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  1. https://theathletic.com/1357213/2019/11/06/schultz-matt-ryan-frustrated-as-he-tries-to-lead-falcons-in-lost-season/ Less than three years removed from going to the Super Bowl and being honored as the NFL’s most valuable player, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has had his physical and mental resilience tested this season. The Falcons are 1-7 as they come off the bye week. They’re near two-touchdown underdogs against their longtime rival, the New Orleans Saints, who would love nothing more than to extend the misery. Ryan has thrown for 300-plus yards in six of his seven starts, but he is coming off an ankle injury that caused him to miss his first start since 2009. He also has been sacked 14 times and hit 38 times in his last four starts. The Falcons have allowed the fifth-most quarterback hits in the league at 60, and that might be a greater indicator of quarterback duress than sacks. The six teams that have allowed the most quarterback hits this season — the New York Giants, Jets, Miami, Tennessee, Atlanta and Tampa Bay — have a combined record of 11-39. Back to Ryan. As one of the team leaders, he has pulled aside teammates at times this season to discuss what he considers shortcomings in their performance. He has done that in previous seasons, as well. The frustrating part for him is that the overall product hasn’t changed. When I asked him about the perception that some teammates might not be focused, Ryan told me: “Here’s the thing, Jeff. We haven’t gotten the results we’ve wanted. If you’re just going to point fingers and say, ‘He’s the issue. He’s the issue’ — there are a lot of issues that we have to figure out.” Ryan spent some time with The Athletic to discuss the Falcons’ season: Do you always stay in town during the bye week? It depends on the year. Sometimes when you’re nicked up, I’ve had bye weeks where I’ve been here. Sometimes when I’ve been healthy, we’ve had bye weeks where I’m able to get out and disconnect for a few days. One year we went back to Boston. I went to a B.C. game and had my jersey retired. Mostly when we leave, it’s to see my family or Sarah’s family or just to catch up with somebody someplace on the East Coast. Did you do anything to decompress? We had Halloween. That was our big thing with our (1-year-old twin) boys. We took them around to three houses in our neighborhood. But that was it. It was cold. Did they go as Matt Ryan? No! They went as Ninja Turtles. They loved dressing up. We kind of practiced walking up to the door and knocking on it. We had a little game plan going into it, and they executed it pretty well. OK, shifting gears. You’ve been part of a couple of pretty bad years here. But is this the worst, not just because of the record but the expectations? It’s definitely been the toughest start to the season, for sure. There was an expectation for us to be productive. We haven’t been able to play consistently across the board. It’s been frustrating and disappointing. But you have to find a way to get through that and to continue to have belief you’re going to play better as we move forward. Has it been mind-boggling, to some degree? One thing I’ve learned in this league is that it’s tough to win. The margin for error is small. The line between wins and losses is very fine. So to a certain extent, nothing shocks me. But at the same time, we haven’t been as productive as we’ve needed to be. That’s the part you rack your brain about. Why? What’s the why? But when you go from a presumed playoff contender to 1-7, that’s significant, even in a league in which most games are decided by a touchdown. I hear ya. Some years, two or three games go in the other direction and you think, “OK, we’ve kind of weathered the storm.” Then you go on a roll. But you have to find ways to win those tough, ugly games. Good teams I’ve been on have found a way to do that, and we have not done that this year. What, in 2016, beyond just the offense being on a roll, went right? What made that season work? A lot of things went right. You talk about being opportunistic as a team. Capitalizing off turnovers and scoring points off that. Creating explosive plays. And we didn’t put ourselves in situations that were difficult to overcome. This year offensively there have been too many times where we had penalties that set us back in drives and prevented us from getting into a consistent rhythm. That’s not something that happened back then (in 2016). Do you take it more personally when things fall apart and spiral because you’re one of the team leaders? Absolutely I take it personally. You’re invested. You’ve invested so much in this. You’re committed to trying to make this as successful as it can be. So when it doesn’t go right, it hurts. But you have to persist. You have to find a way to get through it and beyond it. That’s where mental toughness and grit and things you’ve worked on along the way help you out. What are some of the different ways you’ve tried to lead the team this season? Have there been times when you jumped on a table or called a team meeting? I know sometimes that kind of stuff gets overblown. I always feel like that overreaction kind of stuff — you know, that’s a Band-Aid. In order to get things right, you have to do things right all the time. It’s not a speech that changes things. It’s not one specific act that changes things. It’s consistent effort over a long period of time that changes things. That’s the message more than anything that you try to stress and get over to guys. You have to do things right all the time just to give yourself an opportunity to be successful. That’s my approach to it. It’s less about being rah-rah than it is having the right approach every day. Have you felt the need to pull guys aside this year? Absolutely. But I’ve been doing that my entire career. For sure, as this year has gone on, I’ve said things like, “Stay the course,” or, “You need to be a little more consistent,” or, “You need to do things a little bit different.” But that’s not working this year. The results have not been there. I’m a believer that there’s these four quadrants of performance: You can have a process and bad results, a bad process and good results, a good process and bad results or a good process and good results. Right now our process is actually OK but we’re getting bad results, and that’s the toughest quadrant to be in. But when a team consistently underachieves in a season, as yours has, there’s a perception by some that some guys in your locker room aren’t focused, for whatever reason, and their minds are elsewhere. And as you know, it doesn’t take a lot of players doing the wrong thing for a season to spin off the rails. And that’s the thing: It’s got to be everybody — all-in, all the time, across the board. So have you seen that? Do you think there’s an issue? Here’s the thing, Jeff: We haven’t gotten the results we’ve wanted. If you’re just going to point fingers and say, “He’s the issue. He’s the issue” — there are a lot of issues that we have to figure out. But to me, it’s not guys not caring or not being invested or the day-to-day mindset not being there. We’ve just got to find ways to take what we’re doing on the practice field and in the meeting room and make it work in games. To me, it’s not about guys being distracted. We just need to play better. I hear those narratives a lot. But clearly something is off on Sunday. There’s a handful of really good things we’re doing at certain times. That’s the standard we have to find a way to play at consistently. There’s obviously a lot of speculation now about Dan Quinn possibly losing his job. As someone who’s been with him for a while, what are your thoughts seeing him go through this? It sucks. It sucks. You understand it’s a production-based business. But he’s a **** of a coach and as consistent a person as I’ve ever been around. That’s the part — as players, you want to find a way to make these plays because you love the guy. That’s the part you take personally. He’s given so much to this cause. Sometimes players love a coach so much that they take advantage of that. That’s you saying that. I can only speak for me. You want to find a way to make plays because he’s a **** of a guy and a good football coach.
  2. https://theathletic.com/1357321/2019/11/06/dan-quinn-moves-raheem-morris-from-offense-to-defense-to-fix-falcons-secondary/ Raheem Morris had a feeling Dan Quinn was going to ask him to switch coaching positions. Morris has known Quinn for far too long to where he has a general sense of where Quinn is leaning in certain situations. And the brutal truth is quite clear. The Falcons’ defensive backs have not been able to consistently stop opposing teams. This inability to cover has led to big plays through the air. It has also subsequently affected the pass rush as quarterbacks have been able to get rid of the ball quickly. Needing some sort of spark out of the bye week, Quinn decided to move Morris, who has been Atlanta’s receivers coach since 2016, to the secondary. The hope is for Morris to spark the defensive backs to improve in two areas — technique and communication. Through eight games, those have not been strengths for a Falcons secondary that ranks 23rd in the NFL with an average of 261.1 passing yards allowed per outing. “When you have a record like we had and you go into the bye week, you want to make some changes, you want to do some different things,” Morris said. “As close of a relationship as we have — you have to remember, coach Quinn coached me when I was a junior in college (at Hofstra). We know each other as well as anybody. When he came to me to bring me back from a spot he took me from before, it wasn’t shocking news to me.” Said Quinn, “He knew it before I did.” Quinn revealed the coaching change to the players in a meeting Monday. With Morris moving to the secondary, Dave Brock moved from running backs coach to receivers and Bernie Parmalee transitioned from being an offensive assistant to running backs coach — a position he actually held in 2018. When he announced the move for the first time publicly, Quinn didn’t want to put a title on Morris’ new position. But the remaining unanswered question is what this means for secondary coach Doug Mallory now that Morris has been moved to his specific unit. For many of the Atlanta defensive backs, Morris’ move was met with approval. “He’s really good about finding out what you do really well as a player,” safety Ricardo Allen said. “He’ll find out your strengths and weaknesses by studying you. He makes you (work) on a different level. Yeah, he’s going to focus on your weaknesses to help you get better. But at the beginning he’s going to always focus on your strengths and what you do the best and make sure that it’s showing.” Said second-year cornerback Isaiah Oliver: “He’s got a lot of knowledge for the back end guys that he’s able to spread to us in terms of making things a lot easier, whether it be more detailed in our technique or just real simple communication, which should help us play faster.” Said rookie cornerback Jordan Miller: “I liked it for me personally because I’m a high-energy guy. He’s going to talk and he’s going to say something, whether you did it right or wrong. It’s nice to hear his voice. It’s good, it excites me.” When it comes to improving the secondary’s technique and communication, Morris offered a lengthy response about the cornerbacks’ shortcomings this season. After all, not much has gone right when it comes to coverage. And the fact the same players are having the same miscommunication errors at the midway point signals there has been some sort of disconnect from the coaching staff to this particular position group. “Particularly with our corners, it’s getting them to play with some confidence, getting them playing down at the line of scrimmage, some of those techniques,” Morris said. “The other thing is dealing with our communication. We got a young safety — (Damontae) Kazee, he’s still young. He’s playing with (Ricardo Allen), who is a very good communicator. And Kazee, we want him to be able to communicate better. We know what Kazee can do really well. He got the ball in his hand last year and we want to get him back to doing that. “If we can clean up some of the communication, through the linebackers, through our D-line, throughout our defense, and we’re all speaking the same language and doing the same things as fast as we can do it and as hard as we can do it, and attacking the football — it’ll give us a better chance.” When Morris met Quinn, he was a college defensive back. Morris eventually entered the coaching ranks as a graduate assistant at Hofstra in 1998 and saw his first NFL break come in 2002 as a quality control assistant with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. For 11 years, Morris stayed on the defensive side of the ball, either as a position coach or a defensive coordinator. After three years as the head coach of the Buccaneers from 2009-11, Morris became a defensive backs coach again with the Washington Redskins. When Quinn got the head coaching job in Atlanta, he hired Morris to coach the secondary. But only a year later, and notably after it was reported that former Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and quarterback Matt Ryan feuded during the 2015 season, Quinn moved his former player and close friend to the offense to coach receivers. That spot opened up after Terry Robiskie left to become the offensive coordinator with the Tennessee Titans. And since that 2016 offseason, that’s a position Morris has kept until this week. Quinn said he moved Morris to the offense in 2016 because of how he teaches the game to a large group of people. And Quinn felt like Morris did a good job during the time he spent in the receivers room. Even so, there was a point a year ago when Quinn felt like he might want to move Morris back to the defense. “He developed into the role and he did well with it,” Quinn said. “There wasn’t a thought right away to move him back. I did think of it last year but we didn’t do it at that time. I’m glad he’s doing it and that we have the versatility to do it.” As it stands, there are now three coaches associated with the secondary — Morris, Mallory and defensive passing game coordinator Jerome Henderson. Henderson said he likes the move due to the fact Morris has been on both sides of the ball. Henderson noted how Morris has tried to slow down offenses as a defensive coach while learning how to attack defenses as an offensive assistant. “The thing I like is getting his fresh perspective, his fresh eyes and his offensive knowledge now with routes, whys and hows,” Henderson said. “A lot of times on defense, you’re looking at what happened and he said, ‘That happened because of this,’ and it takes it an extra level. And then again, his energy is ridiculous and I think it’s good for us.” At 1-7, the Falcons are simply searching for a win. If it works and the secondary improves during the next month, people will wonder why Morris spent as much time as he did on the offensive side of the ball, considering the plethora of issues Atlanta’s back end has endured. But for Morris, he long has felt loyal to Quinn. Whatever has been asked, he has done without hesitation. “If Coach brought me over I knew it was for a reason,” Morris said. “Dan Quinn is very easy to please. He’s one of those people you want to help as much as you can.”
