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  1. https://theathletic.com/1500790/2019/12/31/assessing-the-falcons-immediate-and-secondary-draft-needs-as-offseason-begins/ With the Falcons’ 2019 season wrapped up, the front office is now turning its focus to the upcoming NFL Draft. There are a number of areas to address, whether it be through the draft or free agency, which will be important to the long-term health of the franchise. Atlanta is positioned to select 16th overall and could go in a number of directions with its first pick. General manager Thomas Dimitroff said Monday that the scouting department already has met to put together its 2020 draft board. “We’ve set the board, a light set right now, but we’re in a good spot,” Dimitroff said. “Guys are out there churning it out during the All-Star games, All-Star season, and we’ll come back in February and really focus on the position stacks. Again, this staff is — obviously, they’re encouraged, continue to be encouraged by being with the same staff and really honing in on what we’re looking for in the specifics at the position, which is in team-building and the elements of scouting and the nuances of scouting. That is a very important thing, and to be on the same wavelength is massively important. I know that they’re encouraged by that.” Here’s a closer look at the organization’s immediate and secondary needs heading into draft season. Immediate needs Edge rusher The Falcons’ top pass-rushing defensive ends in 2019 were Vic Beasley and Takk McKinley. Beasley is set to be a free agent, and McKinley is entering his fourth season with it being uncertain whether the team picks up his fifth-year option. In addition, Adrian Clayborn and Steven Means are scheduled to be free agents. With these factors in mind, it’s easy to presume that edge rusher might be the primary position of need to attack in this year’s draft. Atlanta decided not to draft a pass rusher last year, opting to build up the offensive line in the first round. This time, the Falcons may want to turn their attention to this group. Granted, the depth at the position was much greater last year compared to this year, but the front office’s philosophy remains to draft the best player at a position of need. If that happens to be a defensive end at No. 16, the Falcons could be inclined to pull the trigger. Best draft-eligible edge rusher available: This is a no-brainer, assuming he declares. Of all the defensive ends potentially available, Ohio State’s Chase Young is the best at the position. His ability to get after the quarterback is unmatched, evidenced by his 16.5 sacks in 2019. Edge rushers who could be there and would be worth taking at No. 16: Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa, Penn State’s Yetur Gross-Matos, Alabama’s Terrell Lewis, Notre Dame’s Julian Okwara. Second-day defensive end prospects: LSU’s K’Lavon Chaisson, Notre Dame’s Khalid Kareem, Florida’s Jonathan Greenard, Michigan’s Josh Uche, Tennessee’s Darrell Taylor. Linebacker While Deion Jones and Foye Oluokun will be back in 2020, De’Vondre Campbell’s future with the franchise is uncertain. Campbell said Monday that he hasn’t heard much about coming back on a new contract. If the Falcons decide to move on from Campbell due to salary cap concerns, that could make linebacker a potential first- or second-round possibility. Losing Campbell certainly would hurt, considering he has been an integral part of the defense since his rookie season. For the second consecutive season, Campbell led the team in tackles, this time with 129. Best draft-eligible linebacker available: Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons showed he has the skill set to do just about anything on the field. He showed prowess rushing the passer, defending the run and covering the slot. In 2019, Simmons has tallied 91 tackles, six sacks and three interceptions. Linebacker who could be there and would be worth taking at No. 16: Simmons. Second-day linebacker prospects: Wisconsin’s Zack Baun, Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray, Oregon’s Troy Dye, LSU’s Patrick Queen. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett is a game-wrecker and earned an overdue Pro Bowl invite after a spectacular individual season that saw him total 7.5 sacks. But once again there will be a need to pick up some players to rotate alongside him, depending on whether it’s a run or passing down. Tyeler Davison and Jack Crawford are slated to be free agents, making this position group one to address. And honestly, even if Atlanta brings back Davison and Crawford, it’s still a position that could use another quality player. Best draft-eligible defensive tackle available: Auburn’s Derrick Brown was quite the disruptor in college. At 6-foot-4 and 325 pounds, he has the ideal blend of size and power along the interior front. If the Falcons wanted to go this route in the first round, he would make quite the exceptional pairing with Jarrett. Defensive tackles who could be there and would be worth taking at No. 16: South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw, Florida State’s Marvin Wilson. Second-day defensive tackle prospects: Texas A&M’s Justin Madubuike, Oklahoma’s Neville Gallimore, Alabama’s Raekwon Davis, Missouri’s Jordan Elliott, Utah’s Leki Fotu. Interior offensive line A lot of what this position is dependent on is whether the Falcons make Alex Mack a cap casualty. If he’s back, the immediate need is left guard. If Atlanta makes the tough decision to part ways with Mack, then center jumps to perhaps the top of the list of team needs. Regardless, the Falcons need an interior offensive lineman — whether it’s through the draft or free agency — who can play center and guard. Mack’s backup in 2019 was Wes Schweitzer, who also ended the year as the starting left guard. Although he’s a free agent, he looks to be a candidate to be re-signed. Best draft-eligible interior offensive lineman available: If Oklahoma’s Creed Humphrey declares for the draft, he probably will be the first interior lineman off the board. He also has a good chance to go in the first round, especially now that more guards and centers are going earlier than in previous years. Humphrey has a big frame as a guard or center, too, at 6-5 and 317 pounds. Interior offensive linemen who could be there and would be worth taking at No. 16: Humphrey, LSU’s Lloyd Cushenberry. Second-day interior offensive lineman prospects: Wisconsin’s Tyler Biadasz, Tennessee’s Trey Smith, Temple’s Matt Hennessy, Clemson’s John Simpson. Safety The need at safety has more to do with a post-2020 look at the Falcons. Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal (assuming his fifth-year option is executed) will be in the final years of their respective contracts next season. Damontae Kazee also will be in the final year of his rookie contract next season. The Falcons won’t be able to keep all three safeties in 2021 and possibly won’t be able to keep two. Therefore, the need to grab one in this draft appears much more important than maybe initially thought. Best draft-eligible safety available: LSU’s Grant Delpit seems like a perfect fit for this kind of defense. He can play both free safety and strong safety. His size at 6-2 and 206 pounds is ideal. His range at LSU has been exceptional throughout his career. Safeties who could be there and would be worth taking at No. 16: Delpit, Alabama’s Xavier McKinney. Second-day safety prospects: Lenoir-Rhyne’s Kyle Dugger, California’s Ashtyn Davis, Utah’s Terrell Burgess, Minnesota’s Antoine Winfield Jr. Secondary needs Running back Up against the salary cap, the Falcons can save $3.5 million by releasing Devonta Freeman, which would be tough from an organizational standpoint since owner Arthur Blank once declared him a “Falcon for life.” Freeman said Monday he wasn’t sure where he stood in the grand scheme of things but did mention he remains under contract. Time will soon tell whether the Falcons keep his contract intact, restructure his deal, trade him or release him. If it’s either of the final two options, that could force the team to draft a running back for the fourth year in a row. Best draft-eligible running back available: It almost seems like a travesty that Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor wasn’t a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. He shouldn’t have won it over Joe Burrow or anything silly like that. But Taylor ran for 1,909 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2019, which followed two prior seasons that saw him rush for more than 1,900 yards (he totaled 2,194 rushing yards in 2018). Assuming Taylor declares, he figures to be the best at the position in this draft class. Running back who could be there are worth taking at No. 16: Taylor. Second-day running back prospects: Georgia’s D’Andre Swift, Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins, Clemson’s Travis Etienne, Utah’s Zack Moss, Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard, Alabama’s Najee Harris, LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Arizona State’s Eno Benjamin. Cornerback If Atlanta makes Desmond Trufant a cap casualty, it makes sense to address this position fairly early in the draft. If Atlanta holds on to Trufant, there probably isn’t a reason to select a corner in the early rounds. The Falcons should feel good about how Kendall Sheffield and Isaiah Oliver finished the season, which could either be a case for or against Trufant being on the roster in 2020. A trio of Trufant, Sheffield and Oliver — with Raheem Morris as defensive coordinator — seemingly would make things problematic for opposing offenses. But Sheffield and Oliver could also man the outside corner positions in Atlanta’s base package, with someone else on a cheaper salary playing outside in nickel when Sheffield covers the slot. In this scenario, the Falcons almost certainly would need to draft a corner within their first four picks, all in the top 100, with how today’s pass-happy game is played. Best draft-eligible cornerback available: For quite some time, Ohio State’s Jeffrey Okudah has been considered the top draft-eligible cornerback. Okudah has all the traits — good length, speed and instincts — to place him in the top 10 of this year’s draft. He concluded the 2019 season with three interceptions. Cornerbacks who could be there are worth taking at No. 16: Alabama’s Trevon Diggs, Ohio State’s Shaun Wade, LSU’s Kristian Fulton, Florida’s CJ Henderson. Second-day cornerback prospects: Ohio State’s Damon Arnette, Clemson’s A.J. Terrell, Utah’s Jaylon Johnson, TCU’s Jeff Gladney, Mississippi State’s Cameron Dantzler. Tight end If the Falcons re-sign Austin Hooper, tight end isn’t an issue whatsoever. If they are unable to reach a long-term agreement and decide not to place the franchise tag on him, tight end becomes a glaring position of need. There are only two other tight ends on the Falcons’ roster at the moment — Jaeden Graham and Luke Stocker. Dimitroff stated once again that Hooper will be a priority for the franchise this offseason. Best draft-eligible tight end available: While he hasn’t declared yet, Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet has every tangible quality to make him the first tight end off the board in this year’s draft. Kmet has great size (6-6, 255 pounds) and great hands. His standout game this season came against Georgia when he caught nine passes for 108 yards and a touchdown. Tight ends who could be there are worth taking at No. 16: Kmet. Second-day tight end prospects: Washington’s Hunter Bryant, Vanderbilt’s Jared Pinkney, Missouri’s Albert Okwuegbunam, Dayton’s Adam Trautman.
  2. https://theathletic.com/1498199/2019/12/30/thomas-dimitroff-isnt-worried-about-salary-cap-as-difficult-decisions-loom-for-falcons-roster/ The Falcons front office maintains it’s not worried about the 2020 salary cap. The belief at team headquarters is that the Falcons will continue to be — in their words — “creative” in efforts to create some salary-cap space to sign some quality free agents. But obviously, each free-agent acquisition in 2019 came on a budget. The Falcons were in no position to sign a high-profile name on either side of the ball. As it stands, it seems unlikely that the Falcons will be able to make the kind of big splash in free agency that this fan base would love to see. The final 2020 salary-cap figure for each team hasn’t been revealed yet, although it’s estimated to be between $196.8 million and $201.2 million. This season operated at a cap figure of $188.2 million. Still, the 2020 season figures to be tight. An ESPN report during the weekend stated the Falcons adjusted Matt Ryan and Grady Jarrett’s 2020 salaries and previously scheduled bonuses into bonuses prorated during the duration of their deals. This move freed up $12 million. Before the moves, Over The Cap projected the Falcons to be $6.9 million above the salary cap, which means they would now only be $5.1 million below it with the Ryan and Jarrett adjustments. “I am not concerned about it being a situation where we are going to be in what has been perceived out there as ‘cap ****,’” general manager Thomas Dimitroff said Friday. “It’s not the case at all. We will accomplish what we need to accomplish to continue to be able to bring the right players in here to be a contender. That’s my feeling about it.” Dimitroff was then asked for specifics Monday as to why Atlanta isn’t in “cap ****” for the 2020 season. “Any time you’re looking to be creative, you have to look at where we are with the salary cap, and you have to make some difficult decisions,” Dimitroff said. “In my mind, when we do decide on the decisions we’re going to make, I don’t think it’s going to leave our organization in a spot where we are devoid of talent. I feel like we have a really good setup in how we will put it all together. Dan (Quinn) and I communicate very closely on how we want our team to come together and the money we’re going to put into the team. I think on the other side of this you’ll realize what I’m talking about.” The “difficult decisions” Dimitroff is referring to are the need to release players under contract who have been key contributors for the franchise in recent seasons. With the team up against the cap, the Falcons may be forced to move on from upcoming free agents Austin Hooper and De’Vondre Campbell. After a season that saw him catch 75 passes for 787 yards and six touchdowns — all career bests — Hooper should be in line for a sizable payday if he hits the open market. It wouldn’t be out of the question to see Hooper net a contract worth more than $10 million in average annual value. “It’s a business. I obviously would like to be here, I’m open to coming back here,” Hooper said. “But I don’t know — I haven’t received an offer yet. If I do, I’d like to be here. At the same time, it’s a business. I’ll let my representation and the Falcons handle that.” Dimitroff, however, didn’t rule out the option of placing the franchise tag on Hooper to keep him from leaving the team. While the 2020 franchise tag numbers haven’t been revealed, the figure for tight ends in 2019 was $10.387 million. Hooper remains a priority this offseason for the Falcons, who hope to keep him in the fold. “We’re in the process of doing that right now, talking about it and how we put things together,” Dimitroff said. “We haven’t made any solid decisions at this point. I’d also mentioned he was our focus in the offseason. The way the season goes, but not only the season from a record standpoint but how our players play, that’s a big part of putting it all together. Once we get to the other side of this week, we’ll continue to look at this and make some good decisions.” Campbell, who led the Falcons for the second consecutive season with 129 tackles, said it has been quiet on the contract front. Campbell would prefer to return to Atlanta if given the choice. “They gave me an opportunity that 31 other teams didn’t,” Campbell said. “It would be special to come back. But I understand the way this business works.” Dimitroff was also asked about where Campbell and Vic Beasley, an upcoming free agent who just played out his fifth-year option, are in the early 2020 roster construction process. “They factor into the consideration of what we’re doing to the roster, no question about it,” Dimitroff said. “We have not extended anything at this point.” Then there are the cap casualties — which also fall into the aforementioned “difficult decisions” category — the Falcons must contemplate. The easiest savings would come from releasing Alex Mack, which would save $8 million. But are the Falcons prepared to let go of one of the NFL’s best centers without a definite replacement? Probably not. If Atlanta felt like it had to do something with Mack’s contract, it would be better served in restructuring his 2020 salary and even adding a year to his contract to bring next season’s number down. There are a number of candidates whose release could bring the cap number down: Keanu Neal, which would save $6.466 million Desmond Trufant, which would save $4.95 million Allen Bailey, which would save $4.5 million Ty Sambrailo, which would save $3.75 million Devonta Freeman, which would save $3.5 million Ricardo Allen, which would save $3.125 million Luke Stocker, which would save $2.6 million Matt Schaub, which would save $2 million Takk McKinley, which would save $1.2 million Of this group, there are a number of players who don’t make much sense to release. Neal is too valuable to Quinn’s defense when healthy. Due to Bailey’s ability to defend the run, letting him loose would be a risk. Allen is one of the most influential voices in the locker room. While Schaub will be 39 next year, he proved he can step up when needed against the Seattle Seahawks. Trufant, who had one of his best seasons individually before it was cut short due to injury, is proof you can never have too many cornerbacks on an NFL roster. But Kendall Sheffield’s emergence and Isaiah Oliver’s second-half improvement could give the Falcons a reason to at least ponder parting ways with Trufant for financial reasons. Freeman will also be one to monitor this offseason. Quinn was asked specifically about Freeman’s future with the team during a Monday news conference, and he declined to elaborate. Quinn’s reasoning was that it’s too early in the offseason to talk about any player’s future with the team. Freeman, who signed a five-year, $41.25 million contract in 2017, appeared cognizant of the possibility he could wind up a cap casualty. Earlier in the day, Freeman was asked if he knew where his standing with the team was heading into the offseason. “I’m here,” he said. “Hey, I know I can play football real well, and I’ll continue to work hard and find ways to get better. Whatever happens, happens. I’ll just control what I can control.”
  3. https://theathletic.com/1497644/2019/12/30/schultz-falcons-improvement-depends-more-on-dan-quinn-than-roster-changes/ Dan Quinn, a defensive coach by trade, produced miserable results as the Falcons’ defensive coordinator in the first half of this season and by association, a big enough failure as a head coach that the team’s playoff hopes were reduced to ash before the end of October. We can forever debate why a 1-7 team with a defense being stomped for 31 points per game seemingly played the second half of the season as if under the threat of direct deposit being stopped. But there’s no debating this: The same roster — maybe even a lesser roster, given injuries — played better in the final eight games than the first eight. That suggests problems in 2019 stemmed less from personnel deficiencies than coaching. Quinn made it to the Super Bowl in his second season and reached the playoffs in two of his first three. But his five-year tenure has been punctuated by unexplained inconsistencies and a disturbing lack of player accountability. He’ll be back as the head coach in 2020 because owner Arthur Blank believes/hopes/prays that 6-2 trumps 1-7. Sunny talk about the salary-cap situation from Rich McKay and Thomas Dimitroff notwithstanding, the Falcons face a difficult offseason. They could part ways with some veterans, even if it means carrying millions in “dead” money. Notable candidates: Devonta Freeman and Desmond Trufant. Re-signing tight end Austin Hooper will be difficult. Linebacker De’Vondre Campbell could be gone. Personnel help will need to come mostly from the draft. Free agency moves will be low-budget. But the Falcons will only get better if Quinn doesn’t repeat his mistakes from the past. Here are a few: Failing as administrator to assess the big picture It should not have taken a 1-7 first half before Quinn realized he had problems on his staff (including himself as the defensive coordinator) and in the locker room (where there were several underachieving players who folded in adversity). The man is close to his players. He swims in a pool of enthusiasm. That works sometimes. But it also can cloud a coach’s objectivity and lead to wild emotional swings by a team. Hello, Falcons. This team needs greater perspective in good times and more accountability in bad ones. It needs more stable leaders — players with a thermostat stuck at 72 degrees. See: Julio Jones, Matt Ryan, Grady Jarrett, Ricardo Allen. Fluctuating emotions and inability to maintain focus, day to day, week to week lead to roller-coaster seasons. That falls on the head coach. This is an area where Quinn hasn’t improved, as evidenced by streaks. Consider the 2015 season: 5-0 start followed by a 1-6 skid. And 2017: 3-0 to start, then 0-3. And 2018: three straight losses, then three straight wins, then five straight losses, then three straight wins. And 2019: six straight losses in September and October, four straight wins to close the season. Fixing the coaching staff Quinn has gone through a staggering amount of change on his staff in five seasons, including three offensive coordinators, four defensive coordinators, three defensive line coaches and four running backs coaches. There’s expected to be more change in the next day or two. Dirk Koetter will be back as the offensive coordinator. Nothing we saw in 2019 supports the firing of Steve Sarkisian to hire Koetter. Quinn sought a more balanced attack, but the Falcons ranked 30th in rushing. Asked Monday whether the Falcons ran the ball enough this season, Freeman responded: “I don’t know. All I’m doing is do what I need to do. When my number is called, whether it’s a run or pass — if I need to block, run, whatever, I’ll do what you need me to do, Coach.” The Falcons were 0-for-5 in the red zone in the season finale at Tampa Bay. That left them ranked 25th in the league in red zone touchdown percentage at 52.7 percent, down from 64 percent (10th overall) in 2018. They also tumbled in third-down conversion percentage (45.3 to 42 percent) and offensive touchdowns per game (2.9 to 2.4). There are more metrics, but that’s enough. Scheme is overrated. Efficiency isn’t. Unpredictability isn’t. Koetter was largely predictable this season. This isn’t about the need for more gadget plays (see Ryan’s touchdown pass to Ty Sambrailo at Tampa Bay). It’s about keeping defensive players on their heels. Kyle Shanahan’s greatest gift was he never fell into patterns. Opponents struggled to get a read on whether a run or pass was coming, whether it was left, center or right. They would see a certain formation on a certain down and distance and guess one thing based on a previous play, only to see Shanahan call something completely different. I’ve written this before, but I also believe Quinn needs to cultivate an atmosphere of more diversity of thought. Some disagreement and/or friction can be a good thing. Coaches, just like players, need to be challenged. Player accountability NFL coaches are somewhat at the mercy of their roster, contracts and the salary cap. Once their team is set at the end of August, coaches are stuck with it. But there has been a lack of accountability at times from some players not performing to expectations, without a hint of lineup changes. We’re not behind the scenes so it’s difficult to know for sure whether “The Brotherhood” includes times when Quinn actually puts his thumb on players. But why did it take so long for Deion Jones and Campbell, among others, to play to their level of ability this season? There’s no question several regulars played with a level of urgency that was absent earlier. That speaks to a coach’s ability to motivate players — or, when needed, to scare the **** out of them. If they believed they were better than they were, they were wrong. If they believed their poor play in the first half was about to get a good man fired, they were right. Either way, they woke up. But too late. As Quinn acknowledged, “There’s no trophy for playing well in the second half.” Develop better leaders It’s amazing what coaching and strong leadership can overcome. Look at New Orleans, which overcame an injury to Drew Brees. Look at the Tennessee Titans, who made the playoffs with Ryan Tannehill at quarterback. Quinn is right to credit players for their second-half performance at a time when they could have “tapped out.” But great leaders help prevent long losing streaks to begin with. Quinn and Dimitroff need to do a better job adding leaders to this locker room. It’s something the Falcons had in 2o16 but have been short of since. The Braves did a nice job stressing leadership to players like Freddie Freeman and Chipper Jones, who were All-Stars but never had a desire to be the out-front guys in the room. Leadership seems to come naturally to Allen and Jarrett but not many others.
