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  1. Whatever your feelings were about Steve Sarkisian prior to Sunday, you have to admit this: He called a really good game in the Falcons’ 31-24 win over the Panthers. The Falcons moved the ball at will against a defense that stifled Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott to 69 rushing yards the week prior. Atlanta totaled 442 yards, rushed for 170 of those and converted four red-zone trips into four touchdowns. This was the kind of performance many expected in the Falcons’ opener against Philadelphia, but that didn’t happen. Sarkisian and company, however, regrouped and bounced back with a spectacular showing. Of the 60 official plays Atlanta had, only one stood out as a negative call — the wildcat play with Mohamed Sanu at quarterback. And who knows, if Luke Kuechly doesn’t blow up the play half-a-second after the snap, maybe it works. But it’s understandable to be upset at a call like that on an opening drive when the offense was moving the ball. That stated, if you can’t find anything close to absolute fault with an offensive coordinator on 59 of 60 plays, that’s a really good performance. Both quarterback Matt Ryan and left tackle Jake Matthews were happy to see Sarkisian respond from the criticism with a game plan the Falcons’ offense was able to execute against what should be a good defense. Matthews was asked if there is anything reporters, fans and average observers (and maybe the question should have had former Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner thrown in there, too) are missing when it comes to Sarkisian as a play-caller. “Honestly, there are 11 guys who need to make a play,” Matthews said. “Sometimes one thing goes wrong, and it looks like it’s the end of the world. The beauty of it is we bounced back this week and put together a good plan. He did a really good job, and we did a really good job on offense for the most part. I think he’s a good play-caller, and I’m happy to have him on our team.” Based on the film at Philadelphia, it is fair to say there was a lot of shared blame as to why things went wrong. While there some questionable play calls in that game, there were also some good calls that Atlanta didn’t capitalize on. As for the win over Carolina, there will probably be plenty of shared credit as for why the offense was able to produce the way it did. As for Sarkisian’s mentality since the Eagles game, Matthews said he could tell Sarkisian wanted to bounce back in a big way against the Panthers. “He’s always bringing juice,” Matthews said. “His mindset is attack, attack, attack. Use the weapons we have and wear down defenses. We did that and had good moments of that (Sunday).” While Sarkisian and the offense will still need more games to produce a true trend, here are five things we learned from Atlanta’s win over Carolina: Riley understands he has ‘got to finish’ Duke Riley must have known he would be asked about D.J. Moore’s fourth-quarter touchdown. Asked a generic question about his performance, Riley went out of his way to bring up his missed tackle. Riley was filling in at Mike linebacker for Deion Jones, who is out for the foreseeable future with a foot injury. Riley was in coverage in the middle of the field but was unable to bring down Moore. Riley was later asked a follow question up on the play, which he expounded on with a little more detail. “I’ve just got to finish. I can’t let the fatigue get to me,” Riley said. “I’ve got to make that play. One play can’t determine who I am, though. I go hard every snap, but of course, I have to finish that during crunch time. Nine times out of 10 I make that play.” While the Atlanta offense was spectacular, Carolina’s did produce a ton of positive plays. The Panthers totaled 439 yards with the Falcons without Jones and safety Keanu Neal. Most of that total, however, came in the second half with Carolina in catch-up mode after Atlanta held Carolina to 122 total yards in the first two quarters. Moore’s touchdown accounted for 51 of Carolina’s total, which was one of the few shot plays the Panthers were able to convert on. Riley is in his second year and was Atlanta’s best option at Will linebacker, when healthy, a year ago. He is now having to play Mike linebacker, which he cross-trained during the offseason at. That’s not an easy task for any young NFL player to do. While NFL players are expected to come along at a much faster rate than in previous decades, it is understandable for a second-year player to make his share of mistakes — especially when switching positions out of necessity this early. Given the circumstances, outside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell said Riley did a good job communicating the plays to the rest of the defense as a Mike linebacker. Campbell also went out of his way to defend Riley, who has received his share of criticism dating back to last year. “I think it’s unfair criticism, and I feel some of it is him. He puts a lot of pressure on himself,” Campbell said. “I just tell him, ‘You can’t listen to what everybody says. If everybody could do it, they would. They can’t and you are. Worry about yourself and do what you do.’ ” Riley felt like he was able to settle in to the new position after the opening series. His presence in the middle will certainly be something to watch as the Falcons continue to adjust without having their two best defenders available in Jones and Neal. “After I got warmed up and in a rhythm, I felt I was communicating well,” Riley said. “I’ve got a long way to go though. It’s just a start. I’ve got a long way to go. I’m happy we got the W. My brothers fought hard.” No hiccups after offensive line injury During the previous week of practice, left guard Andy Levitre suffered an elbow injury, which popped up on the injury report Thursday. Cleared to play against Carolina, all seem to be OK. That is, until Levitre was forced to leave the game due to an elbow injury. Filling in for Levitre was Wes Schweitzer, who started every game last season for Atlanta at right guard. This past offseason, the Falcons signed Brandon Fusco, who beat out Schweitzer for the starting spot. Schweitzer is now Atlanta’s sixth offensive lineman and top swing option at both guard spots and center. With Levitre exiting the game early, Schweitzer stepped in and didn’t miss a beat. The Falcons were able to tally the bulk of their 170 rushing yards with Schweitzer in the game. He got a great push in the running game and pass-protected well. In a one-game sample size, the struggles he had last year did not present themselves. Falcons head coach Dan Quinn previously said that Schweitzer was among the players setting the standard in practice habits during the offseason. Schweitzer appeared to back that up with his performance. “Whether I’m the starter or the backup, it doesn’t really matter,” Schweitzer said. “I’m just trying to do my best.” Schweitzer is well-liked in the Falcons’ locker room. When Fusco beat him out, he mentioned how hard Schweitzer pushed him for the job. After the win Sunday, both Ryan and right tackle Ryan Schraeder mentioned how happy they were to see Schweitzer put forth a solid game. If this game, against a strong front four, is indicative of anything, the Falcons could be just fine if Schweitzer has to fill in for Levitre in the coming weeks. “I’m happy for Wes. He’s really gotten better since last year,” Schraeder said. “He’s always been improving. He can be a starter in this league. He’s stepping up, and we’ll see what happens with Andy. I feel like everyone is confident in what he can do.” Said Ryan, “I think he’s come a long way in the handful of years he’s been with us. The experience of starting and playing last year is going to help him moving forward, for sure. But we have a lot of confidence in him too. That was a competitive battle up front for those guys in who was going to start.” Falcons hope Kazee is available for next game With Neal out, the Falcons remain confident in Damontae Kazee to the point that they don’t want to add a starting option at safety. While Eric Reid remains a free-agent option, the Falcons have no interest in him at this time due to Kazee’s development. But Kazee anxiously will await whether he will be able to play Sunday against New Orleans after delivering a helmet-to-helmet hit on Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Kazee was ejected and undoubtedly will be fined for the hit. While no official word has been revealed, NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport reported that Kazee is not expected to be suspended. Safety Ricardo Allen explained Kazee’s thinking on the play, while also mentioning how he could have avoided the illegal hit. “Aw man, I kind of know where (Kazee’s) coming from on that one because Cam is such a big guy,” Allen said. “The first thing you probably think about is, ‘Cut him down’ — big trees, you have to cut them down. And I think he had already committed to the tackle when Cam slid, so it was kind of like in the midst of a play. “You always try to teach players to get over the top of quarterbacks, and you don’t really want to take that blow. You can tell he didn’t mean to do it, but it was in the middle of him already engaging into his contact and then Cam slid at the last minute.” With Kazee ejected, Jordan Richards, the recently acquired safety from New England, entered the game and looked like a player still growing accustomed to Atlanta’s defensive scheme. Richards finished the game with four tackles and did get some praise from Quinn and his teammates. “He’s really put in the time and the effort over the last 10 days to make sure he would be really accountable,” Quinn said. “As you’re getting to know him, he’s a really squared away sharp dude who wants to get it right, and we’ll continue working with him.” Falcons will keep getting Ridley involved A week after catching zero passes on two targets, rookie receiver Calvin Ridley put in the kind of game that showed why he was Atlanta’s first-round draft selection. Ridley caught four passes for 64 yards and a touchdown. The most telling play came on his touchdown, which saw Ridley as Ryan’s primary read. Ridley put forth a nice move at the line of scrimmage to win leverage on his slant route. Ryan delivered a good ball and Ridley scored a touchdown. “He ran a great route, really great patience versus man-to-man coverage, to be able to kind of reset his stem of the route and be able to separate at the top,” Ryan said.“That’s what he’s capable of doing, creating separation. I was proud and happy for Calvin. But beyond that, I thought he played really well for us (Sunday) in the return game and also catching the ball for us.” Ridley dazzled on a 22-yard reception in the second quarter, which saw the rookie take a crossing route across the field and past Carolina defenders. In total, Ryan was able to deliver the ball to eight different receiving targets, with Ridley (four), Coleman (four), Jones (five) and Austin Hooper (five) catching at least four balls apiece. “We spread the ball around really, really good,” Ridley said. “It looked just like practice.” ‘The Judge’ pounds the football The ground game’s star was obviously Tevin Coleman, who turned 16 carries into 107 yards. Coleman was elusive, powerful and speedy while running through some wide-open holes produced by Atlanta’s offensive line. But what turned out to be somewhat of a surprising revelation was rookie Ito Smith’s performance. Coleman was very much expected to be the workhorse against Carolina. But beginning with his first couple of carries, it was clear Smith, nicknamed “The Judge,” would very much be a formidable back in the offensive game plan. Smith’s highlight was a red-zone run that saw him land a spin move on Kuechly. Forcing Kuechly to miss, Smith then bounced off of Kuechly’s backside at the end of the spin and picked up some extra yards. Smith also had another run that saw him juke multiple defenders while he was still near the line of scrimmage. In the end, Smith totaled 46 yards on nine carries — good for an average of 5.1 yards per carry. As long as Devonta Freeman (knee) remains out, Smith could provide a great spell option in the run game. “Ito Smith, it was good to get him involved,” Quinn said. “You guys got your first chance to see him some as a runner, his change of direction and the change of pace that he can provide.”
  2. There are several ways to draw up the ideal way to have a successful season in the NFL. None of them look like this. Lose two defensive starters in the opener, one for the entire season and one for at least half of the season. Lose a starting running back. See your replacement safety ejected in the second game for such an obvious helmet-to-helmet hit that he may draw a suspension. See a starting a guard and defensive linemen go down to more injuries. This is the third paragraph, and I haven’t even referenced the red zone yet. “That’s just life,” Falcons safety Ricardo Allen said Sunday. “There’s never been an NFL depth chart that started the same and ended the same. No, you don’t want all of these injuries. But you preach effort, and you just go. We’re cool with being a bunch of ‘try-hards.’ Everything else takes care of itself.” Not always. But this week, yes. The Falcons weren’t brilliant against Carolina, but they won an important game, scars notwithstanding. They won 31-24 on the final spasm when a 31-yard desperation pass from Cam Newton was whiffed by defender De’Vondre Campbell in the end zone, and the ball then bounced off the arm of Panthers receiver D.J. Moore, then cornerback Robert Alford’s hand and then hit the ground as time expired. Exhale. It was the Falcons’ first win since their wild card win in Los Angeles on Jan. 6, considering they were 0-6 since (playoff loss to Philadelphia; four exhibitions; season opener). So not brilliant but borderline Mensa-like compared to the season opener. The Falcons’ offense was perfect in the red zone Sunday: four tries, four touchdowns. Steve Sarkisian is a god. The offensive line was dominant, keeping Matt Ryan clean and opening holes running backs Tevin Coleman (100 yards) and Ito Smith (46), with Devonta Freeman out with a knee injury that could sideline him for one or two more games. But the most important thing about this win was simply that the Falcons did not unravel Sunday. There certainly were opportunities to do so. Safety Damontae Kazee (replacing the injured Keanu Neal) being ejected early for an avoidable helmet-to-helmet hit on Cam Newton (who referenced it later as a “cheapshot”).The Falcons’ offense — coming off a miserable opening night and the red-zone hangover from a year ago — managed only three points in the first two possessions But the Falcons were impressive simply by enduring, and against a divisional opponent, and against the daunting possibility of starting 0-2. They started the game without Neal, Freeman and Deion Jones and they finished it without three more regulars — Kazee, guard Andy Levitre (elbow) and defensive end Derrick Shelby (groin). “I’ve played long enough to know that all games all shake out differently,” Ryan said. “Some start great and don’t finish great; some don’t start great and then finish really well. You just have to keep your head down and keep playing.” When asked, given all of the media and fan criticism, if he felt more pressure than usual during the week, Ryan said, “They’re all tough after you lose. How you process that (and) how you put it aside and work on your craft, to me, that determines the mindset of your team. Our mindset is really good. We did a good job of that this week.” Great seasons can come together simply from surviving ugly stretches. The Falcons need to fix issues on the second and third levels of their defense. Linebacker Duke Riley still makes too many mistakes. Defensive back Jordan Richards, acquired from New England two weeks ago for a conditional draft pick, looked dreadful. But what’s that saying? Progress, not perfection. “A lot of guys fixed a lot of mistakes,” Ryan Schraeder said. And this from Grady Jarrett: “It was the first game of the season. I don’t know the last time anyone had an undefeated season.” Schraeder said head coach Dan Quinn and the staff did “a good job closing everything (distractions) out. It was actually really positive all week. I don’t recall anyone being down or negative.” Ryan wasn’t sacked once, and the Falcons rushed for 170 yards, averaging 5.3 per carry. The team also committed only two penalties, down from the 15 flags in Philadelphia. Ryan looked like a different species from the opener. He went only 21-for-43 with a 57.4 efficiency rating against the Eagles but completed 23-of-28 with a 116.1 rating against the Panthers. The offensive performance also affirmed what most rational people understand about what makes a successful game plan. Julio Jones does not need to be targeted for every pass in the red zone or the end zone. Calvin Ridley was far more involved this week and caught a touchdown, as did Austin Hooper. Hooper and Jones each had five catches, Ridley and Coleman had four. Progress, not perfection. With the Falcons leading 24-10, Desmond Trufant had a chance at an interception late in the third quarter but the ball bounced off his chest. That proved costly as Carolina subsequently drove to a touchdown. After missing the interception, Trufant dropped to the ground and did push-ups. “When we drop a ball in the secondary in practice, you’ve got to do 10 push-ups,” he said. “It’s self-discipline.” It was a teaching moment for a team that’s still a work in progress.
  3. The Falcons were still in Philadelphia, fresh off a crushing season-opening defeat. Eight hundred miles away in Atlanta, for those who follow their beloved team, it felt like the sky was falling. While Atlanta lost to the Eagles on a close game on the final play, there was more to be desired than the kind of performance reminiscent in losses of the previous year: failed red-zone opportunities, missed plays downfield, no running game to keep a defense honest. With that first game taking place on a Thursday, that meant it would be 10 days before the Falcons would play another game. That meant 10 days of being over-analyzed and scrutinized by a lot of people who, rightfully, expected more in the first week of the season. But before the team plane left the City of Brotherly Love, quarterback Matt Ryan told his team not to make too much of the loss. “Right when that game ended, the first thing he said was, ‘Hey, it’s a long season. I know this sucks we didn’t win, but we’ve got a really good team,’ ” left tackle Jake Matthews said. Translation: Nobody hit the panic button. Judging by a 31-24 win over Carolina on Sunday, the Atlanta offense didn’t panic one bit. And 10 days after the fact, Ryan engineered a performance that didn’t remotely resemble what transpired against the Eagles. The running game pounded the Panthers for 170 yards. Ryan was efficient throwing the ball. The offense kept the Panthers on their heels with balance (32 runs, 28 passes). The Falcons scored four touchdowns on four trips to the red zone. It was the outing many expected in the opener. For Ryan, it was important to immediately remind his teammates about this being a long season once they left Lincoln Financial Field 10 days ago. “You want to share with the younger guys that they all count for one,” Ryan said. “No matter if (a loss) happens at the beginning of the year, later in the year, you have to keep working and preparing really well to give you an opportunity to play well week in and week out.” Ryan’s first two games this season showed him at, perhaps, his worst and best. Against the Eagles, he was off target a bunch, completing only 48.8 percent of his passes for a 57.4 quarterback rating. He ended the game averaging only 4.8 yards per pass. Against the Panthers, Ryan displayed great accuracy, completing 82.1 percent of his throws for a 116.1 passer rating. His yards-per-pass average jumped to 9.7. He finished 23-of-28 throwing for 272 yards and an interception. Ryan’s pick came because he took a hit just as he released a deep ball to Julio Jones. Had Ryan not been hit, that might have been a jump ball opportunity for Jones in the end zone with one defender covering him. Ryan was masterful against the Panthers’ zone. He completed passes to eight different players. Four of those receiving options caught four or more passes. It was evident to those who know him best that Ryan wasn’t going to let the opening loss lead into another. “He’s always positive. He never once looked upset about last week,” right tackle Ryan Schraeder said. “I think everyone else was the same way. You’ve got to move on and learn from your mistakes. At this point of his career, he’s a solid professional. He knows what to do.” To top it off, Ryan displayed a fearless side in the divisional win. With the Falcons leading by a touchdown in the fourth quarter, Ryan and the offense faced a third-and-5 at the Carolina 8-yard line. Ryan scrambled to his left and had tight end Austin Hooper open briefly, although he might not have had enough for the first down. Ryan, instead, decided to run the ball himself. As he crossed the first-down marker, only 3 yards remained until the end zone. Ryan made the decision to cut to his right and jump near the goal line. He avoided one tackle and bounced off another before contorting his body in for six points. “I felt like something was below my feet and figured I’d go up and protect the ball the best I could,” Ryan said. “I guess it was a good decision.” Ryan added a 1-yard quarterback sneak for a touchdown earlier in the game, which gave him two rushing scores for the first time in his NFL career. For a player who has averaged 2.9 yards per carry since 2008, scoring one touchdown in a game isn’t something that happens frequently. “I can’t remember the last time I had two touchdown runs,” Ryan said. A quick Google search helped solve this mystery. The last time Ryan scored two rushing touchdowns in a meaningful game came on Nov. 12, 2005, when the then-college sophomore punched in two rushing touchdowns for Boston College against N.C. State. Considering a Ryan rushing touchdown doesn’t occur often, his teammates were thrilled with the tenacity he displayed. “I saw him run by me,” Matthews said. “Man, that guy’s going to do anything to make a play, and that’s what I love about him. He’s a great leader and a great player.” “That was cool. I was pumped about it,” Schraeder said. “Matt was relentless right there,” receiver Calvin Ridley said. Jones admitted being a bit scared when he saw Ryan take off. “I was like ‘Oh, no. Please, no,’ ” Jones said. “I was there just in case the ball came out. Great job by Matt, but it is what it is. He just had to go out there and make something happen.” Throughout his career, Ryan has built a reputation for being even-keeled, whether Atlanta wins or loses. The cliché of moving on from one game to the next is Ryan in a nutshell, even if he can become fiery in the heat of battle. But once one game is over, his focus turns to the next task, meaning the next opponent. “All week, he doesn’t have ups and downs,” Matthews said. “That’s the reason why he’s such a good player. He’s going to come out prepared, professional and ready to work. He’s going to give it everything he has. You love blocking for a guy like that.”