  3. https://theathletic.com/1319078/2019/10/23/inside-julio-jones-powerful-speech-to-falcons-teammates-after-loss-to-rams/ For the fifth consecutive week, the Falcons were forced to walk off the field Sunday on the losing end. The players trudged into the tunnel, down the hallway and into their postgame locker room. Some walked silently by themselves. Some talked about the aftermath of another devastating defeat with one another. Others only could shake their heads knowing the early-year slide continued. Once the team was inside the locker room, head coach Dan Quinn gave his postgame address. He went over the usual talking points following a loss. But as Quinn wrapped up his postgame talk, receiver Julio Jones raised his hand to speak. Quinn ceded the floor to Jones, who doesn’t do such a thing often. Jones has long been a lead-by-example type of player. But as one of Atlanta’s primary team leaders, he felt like it was time to speak his mind about how the season has gone. For the next two minutes or so, Jones delivered what can be described as a passionate speech, which was first reported by WSB-TV’s Zach Klein on Tuesday. Jones looked at his teammates and told them this 1-6 start was strictly the players’ fault. He told everyone, the other 52 players on the roster and 10 on the practice squad, that Quinn and his coaching staff weren’t to blame for the poor performances the team has put forth. This was a moment that grabbed everyone’s attention in the room. “Everyone just sat there and watched,” safety Ricardo Allen said. “When he speaks — he doesn’t speak very often — everyone is going to listen. You see him and how much he was hurting, and how frustrated he is, and how confused he is. That’s when you know it’s serious. We need it from everybody around.” Allen said that in his six years with the franchise, he has seen Jones do such a thing only two or three times previously. Various teammates mentioned that Jones’ message resonated throughout the locker room after the 37-10 loss Atlanta suffered against the Los Angeles Rams. Some admitted they were caught off guard about Jones’ deciding to speak up. But that’s what leaders do during the tough moments. If anything, Jones certainly grabbed the attention and focus of his teammates when he took command of the floor. “He was coming from the heart as far as how he felt,” fullback Keith Smith said. “I think a lot of guys feel that way. We’ve got to turn this ship around. It really starts with us because we’re on the field. We have to ignore the outside noise and continue to stay on each other to do the right thing and continue to get better, so we can start turning these losses to wins.” Said receiver Russell Gage: “He’s a man of few words. Julio, his actions speak a lot louder than words. When he came in and had his way of speaking to us that way — for me, personally, it hit home. He’s somebody that’s been in the league so long, who has played so hard and is so passionate about the way he plays. He expressed it to us like that. It was different.” Said quarterback Matt Schaub: “A guy like Julio, who doesn’t say a whole lot — he’s pretty quiet, mild-mannered like that. You definitely take notice. But when your teammates speak, it doesn’t matter who it is, you have to take notice and pay attention. It’s in the purpose of the team in what you can do to be better.” Said linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich: “It’s who he is, the guy I’ve always seen. He’s a guy who loves the game, who loves this team. He loves this organization. He gives it everything he has. For him to reveal that vulnerable side of himself, I thought, was a powerful message to the team, just with how important it needs to be to get us out of this rut.” It’s one thing for Jones to step up and assert his leadership over a team that has underperformed through seven games. In this instance, his message was clear from the majority of his short speech. He wanted to make it clear to his teammates that no one in the locker room would blame Quinn and the coaching staff for the season’s shortcomings. Throughout the history of football at all levels, there are countless examples of a head coach losing the trust and faith of his players during a bad year. The somewhat odd nature of Atlanta’s season is that Quinn hasn’t seen his players quit on him. This is a locker room that is still very much in Quinn’s corner. For a lot of these players, the notion he could be let go at any point during or after the season is troubling. Of course, that doesn’t excuse the reasons that have played a part in Atlanta’s 1-6 season. After all, when a team fails, the head coach is responsible. Still, it’s worth noting that Quinn has been able to maintain a positive presence in a locker room full of professional football players in the midst of another disappointing season. Take for instance what these players had to say about playing for Quinn. Gage: “Coach Quinn has done so much for me and several players here. We understand he’s a great coach and an even better person. When you have that combination, you just want to do more for the person has you here, who has given you an opportunity to be the best player you are. (Jones’ speech) definitely hit home.” Allen: “It’s not that the coaches aren’t getting it done. We’re not getting it done. We got to be accountable to that. We have to be accountable for our play. We have to be accountable to each other. To me, it just shows he’s stepping up. He’s telling other people it’s time for other people to step up and be accountable to what’s going on.” Quarterback Matt Ryan: “His message is always different, but it’s fresh. It hits home to where we’re at as a team. He’s done that the entire time that I’ve been with him and he’s been here. He’s been great. Day in and day out he’s high energy, focused on the opponent and what we need to do that week to get the win. I think the guys really appreciate that about him.” Receiver Calvin Ridley: “He’s definitely a players’ coach. He’s a great coach. He has a lot of energy. He’s not boring, he’s fun. He makes football fun and wants us to get after it. That’s why I like him so much. He loves the game and coaches it the right way.” Allen: “I’m always fighting for Coach. Coach Q gave me a chance to take care of my family forever. He was the one who got me off of the (practice) squad to come up and be a fighter for him. I’m going to fight to the end forever for him. I know he deserves better.” Linebacker Foye Oluokun: “That’s out of my control, his future. I’m trying to keep him here. I love him as a coach. He’s really made my time here as a Falcon everything I could dream about. I feel like it’s our duty to keep him here. Other organizations, you hear it’s not the same. It’s our duty to keep him here so we can keep playing how we want to play.” Owner Arthur Blank was in the postgame locker room when Jones delivered his short speech. It’s easy to believe Blank was impressed with what he saw out of his star receiver. In the end, however, it comes down to wins and losses in professional sports. If this team remains unable to win games, Blank will be forced to make a decision about a coach he very much admires and respects. And if the end result is Quinn’s ouster, there will be a lot of assistants and players who probably will feel responsible. Ulbrich: “I don’t know if there’s a harder working human being on this earth. He probably works 23 and a half hours a day to try to find ways to help the team, to help the coaching staff, to help the organization, to help the fans. He’s tireless. He’s a guy who always points the finger at himself in every circumstance when things go wrong. The players, they see it, they understand how much he loves them and respects them. They want to do right by him. The fact that our record is what it is and we’re playing the way we’re playing, we all feel like we’re letting him down a little bit.” Smith: “Every game is about Coach Quinn. We’re always playing for him. I don’t think this situation changes anything. It’s just we have to step up to the plate.” Gage: “A lot of people don’t understand how (Quinn’s mentorship) plays a role as far as coaching, as a player, a team and an organization, and what that bond does. He’s all of that. For us, fighting for him is just so important and so big.” Ridley: “He’s been trying to motivate us to win games, to be better. We haven’t been playing our best ball. We got to play better for him.”
  4. https://theathletic.com/1322307/2019/10/24/perfect-practice-makes-perfect-austin-hoopers-rise-to-nfls-elite/ During the summer, when he was back in his home state of California, Austin Hooper would rise early at 6:45 a.m. to ensure he could make it through Los Angeles traffic to Golden West Junior College for an 8 a.m. workout. At the small school waiting for him would be Matt Ryan, who happened to be in town looking to put in some extra offseason throwing. It didn’t matter what was previously on Hooper’s schedule. If Ryan was nearby and wanted to throw, Hooper’s prior plans were canceled. If there was any extra work Hooper could get with Ryan, he was going to ensure it happened so the two players would be in sync once the regular season rolled around. “It’s something you have to work on consistently over time,” Hooper said. “That’s what these past two offseasons were about. It’s putting in the work. Instead of enjoying my vacation across the world, it’s grind it out with Matt in SoCal at 8 in the morning during your offseason. Wake up at 6:45, drive an hour south.” But those trips — which usually came with Hooper staying at his brother’s apartment near UCLA — to Huntington Beach, Calif., during the summer were worth it for Hooper, who is in the final year of his rookie contract. Through seven weeks, Hooper ranks 11th in the NFL in receiving with 526 yards and four touchdowns. His yardage total is second among tight ends — Kansas City’s Travis Kelce leading the way with 541 — and his touchdown total is the best at the position. His 46 catches are also the most of any tight end and rank fifth overall in the NFL. Hooper ramped up the offseason workouts with Ryan leading into the 2018 season. Those continued going into 2019. On the field, the chemistry between quarterback and tight end has been undeniable. And as a result, Hooper has found himself the target of many of Ryan’s passes. “We put in all that work,” Hooper said. “It’s nice to see it pay off.” Athletic family history The genetics were put in place for Hooper to become a pretty good player. His father, Michael, played college football at San Diego State from 1983-88. His uncle Greg was a fullback at Stanford when John Elway was at the school. His other uncle, Chip, played professional tennis and reached No. 17 in the world at the peak of his career. His mother, Lillian, played high school basketball. His brother, Justin, played baseball at UCLA and was drafted in the 14th round of the 2019 MLB Draft by the Kansas City Royals. His sister, Alexis, played college basketball at Reinhardt University, an NAIA program in Waleska, Ga. Needless to say, there were a lot of summer trips to various tournaments and camps. “Thank God I travel for work, and I have all the points and the miles,” Michael said. Austin didn’t begin playing football until after the age of 10. Before he got into the sport, Michael told his son that if he wanted to pursue it, he was going to do it the “right way.” When Austin said it was time to start playing football, the two immediately got serious about it. Austin said Michael would help train his technique with a big pad in the backyard. Michael wouldn’t take it easy on Austin either, considering the physical nature of the sport. Growing up with two athletic brothers, in his father’s eyes, there was only one way for Austin to approach the game. “An expression we use is, ‘Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect,’” Michael said. “If you’re going to do it, do it 110 percent and be the best.” As Austin started playing high school ball for De La Salle in Concord, Calif., Michael backed off and let the coaches take control. And it was at De La Salle where the attention to detail and time devoted to studying film truly began to take flight. But at De La Salle, Austin was a star defensive end who could rush the passer. He didn’t play much tight end and caught eight passes as a high school senior. He actually played some quarterback, too, on offense. During his recruitment, Austin received 23 offers to be a pass-rusher. Among those were most of the Pac-12 programs and Notre Dame. At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, Austin fit the bill as a pass-rushing defensive end or outside linebacker as an incoming freshman. Stanford and Oregon, however, recruited Hooper to be a tight end. And in the end, Stanford won out for one reason — academic prestige. “I knew if football didn’t work out I’d have a good shot at being successful in something else,” Austin said. “That’s why I chose to go there.” Said Michael: “He got recruited by everybody. Everybody wanted him either as a defensive end or stand-up linebacker. One of the things in our house, it was, ‘Get the best education you possibly can and leverage whatever athletic ability you have to get that piece of paper.’” Falcons safety Ricardo Allen was asked whether Hooper would have made a good NFL defensive end. Based on his attributes, Allen believes he would. “He’s athletic. Essentially, being a tight end you have to have some of the same characteristics,” Allen said. “You have to fight big dudes. You have to have a special skill of being athletic, but also being strong and fast. He has that funky mix of it. His technique, he used to get in a three-point stance, and I think the only thing he’d have to work on is his get-off.” When looking at Hooper as a fourth-year pro in the NFL, it’s remarkable to see that this is only his seventh full year at the position. But his upbringing, with two athletic parents and a private high school known for being a football powerhouse, helped establish a blueprint for any challenge that might present itself. “It’s little things where when your parents lived the athlete life, they’ll teach you little tricks for more efficient ways to practice, more efficient ways to train,” Hooper said. “A lot of these youth coaches don’t know what they’re talking about. I was very fortunate to have a dad who did it at the highest level. He actually was able to teach me things that are still applicable in my life today, that I learned as building blocks in my technique when I was 12 years old.” Contract year Clearly, Hooper made the right decision by becoming a tight end at Stanford. Based on this season, Hooper has set himself up for a major payday, whether it is with the Falcons or elsewhere in free agency. During the past 23 regular-season games, which includes the entire 2018 season, Hooper leads all tight ends by catching 81.8 percent of passes thrown his way. During that same stretch, Hooper ranks fourth among tight ends with 117 catches for 1,186 yards. Those ahead of him are Kelce (141 catches, 1,877 yards), George Kittle (122 yards, 1,753 yards) and Zach Ertz (151 catches, 1,567 yards). Of course, much of the offenses at Kansas City, San Francisco and Philadelphia run through their tight ends. In Atlanta, Julio Jones commands the bulk of the targets in the passing game. Mohamed Sanu — prior to his recent trade — and Calvin Ridley also have been frequently targeted by Ryan. But even with the star power at receiver, Hooper has been able to put up some impressive numbers, especially in the ever-important contract year. At only 24 years old, Hooper is among the best young tight ends in the NFL. With Packers tight end Jimmy Graham’s contract — three years, $30 million — the most expensive for tight ends in average annual value, Hooper stands to benefit as long as his output continues. To compare, Hooper has put up 166 catches for 1,712 yards and 11 touchdowns since the beginning of the 2017 season. Graham has 130 catches for 1,370 yards and 15 touchdowns during this span. With a tight end market that also could see the likes of Kittle and Evan Engram getting extensions this offseason, Hooper’s price tag could rise substantially if he hits free agency. Ideally, the Falcons will be able to reach a new contract before the 2020 league year begins, which is something the club is still hopeful it can get done. While the possibility of applying the franchise tag exists, that would only be good for one year and at a high cost. The franchise tag for a tight end in 2019 was worth $10.4 million. In addition, while other teams have expressed interest in Hooper previously, the Falcons have yet to suggest they would be open to moving him elsewhere. Considering the contracts recent tight ends have received, Hooper is likely to receive more than $10 million per year. Behind Graham, the highest average annual value salaries for tight ends are Kelce ($9.37 million), Jordan Reed ($9.35 million), Kyle Rudolph ($9.025 million) and Greg Olsen ($8.55 million). Considering those numbers, Hooper has a great chance for a contract that surpasses many of his peers at the position. Since his rookie year, Hooper has progressed — somewhat quietly due to the star power around him in Atlanta’s offense — into one of the league’s emerging tight ends. While Hooper makes a lot of plays as a checkdown option, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said he has been designing some plays with Hooper as the primary read. “He’s just in the right place at the right time,” Koetter said. “Matt is hitting him a lot as a checkdown and he’s also hitting him sometimes as a primary receiver. Hoop is getting himself open. He’s got a good feel versus man, he’s got a good feel versus zone. He’s taking advantage of his opportunities.” ‘Thousands of reps’ About a year ago, the Hoopers were on vacation in the U.S. Virgin Islands when one of the siblings looked at their father and expressed how great this particular trip was. The reason was that it was the first time since anyone could remember that this vacation had nothing to do with sports. The pro athlete sons had time off and no one had to worry about a game to catch. “It was funny, but it was true,” Michael said. “It’s just how we grew up. We were always on the go. It’s like any family that has athletic kids. You just want to give them every opportunity to succeed with whatever they wanted to do.” Austin has certainly made the most of everything presented his way since Atlanta selected him in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft. And while Austin took some time off on that family vacation, many of his days each offseason are devoted to improving as a football player. Michael said that when Austin is home during the offseason, he generally remains buried in his iPad, dissecting game film from the previous season. “He’s even explaining coverages to me and what tendencies are — if somebody opens their hips up a certain way, they gotta break their route off,” Michael said. “People don’t understand how intricate that game is and how if you want to be the best, you have to work hard physically and you also need to work hard with understanding your opponent and understanding how the plays develop. He enjoys that.” Austin has been a bright spot for a Falcons team that sits at 1-6. His rapport with Ryan is at the strongest they’ve enjoyed in their four years together. While Austin possesses all of the natural athleticism to be an NFL star, that’s not how or why he is having the kind of season he is enjoying. The extra work with Ryan and the added hours of studying game film have gone a long way to moving Austin into the upper echelon of NFL tight ends. “It’s not like I dropped three-tenths off my 40 in the offseason or gotten insanely stronger, or anything like that,” he said. “It’s just building a relationship with the guy who throws the football. It’s doing those thousands of reps. He knows I’ll be in a certain spot and he has confidence I’ll make a play for him.”