  4. https://theathletic.com/1494968/2019/12/29/falcons-show-resilience-in-turnaround-with-walk-off-pick-six-against-buccaneers/ TAMPA, Fla. — The Falcons defense was about to take the field for overtime when linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich made a declaration. “Let’s go get a pick-six and walk it out right now,” he told his players. Those words proved prophetic. On the first play from scrimmage in overtime, Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston dropped back to throw and targeted Cameron Brate underneath. Falcons linebacker Deion Jones was able to read the play the whole way. He saw Brate run an arrow route and proceeded to read Winston’s eyes. That gave Jones every indication where Winston was going with the football. And as Ulbrich instructed, Jones jumped the play, picked off the pass and returned it for the game-winning touchdown as the Falcons defeated the Buccaneers 28-22. “We finally got our defensive score this year,” Jones said. “We finished on top with the ball. We won, finished it off the way we wanted to.” The Falcons, who began the season 1-7, finished 7-9, second in the NFC South and on a four-game winning streak. The final play seemed fitting compared with the way the season began. In the opener against the Minnesota Vikings, Matt Ryan took a sack on the first play from scrimmage. Three plays later, the Vikings blocked Matt Bosher’s punt. That seemingly set the tone for a disastrous eight-game stretch. After Atlanta’s bye week, a turnaround ensued, especially on defense. The Falcons had two interceptions in the first eight games but tallied 10 during the latter half of the year. By coming away with two picks Sunday — Ricardo Allen had the other interception — the Falcons forced Winston into the distinction of being the only quarterback in league history to throw for 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in a single season. Jones said the defense was aware of this unfortunate statistic for Winston before kickoff. “We kind of had it in mind,” Jones said. “We just wanted to play and hopefully make it happen. We did, so it’s great.” The postgame locker room was jubilant since the Falcons ended with a victory and on a hot streak. But, of course, the sting of how the season started hasn’t gone away. Allen described the final game as “bittersweet” since it took the team half a season to play up to its potential. Even so, many players came away proud of being able to overcome the slow start with a much better showing. “Obviously, you want to be playing in the postseason,” defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. “But for us to be where we were at 1-7, with the group of guys we have to finish 6-2, that shows a lot of resilience from our team, our coaching staff and our organization.” Now, it’s a matter of figuring out how to replicate the kind of football displayed during the final eight games at the start of the 2020 season. With owner Arthur Blank needing to announce that the jobs of head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff were safe, there should be plenty of pressure for this team to start much better in 2020 than it did in 2019. On defense, the Falcons will move ahead with Raheem Morris as their defensive coordinator, thanks to how he turned around the secondary after moving to coach that position at midseason. On offense, Quinn said Friday that he is inclined to keep coordinator Dirk Koetter. As the defense improved during the second half of the season, the offense didn’t produce at the rate it should have given the personnel and the investments made on the offensive line. While the Falcons rank fifth in the NFL at 379.7 yards per game, they ranked 13th with 23.8 points per game. The passing attack produced big numbers at times, and the run game managed an average of 85.1 rushing yards per game. With Ryan, Julio Jones, Jake Matthews and Devonta Freeman playing under sizable contracts, there was no reason for the run game to be as stagnant as it sometimes was. When the offense is reviewed during the offseason, changes must be made to ensure better consistency. The adjustments must include figuring out a way to better protect Ryan. He took a career-high 48 sacks in 15 games played, and the Buccaneers got to him six times Sunday. His previous high was 44 sacks in 2013. For most of Sunday’s game, the offense stalled out when it neared the red zone. Younghoe Koo was asked to attempt five field goals. Unlike Tampa Bay’s Matt Gay, who was booed by the home fans after his third miss, Koo made each of his tries. For the year, the Falcons ranked 20th in red-zone touchdown scoring, converting 56.4 percent of the time. But while the offense couldn’t finish many drives, it started fast with perhaps its best play call all year. On the Falcons’ first possession, they drove to the Bucs’ 35-yard line and went with a play designed specifically for this week. All year long, Ty Sambrailo has entered games as a tackle-eligible tight end. But when Atlanta and Tampa Bay played the first time, the Falcons coaches noticed that the Bucs defense didn’t honor Sambrailo as a receiving option. Based on those tendencies, the coaches installed a play this week that saw Sambrailo run a seam route. If Tampa Bay stayed true to its tendency, Sambrailo was going to be wide open. Sure enough, no one accounted for Sambrailo, and he had no one remotely close to him. “We knew they were going to be in man,” Sambrailo said. “It was a run-pass option. If they would have covered me, we would have run the ball. If they covered me and not Luke (Stocker), we would have thrown to Luke.” The Falcons went through the play four times during the week and ran it against the defense twice. Both times, Sambrailo caught the ball. Even so, not every teammate was sold that the play could actually work. “We actually said it wasn’t going to work,” linebacker De’Vondre Campbell said. “But, hey, they proved us completely wrong. That was a great play. Ty made a great play. And I think the catch wasn’t impressive; it was the run after the catch to me. He definitely surprised me.” Ryan maintained more faith that the play would work out. “We had a good key for what they might do in that situation,” Ryan said. “They did exactly what we expected. It was impressive. Ty looked impressive in practice, though. It made me feel a lot better when I saw it in practice, when I saw him catch the ball. He’s pretty athletic. It shook out just the way it did in practice the other day.” Sambrailo last played tight end during his freshman year of high school, which also saw him fill in at quarterback after his team’s starter was injured. Since that season, he has been in the trenches. This marked his first-ever touchdown reception. According to Elias Sports, Sambrailo’s 35-yard touchdown is the longest for an offensive player listed at 300 pounds or more in NFL history. It’s also the longest touchdown reception for an offensive lineman since 1950. “That’s special. That’s really cool,” Sambrailo said. “We talked about running it, but I didn’t know what kind of distance they were expecting me to run.”
  5. Arthur Blank is an emotional guy. One doesn’t create a new enterprise, redefine the retail industry and become a self-made billionaire without being difficult, even cold, at times. Decisions are made based on results, not friendships. The business world is filled with people who had great ideas but didn’t have the fortitude to make hard decisions, relationships be damned, and the NFL works the same way. Blank is still emotional. But now he clings to hope. What he did Friday effectively was to stall for a year. Put aside the spin and “data” disseminated by the organization meant to douse the public brush fires (too late). The old and cold, results-oriented Blank would’ve cleaned house instead of doing what he did, which is retain coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff for at least one more season and — perhaps most stunning of all — put the once-expelled Rich McKay back in charge of football operations. McKay now oversees Quinn and Dimitroff, who was hired to replace McKay in 2008. Don’t try to make sense of this. Just watch. Next season will either unfold like some beautiful dream or go down like Pompeii. The months between now and next September will be surrounded by more doubters in the gallery than this organization has witnessed in years. “There will be fan backlash if we don’t win — I’d expect that,” Blank told The Athleticfollowing a news conference Friday. “But there would be fan backlash if there was a new coach and we didn’t win.” He acknowledges there’s risk. He’s playing a dangerous game. He’s effectively giving more weight to the Falcons’ 5-2 second half than their 1-7 start. He’s assuming the coaching-staff changes that worked in desperate times will work in Game 1 next season. He’s assuming five- and six-game losing streaks in the past two years were aberrations. He’s assuming the players on this roster who played with an unfathomable lack of urgency in the first eight weeks have been humbled. He’s assuming 5-2 will have some carryover effect even though 3-0 at the end of 2018 clearly didn’t impact the start of this season. He might be right. Or he might be standing in front of a slot machine with his final silver dollar. This is not the way he used to do business. “There’s obviously risk,” Blank said after the news conference. “There’s no guarantee going into next year that we’ll be able to continue what we’ve generated in the second half of this year. But our judgment is the least amount of risk, and our best opportunity for success is staying the course.” Blank denies the fact that he likes Quinn and Dimitroff played a role in all this. He denies that putting McKay at the top of the football flowchart again — with Dimitroff and Quinn now reporting to him — should seem strange. But these are un-Blank-like decisions. He fired Dan Reeves during Blank’s second year as owner in 2003, when Reeves followed a 9-6-1 season and a playoff upset of Green Bay with a 3-10 season that was generated mostly by Michael Vick’s broken leg. He fired Jim Mora after seasons of 11-5, 8-8 and 7-9. (Although, Mora didn’t help himself by telling a sports talk radio buddy that his dream job was coaching at the University of Washington.) He fired Mike Smith, who had five straight winning seasons and four playoff berths followed by records of 4-12 and 6-10. Quinn is 42-37 in five seasons and 13-18 in the past two going into the season finale at Tampa Bay. He was given a pass in 2018 because of injuries. But Blank is deciding to focus more on the 5-2 second half than the 1-7 start, which rendered the second half of the season meaningless. Blank’s own words: “After you’re 1-7, it’s kind of late. The music has stopped playing in many ways.” Not in many ways. In every way. At 1-6, I wrote that the season was over: Quinn had failed, and his firing appeared inevitable. Blank was heavily leaning toward making a change after the bye. An announcement was imminent, although for competitive reasons, Blank wanted to wait at least until after the trade deadline. Some in the front office suggested Blank slow down and let the season unfold. Then came the win in New Orleans. Then in Carolina. Then in San Francisco. It didn’t change the season, but it changed Blank, who had struggled emotionally with firing Quinn and Dimitroff all along. When the Falcons won consecutive games over the 49ers and Jacksonville, the decision was made. Blank had his weekly meeting with Quinn on Monday. Quinn to The Athletic: “He told me, ‘You’ve learned something. So apply the things you’ve learned moving forward.’ I said, ‘I want that chance.’ He said something like, ‘OK, go prove it.’” That was it. The announcement news conference was finalized Thursday night. Blank taped a friendly and orchestrated interview for the team’s website. It’s the way things are done in 1984. Also 2019. The public announcement was Friday, a classic end-of-week news dump. The Falcons had all their narratives ready Friday in an attempt to defuse fan backlash. They pointed out that New Orleans had three straight 7-9 seasons and that deciding to keep coach Sean Payton illustrates that patience pays off. But comparing Payton’s situation to Quinn’s is disingenuous at best. Payton had won a Super Bowl and went 73-39 with only one losing season in seven years. The Saints had salary-cap problems and were going through a significant rebuild. Payton was never going to be in trouble after three 7-9 seasons. The other bizarre aspect to this is McKay. He was pushed completely out of football operations following the 2007 season and the exit of Bobby Petrino. Blank kept McKay because of his strong ties to the NFL and the fact he needed McKay to run point on a new stadium deal. When Mercedes-Benz Stadium was completed, McKay briefly sought to work for the NFL, The Athletic learned. A position was created for him. But he then made a U-turn and decided he wanted to remain in Atlanta. Blank allowed him to increasingly become more involved in football ops in 2018. Blank effectively has added another layer of government. McKay is allowed to stand back, free of the mud splatter, should things blow up. Dimitroff is retained but effectively has had his authority undercut for the second time — the first came when Quinn was hired and given control of the 53-man roster — even if that’s not the way the organization is spinning things. McKay on Quinn and Dimitroff: “They still make the decisions. I’m charged with making sure our processes work.” Straight out of the Corporate Doublespeak handbook. Blank has strong emotional attachments to Quinn, Dimitroff and McKay. But there was a time when he had a strong emotional attachment to McKay and took away his authority anyway. He denies his relationships with the three played a role in his decisions: “The emotional attachment is to our fans and our franchise. It’s not to the individuals. I care about a whole lot of people. I care about their ability to perform. But this is a performance-based business.” Blank again: “I wish I could look into a crystal ball and tell you a year from now it’s going to be a perfect decision. My belief is, given all the evidence we have in front of us, that our best opportunity to win going forward is to keep Coach Quinn and Thomas in place. It has nothing to do with loyalty, nothing to do with friendship, nothing to do with personal relationships.” Correct. It’s about winning and losing and right now. Blank might wind up looking brilliant. But right now he looks like a man clinging more to hope than he has in the past.
  6. https://theathletic.com/1491246/2019/12/27/arthur-blank-still-believes-in-dan-quinn-and-thomas-dimitroff-but-for-how-long/ Friday’s practice wasn’t typical. Normally, an NFL owner doesn’t make his way to the field to deliver the news that the team’s head coach will be back for the 2020 season. But when the final practice of the regular season wrapped up, Arthur Blank made his way to the practice field and had each player huddle around him. From a distance, it was unknown what words were said. Of course, those inside the circle seemed to appreciate the message as applause broke out. It’s unknown how many of the players saw the announcement during the course of the day of preparation. For some, like Ricardo Allen, Blank’s message was the first he heard that his head coach and general manager were safe. Inside the building, the news was well received. Outside? If social media is an indicator, the sky has finally fallen and the sun will never rise again. Even so, Blank believes it is the best course of action heading into 2020. He stressed the continuity between the coach and general manager, to go with the current cast of players — many of whom have played for Quinn since he arrived in 2015. Blank said continuity alone isn’t necessarily enough to create a winning formula. While it helps, Quinn and Dimitroff will enter a prove-it year in 2020 with the goal of showing Blank’s gamble will pay off. There will be an added dynamic, with president and CEO Rich McKay overseeing Quinn and Dimitroff, which adds a layer between the previous working relationship in which the two reported directly to Blank. Regardless, that an announcement about their future was needed would signal the pressure the two will face in 2020. Blank wouldn’t reveal specifics about what he wants to see, but it’s clear Quinn and Dimitroff will be under the microscope when the next season kicks off. “I don’t have a set number (of wins) in mind,” Blank said. “I expect a different set of results, for sure. I haven’t sat down with the coach and said, ‘You have to win X number of games, etc.’ If we continue playing next year on the same basis, we’re playing this year over the second half of the year, which we have every ability to continue to do that. … We have the players, we have the same coaching staff. We moved some things around a little bit to make things more effectively. All of that is sustainable going forward and an opportunity to get better in free agency and the draft.” ‘He made (changes) too late in many cases’ Blank’s top critique of Quinn is one many people who have watched the Falcons hold. As Atlanta’s losses began to pile up, appropriate responses didn’t seem to occur in an adequate amount of time. Quinn explained it wasn’t that he wasn’t trying to adjust. It’s just that his first attempts at fixing the situation were falling short. It wasn’t until the bye week that Quinn made a drastic change to the coaching staff, which was to move Raheem Morris from wide receivers coach to defensive backs coach. Since then, the defense has played much better. Players have said Morris played a major role responsibility in the defense’s turnaround. On Friday, Atlanta said Morris will begin the 2020 season as the defensive coordinator. A lot of folks wondered why a career defensive coach was still coaching offense by the midway point of the season. It appears Blank was pondering the same thing. “A number of these decisions were all within (Quinn’s) ability to make. He made them too late in many cases. Some of them he tried to tweak earlier,” Blank said. “If you’re pressing me hard, what’s the major criticism I would have of the coach, and Dan would say, ‘I probably should have made these changes sooner.’ The second-half record speaks to that and speaks for that. I think Dan is the kind of person who reads a lot, studies a lot, and he’s very self-aware. I don’t think he’s the kind of coach who will make the same mistake in that regard.” Quinn basically was given a reprieve and must prove that the same mistakes won’t happen again. When visiting with Blank, Quinn assured his boss he will apply what was learned this season to correct what went wrong. “With Arthur, I said, ‘The reason I am so fired up is this has been the hardest and most invaluable year for me as a coach ever,’” Quinn said. “I’ve made mistakes, and we get to fix them. I think that’s the important thing, to use these lessons here. Not everyone always has the chance to do that. I hate the results, but I learned a lot.” Another mistake Quinn made was putting too much responsibility on himself after firing all three coordinators after the 2018 season. In addition to taking over play-calling duties as the defensive coordinator, he tried to spend extra time with the defensive ends while maintaining the day-to-day responsibilities of being a head coach. The early move to a diamond front on the defensive line didn’t seem to work too well, either. At the bye and before the first meeting against the New Orleans Saints, it didn’t seem like Quinn was in a great place with his job security. But that’s the game in which things started to change for the better. A week later, a blowout win over the Carolina Panthers essentially gave him the remainder of the 2019 season. A victory on the road against the San Francisco 49ers may have been the final piece of confidence Blank needed to bring him back for another year. Blank is placing a lot of faith in the fact that the 5-2 record the past seven games is a true indicator after the 1-7 start. “The thing I’d like to see change is results,” Quinn said. “To not have the results go early on, I thought that was a big deal. Any time there is change that goes for the better, yeah, why didn’t we do it earlier? That’s a fair question. … Ultimately, the thing that worked the best was the biggest change.” Demoted to overseeing his replacement, 13 years later Perhaps the most interesting development is that McKay will serve as a de facto layer of management over Quinn and Dimitroff. While that’s not how the organization would prefer to put it, it does seem a bit odd to move McKay, who had very little to do with football operations the past 12 seasons, in charge of Quinn and Dimitroff. Under the previous arrangement, Quinn and Dimitroff reported directly to Blank. Dimitroff replaced McKay as the Falcons’ general manager in 2008, with McKay sliding into the team president/CEO role he has held since. Almost 13 years later, McKay is, for all intents and purposes, a superior to Dimitroff. In addition, it also seems odd that near the end of a disappointing season, the only management move that was made was a pseudo-promotion. “Rich has a storied background in football for 25 years. Tampa Bay, 10 years. Fifteen years here,” Blank said. “Most of that time he functioned as a general manager. Rich, we’ve asked him to spend his time up here next year. He’ll be up (in Flowery Branch) at least four days a week working closely with Dan and Thomas.” Blank and McKay said the new setup won’t have any factor on personnel determinations made between Dimitroff and Quinn. “My job will not be to make any decisions,” McKay said. “My job is just to help them, support them and make sure that we do have a structure in which every decision we make has a good rhythm to it and a good purpose, including the salary cap, including player personnel and including coaching. They still make the decisions, but I’m charged with the job of making sure that our processes work and making sure that we’re giving them the support they need, and (I’m) happy to do it.” If McKay truly isn’t taking part in football decisions, he has found himself in a position to receive a pat on the back when things go well while distancing himself from situations that go awry. For many football executives, it would seem to be an enviable position to land. Quinn and Dimitroff are familiar with McKay, considering the number of years everyone has been with the Falcons. Now, they will all get a chance to work together a little more closely. How it actually plays out could be something to monitor down the road. “We already have a good working relationship with Rich,” Quinn said. “So, this is not somebody Thomas and I already don’t spend a bunch of time with and enjoy doing so. … Rich is a good football guy. He has been for a long time. We lean on him already for a lot of things. To have him here for more is a good thing.” ‘The trial and error period, we have to get rid of that’ For the vast majority of the players, Friday was a wonderful workday. The coach they have been fighting for during the second half of the season is set to return. Many fans might have been begging, and expecting, for the Falcons to part ways with Quinn and begin a coaching search. But the players wanted to keep Quinn. With the postseason out of reach, that has been the goal the past seven games. “When you don’t have very much to fight for in the season, when you know you’re not going to the playoffs, the one thing is you don’t want the head man gone,” Allen said. “For us to be able to fight for him is a blessing.” There are those who will question where the fight was during the first eight games. The answer to that is the willingness to fight for Quinn was always there. As Blank said, however, those early-season failures can be pinpointed on the coaching staff for not putting players in better positions and for not making the necessary coaching personnel adjustments that occurred after the bye. While the Falcons started 1-7, the players held onto their admiration of Quinn. The necessary changes that led to winning football took a little too long to make. And while the Falcons have played better the past seven weeks, there is nothing to suggest that performance will carry over. In fact, it would go against the usual coachspeak that each year is different and independent of another. The Falcons, up against a salary cap that McKay and Dimitroff are apparently not too concerned about, likely will need to unload some contracts during the offseason. The roster won’t be the same, and some key veterans will be a year older. Injuries are unpredictable. With a new season beginning with a fresh start, will the same sense of urgency be there by Week 1 as it has been the past few weeks? Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said a previous season’s victories do not determine future success. But he also expressed the need for his teammates to start the 2020 season with greater enthusiasm. “The trial and error period, we have to get rid of that,” Jarrett said. “We have to start fast. We can’t have mulligans.” Survive and advance Dimitroff went through a similar situation in 2014 when it was assumed he would be fired alongside head coach Mike Smith. Smith was ousted, but Dimitroff held onto his job. Once again, with questions of his job security buzzing through the year, Dimitroff is still the Falcons’ general manager. But like after the 2014 season, it came with a cost. Whereas Smith reported to Dimitroff, Blank changed the structure, with Quinn and Dimitroff reporting to Blank independently. While Dimitroff remained over the personnel department, Quinn took control over the players. But now, instead of Blank, it will be McKay, the person Dimitroff replaced as general manager in 2008, who oversees Quinn and Dimitroff. How McKay will actually improve player personnel decisions remains to be seen. If one is to believe Blank when he says Atlanta has the players in place to win big, that seemingly would absolve Dimitroff of much of the blame for this season’s failures. Dimitroff drafted Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. He signed Alex Mack as a free agent. He drafted Allen, Jarrett, Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell. Most recently, it looks like the early returns on draft picks Chris Lindstrom, Kaleb McGary and Kendall Sheffield are positive. Even so, Dimitroff found his way into a hot seat because a team built to win was getting blown out during a horrendous six-game losing streak. With his job secure for 2020, all Dimitroff, as well as Quinn, can hope for is to not be in the same position one year from now. “Of course, your mind goes there every once in a while,” Dimitroff said. “I’ve been in this role for 12 years, going on 13, and there have been some tough times and some good times, of course. My focus and my goal through the season was, of course, to support Dan and to support the rest of the administration.”