  4. Jason Butt 9-11 minutes Criticism has been mounting on Steve Sarkisian for quite some time. He took over what was a record-setting offense in 2016 and saw the numbers decline in 2017. While the Falcons still finished eighth overall in total offense a year ago, their red-zone efficiency took a hit, with the unit converting only 50 percent of its trips for touchdowns. That was followed by a season-opening loss to Philadelphia in a game that didn’t feature much change offensively in terms of output. The Falcons converted only one of their five red-zone trips for nine of the team’s 12 points. It’s one thing for fans to launch 240-character missiles at Sarkisian online. It’s another when former Falcons center Todd McClure chimes in, saying that Atlanta’s offense is too talented for “Pop Warner plays.” Sarkisian played it cool, as he always does, during his weekly meeting with the media. With sweat dripping from his face following practice Thursday, Sarkisian was asked about the criticism that comes with the territory of being an NFL offensive coordinator. “I chose this profession. I love what I get to do,” Sarkisian said. “I’ve had a life of awesome experiences in this sport. I’ve been through other things in my personal life that because somebody wants to type something on Twitter, if that affects me one way or the other, positive or negative, I’m a pretty fragile individual if that’s the case. I’m internally motivated and motivated for this team and the guys here.” That said, Sarkisian didn’t exactly let one specific criticism roll off his back. Like McClure, Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner weighed in on Atlanta’s season opener and had a harsh critique for Sarkisian’s offense on three consecutive calls before the final play of the game. Warner tweeted that the Falcons needed to beat the Eagles’ zone defense by sending two receivers to one area to overload it. If so, Warner believed, it would be an easy touchdown. Sarkisian was asked if this was a fair critique. “It was bracket coverage,” Sarkisian said. “They were doubling No. 3 on the right hand side and No. 2 on the left-hand side (the inside receivers closest to the line of scrimmage). It wasn’t zone defense. I’m sorry Kurt Warner, Coach.” Warner responded after a reporter tagged him in a tweet with Sarkisian’s quote. “Haha — I’ll be showing on Gameday morning this week!” Warner wrote. “You can call it a combo zone with man principals depending on who was running which route … but I will also show that it’s not all on Sark like many think!” A closer look from the Falcons-Eagles All-22 film does appear to be in Sarkisian’s favor. While the Falcons went vertical from 10 yards out, the Eagles’ defenders manned up the two outside receivers on the right and the one outside receiver on the left. The inside receivers were doubled. It’s also worth noting that both Sarkisian and head coach Dan Quinn said the decision to run five verticals three consecutive times was due to having no timeouts and needing each pass to reach the end zone. Regardless of who is correct, Sarkisian is losing the battle in the court of public opinion. And until the Falcons’ offense produces similarly to how it did two years ago, it probably won’t matter what’s factually right or wrong in cases like this. Evaluating a call when it doesn’t work In meeting with Sarkisian on Thursday, the red zone was, as expected, a major topic of discussion. Sarkisian started with the first trip to the red zone, which saw the Falcons get inside the Eagles’ 1-yard line before coming away with no points. On first down, Devonte Freeman moved the ball from the 6 to the 1. On second down, Sarkisian chalked it up to a “good football play” from Eagles defensive lineman Fletcher Cox. Third down was when the Falcons had their best opportunity. Atlanta lined up in a goal-line set before motioning tight ends Austin Hooper and Eric Saubert wide. Matt Ryan then went into the shotgun with fullback Ricky Ortiz and moved Freeman to the slot. From here, Freeman was matched up in man coverage against Eagles linebacker Nathan Gerry and beat him off the snap. Ryan, however, missed the throw. “The third-down call, we got the matchup we wanted with (Freeman) on the backer,” Sarkisian said. “It didn’t play out the way we would have liked.” On fourth down, Sarkisian said the Eagles’ defensive line beat Atlanta up front. “At some point, you’ve got to send a little bit of a message to your own team, as well, that you have faith in them in those situations,” Sarkisian said. “They won at the point of attack; they made the stop. But it was early in the game. We knew we’d have more opportunities. We felt we had a great plan in the game and we’d have more opportunities, which we did have. Unfortunately, we didn’t take advantage of all of those when we got them.” Such is the life of a play-caller. When the calls produce, coaches are celebrated. When they don’t, the call is immediately questioned. Quinn said plenty of postgame evaluation goes into this topic, whether a call was still a good call if it fails on the field. At least publicly, Quinn backed Sarkisian for his play-calling against the Eagles. “I think when you talk about a game you evaluate the whole thing,” Quinn said. “Where did we do well and what needs sharpening? For sure, we didn’t score in the red zone like we’re capable of. By no means was I satisfied with scoring. But sometimes the play selection was the right one. We didn’t nail it in terms of our execution of that. Other times it can be the opposite, where the (defender) played well and covered it, too.” Said Sarkisian, “Sometimes things don’t play out the way you would have liked. That doesn’t mean the play call wasn’t something you didn’t like in that situation. You just try to bank those history lessons as they come.” One call Sarkisian said he would do over came with just more than three minutes to go in the second quarter. Coming out of a timeout, which was called to fix Ryan’s knee brace, Sarkisian called a “shot play” on second-and-8. The goal was to get Mohamed Sanu the ball deep for a touchdown. The play did not convert, and Atlanta was forced into a third-and-8. “If I could go back (I’d), run the football in that situation and maybe give us a more manageable third down — if not have picked up the first down on the second down instead of taking a shot at the end zone,” Sarkisian said. Julio talks red zone Throughout the week, Falcons players have remained upbeat about improving in the red zone. Receiver Julio Jones, however, indicated that the offense may want to adjust its mental approach inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. “We just have to make plays and keep practicing it,” Jones said. “We have to make plays when they present themselves down in the red zone. And then don’t let it be too big for us as an offense. We’re a great offense. We don’t need to try to go down there and make up things. We’re talented enough to make plays down there and score touchdowns.” Asked if the Falcons might have made too much mentally in each of their red-zone trips against the Eagles, Jones admitted he wasn’t sure. “I don’t know. We just need to line up and do what we do,” Jones said. “We can’t do what expectations from others and things like that. We already have high expectations of ourselves.” Injury report A loud voice boomed in the Falcons’ locker room, directed toward a small group of writers and photographers in the middle of it. “Hey media, I’m talking!” All eyes turned suddenly to Freeman, who shouted this with a grin on his face. No, he wasn’t actually going to talk. The Falcons generally don’t allow players who miss practice to speak with the media. And Freeman did miss his second consecutive practice with a sore knee. This puts his status for the team’s game Sunday against Carolina in further jeopardy. If Freeman is unable to play, Tevin Coleman will be in line for lead back duties. Joining Freeman on the did not participate list Thursday were receiver Russell Gage (knee) and offensive lineman Ben Garland (calf). Left guard Andy Levitre (elbow) was added to the injury report as a limited participant. Cornerbacks Brian Poole (ankle) and Isaiah Oliver (ankle) were also limited. Hooper (knee) was upgraded to full participation Thursday. Also fully participating in practice were receiver Marvin Hall (ankle), long-snapper Josh Harris (hip), Ortiz (neck) and cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson (shoulder).
  5. When an NFL team loses, oftentimes the focus the next week turns to what went wrong. That has been the case for the Falcons, who suffered a tough 18-12 defeat Sept. 13 at Philadelphia. All week, the attention has been placed on how Atlanta can fix its red-zone issues — it scored one touchdown in five trips against the Eagles — that carried over from last year. Not much of the attention has been on the upcoming game Sunday against Carolina, a divisional meeting that could help dictate the direction of this season. While there have been teams that have advanced to the playoffs after starting 0-2, it is statistically difficult to do so. Since 2007, only 10 percent of teams that began 0-2 have reached the playoffs. The game against Carolina isn’t of the make-or-break variety, but it certainly is important from a probability sense. With that in mind, here are five aspects of the Falcons-Panthers game to pay attention to when the teams meet at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. How injuries affect this game This almost feels like a game of the last man standing. For the Falcons, Keanu Neal (torn ACL) is out for the year, and Deion Jones (foot surgery) is out for the foreseeable future. Running back Devonta Freeman (knee) will not play after missing the full week of practice. The Panthers are in a similar boat, with tackles Matt Kalil (knee) and Darryl Williams (knee) on injured reserve. In addition, Panthers tight end Greg Olsen (foot), receiver/returner Damiere Byrd (knee) and guard Trai Turner (concussion) out for the game Sunday. While no one wishes for anyone to be hurt, the Falcons do have an opportunity to get some four-man pressure on Carolina’s depleted offensive line. While some shuffling is going on at linebacker and defensive back, Atlanta’s defensive line will be full-go. And it gets to do so without three of Carolina’s planned 2018 starters. The Panthers brought in Chris Clark off the street, and he’ll now be tasked with protecting Cam Newton from Takk McKinley and Vic Beasley. Grady Jarrett, Terrell McClain and Jack Crawford also have advantages along the interior, it would seem. Containing Cam Then again, when a team has a quarterback like Newton, there’s a lot it can do to keep a defense honest. Panthers offensive coordinator Norv Turner stated that he wants Newton be a runner and doesn’t want to keep him confined in the pocket. Newton is at his best when he extends plays and hits on his designed runs. That’s what the Falcons will be concerned about Sunday. They can’t allow Newton to run free on the design plays. If anything, they need to force him into a pocket-passing role while applying the necessary pressure. When Atlanta and Carolina played in Charlotte a year ago, the Panthers won with Newton running for 86 yards and a touchdown. In Atlanta, the Falcons won by holding Newton to 11 carries for 59 yards, while picking him off three times. This is where not having Neal and Jones hurts the most. Duke Riley, Foye Oluokun and Damontae Kazee will need to be up to the task of keeping Newton from getting loose. “There are certain coverages that you definitely want to make sure that you do have somebody assigned to the quarterback,” Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said. “In other words, if people’s backs are turned, he could scramble for a long way without guys having vision on the quarterback, that would be a call that you would want to have.” Containing Christian On top of Newton, the Falcons have to worry about second-year running back Christian McCaffrey breaking big plays as both a runner and receiver. With Olsen sidelined, McCaffrey will be leaned on even more. And his ability to be a receiver out of the backfield will cause headaches for a lot of teams this season. In the Panthers’ season-opening 16-8 win over Dallas, McCaffrey totaled 95 yards (50 rushing, 45 receiving) on 16 touches (10 rushes, six receptions). The Panthers certainly will try to break some plays with McCaffrey in the passing game. He recorded five receptions in each of the two games Carolina played against Atlanta last year, but Quinn noted that McCaffrey has put together some good film between the tackles, too. “Christian has certainly showed not only is he effective outside when they split him out in the backfield; he runs all the runs,” Quinn said. “I was anxious to see would they use him in the way they could do all the runs, and you now see that. Where he’s now inside runs, outside, throw it to him. He’s a factor and had over 100 targets last year, so he’s definitely a big part of their offense.” Early down improvements Against the Eagles, the Falcons found themselves in nine third-and-8 or longer situations. A lot of that had to do with the Falcons’ inability to run the ball with consistency against Philadelphia, although that can be contributed to the Eagles’ stingy front four. The Falcons only were able to total 74 rushing yards. Without the threat of a run game, the Falcons found themselves in precarious situations on second and third downs. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said multiple reasons contributed to why the Falcons found themselves needing many yards on third down. “It’s not one thing; I think, it’s across the board,” Ryan said. “We need to be a little sharper in the pass game and when we get our play-action pass going, be a little bit sharper and come away with those explosive plays that jump-start a drive. When we get our opportunities in the run game, we’ve got to nail them. Across the board, we have to get better.” Running the ball has been difficult against the Panthers. Last year, the Falcons totaled 113 rushing yards combined in their two meetings. Last week against the Cowboys, the Panthers held star Ezekiel Elliott to 15 carries, 69 yards and a touchdown. “When you play good fronts, it’s hard to get the run game going, but you can find ways to do it because eventually those runs break,” Quinn said. “Sometimes the zero run goes for 10, and you have to keep digging and taking your shots at it. It’s a big part of what we do, our run game. We’ve got incredibly high standards for our run and how we do it and how we feature the backs. So that part certainly needs our work for sure. But more time and attention at it will certainly help too.” X-factors on both sides With Olsen sidelined, his targets go elsewhere. Everyone knows Newton wants to get the ball to McCaffrey and receiver Devin Funchess. With attention paid there, combined with a team that wants to run the ball, Carolina’s X-factor just might be receiver Torrey Smith in the deep game. Smith didn’t do much against the Cowboys as he caught one pass for 15 yards. But Smith’s speed makes him a dangerous downfield target. If Carolina is able to run the ball and hit some plays in the quick passing game, offensive coordinator Norv Turner could turn to Smith on a deep-shot play. He will be someone the Falcons need to remain cognizant of. “The downfield shots, when you have the speed to do that, you better stay back,” Quinn said. Sticking with the receiver position, the Falcons’ X-factor could be Calvin Ridley. Ridley’s NFL regular-season debut saw him come up with zero catches on two targets. But the Eagles decided to leave Julio Jones single covered and oftentimes wide open for most of the game. Therefore, Jones ate up the bulk of the looks in the passing game. “I wasn’t envisioning (Philadelphia) not doubling Julio all game until the last couple of snaps there,” Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said. The Panthers more than likely won’t go with the same game plan the Eagles went with, considering Jones is only two years removed from posting 300 yards against them in a single game. Ridley wasn’t drafted in the first round to not catch the ball and therefore could see many more opportunities Sunday. “He’s going to be a part of what we do as we move forward,” Ryan said. “He did some good things in the game the other night. The ball just didn’t find him because of what we were running. I think Julio had close to 20 targets with singled-up stuff. Two things. One, we’re going to continue to take our chances with Julio when he gets singled-up. Two, Calvin did a lot of nice things the other night. The ball is going to find him throughout the year and he’s going to do a great job for us.”
