’s seasons with Atlanta, he has favored a committee approach at running back. From 2015-18, Tevin Coleman shared time with Freeman. In 2019, Ito Smith was Freeman’s backup before a season-ending injury put Brian Hill in that role. With Gurley replacing Freeman as Atlanta’s lead back, this philosophy is likely to remain. While the team will need to manage Gurley’s knee on a weekly basis, he wasn’t expected to get an average of more than 20 touches in a 16-game season. In addition, the Falcons are protected contractually if Gurley is unable to pass a physical once he is able to travel to the team facility. “Todd is only 25 years old, and he’s had two seasons where he was arguably the best running back in football,” Koetter said. “You’re just talking about different degrees. When he’s at his best, he’s got speed, he’s got power, he can break tackles, he’s elusive, he can catch the ball out of the backfield. We’ve all seen what he can do. His accolades speak for themselves. We just have to see how healthy he is and how consistently he can do it. He can still do it, it’s just a matter of how often can he do it?” Koetter added that he has a number of carries per game in mind for both Gurley and the rushing offense. He didn’t want to reveal that because, with at least a little jest, “(The media) will bring it up every week.” Last season, the Falcons tied for 29th with an average of 22.6 rushes per game. With better execution and without having to play catch-up early in games, Koetter hopes he will be able to call more runs in 2020. As it pertains to Gurley, Koetter said the Falcons and Rams are similar in philosophy and terminology, which should make Gurley’s addition seamless. If the team does keep Gurley around 17 touches per game — including 15 as a runner — that should open up some opportunities for the other backs, especially if the Falcons are truly committed to increasing its rushing volume. “I’m a big believer that it’s not just about one person running all of the runs, of course,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “We’re a big mix-up team. We think that’s a very important part of making sure that we rotate our guys through there. They all come to the table with different positives and different traits, of course, and I would not — I’m a big believer in making sure that you have the mix.” Behind Gurley, the Falcons either will opt for Smith or Hill to be the No. 2 back. Smith was the team’s No. 2 back a year ago until a neck injury ended his season after only seven games. Hill stepped in as Freeman’s backup after Smith’s injury and earned two starts. This preseason, Qadree Ollison, entering his second NFL season, also will get a shot at a rotational spot, as could undrafted free agent Mikey Daniel. Both Smith and Hill averaged more than 4 yards per carry with Smith tying Freeman with a team-high long of 28 yards. “To their credit, they want more. They want bigger roles,” Koetter said. “That’s what they should do is come in and compete for those bigger roles. Ito was playing well up until the time he got hurt. Like anything else, it’s a work in progress. When the guys get back we’ll figure it out.” Quinn and Dimitroff felt confident enough in Smith and Hill to the point that they didn’t feel like they needed to take another running back in the draft. “When you have a position like that and you’re just wanting those guys to go fight for it and you really believe in them like we do, you want to give them the benefit of the doubt,” Quinn said. “They’re pushing, they’re digging, they’re grinding for it, so you’re always looking like you do at every position. That’s part of the role. But we have a lot of belief in that group for sure.” While Gurley’s touch count went down last season, Koetter pointed to games Gurley had against the Carolina Panthers and the Chicago Bears as ones that showed he still can play at an elite level in the NFL. And Koetter also pointed out that there is no way of knowing what all went into the Rams’ subpar season running the ball. As Gurley drew a lot of attention due to his decreased numbers, it wasn’t like his fellow running backs were succeeding much. Darrell Henderson (3.8 yards per carry) and Malcolm Brown (3.7) also struggled behind a Rams’ offensive line that was unable to generate much in the run game. If Atlanta’s offensive line can offer improved blocking for Gurley, perhaps Gurley will return to the form he previously has displayed. But Koetter, like every other Falcons employee, will be forced to wait a while longer before getting the chance to see Gurley up close. “We’ll find out his health after he gets here,” Koetter said. “He’s saying all the right things. I just talked to him the other day. I know he’s excited. I know the fans are excited, all the Georgia Bulldog fans are excited to get him here. We’ll just see. You can’t deny his talent and what he’s already done in this league. The question is his health and we’ll just have to see.”
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