  7. https://theathletic.com/1481708/2019/12/22/vic-beasleys-face-soon-could-be-tattooed-on-atlanta-radio-hosts-tuchus/ Mike Bell was very confident about this prediction. He remains confident with one game remaining. But the possibility that the 92.9 The Game co-host of “Dukes and Bell” ends up with a tattoo of Vic Beasley’s face on his butt is great after the fifth-year defensive end notched his eighth sack of the season in the Falcons’ 24-12 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday. Anyone who listens to “Dukes and Bell” is aware of the bet Bell made with the city when the Falcons decided to keep Beasley on his $12.8 million fifth-year option. When Atlanta finalized this decision, Bell and co-host Carl Dukes addressed the topic, with Dukes asking Bell if he was labeling Beasley a bust. Bell declared Beasley to be a bust and doubled down by betting that he would get Beasley’s face tattooed on his butt if the defensive end recorded 10 sacks in 2019. At the midway point of the season, when Beasley had only 1.5 sacks, it seemed like Bell’s rear end was safe from some extra ink — more on this in a moment. During the past seven games, however, Beasley’s production has ramped up, with 6.5 sacks in that span. That number extrapolated for 16 games would put Beasley at a total of 15 sacks for the season. “I just wish he was doing this when the season was at stake,” Bell said. “If he could have done this when we were losing these six games, I would feel a lot better about getting his face on my butt permanently!” While Bell co-hosts the popular Atlanta sports radio show, he sits in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium stands for games as a season-ticket holder. A fan who sits next to Bell wore a No. 44 jersey Sunday and made sure to rub it in when Beasley recorded a sack at the 4:58 mark of the second quarter. Beasley came close a couple of other times but was unable to record No. 9. If he’s to get 10, both will need to happen in the finale against a tough Tampa Bay offensive line, which prevented Beasley from getting to quarterback Jameis Winston in the first matchup. “I am still confident that Vic will not get two sacks against Tampa Bay,” Bell said. “That’s a solid offensive line. But I’m excited for people who listen to our show; they’re very fired up. I get a lot of heat every time he gets a sack, even in my own section. People are losing their minds.” Beasley is aware of the bet Bell made on air. Asked if he felt slighted by it, Beasley smiled and shrugged it off. “I feel like everybody is entitled to their own opinion,” Beasley said. “If that’s how he feels, that I can’t (get 10 sacks), then that’s his opinion.” Statistically, this is now Beasley’s second-best season. His most productive season came in 2016, when he recorded 15.5 sacks in a season that culminated in a Falcons Super Bowl berth. His other seasons saw him record four sacks in 2015, five in 2017 and five in 2018. At eight sacks, Beasley is relishing the opportunity to potentially get to 10. “It’s always my goal,” Beasley said. “I want to be a double-digit guy. It’s constantly going for it, trying to get there.” While Beasley was aware of Bell’s bet, some of his teammates said they hadn’t heard of it. Quarterback Matt Ryan’s eyes lit up when he was told about it. “How many sacks does Vic have?” Ryan asked. Eight. “Vic’s got a big weekend next week!” Ryan said. Safety Ricardo Allen is also hopeful that Bell gets a butt tattoo with Beasley’s face on it. “That’ll be some cool memorabilia for the rest of (Bell’s) life,” Allen said. “I hope Vic gets 10 sacks for himself and for that tattoo.” Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett believes Beasley will get two sacks next week. But when he was told about the bet, Jarrett didn’t seem to find it that funny, noting that it was “disrespectful” to Beasley. Bell’s colleagues at 92.9 The Game are naturally ecstatic about the possibility of Bell getting Beasley’s face tattooed on his butt. During the game, a 92.9 The Game engineer working the broadcast of the Falcons-Jaguars game at the studio sprinted to a dry erase board to update the Beasley sack counter. Dukes, along with everyone else at the station, hopes Bell loses the bet. “This shows you how polarizing Vic Beasley is and whether or not he was deserving of getting his $12.8 (million) option picked up,” Dukes said. “When Dan Quinn told me he would make him better and then the season started the way it did, most of our listeners thought this was a mistake. Mike put his money where his mouth is and said ‘I will get a tat of his face on my butt’ before the season. Most Falcon fans want him to reach 10 sacks, while the other half are wondering where has this been? Especially the first half of the season?” If Beasley does get to 10 sacks next week, Bell has a plan to eventually cover up Beasley’s face. First, since the original bet offered no mention of the size of the tattoo, Bell said it would be the size of a silver dollar. He also plans to use a picture where either Beasley’s braids or afro eventually could be turned into dreadlocks so that he can convert it into a Bob Marley tattoo. Bell will at least keep the tattoo, if Beasley comes through with 10 sacks, through Falcons training camp next summer. “I will carry Vic Beasley on my tuchus so I can show it to Dan Quinn in July,” Bell said. While Beasley’s play has ramped up in recent weeks, the thought that Bell actually could lose the bet probably didn’t begin to be a possibility until Beasley tallied a sack last week against the San Francisco 49ers. Bell was with his wife vacationing in Jamaica and was watching a game with a couple who happened to be Falcons fans. When Beasley sacked Jimmy Garoppolo, the fans started giving Bell a hard time. Quinn credited Beasley’s improved play to using better technique with his hands. Allen noted that something evidently has changed with Beasley for the better. “It comes like that sometimes,” Allen said. “As a football player, you set goals for yourself. Early, maybe he had to watch himself, watch his technique, watch how people were playing him. And he just clicked it on. It’s just Vic being who he is, playing relentless. Sometimes it doesn’t start at the beginning. But it isn’t how you start, it’s how you finish.” For Bell, this won’t actually be his first butt tattoo. In 51 years, Bell previously had one tattoo inked — on his butt, in Atlantic City, at the age of 17. That tattoo, one he still regrets, is a shamrock with a Gaelic saying. Beasley was asked if he is motivated to make Bell pay for the bet he made. Beasley smiled and played the diplomat’s role. “My motivation is just to be a double-digit guy,” he said.
  8. https://theathletic.com/1481434/2019/12/22/schultz-breaking-down-arthur-blanks-options-on-dan-quinn-thomas-dimitroff/ The roof was closed for the Falcons’ final home game of the season Sunday, given the rain and 40-degree temperatures outside. But the lure of climate-controlled coziness did little to add to the attraction. Tickets could be had for the cost of a couple of UnHappy Meals. At least one-third of the seats inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium remained empty. NFL philosophy: If a team goes 6-2 in the second half of the season but nobody was watching, does it make a sound with the owner? The Falcons dumped Jacksonville 24-12. That means that since a 1-7 first half, which dropped the Falcons off the radar with a majority of the sports populace, they have gone 5-2 going into next week at Tampa Bay. Everything is suddenly going right. The defense is playing for Raheem Morris the way it didn’t play for Dan Quinn (the defensive coordinator). Offensive line play has improved. Julio Jones is an alien. Vic Beasley, who has 6.5 sacks in the past seven games, is suddenly so good that an Atlanta sports talk radio guy may have to get a tattoo of the player’s face on his ***. What does Falcons owner Arthur Blank think of all of it? Good question. It’s believed he is leaning a certain way on the futures of Quinn (the head coach) and general manager Thomas Dimitroff, but nobody can be certain which way that is. Blank was leaning toward firing Quinn at 1-7, but Blank held off booking the news conference room after road victories in New Orleans and Carolina. Since the turnaround, the owner has taken notice of players speaking up on Quinn’s behalf. But if the second half of the season has made it clear the Falcons had the talent to win, shouldn’t Quinn pay for the first half that submarined the season? The Falcons are expected to hold a news conference next Monday when Blank will announce his decision. He has four options. In terms of odds, there’s not a lot separating the four. But I’m listing these in what I consider the order of probability, based on just gut feeling: Keep Quinn and Dimitroff If Blank reaches that decision, his talking points would center on the Falcons going 6-2 or 5-3 in the second half, including road victories over New Orleans, Carolina and San Francisco. He also would point to the significant improvement on defense, stemming in part from Quinn’s decision to step back as the defensive coordinator and shifting Morris from coaching the wide receivers to the secondary. There’s a major risk in that decision. It would mean Blank is giving more weight to the second half of the season than the first half, when expectations were high. It would mean ignoring consecutive non-playoff seasons and a consistent slide since 2016. Quinn and Dimitroff effectively would be given one year to make amends. Blank hasn’t hesitated to make changes in the past. He took personnel decisions away from then-general manager Rich McKay, whom Blank hired away from Tampa Bay. He has fired three head coaches, Dan Reeves, Jim Mora and Mike Smith, and he likely would have gone down that same road with Bobby Petrino if the invertebrate hadn’t quit. But Blank likes Quinn on a personal level more than he ever has a head coach. Blank also knows Quinn went 29-19 with two playoff berths and a Super Bowl berth in his first three seasons. Blank also still retains respect for Dimitroff and the immediate impact he had on his franchise. Fire Quinn and Dimitroff There’s a belief by many that the coach and general manager should be linked because they’re partners are personnel decisions, and while Dimitroff obviously knows more about personnel come draft time, Quinn has final say on the roster. The idea in firing both is simple: Atlanta should have been a playoff team this season, barring another catastrophic string of injuries. No excuses. To extend these two another season runs the risk of next season being no better as the Matt Ryan/Julio Jones window nears closing. Ryan would be 36 in two years, Jones 32. If Blank gives Quinn and Dimitroff one more season, but it doesn’t work, he effectively would be forecasting an organization blowout in 2021 — front office, coaching staff and an entirely new direction in personnel. But if Blank fires both, it’s because he believes new leadership is needed and maybe there’s still a Super Bowl contender in the near future under some of this mess. It also would mean there’s a job candidate out there the owner believes can make a difference. Feel free to speculate. Keep Quinn, fire Dimitroff Blank pondered making a change at general manager when he fired Smith. Dimitroff was retained in part because Quinn expressed an interest in working with him during the interview process, but Blank restructured football operations so each man reported to him. There also were brief discussions about Dimitroff’s future after the 2018 season. Blank again decided not to make a change, opting to attribute the Falcons’ 7-9 season mostly to injuries. It was an easy out. Dimitroff will get most of the blame for the decision to bring Beasley back for a fifth season at $12.8 million, even if Quinn also believed on some level that his own skills as a defensive line coach and coordinator could elevate Beasley’s game. And again, despite Quinn and Dimitroff branding themselves as co-team builders, the personnel department tends to be under the microscope more when depth and team chemistry are questioned. This is Dimitroff’s 12th season with the Falcons. It’s only Quinn’s fifth. If Blank goes the route of firing the GM and not the coach, it would because he believes Dimitroff has had a long enough tenure and Quinn deserves one final shot. Blank also might believe firing nobody would cause a greater fan backlash than firing just one. Keep Dimitroff, fire Quinn There’s a case to be made that, for as much as Dimitroff has been a lightning rod for criticism, the second half of this season has somewhat absolved him. Consider: Guard Chris Lindstrom and tackle Kaleb McGary both look like they’re going to be solid offensive linemen. Cornerback Kendall Sheffield, a fourth-round pick, has played well. Cornerback Isaiah Oliver, a second-round pick in 2018, has been a strong player in the second half of the season, as has sixth-round wide receiver Russell Gage. On the free agency front, Tyeler Davison and Allen Bailey have been serviceable pick-ups on the defensive line. On the negative side, offensive linemen Jamon Brown and James Carpenter have been dreadful, even if adding offensive line depth was the right idea. Dimitroff often gets blamed for fat contract extensions. But that really falls more on Blank. When an owner talks about him wanting a player to be “a Falcon for life,” it undercuts management in negotiations. I’m just not sure keeping Dimitroff and firing Quinn would go over well in the locker room.
  9. https://theathletic.com/1136045/2019/08/13/hungry-brian-hill-is-ready-to-carve-out-role-for-falcons-in-2019/ Brian Hill walked off the scorched practice field with his face doused in sweat. With the heat index above 100 degrees, Hill was still among the final few players to wrap up his final individual drill in what’s called the Plan D period. For Hill, who is entering his third NFL season, it’s all about finding ways to be better than where he was the previous two years. If Hill is to carve out a role with this year’s Falcons team, he figured it would need to be by working on his deficiencies. Thus far, the results have been positive. “If I wanted to be better, I had to improve,” Hill said. “I’ve been through two camps so far and have been cut twice. I needed to look at myself and change something.” The Falcons selected Hill in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL Draft. While he initially made the 53-man roster, he dealt with a lingering wrist injury, didn’t log a carry and was waived that October. After he was added to Atlanta’s practice squad shortly, the Cincinnati Bengals eventually snatched him up and carried him for the duration of the season. But after what Hill described as a much better preseason in 2018, Cincinnati parted ways with him during final cuts. He then was presented the choice of choosing the Atlanta or Cincinnati practice squads. He chose Atlanta. Biding his time, Hill eventually was called up to Atlanta’s 53-man roster, with injuries forcing him into an extended role against the Carolina Panthers in Week 16. Hill shined, carrying the ball eight times for 115 yards. Wanting more touches this season, Hill’s personal offseason program changed. “I had to put in more time and more hours in,” Hill said. “Hopefully, it’s starting to pay off right now.” Hill has been one of Atlanta’s preseason stars. With Devonta Freeman sitting out the first two preseason games, Hill has logged 19 carries for 80 yards and a touchdown. More impressively, Hill has shown the ability to make plays as a receiver out of the backfield. He caught a touchdown against the Denver Broncos and has also made a number of plays in practice as a receiving option. Hill said each workout he puts in has a purpose. He has carved out extra time to catch passes. If he’s running sprints, he’s no longer running 30 yards in a straight line. Hill now incorporates cuts in between 5-yard bursts, to simulate the movements he would make on a football field. “This year I wanted to focus on things I would actually be doing on the field,” Hill said. “Whenever I’m doing movement or conditioning, I always want to implement footwork. I need to be able to stay on my feet. I don’t want to just run to be running, to be conditioning.” Quarterback Matt Ryan has seen a different Hill at practice compared to the one who joined the team in 2017. “I think he’s hungry, you can tell that,” Ryan said. “Every day, he steps onto the practice field, there’s a real intent for him to get better. That, to me, has been impressive to see.” Hill’s story from high school to the NFL is certainly an interesting one. Hill wasn’t highly recruited out of Belleville West in Illinois for two reasons, he said. To start, Hill was forced to sit out his sophomore season after transferring high schools. And then as a junior, Hill said he had a “sub-par” season compared to the campaign he put in as a senior. Therefore, there weren’t any big schools clamoring for him. At the time, one of the only schools recruiting him as a running back was North Dakota State, which is where his cousin Pierre Gee-Tucker, a linebacker, played. But after the 2013 college football season, Wyoming hired head coach Craig Bohl away from North Dakota State, with receivers coach Kenni Burns, who was recruiting Hill, making the move, too. Bohl’s Wyoming staff then extended an offer to Hill, which he accepted. And in only three years, Hill became the leading career rusher in Wyoming football history with 4,287 yards. He learned a lot from his sophomore and junior years at Wyoming, which rank as the top two for the program in single-season rushing seasons. As a sophomore, quarterback Josh Allen — now with the Buffalo Bills — was injured in the second game of the season. The offense suddenly was tailored around Hill, who saw stacked boxes each week. Still, Hill was able to run for 1,631 yards and six touchdowns. “It was more of I needed to get through the line of scrimmage before they break through our line of scrimmage,” Hill said. “I need to get on the other side.” With Allen back the next year, Wyoming was able to spread teams out a little more. That freed things up for Hill as he faced mostly seven-man boxes. His yardage total jumped to 1,860, and he scored 22 touchdowns. “It was more seven-man boxes — man on man, block on block, no overloads,” Hill said. “I could just read it out and then explode. I feel like that definitely helped my vision and helped to know my blocking schemes by the end; it was my third year so I was pretty knowledgeable with the playbook.” Hill believes those seasons helped prepare him for the NFL since he could package the need to beat the defense at the jump with following his blocks. Hill elected to enter the NFL draft after his junior year and expected to be a second-day selection. But as the draft spilled over to Saturday, Hill’s name went uncalled. Angry about it, Hill didn’t watch the third day of the draft and spent the afternoon playing NBA 2K. Suddenly, his phone rang, and at first, he wasn’t sure who it was. Hill remembers being in a bad mood when he answered his phone. A few moments later he realized it was Falcons head coach Dan Quinn. “I remember I had an attitude or something, and then I realized I was talking to the Falcons,” Hill said. “I cheered up real quick, just knowing I finally made that dream come true, getting to the league.” He let his confident side show to the Atlanta media on a conference call shortly after, declaring that the Falcons “just got the best running back in this draft in the fifth round.” Fifteen running backs were selected before him, including Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, James Conner and Marlon Mack. To this day, Hill stands by the statement he made then. “I wholeheartedly believe in my abilities on the field,” Hill said. “I don’t really care who the competition is. That’s why we’re here in the league. That’s why we compete. There’s no way I’m going to sit here and say somebody’s better.” Hill, however, did admit his confidence was shaken each of the times he was released. But, as he mentioned, he bounced back with opportunities shortly after. Now, Hill has his best opportunity for an extended role in front of him. While Ito Smith has worked as the No. 2 running back all preseason, Hill has continued competing for the spot. Quinn has gone as far as to say that while Freeman is the top dog, everyone else is grouped together. And to his credit, Hill has been one of the most exciting players for Atlanta this preseason. “He’s making everyone better, not only himself,” receiver Julio Jones said. “The defense has to chase him; they’re getting their conditioning in, they have to take the right angles to pursue, everything. He’s doing a **** of a job for us here.” While Hill has put forth a good preseason to date, he isn’t getting ahead of himself. Asked about his expectation for the upcoming season, his first response was that he hopes to make the team. And therein lies the reason why Hill was dripping sweat when walking off of the practice field Tuesday afternoon. He’s nowhere near finished with where he wants to be. “I just know nothing is promised,” Hill said. “You have to go out there and earn it. No matter what I did over the last two games, I have to go three more and go perform.”