  6. Jay Glazer - The Athletic Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is clearly one of the best at what he does. All you have to do is look at his numbers to know he’s elite, and one of the most consistent quarterbacks in the NFL. But I don’t talk to Ryan because of his Pro Bowl numbers, nor his MVP-type accolades. I come to him because he and adversity have struck up quite the relationship. He’s a great guide to take us through the process of overcoming on-field difficulties; he’s a walking book on How To Compartmentalize. From dealing with the Falcons’ horrific Super Bowl collapse to the way they lost in the playoffs to the Eagles at the end of last season to losing the same way this past Thursday night against those very same Eagles, Ryan is … what’s the right word … a mensch. Unlike others who gruffly shy away when things go south, Ryan was willing to stand in the line of fire and truly take us inside the mind of a team leader and how he helps himself and others overcome the types of late-game hardships that would have made anyone but him and his Falcons cave. This is the Open Book of Matt Ryan. Let’s start with last week’s game and work backwards from there. You had a whole offseason and you still ended up in the same situation against the Eagles on Thursday’s opener that you were in your playoff loss to the Eagles last season. The moment Julio (Jones) got pushed out of bounds as time runs out, is it going through your head like, “how the **** do we possibly get right back here?” Not right away, because you’re thinking more about, specifically, the situations that we were in that moment. Clearly, when you start to get asked about it afterwards you’re like “holy cow, that did shake out really similar to how it did the year before!” You would have loved to have changed that outcome… You would have loved to have had thrown that touchdown, come away with the game-winning situation, but that’s not how sports work. That’s not how life works. You don’t automatically just pop up into the situation next time and do it right. Sometimes, it’s a struggle to get it, but I have that belief that we’re going to get this right. Does it cause you to fall into a rut? With the guys we have, the way that we practice, the way that we work, the way that we do things, in my experience with 10 years in this league, we are doing it the right way. Even though the result wasn’t there, the first opportunity that we got this season, I have that belief that it’s going to be there moving forward. It’s disappointing, right? It’s disappointing. You certainly hope you don’t fail at the first opportunity that you get this season. In the heat of the game, when you’re marching down the field with time running out, are you realizing this is exactly what was going on last year in the playoff game against the Eagles too. Same exact scenario. You know what? No. As crazy as that sounds, no. And you know this from your fight game, you are locked into what is in front of your face right now. What am I seeing right now? Where am I reacting to? Where am I going to go with the football? Right now, after what I see out there, how do I execute this play? That’s it honestly. That’s what you’re thinking in those spots. When you get back to the locker room and you’re flying home that night, yeah, that stuff pops into your head and you think about it, but not when you’re in it. When you’re in it you’re, at least for me, I was locked in to what we have to do right now, right here. How long does it take you to get over something like this? Was is easier or harder to get over the big losses earlier or later in your career. How do you compartmentalize? I’m better at it now, for sure. They sting, they sting, but you’re bull****ting yourself if you’re not moving past it and getting on to who we’re facing next. How are we going to be better next? What do I have to do to improve? If you’re sitting there just going, “man, that sucked that we didn’t come away with the outcome that we wanted, we didn’t make the play,” you can lose yourself in that. The tougher thing to do, the more productive thing to do, is to say “ok, what didn’t we do good enough? What can we improve on in practice this week? How can we do better this following week?” And concentrate on those things. Do you give yourself a certain amount of time to mourn? By the time we watch that film the following day — whether in the case of a night game, 14, 15 hours after playing that game, we’re watching the film, we’re finishing it, we’re making our final notes, we’re putting together what we’ll do if we see them again, having that kind of discussion with our coordinators, going through what we liked, what we did here, we didn’t like what we did here. If we get into this situation again and we start seeing these things, what are we going to do against them next time? But by the time you finish with that meeting, then you have to move on to, all right, who’s next? Is that your ritual? The moment you’re done with film you say to yourself, OK, deep breath, done? Yeah, but frankly it’s easier to do when it’s a Monday after a game and you’re on to, oh we’re playing next Sunday? It’s harder to do when you have that Thursday night game, and you’re just hanging around for the weekend, so it certainly lingers longer after that because you’re not necessarily preparing as much as you normally would so fast after a game. So you’re saying this past weekend sucked? Yeah. It did. It sucks when you’ve got time off after a loss. I mean, that’s the worst, right? Because you’re not necessarily preparing the same way, but typically you have got to move on quick, and that’s why it’s so tough at the end of the year in playoffs, it’s because of the finality of it. You’re moving on and then asking yourself, “what are we preparing for the following week?” It’s hard. When you lost in the playoffs last year to the Eagles, how long did it take you to get over as opposed to getting over the Super Bowl? Well, I mean, last year was different for me personally, we had twins in February, twin boys. So life changes right? My wife went into the hospital, I guess the Tuesday before we played Philadelphia, she went in for complications with the pregnancy and then was on bed rest in the hospital for six and a half weeks. Oh, I didn’t know that Matt. I’m so sorry, man. Our boys came early — I don’t want to go into it too much — but for me there were other bigger things going on in my life at the time that is more important… Wow man, that’s… that’s a lot, Matt. I was obviously pissed that we lost and all of those things, but at the same time, life gets in the way sometimes and my focus was elsewhere. You had two new teammates coming into your life, a little bit more important. Exactly, right? Like dude, OK, I’ve got to be around and I’ve got to help as much as I can and this is more important. They were born almost two months early, and then they spent six or seven weeks in the ICU. Wow. Honestly, sometimes we truly don’t ever ask enough about you guys as humans, only players and for that I’m sorry. How did they pull through? They are studs, I’ll send you a picture of them. Yeah, they’re doing great dude, they’re doing awesome. They’re fighters like their dad and their mom, obviously. That’s great. I think they would kick my butt already. So did you simply never mourn the end of the last season? Yeah, probably later than normal. When we started to get back to work, you start to watch the cut ups and you go through it, and you’re like… “man, we had opportunities here.” That was frustrating, that is disappointing. It was probably just a little bit more delayed than other previous offseasons, but certainly when we got back to work in April and you’re reviewing those things, then it kind of stung again. I was like, “man, I probably didn’t process this as fully as I needed to flush it from my system.” But then, like anything, that next thing in front of you of what you’re working toward, that’s the best remedy, that’s medicine. That makes you want to be better — your next chance, your next opportunity. What have you learned from Thursday’s opener against the Eagles that has helped you make corrections for next week? Well, I think number one, when you’re playing against a team like we played against in the Eagles, and they’re as productive as they are with their front four, we have got to do better on first and second down. I think we had nine-plus third-and-eights in the game against them. You’re just not going to be successful like that. Creating a little bit of a better balance on first and second down, and staying in front of the chains, staying in the game, scoring points when we get the opportunities early in games, to make those scenarios different at the end of the game. To me, it’s a combination of all of those things, and then, even if all of that stuff doesn’t go right, being better when we get our late-game chances. We’ll be better for it and learn from those mistakes, and we’ll probably see some of those similar types of coverages that we saw from them at the end of the game throughout this year. We have to be better for it, let’s have our plan of what we want to do the next time we see it. In my opinion, adversity is the greatest gift anyone could ever give you. We have to learn how to handle it in life. I think it’s underrated what you guys did to get to the playoffs last year despite that Super Bowl breakdown constantly being brought up to you guys…. it’s hard to escape yet at the same time you’ve got to play again. After something like that [the collapse], I’ve got to think it’s difficult when things in games went wrong last season and “Uh oh, here we go again,” popped up. The credit truly goes to Dan (Quinn). He did such a good job of driving this bus the right way because it’s not easy. We can decide how we react to some things, but we can’t decide how many times you’re going to get asked or what people are going to want to talk about. We can only control our response and how it affects us and that’s where I think he nailed it, that’s where he did a great job of getting us going in the right direction. What’s the fine line of you thinking, “we went through a bad thing in the Super Bowl so we can overcome anything” as opposed to, “**** we’re snake bitten here we go again?” It’s between your ears man! You have to force yourself to believe the first option, because that doubt or, like you said snake bite, can enter as much as the other side of it. You have to force yourself to choose the positive side of it. You have to force yourself to believe we’re better for this, we’re going to be tougher for this, we’re going to be more prepared for these situations, we can do anything we need to do. You have to believe that and you have to choose to believe that and you have to work at it. You know, it’s not just, “OK, I’ll choose to believe it and I’ll be good to go,” no. That’s a daily choice, a daily process of getting yourself mentally prepared and into the right space to do it. When were you truly, truly over the sting of what happened in the Super Bowl? I think a piece of it’s always there. A piece of it is always there and that is going to drive you to be better as you move forward. It makes you get out of bed in the morning, it makes you work, it makes you do all of those things. But ultimately, you know you’re over it when you can start talking about it with other people and you don’t go back to that spot of being frustrated or letting it not…. Go to that dark place? Yes, where you don’t let it make you unproductive. That was probably as we got into training camp last year. I think that’s probably the best time for me, I’m working every day, we’re here all day, every day, training for what’s in front of us, that’s probably when it felt the best. I do think it’s amazing, I can’t stress enough, that you guys went all the way deep into the playoffs, after what happened the year before that. And it’s going to serve us well, dude. I really believe that. I have to believe that.
  7. Marquand Manuel is aware his job just got a lot tougher. The Falcons’ defensive coordinator didn’t mince words when he was asked about losing safety Keanu Neal (ACL tear) for the season and linebacker Deion Jones (foot surgery) for an extended period of time. Six days have passed since Neal’s news was revealed, while Jones’ announcement occurred Tuesday. Even with that time, Manuel articulated the magnitude these injuries mean to his defense. “Let’s not sugarcoat it,” he said. “This week, honestly, were two devastating blows.” Both Neal and Jones suffered their injuries in an 18-12 season-opening loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday. With 15 games left to be played without Neal, and at least eight without Jones, the Falcons are now adjusting their defensive personnel within the scheme. Starting in place for Jones at Mike linebacker will be Duke Riley, who is moving over from Will linebacker. Riley practiced as the backup Mike linebacker all offseason and got some experience at the position in preseason games against the Kansas City Chiefs and Jacksonville Jaguars. “When I’m backing up Deion, I prepare like I’m going to start,” Riley said. “My job really doesn’t change. I prepare the same no matter what because you never know what could happen.” Riley said that after the Falcons selected him in the third round of the 2017 draft, he was asked to learn all three linebacker positions since the team didn’t know where to put him at the time. Riley said that helped his cross-training at the position, which he hopes to put to use Sunday against Carolina. Asked if he expects the Panthers to target him, Riley sounded ready for that challenge. “I hope so. I want them to come after me. Please,” Riley said with a grin. “I’m ready for whatever.” The Falcons were fortunate Riley received those preseason reps at Mike linebacker, which, somewhat ironically, came with Jones suffering a hamstring injury during an August practice. While Riley has worked as a backup Mike linebacker in practice, his first-team game reps at the position might have been limited if not for Jones’ first ailment. “I think he’s done a good job cross-training,” Manuel said. “It’s not easy. That’s the one thing you’ve got to talk about. It’s not easy understanding both positions.” With Riley sliding to Mike linebacker, rookie sixth-round draft pick Foye Oluokun is expected to draw the start at Will linebacker. Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said he was close to cross-training Oluokun at Mike linebacker during the offseason, but he “felt it was most important for him to dial on the principles of the defense.” Oluokun said he experienced good chemistry with Riley during the preseason games they appeared with the first team together. “We were talking, communicating the whole time, making sure we knew our responsibilities for the play,” Oluokun said. “That way we could execute them during the play. That’s how our defense works anyway. Everybody’s talking.” Communicating the calls as a Mike linebacker will be something to monitor against the Panthers. This will mark the first time in Riley’s young career that he will wear the Mike linebacker helmet, equipped with a radio to receive calls from Manuel. Manuel appeared optimistic that he will be able to keep Riley even-keeled with this new responsibility. “I get to talk to Duke every play,” Manuel said. “A lot of people forget that.” As for the secondary, it remains to be seen whether Damontae Kazee sticks to free safety or plays some strong safety. While Quinn said Kazee and Ricardo Allen rotated at both safety spots against the Eagles, Kazee said Wednesday that he only played free safety in the game. Manuel said Neal’s strong safety spot will be filled using multiple players but mentioned Allen as a top candidate. “Going back and forth, (Allen’s) tough enough,” Manuel said. “I know people look at his stature, but he’s one of the best tacklers in the league. To play inside the box, Brian Dawkins wasn’t that big.” Without Neal, the Falcons will continue mixing and matching their personnel in various packages but probably more so than before. Kazee could see time at nickel cornerback, with corner Brian Poole working at safety. Manuel mentioned that safety Jordan Richards, acquired recently in a trade with New England, could see some upcoming playing time due to his frame at 6-foot-1 and 212 pounds. His size could come in handy, Manuel said, when tackling Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. But with Neal, there is an intimidation factor that the Falcons will miss for the remainder of the season. “The physicality he brings, I feel every wide receiver we play is really looking for him before they catch the ball,” Poole said. “Not even as a football player, but he’s a great leader on our team, as well.” Freeman misses practice While Quinn labeled him “day to day,” running back Devonta Freeman’s status for the game against Carolina could be in doubt. Freeman took a hit to his knee late against the Eagles and was unable to finish the game. He did tell at least one reporter afterward that he was fine. While the extent of the injury may not be serious for the long-term, he was not able to participate in practice Wednesday. In addition, the Falcons moved practice squad running back Brian Hill to the 53-man roster as part of a flurry of moves in the past two days. Asked if Hill’s addition had anything to do with Freeman’s injury, Quinn politely kept it close to the vest. “He got hit in the game but nothing that’s more than we’re just going to treat it as day to day,” Quinn said. If Freeman is unable to play Sunday, Tevin Coleman would become the closest thing the Falcons have to a workhorse back. In 2017, Freeman missed two games and most of a third due to injury. In those games, Coleman averaged 20 carries. In the other 13 games, Coleman averaged 7.5 carries. While Hill and Ito Smith will be available, it would be unlikely that the Falcons would turn to a committee approach in this scenario. A week ago against the Eagles, Coleman was held to 19 yards on nine carries but did score a 9-yard touchdown. Atlanta only managed to rush for 74 yards as a team in the defeat. Whether it’s Freeman or Coleman carrying the ball, right guard Brandon Fusco said it is imperative to fix this issue before facing another strong defensive front in Carolina. “You just have to work on the details,” Fusco said. “We know how to run the ball. This team, for years, has been known to do that. We have to get back to basics, get better from that, extend drives and learn how to finish them.” Meanwhile, the Panthers were able to hold Dallas, led by running back Ezekiel Elliott, to 94 rushing yards in their opening game. Elliott finished with 69 yards and a touchdown, although the Cowboys took some criticism for only giving him the ball 15 times on the ground. Carolina’s performance against the run ranked 10th best in the NFL in Week 1. “We just have to be effective early,” left guard Andy Levitre said. “(The Panthers) have a good front. It’s staying on guys and giving the backs a chance to hit it and make some plays. Those guys are well capable of doing that.” Rest of injury report In addition to Freeman, receiver Russell Gage (knee) and offensive guard Ben Garland (calf) did not participate in practice Wednesday. Poole (ankle), tight end Austin Hooper (knee) and cornerback Isaiah Oliver (ankle) were limited. Receiver Marvin Hall (ankle), long-snapper Josh Harris (hip) and fullback Ricky Ortiz (neck) were full participants.