  5. https://theathletic.com/1310744/2019/10/21/what-we-learned-after-falcons-latest-loss-its-ok-to-look-toward-nfl-draft/ Only once in the Super Bowl era has a team started 1-6 and reached the postseason. That occurred way back in 1970 when the Cincinnati Bengals were defeated six times in their first seven tries. They went on to reel off seven consecutive wins, which included a victory over the then-Boston Patriots, to reach the postseason. In today’s NFL era, this seems like a near-impossible feat. Sure, the 2015 Kansas City Chiefs started 1-5 before winning 10 games in a row. But four of those first five losses were by 10 points or fewer in what were competitive outings. The 2019 Falcons rarely have looked competitive, which has been a bizarre revelation considering the talent on the roster and the money spent to build this team. But for whatever reason, nothing has been in sync through seven games. At 1-6, the players still must maintain focus on each game ahead. That’s their job, and that’s all they can do at this point. For the outsiders and observers, it’s now OK to look ahead at how this team can improve in the 2020 NFL Draft. With the expectations the Falcons entered the year with, it’s crazy to think this is where things stand. But Atlanta hasn’t been proficient in a lot of areas this season. The offensive line, which the team invested $80 million, hasn’t held up on a weekly basis. The running game has been stagnant against better teams. The defensive front seven has produced a league-worst five sacks. The secondary has struggled in just about every facet of the game. If the season ended right now, the Falcons would have the fourth overall selection in the 2020 NFL Draft. If this holds, and Atlanta does, in fact, wind up with a top-five pick, there would be quite a few directions the franchise could go. Cornerbacks The Falcons need cornerback help in the worst way. Through seven games, Atlanta ranks 28th in the NFL, allowing 274 passing yards per game. Quite honestly, if not for the Minnesota Vikings’ ability to run the ball at will in the opener combined with attempting only 10 passing attempts, that number could be even worse. Atlanta’s top two corners at the moment are Desmond Trufant and Isaiah Oliver. Trufant, who has missed the past two games with a toe injury, will be in the fourth season of a five-year deal in 2020. If Atlanta makes a financial decision with Trufant, it could save $4.95 million against the cap. Oliver, who is in his second season and first as a starter, was relegated to sharing time with Blidi Wreh-Wilson in Sunday’s 37-10 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. Rookie Kendall Sheffield is now seeing more playing time than Oliver at this stage of the season. It’s clear to see why this is a major area Atlanta needs to address. The top cornerback prospect at the present time is Ohio State’s Jeff Okudah, according to The Athletic’s Dane Brugler. Big and physical at 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, Okudah waited his turn with the Buckeyes and has three interceptions this season. Brugler noted that Okudah reads and reacts quickly on plays, which is a trait Atlanta certainly could use. Alabama’s Trevon Diggs and Florida’s CJ Henderson would be other first-round cornerbacks to keep an eye on once the draft season gets going. You can make a case for going after a cornerback or a pass rusher early in next year’s draft. The coverage needs to be better so teams can’t quick-game the Falcons’ defense to death. But Atlanta needs edge defenders who can win one-on-one battles with better consistency so they can get the quarterback on the ground more often. Pass rushers The best pass rusher, according to just about every draft expert, is Ohio State’s Chase Young. It seems like the Buckeyes routinely put out stars who can get after the passer, and Young is the latest in line to do so. For an Ohio State team that hasn’t been challenged, Young has 9.5 sacks. Brugler has Young pegged as his top overall prospect in next year’s draft. Considering the Falcons aren’t technically in need of a quarterback — we’ll get to this a bit more in a moment — looking in this direction would make great sense. Another edge defender who probably would go in the top 10, if the draft were next week, is Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa. Epenesa has only three sacks this season but has seen an uptick in attention compared to previous seasons. Second- and third-round edge defenders may include Penn State’s Yetur Gross-Matos, Wake Forest’s Carlos Basham, Alabama’s Terrell Lewis, Notre Dame’s Khalid Kareem and Boise State’s Curtis Weaver. Defensive tackles Although Grady Jarrett is in the team’s long-term plans, Jack Crawford is in the final year of his contract, and Tyeler Davison is operating under a one-year deal. Therefore, this could be a position the team targets in the early rounds. While a first-round selection would be unlikely, the top defensive tackle is Auburn’s Derrick Brown. Brown has great athleticism and explosiveness and also happens to be a big body at 6-4 and 325 pounds. Having an outstanding game against Georgia two weeks ago, South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw (6-5 and 308 pounds) is also one who could continue to climb up draft boards. Utah’s Leki Fotu is having a good senior season with 5.5 tackles for loss in the five games he has appeared in. Fotu could wind up being a potential third-round prospect. Interior offensive line With Jake Matthews and Kaleb McGary manning the tackle positions, the Falcons appear set there in the near future. Chris Lindstrom figures to upgrade the line at right guard once he’s cleared to return from his broken foot. The Falcons still could try to add another guard, although it wouldn’t make much sense to take one early in the draft with so many other positions of need. It will be interesting, however, to see what the franchise does at center. Alex Mack has one year remaining on his contract, with the team able to free up $8 million with his release. And, of course, that will be one of the toughest decisions this franchise has to make when the offseason arrives. But whether Atlanta keeps Mack in 2020, it probably would be a good idea to search for his successor. If Oklahoma’s Creed Humphrey turns out to be an early second-rounder, and the Falcons do, in fact, have a top-five pick, he would certainly be a great addition to the offensive line. But considering how tough it is to identify offensive linemen in the later rounds, it could be prudent for the Falcons to take one earlier than it might be expected. Quarterback By no means is this meant to suggest the Falcons should move on from Matt Ryan. And for the record, Ryan is going to go down as the greatest quarterback in franchise history whenever his time comes to an end in Atlanta. He’s also very much still in the prime of his career. But if the organization goes through a roster reconstruction that coincides with a new head coach who happens to have a different offensive philosophy, which also coincides with getting Arthur Blank’s blessing to make such a drastic change, then the possibility could at least exist that the team heads in this direction. In the hypothetical that Atlanta hires a new head coach with an offensive background, and that person wants a quarterback of his choosing, that’s when the first pick could go in this direction. And with it being the most high-profile position on the field, everyone knows the big names at the top of the list: Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, Oregon’s Justin Herbert, Washington’s Jacob Eason and Georgia’s Jake Fromm. Brugler noted that Utah State’s Jordan Love is receiving considerable buzz from NFL scouts, too.
  6. https://theathletic.com/1308930/2019/10/20/schultz-dan-quinn-has-failed-and-his-firing-from-falcons-appears-inevitable/ It’s over. Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, a good man but an increasingly ineffective coach, logically is going to be out of a job soon. The firing won’t happen Monday, assuming Falcons owner Arthur Blank wasn’t just running a misdirection play when I asked him after the season’s most recent dumpster fire Sunday. It’s more likely to happen during the bye week following next week’s scheduled loss to Seattle, or whenever Blank finally pushes himself to emotionally surrender. But it’s going to happen. Because Quinn is a lost coach with a lost locker room in a lost season and his players — for as much as they say they love him — aren’t following him. Organizations don’t collapse because of one bad coach or one bad player any more than corporations collapse because of one bad investment. It takes a series of mistakes and unplanned mutations. But this is mostly on Quinn. The Falcons’ 37-10 loss to the Los Angeles Rams was punctuated by all forms of ugliness, from quarterback Matt Ryan being sacked five times before leaving with an ankle injury to the team rushing for 38 yards, the defense looking silly, the offense being held without a touchdown until it was 30-3, and a fumbled punt return that led to one final pie to the face with 11 seconds left. The Falcons’ overall talent probably has been vastly overrated. There’s also little question that the leadership void that was so evident in 2018 was not fixed during the offseason. Sports teams just don’t spiral like this unless (1) veterans who are supposed to take charge in bad times are either failing miserably at that or more worried about their direct deposit, (2) there’s a lack of accountability in the locker room and (3) players who say they love their coach nonetheless don’t follow their coach, possibly because they have the moral fiber of nougat. For the fifth time in seven games, the Falcons trailed by double-digit points at halftime. They have been outscored 120-50 in the first half. That goes to readiness, preparation, coaching. Players are not following Quinn. So they share the blame but mostly blame Quinn because he gets paid to coach, motivate and lead. This is a 1-6 team with a $30 million quarterback and a $20 million wide receiver. There are several other players — too many, probably — not living up to fat contracts. But Quinn has picked most of these players in concert with general manager Thomas Dimitroff since 2015. The team is underachieving and getting worse. Everything has been backsliding since the Super Bowl three years ago. Quinn has had time to fix all this. He has failed. Blank is clearly struggling with this decision. He likes Quinn and doesn’t want to have to blow up the coaching staff and front office again, even if that seems inevitable. Following is a brief exchange I had with Blank as he was exiting an interview room following Quinn’s postgame news conference Sunday: Do you still support your coach? “Of course. We’ve got games to play. I support the players. I support the coach. I feel all the pain that the fans feel and also the players do and the coaches do, as well.” Is there any chance Quinn gets fired tomorrow? “No. But that doesn’t change the record. It is what it is. It’s just very disappointing for everybody.” So you have no decision at this point? “No.” At which point he continued out the door, trailed by security. Blank has made a financial investment in Quinn as well as an emotional one. Quinn and Dimitroff received contract extensions through 2022. The coach also was given uncommon autonomy for a first-time head coach in personnel decisions, from signings and roster cuts to draft decisions. But so many of those decisions have backfired. Quinn’s coaching staff has struggled on both sides of the ball. Even new special teams coach Ben Kotwica spoke during the week about Rams punter Johnny Hekker having the ability to pass, but the punt return team looked completely unprepared for a fake punt on fourth-and-3 in the second quarter. Hekker completed a 23-yard pass to Nick Scott, setting up a field goal. Quinn fired his offensive, defensive and special teams coordinators after last season. He’s struggling as the team’s new self-appointed D.C. He acknowledged after Sunday’s loss that he has started to step back in coordinator duties and that “some of the other assistants” took over some play-calling last week against Arizona and again against Los Angeles. It didn’t help. It gets worse. Blank has PSL owners and fans to answer to. They’ve turned on this team and on Quinn. “We want our money back!” one fan yelled as he walked down the corridor in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. There were thousands of empty seats in the stadium; thousands of other fans left early. Secondary markets like StubHub were dumping tickets for as low as $18. Anybody standing outside before the game and holding out their hand probably could’ve gotten in for free — if they felt like witnessing such misery. Quinn’s news conference was cut off after five minutes but not before he was asked if he felt he had lost the team. “I understand why the question is (asked),” he said. “It’s a fair question, honestly, because you spend most of your time trying to connect and get the team to play the way we’re capable of. The answer, I would say, is no. But why the disbelief at times of not playing like we’re capable of — that can be very frustrating. When you don’t do that, you want to look and search and find answers. That’s what I spend most of my time doing.” Does he consider this a lost season for either the team or himself? “I never think you’re out of a fight. You shouldn’t think that way as a team member, and I certainly never think that way as a coach,” he said. “I recognize when you don’t play well those are fair questions.” He also surely recognizes where this is going: Dan Quinn will soon be without a job.