  10. https://theathletic.com/1474896/2019/12/19/back-at-100-percent-chris-lindstrom-got-first-dibs-on-baby-ribs-on-nick-bosa-pancake-block/ The play’s result was an incompletion. The play within the play, however, showed just why the Falcons selected Chris Lindstrom with the 14th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. In the fourth quarter, with the San Francisco 49ers leading the Falcons by nine points, quarterback Matt Ryan dropped back to pass. His intended throw to Julio Jones was incomplete, which wasn’t that bad considering the alternative. While Kaleb McGary was able to keep Nick Bosa from beating him off of the edge, Bosa spun to try to attack Ryan on the inside. That’s when Lindstrom, who didn’t have a man to block, noticed that it was open season on one of the top candidates for NFL defensive rookie of the year. As Bosa hit the spin move, Lindstrom flew in and flattened him on his backside. Instead of Ryan taking a shot, Bosa was the one hitting the turf. “Chris knows I’m going to sit there and hold him up,” McGary said. “And if Chris is free, he knows he’s got first dibs on baby ribs.” Said offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter: “Bosa was spinning back inside on Kaleb late. Chris was not only there to help, but we call those body blows. You put a good whack on a guy and over the course of a game those body blows add up and hopefully slows the rush down.” Lindstrom was all smiles when that particular play popped up during his Monday film review. A tough critic of his own game, Lindstrom said it’s nice to see the good arise alongside the bad. “You definitely want to rewatch the tape and evaluate for all the different things you can correct,” Lindstrom said. “You take notes of what you messed up and what can you do better. But then you do get to enjoy the few plays you do well on. You celebrate it and that’s the great thing about Mondays. You celebrate the good and learn from the bad. We talk about the two truths of it and the truth of what actually happened.” While that play resulted in an incompletion, the Falcons drove the field and scored a touchdown. The defense then held the 49ers to a field goal, with the offense driving down for the winning score in an upset 29-22 victory. Lindstrom was able to play his first full game of the 2019 season in that game. And after seeing 50 percent of the snaps against the Carolina Panthers the week prior, the results were mostly positive for the rookie guard. As an offensive line, the Falcons only allowed three sacks the past two weeks. The right side of the line appears more stable, considering the chemistry Lindstrom and McGary have worked on since playing with one another at the 2019 Senior Bowl. Lindstrom’s rookie season began with his suffering a broken foot in a season-opening loss to the Minnesota Vikings. He was forced to sit out the next 11 games before being able to return. While the Falcons started 1-7 and now sit at 5-9, there was never a thought to sit Lindstrom for the remainder of the year. Lindstrom wanted to return and worked hard to do so. “He has a real urgency about his play,” head coach Dan Quinn said. “He can help inside to Alex (Mack), he can help outside to Kaleb when he’s not covered, but I think we will continue to see him improve. He only has two games — half of one, a half of another and this one. I think you’re going to keep seeing his performances improve. It’s an important block for him, to gain that type of experience and not to lose those times. The fact that he is able to come back and play, it’s a big deal.” The Monday before Atlanta’s second game against Carolina, Lindstrom was activated from injured reserve with the goal of returning to game action. But by the end of the week, Quinn thought it would be funny to play a minor prank on his first-round pick. He approached Lindstrom at his locker and told him that it was great to see him back at practice but that he would need to wait a little longer to play in a game again. “Maybe next week,” Quinn deadpanned to Lindstrom. Lindstrom wasn’t having it. He had worked too hard to sit out a game he was physically ready for. He stood up in front of his locker to let Quinn know he was good to go. “No, I am ready to right now,” Lindstrom said. Quinn ended the joke there, letting Lindstrom know he would start against Carolina. While Lindstrom was out, he stayed prepared by sticking to his routine of studying the weekly game plans. He continued rehab at the team facility and attended all of the offensive line meetings. He took notes regularly and made sure to study up on the opponent. “I’d have three notebooks full as if I was playing every week,” he said. Offensive line coach Chris Morgan said he never saw an injured player work harder while battling an injury. “I think it was the responsibility he felt to the group. He has some great role models in the group that show him that, teach him that,” Morgan said. “He really cares about football. He really loves football. He likes the process, he likes the details. He likes working, he likes being with the guys. That’s probably why he’s one of the better examples I’ve seen.” From what Morgan could see, Lindstrom actually felt bad that he was unable to play alongside his teammates, even though the foot injury was no fault of his own. It was just a freak accident that occurred during a play. And Lindstrom earned a great deal of respect from his teammates for fighting through the injury, with hopes that the pain would go away and that he could finish out that opener against Minnesota. Healthy enough, Lindstrom is happy to be able to play with his teammates again. It’s a fact he doesn’t appear to be taking for granted. “It’s been awesome,” McGary said. “It’s great to have him back out there playing but it’s really great to see how happy he is again. He’s been working his butt off to get back these last couple of months and he finally is. It’s awesome to see how ecstatic he is and to play with him.”
  11. https://theathletic.com/1463929/2019/12/16/what-we-learned-falcons-continue-to-be-different-improved-team-since-bye-week/ SANTA CLARA, Calif. — If the next two weeks are anything like the past six, this year’s Falcons team will be remembered as two different units. There will be the group that didn’t seem to have a clue what it was doing on defense for eight games. While the talent was always there, the communication errors and lack of a pass rush were so glaring that the defensive play was, quite frankly a laughingstock. And for a defensive-minded head coach in Dan Quinn, the word used multiple times was “maddening.” Coming out of the bye, Quinn made some decisions that, with the benefit of hindsight, could have been made much earlier in the year, if not during the offseason. Sunday’s upset victory of the San Francisco 49ers, a thrilling 29-22 win, proved to be the latest example of a team showing up late to the party. And if the team that showed up Sunday was present all season long, the outlook at this stage of the year might be dramatically different. Remember the aforementioned communication errors? Remember cornerbacks out of position? Remember the front seven seemingly clueless at times as for what teams were trying to do to them? Those days, even in the two losses out of the past six games, seem like a distant past. The base Cover 3 defense that was ridiculed in the first eight games of the year kept the 49ers from breaking big plays. When San Francisco scored on a long drive, it needed 21 plays to do so. The only other touchdown Atlanta surrendered came after Kenjon Barner fumbled a punt return that was recovered and ran back to the 1-yard line by Kyle Juszczyk. After losing a yard on the next carry, Juszczyk scored on a 2-yard touchdown reception a play later. Otherwise, the defense did what it was designed to do — keep completions in front of the defenders while containing the run. While San Francisco finished with 120 rushing yards, 90 came in the first half. The Falcons were able to limit the 49ers to only 30 second-half rushing yards. Again, where was this team in the first eight weeks of the year? “It’s all a process. It takes time,” safety Ricardo Allen said. “The football season comes with the nicks and bruises. You never want a season to go the way it did. But we’re starting to figure it out. We’re starting to keep building. We’ll take it one game at a time, one day at a time and just keep growing together. I wish we could have popped it up earlier in the season but I’m not going to complain about it now.” Said quarterback Matt Ryan: “Obviously we’re disappointed not to be in the playoff picture, but you can only control what’s in front of you. The second half of the season we’ve done a better job of that. We have two weeks to finish it out the right way. We have to keep the same mindset we’ve had of excellent preparation during the week, and then going, cutting it loose and having the right mindset on Sundays.” During the past six weeks, which has seen the Falcons post a 4-2 record, three changes have occurred that have since shown improvement in specific areas. It remains amazing at how much the secondary has improved since Raheem Morris moved from coaching receivers to defensive backs. As the third-down play-caller, Morris’ involvement proved tremendous against the 49ers. The Niners were only able to convert 33 percent (4-of-12) of their third-down plays. Atlanta did a good job of mixing its coverages throughout the game and was able to do have success in doing so without top cornerback Desmond Trufant. If Quinn ends up keeping his job as the head coach, moving Morris to defensive coordinator would seem to be an absolute no-brainer. The fact he was coaching receivers for as long as he did will long be a head-scratcher. But much of the improvement the Falcons have exhibited on the defensive side of the ball can be credited to Morris’ finally moving back to his area of expertise. Since the rearrangement, the defense has limited big plays, communicated in a more efficient manner and further slowed opposing teams’ rushing attacks. Sunday’s performance proved to be a great all-around effort on defense. Austin Hooper has been tremendous for the Falcons all year long. A knee injury, however, sidelined him for three games during the past six weeks. During that time, the Falcons lost two games to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New Orleans Saints. It should be noted that the Falcons’ offense has averaged 29.7 points with Hooper available (this excludes Sunday’s special teams touchdown) and 20.7 points without him (this number excludes Barner’s punt return touchdown in the first meeting against the Panthers). Receiver Julio Jones will always draw extra attention, which certainly helps Hooper out. But Hooper has proven to be a mismatch in man coverage over the middle of the field, especially if he can draw a linebacker or safety on him. The Falcons also can line up Hooper at different positions and scheme plays where he’s the primary option. With Hooper in the lineup, the Falcons’ offense is much more dynamic, as evidenced by how the offense has performed in the three games he has been available the past six weeks. Based on these past two weeks, it sure seems the Falcons missed Chris Lindstrom way more than anyone initially thought. In back-to-back losses to Tampa Bay and New Orleans, the Falcons surrendered 15 combined sacks. Ryan has been sacked 41 times this year, with his highest total being 44 from the 2013 season. With Lindstrom back from a broken foot that he suffered in the opening game of the season, Ryan has only been dropped three times in the past two games. And Lindstrom’s return has seemingly boosted Kaleb McGary at right tackle, as well. The most frustrating part — for the team, for the fans, for everyone — is that when this team plays like it did against San Francisco, it can probably compete with anyone in the NFL. After all, this is 5-9 team with road wins over the 49ers and Saints. Looking back, the Falcons were simply missing in action for eight weeks. This second half of the season, while promising, is also a harsh reminder of what could have been. “You guys are starting to see what we can do,” Hooper said. “The Niners (entered Sunday), what, the No. 1 team in the NFC? Phenomenal at every position offensively and defensively. Pro Bowlers on both sides of the ball at almost every position group. Falcons fans were able to see what we can do against one of the best teams in the NFC.”
  12. https://theathletic.com/1462936/2019/12/15/schultz-after-another-upset-win-its-worth-wondering-if-dan-quinn-has-saved-his-job/ SANTA CLARA, Calif. — When the Falcons stumbled and bumbled and dragged themselves through the first half of the season with a 1-7 record, head coach Dan Quinn’s firing appeared imminent. New Orleans waited for them on the other side of bye, and Quinn was close enough to his personal finish line that there was a debate in the executive suite about the best timing for his official exit. It’s futile to guess about the future now. When the Falcons rallied from a 19-10 deficit to defeat San Francisco 29-22 on Sunday, it was their second road upset of a double-digit favorite in the past six weeks — the other stunning win coming in New Orleans — and raised them to 4-2 since the 1-7 start. When Quinn entered the locker room with music blaring after the game, he shouted to his players, “Nuts and guts!” It fit. Regardless of where anybody stands in the debate about Quinn’s future, it’s undeniable his players have exhibited both of late. They have put themselves in position to go 6-2 in the second half if they can close with wins over Jacksonville and Tampa Bay, even if they won’t make the playoffs and their final record will still tip to the left. It’s now worth asking: Did Dan Quinn just save his job? “I don’t know,” said Ricardo Allen, a team captain who has been firmly in Quinn’s corner. “I hope so. I know I want him to be here. But it ain’t got nothing to do with me. All I can do is try to lead these boys and help him however I can. I pray that he’s here, but that decision isn’t going to be made by me or any player.” That decision will be made by owner Arthur Blank. He was decidedly leaning toward making a change at midseason. Had the Falcons been blown out at New Orleans, as most expected, Quinn might have been gone the following week. But they beat the Saints 26-9 as 13½-point underdogs. Then came a 29-3 win at Carolina. Any discussions of the scheduling of a firing news conference were tabled. I approached Blank about Quinn after last week’s win second win over Carolina. Blank said he wasn’t leaning in any one direction about his coach. “We’ve got games left. Let’s see how this plays out,” he told me. As usual, Blank attended Quinn’s postgame news conference Sunday. He left immediately after congratulating his coach, not pausing where he might be stopped for comment. Predicting anything at this point, whether it’s how the Falcons finish or whether that finish impacts Quinn’s future, is futile. But Blank’s demeanor throughout this difficult season has been a stark contrast from 2014, sources told The Athletic. The Falcons went 4-12 in 2013, then started 2-6 the following season, sealing the fate of then-head coach Mike Smith. It was soon after when Blank retained a search firm for a new coach, word of which leaked out before the Falcons still mathematically had a chance to win the NFC South in a down season for the division. (Carolina went to the playoffs with a 7-8-1 record.) Blank has been urged in the background to not rush into a firing until seeing how players respond down the stretch and whether Quinn’s coaching staff shuffle improves things. Evidence of improvement is clear. Whether that’s enough to save Quinn remains uncertain. But those closest to Blank reaffirmed to The Athleticthat he has struggled with this decision emotionally, not just because Quinn is a likable guy but because it wasn’t long ago when the coach was being celebrated for nearly leading the Falcons to a Super Bowl title in only his second season in 2016. After Quinn’s news conference, I asked him off stage if it appears to him that his players are trying to save his job. “You’d have to ask those guys,” he said. “But it’s really cool. I’m proud to be a part of it.” What did Sunday’s win mean to him? “It means a lot. It means a lot to all of us,” he said. “We’re all fighting for our football lives. I **** sure appreciate it.” San Francisco has been a significantly better team than Atlanta all season. The 49ers, coached by former Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, entered the game as the NFC’s No. 1 seed. But for most of Sunday, it was difficult to tell the difference between the 11-2 team and the 4-9 team. Even when trailing 19-10 with 10 minutes left, the Falcons never looked out of it. They drove 75 yards to a touchdown to make it a two-point game. Later, with 1:48 left and trailing 22-17, Matt Ryan drove the offense 70 yards for a touchdown. A 25-yard pass to Julio Jones moved them to the Niners’ 25. On second-and-goal from the 5, Ryan appeared to hit Austin Hooper for the go-ahead score with five seconds left. But the touchdown was nullified by replay officials, who ruled Hooper dropped the ball. (It didn’t look that way.) On the next play, Ryan connected with Jones. On-field officials ruled he was stopped just before the goal line. But this time, the Falcons were awarded the touchdown after replay showed the ball breaking the plane of the end zone. Regardless of how those final two plays swung, the Falcons were going to be deserving of credit for their performance. The defense, in particular, has improved significantly since assistant Raheem Morris was shifted to a quasi-defensive coordinator role. Shanahan’s offense basically was limited to one touchdown drive because the 49ers’ other touchdown was set up by a fumble by punt returner Kenjon Barner on the Falcons’ 1. So what should we take from all this? “Records aren’t indicative of what a team is made of,” Hooper said. “We have a lot of fight, we have a lot of grit, we got a lot of talent on this team. Just because we messed it up in the past doesn’t mean we have to mess it up all the way.” Allen stood alone in front of his locker after speaking to a group of reporters. He was the one who always addressed the media after defeats and now feels the most gratified by the rebound. “This shows that we’re fighters, and we’ll fight for Coach Q no matter what the situation is,” he told The Athletic. “We didn’t start the way we wanted to. We understand we may be fighting for nothing. We may not be playing for the playoffs or anything. But we’re fighting for our names, we’re playing for who we are, we’re playing for Quinn. This may not be the year that we wanted, but we’re never going to back down. We’re fighting now.” Too late to save a season. But maybe not a coach.
  13. https://theathletic.com/1462928/2019/12/15/inside-the-final-two-plays-that-decided-the-outcome-in-the-falcons-upset-of-49ers/ SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Touchdown. Not a touchdown. Not a touchdown. Touchdown. The final two offensive plays for the Falcons in their 29-22 win over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday seemed like an entire quarter’s worth of time. Those plays, the climax of great theater put on display at Levi’s Stadium, were the most exciting and dramatic moments for the Falcons since a wild finish against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 2. Let’s begin with the first of the final two plays, on second-and-goal, which actually seemed to have put the Falcons on top with four seconds left in the game. From the 5-yard line, the Falcons lined up in the shotgun, with Devonta Freeman to Matt Ryan’s right. Russell Gage was out wide, and Julio Jones was in the slot. Austin Hooper was split off the line of scrimmage but not too far from right tackle Kaleb McGary. Christian Blake was close to Hooper’s right side. Jones went in motion and turned back around, with the 49ers’ D.J. Reed Jr. following him. That signaled the 49ers were in man coverage. After the snap, Blake stopped at the goal line, and Hooper continued into the middle of the end zone. Ryan went with a contested throw to Hooper, who had safety Marcell Harris on his backside. Hooper secured two hands on the ball to Harris’ one and began bringing the ball to his body as Harris tried to knock it away. In doing so, Hooper closely gripped the ball in his right hand as if he palming a basketball. But as he brought the ball up from the ground, it popped loose, with Hooper then securing it between his legs. On the field, it was ruled a touchdown. As it is with any scoring play, it went for an automatic review. And that’s where things got dicey. The ball appeared to touch the ground while it was still in Hooper’s hands. But did Hooper lose control? Ruled a touchdown on the field, the play seemed like it could be tough to overturn. “I thought that was a touchdown by Austin Hooper,” Jones said. “I thought it was a touchdown. Even when the ball hit the ground, he controlled it. He was pulling it up, and then when he kicked it up, the ball never touched the ground. I thought that was a touchdown.” Said safety Ricardo Allen: “I think it was a touchdown. He had it gripped with them big old paws. It popped up again, but I think he had it.” Said Ryan: “Close. When you’re down that tight in the red zone, there are going to be tight-window throws. It was a great effort.” During the Fox broadcast, rules analyst Dean Blandino stated that because the ball touched the ground and then popped loose, it should be ruled an incomplete pass. And after review, the play was deemed incomplete. A second was added to the clock, giving the Falcons five seconds from the 5. Still, Falcons players who spoke after the game felt like the call should have stood. “It was a touchdown, but they weren’t going to give it to us,” Allen said. “They were going to make us fight all the way to the end.” Said Ryan: “The call didn’t go our way. At that point, you have to have the mindset of just getting right back to it and finding a way to get the job done the following play.” Said head coach Dan Quinn: “I definitely thought Hooper’s was a touchdown, 100 percent about it. Then I just got on and said, ‘OK, if it’s not here, here’s where the ball would be spotted to Dirk (Koetter) to go. … Once you saw (the ball) on the ground, I knew there would be a shot that it wasn’t going to count, so it’s just getting ready for the next play, make sure Dirk had the information of where, what hash and what distance to go.” Hooper didn’t want to talk about the officiating decision. But it was pretty obvious how he felt. “I had it in one hand underneath. It is what it is, man,” Hooper said. “Buffalo Wild Wings stuff happens.” Even with the reviewed call going against Atlanta, the Falcons still had a chance at one final play — or perhaps two — to secure an upset on the road against a team with the NFC’s best record and a chance to clinch a playoff berth. Those in the Falcons huddle and on the sideline never showed signs of panic. “I think everyone on the sideline had confidence that it wasn’t close to being finished, even on that close call with Hooper,” defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. “We thought he had it. We still had time left, and we still had an opportunity to win the game.” Said Freeman: “It was just, ‘Move on to the next play.’” Said Ryan: “Honestly, I think everyone was pretty calm. Just understanding whether it goes our way or it doesn’t go our way, we have to be prepared for the next play. I think all of our guys had the right mindset the entire day.” Now, on third-and-goal, the Falcons huddled up with one mission: get in the end zone. Each receiver was to get by or past the goal line to receive a pass. They lined Blake, Gage and Jones on the left, with Hooper the only receiving option on the right side of the formation. Freeman was in the backfield. Jones ran in motion to join Hooper on the right before the play snapped. After the snap, Hooper ran to the middle of the defense and was able to take two defenders, including the man guarding Jones. Freeman ran a route out of the backfield to the right, forcing the defense to account for him. Jones, arguably the NFL’s best wide receiver, was then left open for a brief moment as he ran to the goal line. The objective was to get in the end zone. But according to Jones, Ryan needed to throw the ball a tad earlier to ensure Jones could come up with the catch. Ryan threw the ball with Jones right at the goal line. Jones caught the ball and immediately felt contact from defensive back Jimmie Ward. Ward opted to tackle Jones low, with the star wide receiver then lifting up and contorting his body to fall backward. Reed then came up to hit Jones so he couldn’t fall into the end zone. As Jones hit the turf, Gage threw his hands in the air to celebrate the winning touchdown. The officiating crew ruled Jones down an inch short. As the 49ers celebrated, Gage hoped for two things — for the officials to review the play because it occurred with less than two minutes to play and for the crew to have a good camera angle. “I knew he was in,” Gage said. “He said, ‘Was I in?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ Julio’s a tall dude, so when they hit him, his body fell across. From my angle, I’m standing right on the goal line. I could tell he was in. I told him, ‘If they review this, you’re in. It’s a touchdown.’” Almost immediately, the play went to the officiating booth for a review. The replay was shown on the Levi’s Stadium giant television screen. In the press box, the numerous televisions showed the Fox broadcast’s angles of the play. This time, the evidence seemed conclusive for a Falcons touchdown. Blandino didn’t hesitate to say the play should be overturned. But as it is with NFL officiating these days, you never truly know. “My whole thing was I just hoped they have the right angle,” Gage said. “I was just looking at the board. As soon as they showed it on the board, I just started running. I told him he was in. But it was a lot of emotions before.” Said Freeman: “I didn’t see it because I was on a route. But when I looked at it on the replay, it looked good. It looked like he crossed the plane.” Said Hooper: “Julio ran free, caught it. I basically set a basketball screen. I took two people on me, Julio’s man ran into me. Julio went and Julio Jones things.” The officials overturned the play, signaling a touchdown for Atlanta and putting two seconds back on the clock. “Obviously, I’m biased, I wanted to score the game-winner at home,” said Hooper, who grew in California and played in college at Stanford. “In the end, Julio scored it for us. Tremendous leader, tremendous brother in the locker room. We won. It really would have haunted me if we didn’t. The fact we won, all’s well that ends well.” Said Quinn: “That was awesome. At the end, game on the line, those are the moments as a coach that you totally live for. It makes you feel most alive; it was awesome. We knew we would have to have a good road mentality to come out here.” With two seconds to go, Younghoe Koo squib-kicked the ball, with the 49ers attempting to lateral their way to a miracle. Instead, Olamide Zaccheaus was able to return a fumbled lateral for a touchdown, giving the Falcons a seven-point victory. While the score was tied at 10 at the break, the 49ers were able to open a 19-10 lead in the fourth quarter. Holding a nine-point lead, the 49ers seemed about to seize control. Then the Falcons got a 1-yard touchdown from Qadree Ollison to cap a nine-play, 75-yard drive that took 4:52 off the clock. Needing to hold San Francisco to a field goal, the Falcons got a gift from George Kittle — who otherwise had a brilliant performance with 13 catches for 134 yards — on a third-and-4 fumble that went out of bounds a yard short of the first-down marker. “Just dropped it,” Kittle said. “I tried to switch hands with it so I could get a stiff-arm in. It didn’t work out well for me.” The 49ers opted for the field goal and five-point advantage. The Falcons subsequently kicked open the cracked door they’d been presented. The Falcons have two games remaining. While the postseason is out of the question, the players, coaches and management are still treating every game as a must-win opportunity. Falcons front office personnel seated in the press box were more than ecstatic with the victory. After Quinn’s postgame news conference, more than a dozen shareholders, friends and family of the ownership group, cheered Quinn and gave him an ovation. While the season largely has been a disappointment, wins like this are the reason everyone in the organization continues to prepare like everything is at stake. “When you spend this much time and care about one another, you love one another so you want to fight,” Quinn said. “So when it doesn’t go exactly as you’d hope for them, you want to get it to that space where you can. What I love about them is their attitude to fight for it. That means a lot to me personally and I always want to make sure I’m giving them my best so they’re going to get it every time. At the end of the day, there’s a lot of fighters. That means a lot to me because they are going to go to battle for it, and I think that was a clear example of that (Sunday).”