  8. With the Falcons’ regular season only a couple of days away, contract negotiations between defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and the franchise have been put on hold for the time being. Jarrett is one of three players general manager Thomas Dimitroff previously discussed as a priority to reach a new deal with. The other two were left tackle Jake Matthews (five years, $72.5 million) and safety Ricardo Allen (three years, $19.5 million), with both of those players’ contracts extended during the preseason. Dimitroff told The Athletic that it is standard for the Falcons to push back negotiations for a player’s deal if nothing can be agreed upon by the start of the regular season. Dimitroff said he last spoke to Jarrett’s agent, Todd France of Creative Artists Agency, in the middle of last week. “Our approach on these things is we will negotiate until usually the back end of the preseason, and if not, we both agree that we would move on to another time to discuss it so we can focus on the season,” Dimitroff said. Dimitroff added that he and France have a good working relationship and that they will address a new deal at a “different part of the season.” Jarrett has been an instrumental piece to Atlanta’s success defensively. A fifth-round draft pick in 2015, Jarrett recorded four sacks during the 2017 season. In Super Bowl LI against New England, Jarrett would have been a game MVP candidate had the Falcons held on thanks to his three-sack performance. In his three-year career, Jarrett has totaled 127 tackles and eight sacks. While contract negotiations are on hold, Dimtiroff doesn’t anticipate that affecting Jarrett’s play. “He’s not a guy who’s going to hang his head,” Dimitroff said. “He’s a dude, right? He’s taking it on, head up. He’s going to play football when it’s time to play football.” Long-snapper watch It’s not the most talked about position, but it’s certainly an important one. At long-snapper, the Falcons are dealing with a hip injury to starter Josh Harris, which forced him to miss practice Monday. He was able to return to practice Tuesday in a limited capacity and was seen rotating with practice squad long-snapper Jeff Overbaugh. Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said a decision on Harris won’t be made until Thursday, which is when Atlanta kicks its season off against Philadelphia. If Harris is unable to go, Overbaugh will be called up to the active roster the day of the game. Harris has played in 103 consecutive games, including the postseason, and has long been reliable at the position. “He’s certainly a real model of consistency,” Quinn said. “You’ve heard us say before, that word is not something that’s earned overnight.” Overbaugh, a second-year player out of San Diego State, has NFL game experience at the position. He played for Minnesota in its final regular-season games and two playoff games last year. Harris signed with the Falcons as an undrafted free agent in 2012 and is in his seventh season with the franchise. Signing a four-year, $3.4 million deal in 2015, Harris has great familiarity with both punter Matt Bosher and place-kicker Matt Bryant. Harris politely declined to talk about his injury when he was approached by reporters in the Falcons’ locker room. The Falcons have been fortunate to have their specialists healthy in recent years, which has allowed for great chemistry on the field and in the meeting room. “We definitely try to share the gratitude for the job that the three of them do,” Quinn said. “Bosher and Matt Bryant, as well. They spend a lot of time together. It’s interesting to hear them go into a special teams meeting and talk in the detail they do. To have that kind of communication amongst them, it’s really important, and from the team standpoint, and something we value.” Zimmer reacts to making roster Back in May, defensive tackle Justin Zimmer might have been considered a long shot to make the Falcons’ 53-man roster. By Friday, there was enough belief for Zimmer to hope his phone wouldn’t ring with someone informing him he was cut. Fortunately for Zimmer, the call never came as he found himself on Atlanta’s 53-man roster to open the 2018 season. “I was on edge for a while there,” Zimmer said. Zimmer graduated from Ferris State in 2016 and spent some time on the Buffalo Bills’ offseason roster and the New Orleans Saints’ practice squad. Cut by the Saints in 2017, Zimmer then had a stint with the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes. Not deterred, Zimmer said he used each of those experiences to help prepare himself for this year’s opportunity with the Falcons. “I think everything was just clicking for me with how I was playing, my technique and all of that,” Zimmer said. “It was just a good opportunity here with a great organization that gives everyone a chance.” For Zimmer, it has been a lengthy process in becoming a defensive tackle. Only holding about four NCAA Division II offers, he arrived to Ferris State as a 230-pound linebacker. A year later, he was moved to defensive end before settling in at defensive tackle for his final season. He joked that it seemed every year he was “slowly getting closer to the ball.” Zimmer’s ability to play multiple positions appeared to be what gave him the edge over veteran Garrison Smith when it came making Atlanta’s roster. “With Justin, it was the versatility that he had,” Quinn said. “It was another interior guy that we thought could play potentially three spots up front. We love the strain, the effort, the style so we felt like he was a guy that was worth working with.” Hill chooses Atlanta over Cincinnati Brian Hill is back in Atlanta thanks to an allegiance he holds to the team that drafted him. While the Bengals signed him from the Falcons’ practice squad to their 53-man roster in 2017, they cut him prior to the beginning of this season. Still, the Bengals were hoping to keep him on their practice squad. Instead, Hill chose to return to the Falcons. “I had an option to be on the practice squad in Cincinnati or Atlanta. I felt more comfortable in Atlanta,” Hill said. “They’re the team who drafted me. There’s a bond here.” The Falcons selected Hill in the fifth round of the 2017 draft. He was briefly on Atlanta’s 53-man roster last year, seeing time in one game against the Buffalo Bills. Appearing in six games for the Bengals, Hill rushed for 37 yards on 11 carries. Hill is happy to be back in Atlanta and hopes to receive a promotion at some point this season. “I’m going to come to work every day and hopefully get moved up to the 53,” he said. Falcons promote Burton Speaking of promotions, the Falcons announced that cornerback Deante Burton was added to the 53-man roster. Burton, an undrafted free agent in 2017, entered the league as a receiver and was with Atlanta’s practice squad a year ago. Converted to cornerback, Burton did not make the 53-man roster after initial cuts were made last weekend. Placed on the practice squad soon thereafter, Burton was notified Monday, he said, that he would receive the promotion. “I got a chance to call my mom and let her know, so that was nice,” Burton said. “It was a good experience to see all your hard work take the next step. You see a little light, so it’s nice.” Jeff Schultz contributed to this report
  9. While the Falcons have offered a first look at this year’s 53-man roster, it’s certain they will continue to tinker with it. On Saturday, in accordance with the NFL’s mandate to trim every roster to 53 players by 4 p.m., Atlanta revealed 52 players who have made this year’s team. The open spot does give the Falcons room to add a player from the waiver wire while waiting to see which vested veterans will be available following the opening week of the season. Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said he isn’t looking at anyone specific with the open spot. “We have some eyes on some different candidate, not just one position,” Quinn said. The Falcons also will continue to debate who makes the 10-man practice squad, which could be 11 if Atlanta brings tight end Alex Gray, a United Kingdom native, back on an international exemption. Teams can start signing players to the practice squad Sunday. There weren’t any major surprises with Atlanta’s first roster of the 2018 season. The Falcons did keep two undrafted free agents (tackle Matt Gono, linebacker Dewey Jarvis) and a player who had a stint in Canada last year (defensive tackle Justin Zimmer). But even then, those players, among others, aren’t guaranteed to be on the roster if the waiver wire plays out in a certain way. Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff held a news conference early Saturday afternoon and expressed their confidence in what they were able to build for the time being. Nothing, however, is final, with both mentioning how the roster remains “fluid.” “We’ll continue to make some more decisions as we go,” Dimitroff said. Quarterback (2) Matt Ryan Matt Schaub Breakdown: As expected, the Falcons went with two quarterbacks. They could try to bring Kurt Benkert onto the practice squad or look elsewhere for a young quarterback to help with that group. Running back (3) Devonta Freeman Tevin Coleman Ito Smith Breakdown: Quinn said Malik Williams was one of the only players who brought “energy” to the Falcons in the final preseason game. But he suffered a shoulder injury and was waived/injured as a result. As it stands, the Falcons have to be happy about the three running backs they do have in Freeman, Coleman and Smith. Fullback (1) Ricky Ortiz Breakdown: With the new kickoff rule, there’s a chance Atlanta could wind up with two fullbacks. One could be Ortiz for special teams purposes. Another could be a veteran fullback who can both block and catch passes out of the backfield. It will be interesting to see if the Falcons put in a claim for fullback Aaron Ripkowski, who was waived Saturday by Green Bay. Wide receiver (6) Julio Jones Mohamed Sanu Calvin Ridley Justin Hardy Marvin Hall Russell Gage Breakdown: The Falcons elected to stick with six receivers, with Hardy, Hall and Gage being the primary special teams contributors. It will be interesting to see how much of a look Ridley will get as a kick returner after his 36-yard return in the second preseason game against Kansas City. Tight end (3) Austin Hooper Logan Paulsen Eric Saubert Breakdown: This position group has been settled for quite some time. Hooper is a breakout candidate. Paulsen figures to provide a veteran presence for both Hooper and Saubert. Tackle (4) Jake Matthews Ryan Schraeder Ty Sambrailo Matt Gono Breakdown: Gono is a quick lineman with good size at 6-foot-4 and 305 pounds, which was clearly enticing for the Falcons when it comes to developing him. Undrafted out of Division III Wesley College, Gono said it has been a challenge to learn the intricacies of the position at the NFL level. Quinn said Saturday the coaches are training him to be a swing tackle, which is why he played on the right and left side against Miami. Guard (4) Andy Levitre Brandon Fusco Wes Schweitzer Ben Garland Breakdown: The Falcons decided to keep Garland over 2017 fourth-round draft pick Sean Harlow and Jamil Douglas. Garland’s versatility as both a guard and center, with the ability to play defensive line in a pinch, is valuable to a team like Atlanta. Schweitzer may have lost out on the starting right guard job but will begin the year as the top swing lineman. He has been seeing reps at center as well as both guard spots. Center (1) Alex Mack Breakdown: Mack is one of the best centers in the NFL and will anchor the Falcons’ offensive line, which could be one of the best units in the league this season. Defensive end (4) Takkarist McKinley Vic Beasley Brooks Reed Derrick Shelby Breakdown: This group was an easy one to put together for the Falcons’ front office. While McKinley, Beasley and Reed always were going to be a part of this team, Shelby showed this preseason why he’s a quality player for this unit’s rotation. Defensive tackle (5) Grady Jarrett Terrell McClain Jack Crawford Deandre Senat Justin Zimmer Breakdown: This position’s final spot likely came down to Zimmer and Garrison Smith. Quinn said Zimmer’s ability to play three spots on the defensive line was a deciding factor. “With Justin, it was more just the versatility that he had,” Quinn said. “He’s another interior guy who we thought could play three spots up front. We love the strain, the effort and the style.” Linebacker (6) Deion Jones De’Vondre Campbell Duke Riley Foye Oluokun Kemal Ishmael Dewey Jarvis Breakdown: Jarvis is the biggest surprise on the initial roster, considering he wasn’t someone Quinn spoke much about during training camp or after preseason games. Quinn wasn’t asked about Jarvis, either. But Quinn said Saturday that Jarvis’ ability on special teams contributed to this particular roster spot. But for Jarvis to keep his spot, he might need to hope a vested veteran the Falcons covet isn’t available after the first week of the season. Vested veterans are guaranteed their contracts if they are on a roster for the first game of the season. But if a vested veteran signs after the first week, he is not guaranteed nearly as much money. Cornerback (6) Desmond Trufant Robert Alford Brian Poole Isaiah Oliver Justin Bethel Blidi Wreh-Wilson Breakdown: There weren’t any surprises at this position as the Falcons went with six cornerbacks. That includes a great core of Trufant, Alford and Poole, with Oliver still developing as a rookie. Wreh-Wilson had a solid preseason and should be fine after suffering a shoulder injury against Miami. Wreh-Wilson and Bethel figure to be special teams contributors this season. Safety (4) Keanu Neal Ricardo Allen Damontae Kazee Jordan Richards Breakdown: Kazee was the Falcons’ preseason star as he recorded an interception and posted an 11-tackle game against the New York Jets. He figures to see some time in various packages, with Neal and Allen leading the way at the safety spots. Richards was brought in via trade from New England and will contribute immediately on special teams. “We just felt the opportunity to acquire Jordan fit in went well with us,” Dimitroff said. “He’s a tough dude who can step up in there and be a strong safety type for us. He’s a smart guy who has a good versatility for us. He is a very urgent type of football player.” Specialist (3) Matt Bryant Matt Bosher Josh Harris Breakdown: While Bryant wasn’t able to kick until the third preseason game, he proved he’s healthy for the season.
  10. JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Before he took the field Saturday, Damontae Kazee prayed for neither team to suffer an injury. That is something he does prior to each game. While football is a physical and violent sport, with injuries an inevitable part to it, no one wants to see someone go down with something severe. Kazee, however, delivered a blow to Jacksonville receiver Marqise Lee’s knee, which bent awkwardly, on a routine play. Lee eventually was carted off of the field with what could wind up being a devastating injury. “I haven’t looked at it yet,” Kazee said, following Jacksonville’s 17-6 preseason win over Atlanta. “My condolences go out to him. I’m just trying to make a football play and not get anybody injured. I pray for both teams before the game for no injuries. That man probably has a family, and I apologize to him with what happened. I’m going to pray for him (Saturday).” Kazee appeared devastated about the play. He continued playing and finished the game tied with a team-high five tackles. Kazee also forced a fumble and nearly came up with what would have been his second interception of the preseason. Yet after Lee’s injury, Kazee said he couldn’t stop thinking about what happened. “After that play earlier, I just had a long game,” Kazee said. “That was all I was thinking about. I was thinking about him. Hopefully he’s all right. Hopefully X-rays look good. Hopefully he can come back and play.” Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone couldn’t reveal the extent of the injury since a doctor hasn’t been able to make an official diagnosis. But even Marrone, who said it “looked bad,” appeared fearful of the worst. “I’m waiting for the doctor to tell me so I can tell you guys, but I know what I see,” Marrone said. “I’m not going to sit there and say it didn’t look bad. It looked bad.” But should this play have been a penalty? On the play in question, Lee caught a reception and turned it up the field for a 20-yard gain. Kazee pursued the play, attempted a low tackle and caught what appeared to be his shoulder on Lee’s knee. Replays showed that Kazee’s body was almost perpendicular to Lee’s body at first contact. Even so, he was flagged for leading with the helmet. And this adds to the conundrum of the new rule that has been tough for both the officials and the players. “It’s a football play,” safety Keanu Neal said. “But at the end of the day it was called. You have to think about the ref in that position. It’s a bang-bang play. It’s happening really fast. They’re hit with a rule that they’re still trying to adjust to. It’s a learning process for everyone. We’ll just continue to grow, continue It remains to be seen if Kazee will face a fine for the penalty. It is worth noting that Minnesota linebacker Antwione Williams was fined just north of $20,000 after he was flagged for supposedly using his body weight to push Jaguars quarterback Cody Kessler into the ground on a sack. Most football writers and pundits have disagreed with the decision to penalize the play, let alone the fine. The NFL stated previously that its officials will lean toward throwing the flag during the preseason. The hope for coaches and players surely will be for officials to not be so quick to throw the flag on some of these close plays. On Kazee’s, for instance, the Jaguars were able to pick up 15 extra yards on top of the 20-yard gain. In a regular-season game, that could be a huge turn of events. Afterward, Kazee kept any thoughts he may have had about the way the play was officiated to himself. “It is what it is, man,” he said. “We have to keep working on it.” Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey was asked about the play and couldn’t find any fault with how Kazee approached the play. “You can’t be mad at 27 (Kazee),” Ramsey said. “You have to be mad at the NFL; not mad at them, but that is how the rule is. People are scared to tackle normal because I guess they don’t want to do helmet-to-helmet and get flagged. … Game-changing stuff could happen.” Penalty aside, Kazee continues to impress Kazee earned the preseason start with Ricardo Allen sitting out due to a minor injury. Yet again, Kazee showed that it is going to be tough to keep him off of the field in the regular season. Even with Neal and Brian Poole in the starting lineup, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn likely will do what he can to figure out a way to get Kazee on the field. “He has certainly had an excellent offseason, and then it kind of carried right over into training camp,” Quinn said. “He’s had one of the very best mentors in Ricardo Allen to help train and get right, and at some point a player takes over too, to say, ‘I really want to put out to make a difference on this team.’ and he certainly is finding more roles that we’ll find for him on the defensive side, as well as on special teams.” With the first team, Kazee nearly had an interception after Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles threw up an ill-advised pass. Kazee also had the aforementioned tackle that shouldn’t have been flagged. This game followed 11 tackles against the New York Jets and a pick against the Kansas City Chiefs. Kazee has been Atlanta’s star for the preseason. “So much growth,” Neal said, when asked about Kazee’s progress. “He’s comfortable out there. He’s playing fast, playing relentless, playing with energy and having a good time. I’m proud of him. He’s definitely made a huge jump.” Neal was then posed the question Quinn will be faced with once the season opener against Philadelphia rolls around: How will Kazee be involved with the players on the depth chart in front of him? “We’ll find a way because he’s a ballplayer,” Neal said. Celestin tallies the tackles again By this point of the preseason, NFL coaching staffs generally have a feel for who will be on the 53-man roster with cutdowns soon to be made. Even so, there might be some players who still have chances at making the roster, or at least the practice squad, with a strong performance in the final preseason game. Undrafted rookie linebacker Jonathan Celestin fits that bill, and his story is a bit surprising. On top of not being selected in April, Celestin couldn’t find a football team until August, which is when the Falcons brought him in. He didn’t appear in a game until late against the Jets and came away with a sack. Celestin followed that first game with six tackles against Kansas City, which tied a team high. And at Jacksonville, Celestin entered the game in the second half and tallied five tackles, which tied Kazee and safety Ryan Neal for the team lead. But a big development for Celestin’s case was being with the starting kick return team. If Celestin is to earn a spot on the 53-man roster or practice squad, special teams will be important. “Most rookies have to be able to play special teams to contribute to the team,” Celestin said. “You’re not going to be the No. 1 starter. It means a lot. I have to get better at that as much as I can so I can make it. I’m trying and showing as much effort as much as I can with each day.” As a senior at Minnesota in 2017, Celestin totaled 78 tackles, which followed an 80-tackle campaign in 2016. Celestin, who attended Mundy’s Mill High School in Georgia, isn’t sure why he went unnoticed for so long. “I’m thankful for the Falcons organization, first to be able to play at home as my first team,” he said. “That was a blessing. If it doesn’t work out here, I was able to produce as much as I could for the Falcons and put film out, so hopefully somebody else could pick me up.” Drive-killing drops Atlanta’s first-team offense did not look sharp in stretches during the five possessions it took the field in the first half. The main culprit that stalled opportunities had to do with some crucial drops that happened at key moments. There were three first-half drops, two of which came on a drive that ended with a field goal instead of a touchdown. Receiver Calvin Ridley beat Ramsey on a slant inside, only to see the ball go through his hands. Later on that possession, Mohamed Sanu dropped what should have been a touchdown on a perfectly placed ball in the end zone. Before that drive, tight end Austin Hooper dropped a ball on a second-down screen pass, which very well could have picked up plenty of yards in the middle of the field. In the second half, Ridley added another drop, as did running back Justin Crawford as the Falcons committed five drops. The Falcons led the NFL in drops with 30 a year ago. For as much heat as offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has taken, players do need to execute. Atlanta certainly has to hope that the performance in this area Saturday eventually will be seen as an anomaly. Coming out unscathed Considering what happened to the Jaguars on Saturday night, it’s important to note that the Falcons have not suffered any major injuries through three preseason games. The Falcons took a cautious approach this preseason and elected not to play Julio Jones or Devonta Freeman in any game. With minor injuries affecting Allen, Deion Jones and Desmond Trufant, the Falcons decided to sit them. While the Jaguars kept their starters in the game in the third quarter, Atlanta elected to pull its starters. Falcons place-kicker Matt Bryant returned to the field and made field goals from 47 and 33 yards out. With one more preseason game to go, the Falcons might go ahead and sit most everyone with a major role for the upcoming season and have them look ahead to the regular-season opener at Philadelphia.