  7. https://theathletic.com/1305178/2019/10/18/falcons-mailbag-is-it-time-to-start-trading-assets-for-future-seasons/ With the Atlanta Falcons preparing to host the Los Angeles Rams, here is this week’s mailbag. Hi Jason. Why? — David W. I ask myself this question when I wake up every morning. Are we at the “bless your heart” stage with (Dan) Quinn? — Merrill G. This is an interesting way to put it. For me, the first “bless your heart” moment, but for the whole team, came when Deshaun Watson picked up a fumble that bounced directly to him en route to rushing for a first down. You’re just sitting there thinking, “Are you kidding me?” (Side note — crazy stat: In six games, the Falcons have forced 11 fumbles and only recovered two). The second “bless your heart” moment was probably when Isaiah Oliver got beat by Damiere Byrd for a big gain, with Oliver recovering to force what looked to be a fumble — only for Byrd to be ruled down and upheld by replay. Then, of course, there was the Kyler Murray first-down run that appeared short on replay but stood as called. To me, for all of Atlanta’s problems, it can’t even get the little uncontrollable things to bounce its way. And then, of course, you have Matt Bryant missing the extra point to tie the game against Arizona. This was another “bless your heart” moment, simply because that just seemed implausible to happen. As for Quinn, I don’t know if I have anything specifically relatable to him. He’s the team’s head coach. He was hired to win games. He’s not doing so right now. Back in the spring, he told me that the NFL will check you if don’t get the job done. Right now, Quinn is being checked. He’s still receiving a nice paycheck, too. That’s the reality of it, so I don’t know if I’d say Quinn himself is at this sort of stage. But that’s just my interpretation of what you’re asking. If I messed that up, feel free to ask again in the comments section. Pretty clear that Quinn will be gone at some point, do you think Thomas Dimitroff will also be fired? — Conor H. While Quinn is on the hot seat, I’m going to wait for information to develop as it happens. Right now, there’s nothing tangible to pass along. While little has looked good this season, everything is still in the hypothetical stage. Will a move be made at the bye? Will it be made after the season? Can the Falcons pull some 2015 Kansas City Chiefs magic and reel off 10 consecutive wins after a 1-5 start? As a reporter, I’m forced to look at every scenario out there, even if it seems far fetched in the moment. Given that, I can’t in good faith give a prediction on any firings, which I understand is not a fun or interesting answer to provide. DQ is just a dead man walking at this point. So … Do we move any players before the trade deadline? (Mohamed) Sanu seems to be the name on the lips of many media members, but who else makes sense to let escape? Does Arthur Blank have the stomach and the budget to get into a bidding war for Lincoln Riley this offseason? How much of the Falcons’ front office goes with DQ out the door? And is that something that will happen at midseason if DQ goes that early? How much weight do you think Blank is putting on this team in regards to the number of empty seats we’ll see in the dome this weekend, and how much weight does he put to the PSL issue? — Don P. 1) I’ll address the first question on the one below since another subscriber asked something similar. 2) Blank is a billionaire who wants to win games. He has allowed his front office to spend right up to the salary cap year after year. Whoever he wants to coach his team, he’ll do what it takes to bring him in. That stated, who’s to say Riley would be his preferred choice in the event there is an opening at head coach? I think it’s too early to presume anything at this stage. 3) In the scenario that Quinn is no longer with the Falcons, any movements made with the front office would be determined on whether Dimitroff is still the general manager. I wouldn’t think a move would be made there midseason. Plus, I wouldn’t expect any other front-office moves to take place midseason in the event the head coach is let go. Now, if both the head coach and general manager are gone after the season, I’d expect there to be a lot of housecleaning in the front office. 4) To this, I’m not exactly sure. I do know he’s bothered by the empty seats. The worry would be with season-ticket renewals and folks deciding to default on their PSLs. If this becomes a worsening trend and the bottom line is affected, then yes, I’d imagine this would factor to any decisions Blank decides to make. Do you think we’ll be selling some of our pieces at the deadline? Would Arthur allow TD to do so even with him on the hot seat? — Lincoln W. It wouldn’t surprise me if they do move someone. The obvious name, as Don P., mentioned, is Sanu, simply due to his contract with one year remaining. With the way the season has gone, you could probably make a case for any starter not named Matt Ryan, Julio Jones or Calvin Ridley. And in some respect, maybe shipping off someone could send a message to the rest of the locker room. That would be a way to get a lot of players’ attention. At the same time, Quinn is coaching for his job. He needs two wins against NFC West opponents in consecutive weeks and then for his team to somehow catch fire with the division games coming up after the bye. Dimitroff might feel the same way. If that’s the case, they may not want to move anyone, since any trades in a down year seemingly would be to acquire future picks. I’d imagine that Blank wouldn’t have a problem with them making moves if they sold him on the reasons why. But if the team can’t get better right now, I’m not sure Quinn and Dimitroff would want to go that route given the circumstances. Despite the tough goings for the Falcons this season, it seems like Austin Hooper is emerging as a legit star at TE. How big of a role do you think he’ll play for the rest of the season and going into the near future? — Sam P. On Monday, Dirk Koetter mentioned that they have some plays now designed for Hooper to be the primary read. I definitely think Hooper will be a major factor moving forward in this offense. His rapport with Ryan is exceptional. In the past two offseasons, Hooper essentially met Ryan wherever and whenever to ensure they were on the same page. Hooper knows exactly where Ryan wants to go with the ball, and Ryan knows exactly where Hooper is going to be on every single play. The chemistry is great, and you’re seeing it pay off on Sundays. The future, however, is the concern. If the Falcons are unable to lock up Hooper during the regular season, I would not expect him to be back with the team in 2020. It’s not that the team can’t afford him in 2020. And the Falcons could probably do some salary-cap maneuvering to make it work in the short term to ensure a deal gets done. But if he hits the open market, there will be a lot of teams with heavy interest in a player who is having a great season in a contract year. Quite honestly, Atlanta should figure out a way to sign Hooper to an extension before the season is over because he has become a valuable asset this offense doesn’t want to lose. Another question. With the Falcons dropping to 1-5 on the season, it seems like their playoff chances are shot (FiveThirtyEight puts their odds at 2 percent, just above Arizona, Cincinnati, Washington and Miami). Do you think it could be possible that the Falcons could tank and try to secure a higher draft slot? Would there be any benefit to a 7-9 season, rather than a 4-12 one? Thanks again, Jason. — Sam P. In recent memory, this year’s Miami team is the only team I can think of that has done everything in its power from a front-office perspective to tank away a season. For the Falcons, they would have to suddenly trade a bunch of players for picks in the next two weeks with a head coach and general manager appearing to be fighting for their jobs. Therefore, I just don’t see a tanking scenario in place. Plus, players and coaches just aren’t going to tank. You saw it last year with the Falcons. From a draft standpoint, losing out when they were 4-9 seemed like a smart idea on the outside. But no one on the roster wants to lose, even when a season is going bad. It’s just not a mentality football players and coaches have. I’ve been (Devonta) Freeman’s biggest critic all season. I really like the guy, but he has seemed to have no burst and no ability to cut. (On Sunday), he looked pretty good. Was that because Freeman is finally rounding into shape, finally getting the right offensive calls or the Cardinals’ defense being the absolute worst we’ve seen all season? I hope it means that Freeman is finally firing on all cylinders, but I’m afraid it means we saw a broken-down jalopy of a Cardinals defense. — Quint B. I think a little bit of everything you mentioned applies. He just did not look sharp in the opener against Minnesota. But by the Indianapolis game, it seemed like he was hitting an improved stride. He didn’t have a great game as a runner against Tennessee and Houston, but he was able to make some plays in the passing game. I also think the Houston defensive front did a good job in containing the run game, which led to Atlanta deciding to get Freeman and Ito Smith more involved as receivers in what can be considered an extension of the running game. But you’re also right in that the Cardinals’ defense isn’t a good unit. I do think that Freeman will be used more as a receiver as the season goes along. He’s too talented to only be used in one dimension of the offense. Please ask DQ why (Kemal Ishmael) is still playing SS instead of (Sharrod) Neasman???? He is a LB, not a SS. He is being targeted too much. Neasman should play SS and (Ricardo Allen) at FS. (Isaiah) Oliver is not playing well. Might as well have (Kendall Sheffield) play with (Desmond Trufant) and (Damontae) Kazee and bench Oliver. Thoughts? — Andy S. I adhered to your request Friday and got Quinn’s rationale. He believes Neasman is strictly a free safety for this defense and prefers to keep him in that spot. In this particular scheme, the strong safety plays near the line of scrimmage in run situations, and therefore needs to be a sound in this area. With that in mind, Quinn said Jamal Carter, who was promoted from the practice squad to the 53-man roster after Keanu Neal’s Achilles injury, has progressed nicely and could get a look at strong safety. If a move occurs with Ishmael, it would be Carter moving into that spot. How cheap will tickets be by the end of the season? — Brad H. I’m no expert in economics. But if the season continues the way it has, the secondary market probably won’t be asking for a whole lot. Right now, you can get a ticket for the Falcons-Rams game on StubHub for $39. Jason, It behooves me as a PSL holder to get you to ask the questions we need from Arthur Blank: What is he going to do for us, making us pay for lousy football (post the worst loss professional sports has ever seen)? This has to be embarrassing for a guy who I know wants a championship and a city that deserves one. The sheer fact we are wasting a year of Matt & Julio’s prime is nauseating. — Matthew E. I’m not sure what Blank plans to do in the short term. I do feel like he is probably embarrassed at the way this season has gone. Most billionaires who have competitive personalities are embarrassed when their entities lose and/or fail. Considering what the trajectory looked like just three years ago, this can’t be sitting well. What are the chances of us winning the division and sliding in the playoffs? 9-7, 8-8? Can we give some love to the great William Andrews? — Naqam W. Since 1970, only three teams have overcome starting 1-5 to reach the playoffs — the 1970 Cincinnati Bengals, the 2015 Kansas City Chiefs and the 2018 Indianapolis Colts. Therefore, the odds are slim. But hey, there is a precedent in place so it is still possible.
  8. https://theathletic.com/1292223/2019/10/14/what-we-learned-the-falcons-are-wasting-a-season-of-matt-ryans-prime/ GLENDALE, Ariz. — Through the multiple failures the Falcons put forth against the Arizona Cardinals, especially during the first half of Sunday’s game, Matt Ryan was nonetheless brilliant. If you didn’t watch the game, just take a quick glance at his statistical line. With the numbers he put up in a close game, an easy conclusion to draw would be that the Falcons came away victorious. But no, the Falcons faltered and lost their fifth game this season, this time to the Arizona Cardinals, 34-33. While the offense sputtered on what could have been a go-ahead drive with the game tied at 27, Ryan was magnificent throughout the second half. His day ended 30-of-36 passing for 356 yards and four touchdowns with a 144.9 quarterback rating, which, again, would lead you to believe Atlanta was on the winning side. Instead, the Falcons have dropped four consecutive games and sit with a paltry 1-5 record. While the Indianapolis Colts reached the playoffs after a 1-5 start last season, the odds are certainly slim for Atlanta to repeat recent history. For this to happen, Atlanta essentially can only lose twice in the next 10 games to have a remote shot at the postseason. Ryan has had his share of ups and downs this season. Early, he had some costly turnovers in games that proved critical in the outcomes. Ryan’s two interceptions against the Minnesota Vikings were uncharacteristic, as was the one he threw in the red zone against Indianapolis. Outside of the untimely turnovers, however, Ryan has played well for the most part. His game against Arizona was the best he has had this year. At 34 years old, Ryan is still very much in the prime of his career. And that’s what makes a fifth loss in six games that much harder to stomach. After reaching Super Bowl LI, and being so close to bringing Atlanta a championship, this team has taken quite a few strides backward. Yet Ryan hasn’t taken a step back whatsoever. Take for instance this Arizona game: When the Falcons got down 27-10 in the third quarter. Ryan immediately hit Julio Jones for 20 yards, found Austin Hooper for 15 a couple of plays later and saw the drive end with a made field goal. After the first of three consecutive defensive stops, Ryan completed seven of his eight passes that culminated in a 7-yard touchdown throw to Devonta Freeman. Trailing 27-20 in the fourth quarter, Ryan came back to complete five of his seven throws, which included a 30-yarder to Hooper and a 23-yarder to Calvin Ridley. The drive ended with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Hooper. With the game tied, Atlanta was forced to punt. A poor kick and a questionable fair catch interference penalty gave Arizona great field position that helped lead to a score. But once again, it was Ryan to the rescue. He went 4-of-4 passing for 58 yards on the offense’s final drive. All game, Ryan expertly took what the defense was giving him. And with a great play design that sprung Devonta Freeman wide open on a screen from 12 yards out, it looked like the Falcons were going to tie the score with 1:53 left to play. Of course, Matt Bryant then missed the extra point and Atlanta went home with yet another loss. Ryan proved gracious following a moment no one on the roster could have predicted. “These kind of games never come down to one play,” Ryan said. “I think everybody in our locker room can look at four or five different things that they did throughout the game that we could have done better where we would have been in a different situation at the end of the game.” It’s hard to fault Ryan in the slightest for this most recent defeat. He opened the game with a touchdown to Ridley. While the Falcons were forced to punt on the next two drives, the defense couldn’t force the Cardinals’ offense to do the same until its sixth possession. Ryan, however, placed some blame on himself for not converting more drives into points. “We had a few chances maybe in the first half and at different times in the second half where we had to make those plays, and we didn’t make them,” he said. For the season, Ryan has completed what is a career-best — to this point — 72.1 percent of his throws. He has totaled 2,011 yards and 15 touchdowns, although a lot of the yards have come while his team has been forced to play from behind. But if Ryan continues at this rate, he will wind up surpassing career highs in yards and touchdowns. For someone like Ryan, stats aren’t important. He gladly would trade the numbers for what suddenly have become elusive wins. It’s easy to forget where Atlanta was prior to Ryan’s arrival in 2008. This was a franchise regularly fighting for position among the NFL’s bottom feeders since its inception in 1966. Prior to 2009, the Falcons never had recorded back-to-back winning seasons. In 2011, the Ryan-led Falcons reached the postseason in a second consecutive year for the first time ever, with a third straight playoff trip occurring in 2012. And then Ryan helped lead the Falcons to the postseason in consecutive years again in 2016 and 2017. Ryan, who has only missed two starts in his career, has taken Atlanta to the playoffs six times. Prior to 2008, the Falcons had been to the postseason a combined eight times in 42 years. With Ryan, the Falcons have enjoyed the best decade of football in team history. In Ryan’s six postseason trips, Atlanta made it to two NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl. He won the NFL’s MVP honor in 2016, as well. After Ryan’s addition, Atlanta went from a laughingstock to a contender in most years. But while Atlanta found newfound success under Ryan, the franchise still endured the 2013 and 2014 seasons that saw him unable to overcome the rest of his team’s shortcomings. Despite a great start in 2015 and high expectations entering 2018, the Falcons fell well short of the ultimate goal. This season — barring an unforeseen turn of events — has the makings of being another wasted opportunity for Atlanta with Ryan still in the prime of his career. That’s something that shouldn’t sit well with anyone at team headquarters in Flowery Branch. “Disappointed with the outcome (Sunday),” Ryan said. “Not obviously where we want to be, but our mindset has to be on where we want to go. We’ll get some rest after this trip back and get back to it Wednesday and try to clean up the handful of things we can clean up. We’re definitely disappointed and frustrated with not getting the job done.”