  14. https://theathletic.com/1443393/2019/12/08/he-stole-roddys-thunder-olamide-zaccheaus-sets-record-in-falcons-blowout-of-panthers/?source=dailyemail When he got to the line of scrimmage, Olamide Zaccheaus thought there was at least a chance he could be the recipient of a long pass attempt. The Falcons were facing a third-and-8 from their own 7-yard line in the third quarter, and the Carolina Panthers were looking to send pressure at quarterback Matt Ryan. That was at least what the Panthers were showing, evidenced by having their defensive backs single up the receivers without leaving a safety over the middle. Zaccheaus was given one route for the play. There was no option to check out of it, so Zaccheaus’ route the entire way was a deep post. Off the snap, Zaccheaus found himself, as expected, in man coverage as he cut toward the middle of the field. Donte Jackson was the cornerback guarding him, and Zaccheaus gained an early step. After the catch, Jackson attempted to bring down Zaccheaus, with the speedy receiver slipping out of the tackle. Zaccheaus then took the play the rest of the way for a 93-yard touchdown. This play proved to be the exclamation point in Atlanta’s 40-20 blowout victory over Carolina on Sunday afternoon. To put Zaccheaus’ touchdown, which also happened to be his first career catch, in perspective: There have only been two receiving plays to go longer in Falcons history. In 1993, Bobby Hebert hit Michael Haynes for a 98-yard touchdown. In 2001, Chris Chandler and Jamal Anderson connected for a 94-yard touchdown. Zaccheaus’ play ranks third overall as it passed Ryan’s 90-yard touchdown to Roddy White at San Francisco in 2009. So Ryan’s longest career pass play came with Zaccheaus catching the ball. Most impressively, Zaccheaus’ touchdown marked the longest-ever first catch an NFL player has recorded, according to Elias Sports. Zaccheaus was able to accomplish this during the NFL’s 100th-ever season. The thing is, Zaccheaus didn’t find the ball until late in his route. In retrospect, this play was fairly close to not taking place. “I was trying to track the ball, really,” Zaccheaus said. “I couldn’t see it until the last second. I’m grateful I found it and made the play for the team.” Said Julio Jones: “I was watching him because he found the ball late. For me, I’m very, very happy for him. First catch, touchdown, 93 yards. It’s amazing. He’s been working tremendously hard, giving the defense looks at practice. And then having a shot in the game, when his number is called, to produce is amazing.” For those on the team, and probably for those who follow the Falcons closely, it’s not that much of a surprise that Zaccheaus came up with a big play. Nationally, and for those who don’t follow the Falcons as keenly, there were probably a lot of people wondering who this young rookie was. During the preseason, Zaccheaus routinely brought down tough receptions in practice. He also had some standout plays during the exhibition games. But on a roster that features Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Austin Hooper in the passing game — and previously had Mohamed Sanu for seven games — Zaccheaus hasn’t had too many opportunities to show off his skill set. His talent hasn’t gone unnoticed, however. “He turned all of our heads during the preseason,” Ryan said. “He was really productive in practice, but you always look forward to seeing these guys compete in game-type situations. He was one of those guys, to me, who always looked better in games. Those are the guys you want. He wasn’t afraid to go in there, to make catches, be physical in the run game.” It’s worth noting that Zaccheaus’ big play came on a day when White was inducted into the franchise’s Ring of Honor at halftime. The fact that Zaccheaus surpassed White as being the recipient of Ryan’s longest career throw didn’t go unnoticed to the veteran quarterback. “I told O.Z. he stole Roddy’s thunder,” Ryan said. “It was a great play, and I’m happy for O.Z. He’s a guy who has worked extremely hard and who has stepped up when his number was called when he was in there. He knew his assignment, ran a great route and broke a tackle, which was impressive.” Zaccheaus went undrafted in April and signed with the Falcons shortly after. By the end of the preseason, which saw him record 10 catches for 110 yards, it was clear Zaccheaus was going to have a legitimate shot at making the roster. Smaller in stature at 5-foot-8 and 194 pounds, Zaccheaus said he has been used to being overlooked his entire career. Coming out of high school, Zaccheaus, according to 247Sports.com, held only five offers before choosing to play for Virginia. He then went undrafted after totaling 1,058 yards and nine touchdowns during his senior year of college. At Virginia, Zaccheaus set the program record with 250 career receptions and was second all time with 2,753 receiving yards and fourth all time with 22 receiving touchdowns. Accolades aside, Zaccheaus said his size prevented him from getting a phone call during the draft’s seven rounds. “It’s been a grind really,” Zaccheaus said. “Undrafted, overlooked. A lot of things weren’t going my way. I just know I’m confident in what I can do. I feel I can help the team any way I can.” The play ended up being Zaccheaus’ only catch during a game when almost everything — besides injuries to Calvin Ridley (abdomen) and Desmond Trufant (forearm) — went right for the Falcons. To recap: Atlanta posted its best day rushing this season with 159 yards. Devonta Freeman ran for 84 yards and his first rushing touchdown of the season. Brian Hill added 62 yards and a touchdown. Damontae Kazee picked off Kyle Allen twice, meaning that in two games, the Falcons held Allen to one passing touchdown and recorded six picks. The Falcons’ pass rush came back to life with five sacks, with Vic Beasley and Takk McKinley recording two each. Beasley’s two sacks also forced fumbles, with Tyeler Davison recovering one of them. Beasley now leads the team with six sacks this season. Atlanta scored 13 points off four turnovers with a field goal coming after recovering a fumble following a kickoff. Place-kicker Younghoe Koo was the one who made the fumble recovery on the play. Speaking of Koo, he made all four of his field goals, including a 50-yarder in the fourth quarter. While the Falcons have endured a disappointing 4-9 season, they were able to outscore the Panthers 69-23 in two games. In the other 11 games, Atlanta has been outscored 320-231. The Falcons have now won five in a row over the Panthers and swept them the past two seasons. While the postseason is out of the question for the second consecutive year, this is a fact that still can sit well with a lot of players in the locker room. While there were numerous standouts for the Falcons on Sunday, Zaccheaus earned the limelight for the spectacular first catch of his career. After scoring, Zaccheaus, dropped the ball and celebrated with his teammates. Thankfully, for his sake, a staffer was able to find the ball and track it down for him. He plans to give the ball he caught to his mother as a keepsake. “It was definitely a play we practiced,” Zaccheaus said. “You just never know what coverage you’re going to get until you get out there. If you don’t see a safety in the middle of the field and you get that play call, you know you’re going to have some kind of action. I just wanted to make the play.”
  15. https://theathletic.com/1433274/2019/12/04/falcons-roundtable-assessing-blame-for-everything-that-has-gone-wrong-with-2019-season/ It has felt like a much longer season than usual, even if the same 13 weeks have elapsed for every team across the NFL. When it comes to the Falcons, it has been daunting for everyone associated with the franchise. At 3-9, the Falcons have been eliminated from postseason contention. Much has been discussed about the future of the franchise, whether it be with the expensive contracts it is locked into or whether Dan Quinn will return as head coach in 2020. To describe Atlanta’s season as a disappointment almost feels like an understatement. Atlanta was a potential playoff hopeful. And this isn’t like last year, when the Falcons were able to finish 7-9 despite a five-game losing streak during the middle of the year. Atlanta was simply outplayed and out-coached in six of the nine losses this year. Going from potentially winning the Super Bowl in 2016 to, well, this in such a short period of time shouldn’t sit well with anyone. But what are we to make of Atlanta’s fall? To go through a few of these pressing questions, I was fortunate to have columnist Jeff Schultz and NFL features/enterprise reporter Lindsay Jones join me for a Falcons roundtable. We’ll start with a broad leadoff question: In your estimation, what is the most obvious reason the Falcons’ season has turned out the way it has? Schultz: There are so many things have contributed to this year’s collapse: coaching, staffing decisions, a leadership void in the locker room (which has been the case for three years now), regrettable economic decisions like picking up Vic Beasley’s contract and also giving lucrative extensions to some players who perhaps hadn’t earned them yet. But if I had to rank them, coaching would be the No. 1 reason the Falcons are 3-9. The team has underachieved relative to the level of its talent, even if the overall depth of talent was probably overrated. Dan Quinn has made poor decisions filling spots on his offensive and defensive staffs in the last three offseasons. His No. 1 mission this season was to fix the defense, and as a former defensive coordinator, he failed to do that. Former Falcons great Roddy White said in an interview with The Athletic this week that the lack of leadership in the locker room is the team’s No. 1 problem, and there’s a case to be made for that. But the head coach theoretically should be the No. 1 leader on the team. I also believe there has been a lack of accountability. That generally stems from the top. Jones: I was concerned in the offseason that the Falcons, outside of focusing on the offensive line in the draft, largely didn’t do anything to address their roster deficiencies. They seemed to look at the guys who were on injured reserve in 2018 and say, “We’ll get these guys back; we’ll be fine.” And that wasn’t the case at all. I think that, combined with a defensive scheme that had become predictable and stale, kept the Falcons from being competitive, almost from the very beginning of the season. Butt: There could be an argument for just about any scenario. The coaches must have everyone prepared each week. The players must hold each other accountable at the first appearance of something going awry. The front office must do a good job of evaluating its personnel to ensure that it has a great blend of talent that fits the scheme and leaders in the locker room. Blame can, and should, be spread everywhere. But in the end, I agree with what Roddy said in Jeff’s interview this week. I feel like players must feel a greater sense of responsibility than anyone else. As I wrote earlier this season, there has been a leadership void that has grown since the 2016 Super Bowl run. There have been four players in particular who stand out as leaders — Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Ricardo Allen and Grady Jarrett. As far as the glue-guy leaders, they have been noticeably absent. In 2016, players like Tyson Jackson, Paul Worrilow, Dwight Freeney and Patrick DiMarco did their part to ensure everyone was on the same page and giving their best effort. That piece of the locker-room puzzle has been absent from Atlanta this year. So while the coaches and front office deserve a great deal of blame — and scorn from the fan base — the players are the ones tasked with winning on game day. This year’s group just hasn’t had enough of the right kind of intangible leadership from within the team. Schultz: Moving Raheem Morris to defensive coordinator would have helped from a coaching standpoint. Not assuming young players like Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell and cornerback Desmond Trufant would grow into leaders for the defense also would’ve helped. The front office should’ve tried to add at least two veterans to the defensive mix. Players like Freeney and Jackson helped immensely in 2016. On the offensive side, bringing back Dirk Koetter as offensive coordinator should have been considered a fallback candidate, at best. The team should have more heavily pursued Gary Kubiak. I believe the effort to make Ryan happy was more important to them than hiring the best candidate. The Beasley decision also made a difficult salary cap situation even worse. Butt: I have to agree with Jeff on this one when it comes to roster construction. There needs to always be a good balance of veteran leadership and young talent. The main problem following the 2016 Super Bowl run was that after those locker-room leaders left, many of the young up-and-coming stars didn’t know how to step into those roles. Schultz: The most disappointing thing — and maybe what Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff least saw coming — was the number of players from the 2016 Super Bowl team who did not grow into leadership roles. There has been a lack of maturity and accountability that should have been expected. The Falcons were believed to have a talented young core, and a number of those players from 2016 were rewarded with lucrative extensions: Desmond Trufant, Devonta Freeman, Jake Matthews, Deion Jones and Grady Jarrett, as well as the big deals of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. The result is likely to cause some salary cap problems in the next couple of years, even assuming the cap goes up. Jones: Maybe we should have all been more concerned when Quinn overhauled so much of his coaching staff in the offseason, rather than be encouraged that Quinn was taking over the defense (coaching/teaching defense is supposed to be his strong suit, right?). It was a sign that Quinn thought just by being more hands-on in practice and in meetings the Falcons would be a better defense. The problem is that outside of Grady Jarrett, Deion Jones and maybe, Desmond Trufant, the Falcons lack elite defensive players. You can play good defense without a loaded roster like the Seahawks had when Quinn was DC, but you better have a creative, disruptive scheme and the Falcons never seemed to have that. Organizationally, I do still question the approach in the years since the Super Bowl loss. There never seemed to be any real reckoning for why that game ended the way it did; for years the Falcons seemed to have assumed that since they got there once, they could do it again, ignoring major losses (Kyle Shanahan) and regression from important players (like Vic Beasley). If you could pinpoint why the Falcons’ offensive line, which has started four former first-round draft picks for much of the year, has allowed 40 sacks, what would it be? Schultz: I’ve never been blown away by things like, “Four former first-round draft picks.” We’ve all seen examples of how that often doesn’t mean much in the NFL, particularly on the offensive line, where chemistry, work ethic and toughness is so key and perceived “talent” sometimes is overrated. As for the Falcons, problems have resulted from injuries, youth and coaching deficiencies. Tackle Kaleb McGary had early medical issues that caused him to miss some time. Guard Chris Lindstrom was lost to an injury early in the season. Those are two first-round draft picks and two starters. Matthews and center Alex Mack have been solid, but that’s two guys out of five. All of that depth Dimitroff and Quinn acquired in the offseason hasn’t provided help. Some of that is on the players, but offensive line coach Chris Morgan also deserves blame, particularly for the slow development of McGary. It’s also worth asking how much the hiring of Koetter and the intent to try to marry two offensive schemes has messed with the blocking. Jones: I have not done in-depth study on the Falcons’ offensive line, but I will say generally that offensive line draft picks are exceedingly difficult to scout. Offensive linemen have the steepest learning curve of any position coming into the NFL right now, and it’s only getting more significant, because of the differences in college offenses and the NFL and rules limiting practice time and contact in the offseason. Those rules help protect linemen’s bodies and will be especially beneficial for their long-term health, and coaches have not found a way to coach young linemen better with those restrictions. So it’s not as easy as just saying, “We drafted a lot of offensive linemen early, we’ve solved it.” Butt: I can’t help but wonder whether Koetter’s offense and Morgan’s background has been an issue. It could be me just speculating, without any tangible information, but it’s something I’ve wondered about recently. Morgan had great success in 2016 when coaching under Kyle Shanahan’s offensive staff. His group has had some bumps in the road since, with the last two years being especially turbulent. And then you factor in that Atlanta spent a large sum of money — through the draft and free agency — to fix the offensive line and prevent a large drop-off if injuries occur. Yet here the Falcons are, allowing Matt Ryan to get hit repeatedly, even with the depth put in place to guard against injury. And Lindsay’s right, offensive linemen are the toughest to identify and to develop, especially in the post-2011 collective bargaining agreement era where practices can’t get as physical as they used to. So while I stated my case that the players were more to blame for this season than the coaches or front office, I do have to wonder if the offensive coaching staff isn’t doing enough to help this beleaguered offensive line. Who deserves most of the blame for this season — Dan Quinn or Thomas Dimitroff? Schultz: Since I listed coaching as the No. 1 issue in the first question, I have to say Quinn, in concert with the rest of his staff. But in my view, Quinn and Dimitroff should very much be linked at the hip. They cast themselves as co-franchise builders in good times. So the division of responsibility and blame shouldn’t change now in bad times. Jones: Ultimately Quinn has final say, right? In 2015, the Falcons were praised for bringing in “DQ guys” — the type of players Quinn wanted. So when DQ guys aren’t performing, that should be largely on him, too. Quinn made the sweeping changes to the coaching staff, he took over the defense (and it got worse). Butt: You can’t have one without the other, as they say. Branded as co-team builders, Quinn and Dimitroff constructed this roster together. But if they, along with Arthur Blank, signed off on every player personnel move with the belief that these guys could get them over the hump and into a deep playoff run, then the onus falls more so on Quinn. He fired his offensive and defensive coordinators and somehow saw regression from both of those units. Many of the players they believed in haven’t produced the way they thought they would. Quinn went all-in on turning Beasley back into 2016 form and hasn’t seen that happen. He said this offseason that Takk McKinley would have a big year, only for McKinley to have 1.5 sacks in 12 games. Considering there doesn’t appear to be any traces of front-office infighting over certain players — that we know about, at least — Quinn bears the most responsibility for the 2019 season. What can be done to fix the current situation Atlanta is in, whether it’s on-field performance or with its salary cap situation? And can Atlanta turn things around in 2020 without making major changes, whether it be in player personnel, coaches or the front office? Schultz: There are going to be some difficult roster decisions after this season, and that’s even if the Falcons don’t re-sign tight end Austin Hooper because he will command too much as a free agent. I suspect the list of players not brought back next season will include some combination of Hooper, Trufant, Beasley, Campbell and Freeman, if not all five. Mack also is a possibility for cap reasons. Depending on what the salary cap is, this could mean filling key starting positions with a lot of young players or street free agents. Jones: The Falcons will have the highest percentage of the cap (nearly 18%) devoted to quarterbacks next year, and while Matt Ryan’s salary is actually affordable, the $33 million cap hit he carries makes things pretty difficult; that along with the new deals Julio Jones and Grady Jarrett just signed. There is probably some restructuring that can be done with Ryan’s contract to save a bit of space, but ultimately the Falcons are going to have to slash salaries elsewhere and get more out of the players on rookie deals. Butt: Atlanta almost certainly has to restructure some deals. But at some point, the Falcons have to live with the contracts they’ve created and get through them. Or find someone who will take on remaining years of certain deals while eating the guarantees that have already been paid out. But on the field, I come back to the point that many of these players need to be more accountable with one another. You saw the change after the bye on defense. After struggling through eight games, defenders finally held some player-led meetings and began communicating more. Now that the offense is going through a tough stretch, perhaps something similar needs to occur on that side of the ball. Schultz: Roster changes will be mandated simply because the cap numbers of Matt Ryan ($33.55 million) and Julio Jones ($20.417 million) will be astronomical, and there will be a ripple effect. As far as whether the Falcons could turn it around in 2020 without coaching staff changes, that would assume a level of success that’s even more unlikely than the team’s fall to 3-9 this season. But the NFL is a strange league so nothing can be said with 100 percent certainty. Jones: I think change is necessary, and Arthur Blank needs to look at the entire football operations staff. Butt: I don’t envision a scenario where change doesn’t occur. But as for what that is, I don’t think anyone truly knows at the present time — even Blank himself.