  11. Saturday won’t serve as too much of a dress rehearsal for the Falcons. In a show of caution, the Falcons have announced that more than a few players won’t participate in the third preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Early in the week, head coach Dan Quinn revealed that receiver Julio Jones and running back Devonta Freeman would sit out. Now, linebacker Deion Jones, safety Ricardo Allen and receiver Marvin Hall will all rest during the game. While each player has a minor injury, a Falcons representative said that they would compete if it were a regular-season game. The same can apply to place-kicker Matt Bryant and cornerback Desmond Trufant, who are considered game-day decisions. Of the injured players, Bryant is the only one who has some concern, considering he hasn’t participated much at all during the preseason. Bryant has been able to kick during practice Wednesday and Thursday, but a final determination won’t be made until the team arrives in Jacksonville. The precautionary measures to sit Deion Jones, Allen and Hall, along with second-team offensive lineman Ben Garland, open the door for some further evaluation on other players. Who steps up? Atlanta’s preseason star has been safety Damontae Kazee, who recorded 11 tackles against the New York Jets and picked off a pass against the Kansas City Chiefs. With Allen sitting against the Jaguars due to a minor injury, Kazee figures to get additional snaps with the first team. Kazee has done a great job with the second-team defense, so an increase in reps with the first team, against Jacksonville’s first-team offense, should be a great measuring stick for him. Kazee, however, offers a lot of versatility. Quinn said the second-year safety is more than just a one-position player and that the Falcons’ coaching staff likes him in certain defensive packages. Quinn also hinted that Ron Parker and Chris Lammons could get some looks with the first team at safety against the Jaguars. “When you have good competition at a position, sometimes you’re wanting more games to get the guys evaluated,” Quinn said. With Deion Jones out, Foye Oluokun could be in line for extra first-team reps with Duke Riley likely getting the start and shifting from the Sam linebacker to Jones’ Mike linebacker spot. Against the Chiefs, Oluokun earned a start, with Quinn wanting to see how he matched up against tight end Travis Kelce. It’s also possible that Quinn gives Kemal Ishmael some additional first-team reps to see what he can do instead. If Trufant is unable to play, rookie cornerback Isaiah Oliver is the favorite to step in for the first-team reps. Oliver was Atlanta’s second-round draft pick in April and offers the ideal length for Quinn’s secondary. Oliver did experience some growing pains last week when Gehrig Dieter was able to get over the top for a touchdown. Quinn said Oliver, who is still learning a different press-man technique compared to what he used in college at Colorado, missed a jam at the line of scrimmage on the play. Quinn said Oliver made no excuses and owned up to the on-field mistake. “When he got beat on that one, it leaves you susceptible,” Quinn said. “Kind of like the boxer dropping the gloves, so to speak, and sometimes when you drop your hands, and the gloves go down, you leave yourself vulnerable, and that’s what happened on that play. Lessons to be learned for sure, and at that position, people are definitely going to try you. “Not going to say I’m glad that it happened, but it does happen, and it needs to happen to all of the guys. I would say if you were to ask all of the guys, they’ve all had that happen to them. Hopefully, we’ll see improvement in that area.” Ito time Throughout the first two preseason games, running back Ito Smith has been a backup who got additional time with the second team, while maintaining a sizable role on special teams. This week, that could change with the first team getting the extra game reps. With Freeman resting, Smith is expected to perform more as a No. 2 running back. “We’re really going to look at him this week as a true No. 2 and maybe not play him quite as much on special teams early on,” Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said. “This has been a good experience for him to go from Week 1 of a preseason to Week 2. Now let’s see how far he can take it in Week 3.” In college at Southern Mississippi, Smith totaled 4,538 yards and 42 touchdowns in four seasons. He ran for more than 1,400 yards (1,459 in 2016 and 1,415 in 2017) in his final two collegiate seasons. Against Kansas City last week, Smith had 13 carries for 34 yards. Smith was Atlanta’s fourth-round draft selection this year and is the favorite to enter the regular season as the team’s No. 3 running back. That particular role comes with special teams duties, which he handled at Southern Mississippi. Smith, however, was unable to handle a pair of kickoffs against Kansas City last week. “You have to take care of the ball,” special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong said. Second-team offensive line Once the starting offensive line is pulled, the second team will go in with what is probably each player’s final shot of stating why he is worthy of a spot on the 53-man roster. As mentioned, Garland won’t play, and he is a likely candidate for a roster spot. In his absence, second-year guard Sean Harlow figures to have a great chance of proving his value as a fourth-round draft pick in 2017. One player to monitor closely will be Matt Gono, the undrafted free agent out of Division III Wesley College. Gono jumped ahead of veteran Austin Pasztor for last week’s game against Kansas City. Asked about it, Quinn said the coaching staff has liked what it has seen from Gono, a 6-foot-4, 305-pound player. At the same time, Quinn noted Gono got a lot of those reps because Quinn wanted to see how he responded when facing certain matchups. Jamil Douglas has done a good job as Atlanta’s second-team center, and like Garland, Douglas has the ability to swing to guard. Coming out of the preseason last year, the Falcons kept nine offensive linemen. Jake Matthews, Andy Levitre, Alex Mack, Brandon Fusco, Ryan Schraeder and Wes Schweitzer are locks. Garland has good odds of making the team. That leaves one to two spots for Harlow, Gono, Pasztor, Douglas and veteran Ty Sambrailo, who has manned the second-team left tackle spot throughout the preseason. Needless to say, this could wind up being a tough group to round out. The fourth defensive lineman It’s not too much of a position battle, considering the defensive line rotates a lot during games. But it is worth noting that Quinn brought up how valuable the four-man rush is when getting to the quarterback. I’m doing so, Quinn said earlier in the week that he is excited to this four-man pass rush grow with Vic Beasley, Takkarist McKinley and Grady Jarrett leading the way. Quinn did bring up Jack Coleman as the fourth name in the mix. On second reference, he left off a fourth defensive lineman. That fourth lineman, at defensive tackle, has seen quite a few players roll through, including Coleman, Terrell McClain, Deadrin Senat and Garrison Smith. Coleman and McClain figure to work the most with the first team at this time, with Senat, Atlanta’s 2018 third-round pick, learning the position at the professional level. Oh yeah, Jalen Ramsey If this were a regular-season game, the fact that Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey called Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan “overrated” probably would be a bigger deal. But it’s a preseason game — Julio Jones won’t play, and the Falcons won’t be game-planning specifically against the Jaguars. While Ryan said he’s not worried about the comment, it’s hard not to think that there are those in the organization who were miffed with what Ramsey said about the former NFL MVP. Asked if he had anything planned for Ramsey, Quinn smiled and said he didn’t. In the end, there’s no need for anyone on the Falcons to get worked up over something an opposing player said heading into a preseason game. With Julio Jones out, rookie receiver Calvin Ridley should get plenty of opportunities to go against Ramsey, which will be a great test from a matchup standpoint.
  12. **** Butkus, gentle soul and wallflower that he was, never struggled to justify his level of destruction on a football field. “When I played pro football,” Butkus said, “I never set out to hurt anyone deliberately. Unless it was, you know, important, like a league game or something.” The NFL has a problem. For years, it ignored the obvious signs and scientific evidence that football collisions in general and head injuries and concussions in particular had a cumulative effect, leading to possible permanent brain injuries like CTE. Had league officials not operated with blinders several years ago, the NFL would not be in this position, forced to suddenly jam new rules in place and somewhat exaggerate their definitions of them, like we’re witnessing in this preseason. Falcons safety Keanu Neal was slapped with a personal foul penalty for “lowering his head to initiate contact” against Kansas City. It was a poor call for anybody who saw the play. Neal went over the top of Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt. Falcons ead coach Dan Quinn disagreed with the penalty. That’s one of nearly two dozen penalties that have been called in the preseason for leading with the helmet or roughing the passer, which has been expanded to include a defender pushing the quarterback into the turf. Quinn showed cut ups of some of the penalties to players in a team meeting Tuesday. Even he grimaced at times, not surprising given defense is his calling card. The roughing-the-passer penalty against Minnesota’s Antwione Williams in an exhibition has become Exhibit A for NFL overcompensation. “Most of the defensive lineman were, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ ” Quinn said when asked his reaction in the room. “And the quarterbacks were like, ‘Yeah, that’s a good call.’ They’ll always be that side of it.” He was smiling. He assumes, or hopes, that the officials are erring to the side of “guilty” in the preseason with plans to roll it back when the season starts. But he’s legitimately concerned about how games will be officiated this season at crucial moments. Like, “That third-down play when it’s a really good hit. If it’s close and there’s a judgment, is that going to be called? We all know like when it’s a clear holding (penalty). I’m hopeful that this turns into just the real obvious calls, where everybody in the stadium would throw out a flag.” That’s not the case now, and there’s really no guarantee officials will either downshift or operate with any consistency from game to game or week to week. Every official may have a different definition of “leading.” Is this going to be like pornography — they’ll know it when they see it? Neal is a little worried. He said the new rules have a “gray area.” He also believes that as one of the league’s top hitters, he may have a target on his back. “There’s been some calls that, personally, I think shouldn’t have been called, and there’s some where I think, ‘OK, I see that,’ ” he said. “Maybe they’re just overemphasizing it now because it’s the preseason. Hopefully they get it fixed.” When asked about the call against Williams, Neal said, “It’s a physical sport. It’s a contact sport. It’s what we’ve always played and what we signed up for. It’s kind of tough to take the physicality out of the game.” Is he concerned, especially given his own reputation? “To a certain extent. When you see a hard hit, it kind of throws up a red flag, like, ‘Was he leaning with his head? Was he not?’ Any hard hit would trigger (a referee),” he said. “Seeing it from the ref’s standpoint, it’s tough to call that. But I’ve just got to keep playing my ball and do what I do. The calls will come my way sometimes, and sometimes they won’t.” It’s an obvious concern around the league. Indianapolis released Shamarko Thomas after he was ejected from a preseason game for a helmet penalty. Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer said if new rules continue to be enforced at this level, “It’s going to cost some people some jobs. Playoffs, jobs, the whole bit, I guess.” The Chicago Bears, during protracted contract negotiations with first-round pick Roquan Smith from Georgia, attempted to have potential fine money for hits taken out of the guaranteed portion of the player’s contract. (They eventually folded.) The NFL is right to want to make the game safer, particularly with the intent of reducing head injuries. But rules need to be realistic, and officials must understand the game will always come with inherit risk. Concerns about tackle football morphing into flag football might be overstated, but they might not. As Richard Sherman Tweeted, “Even in a perfect form tackle the body is led by the head. The rule is idiotic and should be dismissed immediately. When you watch rugby players tackle they are still leading by their head. Will be flag football soon.” Neal has been playing football in pads since he was 7 years old. He said he actually didn’t enjoy the collisions at this age but changed by the time he was in middle school. “I guess I grew into it,” he said. “When there’s something that you do for a long time, it’s hard to break out of it.”
  13. Ryan Schraeder was an average college freshman student at Kansas State, playing a pick-up basketball game at the school’s recreation complex. He wasn’t a member for any of the university’s varsity sports teams, even though his 6-foot-7 and 260-pound frame suggested he might be a football player. But his big body was actually quite new. A year earlier, Schraeder was beginning his senior year at Maize High School in Wichita, Kansas, shorter than 6-0. He wasn’t on the football team, opting for baseball and basketball instead. Then he grew. And he kept growing. He graduated high school at 6-4 and grew an additional 3 inches by the time a Kansas State assistant football coach caught him playing basketball with his friends. On size alone, the coach thought Schraeder should walk on as a tight end. Thanks, but no thanks, Schraeder responded. Their paths would cross again, however, with Schraeder showing more interest the second time around. As someone who played football growing up, he started to feel the itch again. This time, he listened. But then, as they discovered, a problem emerged. Schraeder didn’t take the ACT in high school, and he was ineligible for Big 12 competition. In that moment, Schraeder could have continued on as a student at Kansas State. But the idea of playing football again remained on his mind. Instead of furthering his academic pursuits at Kansas State, he returned to Wichita and eventually walked on at Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kansas, a city roughly 40 minutes from his parents’ residence. First chance Junior college football is anything but glorious. At Butler, for instance, Schraeder said the practice field was essentially a “cow pasture.” Players don’t have fancy equipment and generally have to make do with what little is provided. In the past three years, the Netflix series Last Chance U has depicted what it’s like to go through a year of junior college football, with the first two seasons taking place at East Mississippi Community College. This year’s season took place at Independence Community College in Kansas. The Falcons have four players on their roster whose post-high school careers began in junior college. In addition to Schraeder, outside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, defensive end Takkarist McKinley and place-kicker Matt Bryant all got started at the JUCO level. McKinley, who eventually ended up at UCLA, was a California commitment before being re-routed to Contra Costa College, also in California. Bryant attended Trinity Valley Community College in Texas before transferring to Baylor. Coming out of Cypress Lake High School in Fort Myers, Florida, Campbell received zero scholarship offers from Division I programs. After discussing the available options with his family, Campbell decided to attend Hutchinson Community College in Kansas. “At that time, I was more in a situation that I was taking a chance on myself,” Campbell said. Campbell played well in his first Hutchinson preseason but suffered a serious concussion late before the season began. That forced the coaches to redshirt him, which didn’t sit well with him initially. Campbell was left wondering why he left his family in Florida for a junior college in Kansas, when all he was going to do is sit for a full year. Campbell said he was even close to quitting. “I was a little down,” Campbell said. “I felt like I should have made the (active roster); I was better than a lot of the players. But in all honesty, that was the best thing that ever happened to me.” He talked it over with his family and decided to stick it out. He got bigger, stronger, faster and was able to mature. The next year, Campbell cracked the starting lineup, and the Power 5 programs finally took notice. He accepted a scholarship to Minnesota and spent his remaining three years of eligibility with the Golden Gophers. Schraeder also was redshirted in his first season of JUCO play. Having been away from football for more than half-a-decade, Schraeder sent an email to then-Butler head coach Troy Morrell, telling his story and asking if he could try out. “Coach was like, ‘Yeah, come on out, we’ll give you a shot,’ ” Schraeder said. “I ended up going out and getting redshirted. I didn’t know what I was doing.” Following spring practice that next offseason, Schraeder emerged as the starting at left tackle, a spot he held as a redshirt freshman. But since he spent a year at Kansas State before his two years at Butler, he had too many hours to transfer to a Division I school. Schraeder ended up at Division II’s Valdosta State instead, but on scholarship, which meant he no longer had to pay for his education. “I was tired of paying for school, so that was a way for me to do that,” Schraeder said. At Hutchinson, Campbell also had to pay his way. Set to earn $630,000 in salary this season, Campbell is still paying off student loans used to fund his two years at the junior college level. “That’s why I say it was an investment in myself,” Campbell said. “Most people don’t know that a JUCO scholarship is not a full scholarship like a university. It only covers your books. You have to pay for your living; you have to pay for your food. Everything else you’ve got to pay for yourself. My parents couldn’t afford it so I had to take out a loan every semester I was there to pay for it.” “We basically had dog food” As a member of the Falcons, the former junior college players have access to a top-tier nutritional staff, a world class weight room and endless amounts of football-related gear. That’s a far cry from the kind of equipment at their disposal with at their respective junior colleges. “The nutrition was terrible. We basically had dog food,” Campbell said. “I used to eat Papa John’s every night. I used to buy a box of pizza, and that pizza would last me three days.” Said Schraeder, “They really have to go out and find boosters and find people who will support them in the community. They don’t have all the best stuff. I’ve helped them out a little bit since I’ve gotten this opportunity.” Campbell said he started out at Hutchinson with one pair of gloves and one pair of cleats for the entire season. Sure, if the gloves tore, the football team would replace them. But backup cleats weren’t extended, Campbell said — well, unless they were for a good player. And Campbell became just that in his second year at Hutchinson, which meant he was able to secure a pair of practice cleats and a pair of game cleats. To keep his gloves intact for the whole year, he didn’t wear them while practicing. “That’s why when I went to Minnesota and came here, it was kind of like a cakewalk for me, because I’d been to the bottom of the barrel before,” Campbell said. “I know what it’s like to have to make stuff stretch.” Motivation for the NFL Campbell’s dream from day one was to play in the NFL. For Schraeder, that vision wasn’t something he chased until a Butler assistant told him he had the necessary potential for the NFL. “Obviously, I was really raw, and I had never played O-line before,” Schraeder said. “One of my (Butler) coaches told me that, and it really inspired me. I was just trying to go to school and he said, ‘You might really have a chance. You’ve got the size, you can move well, you’re good, you don’t have all the bad habits.’ That inspired me at that time, and then throughout the next year I kept getting better. Eventually, there was an opportunity with the Falcons.” Undrafted in 2013, Schraeder signed with the Falcons and latched on. In 2016, he signed a five-year, $31.5 million contract and is now the franchise’s starting right tackle. Campbell’s motivation also came from a junior college assistant but in reverse fashion. This assistant asked Campbell what his “ultimate goal” was. Campbell said he wanted to play professional football. “He told me that was an impossible goal for me,” Campbell said. “He was like, ‘You’re too small,’ all kind of stuff. I might have been like 200 pounds at the time, 18, freshman. Still to this day, I use it as motivation. You told me I couldn’t do something, and here I am going into my third year (in the NFL).” Campbell, who was taken by the Falcons in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL draft, was then asked if he has since reached out to this Hutchinson assistant. “I’m friends with him on Facebook, so I hope he sees all of this stuff,” he said, with a grin beginning to form on his face. “But I left it alone.”
  14. Brandon Fusco couldn’t have executed the block any better. With the Falcons calling an outside zone play, running back Tevin Coleman took a handoff and ran to the right, looking for a hole to run through. Fusco engaged his defender and began driving him back. As Coleman saw the block develop, he turned up field to run through the hole being created. As Coleman ran past Fusco, the defender he previously engaged with ended up on his back. The block helped propel Coleman for a 15-yard gain. Fusco, a veteran starter, has impressed the Falcons’ coaching staff in back-to-back preseason games, which has him in line to start the next preseason game Saturday against Jacksonville. Falcons head coach Dan Quinn didn’t want to declare Fusco the team’s starting right guard just yet. But based on how that position has played out in practice and in the preseason games, it sure looks to be trending that way. And that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. The Falcons brought in Fusco on a three-year, $12.75 million contract. He brings a lot of experience, having started 80 of the 83 games he has appeared in throughout his career with the Minnesota Vikings and San Francisco 49ers. Now that he’s with the Falcons, Fusco is hoping to be the final piece up front that potentially could propel Atlanta to a deep playoff run. “Year in, year out, Atlanta’s offensive line has been up there in the rankings as a top offensive line,” Fusco said. “I’ve always appreciated what they’ve done over the years. I’ve always enjoyed players like Alex (Mack) and Andy (Levitre), watching them. Actually getting to play with them is really cool. It’s trying to help the team win and get us over the edge and get that Super Bowl.” The Falcons actually returned all five offensive line starters from last year’s team but opened up a competition at right guard. If Fusco does start the season opener against Philadelphia, he will have to beat out Wes Schweitzer, Atlanta’s starter for each of the team’s regular-season and playoff games at right guard in 2017. Schweitzer is entering his third season after the Falcons selected him in the sixth round of the 2016 NFL draft. Quinn previously has said that Schweitzer helped set a standard with his offseason workouts and preparation. He also noted that Schweitzer has done everything he could to hold off Fusco throughout the position battle. At the same time, it’s easy to understand why Fusco was brought in this offseason. Last year, there was a discrepancy in the number of yards Atlanta picked up in the running game on the left side of the line of scrimmage compared to the right side. According to Football Outsiders, the Falcons averaged 4.37 yards on run plays toward left end, 5.14 yards on run plays designed toward left tackle and 4.52 yards when running up the middle. In Atlanta’s zone scheme, that number dropped to 3.80 yards toward right tackle and 3.65 yards toward right end. Even so, Pro Football Focus ranked Atlanta’s offensive line the second-best in 2017, based on how well Mack (88.9 overall grade), Levitre (78.0), Jake Matthews (80.8) and Ryan Schraeder performed (77.5). Schweitzer logged a 43.7 final grade. Fusco graded out at 76.0 with the 49ers. Before training camp opened, the Falcons posted a video on Twitter from a team meeting that had Quinn commending Schweitzer’s offseason. And Quinn has continued to point out that Schweitzer has done his part to improve throughout the competition. “To Wes’ credit, he hadn’t let up a bit,” Quinn said. “Wes has certainly improved as a player from last year and not just by a little bit. He went for it in a way that he was going to keep clawing, scratching and going. As we’re going through it, Brandon will take the majority of the first-team reps this week.” Schweitzer is still young as he is entering his third NFL season. Given that he has 16 regular-season and two playoff games to his name as a starter, he could be a valuable backup at both guard spots — assuming this position battle continues the way it is trending at the moment. While Quinn chose not to announce a starter, he told reporters to ask again next week after the Jacksonville game. Fusco said the adjustment to Atlanta’s offense has been aided by the scheme he competed in a year ago with the 49ers under head coach Kyle Shanahan, who was the Falcons’ offensive coordinator in 2015 and 2016. “Each and every day, I’m trying to get better,” Fusco said. “I have great leaders in Alex and Andy, they’ve been around for a while now. Learning the offense from them makes it simple. I came from the same scheme in San Fran, really just the terminology is different. Basically I just had to get that down, and it’s slowed down from there.”