  9. https://theathletic.com/1291024/2019/10/13/matt-bryants-miss-and-officiating-aside-falcons-primary-problems-were-on-display-again/ GLENDALE, Ariz. — The football had barely taken flight when a disgusted look came across Matt Bryant’s face. He knew immediately what happened as his extra-point attempt went awry with only 1:53 to play against the Arizona Cardinals. Bryant’s right foot made contact with the ball, leaning slightly to the right, at a target spot higher than he normally hits. The ball had no other direction but to hook left. It was a cruel twist of fate for a Falcons team that has relied on Bryant for 11 years. Bryant couldn’t help but place the blame on himself for Atlanta’s 34-33 loss, considering his missed point-after attempt was the difference on the scoreboard. “The team was working their *** off to get back to that spot, and to miss that kick, it’s just no good for anybody,” Bryant said. “You shouldn’t have to disappoint when you’re depended on. We dug ourselves a hole, and you don’t want to end it like that for what the team did to come back from where we were.” And that’s what made the miss even more brutal. Atlanta trailed Arizona 27-10 in the third quarter. The defense couldn’t stop the Cardinals, and the offense was once again inconsistent. But with the Falcons trailing by 17, everything started to click. The defense got three consecutive stops. The offense suddenly couldn’t be stopped. And early in the fourth quarter, the Falcons were able to tie the score at 27. After Arizona went ahead 34-27, quarterback Matt Ryan drove the offense down the field before finding running back Devonta Freeman on a screen out of the backfield. The play design ran most of the action to the left, with Freeman slipping to the right. He was wide open and ran into the end zone untouched. Bryant has been in this position numerous times before. He’s as reliable as they come, especially in the fourth quarter. But with the way the season has gone, it was almost fitting that Bryant miskicked the ball. The Falcons have been a prime example of Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” Bryant said the snap and hold were perfect. The operation was smooth. For a team that has had all sorts of problems defensively and hasn’t played a full four quarters of offense, place-kicking seemed the lone aspect no one needed to worry about. And then Sunday’s miss happened. “The only thing that matters is how the game ends,” Bryant said. “I’ve gotten a lot of support, but it doesn’t take away from the feelings of being depended on to go out there and do my job and coming up short. It’s disappointing for us to fight back the way we fought back and to not finish it.” Plenty of Bryant’s teammates would disagree with that. Many players approached Bryant after the game, even immediately after the miss, telling him to keep his head up. Julio Jones told Bryant he was in his corner. After all, Jones said he has dropped passes in big moments before. Ricardo Allen told Bryant that a game never comes down to one play, that there were other plays that should have been made to ensure Atlanta wasn’t in that late-game situation. But with 1:53 left and two timeouts, the Falcons remained in position to get the ball back with time remaining if the defense was able to get a stop. In fact, receiver Calvin Ridley told Bryant not to worry about that miss because he was sure he would have another opportunity. “I told him, ‘Don’t worry about it. You’re going to kick this ball again. You’re going to have another chance to help us get this win,’” Ridley said. “It didn’t work out like that. Matt B, I love Matt B. It sucks, but he’s a great player. I don’t know what that was. He doesn’t do that. It was weird.” The thing is, the Falcons were shockingly close to being able to get the ball back to drive for a winning field-goal attempt. After stopping two runs on Arizona’s first two plays of the subsequent drive and using their final timeouts, the Falcons lined up to defend the Cardinals on third-and-5. Quarterback Kyler Murray faked the handoff, ran to his right and went out of bounds near the first-down marker. Initially, it was ruled a first down before being paged for an official review. Replay made it seem a lot closer than what the officials initially called. Of course, spot plays can sometimes be hard to overturn, and the officials decided the call would stand. Game over. “It was close,” Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “I felt like the angle, it was going to be tough to overturn, but I know it was close. It was right there.” Having watched the replay, Murray didn’t seem too sure he got the first down. “Looking at it now, I probably should’ve stuck the ball out,” he said. “But it’s a good learning lesson for me. I will make sure I get it next time.” So did he think the first down would be overturned? “Kind of, when they were taking a long time to review it,” Murray said. That wasn’t the only call that rubbed Atlanta’s players the wrong way. In the locker room afterward, players could be overheard discussing a second-quarter play that also went against them. Murray hit Damiere Byrd down the deep middle of the field for a 58-yard pickup. While Isaiah Oliver was beaten on the play, he was able to catch up and tackle Byrd at the 2-yard line. As the tackle was being made, it looked like the ball might have popped loose as Byrd rolled over Oliver’s body — before a knee, elbow or any other body part that rules a player down touched the ground. Or at least that’s how the Falcons felt about it. “A couple calls out there were not good,” Ridley said. “One of them was a fumble. That’s football. It’s over with. We have to get ready for the next game.” One angle did show that Byrd’s right shin or calf might have touched the ground before the ball came loose, which could be why the officiating crew ruled that the play would stand. But if that play was ruled a fumble, which Damontae Kazee then recovered in the end zone, the Cardinals would have come away without points on that drive. That, obviously, would have been a huge turn of events in the game’s outcome. For what it’s worth, Murray seemed to be in agreement with Ridley and the Falcons players. “Yes, I was already on the sideline,” Murray said. “I thought he fumbled the ball.” Another call that went against Atlanta occurred after the offense was forced to punt in the fourth quarter with 7:27 to play. Never mind the fact that Atlanta’s fourth punter of the season, Kasey Redfern, saw his punt travel only 35 yards in a key situation. With Pharoh Cooper signaling for a fair catch, Sharrod Neasman appeared to back off the returner so he could catch the ball. Neasman, instead, was flagged for fair-catch interference. Instead of Arizona starting on its own 40-yard line, it was able to start the ensuing drive at the Atlanta 45. Neasman was baffled by the call. “Honestly, man, I don’t know what is the right call or isn’t,” he said. “I was playing football the way I know how — full speed, running down. I didn’t run into anybody, I didn’t touch anybody. They called what they want to call, I guess, based on where the ball landed and where I was to the ball. I’m not sure. I can’t call it. I don’t know what it was, what it wasn’t.” Neasman said the officiating crew didn’t explain the reasoning behind the call. The Cardinals took advantage of the good field position and scored a touchdown to go ahead 34-27. Atlanta then drove down the field, got the touchdown it needed and sent out one of the most reliable place-kickers in the entire NFL to tie the score. Except he missed. Murray was then ruled to have picked up a game-clinching first down. Atlanta has now lost five games this season, including four straight. Now, here’s the thing: The Falcons do have an argument about those crucial officiating decisions. And Murphy’s Law certainly applies to, well, to the state of Georgia sports during the past week. But the officiating and the missed extra point aren’t why the Falcons lost. While the team fought valiantly to tie the score in the second half, it once again got into a poor position by being down by 17 points. Before Atlanta got those three consecutive defensive stops, it allowed Arizona to score on its first five possessions. Murray looked like a seasoned veteran, completing 27-of-37 throws for 340 yards and three touchdowns. For the second consecutive game, Atlanta’s defense was unable to record a sack. While the Falcons hit Deshaun Watson once last week, that number dropped to zero against Murray. Arizona has run a quick-game offense for most of the season. It didn’t do anything different Sunday, with Atlanta, at least in the first half, looking like it had never seen such an offense before. When the score was tied at 27 in the fourth quarter, the Falcons had a chance to drive for a go-ahead score but were forced to punt after Ryan was sacked on third-and-8. In this situation, good teams are able to drive down the field and win the game. While the offense performed admirably to rally, it needed to be the aggressor it has rarely been in that moment. Everyone has pointed to the little things the team hasn’t been able to do well, which have hindered it from pulling out the victories many assumed it would have before the season started. But through six games, there is no sign that is going to change. And if it doesn’t, head coach Dan Quinn’s time in Atlanta could be coming to an end sooner than he or many of his players would like. For the past couple of weeks, the bye week has been the buzz of Atlanta as for gauging how hot Quinn’s seat is getting. If the team is 1-7 or 2-6 at the bye, could a change be made? An NFL Media report surfaced Sunday morning that suggested owner Arthur Blank, who normally isn’t in favor of midseason moves, wouldn’t rule out pulling the trigger on a coaching change at the bye week if Atlanta doesn’t turn things around. That turnaround was to include Sunday’s game against the Cardinals. Up next are the Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks, much more talented teams. Quinn and the Falcons need wins. Time is running out. In the end, this loss is a microcosm of the season. While Atlanta hasn’t caught many breaks, sitting at 1-5 after six games has been a collective failure, from the front office, to the coaches and the players. “I wish we were 6-0,” Ridley said. “It’s not great right now. It’s not good at all.”
  10. https://theathletic.com/1283902/2019/10/10/falcons-spend-full-week-on-road-seeking-answers-to-disappointing-start/ TEMPE, Ariz. — When Dan Quinn decided the Falcons would practice this week in Arizona, which came not long after the NFL schedule was released, he certainly couldn’t have predicted his team would be 1-4 and desperately needing a win. Yet here we are. This team’s struggles have been well documented to this point. A slow start turned bloodbath against Minnesota. Nearly letting Philadelphia win due to two late busted coverages. Being unable to stop Indianapolis in an attempted rally. Letting Tennessee dictate the tone defensively. And then last week, Atlanta had zero answers for a Houston team that hit chunk plays repeatedly in a 53-32 Texans win. It can be argued that the best thing for these players at this point is to break up the monotony back home in Georgia. “If there was a week to do it, this would have been it,” Quinn said. “Like if I had a crystal ball and said, ‘You know what, it could look real ugly for a while, let’s make sure the guys go there.’ I was happy that it happened this week, but the decision was made way back in the spring.” The Falcons flew from Houston to Phoenix after Sunday’s loss and have been preparing for their upcoming game against the Arizona Cardinals since. Monday felt similar to the players, in terms of the processes the team regularly goes through. Atlanta is practicing at Arizona State, with the players using the visiting team’s locker room at Sun Devil Stadium. The on-field work, at least Wednesday, took place inside the Verde-Dickey Dome, a giant bubble encapsulating an indoor practice field. With the temperature reaching over 90 degrees, albeit with little humidity, the Falcons were able to practice in air conditioning. While some players have family members in town, it’s a bit different since they can’t go home after work. That has allowed for some of these players to spend a little extra time with one another to go over what exactly has gone wrong for this team. “We get to bond; we get to see each other a lot more,” running back Devonta Freeman said. “It’s what we need. We need to continue to build our chemistry. Right now, it’s a tough time for us. We’re down; we’re 1-4. We needed that, just to be away from everybody, come in and put in the work and just have one goal in mind — to win.” With the way Atlanta has played, it only can hope that the extra hours spent with one another can translate into improved communication and confidence for Sunday’s game. The Cardinals are 1-3-1 but are probably feeling better about themselves after defeating the Cincinnati Bengals last week. “That bonding is big when it comes to this sport,” Freeman said. “We need all 11 on both sides of the ball to be on the same page and fight for each other. To have that chemistry, I think it’s important. It’s definitely going to help out, being here for a week together.” Turning running backs into receivers One reason the Falcons haven’t been able to run the ball that well has been due to a lack of carries. In five games, Atlanta has only 91 total carries. To put this number in context, both the Detroit Lions (123) and the San Francisco 49ers (154) have more carries in four games. But in four of the Falcons’ five games, they have been forced into catch-up mode. That stated, the Falcons have also been unable to find much space with the ground attack when it does attempt to run the ball. For the season, Atlanta ranks 28th in the NFL at 3.7 yards per rush. Against the Texans, the Falcons were only able to manage 2.9 yards per carry. Breaking this down further, Freeman is averaging only 3.58 yards per rush on first down, which ranks 30th in the NFL among players with at least 20 carries, according to Radar360. When Atlanta is in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end), Freeman is averaging 1.78 yards per carry. Interestingly enough, when Atlanta is in 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends), his average jumps to 5.17 yards per carry. That stated, Freeman has gotten only 12 carries in 12 personnel compared to 23 rushes in 11 personnel. With only seven carries on first down, Ito Smith has posted only 2.86 yards per rush. But Smith’s total number is better as he is averaging 5.2 yards per rush, although that’s only on 18 total carries with a long of 28. Take away the long rush, and Smith’s average drops to 3.8 yards per attempt. As Texans safety Tashaun Gipson said following Sunday’s game, the goal was to take away Atlanta’s rushing attack and force quarterback Matt Ryan into a position where he has to rally the team with his arm. It might be time for the Falcons to vary how they get the backs involved. While Freeman and Smith couldn’t find much running room against Houston, the two backs did make some plays in space as receivers. Freeman finished the game with five catches for 40 yards, and Smith posted six grabs for 45 yards. Freeman scored a touchdown on a screen pass, too. If the Falcons aren’t able to threaten teams with the run, turning the backs loose underneath and in the screen game could be what Atlanta turns to in complementing the traditional passing attack. “It is an extension of the run game for us,” Ryan said. “We put them in space and try to make people miss. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do in the run game, is get those guys into space on the second level so they can create explosive plays. We don’t care how we do it. Obviously you want to be balanced, but some weeks dictate that you get it out faster and get those guys in space. We’ll do whatever we have to do to find a way to get a win.” At least through five games, the numbers suggest this is a route the Falcons may want to take. Freeman is nearly even when it comes to rushing and receiving yards — 187 on the ground and 173 as a receiver. His lone touchdown of the season came on Sunday’s reception. “We just do whatever we’re called upon to do,” Freeman said. “Every single day, we come to work, come to practice and make plays. We just want to affect (the team), whether it’s in the passing game, blocking or running. Whatever the game plan is, we just go about it and execute it as much as we could.” Falcons still need pass rush improvements with another mobile QB up next A glaring issue from Sunday’s loss at Houston was the lack of pressure Atlanta put on Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson, who seemingly had all day to throw en route to 426 yards and five touchdowns. The Falcons recorded zero sacks and only came away with one quarterback hit. For the year, Atlanta has only five sacks, which ranks tied for last with the Dolphins and Denver Broncos. Breaking it down further, the Falcons have zero sacks on first down (last in the NFL), two on second down (tied for 21st) and three on third down (tied for 24th), according to Radar360. Four of the sacks have come out of the nickel formation and one occurred with four defensive backs on the field. In addition, four of the sacks came with Atlanta declining to blitz. While Watson is electric as a runner — evidenced by the fumble he picked up an ran for a first down — he would rather sit in the pocket and go through his reads. Conversely, Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray is using looking to run the ball when the opportunity presents itself. Already, Murray has recorded 206 rushing yards, with 133 of those yards coming when the Cardinals are in 10 personnel — one running back and zero tight ends. While Murray has been sacked 21 times, eight were in one game against the Carolina Panthers. In last week’s win over Cincinnati, Murray took only one sack. Considering the lack of pressure the Falcons put on Watson, and the end result that followed, making Murray uncomfortable will be important. “Quarterback ratings go down when you hit him, when you get him off the spot and you make him uncomfortable,” linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich said. “It’s something we’ve got to do. Our lack of it at times is a combination of all the things that we’re doing. We have to tighten up our coverage, which will help with the pass rush. The pass rush has to improve — the way we coach it, the way we refine it, the way we drill it. All of that will improve. I look forward to our guys having an opportunity to show who we really are.”