  16. https://theathletic.com/1432153/2019/12/04/schultz-roddy-white-on-falcons-trauma-coaching-kids-and-going-into-ring-of-honor/ Sharod Lamor “Roddy” White relatively “flew under the radar” in his young football life, growing up in James Island, S.C., and later playing at Alabama-Birmingham. It was all fun and no pressure. It wasn’t until he was drafted into the NFL by the Falcons in 2005 that he first felt the weight of expectations. “The first time I felt pressure was when I was walking onto the field for OTAs with Mike (Vick), and it seemed like there were 1,000 people there, and they’re saying, ‘Finally, Mike’s got someone to throw the ball to.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, God,’” White said. But White did just fine. After a struggling career start that saw him drop passes and not listen to coaches and teammates when they criticized his focus or practice habits, White matured, went on to play 11 seasons and became a four-time Pro Bowler and All-Pro. He led the NFL in receptions in 2010 and strung together six straight 1,000-yard seasons (2007-12), a span in which he averaged 94 catches for 1,295 yards. He was consistent and played through injuries and eclipsed 10,000 yards, finishing with 808 receptions for 10,863 yards and 63 touchdowns. The Falcons are struggling through the misery of a 3-9 season. They’ll reach back to better times Sunday when White is inducted into their “Ring of Honor” during halftime ceremonies of the Carolina game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. In a near two-hour conversation with The Athletic, which has been edited down, White touched on a number of subjects, including the current state of the Falcons and the locker room’s lack of leadership, being cut the offseason before the team’s Super Bowl season, dealing with the trauma of his younger brother being shot and killed in Charleston, the recent passing of his grandmother, the 2016 Super Bowl collapse and his desire to fight Kyle Shanahan, his Las Vegas misadventures and more. Most of White’s time is now occupied by his five children, ages 14 to 8, being a volunteer receivers coach at Johns Creek High School and running his summer youth camp. Anything else? “I want to be a pilot,” he said. “But they say you have to fly the little small planes before you get to the big boys. With all these simulators nowadays, why?” So you think because you play video games, you could just jump in and fly a 787? “If I had to.” He hasn’t changed. When White gives his acceptance speech Sunday, he said he’ll reflect on his former teammates and coaches but he mostly will think about Rosalee Mitchell, his late grandmother who passed in June after a long battle with cancer. Rosalee was the matriarch of the family and helped raise Roddy when his young mother had to work. “She kept everything together for us,” he said. “Everything was positive. I could call her and have a conversation about anything. When she passed away, I felt so bad. We were going to see all the doctors, trying to hold onto a miracle, but I could hear her say, ‘Roddy, it’s OK. I’m going to be fine. I just need you to continue to be who you are.’” Here’s more from my conversation with White, including some insightful comments about today’s team. So you’re coaching now? We made it to the second round of the playoffs. Back-to-back region champs. I’ve been doing it for three years. I always wanted to work with kids. When I was in the league I did a lot of stuff with the Boys & Girls Club, which was fun. You get to hear a lot of stories from the kids in the community, and you get a breakdown of their situations. It reminded me of when I was growing up. Fortunately, I had a slew of people in the neighborhood helping when my mom was working, so I could go someplace and get some food. I love coaching, just watching these kids grow up and excel. I’ve had a couple go on to play in college. It’s hard to imagine you as a coach It’s totally different. Now I understand coaches and their mentality and trying to figure out players and what they’re best at doing. It’s tough when you’re in the film room with a player, and they don’t see what you see. We’re like on two different wavelengths. They’re like, “I can do everything.” And I’m watching it through a coaching lens and thinking, “No, you can’t.” Compare Player Roddy vs. Coach Roddy. Player Roddy thought he could do everything. There’s nothing on the field I couldn’t do. But coaching Roddy understands all the limitations and what position I should’ve put myself in and how I should’ve handled things differently. I regret some of those conversations I had with coaches. If I could go back and change it, I would. Me and (receivers coach) Terry (Robiskie) used to always get into arguments, especially when the schedule got to November, and it started getting cold, and I didn’t want to practice. Of course, that affects your performance in the game. You see that as a coach. Now I’m telling players, “You’ve got to get these reps.” (My name) carries a lot of cache. But this is Generation X. Their life is like a highlight reel, and they want success instantaneously because everything has been given to them so fast. These kids will make two or three plays in a game, and then they’ll put it on the internet. So what’s it like for a kid from James Island and UAB to be honored like this. You’re only the 11th player in the Ring of Honor. I’m in the starting 11! I made the cut! It feels good. But to tell the truth, it really hasn’t sunk in. Prior to this, I was just playing football, wrapped up in the moment, trying to win games, trying to win a Super Bowl. Did you ever see this coming? I didn’t see playing 11 years, especially not the way I started. I was terrible. I kind of flew under the radar before the NFL, and it was fun. The first time I felt pressure was when I was walking onto the field for OTAs with Mike (Vick), and it seemed like there were 1,000 people there, and they’re saying, “Finally, Mike’s got someone to throw the ball to.” And I’m like, “Oh, God.” I wanted it so much. But I didn’t understand what my job was. I wanted to eat the whole cake. Coach (Jim) Mora used to tell me, “You’re not here to win the games. We just need you to make a couple of big plays.” But in my eyes, I win games, it’s what I did, it was my time. I butted heads with Greg Knapp. I told him he didn’t know what he’s doing and he didn’t know how to use me. I was a 22-year-old kid, and here I am telling this guy he didn’t know anything. When did it turn? When Coach Mora got fired. I felt like my security blanket was gone. It just got real. I was worried. I remember before my third year I went to the facility and punched in my code (for the gate), and it didn’t work. I sat outside. I called my agent, and I’m like, “My code don’t work. I think I just got released.” He said, “No you haven’t.” It turns out I just had to pick a new code. That was my awakening. You liked Mora. What about Bobby Petrino? I didn’t have much interaction with him. We just didn’t talk much. And then he just left. Adversity strikes in every season, and things can go either way. I felt like for three or four weeks before he left, he was already out the door. He was like, “I didn’t come here for this.” He came here thinking he was going to get Mike Vick, and when he didn’t get him, it was, “I’m onto my next adventure. What about Mike Smith? He was my guy. Each and every week he pushed me to be the guy and lead the troops. He was a stand-up guy. I had Jim Mora all over again, but we were winning. He felt like an extension of the players. You only had one year with Dan Quinn. Dan was cool. He was a good coach. Fiery. Everything was a competition. It was fun. It was saucy. If you made it to 12 seasons, you would’ve been in the Super Bowl. I thought about it every second of that season. Especially toward the end of the year when they were on a roll and scoring like 40 a game, I was thinking, “I wish I could’ve been a part of that.” It was special. I was going to all the games. I was enjoying the run. That was the first year of Julio (Jones) taking over and being a leader in the wide receiver room without me being there. That was big for me, knowing I did a good job mentoring him. You and Julio were like brothers from Day 1. He’s such a good guy. He’s so cerebral. He sees everything. He would just watch me a lot, even when I was talking to the media because he wasn’t a big talker. You were there for each other in some tough times. My brother got shot (in 2014), and then his brother got shot maybe six days later. It brought us even closer together. He came to South Carolina for my brother’s funeral, and then he went back to Alabama to see his brother (who survived but lost an arm). Life is short, man. You never know what you’re going to go through. How close were you to your brother, Tyrone Moore Jr.? We grew up together. We were 11 years apart, so I was changing diapers and babysitting forever. It was the toughest thing I ever went through in my life. You can never fill a void like that, when somebody’s been around you your entire life and now you have to live without them. The first three or four years I was just mentally exhausted. I was crushed. When you have birthdays or things like that, it’s tough. I used to talk to him after every game because he would watch the games. A lot of times after games I would break down and cry because I was waiting for that call from him, and that call ain’t coming. It was heartbreaking. It was tough on my mom, watching her go through that. That did something to me. It made me a different person, and I think football became secondary. You’re still a fan and go to the games. What are your thoughts on this year’s team? I feel bad for Dan because he’s taken the brunt of what’s happened. Nothing has been consistent since the Super Bowl. We keep moving coaches. We keep trying to find ways to change things instead of just being consistent. Sometimes you’re going to have bad years, and things just aren’t going to go right. That was last year for us when guys kept getting hurt. It’s different this year, but there’s so much turnover in the staff. I don’t know how you get better as a group of individuals when you keep hearing different voices. That’s one thing I hate about the NFL. I think Dan’s a good coach. So what does it tell you when you see players underachieving? I always tell people: You have to have leaders in your locker room. When it gets to that level of under-performing, it’s because you don’t have people holding them accountable. It’s not a talent issue. It’s an accountability issue. We’ve got a bunch of young guys, and everybody wants to play young guys. But they don’t know how to win. They just don’t. They’re trying to learn how to win, and the cost is somebody’s going to lose their job. We have a leadership issue in our locker room. We don’t have enough guys in those roles who’ve been in those fires and fought and made it through those fires. Yeah, everybody wants the young guys. But those are the guys who are going to get you beat because they won’t make those one, two or three plays. They needed somebody like Sean Weatherspoon. We had Mike Peterson for a few years, and that guy was the best thing that ever happened to our defense. You sound like a consultant. That’s what we need — consultants. You don’t even have to play. Are you up for the job? Naw, I don’t have time. Listen, I left, and the guy I mentored, Julio, is doing what he’s doing. I’m done. Why is it so important to have those guys? What people don’t understand about football players is they have so many insecurities, and the only way you (overcome) those insecurities is by speaking to people who’ve already been through that and understand how you feel emotionally. When I was here, I would talk to Joe Horn, and he would tell me about everything I was going through. He would tell me, “We need to find a way to get you back to your happy place.” I’m serious. People don’t understand, you’re a human being. ****’s happening. If you’re having problems off the field and you’re having trouble transitioning on the field, it’s a problem. I’ve been there. Eight seconds after a play, I’m there thinking about **** I have to do after the game. You need someone to help navigate you though that. The Falcons don’t have that now? If you’re talking to a young guy over here, he’s giving you bad advice. You’re getting advice from someone the same age as you. Like, “Forget that ****. Let’s just go ball.” What does that mean? Seriously, I don’t even know what that means. That’s what’s happening. I did a podcast with you, and you said you told Julio that if you were in the Super Bowl and Kyle Shanahan kept sending in pass plays late in the game, you would’ve jumped offsides to kill the play. And I would’ve. Or I just wouldn’t have run the play. We would not have thrown the ball if I was in that game. I would’ve gone to Coach Quinn and said, “Just run the ball three times, and let’s get out of here.” We were at the finish line. I was so excited for the parade on Peachtree. I was like, “It’s going down.” The NFL humbles you, and it tells you year to year that it doesn’t matter what you accomplished the year before. You also said on a podcast that you wanted to fight Kyle. I did. And you know what: Do you know how many calls I got after that game? From friends? From players in that locker room. They wanted to fight Kyle. I got at least least eight calls — and those were just guys on the offensive side of the ball. They couldn’t believe it. Somebody should’ve jumped offsides. Didn’t Julio leave tickets for you but you bagged the trip after losing $60,000 playing blackjack in Las Vegas? I was still going to go. But the guy who I was renting the jet from screwed me. I had won like $30,000 the day before so I took half that and put it as a down payment on the private jet to go to Houston. Then the next day I started gambling, and I didn’t care how much I was spending because I put a bet down on the game, like $80,000, and I figured I was going to win all my money back. Charles Barkley put down like more than $100,000; it was crazy. But the plane we were supposed to take to Houston, he gave it to somebody else. He didn’t have a jet for us until like 8 p.m. (after the start of the game). I wasn’t happy. So I watched the game in Las Vegas. But if they won, I was gonna use the jet to bring some of the guys back to Las Vegas. In retrospect, are you happy you weren’t at the game? I probably would’ve gotten into a fight if I was there. There were a lot of stories about everybody butting heads with Kyle Shanahan in 2015, which was your final season. How bad was it? He had his vision, and that’s how he wanted things to go. The most frustrating thing for me was the communication barrier from me to Dan to him. I would talk to Dan about how I was going to be used, and then Kyle would still do his own thing. It was especially frustrating early in the season because they brought in Leonard Hankerson to take my role, and that didn’t work out, and I felt I could’ve helped win some of those games. Any thoughts on Shanahan succeeding now as a head coach? They’re doing well. Their GM has done a good job building from the inside out. You can always find skill guys. Kyle hasn’t worked with a lot of (elite receivers) other than Julio and Andre Johnson. It’s more like, “This guy’s fast. This guy’s big. I need this guy to run these routes and this guy to run those routes.” He believes he can scheme people to get them open. A lot of it is just play-action and things coming off it. The passing game is a lot of bunch formations, movement, crossing routes and things like that. Were you satisfied with the way your career ended? You could’ve possibly gone to Tennessee, Tampa Bay or Minnesota, but you said you wanted to play for a Super Bowl contender. New England talked to you at some point, but that fell through. I didn’t see my end coming like that. I didn’t think I’d be cast out like that. I sort of saw myself playing and the just retiring. But I didn’t feel like I was really missing anything when it was over, except for walking through the door and seeing the guys. The only accomplishment I didn’t have was winning a Super Bowl.
  17. https://theathletic.com/1419642/2019/11/29/what-we-learned-falcons-will-miss-the-playoffs-for-fifth-time-in-seven-seasons/ This is the end Beautiful friend This is the end My only friend OK, so Jim Morrison wasn’t writing about football when he penned “The End,” an eerie track about death, for his band The Doors. But as the New Orleans Saints held firm by stifling a stagnant Falcons offense 26-18 on Thursday — for 54 minutes at least — it became apparent the end of any postseason aspirations was about to set in. The goals Atlanta set the season out with are gone. It’s over. The Falcons were eliminated from NFC South contention Sunday. Five days later, their playoff hopes, which stood at less than 1 percent as it was, were dashed. For the second consecutive season, the Falcons will not finish with a winning record. For the fifth time in seven years, the Falcons will not compete in the playoffs. Considering the expectations the franchise has built, beginning in what was a turnaround season in 2008, it will be seen as unacceptable in owner Arthur Blank’s eyes. “You don’t want to be in that position, for sure,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “Obviously, when you get to the last quarter of the season, you want to be in the mix, you want to be competing and having bigger stuff ahead of you in January. This is the position we’re in. Do I approach it any differently? No. I think my preparation week in and week out is exactly the same. I think there’s a level of professionalism that comes along with this. We get 16 opportunities that are laid out for us. It’s our responsibility as players to be prepared as we can be every week to play our best. My mindset will not change.” It has been evident since around Week 6 or 7 that the playoffs weren’t going to happen. Now that the end is here, all Atlanta can do is simultaneously play for cliched pride while simultaneously putting something positive together before heading into the offseason. And there actually were a few positive areas of note from Thursday night’s loss. The defense held up, especially in the second half. New Orleans was held to 279 total yards, although there were a few big plays surrendered — including a direct snap Taysom Hill took 30 yards for a touchdown. But everything considered, the defense has shown improvement since the bye week. While Younghoe Koo missed an extra point and a field goal, he had three well-executed onside kicks. One was called back due to an offsides penalty, with Atlanta still being able to recover the next two to give itself an actual shot to tie the score of a game it otherwise wasn’t in late. While Ryan Allen had one punt blocked, he nailed a coffin corner kick for the second consecutive week. Kenjon Barner returned a kickoff 47 yards to set up the Falcons with good field position in the first quarter after the Saints went up 7-0. Special teams had its ups and downs but produced some quality moments. Meanwhile, the offense seems to be regressing. The Falcons can’t allow nine sacks and expect to have a chance to win. The lack of a running game has been a detriment for much of the year. Sure, not having Julio Jones and Austin Hooper in the passing game was tough to withstand — especially Jones and the double-coverage he often draws. At the same time, Ryan was the NFL MVP in 2016, Devonta Freeman is being paid like an elite running back and Calvin Ridley was a first-round selection who has produced as such. As it was written Monday, Atlanta spent considerable resources to upgrade the offensive line. Head coach Dan Quinn and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said this week the offense’s woes haven’t been limited to the line. But given the first-round draft picks up front and the depth at the skill positions, the lack of consistency has become exceptionally troubling. When a team gets down to an opponent’s 2-yard line and has a first-down opportunity by picking up only 1 yard, it can’t come away without any points. But on fourth-and-1 from the 2, the Falcons drew up a run-pass option play, with Ridley wide open in the back of the end zone. Ryan picked the wrong player to throw to, with Atlanta turning the ball over on downs. Ryan threw two interceptions and lost a fumble, giving New Orleans a short field each time and resulted in six combined points. A blocked punt after Atlanta’s first offensive possession also gave New Orleans a short field and led to a touchdown. With the Falcons’ defense holding the Saints to 13 points on the rest of their drives, it’s easy to wonder what could have happened if the offense and punt team didn’t put the defense in those four tough positions. “I like how we were fighting even with short position,” safety Ricardo Allen said. “We fought all night trying to keep ourselves in the game, limit big plays. But the one play I can say I didn’t like was the one were (Hill) ran one in on a power-O play. That’s probably the only one — that and my missed tackle. Other than that, I feel like the defense played pretty good and stood up to all the challenges that we could. Even though field position was bad we did a good job against an elite quarterback and a pretty good group of guys.” Interesting ending While the Saints were in control throughout the game, Atlanta did manage to make it interesting down the stretch. Trailing 26-9, the Falcons got in the two-minute offense and started moving the ball down the field before Ryan found Jaeden Graham for a 23-yard gain. Two plays later, Ryan found Russell Gage for a touchdown to cut New Orleans’ lead to 26-15. Then, chaos began to ensue. Atlanta attempted an onside kick with Foye Oluokun recovering the ball, only for Gage to be called for offside. The Falcons ran it back, with Oluokun recovering again and without a penalty. “I think because Russ went offsides the first time, they were overcompensating over there,” Oluokun said. “I kind of went unnoticed and unblocked the next two onside kicks. The first one, I just caught.” Atlanta scored on a field goal and attempted another onside kick. And again, the Falcons recovered thanks to Oluokun’s effort. “The second one the ball was there, and I just slapped it, and it went out of his hands, and Kemal (Ishmael) fell on it,” Oluokun said. Trailing by eight, Atlanta suddenly had a chance to tie the score. But on its final offensive drive, Atlanta was unable to get the job done. Still, it was quite the sight to see consecutive onside kick recoveries. That marked the first time it happened since 2004. “We are always going to scratch and claw,” Oluokun said. “We are all competitors so until that thing is over, it is not over. I like winning. That is what’s fun in the game and I am out here on Thanksgiving so I might as well give it my all. We found ourselves back in that game as it was kind of unfolding and it felt good but we lost so we want to find a way to win.”