  15. Schultz: Quinn finding comfort level with Sarkisian on field now Jeff Schultz Because last season died in the red zone in Philadelphia, and because Steve Sarkisian was perceived by some as the Falcons’ worst first-year, play-caller since, well, the previous one, and because even with questions about the offense there was still debate as to whether the team erred spending a first-round pick on a wide receiver and not a defensive lineman … OK, cleansing breath time. The view of the Falcons’ offense improved significantly Friday night. Granted, this is still exhibition football. It’s the time of year when the NFL sells a counterfeit product for full retail. Any declarative statement is foolish. But if the offense looked lousy for the second straight week, alarms would’ve gone off from Moultrie to Calhoun. And so, here goes: The starting and No. 2 offenses, directed by Sarkisian, looked strong against Kansas City, despite the absences of Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman. Matt Ryan completed 5-of-7 passes for 90 yards and touchdown in two series, and he and Matt Schaub converted two of three red zone possessions into TDs in the first half. Ridley, the first-round draft pick taken over Florida defensive tackle Taven Bryan, looked like a difference-maker. He made his debut as a kickoff returner and returned one 34 yards. He also had three catches for 49 yards in the first half, including a 7-yard touchdown in traffic on third-and-goal from Schaub and a 36-yarder over the middle from Ryan. The Falcons’ regulars took a 14-3 lead over the Chiefs. The roster’s remainders lost the game 28-14. Whatever. About Sarkisian The most positive sign coming out of this exhibition might not have been Ridley but rather the Sarkisian-Greg Knapp dynamic. Sarkisian’s occasional struggles last season have been well-chronicled. What hasn’t been discussed as much is that he spent most of his college career calling plays from the field. Most NFL offensive coordinators tend to be in the press box. Sarkisian began last season on the field but was sent upstairs after a few weeks by Quinn after the offense struggled. In the first two exhibitions, Sarkisian has been back on the field, and it may stay that way. The addition of Knapp as the quarterback coach has helped because he has been an offensive coordinator for much of his career and is accustomed to seeing the game from upstairs. Quinn suggested he has a comfort level with Sarkisian downstairs now that he didn’t have in 2017. Quinn said of Knapp, “His eyes in the press box are really valuable. He gives instant feedback on the way (the defense) is playing somebody. Sometimes in the first 15 plays or so, that’s what you’re looking for. Greg is very quick to see that.” He suggested Sarkisian prefers being on the field, anyway, saying, “He has more experience that way. All of his time in college he did it that way. … As it stands, I’m comfortable with how that looks. We said after this game that we would evaluate it.” Also noteworthy Friday was that Sarkisian called several play-action plays. That was a staple of the offense in 2016 (27 percent of snaps, according to Football Outsiders) but less so in 2017 (22 percent, which represented the biggest percentage drop of any team). One of the early play-action plays saw Ryan bootleg left after the fake and throw a 4-yard touchdown to tight end Austin Hooper on the opening possession. Quinn on the play-action, “I definitely want to make sure that’s (one) of our priorities. When the run game and the play-action go hand-in-hand, it’s such a challenge for the defense. We want to make sure we stay connected to that. You’ll see more of that for sure.” On Ridley Ridley was dynamic at Alabama, but offseason losses on the defensive line led many to wonder why they drafted a wide receiver over a lineman, like Bryan. But Ridley was impressive in his first home game, both as a returner and receiver. Jones watched and tutored him from the sideline. “He did a great job for us,” Jones said. “One of the things we talked about was (controlling his) adrenaline. He just has to get acclimated from the practice to the game. But he made some plays, and now he just has to build on that.” On his mentoring role, Jones said, “I always try to talk to him afterward. I don’t want to coach him on the field. I’ll sit down and watch film with him and ask him what he felt. I don’t want to give him too much information on the field because it kind of messes you up there.” I asked Quinn about Ridley’s ability to find the open spot in Kansas City’s coverage at the goal line from his 7-yard touchdown. “And just knowing where the leverage of the (defender) is knowing not to move,” he said “He’s come to the team from college pretty equipped from a learning standpoint. He was playing in an offense that was as close to a pro-style as there is.” So it wasn’t a meaningless night in a meaningless game.
  16. https://theathletic.com/473236/2018/08/14/sarkisian-on-first-team-offenses-early-exit-against-jets-we-chose-for-that-to-be-our-worst-day/ Following practice Tuesday, Steve Sarkisian voiced his displeasure with how the first offensive series unfolded in the Falcons’ exhibition against the New York Jets on Friday. In the 17-0 defeat, Atlanta’s first-team offense took the field and went three-and-out on a short series of plays that featured two penalties. While it is only a preseason game, and the first one at that, Sarkisian was hoping for his offense to put forth a drive reflective of how he has seen it look during training camp. “We just weren’t nearly as efficient in the ballgame as we would have liked to have been,” Sarkisian said. “We had a really good camp up until that point, and we chose for that to be our worst day. I think we’ll bounce back.” As far as bouncing back, the first-team offense will have another opportunity, with likely more playing time, to do so Friday against the Kansas City Chiefs. But more importantly, Sarkisian also hopes for a bounce-back regular season as he enters his second season as the Falcons’ offensive coordinator. It’s not that Atlanta’s offense was terrible a year ago. But the 2017 unit featured a lot of returning players who finished the 2016 NFL season first in scoring offense (33.8 points per game) and second in total offense (415.8 yards per game). The offense ended the 2017 regular season 15th in scoring offense (22.1 points per game) and eighth in total offense (364.8 yards per game). The Falcons converted only 50 percent of their red zone trips into touchdowns, which contributed to the scoring downturn. Numerous Falcons players have stated they feel more comfortable with Sarkisian in his second year. Sarkisian said he has seen progress with how his players have continued adjusting to his scheme “It’s been a very good offseason,” Sarkisian said. “It’s been a really good training camp for us. Now, we have to put that product on the field. That’s the next step.” Considering the Falcons lost 6 yards on their first series against the Jets, Sarkisian, head coach Dan Quinn and quarterback Matt Ryan all said they would have liked to have returned to the MetLife Stadium field for another series. Quinn ultimately made the decision to pull the starters and stick with the original game plan. “I was tempted, for sure, because I didn’t like how it started,” Quinn said. “At the end, I wanted to stick to the plan knowing there is a lot we have to do from an evaluation standpoint, so I wasn’t disappointed that we got an extra look at some people.” Said Ryan, “Obviously, you want to have a better start than what we did the other night. But (Quinn’s) got the right pulse for what we need and where we’re at and veteran guys and those kinds of things. It’s his call and his decisions. As a player, you always want to be out there. You want to go out there and be productive and have good drives when you have the opportunity.” The Falcons opted for the safe approach, which was to keep the primary starters out of harm’s way and to evaluate their younger players vying for roster spots. Still, Sarkisian said it would have been nice to see the first-team offense put together a solid drive before its night ended. “When your first unit goes out and really goes backwards because of penalties and whatnot, and they’re out of the game, there’s a level of frustration there,” Sarkisian said. “They want to get back out there and show what they can do. But this is an important time for us in evaluating personnel and evaluating players. Sometimes it’s not always about evaluating the scheme in the preseason. It’s about ensuring we’re putting players in position to show what they’re capable or not capable of doing.” Kazee adjusting to helmet rule It seemed wherever a pass was made, Damontae Kazee was near the play. During the first preseason game, Kazee tallied 11 tackles, nine of which came without an assist. Despite the good game, Kazee, a second-year safety out of San Diego State, had at least one reservation about his game. During the first half, he picked up a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty for leading with his helmet. Based on the rule, Kazee said it was the correct call. “I’ve got to keep my head up, face him up — facemask to facemask,” Kazee said. The new rule has been a tough one for NFL players, who have grown accustomed to lowering their heads, to adjust to even when leading with their shoulder. Bang-bang plays can be more problematic, too, since the last thing defenders want to do is allow a receiver to get a couple of steps in before making contact. “It’s very tough because now you have to switch your tackling from when you were a little kid,” Kazee said. “You have to switch it all up, and you’re grown now. It’s hard but we have to work on it.” While Kazee was critical of himself due to the penalty, his game stood out to the Falcons’ coaching staff. Kazee has since been praised by both Quinn and by defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel, who said he thought Kazee “played with intensity.” While it was only one game, Kazee stated an early case for some more playing time. At the same time, where he would play would be tough to sort out, given the depth in the secondary. Asked about that, Kazee said all he can do is “fill in where we need to fill in at.” Kazee attributed his strong outing against the Jets to preparing daily against the Falcons’ first-team offense. “Going against our ones in practice, I feel that’s the best,” Kazee said. “You’ve got Matt Ryan, you’ve got Julio Jones. Going against those guys and then going against other guys in a regular game, it slows everything down.” Call him ‘The Judge’ Ito Smith’s given first name is Romarius. But as it has been documented, the nickname Ito was given to him as a baby due to a striking resemblance to Judge Lance Ito, who famously presided over the O.J. Simpson murder trial. With that in mind, Smith is running with a related nickname he earned in college — “The Judge.” His Twitter profile picture depicts a logo, with the name “Ito” resembling the head of a gavel, with “The Judge” written under it. Smith explained that when he was toting the rock for Southern Mississippi, a television commentator covering a game handed down the second nickname by saying Smith had reached a verdict after a big play. Smith liked it enough to carry the nickname to the NFL. “It’s just a cool little name,” Smith said. Smith had a stellar career at Southern Mississippi, running for more than 1,000 yards in his final three seasons. He ran for more than 1,400 yards in his junior and senior campaigns and finished his college career with 4,538 rushing yards and 42 touchdowns. A productive pass-catcher out of the backfield, as well, Smith also accumulated 1,446 receiving yards and seven touchdowns during his four seasons with the Golden Eagles. Since joining the Falcons as a fourth-round draft pick, Smith said his pass blocking and route running have improved. But Smith knows if he’s to earn a role on the roster, he will have to earn his keep on special teams, whether in coverage or as a returner. In the first preseason game, Smith returned one kickoff for 25 yards. “On this roster, the third running back has to play special teams,” Smith said. “It’s finding my role on special teams and figuring out what I’m going to do. I’m going with it, running with it and doing it the best that I can.” Jones not ruled out Quinn played it coy when he was asked if Jones would play against the Chiefs on Friday. Quinn said that Jones’ availability will not be determined until closer to kickoff. Jones and running back Devonta Freeman were held out of the first preseason game. “We’ll make those decisions as we get closer,” Quinn said. Jones was equally as vague when asked if he wanted to play Friday night. “For me, I just get in my work in every day,” Jones said. “If I’m there, I’m there. If I’m not, I’m not.” Earlier this preseason, Jones said this is the healthiest he has been in a long time, so it would make sense for the Falcons to preserve his body for the start of the regular season. Regardless of whether he plays in a preseason game or not, Quinn has been impressed with Jones this preseason. “What I’ve seen from him in training camp — the speed the explosion, him feeling as aggressive as I’ve seen him play, so that’s a good thing for us,” Quinn said. “He’s having one **** of a training camp. I’ve been very impressed by the work he’s put in and the insight he’s had with the guys.” Quinn, Dimitroff meet to discuss roster Quinn revealed that he and general manager Thomas Dimitroff met Tuesday morning to discuss where the team is in building this year’s roster. The Falcons, like all NFL teams, are allowed to carry a 90-man roster through the preseason but must cut down to 53 players by Sept. 4 at 4 p.m. “It’s actually the fun part of the puzzle,” Quinn said. “Thomas and myself, we just had a meeting on that (Tuesday) morning, of who could be slotted in some of those spots. I would say when you get to roster spot 48, 49, 50 to 53, sometimes those are fluid; sometimes they are pretty set. It feels like you’re always tweaking that and seeing if somebody can make a move into that spot.”
  17. EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ. — It can be tough to gauge exactly what took place in a preseason game. For now, teams are dealing with 90-man rosters and using a ton of players to figure out their depth for the upcoming regular season. Atlanta was one of those teams Friday night by running through all but four players on its team. The goal, at the end of the night, was to play sound football, learn through experience and come out unscathed. The last item held true, as no one suffered a serious injury. The only player forced to exit the game was backup offensive lineman Jamil Douglas, who injured his finger in the second half. But while this was only a preseason game, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said there was much more to be desired from his team. “I didn’t think we played as well as we can,” Quinn said. “That’s to be expected sometimes when you play your first game. More than that, I don’t like the sloppiness, the penalties.” While the bulk of the 10 penalties came with the starters out, it wasn’t a good sign for the Falcons to see the first-team offense to open out of sync the way it did. First-team defense thrives, first-team offense falters After Atlanta’s starting defense forced a three-and-out, the Falcons’ offense got to work at its own 18-yard line and immediately shot itself in the foot with an illegal shift. Two snaps later, Justin Hardy was called for an illegal block above the waist, which forced the Falcons into a third-and-20 situation from their own 8-yard line. From there, the Falcons were in a poor spot and were forced to punt. It’s the preseason, and there is no need to over-analyze this sort of thing. The Falcons, who finished eighth overall in total offense in 2017, will be fine. They just didn’t have a good start to this game, which limited the first-team’s output to only three official plays. “More than anything, I want our style of play to always show up when you guys watch us,” Quinn said. “(Friday night), there were a number of times I didn’t feel that way.” Meanwhile, the first-team defense was impressive in its three plays. On third-and-5 from the Jets’ 32-yard line, Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett got a great jump off the snap and nearly pushed his blocker into Jets quarterback Josh McCown. McCown was able to get rid of the ball in time, but Deion Jones stopped Neal Sterling short of the first-down marker. While the offense did not have the desired result, the defense got its 2018 campaign off to a great start. For all the social media banter fans took part in about offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian — during a preseason game — Atlanta’s success in 2018 ultimately may come down to its defense. A rundown of Atlanta’s roster shows an experienced and talented group on that side of the ball. Everyone starting on the defensive line has played at least one full NFL season. All three starting linebackers from last year’s team are back. The 2018 secondary remained intact. As long as the offense limits mistakes and converts more red zone opportunities into touchdowns, the Falcons should be fine once the regular season rolls around. Second-year safety shines While preseason football lacks excitement from a fan standpoint, it does provide a great opportunity to figure out what kind of depth a team will have for the upcoming season. If the game Friday was indicative of anything, it’s that Atlanta could be deep in the secondary. A lot of that has to do with safety Damontae Kazee, who lit up the stat sheet. Kazee totaled 11 tackles, including nine solo. Kazee seemed to always be around a receiver catching an underneath route or a swing pass. It’s normally not a good thing when a safety is a team leader in tackles. Then again, today’s NFL is much more pass happy. And most of Kazee’s tackles came on completions as opposed to running backs getting past the first level of the defense. Atlanta is set at safety with both Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal on the back end. Kazee, a second-year player out of San Diego State, played close to the line of scrimmage as a strong safety, which is a good fit based on his physicality. “He goes really hard and totally empties it for his guys,” Quinn said. “I was impressed by him. Are there things for him to clean up? There are. I know those ones are correctable, and that’s why we’re so excited for him. I really felt his energy (Friday), amongst others.” Atlanta doesn’t have too many question marks on either side of the ball. But the biggest question is whether it could withstand some injuries at key positions. It was only one game, one in which both teams emptied their benches. Kazee showed plenty of flashes of being a productive player and one the Falcons could count on if called upon. Third running back still unsettled It’s safe to say that no one vying for Atlanta’s third running back spot stood out at MetLife Stadium. As a team, the Falcons totaled only 49 rushing yards. Eleven of those came on scrambles from quarterback Kurt Benkert. Only running back Malik Williams got into the double digits, and that was with 19 yards on six carries. Ito Smith carried the ball twice for zero yards, and Terrence Magee had two carries for 3 yards but also fumbled once. Justin Crawford totaled five carries for 3 yards. Case in point, it was not a good game on the ground for the backup running backs. But some of them were able to make plays as receivers. Crawford, showing some wiggle after the catch, made the most of his opportunities with four catches for 29 yards. Quinn said he would need to watch the film to find out more about where that competition stands after the game. Smith would still figure to be the leader, based on his status as a fourth-round draft pick. Crawford certainly looked like a pass-catching running back with some quick feet. Special teams will also play a role in deciding this competition, which could play out for a few more weeks. Battles at right guard and fullback to continue Quinn said his staff “still has a lot to discuss” about the position battle at fullback. While both Ricky Ortiz and Luke McNitt likely had their share of plus and minus grades per play, Ortiz had one of the most impressive plays of any blocker for the night. Earning the start, Ortiz blocked a Jets player airborne and on his back on what turned out to only be a 1-yard run from Tevin Coleman. Still, the point was made that Ortiz has some power when it comes to the blocking in the run game. At right guard, Wes Schweitzer earned the start and played the first series and two plays of the second. On the third play of the second series, Schweitzer came out, and Brandon Fusco entered. Fusco got most of the reps with the second team through the remainder of the first half. Schweitzer started 16 games for the Falcons a year ago and knows the offense by this point. Fusco has been learning it since he was signed during the offseason. The game Friday marked the first time he was able to participate with his new teammates in a live scenario. While Schweitzer got the start, that position battle is likely far from over. Schweitzer is due a lot of credit for refusing to back down after the Falcons made the choice to bring Fusco in. Head-first penalties to be emphasized in coming week The NFL referees aren’t messing around. If a player leads with his helmet, on offense or defense, he will be flagged for a 15-yard penalty at minimum. That occurred three times between the Falcons and Jets. The first time, Jets defensive back Buster Skrine led with his helmet and drew a 15-yard penalty. The second time, Smith delivered a block by thrusting his head into a Jets defender’s torso. That was an easy 15-yard penalty for the referees to make based on the new rule. Both of those plays were the correct calls, according to Quinn. “It’s an emphasis, and I was disappointed to see our team, that we take so much ride in that, to see those fouls,” Quinn said. The third penalty was called on Kazee, which Quinn said he didn’t get a clear look at live. Regardless, this will be something the Falcons address during the upcoming week of practice. “We’re not only going to show ours; we’re going to show ones from around the league this week so we have more teaching opportunities to do that,” Quinn said. “Clearly we have work to do in that area, and we’ll devote the time to it because it’s that important.”