  11. https://theathletic.com/1280643/2019/10/09/chris-spielman-falcons-have-showed-zero-confidence-but-should-respond-against-cardinals/ TEMPE, Ariz. — Chris Spielman only could chuckle at the trend he has seen in his network media obligations. When the former NFL linebacker turned broadcaster does interviews in the days before the game he’s going to call, the discussion mostly been about getting his analysis on why a team is struggling. Rarely do reporters ask him questions about teams that consistently win games. With Spielman doing the color commentary for this week’s game between the Falcons and Arizona Cardinals on Fox on Sunday, he was offered up to The Athletic to speak to as an analyst. With the Falcons, yes, struggling, it was interesting to hear his take on how and why. It’s funny how that works out. Spielman, who also called Atlanta’s opener against the Minnesota Vikings, more than obliged, answering questions on what he sees as the problems for an Atlanta defense that ranks 23rd in the NFL, allowing 378.2 yards per game. According to FootballOutsiders.com, Atlanta ranks 27th in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) The Falcons, who are practicing at Arizona State’s campus this week, will hope to turn things around after a horrid 1-4 start. Spielman explained why he thinks that, after a dreadful performance in a 53-32 loss to the Houston Texas, Atlanta will look much improved against the Arizona Cardinals. When it comes to this Falcons team, defensively, what do you see that isn’t going right through these five games? I think it’s consistency — from Game 1, when (Minnesota) was able to run the football and there was nothing you could do to stop them. That’s frustrating enough. Then all the way up to last week, you have (Deshaun Watson) throwing for 426 yards, and I think, from my count, and I don’t know what the official count is, but I think he had one quarterback pressure on him. This is against an offense that has given up (10) sacks in the previous two weeks. Nothing’s clicking for them right now. They have good players. They just have to play with a little more confidence in what you’re doing and what is called, and being a little bit smarter. And maybe playing with a little bit more sense of urgency. It’s been my experience that an embarrassed unit usually responds well the next week. I’m looking forward to them responding against Arizona. You mentioned you think this is a talented unit. Do you not see a personnel problem with the Falcons defense? It’s easy to say that it sounds like these guys can’t play. But these guys have all produced in the past, whether it’s (Adrian) Clayborn, Grady Jarrett, Deion (Jones), Ricardo Allen. It’s not like these guys have not produced in the past. I think it’s a matter of being on the same page and having some good things happen to them. I was watching the film a little bit, and I think, in certain situations, they can do some things to help themselves. Like not let inside receivers vs. any two-deep look run free off the line of scrimmage. I think that puts too much pressure on safeties. If you have stacked wide receivers on first and second down, I would jam the heck out of the guy that’s the front wide receiver. I don’t know, I’m only basing it off of one game film, but I think that Dan Quinn hasn’t forgotten how to coach defensive football. He’s got to figure out, he says he will, and the players have to respond. It’s mostly up to the players to execute whatever defense is called. I wanted to ask about Dan. Historically, he’s had aggressive defensive units. This year, for whatever reason, it hasn’t translated. After last week’s game, the (Texans) players said they were confident about what they had seen on film and that they would be able to exploit the defense. When you watched last week’s game, did you feel that everything was coming naturally for the Texans? That the Falcons were, in fact, being taken advantage of in those key matchups? Here’s the thing, too. There’s tackling in space, right? We understand in today’s day and age of the NFL that everything is a matchup game. You find a matchup you like. If you’re playing a lot of zone — I’m a big believer in don’t cover dirt. If someone is in your area, then zone almost converts to a man type of coverage. The other thing is that you have to eliminate yards after catch if you’re in a zone. Sometimes that can’t be helped in man coverage because if a (defender) is covering a guy and he misses a tackle, everybody’s back is turned and (the receiver) is off and running, right? In zone, once you see that ball is released, everybody’s gotta be rolling. You have to have somebody close to that guy. … You have to be able to make a play after he catches the ball in zone, I think. Those are the rules I have for zone defense. Everybody has to understand when the ball is thrown then you have to rally to the football. The best pass coverage is a pass rush. And I’m not talking about sacks. I’m talking about disrupting the quarterback or making him throw by hitting him, and he throws the ball short. You can get a pick or something like that. I don’t know right now if that pass rush is where it needs to be for them to be successful to be able to help with their pass defense. When it comes to Vic Beasley and Takk McKinley, those are their two defensive ends drafted to get after the quarterback. When you watch them and you see them drop into coverage, time and again, when they rush three and drop eight, would you think that’s not a good thing for this defense to do? I don’t. I mean, there are times when you want to rush three and drop eight, depending on game plan and scouting report and where you are on the field and what you want to do. There’s a place for both. There’s a place where those guys have to do what they’re paid to do. They’re paid to get after the quarterback. They were drafted to get after the quarterback. Again, I want to emphasize that I’m not defining a good game by Vic Beasley or Takk McKinley getting a number of sacks. Those are nice, I get it. But disruption, quarterback hits, pressures, did he affect the throw? Did he affect the read by the quarterback because he was in there quickly, or something like that? And those guys can be helped, too, by pressure up the middle. Now, there’s an extra stress added because if Kyler Murray sees any type of man coverage or two-deep look, he’s going to take that throwing lane and turn it into a running lane pretty darn fast. That’s more pressure added to an Atlanta defense that needs to find its way still. Switching to the offensive side, what do you think the biggest problem is for Atlanta when it comes to being able to run the ball and getting consistent production out of it? I can speak to Game 1 and last week’s game since those are the ones I watched. And it’s simple. If you get behind — what did they run the ball, (seven) times against the Texans in the second half? Well, that’s why. You’re playing from behind all the time. For the most part, it’s very difficult to run the ball consistently in the NFL. Teams can do it, but you have to be able to, and I know it’s cliche, but there has to be some kind of balance. The only way you are balanced is if you are playing in a game that’s close or if you’re playing from ahead. It’s not balance when you’re always chasing. That puts a lot of pressure on offensive linemen and a lot of pressure on the quarterback. You can’t make mistakes. For offensive linemen, for example, all they’re doing is absorbing blows. The difference of the mentality of an offensive lineman is when you are running the ball and you are effective running the ball, all of a sudden they get to become the hitter as opposed to being the constant hittee — in a backpedal waiting for some big guy to smash them. And you just sort of sit there and absorb it. That’s your job. Matt Ryan, he’s putting up good numbers. Obviously, like you said, they’re playing from behind. And you saw the first game. When it comes to decision-making and those turnovers, do you think these are things, based on his history, that he’ll be able to correct and avoid as the season continues? Matt Ryan’s credentials speak for itself. Matt Ryan is a top-tier quarterback in this league. But a lot of it is you’re always playing catch-up. You’re always trying to make big plays. They have guys who can make plays. It’s obvious, right? There might be as good of a trio in the league, but I don’t know if there are any better than Julio (Jones), Mohamed (Sanu) and Calvin (Ridley). And they have a pretty good tight end (Austin Hooper). All the pieces are there. I just think it’s a team that’s playing — and I could be wrong, this is just me on the outside looking in — with zero confidence. And then I watch interviews and read your articles, and I keep hearing guys (saying), “Well, we all gotta do your job. Do your job.” So what you’re telling me is you’re getting behind and you’re almost getting to the point of trying too hard. When you try too hard, you start chasing plays. When you start chasing plays, you chase plays away from what you’re supposed to be doing because you’re trying so hard to help your team. I’m not saying guys are trying to be selfish. I’m just saying I believe it when they’re saying everybody has to do your own job before you do somebody else’s job. That’s definitely been an emphasis the last few weeks, and for whatever reason it hasn’t shown up. Every city, it’s interesting. Nobody ever — reporters, everyone — wants to talk to me when things are going good for a team. Everybody wants to talk to me about what’s going bad. It’s every city. Every problem is magnified by a thousand. I was talking to a guy from the Giants, and he said, “What’s the national feeling of the New York Giants?” Well, nobody in Cleveland cares about the New York Giants because the Browns have their own problems. Nobody in Cincinnati could care less about the Giants because the Bengals have their own problems. Because you (cover) the Falcons and we’re seeing all the Falcons players (struggle), rightfully so, it’s magnified down there with all their problems. If you look at the Vikings last week, getting beat and playing horribly against the Bears, it really should’ve been 42-10 against the Giants because they looked like the team everyone expected them to be. Everything is magnified, and that goes for the players. I remember as a player, when we weren’t playing well, it was like, “Oh my gosh, everybody thinks we’re not playing well.” But nobody outside of Atlanta cares because they got their own problems. Here’s the thing. It’s still early in the season. I know that Dan Quinn can coach. I know that Dirk Koetter can coach offense. Now, it’s just a matter of, “All right, we’re playing with zero confidence and we just had a team embarrass us.” I’m going back to my original statement that it’s been my experience in playing this game, talking to many people over the years and actually calling games in the NFL for the last four years, that an embarrassed team responds and a prideful team responds. I expect the Atlanta Falcons to respond this week against the Cardinals.
  12. https://theathletic.com/1273845/2019/10/07/what-we-learned-the-bet-dan-quinn-placed-on-himself-continues-to-fail/ HOUSTON — Dan Quinn placed a hefty wager on himself. When he fired his top assistants a day after finishing the 2018 season, he also revealed he would become the team’s defensive coordinator, immediately filling the position last held by Marquand Manuel with himself. The reason for the change was that Quinn didn’t think the 2018 defense was as physical as it could be. He wanted to place a bigger emphasis in this department and believed he could get more out of the defense since, after all, that is his area of expertise as a coach. Therefore, he became the head coach and defensive coordinator. The offseason and preseason were much busier, considering he was pulling double duty. But in the end, he was sure he could get the job done. As a football coach, there have now been three times when Quinn has placed a bet on himself. He succeeded the other two times. The first came after he graduated from Salisbury State. Without any connections, he initially was preparing for a job as a graduate assistant at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. But late in the process, William & Mary had a volunteer position open up on the defensive line. Quinn took the role, despite it being unpaid. Considering his rise through the coaching ranks, it turned out to be the best possible move he could have made. The second bet he placed on himself came following his first stint with the Seattle Seahawks in 2010. After two seasons as the Seahawks’ defensive line coach, he agreed to leave the NFL and return to the college ranks to be Florida’s defensive coordinator. As Quinn said in a previous interview, the Seahawks made it attractive for him to stay. But he decided to go back to the college ranks so he could lead a defense, even if this opportunity meant he had to leave the NFL. And at Florida, it worked out. After his first season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers inquired. After his second year with the Gators, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll offered him the job the same day Gus Bradley took the Jacksonville Jaguars’ head coaching job. Five months ago in that previous interview, Quinn said taking over defensive play-calling also fell under the same category of betting on himself. And throughout the entire offseason, he seemed ready for the challenge. His players bought into the notion that the defense would improve with their beloved head coach acting in a more hands-on manner. This bet, however, is failing through five games. In Sunday’s 53-32 loss to the Houston Texans, Quinn’s Falcons allowed 592 yards on 10 drives. Deshaun Watson threw for 426 yards and five touchdowns while posting a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating. A week after Houston allowed six sacks, the Falcons only mustered one quarterback hit. For the season, Atlanta ranks 23rd in total defense at 378.2 yards per game. More alarmingly, the Falcons rank 31st in scoring defense at 30.4 points per game. Only the tanking Miami Dolphins, at 40.8 points per game, are worse. When a coordinator fails to get the ideal results, his job starts to become in jeopardy. Quinn, Atlanta’s defensive coordinator, also happens to be the head coach. The move to make himself the defensive coordinator is backfiring in tremendous fashion. With the benefit of hindsight, it doesn’t look like Manuel was the one to blame for last season’s defensive output. Either the players just aren’t that good, relatively speaking, when compared to the rest of the league, or Quinn’s defensive scheme is no longer putting those players in the best position to succeed. Following Sunday’s loss to Houston, Texans players noted that they knew what Atlanta was going to do defensively ahead of time. The Texans then took advantage of the matchups and lit up the scoreboard. Later in the evening, a former player attempted to add gasoline to the raging fire by blaming the coaching staff for Atlanta’s problems. Safety Ron Parker, a free agent who spent the majority of his playing career with the Kansas City Chiefs, was with the Falcons last preseason. He didn’t make the 53-man roster following the final 2018 preseason game. When a Falcons fan asked Parker, on Twitter, for his opinion on Atlanta, he was blunt with his response. Just a few years ago, Atlanta was playing for a Super Bowl with a young defensive core. Desmond Trufant, Ricardo Allen, Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones have since all received a second payday. Robert Alford also was paid a second contract before his release at the end of the prior season. Vic Beasley, who had a monster 2016 season with 15.5 sacks, had 14 combined sacks in his other three seasons. The Falcons also placed a bet that Beasley would be able to replicate the 2016 production with Quinn’s leadership and picked up Beasley’s fifth-year option worth $12.8 million. Through five games, Beasley has 1.5 sacks and five quarterback hits. Takk McKinley placed a bet that he would accrue 10 sacks or he would cut his dreads. He has half-a-sack thus far. When Atlanta started 1-4 last year, three of the losses were decided by one score. This year, only one of the four losses has been by one possession and that final score against Indianapolis was deceiving based on the 20-3 halftime lead the Colts held. No one could have imagined that Atlanta, at this stage of the young season, would have a case for being one of the NFL’s worst teams. If not for Nelson Agholor dropping a pass down the left sideline in the fourth quarter, Atlanta very well could be 0-5. Quinn was fortunate his first two bets on himself paid off. Based on the early results, time sure seems just about out on the third. Without a run game, Atlanta’s offense can’t be effective In today’s NFL, the only counter to aid a subpar defense is an explosive offense that can match the opposition or get out in front early. While Atlanta’s defense, and the man calling the plays, deserves the bulk of the blame, the offense isn’t without fault. Last week, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said the sheer lack of volume is to blame when it comes to the run game’s woes. But as was the case against Houston, the Falcons just can’t run the ball with consistency. Against the Texans, the Falcons averaged 2.9 yards per carry. For the year, Atlanta is averaging only 3.7 yards per attempt, which ranks 25th in the league. For a team that stressed being a balanced offense all offseason, it has been anything but this. And while the passing game does rank third in the NFL at 313.2 yards per game, much of that can be defined as empty yards. While Atlanta scored 32 points against Houston, its season average is still 21st in the league at an average of 20.4. If teams continue to make Atlanta one dimensional by taking the run away, it’s going to be a long year for the offense. And if the defense continues to get gashed, the offense could be in perilous positions during the next 11 games.