  18. https://theathletic.com/1396392/2019/11/20/player-led-meetings-secondary-tweaks-help-spark-falcons-on-two-game-turnaround/ There isn’t anything anyone can do to change how the Falcons’ 2019 season started. The 1-7 start before the team’s bye week all but sealed its postseason fate. While Atlanta technically hasn’t been eliminated from postseason contention, nothing short of a miracle must occur for the team to wind up in the playoffs — even if that includes winning the remainder of its games. Atlanta’s past two games have been a surprising development. If the Falcons can look that good on defense, and tally four picks and 11 sacks in two games, why couldn’t they have this kind of performance earlier in the year? It’s fair to criticize why certain changes weren’t made sooner, perhaps when the Falcons were 1-4. But while these tweaks have happened later in the season, the quality of football has certainly improved, even if a two-game sample size is still too small to truly gauge whether the team has finally turned a corner. “It’s two games. I don’t know if it even qualifies as a streak,” head coach Dan Quinn said. With these past two wins in the rear view, it remains to be seen whether this is now the new norm for the Falcons. Is this sustainable, or will they eventually falter like they did through the first eight games of the season? Here’s a look at the primary changes that led to these two impressive wins. Players taking accountability Maybe the Falcons’ players thought they eventually would break out of the early season funk. Instead, after a win over the Philadelphia Eagles, they lost six consecutive games. Sure, there was plenty of blame to spread around. The pass rush was nonexistent with only seven sacks in eight games. The defensive backs were unable to slow down quarterbacks. The offense was unable to sustain the kind of consistency needed with its rushing attack. While the head coach is ultimately responsible for the product on the football field, players, especially those who admire and respect the head coach, have to hold themselves and each other accountable when the results aren’t going their way. The first known instance of players speaking up to one another occurred when Atlanta was down 24-0 against Seattle. In that moment, safety Ricardo Allen said players spoke up to say, “Enough is enough.” If anyone was doing something out of their primary responsibility, it was time to quit it. The objective from then was to do your job and focus on playing team defense. Sure enough, the second half of that Seahawks game was markedly different, with the Falcons rallying but falling short 27-20. After that game, defensive passing game coordinator Jerome Henderson noted that players began convening on their own accord and without coaches present, to ensure everyone is aligned on the same page. “I think a lot more player-led meetings, a lot more getting together and talking through issues, saying we’re not going to leave the practice field with any gray (area),” Henderson said. “That’s helped.” The Athletic learned that the first of those player-led meetings began during the bye week, with Allen and Deion Jones leading the charge. The primary goal was to drive home the importance of accountability with one another. Whatever was said certainly resonated. It almost seems like an entirely new football team has taken the field the past two weeks. Moving Morris In the moment, on the first day out of the bye week, it seemed like moving Raheem Morris from receivers coach to defensive backs coach was a desperation ploy. If the secondary was unable to perform up to standard through eight games, how in the world would it be able to in a ninth, regardless of who is in charge? Yeah. About that. In wins over the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers, the secondary has looked much tighter in coverage. Without Morris making the move to coach defensive backs, it’s unknown whether this unit would see such a sudden jump. One player who has stood out since Morris moved to his position group is cornerback Isaiah Oliver, who credited Morris with a couple of technique tweaks after the win over New Orleans. Quinn also wanted to heap praise on Oliver for his improved play. “This guy has worked incredibly hard at refining that technique to keep going and keep battling for it,” Quinn said. “It takes a lot of confidence to stay at the line of scrimmage. When you are playing on the line, the receiver now has to make a move one way or another to release — if you are playing at the line — which we do a lot with Isaiah.” While Oliver has gone through some growing pains in his first year as a starter, he is coming off of perhaps the best game of his career. On a deep shot in the first quarter against Carolina, Oliver successfully defended speedy receiver D.J. Moore down the sideline on a deep shot from quarterback Kyle Allen. Oliver stayed true to his fundamentals, battled throughout the play and was able to knock the pass away. In the fourth quarter, Oliver had another pass breakup, with Moore trying to score on a slant from the Falcons’ 13-yard line. Again, Oliver remained in position and jumped in front of the pass. Oliver is just one piece of what has been an improved secondary. During these past two games, the Falcons have held Drew Brees and Kyle Allen to a combined 6.4 yards per pass attempt. During the first eight games, opposing quarterbacks averaged 8.5 yards per attempt. It seems simple to suggest Morris could have this kind of role in assisting what was a struggling secondary during eight weeks of a football season. To a degree, it is. When it comes to the two games Morris has presided over the defensive backs, not much, in a big-picture sense, has changed. “Defensively, we have the same players on the field,” Oliver said. “We’re calling the same calls that we’ve been calling every single week. Nothing’s changed. It’s just working better. Guys are communicating more, being more urgent, getting to the ball quicker. In terms of the scheme, everything is the same.” Where Morris is making a difference is in the meeting room. The way one player explained it was that Morris is bringing a different type of energy. In doing so, Morris has helped bring a greater sense of urgency to the position group, which has shown over the past two weeks. Morris’ move turned out to be a brilliant one, albeit one Quinn probably wishes he would have made much earlier in the year, if not the offseason. Shoring up the secondary It’s no secret that the Falcons were struggling when it came to their communication during the first half of the season. It was also maddening for a coaching staff to see the players practice the plays during the week only to see it fall apart on game day. “It’s a question I’ve been struggling with through the first part of the season,” Quinn said. “The analogy I use is that you look under the hood and everything looks right, but it just wasn’t running like you’d hope it would. We made some bigger adjustments to say, ‘All right, let’s give it another shot to get it back started up.’” One tweak Quinn made was to move Damontae Kazee from nickel to free safety and switch Ricardo Allen from free safety to strong safety. This move was made before Atlanta’s game against Seattle. In doing so, rookie Kendall Sheffield became the top nickel defender. With Allen being the best communicator on defense, playing strong safety has actually allowed him to relay some of the calls to players closer to the line of scrimmage. “He’s closer to the line of scrimmage, he can make some of the calls and the alerts that go with that,” Quinn said. “Some of the techniques may be new for him, but I think you probably saw it on a screen play. There was an interception, a couple of big plays by him where he was down closer to the line of scrimmage, and I thought that took advantage of some of his instincts, and he was able to on a few more plays as well.” Allen and Kazee also have a great relationship, seeing that Kazee was Allen’s understudy in 2017 and 2018. With Kazee at the position he was drafted to play, he and Allen have enjoyed better communication with one another. “I think the combination of (Allen) and Kazee playing off each other, too, has been huge in the back end,” Henderson said. “(Allen) is such a studier of the game and spends so much time understanding looks and what they mean. Him closer to the line of scrimmage to communicate that more helps some but him communicating back to Kazee and them two getting on the same page has allowed him to play really well. I think Kazee is now in a position where he’s really comfortable and playing well.” Of the aforementioned items, this is yet another that Quinn and company probably wish they could do over. In fact, when Keanu Neal tore his ACL a year ago, Kazee stepped in at free safety, and Allen moved to strong safety. When Allen tore his Achilles this year, Kazee stayed at nickel, with Kemal Ishmael primarily playing strong safety. While Allen, at 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds, doesn’t offer the prototypical size of a strong safety, his knowledge and understanding of the game lend him to make this kind of position move. No, the first half of the year wasn’t fun for anyone in Atlanta’s locker room. While many will wonder why it took so long to fix some of these problem areas, all these players can do is keep executing these recent tweaks to continue winning games. “It is what it is. There isn’t anything I can do about that start,” Allen said. “I’m just going to enjoy what I can right now. I’m going to enjoy this process I have because me feeling bad about what happened isn’t doing anything. I don’t think about that anymore. I barely think about our record. I take it play by play and make sure that what I’m doing is captain caliber, and showing I can be one of the leaders on this defense.”
  19. https://theathletic.com/1399427/2019/11/21/it-took-my-head-off-my-shoulders-the-hit-that-almost-ended-kenjon-barners-career-as-a-returner/ Kenjon Barner was done with special teams. After taking a hit in college that left him unconscious, Barner swore off returning kickoffs and punts. Back when he was starring in college at Oregon, Barner fielded a kickoff against Washington State and ran what was called an opposite return. Barner sold like he was running to his left before turning right to follow his blocks. Barner was running behind one of his blocks but never saw the action behind them. Before he knew it, Washington State’s Anthony Carpenter leveled him, with his helmet colliding forcefully into Barner’s. Immediately, Barner was out cold. He remained on the Martin Stadium turf for roughly 10 minutes before being assisted into an ambulance. He missed the next three weeks, two games and a bye, of college football and came to an initial conclusion that he was done returning kickoffs and punts. In fact, an Oregon team doctor told Barner that if he was to continue playing football, he should give up return duties. Barner was fine with that. He didn’t want any part of running into another unforeseen concussion. Naturally, it didn’t work out that way. And nine years later, Barner is now earning a living doing exactly what he was advised not to do. “It’s just funny, man,” he said. “We all believe, ‘If you ever want to hear God laugh, tell him what your plan is.’ My plan was not to return the ball. Here I am, making a career out of it in the NFL. I look back at it and laugh.” Career special-teamer nets first return touchdown Barner eventually started returning kicks and punts again, and this avenue turned out to be his way of sticking around in the NFL. While he was drafted by the Carolina Panthers in 2013, it took until the 2016 season before Barner was able to carve out a niche as a kickoff and punt returner. At that point, he was with the Philadelphia Eagles, which traded for him in 2014. After spending time with the New England Patriots in 2018, he was waived and picked up by his first team, Charlotte. With Carolina down the stretch of last season, Barner returned kickoffs and punts, which evidently caught the eye of the Falcons’ coaching staff. During the offseason, the Falcons signed Barner to be their primary return specialist. And for the first time in his NFL career, Barner was able to take a punt return for a touchdown last week against Charlotte. The play happened with less than two minutes to go in the first quarter. The Falcons faked like they were sending 10 players to block the punt. After the snap, three players bailed to help set up the return for Barner. The initial look, combined with a seven-man pressure, might have forced Carolina punter Michael Palardy to punt the ball farther than the coverage would have dictated. “I wanted to bring a little bit of pressure when you look at it, and I think we got the punter to drive the ball down the field a little bit,” special-teams coordinator Ben Kotwica said. “And then our blocking, we worked on something we really worked hard on the last couple of weeks coming out of the bye.” Barner caught the ball at the Atlanta 22-yard line, with his momentum going backward a couple of extra yards. After making the first defender miss, Barner avoided another defender as his blocks began to set up. Christian Blake threw the first key block, although he took a big hit in doing so. Barner thanked Blake profusely for getting knocked on his back. “Blake took a bullet for me,” Barner said. “He took a real bullet. He took a live bullet. … I told him, ‘I think I owe you some money. Medical bills, send them my way.’” Said Blake, “When I saw KB catch the ball, I couldn’t hesitate. As soon as I turned, I saw the first guy and took one for the team. I’m cool with it. We scored, so it’s all good with me.” Of course, if Barner is offering some money for his efforts, Blake will gladly accept. “I need like half of his check or something,” Blake joked. From there, Barner split two defenders and also received a key block from Blidi Wreh-Wilson. Heading toward the sideline, Barner had Foye Oluokun, Keith Smith and Isaiah Oliver protecting him the rest of the way for his first career return touchdown. The return touchdown netted Barner NFC special-teams player of the week honors. “Shout out to those guys in front of me,” Barner said. “Without them, I wouldn’t be able to do it. It’s a blessing, it’s humbling. I’m always grateful when it does happen.” Even with the accolade, Barner was kicking himself for the remaining two punts in the game that he muffed. Asked what it was like to record his first NFL punt return touchdown, Barner focused on the mistakes. “If I’m going to be honest, I was excited, but then the rest of the game was ****** for me,” Barner said. “I dropped two punts. I’m the type of guy, I don’t get caught up in the success. I’m more caught up in the negative. That stays with me. It lingers.” Considering where he was nearly a decade ago, Barner is now amused that he almost convinced himself not to return kicks and punts anymore. In the end, being a returner is why he has turned professional football into a career. The average time a player spends in the league is 3.3 years. Barner is in his seventh NFL season. Back in college, his special-teams coach, Tom Osborne, used to remind his unit that special teams could be a deciding factor as to whether someone sticks in the NFL. In Barner’s case, Osborne was correct. “He used to always preach special teams to us all the time,” Barner said. “He’d tell us all the time, ‘A lot of you guys think you’re going to be the guy at the next level. You’re probably not going to be.’ (Special) teams is where you’re going to make a lasting career.” Finally over the hit Barner acknowledged it took time before he could shake the Washington State hit out of his system. Considering the severity of it, it was a play Barner wasn’t sure he would be able to get over. Earlier this week, Barner was told by a reporter that the play looked pretty bad after seeing it for the first time. Barner, who said he has watched the play a few times since, didn’t think the word “bad” did the hit justice. “Bad? It took my head off my shoulders!” he said. Despite it being worse than “bad” in his eyes, Barner is OK with poking fun at the play now that nine years have passed. “You see how my body fell? What individual do you know who can make his face and his feet touch the ground at the same time?” he said. “You can’t name one. I laugh at it now. It’s laughable now because I’m past it, I’ve healed. It’s almost 10 years later, and I’m still playing, so I can laugh at it now. At the time it was serious. It was scary. There was uncertainty. I can look back and laugh about it now, and understand what happened. I appreciate what happened — and shout out to Carpenter.” When you watch Barner these days, he doesn’t exhibit any fear as a return specialist. While his awareness at the position has improved considerably, he’s still exposed to a big shot on any particular play. In fact, just last year when he was with Carolina, Barner took a huge hit from punter Matt Bosher in the Panthers’ home game against the Falcons. With the 2010 hit, a perfect storm aligned to create a devastating moment. Barner never saw Carpenter, who took a push in the back from Oregon’s Marvin Johnson. That only added speed and power to the hit, which helped land the brutal blow to Barner’s head. Barner easily could have given up special teams, and no one would have thought twice about that decision. Instead, he gave it another try and made a career out of it. “It’s nothing you can think about; there’s nothing you can do about it,” Barner said. “It is what it is; it happened. I learned to let it go and to pray that it never happens again.”
  20. https://theathletic.com/1389660/2019/11/18/schultz-if-dan-quinns-return-doesnt-hinge-on-playoffs-how-low-should-falcons-set-the-bar/?source=shared-article If Dan Quinn’s future hinges on making the playoffs, there’s really no decision to make. The Falcons dug themselves a crater with a 1-7 start. Their postseason chances, listed at less than one percent by analytics sites two weeks ago, remain at less than one percent after consecutive wins over New Orleans and Carolina. Biblical plagues have yet to intervene. So if this isn’t about whether Quinn will coach a playoff game this season, it’s about what would persuade owner Arthur Blank to bring Quinn back. Some around the NFL believe the bar could be as low as a 7-9 record. The idea is that Blank’s criteria will be more about the 6-2 second half than the full-season résumé. My personal view is hiring and firing decisions should never be based on a small sample. But should the macro view include Quinn’s two playoff seasons or just the past two? “I just want to get into this week,” Quinn said Monday when asked how he should be judged. “I recognize it’s a bottom-line business. There are consequences when you do well, and there are consequences when you don’t. But I would just rather spend time on how can we get there and play like we’re capable of playing. As far as being judged on where you’re at, I recognize it’s a results business.” When asked if he has been told by Blank where the bar for his return sits, Quinn said, “No, and we talk weekly about the team, about where we’re at. We talk about the team a lot. But we’ve never gone further than that.” Quinn also balked at referencing the past two wins as a turnaround, saying, “I don’t know that even qualifies as a streak. That would be an awesome Christmas question for you to ask. Or at least give us to Thanksgiving.” He gets points for perspective. Many have speculated about Quinn’s future. But nobody really knows what Blank is thinking, in part because even Blank’s view changes. Four weeks ago, after a 37-10 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, I wrote a column about the then 1-6 Falcons, headlined “Dan Quinn has failed, and his firing from Falcons appears inevitable.” It was a column written based not only on my own view but that of others in and around the organization. When asked if Quinn would be fired the next day, Blank told The Athletic: “No. But that doesn’t change the record. It is what it is. It’s just very disappointing for everybody.” Following a loss to Seattle before the Falcons’ bye week, Blank told to an assemblage of media members in a hallway at Mercedes-Benz Stadium that he would “take the next couple of weeks (to) evaluate where we are and whatever decision we make it will be for the right reasons and long term.” Many logically concluded that if the Falcons were blown out in their next game at New Orleans, Quinn would be gone. But they won as two-touchdown underdogs and have played their two best games of the season the past two weeks. So where do things stand now with Quinn? Here are some thoughts: • Blank likes Quinn. Blank’s emotions are different than they were during the final days with ex-coaches Dan Reeves and Bobby Petrino. Blank is not yet at the “must fire” line like he was with Mike Smith, whom he also liked. Intellectually, Blank understands if he keeps Quinn after consecutive non-playoff seasons, regardless of the second-half record, there is going to be blowback and a potential financial ripple effect from fans. But it might take another humiliating loss to push Blank over the line, at least before the end of the season. • Blank understands he has a shrinking window to take advantage of having Matt Ryan and Julio Jones on the roster. Ryan will be 35 next season, Jones 31. If Blank gives Quinn one more season to fix this and he fails, that means a new regime would come in before the 2021 season, when Ryan is 36 and Jones is 32. The question becomes: Would starting with an entirely new coaching staff with a possibly new philosophy, terminology and schemes in 2020 immediately get the Falcons closer to a Super Bowl or further away? Blank hasn’t determined that, yet. • The Falcons are a different team at 3-7 than they were at 1-7. But they’re still 3-7. Quinn carries responsibility for the start because he has been at the center of personnel and coaching staff decisions, and he wasn’t able to get players to perform to their capabilities in the first eight weeks, which is a coach’s primary job. The fact his shuffle of assistants has positively impacted the defense the past two weeks is both praise-worthy and an indictment. Mistakes were made to begin with. Raheem Morris probably should have been moved back to defense after the 2016 season, when offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan left for San Francisco and defensive coordinator Richard Smith was fired. Quinn instead promoted Marquand Manuel to the DC position. He was fired two years later. • To his credit, Quinn actually recognized after five games that his decision to call defensive plays wasn’t working. To be clear: The Falcons are not 2-0 since Quinn stopped calling plays. It was the Arizona game in Week 6 when he first turned over most of the decisions to assistants, led by linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich. It wasn’t an immediate success. The Falcons lost the next three games to the Cardinals (34-33), Rams (27-10) and Seahawks (27-20, with a second-half rally from 24-0 falling short). Blank isn’t losing anything by holding onto Quinn right now. Potential replacements, whether currently in the NFL, college or sitting the season out, aren’t going anywhere. But Blank will have to react soon. College coaches will begin making career decisions after the regular season in two weeks. Potential candidates will have conversations with possible assistants for their next staff as they prepare for interviews. Other jobs will soon open. That means competition for top candidates will increase. So the decision is nearing. But since Blank’s “couple of weeks” comment, the view has changed. If only slightly.
  21. https://theathletic.com/1388332/2019/11/18/what-we-learned-dan-quinns-defense-finally-taking-shape-takk-mckinleys-streak-ends/ CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Sacks are starting to come in bunches. The coverage has tightened up, leading to four interceptions in the Falcons’ 29-3 blowout victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. Suddenly, Atlanta’s defense resembles the defenses Dan Quinn previously has been associated with. Before this sudden turn of events, a lot of debate surrounded this team about its 1-7 start. Was the poor start due to coaching? Or was it due to a perceived lack of talent at key positions? When it comes to coaching, the argument was, and is, that any staff should have the players prepared for every single game, regardless of opponent. Players should be well-versed in their assignments and on point with their communication. If the preparation is right, the results will surely come on Sunday afternoons. If not, then the responsibility falls squarely with the coaching. As it pertains to the talent level of the defense, when players are missing tackles, getting beat down the field or not paying close enough attention to detail in their communications, then perhaps it’s fair to wonder if they are good enough to get the job done. It’s not like Quinn’s scheme, which other NFL teams use variations of, is outdated. But if the players can’t execute it, then the scheme looks a lot worse than it actually is. If the past two weeks are indicative of anything, it’s that the first-half-of-the-season coaching mistakes and player miscues on defense are in the midst of being rectified. Since the bye week, it has looked like an entirely different defense. Quite honestly, everyone involved deserves to share the blame for the 1-7 record. That start is likely to keep the Falcons from reaching the postseason, barring a miraculous turn of events in either the NFC Wild-Card race (the Seattle Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings must lose out) or in the NFC South (the New Orleans Saints would need to go 1-5 during the next six games, with another loss to Atlanta helping matters). During the 1-7 stretch, much was made about Quinn’s defense no longer working. And after last week’s win over New Orleans, a lot of people wanted to place praise on linebackers Jeff Ulbrich and defensive backs coach Raheem Morris for their role in sharing play-calling duties. The fact is that play-calling was divvied up among assistants dating back to Atlanta’s loss to the Arizona Cardinals. So the defense still was failing to produce in games against the Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks after Quinn gave up this responsibility. While not much worked in the first eight games, Atlanta has found some positive results, finally, in the past two. While the Panthers have mostly a one-dimensional offense that runs just about everything through Christian McCaffrey, it’s hard to argue that Atlanta’s defensive performance against the Saints wasn’t a great example of what Quinn’s defense is supposed to look like. Quinn’s defense is simple with what it’s trying to accomplish. First and foremost, the defense is geared to stop the run. Second, when teams pass, the ball always is in front of the defense. Third, the defense is to do everything to prevent yards after the catch. Once a pass is completed, converge on the tackle. These past two weeks have seen this take place. Quinn’s defenses aren’t going to necessarily be low in yardage total. But the objective is to make the opposing offense’s drives difficult. Since the second half of Atlanta’s game against Seattle, the Falcons have held teams to five field goals and zero touchdowns in the past 10 quarters. It took a lot of time, but it does appear the defense is finally beginning to jell. “That’s what it looks like, since the second half of the Seahawks game we’ve been clicking pretty good,” defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. “But I think it all starts with getting back to our process and sticking together, continuing to grind and never throwing in the towel.” Speaking of sacks … The Falcons had only seven sacks in the first eight games of the year. During the past two weeks, Atlanta has shocked the NFL by totaling 11 sacks. Six sacks came against New Orleans, and five more were accrued against Carolina. On Sunday, Takk McKinley finally recorded his first solo sack of the season. Remember, McKinley made a bet with himself that he would cut off his beloved dreadlocks if he didn’t reach 10 sacks for the year. Time is beginning to run out, with McKinley only at 1.5 sacks for the season. This total, however, hasn’t been due to a lack of effort. McKinley continuously has played hard while showcasing his speed off the edge. But as quarterbacks found open receivers early in their progressions during the first eight games, there weren’t many opportunities to finish off sacks. As the coverage has improved the past two weeks, the defensive line, with that split second or half-second, is beginning to finally apply pressure on the quarterback. As the season has progressed, and with McKinley unable to tally any solo sacks during the first nine games, he updated his Twitter bio to read, “A DE who almost gets sacks.” That changed after Sunday’s game. Almost immediately after Atlanta’s win, McKinley changed it to, “A DE who got a sack.” At least McKinley has been able to find some humor with how his season has gone statistically. A great example of McKinley coming ever so close to a sack came Sunday in the first quarter when he beat his block quickly before wrapping up Panthers quarterback Kyle Allen. As McKinley prepared to bring him down, Allen threw the ball up for grabs to avoid the sack. It turned out for the best as De’Vondre Campbell picked off the ball. But where there’s an almost-sack, there’s probably a McKinley tweet. McKinley finally recorded his first solo sack near the end of the first quarter but injured his shoulder on the play. As he was bringing down Allen, offensive tackle Daryl Williams fell on top of him. McKinley didn’t speak to reporters after the game but did take exception with the play on Twitter. This year, ESPN created a metric called pass rush win rate. While McKinley only has 1.5 sacks, he ranks third among edge defenders with a pass rush win rate of 31 percent. Only T.J. Watt and Robert Quinn rank better. The pass rush win rate is based on how often a player is able to beat his block in 2.5 seconds or less. According to this tool, McKinley is among the league’s best at it. It just hasn’t correlated with big-number sacks. By comparison, Watt is third in the NFL with 10.5 sacks and Quinn is tied for seventh with 8.5. While the numbers may not show it on the traditional stat sheet, McKinley has been disruptive. Ridley’s success against Panthers continues Right after his big day against the Panthers, receiver Calvin Ridley did an on-field interview with Falcons team reporter Kelsey Conway, who asked him about his two big games at Bank of America Stadium. “I don’t know what it is about here, but I kind of live here, huh?” Ridley said. Ridley was called upon quite a bit Sunday as he caught eight passes for 143 yards and a touchdown. Carolina elected to leave Ridley in single coverage, and the second-year receiver did a lot of damage once again. This follows last year’s game in Charlotte, which saw Ridley catch three passes for 90 yards and a touchdown. In that game, Ridley took a 75-yarder for a touchdown. In fact, in three career games against Carolina, Ridley has scored a touchdown each time. When Atlanta and Carolina met for the first time in 2018, Ridley caught four passes for 64 yards and a score. In a bit of a surprise, the Falcons were unable to move the ball on the ground against a defensive front that ranks among the worst in the NFL in rushing defense (128.4 rushing yards allowed, 27th in the NFL). But with the matchup advantages in the passing game, the offense was able to hit some big plays to Ridley and Julio Jones. Jones finished the game with six catches for 91 yards while getting some double coverage looks. With the extra attention sent Jones’ way, Ridley made Carolina pay. And spreading the ball around allowed for Matt Ryan to post 311 yards while completing 67.7 percent of his passes. “It was like pick your poison,” Jones said. “Matt found Cal down the field, and he did a tremendous job for us.”