  18. EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — It didn’t go unnoticed that seven cornerbacks were selected ahead of Isaiah Oliver in the 2018 draft. In addition, four of the teams that selected those cornerbacks will face the Falcons in 2018. Oliver realized that pretty quickly. Heading into the draft, Oliver was considered a late first-round or early second-rounder by many analysts. But then the run of cornerbacks hit, and Oliver was forced to wait his turn. The Falcons finally selected him with the 58th overall pick in the second round. And in the moment, he was quite cognizant of that. “It’s something I did think about a lot,” Oliver said. But time has a funny way of sorting out things like that. As Oliver joined his new teammates, beginning in rookie mini-camp, being passed over became an afterthought. It didn’t matter that seven corners went ahead of him. It didn’t matter that Cleveland (Denzel Ward), Green Bay (Jaire Alexander, Josh Jackson), Tampa Bay (M.J. Stewart) and Carolina (Donte Jackson) — teams the Falcons play this year — chose other corners instead of him. “Now it’s kind of the last thing I’m really worried about,” Oliver said. “I feel like I’m in a great spot. This is the best spot for me. The coaches, the players, everything the Atlanta Falcons are about, I really like. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I’m glad those guys went before me because I really like it here.” One reason to believe it worked out for Oliver is that he is the type of cornerback Falcons head coach Dan Quinn has coveted in the past. The Falcons drafted Jalen Collins, a 6-foot-2 cornerback, in 2015, but that didn’t work out due to numerous off-field issues. When Quinn was the defensive coordinator at Seattle, he had both Richard Sherman (6-3) and Brandon Browner (6-4) at his disposal. Oliver isn’t as tall as those two, but he still offers great size at 6-0 and 210 pounds, to go with long arms that measure to a 7-foot wingspan. A versatile athlete in college, he participated in the decathlon on the Colorado track and field team. His father, Muhammad Oliver, was an NFL cornerback who acted as his first coach during childhood. During a 17-0 preseason loss to the New York Jets on Friday, Oliver got plenty of playing time beginning on the second drive of the game. Oliver played primarily at outside cornerback and got some special teams duty, as well. He recorded two tackles and got time on special teams as a punt returner and personal protector on the punt team. “The thing that you see right away is the length and especially down in the red zone where it’s a back-shoulder play and you have the length to go defend that,” Quinn said. “So we’re keeping him mostly on the outside as we’re going through camp, so he can get strong at that spot. And then also having a big role on special teams. … He probably has better skills than I thought, and I thought they were good coming in. He can really track it in the air, so that probably lends itself to all the punt returning that he’s done. I have been impressed by the ball skills that he has.” As for his corner skills, one of the major areas Oliver has been adjusting to is the type of technique the Falcons want to him to use at the position. “At Colorado, we played a different version of man press technique,” Oliver said. “Here, it’s just a different one, one that I haven’t gotten used to all the way. I haven’t used it prior to being here. In the end, once I’m just as comfortable with the way I was at Colorado, I’ll be using everything the same way.” Benkert goes deep On Atlanta’s first drive of the third quarter, rookie quarterback Kurt Benkert slid up in the pocket while maintaining his eyesight down the field. Showing some good awareness, he then let the football rip, with rookie receiver Dontez Byrd breaking free momentarily down the right sideline. Byrd was able to grab the pass before being brought down for a 27-yard gain. Benkert ended the exhibition with 125 yards on 9-of-17 passing. He did throw an interception on a tipped pass late in the fourth quarter. “There were still some plays out there I wish I would have made,” Benkert said. “But it’s a good starting point and a lot of things to learn from.” The Falcons clearly thought Benkert has talent, considering the $60,000 guaranteed bonus they gave him as an undrafted rookie out of Virginia. He had a productive college career, having thrown for 3,207 yards and 25 touchdowns as a senior in 2017. Benkert also completed deep balls of 30 and 23 yards to rookie receiver Devin Gray, who recorded a game-high 83 yards on four catches. For Benkert, this marked one of the first times since training camp began that he was able to unleash some passes down the field. “I haven’t had many chances in camp to go deep,” Benkert said. “It’s something I always feel I have in my back pocket. It’s one of my strengths. Any time I get an opportunity to and it’s the right situation, I’m going to take the chance.” Benkert’s ability to throw the deep pass is a trait that caught Quinn’s eye when the Falcons’ front office evaluated him. “I also thought he did a nice job extending plays, getting outside the pocket,” Quinn said. “He’s comfortable throwing on the run, and that’s a big part of what we do anyway.” ‘Pre-game jitters’ For a lot of players, Friday night marked their first extensive action in a professional football game. Among those was rookie linebacker Foye Oluokun, the Falcons’ sixth-round draft pick out of Yale. Oluokun, who recorded three tackles in his preseason debut, admitted that there were some nerves in the early going as a first-year player competing in his first game. “There were some pre-game jitters, but it smoothed out as the game went on,” Oluokun said. “Between the white lines, it’s just football. As a team, we could have brought more juice to the game. I think we’re going to address that and get back to having fun as a team.” Quinn said he felt a lot of the younger players weren’t as loose as they could have been on the field. “I was hoping to see the energy they’ve shown up through May,” Quinn said. “I thought (Friday night) there was a little bit of first-game tightness. One of the phrases we have is, ‘The way we do anything is the way we do everything.’ I’m anxious to look (on film) to see who really stepped up and made plays.” Star of the game Safety Damontae Kazee was all over the field for the Falcons’ defense Friday night. He finished with 11 tackles, nine of which came without an assist. “Kazee has been someone who has definitely impressed us,” Quinn said. “Probably from the midway point last year on. The factor on special teams, and (Friday), his physicality to go.”
  19. https://theathletic.com/466363/2018/08/09/falcons-jets-preseason-preview-battle-at-right-guard-young-defenders-to-watch/ AST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Fans were out in full force early Thursday evening at MetLife Stadium, ready for the first feel of football of the 2018 season. OK, it wasn’t for the Falcons-New York Jets preseason game. A day before the Falcons take the field at MetLife Stadium, the New York Giants were hosting the Cleveland Browns. While most teams are playing Thursday night, the Falcons and Jets are two of only four teams playing Friday night (the Detroit Lions-Oakland Raiders game is the other game). There are also two games Saturday (Minnesota-Denver and Los Angeles Chargers-Arizona). The Falcons, however, don’t have too many questions entering preseason action. Most of the position groups are secure with the exception of a couple. With that in mind, here are a few areas to watch when the Falcons and Jets kick off Friday: How Schweitzer holds up Heading into the first preseason game, Wes Schweitzer sits atop the Falcons’ depth chart at right guard after what can be described as an up-and-down 2017 season. While it’s not advised to read into the initial depth chart released during the preseason, it is of note that Schweitzer gets the first go with the first team in a preseason game, considering the Falcons signed Brandon Fusco to compete for the spot at right guard. In his career, Fusco has started 80 of the 83 games he has played in. He joined the Falcons on a three-year, $12.75 million deal, which is obviously starter money. Conventional wisdom, therefore, suggests the right guard spot is Fusco’s to lose. But don’t count out Schweitzer just yet. As camp opened, the Falcons posted a video from a team meeting on Twitter, with head coach Dan Quinn praising Schweitzer for the quality work he put in during the summer. While Fusco started getting first-team reps on the third day of camp, Schweitzer repeatedly has shown back up with the top unit at right guard. It would appear that Schweitzer isn’t going down without a fight. Quinn said as much following the team’s practice Aug. 3. “Wes is not just going to hand it over, and I want to give each player their chance to compete,” Quinn said. The first-team offensive line probably won’t be on the field for long against the Jets. But it will be interesting to see how Schweitzer performs early and if he continues to get snaps — as well as Fusco — once the other first-team offensive linemen are done for the night. Behind Freeman and Coleman Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman shouldn’t get many carries against the Jets. Instead, there are several backs vying for the third running spot who should get plenty of game action Friday night. The presumed favorite for the third running back spot is rookie Ito Smith, who was picked by the Falcons in the fourth round of the 2018 NFL draft. Given the fact that the Falcons used a draft pick on him, Smith would seem to have a leg up in the competition. Smith is built a lot like Freeman. Both are compact running backs, with Freeman standing at 5-foot-8 and Smith at 5-9. Freeman weighs 206 pounds, and Smith is 195. Smith, who averaged 10.5 yards per reception during his final three years of college, has the skill set to be a third-down pass-catcher, which could go a long way in a Falcons offense that is looking to get the backs more involved as receivers. While Smith has the early advantage, two other backs have stood out in camp. Terrence Magee will be one to watch during the preseason games as his speed and quickness have been easy to notice. Magee has seen limited NFL action the past two years with Baltimore in 2015 and Seattle in 2016. Undrafted rookie Justin Crawford, out of West Virginia, also has shown some burst. He’s coming off of back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons in college in 2016 (1,184 yards and four touchdowns) and 2017 (1,060 yards and seven touchdowns). Receiver depth Barring an unforeseen circumstance, the Falcons have a core of five receivers to work with for the upcoming season. Julio Jones headlines a talented group that also features Mohamed Sanu, Calvin Ridley, Justin Hardy and Marvin Hall. From there, the Falcons could keep one or two more receivers on the roster. A lot of that has to do with special teams ability. And the first couple of preseason games should help the coaching staff decide who will be a great fit on the roster. Based on his selection as a sixth-round draft pick in April, Russell Gage seemingly would have the upper hand. At LSU, Gage recorded 517 total yards (285 receiving, 232 rushing) as a senior. At 6-0 and 184 pounds, he offers quickness and speed to the position. But he could earn his check on special teams coverage, considering he recorded 19 tackles on special teams throughout his college career. A receiver who has practiced as a returner is Reggie Davis, who is currently listed sixth on the Falcons’ depth chart. Davis, a second-year wideout out of Georgia, was a standout for the Falcons last preseason and nearly made the 53-man roster. Following training camp a year ago, he ended up going to the Browns’ 53-man roster before returning to Atlanta’s practice squad. If the Falcons go with six receivers, and if Gage and Davis are the final two to decide from, the one not on the 53-man roster is a strong candidate to begin the season on the practice squad. Young defender watch The only defensive starting spot seemingly up for grabs is at the defensive tackle spot next to Grady Jarrett. Since this serves as the first game action for rookies, defensive tackle Deadrin Senat should get plenty of playing time Friday night. Senat was selected in the third round of the draft out of South Florida and very well could be someone Atlanta plugs in the middle at some point this year. Thus far in camp, however, Senat has been a second-teamer. Since all three starting linebackers should get plenty of rest, Quinn pointed out that this will be a good chance for Foye Oluokun, Emmanuel Smith and Emmanuel Ellerbee to showcase what they can do. Oluokun, taken in the sixth round out of Yale, could have a rotational spot and a special teams role right away if he impresses during the preseason. “Those are a handful to keep an eye on for the first (preseason) game,” Quinn said. At cornerback, this will be the first chance for Isaiah Oliver to show off his athleticism at the position. At 6-1 and 195 pounds, Oliver is a rangy corner with a 7-foot wingspan. He’s the ideal body type for Quinn’s defense. Fullback battle The Falcons are like the vast majority of NFL teams in that they won’t line up in the I-formation and lead block with the fullback play after play. But the fullback still has a role in Atlanta’s offense, whether it’s as a catch-passing H-back, pass protector or lead blocker in certain run plays. With Derrick Coleman gone, the Falcons have decided to turn to either second-year fullback Ricky Ortiz or rookie Luke McNitt. Ortiz, who played his college ball at Oregon State, spent a good portion of the 2017 season on the Ravens’ practice squad. McNitt is an wasn’t drafted coming out of Nebraska. Not that the Falcons’ depth chart matters, but Ortiz got the first nod at the top of the list. Still, McNitt has seen plenty of snaps with the first team throughout training camp. This isn’t a position battle that will be followed too closely by a lot of fans, but it’s one that has the coaching staff’s full attention.