  13. https://theathletic.com/1272319/2019/10/06/after-being-throttled-by-texans-predictable-falcons-reach-unexpected-crossroads/ HOUSTON — The Houston Texans had a pretty good feeling what was about to happen. After a week of preparation, the team the Texans thought they were going to host turned out to be exactly just that. And in the end, Houston put a 53-32 whipping on the Falcons on Sunday. After punting on their first drive, the Texans feasted on a defense that has become more and more suspect each week. Houston (3-2) put up 592 yards on 10 drives with 166 yards on the ground. Deshaun Watson routinely found wide-open receivers, throwing for 426 yards and five touchdowns. The Texans had 31 first downs and went 10-for-13 (77 percent) on third down. As Houston started to roll, Atlanta offered little resistance. It seemed to go exactly how the Texans expected it would. “We knew they were a pretty basic defense that wasn’t going to do too much,” Texans wide receiver Keke Coutee said. “They were going to keep running the same thing over and over. Once we kind of found out their kinks they had, we just started capitalizing on our opportunities.” Coutee didn’t speak in a demeaning manner. He was making a statement. The film he and his teammates watched throughout the week matched what transpired Sunday. “We knew we would be able to take advantage of a lot of things — a lot of hole plays,” Coutee said. “That’s why guys were able to catch the ball and get (run-after-the-catch) yards after.” Coutee said the Falcons ran both zone and man-to-man coverages but that they only blitzed when in man-to-man. The physical and speedy Texans receivers then took what was open. With DeAndre Hopkins shadowed often, other wideouts were left with one-on-one opportunities, and it looked like Houston’s offense did enough to cause some communication breakdowns in the Falcons’ secondary. Texans wide receiver Will Fuller had 14 catches for 217 yards and three touchdowns. On Fuller’s second touchdown, Houston ran two deep posts that mirrored each other. As Fuller, lined up to the right, broke to the deep left, he was left all alone. The Falcons were in zone, and the coverage broke down. Watson hit him with an easy 33-yard touchdown pass. “They were really zoning a lot of things off, so we really had a lot of free (space),” Fuller said. “We were running into the coverages untouched. That really helped a lot. As it started getting later, they started challenging us more, but I think we took advantage of the matchups.” As the Falcons’ secondary was eaten alive, the pass rush was nonexistent. Not only did Atlanta not record a sack, it was only credited with one quarterback hit. Atlanta didn’t blitz too often and couldn’t get a handle on Watson, whether it was because of his prowess in the pocket or as a runner. Watson was sacked six times a week earlier against the Carolina Panthers. The New Orleans Saints also took Watson down six times in the opener. Atlanta’s inability to bring pressure meant the allowed the most points to an opponent since giving up 56 to Kansas City in 2004. “It’s disappointing. Disappointing,” defensive end Vic Beasley said. “I played a role in that, and you have to accept it for what it is and then just continue to learn from it.” Atlanta actually held a 17-16 lead at the half, but the tempo of the Houston offense started to wear the defense down. The Texans hurried to the line a bit, with the defense hitting some quick runs on occasion. Running back Carlos Hyde, who ran for 60 yards and a touchdown, said he could tell when he had Atlanta’s defense on its heels. “When we were going up-tempo, you’d see their D-linemen gassed out, hands on their hips, tired,” Hyde said. “When you see that, you want to put the foot on the pedal and go fast. It opens up big plays like that.” The Falcons’ defense was unable to get pressure up front with any package. The defensive backs allowed some easy completions. With the Texans’ running game creating balance, the Falcons’ defenders were left guessing by a scheme that didn’t deviate from what it had shown through four games. A week after Watson delved into detail about Carolina’s defense, he was asked to offer a similar assessment of Atlanta’s. Based on his answer, Watson had a clear understanding of what the Falcons were trying to do. “They play a lot of man, different variations of man,” Watson said. “They play a lot of diamond front — which, diamond front is five across, the center is head up, the two guards are covered up, got the two wide ends with Vic Beasley and (Takk) McKinley, and then you have the linebacker, Deion (Jones). Sometimes they play man. Sometimes they drop out and play Tampa (zone). They do a little bit of zone. They try to do it in — their pressure in empty was to bring the star, press him and cap the safety. I just threw hot both times. One time, (Hopkins) was there, and he didn’t recognize that I told him to break out hot, and he kept running his seam route, so I just (ran) up the middle. “Then, different blitz zone packages. They play a Cover-6, zoned it off, and then they played diamond two and popped out. So, they did a lot of different things. Low in the red zone they played — we call it a ‘zero rat,’ where there’s no safety in the middle and that rat defender, which is (safety Ricardo Allen, he) doubled (Hopkins). It leaves everyone else one on one, so that’s why (tight end Darren) Fells and (Fuller) were able to connect and win because it was just one-on-one matchups. They did a little other stuff. The zone read package, they made sure they contained me and (were) not letting me pull it. We locked in on each and every play and tried to make sure we knew exactly what they were doing.” Houston, remember, entered the day ranked 22nd in total offense. The Texans created the kind of offensive balance the Falcons would die to have. Atlanta’s offense, however, was unable to establish a ground game to keep Houston guessing. Devonta Freeman, Ito Smith and Matt Ryan combined for 19 carries, 56 yards and a touchdown. Once again, Ryan was forced to throw the ball a lot — 46 times. Texans safety Tashaun Gipson said it’s impossible to game plan for Atlanta’s Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Mohamed Sanu and Austin Hooper. If the passing game is clicking, Atlanta can light up anyone. Therefore, it’s important, as a defense, to shut down Freeman, hope your offense can build a lead and then focus on defending the pass. Just like the Minnesota Vikings, Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans, Houston was able to get that done. “We saw that coming in, that Freeman hasn’t been getting fed like he probably should have,” Gipson said. “And rightfully so, they’ve been falling behind. The defense has been allowing points to be put up, so at the end of the day, they’re playing behind the sticks. You look last week against the Tennessee Titans, they were playing behind the sticks. (Ryan) is having to throw the ball 44, 45 times a game. In that instance, how effective can a guy like Julio be? If I know you’re going to pass, I’m not just going to let you sit over here and beat me with Julio Jones. “Compared to when you have a balanced attack, I have to respect it. That’s when guys like Julio, Sanu, Ridley are able to take advantage of it. If you look at the Philly game, it was close. They were balanced. Those guys were able to eat, take off on deep routes down the field. Against us, man, our offense controlled the game, and we knew in situations when they were going to pass the ball. We were able to hone in and let our rush guys rush and our cover guys cover.” Texans defensive end Charles Omenihu also believed taking away the run would be crucial to winning. “We just made an emphasis that if we make them stop running the ball, then we could go out there and tee off on them,” he said. “It was, ‘Eliminate the run game, make them one dimensional and then get after the quarterback.’” The Texans sacked Ryan twice — J.J. Watt and D.J. Reader each had one — and were credited with eight quarterback hits. Both Atlanta and Houston were reeling entering the week. That Houston looked so much better than Atlanta is an awful sign for the Falcons. “We’re disappointed across the board,” Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said. “One hundred percent gut-check time for us. Not what we expected.”
  14. https://theathletic.com/1266533/2019/10/03/how-did-the-falcons-go-from-super-bowl-contenders-to-perplexity-so-quickly/ It wasn’t too long ago that the Falcons were playing for a Super Bowl title. But coming out of that heartbreaking loss, which put a lid on the 2016 season, there was a great deal of excitement for the future. The Falcons’ offense rarely was slowed throughout that season, with Matt Ryan winning the league’s MVP honor. The defense started six players who were either rookies or in their second year. This front office was so confident about its situation, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “I really believe that we don’t have any major holes in this roster,” less than a week after his team’s loss to New England in Super Bowl LI. Fast forward to this point, and Atlanta opened the 2019 season with 22 players who were on that Super Bowl team. But in the time since, Atlanta exited the playoffs in the divisional round in 2017, went 7-9 last year and is off to a 1-3 start, with each of these three losses showcasing myriad issues. With 12 games remaining, there is more than enough time to turn the season around. But more so than the losses themselves, how the Falcons lost has been discouraging for those following this team. With Atlanta heading to Houston this week, it seemed apropos to question why this franchise was unable to keep pace with where it was four seasons ago. A lot of what made that 2016 team special had to do with the unsung veteran leaders inside the locker room who served as mentors for the younger contributors. Dwight Freeney and Tyson Jackson were instrumental for Vic Beasley, who recorded 15.5 sacks that year. Paul Worrilow proved to be a great presence for Deion Jones, who was in his rookie season. Patrick DiMarco was always there when Devonta Freeman, in his third year, needed him. Absent Freeney, who was nearing the end of his career, those players weren’t exactly household names. But they were glue guys for a young roster that needed guidance. “Those guys will have always value just because of the experience, leadership, the way they go about things,” safety Ricardo Allen said. “All of the dudes you named were some of the best pros I’ve ever had the chance to be around. Naturally, me being younger than them, you will feel it when they leave, when some of the experience leaves.” And this team did. As those role players trickled out of the franchise, leadership positions opened up. Two leaders to emerge on the defensive side of the ball have been Allen and Grady Jarrett. Ryan and Julio Jones maintained their leadership presence on offense, with Alex Mack anchoring the offensive line. Therefore, it came as no surprise that this year’s team captains are Allen, Ryan, Julio Jones and Mack. Allen believes this year’s leadership is strong but noted how special that 2016 crew was. He also noted the transition it took as players aged into their roles. “I also think you look at this locker room, too. We’ve got some players who have been in the league for a while. It should be the same,” Allen said. “You would hope it would be the same, that once some veterans have left, that we have people on this team now who have been here for six, seven, eight years. It should be a direct transition, too. When it’s time to get out of here, I hope I’ve trained the young dudes up to be able to take over the role of me, too.” But for some players, it’s hard not to wonder why, or if, they were able to make the transition into a leadership role. And if they don’t by a certain point, has the window of opportunity passed them by to do so? That 2016 team possessed the mentality of fighting until the last play, whether it was winning big or not. No matter the opponent, the Falcons expended every ounce of energy they had. The offense was rolling and grabbed big leads in a lot of games. The defense came together late in the year, created turnovers and always played a physical brand of football. That season was the blueprint of how head coach Dan Quinn would have hoped his roster, which no one has ever doubted the talent on, could perform week in and week out the past two-plus seasons. Instead, beginning in the 2017 season, what was seen the season prior on a consistent basis started to change. Unexplainable games began to occur, as Atlanta didn’t seem to have it together from the start. The first game that comes to mind was when Atlanta traveled to New England in late October of 2017. The buildup to that game was immense, considering the two teams played in the Super Bowl the season prior. But even after a solid week of practice, something was amiss after kickoff. In 2018, there was no better example than when Atlanta visited Cleveland. No one expected the Falcons to lose, especially after they crawled back to a 4-4 record. Instead, the Browns thumped them 28-16. Already this year, losses to the Minnesota Vikings and Tennessee Titans have felt this way, where the energy needed at the start was absent. The thing is, no one seems to have a tangible answer to the endless questions about this team. Are there certain opponents Atlanta won’t get up for? Why don’t good practice weeks always result in sound play during games? Are there players getting too cocky heading into certain games? Did the franchise, from the top down, get too cocky after reaching the Super Bowl? Have certain players become complacent? Did the team re-sign too many of those then-young 2016 stars? Is Quinn’s message not resonating anymore? Is this coaching staff not developing these players? Were some of these players overhyped following Super Bowl LI? Did some of these players buy into their own hype following Super Bowl LI? These are all legitimate questions for those outside of the building to ponder as the team itself enters, quite possibly, the most pivotal week in Quinn’s head-coaching career. This week, players pointed the finger at themselves for how the season has started. Julio Jones said what everyone has said the past couple of weeks — this is a better team than what has transpired for four games. It’s hard to argue this since the talent appears to be there. So just how does this team play like it’s capable of doing? “We can’t get that right until everybody collectively does their job instead of worrying about someone else’s job,” Julio Jones said. “I have to take care of Julio. Everybody’s got to take care of themselves to play and be accountable. Once everybody is doing that together, we can go out there and play Falcon football.” The star wide receiver was later asked if there was any reason why teammates of his wouldn’t be solely focused on their primary job. “It can be numerous things, whether it’s something — who knows?” he said. “It’s not an excuse for what’s going on. We just have to fix it at the end of the day. It could be any and everything. We’re human. We could have things going on at home. Or a guy was in for eight plays and then that one play he decides to take a little break, and it throws off the whole play. “Who knows? There’s a lot of stuff that can go on in a ballgame. (The team needs) 11 guys on one play doing the right thing. That’s on us. It’s bringing awareness to it as far as practice. Hopefully, it carries over to the game.” Whatever it is, the lack of focus and attention to detail from players who came ever-so-close to winning a Super Bowl has been stunning, to say the least. It has also come across as a poor reflection of Quinn and his staff. If 22 players from a Super Bowl contending team remain on the roster, with many still in the prime of their careers, how could the results diminish during such a short period of time? Quinn pivoted from this line of thinking when he was asked how the team has evolved to this point. “This is not the time for quiet reflection,” he said. “For me, the action is now. How do we get better today, right now? That’s really where my focus lies. I think that’s a fair question for you, but there’s a lot of reasons that we’re 1-3. I would say, in the last game, I didn’t like the tackling. I don’t like our turnover margin where we’re at. There are some things that need to get addressed. We’ve got a lot of football to play. My focus is only on now and this year’s team.” If Quinn is gone after this season, that could mean Dimitroff is, as well. And if both are no longer employed by Atlanta, you can bet a new regime will do its part to rebuild the roster in the way it sees fit. That could mean a lot of players, outside of those with the big contracts attached with tons of dead money, could be on the way out. Ryan, Allen, Jarrett, Julio Jones, Deion Jones, Devonta Freeman, Jake Matthews and Desmond Trufant all received big paydays while Dimitroff has been in his position. Generally speaking, when a franchise re-signs that many picks, especially to the contracts they received, it suggests the team knows a thing or two about drafting. But if the team fails to produce with those players? Then, in this instance, the narrative of co-team builders putting together a roster with no “major holes” crashes and burns. It’s then left up to the next general manager to piece together a new-look NFL roster. On Sunday, Atlanta’s first return trip to Houston since Super Bowl LI could be a stepping stone in either direction. At 1-3, who’s to say the Falcons don’t rally and put together a great season after all? The Indianapolis Colts reached the 2018 playoffs after starting 1-5, so anything’s possible. But if they do falter against the Texans, especially if it’s similar to their other three losses, it could signal that this, in fact, will be an incredibly long season. And at this point, no one has a clue which Falcons team will show up. “We’ve all got to play better,” Ryan said. “We’ve got to put ourselves in better positions. I think more so than anything, it comes down to being more consistent. Doing the little things over and over and over really well. Good football teams do that. We’re certainly capable of doing it. We haven’t done it, but we’ve got to go out there and change that narrative.”