  22. https://theathletic.com/1379497/2019/11/14/a-closer-look-at-the-falcons-new-look-defensive-play-call-alignment/ As it turns out, this isn’t an unfamiliar setup for the Falcons’ coaching staff. Beginning with the Falcons’ loss to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 6, head coach Dan Quinn, who has been doubling up as the team’s defensive coordinator, passed on play-calling duties to his assistants. Taking the “lion’s share” of these duties, Quinn previously revealed, was linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich. For Sunday’s win over the New Orleans Saints, Raheem Morris joined Ulbrich in sharing defensive play-calling duties. Morris recently was moved to coach the defensive backs after spending the past three-plus seasons with the team’s receivers. The setup worked like this: Ulbrich called plays on first and second downs. Morris called third-down plays and those in two-minute situations. While the first change in play-calling responsibilities — in games against the Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks — didn’t offer different results, things changed for the better against the Saints. Defensive backs remained in their assignments and covered well. The pass rush made things uncomfortable for Drew Brees when he dropped back to throw. But just a few days after the game, each coach who played a role with the defensive play calls against the Saints has downplayed the significance of the changes. On Monday, Quinn said credit should go to the players for getting the job done. Ulbrich and Morris said their hand in play-calling wasn’t the reason why Atlanta upset New Orleans. Still, it’s hard not to notice the lone change that resulted in this outcome had to do with a coaching reassignment. After all, a defense that hadn’t been too successful previously appeared dominant against a hated rival. “A lot was made of that,” Morris said. “When you plan it, we all plan it together. So when you plan those things, it’s just a person reading off a sheet. We did a nice job of working together and working for each other. I just think that was the most helpful part, bouncing ideas off each other and going to work and having a successful game.” This wasn’t the first time Morris has played a part in sharing play-calling duties. In 2015, Morris said he and former defensive coordinator Richard Smith shared this responsibility. With Morris moving to the offensive side to coach receivers in 2016, it’s believed Smith was the sole defensive play-caller until Quinn took the role from him midseason. Morris said he has seen and heard of other teams going with a committee approach when it comes to either game-planning or calling plays. That’s one reason why he seemed a little surprised at the reaction this news garnered during the weekend. “It’s been done here in the past, too, with other people,” Morris said. “A lot of people do it that way. I know a lot of people are in situations who have a guy who is constantly focused on third down and constantly focused on situations, so when they come up, he can be ready to have a suggestion, or he can be ready to have what he thinks you should do ready to go. It’s no different than what most people do. You do it on offense, as well. You may just talk about it in between series as opposed to during a series. It just happens that way.” While Quinn is no longer the primary play caller, he is still very much involved when it comes to approving the plays offered up by his assistants. He is still considered the team’s defensive coordinator as he is the primary person who puts together the weekly game plan. “I think there’s a big deal being made about really nothing there,” Ulbrich said. “(Quinn’s) still a big part of meetings. He’s still a big part on game days with suggestions. He’s on the headpiece; he’s always talking. And ultimately, it’s not the plays in this defensive system that, in my opinion, make the difference. It’s the players, the communication and execution. That was on point. The players deserve the credit for what occurred last week.” By passing on play-calling duties, and with moving Morris back to defensive backs, Quinn now can add extra focus on his area of expertise — the defensive line. During the offseason, Quinn worked a great deal with the defensive line. But as a head coach who was also a play-calling defensive coordinator, unforeseen issues began to pile up that required extra attention. To start with, the secondary continued to deal with numerous communication issues through eight games. This season, teams have completed 88.9 percent of their throws and average 70 yards per game in two seconds or less against the Falcons, according to radar360. Both marks are worst in the NFL. If quarterbacks are able to get the ball out with that much success in two seconds or less, it will be extremely difficult for a pass rush to hit home. And that aforementioned pass rush was only able to record seven sacks heading into last week’s game against the Saints. The hope obviously will be to continue marrying the coverage and pass rush so that the Falcons can continue playing complementary football Sunday against the Carolina Panthers. Moving Morris to the secondary should continue to free up areas for Quinn to address head-on, or at least that’s the hope. In a season like this, there isn’t any room for error. After Atlanta’s loss against Seattle, owner Arthur Blank spoke about the need to evaluate the coaching staff after a 1-7 start. Now at 2-7, stringing a lengthy winning streak during the second half of the season will be needed to ensure Blank keeps faith in Quinn to be his head coach. And with that in mind, Quinn appears willing to do whatever it takes to rectify the hole his team dug itself in. If that involves relinquishing play-calling duties and shifting coaches’ responsibilities around, so be it. “I don’t have an ego that’s anything bigger than our team,” Quinn said. “That’s the most important thing, how we can do the best job for the players. That’s what I felt was best at this time. That’s why I really leaned on Jeff and Raheem to take on a larger role. Like you expected them to, they answered the challenge very strongly.”
  23. https://theathletic.com/1362753/2019/11/08/falcons-will-need-another-big-game-from-julio-jones-in-rivalry-game-with-saints/ Julio Jones doesn’t believe this is a lost season, even if the Falcons are 1-7 and riding a six-game losing streak. Although there haven’t been many positives, if any, for this team in 2019, Jones isn’t losing sight of the simple fact there are eight games left to play. And, of course, there’s a big game coming with Atlanta traveling this weekend to take on its biggest rival — New Orleans. “We are not where we want to be at all but the season is not over — so I can’t speak on if the season is disappointing or whatever,” Jones said. “For me, it is just the next game. It is that mentality. I always stay ready. It is a process. We come out here each and every day and you can’t get bored with it. Regardless of the outcome of the game, if you go out there and play and do your best, that is all we ask of each guy. Each and every day go out there and have that mentality and attitude — that is all we ask of everybody.” If the Falcons are to break this six-game skid, it must defeat a New Orleans team that has posted a 7-1 record despite being without Drew Brees for most of the year. A big reason why the Saints have been so successful is their defense. New Orleans ranks fifth in the NFL in total defense by keeping opponents to 316.5 yards per game. If the Falcons, who are 13-point underdogs, are to surprise the league with an upset win over the Saints, a big performance needs to be in store from Jones. And Jones has had a number of big games against the Saints before. In 15 career meetings, Jones has recorded 75 yards or more 12 times. Nine of those games saw Jones go for more than 90 yards. Here are a few of Jones’ biggest performances against New Orleans. In the 2014 season opener, Jones caught seven passes for 116 yards in a 37-34 win in overtime at the Georgia Dome. Four of Jones’ receptions were for 20 yards or longer. Later in 2014, Jones went for seven catches and 107 yards in a 30-14 win in New Orleans. Three of his catches went for more than 20 yards. In the 2016 regular-season finale, Jones caught seven passes for 96 yards and a touchdown in a 38-32 victory in Atlanta. Jones’ score came from 1 yard out in the second quarter. This season marked the last time Atlanta swept New Orleans. In 2017, Jones caught five passes for 98 yards at home against the Saints. His 14-yard grab in the fourth quarter helped set up Matt Bryant’s game-winning field goal. While Jones has gone for a total of 23 catches and 392 yards in the three games since, New Orleans has come out on top in each of those meetings. The Falcons only can hope to get another stellar outing from Jones if they are to snap their three-game skid against the Saints and their six-game losing streak in 2019. “He is one of the best competitors I’ve ever been around,” head coach Dan Quinn said. “For him, he has such a standard for how he performs and how he plays and how practices. He’s remarkable that way. He has a fighter’s mentality.” Trufant to be a game-time decision The first change Atlanta saw with its secondary this week was by getting an extra position coach in Raheem Morris, who moved to assist in this area after serving as the receivers coach for the past 3 1/2 seasons. The next could be getting Desmond Trufant back on the field against the Saints. Trufant’s availability, however, isn’t certain as Quinn said he will take Trufant’s availability up until game time Sunday. For now, Trufant is listed as questionable for the game. Trufant has missed the past three games with a turf toe injury. He has been limited in practice in each of the three days of practice this week. If Trufant is back on the field, the Falcons will have some decisions to make at the other corner and nickel spots. Rookie Kendall Sheffield has played well enough to earn a spot on the field, whether it’s at corner or nickel. But if the Falcons decide to use Damontae Kazee even more at free safety, Sheffield likely would be the man up at nickel. That would leave Isaiah Oliver and Blidi Wreh-Wilson as options at the other corner spot. If Kazee plays nickel, Sheffield could be the front-runner for the outside corner spot opposite of Trufant. Against Seattle, Kazee saw some time at free safety, which is where he spent the bulk of the 2018 season. Quinn said Kazee will continue to see some snaps in this role. “In certain packages he will, where he and Ricardo (Allen) can play together,” Quinn said. “We like where some of those combinations go. The advantage of that is you have a safety who can play down in the slot.” Another guard goes down The Falcons will be without offensive lineman Wes Schweitzer on Sunday. Schweitzer suffered a head injury during Wednesday’s practice, which was later deemed to be a concussion. The Falcons have had some brutal luck on the offensive line, a position they thought they bolstered with plenty of depth. But Chris Lindstrom, James Carpenter and Jamon Brown have all missed games because of injuries. Considering Schweitzer can play left guard, right guard and center, his absence hurts from a depth perspective. “Wes has created a nice role for himself to show lots of versatility,” Quinn said. “As an interior guy, to know you can play three (positions), that’s a big deal.” Since Schweitzer is Atlanta’s backup center, there is now an opening at this position in the short term. The team’s emergency center during games is Ty Sambrailo, who has been forced to work at just about every offensive line position this week. “Ty had a busy week with the tackles, guards and centers,” Quinn said. Another option Atlanta could go with is Sean Harlow, the former 2017 fourth-round draft pick who is on the practice squad. Harlow was spotted repping with the second team at center during the media viewing period of Friday’s practice. But as a member of the practice squad, Harlow would need to be promoted to the 53-man roster by 4 p.m. Saturday to be available to play. Harlow was also named Atlanta’s Tommy Nobis teammate of the week and wore the special black jersey during Friday’s practice. “Sean has done a good job in that way,” Quinn said. “We’re trying like **** to keep pushing him to where he can go three inside as well.”
  24. https://theathletic.com/1366450/2019/11/10/the-different-perspective-from-raheem-morris-helped-lead-falcons-in-win-over-saints/ NEW ORLEANS — Ricardo Allen is a man of many words. This is one of the many reasons reporters flock to him after games and on multiple days during a week of practice. He’ll help explain coverages in detail. He’s honest with his replies, helping those who ask about certain specifics to gain a better understanding. He’s insightful and, quite honestly, delightful to cover from a professional perspective. Therefore, when Allen is direct with a one-word answer about an important topic, you immediately take note before asking some follow-up questions. Allen was asked if Atlanta’s improved performance in the secondary, which held the New Orleans Saints to three field goals and a 6.6-yards-per-passing-attempt average in a dominating 26-9 victory, could be greatly attributed to Raheem Morris’ move from coaching receivers to defensive backs. “Yes,” Allen said. No other words needed to be said. Before this outing, the Falcons’ defensive backs had found themselves out of position and failing to communicate properly. Against the Saints, the defensive backs were lined up early and remained in great position. While Drew Brees threw for 287 yards, he had to do so on 46 attempts, with many of those yards coming with the game in hand for the Falcons. Rarely, especially as the game pushed into the second and third quarters, did shot plays develop down the field. This forced Brees, known to have a quick release, to hold the ball much longer than he is accustomed to. And while Brees can buy time in creative ways, those opportunities were at a minimum. It’s hard to rush the passer when quarterbacks are able to throw to open receivers early in their progressions. When a secondary forces a quarterback to go through the second and third reads, defensive linemen have a chance to wreak havoc. Atlanta took advantage in that department Sunday afternoon. “The players did a great job, number one, of their communication,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “That’s really when you see the complementary football come to life when rush and coverage can be in sync. To see that take place, I thought, give the credit to the guys. They were really in tune and communicated and really brought the game plan to life. Excellent job by the front and the secondary. Obviously, to get some of the hits and the sacks, you’ve got to have good coverage to go with it.” The Falcons entered the game with seven total sacks. They sacked Brees six times. Cornerback Isaiah Oliver said Morris specifically helped with a couple of technique changes. Oliver also said Morris made some tweaks to certain details to go along with offering a different perspective on how to approach the New Orleans offense. While the bulk of Morris’ career has been on the defensive side, coaching receivers the past three-plus years has given him a wider perspective. Instead of working strictly with the defensive backs on defending the Saints, he went over how the Saints were going to attack them. Therefore, the Falcons’ defensive backs were better prepared to counter what the Saints passing game had to offer. “The different perspective, the different knowledge he has for the game — I feel like it helped the DBs out a lot more,” Oliver said. “It wasn’t anything the coaches previously weren’t doing, it’s just something different. That’s the biggest thing. All of them working together now, I feel like it helps us a lot more.” That assistance helped the pass-rush group immensely. Here’s a look at the Falcons’ six sacks: On the first, Atlanta sent five men, with De’Vondre Campbell coming around the left tackle’s edge. Brees tried to get the ball into the flat to Alvin Kamara but opted not to. That allowed Campbell some extra time to bring him down. On the second, Brees dropped back to throw and decided against his primary read. This allowed Adrian Clayborn to work his blocker inside before bringing Brees down. On the third, Brees faked a handoff but couldn’t find anyone immediately open. The pocket collapsed, with Grady Jarrett and Vic Beasley sharing the sack. On the fourth, the Falcons sent a three-man rush on third-and-14. Everything was covered, with Brees unable to find a window to throw the ball through. Jarrett was able to bring the quarterback down. On the fifth, Brees dropped back and appeared set to let a pass rip. Instead, he decided against it and was dropped again by Jarrett. On the sixth, Beasley did a great job of maneuvering through the offensive line to get to Brees. At this point, the Saints were playing catch-up, which gave the defensive line the kind of confidence it hasn’t had all season. By this count, coverage played a key role in five of six sacks. And for a lot of players in Atlanta’s locker room, Morris’ move to the defensive backs room seemed to have been a major component in this development. “I think he did definitely contribute a lot to the improvement you saw (Sunday),” defensive tackle Tyeler Davison said. “Being a wide receivers coach and then bringing that perspective over there to the DBs, and his energy and demeanor, really helped them.” Allen said that with Morris, there was additional “open criticism” during the week of practice. While there always has been room for players to call each other out or to express different viewpoints to coaches, it was more pronounced this week. Oliver said more players were holding themselves, and each other, accountable. Again, Morris’ move was credited for this difference, which players said showed throughout the week leading up to the game. “It naturally comes with him,” Allen said. “He is going to say what needs to be said. He’ll never say it in a way to be rude or to come at you. Everybody understands exactly who he is. He’s a real funny guy. He’s personable, he connects with all the players. But he will also tell you the truth. That’s what we respect as players. Tell us the truth. We want to know.” It would be a knee-jerk reaction to assume that the secondary is now fixed with Morris coaching the unit. It’s one game, a sample far too small to warrant such a declaration. Plus, it’s a rivalry game. Crazy things tend to happen when divisional opponents who hate each other meet. But at a minimum, it’s a good sign that Atlanta’s secondary showed improved communication and technique, especially against an offense that is able to put up chunk plays at any moment. And Morris played a vital part in finally getting this group on the same page. “He understands exactly what offenses are trying to do to us,” Allen said. “We tweaked, we buzzed, we mixed up a couple of little coverages. A lot of it came through him because he was teaching us what the offenses were trying to do. We played the game plan like that.”
  25. https://theathletic.com/1366474/2019/11/10/schultz-grady-jarrett-fittingly-at-center-of-falcons-unexpected-uprising/ NEW ORLEANS — This is what it looks like in the alternate universe. “A good view,” Ricardo Allen said. “I saw Drew (Brees) going through his reads, and he couldn’t make it to his last couple of guys.” This is what it sounds like in an alternate universe. “Who Dat!” De’Vondre Campbell shouted as he ran into the locker room. “Aaaaaaaaaaggghhhh!” Jamon Brown uttered in a primal scream. “Yessir! Shut the f*** up! Shut the f*** up! Shut the f*** up!” Damontae Kazee shouted as he ran off the field in a celebratory rant, and it can’t be certain if that was directed at comatose New Orleans fans, irritated Falcons fans, media or the rest of the Falcons-hating world. Or all of the above. OK. What just happened? In the long and often strange history of Falcons-Saints games, No. 101 in the series will go down as one of the most unexpected results. The Falcons, playoff dead after going 1-7 in the first half of the season, returned from a bye Sunday to play what potentially could have been Dan Quinn’s final game as their head coach. Then something strange happened. Actually, a lot of strange things happened. They won 26-9. A 1-7 team defeated a 7-1 team in the NFL for the first time since 2003, and that wasn’t even nearly the most surprising development. A defense with seven sacks in the first eight games had six in the ninth. A defense that had been torched for more than 31 points per game in the first half of the season held the Saints, now with Brees back at quarterback, to three field goals. The Falcons played like they were expected to before this season began nine weeks ago when an unexpected virus hit. They exhibited some resiliency, a four-letter word for most of this season, playing their best game despite losing running back Devonta Freeman and tight end Austin Hooper during the game and missing cornerback Desmond Trufant. The offense also ran the ball effectively and had four extended scoring drives of 56 to 75 yards, which limited the Saints’ number of possessions. So many questions. Like: Where has this been? Like: How does a 1-7 team and 13½-point underdog dump a 7-1 team on its home field? Like: Will we see this again? But before silliness and projected images of an 8-0 second half and 9-7 finish for a wild playoff finish, take a cleansing breath. “We’re appreciating the moment right now,” Grady Jarrett said. Nobody was better than Jarrett on Sunday. Nobody deserved this more than the defensive tackle at the center of the team’s defense and remaining heartbeat. Jarrett had 2½ sacks that totaled 17 yards in losses and five total quarterback hits. He is one of the few accountable players and team leaders left in the locker room from the 2016 Super Bowl season and one of the few starters living up to his contract. The Saints’ offensive line couldn’t do anything to contain Jarrett. The Falcons pressured Brees constantly with mostly a four-man rush, registering 11 QB hits. Quinn moved assistant Raheem Morris back to secondary coach during the bye weeks and yielded defensive play-calling to Jeff Ulbrich in Arizona three weeks ago. Shifting Morris appeared to make a difference in the defensive backs’ performance but most notable was the communication between the back end and front end of the defense. Brees has made a career of buying time when receivers are covered. This time, after his first and second reads, there was no time. “Communication (between) the rushing and the coverage,” Jarrett said. “They did a really good job on the back end and made the quarterback hold the ball. We were able to get to them. That felt really good.” When was the last time he experienced this much joy? “The last time we won,” Jarrett said. “It’s hard to win in this league. We’ve been in a little slump.” (Points for understatement.) “It feels really good, and encouraging, and motivating,” Jarrett said when asked about the six sacks. “You want to get more and more. We have to build off this performance going forward. There’s a lot of football still left to play.” The 1-7 start can’t be erased. But, he said, “You can’t change anything by looking back.” The Falcons showed they are capable of this kind of performance. You can take that as good news (they realized it) or bad news (it took until the ninth game before they brought it). Falcons owner Arthur Blank has been weighing the pluses and minuses of a coaching change. He said before the bye he wanted to “take a couple of weeks” to meet with his senior staff. Obviously, this extends the coach’s lifeline. Allen was aware of the backdrop. He also believed this performance was in the defense somewhere. “I go into every game thinking we’re going to win. But today was just a different feeling,” he said. “Everybody was locked in. There wasn’t very much talking. Not very much hoopla. Everybody knew they had to just do their job.” Asked about Jarrett’s performance, Allen smiled and said, “Us in the secondary, when you get to sit back and watch that, when you see that (Brees) can’t step up in the pocket and make the throws that he wanted to and he can’t go through all of his reads, we appreciate that.” It was a rare day — one to appreciate a Falcons performance. So we know it was in there, somewhere. It just took a while.
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