  20. https://theathletic.com/464341/2018/08/08/assessing-the-falcons-2017-red-zone-woes-and-how-they-can-get-better-in-that-area/ Following practice Tuesday, each of the Falcons’ receivers lined up wide to the left of quarterback Matt Ryan to run a fade route. All of the wideouts worked on high-pointing the football, catching it over the top and bringing the ball in on the back shoulder. Ryan was lined up around the 5-yard line for these passes, indicating a desire to improve the timing with his receivers in the red zone. The red zone has been an area of emphasis all preseason, with the Falcons spending a lot of practice time working on plays inside the 20-yard line. After all, the Falcons were able to move the ball between the 20s en route to a No. 8 showing in total offense at an average of 364.8 yards per game in 2017. But Atlanta fell from first (33.8 points per game) in scoring offense in 2016 to 15th (22.1) in 2017. A lot of this had to do with Atlanta’s inability to punch the ball in the end zone with regularity once inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. “Offensively, too many drives got stalled, whether it had been a penalty that could’ve kicked you back out to kick a field goal,” Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said. “We love Matt Bryant, but we like it when he’s kicking extra points even better. We wanted to make sure when there were opportunities for us to convert on some of those; we’d work hard on that, and we have.” The Falcons lined up for a red zone play 174 times in 2017, which is an average of 10.9 red zone plays per game. They actually ranked sixth in the NFL in red zone scoring opportunities per game at 3.4. But when it came to red zone touchdowns, the Falcons converted only 50 percent (23rd in the NFL) of their regular-season trips into the end zone. After charting each red zone snap and penalty in 2017, here is a snapshot of the types of plays and how the drives panned out. Running the ball: The Falcons totaled 163 rushing yards on 67 carries in the red zone. This was good for an average of 2.4 rushing yards per carry. While this number might appear bad, it is an understandable stat due to the short field and the number of times teams score — or attempt to score — from inside the 5-yard line with the running game. At the same time, Chicago Bears running back Jordan Howard averaged 4.8 rushing yards per red zone carry in 16 games, so a lofty average can occur inside the 20-yard line. Falcons running back Devonta Freeman ran the ball 34 times inside the 20-yard line for 70 yards (2.1 yards per carry). He scored seven touchdowns. Tevin Coleman, who had five red zone scores, totaled only 11 fewer red zone carries and averaged 2.6 rushing yards per attempt. At home, the Falcons were much better at running the ball in the red zone. In its eight home games in 2017, Atlanta totaled 96 rushing yards on 37 carries. On the road, that number dropped to 67 yards on 30 carries. Throwing the ball: Only six quarterbacks who started the majority of the season — Jacoby Brissett (28.9), DeShone Kizer (31.8), Alex Smith (44), Marcus Mariota (45.3), Jameis Winston (45.8) and Trevor Siemian (45.9) — had a lower red zone completion percentage than Atlanta’s Matt Ryan. Inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, Ryan’s completion percentage, which was 64.7 percent for the entire season, dropped to 46.2, which was the same as Carolina’s Cam Newton. Compared to the team’s 67 runs, Ryan attempted 75 passes in the red zone. Twenty percent of his red zone throws went for touchdowns as he found the end zone 15 times in this area. The top three recipients of Ryan’s red zone throws were Freeman (eight targets, five catches, 60 yards, one touchdown), Coleman (four targets, four catches, 46 yards, three touchdowns) and Mohamed Sanu (12 targets, seven catches, 40 yards). Turnovers: Quinn noted that turnovers weren’t too kind to the Falcons in the red zone. He’s right, considering Atlanta gave away seven opportunities to score. On three occasions, the Falcons turned the ball over on downs. Twice, they had a field goal blocked, and another time Bryant missed a close attempt. Freeman lost a fumble in Week 16 at New Orleans at the 1-yard line. Atlanta got lucky on another Freeman fumble that tight end Levine Toilolo recovered for a touchdown against Tampa Bay. The red zone miscues put a damper on a second consecutive top-10 showing in total offense. The Julio factor: As mentioned previously, Freeman, Coleman and Sanu were Ryan’s top red zone recipients in 2017. Austin Hooper was next at nine targets, seven catches, 39 yards and two touchdowns. All three of Justin Hardy’s touchdowns came in the red zone. Receiver Julio Jones was fifth on the Falcons in red zone yards (33) and touchdowns (one). But it wasn’t like the Falcons avoided Jones in the red zone. Ryan targeted him 19 times inside the 20-yard line. It’s just the two were only able to connect in the red zone on passing attempts 26.3 percent of the time. Ryan and Jones have spent considerable time in training camp working on their timing from short distances. During the practice Tuesday, Jones was able to come down with a jump ball in the back of the end zone. Jones had only three touchdowns in 2017, despite finishing second in the league with 1,444 yards. But it’s easy to determine that the inability to connect in the red zone played a major part of his touchdown total. At the same time, Jones is going to command a ton of attention near the goal line. Without as much field to work with in the red zone, defenses can afford to spend more resources taking Jones out of the equation. “Everyone is like, ‘Oh, you need more red zone targets. You need this, you need that,’ ” Jones said. “They’re looking at stats. You have to watch the ballgame to see people trying to take me away and things like that.” Should be fixable in 2018: The numbers suggest Atlanta should have punched the ball in the end zone more often than it was able to. It had a top-10 total offense. It converted goal-to-go situations 77.8 percent of the time, which was eighth-best in the league. The Falcons have a former MVP quarterback who has completed more than 64 percent of his passes in a season for the past six years. They finished third in the NFL in average yards per play at 5.93. It’s not like Ryan can’t convert in the red zone. If anything, 2017 went against this grain of his career arc. In 2016, Ryan completed 61.8 percent of his red zone throws. In 2015, it was 57.5 percent, and in 2014 it was 59.4 percent. The 2017 season marked the first time Ryan didn’t complete at least 50 percent of his red zone throws since 2011. The Falcons have stressed red zone improvements throughout training camp, with the hope that the scoring output will get back to its 2016 level. Considering the numbers put forth last season, a jump in this area statistically could mean all the difference for the Falcons’ offense. “I think there’s an urgency from the players of getting the extra work that we need to try to be more productive in that,” Ryan said. “We always talk about we get what we emphasize. As an organization, that’s been something that we’ve emphasized, and we’ll expect to see better results.” Saubert has Quinn’s attention Following Wednesday’s training camp practice, Quinn named a particular player he is interested in seeing more from during the first preseason game against the New York Jets. Quinn said second-year tight end Eric Saubert, a fifth-round selection in the 2017 NFL draft, has jumped out to a good start during training camp. Therefore, Saubert should have plenty of opportunities to catch passes Friday evening. “I’m certainly looking to see how Saubert looks,” Quinn said. “He had limited reps last year and is somebody who has our attention at tight end.” Saubert appeared in 14 regular-season games a year ago but didn’t log a catch. He did not appear in either of Atlanta’s two postseason games. As a senior at Drake in 2016, Saubert caught 56 passes for 776 yards and 10 touchdowns. Quinn said Saubert dealt with a case of thinking too much as a rookie. Throughout the offseason, Quinn saw a tight end who is more trusting of what he can do in Atlanta’s offense. “He was guarded. He was so prideful on doing it right,” Quinn said. “He knew his assignment, but I don’t know if he fully trusted his training. He practiced hard, he studied hard, he went for it. Then, this offseason, we’ve seen that jump take place where, like, ‘Man, you know your stuff. Let this natural athleticism jump out.’ He’s really turning into the pass-catching tight end I hope we’d see. I’m anxious for him to get a chance to see that.” McKinley available for Jets game While he missed a few practices due to a shoulder contusion, second-year defensive end Takkarist McKinley will be available for the preseason game against the Jets on Friday. McKinley injured his right shoulder on the second day of training camp. He was limited for a few practices before resuming contact drills earlier in the week. Given that it’s the first preseason game, it’s still possible that McKinley is limited to a small number of snaps. “He responded in the right way,” Quinn said. “He was kind of champing at the bit to get back. We just want to make sure, in all instances, taking care of the guys in the best way.” As a rookie in 2016, McKinley recorded 15 total tackles, six sacks and forced two fumbles in 401 snaps in 16 games. While McKinley will be available, Quinn noted again that offensive lineman Ty Sambrailo (hand) and place-kicker Matt Bryant (undisclosed) will be held out of the preseason game. With Bryant out, rookie David Marvin will handle place-kicking duties.
  21. https://theathletic.com/461535/2018/08/06/schultz-matt-ryan-has-everything-he-wants-now-except-a-title/ These have been life-altering months for Matt Ryan. In April, he and his wife Sarah announced the birth of their twin boys, following a difficult pregnancy that included the impending father resting for a playoff game while on a hospital bed. In June, the Falcons gave their quarterback an NFL record $150 million contract, reaffirming generations of Ryans should never struggle to pay for diapers or onesies, even if wealth didn’t seclude him from the every-day realities of fatherhood. Sleepless nights. Disrupted days. Spit-up on the shirts. Etc. Lots of etc. “I’ve been up through the night,” Ryan said. “Helping out, getting the bottles, the stuff every parent goes through.” Yes. All the … stuff. “There’s only two people in the world that are allowed to **** on me,” he joked. Then he referenced Marshall and Johnson, his two not-quite-six-month-olds, a set of bookend rushers who have learned how to weaponize their body parts and attack their father from the blindside. “Been pee’d on, too,” Ryan said. “You gotta cover (that area). But when you’re trying to do two at once and they’re screaming, sometimes you’re just like, ‘Whatever. …’ ” This might not seem like relevant insight going into Ryan’s 11th NFL season. But the success of any professional athlete, particularly at a position as demanding as quarterback, hinges on his ability to shut out outside distractions. Few have done that as well as Ryan, who owns every major passing record in franchise history, led the Falcons to the Super Bowl during an MVP season two years ago, with any logical ending should have a championship ring on his finger and last season played a playoff game after studying and sleeping in Northside Hospital, where Sarah resided for seven weeks. Ryan said his difficult days leading up to the Philadelphia playoff game are not the reason the Falcons lost. He said he was “locked in” when he was on the field in the game, even through the obvious distractions of Sarah being in the hospital. “It was a trying week. But I actually thought I played pretty well,” he said. The 15-10 loss was a microcosm of the 2017 season, a game that could’ve been won with better red zone production. The Falcons’ season died with a goal-to-go drive that ended on the Eagles’ 9-yard line. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian was targeted for much of the criticism, but Ryan said, “From a players’ perspective, we had to make more plays. We have to take ownership, whether it’s make a better throw, come down with the catch or make a better decision in certain situations.” He includes himself. His numbers against one of the NFL’s strongest defenses – 22-for-36, 210 yards – were solid, not spectacular. If his preparation was off just a tad, there’s a reason. He had spoken in April about Sarah being hospitalized because of complications in the pregnancy and his two infant sons remaining in Northside Hospital for several weeks until doctors believed they were strong enough to be taken home. But Ryan went into more detail Tuesday about trials of that game week. It began on Tuesday, Jan. 9, five days before the game. Ryan received a phone call at 8:15 a.m., just 15 minutes into the quarterbacks’ meeting at the team’s Flowery Branch facility. After a routine exam early that morning, Sarah was told she needed to check into the hospital immediately. She required bed rest through the remainder of the pregnancy. “I was in the meeting room at 8, got a call at 8:15, and I was on the way,” Ryan said. He missed practice and meetings Tuesday (the team announced he was excused for personal reasons). He practiced and attended meetings Wednesday and Thursday, the last two major work days of the week before the travel day to Philadelphia. But there was nothing normal about the week. Instead of returning home after practice and meetings, he would drive to Northside to be with Sarah and slept on a hospital bed. He watched video and went over the game plans on his laptop in his makeshift meeting room. “You talk about trying to be as efficient with your time as you can, (but) you’re setting up a little mini office in Northside Hospital,” he said. “It was difficult. Amy time there’s complications with the pregnancy, regardless of what time of the year it is, that’s not fun. It’s scary because you really don’t have any control over it. So that part was nerve-wracking. But I had a lot of support that week – from the organization, from teammates, from family. They helped me navigate that week to have the best possible week, professionally and personally.” Great athletes can compartmentalize things in their personal lives. Some things are more difficult than others to put on a shelf. “It’s hard because your mind’s never really off what’s going on, no matter how hard you try,” he said. “We’re human. While (football) is one of the most important things in my life, and I’m committed to it, my children and my wife are more important to me than that. That takes precedent. People understand that.” Today is bliss. Sarah is doing splendid. The twins are sleeping through the night. Contract negotiations also have been put to bed. (Sarah, an entertaining follow on Twitter and Instagram, recently posted a picture of Ryan holding one of the boys and looking out the window, with the caption: “My guess as to what Matt was thinking as he longingly gazed out the window… “Training camp will be a breeze compared to this…”) The only thing missing from this perfect picture is a championship. But Ryan and the Falcons have come close before, and he has a good feeling about this team. He loves the addition of Calvin Ridley, the work put in this offseason by tight end Austin Hooper, the plans for how receiver Mohamed Sanu and running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman will be utilized. And, yes, the players and Sarkisian are “further along” than they were a year ago. The Falcons don’t need to score 540 points in the regular season like they did in 2016. Those were video game numbers. But they need to function better in the red zone and in key situations than last year, when they dipped to 353 points. What makes Ryan so certain this season will be better? “The consistency in practice,” he said. “There’s a feel, there’s an energy, and the good teams I’ve been on have felt that way. Production during practice to me is the first step to production during games, and I feel we’ve been productive during practice.” He defended Sarkisian, who has been any disgruntled fan’s favorite punching bag. “Sark has a much better feel for all of us and our skill sets and how to utilize that, and we have a better feel for why he’s calling certain things in situations,” Ryan said. “Those things together eliminate any gray area.” There’s a belief that this is the Falcons’ prime window to win a championship and that they need take advantage of these years. Ryan doesn’t dispute that, other than to say, “From a player’s perspective, the window is always one year.” Maybe this one will be less chaotic at the end.
  22. https://theathletic.com/457614/2018/08/03/the-matchup-advantage-atlanta-wants-to-create-with-mohamed-sanu/ The New England Patriots popularized the notion that slot receivers are small and shifty with how they used Wes Welker in the late 2000s. And as Welker started racking up catches at the position, more teams used smaller slot receivers as a way to create mismatches against slower linebackers. As defenses caught on, and as the NFL became more of a passing league, the nickel formation became used more and more with some teams even considering that to be a base defense now. From there, nickel defenders became much more important and have been become starters if a team opens a game with three or four wide receivers. To match the opposing slot receiver, the nickel defender is typically shorter but has the speed and agility to keep up. At the same time, not all slot receivers are created equally. With Taylor Gabriel, a short and shifty slot receiver, gone from Atlanta’s offense, the Falcons figure to rotate their core three receivers at the position. Atlanta’s best option just might be Mohamed Sanu, who has seen plenty of snaps as a slot receiver during his career. Falcons head coach Dan Quinn likes the idea of Sanu in the slot. At 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, Sanu has a bigger body type than the typical NFL nickel defender is used to going against. He has plenty of quickness, too, which allows him to run the same kind of routes that the smaller slot receivers usually do. “How often do we see the very small guy in the slot?” Quinn said. “Sometimes in the draft or free agency, just because the guy’s 5-8 and 170 pounds, ‘He’s a slot.’ Our slot receiver is a **** of a lot bigger than that, but that’s not every big guy who can do that, so he’s found the niche of who he is. He’s great at running option routes and as a ballplayer.” According to Pro Football Focus, Sanu caught 85.4 percent of the passes he saw in the slot in 2017. This led the entire NFL, of those with a minimum of 30 slot targets, with Buffalo’s Robert Woods and Minnesota’s Adam Thielen tying for second by grabbing 80 percent of their slot targets. Thielen, at 6-3, helps dispel the myth that slot receivers have to be a certain size. Larry Fitzgerald, also at 6-3, has proven to be a big and physical slot receiver during the latter portion of his career. And Fitzgerald, at age 34, is coming off of a season that saw him produce 1,156 yards and six touchdowns. Sanu isn’t typically thought of when it comes to a slot receiver. Sure, a lot of it probably has to do with his size. But Sanu isn’t pigeonholed as a slot receiver. With Gabriel gone, Sanu, Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Justin Hardy all will figure to see some slot snaps. Tight end Austin Hooper, who has split out some in pass formations during the early going of training camp, could be in the mix for some slot work, as well. It appears the Falcons will rotate their receiving targets at this position throughout the year. Sanu is entering his seventh NFL season and has plenty of knowledge to work with at the receiver position. Given Atlanta’s current situation at receiver, he’s more than happy to use his physical traits to Atlanta’s advantage when lined up in the slot. “Usually it is a smaller, quicker guy (defending the slot). That’s when I tend to use my size and my quickness,” Sanu said. “I just try to use what I have up here, my knowledge of the game and the understanding of where I fit in, and how I affect the play here or there.” Sanu has been a reliable target for the Falcons the past two seasons. In 2016, Sanu caught 59 passes for 653 yards and four touchdowns. Last season, he brought in 67 passes for 703 yards and five scores. Going into a third year with quarterback Matt Ryan has Sanu confident that he’ll continue to produce in Atlanta’s offense. “I just see myself doing my job. I’m very reliable,” Sanu said. “When Matt lays that ball up there, he has that confidence in me to make the play. I try to give him that confidence to when he lays it out there I’m going to go get it.”
  23. https://theathletic.com/455029/2018/08/01/schultz-its-about-sacks-and-vic-beasley-knows-he-needs-to-put-up-numbers-for-falcons/ Not long after the NFL season ended, Vic Beasley took a trip. This wasn’t the typical, get-away-from it all excursion for football players, which often includes beach, sun, water, lounge chair and some sort of aqua blue drink with an umbrella out of a smoking coconut. But rather, it was a spiritual trip to the Holy Land. “I went to Israel,” Beasley said. “I’m a pretty religious guy, and it’s some place I always wanted to visit, given my beliefs. See where Christ grew up. See Tel Aviv, Jerusalem. Go to The Wall. See things in person that you actually read about, see what you worship. It was a special moment. An amazing experience.” Beasley was back on less holy land Wednesday: Flowery Branch. As the Falcons’ best edge pass rusher, he’s back trying to find his way, in the less spiritual sense. It’s about sacks. As much as some believe sack totals can be misleading, you’ll seldom see a team that’s piling up sacks and losing games. Those roads rarely intersect. Since being drafted in the first round out of Clemson in 2015, Beasley has had a confounding string of NFL seasons. In Year 1, he had only four sacks and two forced fumbles. (The Falcons finished 8-8.) In Year 2, he had a league-leading 15½ sacks and six forced fumbles and earned All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors. (The Falcons went 11-5, won the NFC South and went to the Super Bowl.) In Year 3, Beasley dropped to five sacks and one forced fumble. (The Falcons went 10-6, finish third in the division and lost in the second round of the playoffs.) Notwithstanding all of the attention paid to the drop in production by the offense, the clear truth is that sacks equal success. Sacks lead to turnovers, which give the ball back to the offense for more possessions. The Falcons had that in 2016 (22 takeaways) but not as much in 2017 (16). There are extenuating circumstances to Beasley’s roller-coaster numbers. In his first season, he was learning. In his second, it all clicked, and he understood he wasn’t playing Boston College and Wake Forest any more. In his third, he missed two games early with a partially torn hamstring. Then Duke Riley suffered a knee injury, prompting coaches to move Beasley to outside linebacker, giving him responsibilities other than terrorizing quarterbacks. But excuses for last season aside, he needs to be better. He knows that. The coaches know that. They’ve told him that. “From a production standpoint — yeah, that’s something that our team relies on, and Vic’s aware of that,” head coach Dan Quinn said. Beasley said sack numbers can be misleading, adding, “Even if you have a lot of sacks, it doesn’t mean you or the team had a good year.” But … “But shoot, I’m a dog. I want to put up numbers.” So you’re saying it is about numbers? “Who doesn’t want to put up numbers? Obviously, you want to win; you don’t want to take away from the team. But you know that if you put up numbers, you’ve been a dog out there.” (That’s dog in a good way.) Beasley looks back at 2017 and says, “I felt like I could have had a little bit more production. But that’s just motivation for me for the next year. I want to lead the league in sacks again.” Beasley traveled to Israel with a half-dozen NFL players in a trip put together by the non-profit group American Voices. He visited holy and historical sites, the Gaza strip border, saw an attack tunnel dug by terrorists and met with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Beasley’s spirituality, he said, has taught him to be “more accountable and not take things for granted.” Transition to football here . . . Quinn has spoken to Beasley about what’s expected of him this season. The Falcons are expected to have one of the NFL’s best defenses, but the team is depending heavily on a more active pass rush than a year ago. Harried quarterbacks make mistakes and mistakes lead to turnovers. Quinn invited former Falcons pass rusher Patrick Kerney to camp this week, along with Chuck Smith, to work with Beasley, Takk McKinley, Brooks Reed and Derrick Shelby. Quinn and Kerney overlapped one year in Seattle (2009), and the coach referred to the former All-Pro as “one of the most detailed players I’ve ever coached.” Quinn acknowledged Beasley’s injury and position change last season, but Quinn didn’t go out of his way to make excuses for Beasley’s lower sack total. “He has to be consistent, using the technique and the speed that he has. He has the ability to get the ball out.” An NFL team’s success is never about one player, but there may be only two Falcons with the ability to impact the team as much this season: Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. If Beasley returns to form, the Falcons have the ability to return to the Super Bowl. It’s their sport’s promised land, and it would be a much shorter trip for Beasley. The game is in Atlanta.
  24. Ken Rosenthal head MLB writer. https://theathletic.com/86701/2017/08/23/ken-rosenthal-why-im-joining-the-athletic/
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