  15. https://theathletic.com/1253912/2019/09/30/what-we-learned-through-four-games-the-falcons-are-just-bad/ There’s no way around it at this point. Despite the high-priced contracts to Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones and despite the other individually talented players this roster has to offer, there is only one conclusion of what the Falcons are after four games. And it’s a bad one. Atlanta isn’t a bottom-feeder, at least not yet. Seven teams are winless, with either Pittsburgh and Cincinnati making it six by the end of Monday night — unless they tie. But while seven teams are winless, the Falcons are a paltry 1-3. As Bill Parcells once said, “You are what your record says you are.” The thing is, if Nelson Algholor catches a pass down the left sideline in the home opener, Atlanta probably is winless and joining the ranks of the other teams that have looked overmatched to start the season. With some teams, you can point to why they’ve been as bad as they’ve been. The Miami Dolphins are all-in on tanking. The New York Jets are forced to roll with their third-string quarterback, amid other obvious problems. There’s an obvious talent void in Cincinnati, Washington and Arizona. Denver and Pittsburgh have pieces here and there but can’t seem to put anything together. In Atlanta, what has transpired makes little to zero sense. Only two major injuries, Keanu Neal (Achilles) and Chris Lindstrom (broken foot), have occurred. It’s not like there was a ton of roster turnover. Through four games, Atlanta has proven to be mistake-prone, penalty-prone and undisciplined. Against Minnesota, the Falcons were punched in the mouth and couldn’t regroup defensively. Against Philadelphia, they played physical but missed numerous chances to put the game away and nearly lost. Against Indianapolis, the defense was hit with the run, adjusted to sell out on it and was burned on play-action repeatedly. While Jacoby Brissett put up a stat line to die for against Atlanta, he completed only 52.2 percent of his throws in a home loss to the Oakland Raiders on Sunday. With so many issues at so many spots, it’s fair to wonder just how long this slide will last. Sure, there are still 12 games to play. But this isn’t a team that is inspiring much confidence in anyone. Just take a look at the overall numbers. While Atlanta ranks second in passing offense at 312.5 yards per game, mostly due to it being forced to play catch-up, it ranks tied for fourth with the Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Rams with six interceptions. The Dolphins, Bills and Redskins are the only teams with seven. After spending an offseason talking about the need to establish the run, the Falcons rank 27th in rushing with an average of 70.2 yards per game. Outside of three runs against Indianapolis, Devonta Freeman has not been able to break free. Against the Titans, he ran 12 times for 28 yards. Former offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s group finished 27th in the run last year. Through four games, with the likes of Jones, Calvin Ridley, Mohamed Sanu and Austin Hooper, Atlanta is averaging 17.5 points per game. Through four games in 2017, which included three losses, the Falcons were at least scoring 29 points per game, with the three defeats by one-score margins. In the three losses this season, Atlanta’s average margin of defeat has been by 11 points. Dan Quinn took over defensive play-calling and now finds this unit ranked 24th in total yards allowed at 324.8 per game. Quinn spent the offseason analyzing a lot of film to see what worked and didn’t work the past few years while tweaking his scheme to combat the modern offense of today. Instead, the defense has seen many problems, with the latest being Tennessee’s ability to exploit the middle of the field in the passing game during the first half. Something has to give in Atlanta. With one quarter of the 2019 season in the books, this has the potential to rank up there as one of the worst seasons in recent memory if this play keeps up at this pace. “We can practice as good as we want to, we have to come out here and win the games,” defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. “That’s the business that we’re in. We have to put a good product on the field and find a way to get the win. It’s unfortunate that we’re coming out on the wrong side of things the last couple of games, but I feel like it’s just the first quarter of our season. We still have a lot of stuff ahead of us, a lot of NFC play, lot of division play. It’s cliché at this point, but we’ve got to learn from our lessons that we’ve been going through as of late. We just have to get right.” For the most part, the city of Atlanta has given up on the Falcons Last December, the Falcons hosted the Arizona Cardinals in what was an absolute sad state of affairs when it came to attendance. Atlanta was 4-9 at the time, and a lot of the fans were checked out. In their minds, there was no incentive to go watch a team that had underperformed, which left open a lot of red seats in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Generally speaking, when a team is 1-2 after only three games, fans aren’t quitting on the team. But with 10 minutes to go before kickoff on Sunday, the scene looked almost exactly like it did for the Arizona game just 10 months ago. It had to have been an embarrassing look for owner Arthur Blank, who did not build a new stadium for it to be so poorly filled. Two factors are at play, of course. The first, and biggest, is that it’s required for season-ticket holders to buy PSLs. This priced many former season-ticket holders out. On top of that, no single-game tickets are available through the team. For fans who want single-game tickets, they have to go to the secondary market to do so and pay more than what they used to, at least for when it comes to planning a trip to a game, days or weeks in advance. In a city where the fans won’t come if your team isn’t any good, this was probably a bad idea in hindsight. It sets up for horrible optics such as what took place Sunday afternoon. The other factor is, well, just that. After the thumping this team took in Minnesota to open the year, it seemed like much of the remaining outside excitement about this season died. Fan attendance wasn’t exceptional for the Philadelphia game, with plenty of green splattered throughout the stadium. Sunday’s game against Tennessee was just sad. Those who did show expressed their displeasure with audible booing. “When you’re playing poorly, you’re not giving them much to cheer about, you get it,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “We want to give them something to be loud about, to make those plays, to keep this place rocking. We didn’t do that today. We’ve got to find a way to make plays to get the energy in the building going.” The Braves clinched the National League East and will begin the playoffs Thursday. Georgia appears to have a football team with great odds at a College Football Playoff run. With the Falcons performing as they have, and with their ticket structure the way that it is, it’s understandable to see why there were so many empty seats Sunday.
  16. https://theathletic.com/1251609/2019/09/29/through-four-games-are-the-falcons-three-pillars-beginning-to-crack/ Dan Quinn brought three pillars to the Falcons when he took over as head coach in 2015. This spring, he talked about his program’s culture and went over those pillars and why they are vital to the team’s success. When his players, assistants and support staff buy into these three pillars, the idea is the result will take care of itself. But what happens when the pillars show signs of cracking? After Atlanta’s 24-10 home loss to the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, it’s fair to wonder whether these three pillars — ball, battle and brotherhood — still stand firm. Here’s what we know through four games: When it comes to the brotherhood, there is no evidence, yet, to suggest there has been any sort of wholesale buyout. The players still seem to follow Quinn’s lead. They still repeat the same sayings in the locker room. They still put on the motivational T-shirts found inside their lockers. Each week, they still seem to be in lockstep with one another in intrasquad relationships. Of course, reporters and outsiders see only a snapshot of their lives. No one except them truly knows how the players are doing with one another when the cameras cut off or when the lights dim. “Everybody’s going to have their opinions on the team, what we’re doing, whatever,” receiver Julio Jones said. “This is our life. We come to work every day. We’re in it for one another. That’s all we need. We don’t need anyone else. We’ll make it happen.” Despite the poor start to the season, the second consecutive 1-3 beginning to a campaign, the team still has the feel of a tight-knit group. As for the ball and battle pillars? The Falcons, to borrow Quinn’s words, are missing the mark quite a bit there. When it comes to the ball, Atlanta hasn’t done enough to protect it on offense or to take it away on defense. Against the Titans, Matt Ryan took a sack on Atlanta’s third drive and fumbled the ball away. He felt like he had enough time in the pocket and that he had the ball secured. Titans defensive tackle Jurrell Casey swiped the ball out of his hands and recovered it. That was Ryan’s seventh turnover of the season. The Falcons defense, conversely, has only posted three takeaways for the season, and all of those came in Week 2 against the Philadelphia Eagles. While the Falcons forced three punts and got a fourth-down stop in the second half Sunday, the game-changing turnovers needed to flip a game were absent. For the season, the Falcons are minus-5 in turnover differential. It’s hard to win games when you struggle at protecting the ball and taking it away. As for the battle, this is where most of the unanswered questions exist. It doesn’t appear Atlanta’s problems connect to a lack of effort. Each week, practices have gone according to plan. Everyone has felt good about the preparation entering each game. It’s not like players are quitting on the field, even when it was evident that games against Minnesota and Tennessee weren’t going to go their way. Trailing 20-3 at the half in Indianapolis, the Falcons rallied and at least made it interesting. Of course, effort doesn’t equate to success. Teams still need tangible qualities to win more often than not. And right now, the Falcons don’t appear to have an answer for why things are heading south so early. “I don’t like our execution, that’s for sure,” Ryan said. “I do like the way we play — hard, tough, physical, and there’s no quit. Those are qualities where if we can tighten things up and get things corrected and be better with our technique, those are things that will help you win games.” While the effort might be great, the details have been lacking. For instance, the Falcons were down by 14 in the fourth quarter but driving at the Tennessee 31-yard line. On first-and-10, Ryan threw a short pass to Devonta Freeman that went for 9 yards. The play also drew a 15-yard unnecessary-roughness penalty from center Alex Mack, who seemingly would be the most unlikely player to have this occur. Safety Kenny Vaccaro rushed the quarterback but got caught up in the trash at the line of scrimmage. After Vaccaro ended up on the ground, Mack fell hard on him to keep him there, which is generally a legal play. Mack’s arms, however, extended out, with his right elbow forcefully hitting Vaccaro on the head. A referee threw a flag, and the Falcons lost a big play plus another 15 yards at a crucial moment. Atlanta subsequently was unable to score points. “I just wanted to finish in the pocket, stop guys from getting to my quarterback,” Mack said. “That’s all I was trying to do. Unfortunately, I was too violent, and the ref didn’t like it. I got flagged for it and can’t do it again.” The loss to the Titans is incredibly tough to explain, considering how pedestrian Tennessee’s passing offense had been. But in the first half, Marcus Mariota and A.J. Brown looked like Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. The Titans offense did a good job of scheming the middle of the field open, which is how Brown got loose for his first touchdown. He was wide open for a pass before turning it upfield for a 55-yard score. Mariota found Brown again later in the opening quarter for an 11-yard touchdown. Four games in, no one seems to know what to think. Last year, the Falcons could point to the rash of injuries they suffered early in the year and how that discombobulated them defensively. While losing Keanu Neal hurts this season, Atlanta has most of its stars available. Everyone is still available to play up front and at linebacker. The starting corners haven’t missed a game. Ricardo Allen is still leading the entire defense at the free safety position. Atlanta took a hit on the offensive line by losing Chris Lindstrom for an extended period. But that’s about it on that side of the ball. The Falcons simply don’t have an excuse this year. They’re just not playing well and can’t figure out why. Again, the effort might be there. But they keep losing the battle. “There’s nobody more frustrated and upset than us,” Quinn said. “We’re putting the work in, but we don’t deliver on the results. You want to find that process and tweak it how we need to, and we’ll continue to do that.”
  17. https://theathletic.com/1225924/2019/09/19/heres-the-catch-desmond-trufant-has-worked-hard-to-turn-that-weakness-into-a-strength/ Desmond Trufant, dripping sweat, will stand roughly 10 yards from the JUGS machine, catching pass after pass after practice has ended. He’ll stand there for up to 15 minutes doing what might seem like a mundane chore when he could otherwise call it a day. A lot of times, he’ll do this when practice ends, fatigued from the two-plus hours of work he just put in. Or he could do this before practice, depending on that day’s schedule. And if he’s not on the JUGS machine, he might ask to run some routes for Atlanta’s younger quarterbacks during their Plan D period. Regardless, it has become practically a ritual for Trufant to ensure he works on catching the football. Considering he’s Atlanta’s No. 1 cornerback, Trufant knows he needs to secure more interceptions than the nine he’s had after his first six NFL seasons. Interceptions haven’t been a staple of Trufant’s career. The most he’s ever had in a season is three, which came in 2014. Considering how fast Trufant is, he is able to stay with or recover on just about any NFL receiver. But being able to pick off passes has been a needed area of improvement and one Trufant recognizes. He’s spent plenty of offseasons bettering himself. This time around, he’s devoted even more time to become a more recognizable top-flight cornerback. “I feel like if I can just turn that weakness into a strength, there is no stopping me at this point,” Trufant said. Because Trufant plays cornerback, he’s aware of the attention the position brings. As he dropped potential interceptions during the 2018 season, he was often criticized, whether by media outlets or fans. Trufant said he did his part to keep things from becoming personal. Still, he saw what people were writing and heard what they were saying. And he wants to prove them wrong. Trufant understands this, whether it’s fair or not. It’s the nature of the game. When you’re rewarded with a five-year, $68.75 million contract, the expectations are high. Trufant went into the most recent offseason with the realization that he’d have to do more than he has previously when it comes to interceptions. “It’s the league. I’m in that position. I play corner. It just comes with it,” Trufant said. “But when you know the type of player you are, it is what it is, and I know what I can do on Sundays. It feels good to go out there and play like I know I can play.” Trufant made his presence felt early against the Philadelphia Eagles in last Sunday’s 24-20 victory. For the first time in his career, Trufant intercepted two passes in a single game. The first pick came with less than two minutes left in the first quarter. Off the snap, rookie receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside ran a go-route, with Trufant matching him step for step down the field. Quarterback Carson Wentz was forced to roll out to his right before he launched the ball. The pressure helped force an underthrow, with Trufant using his body to shield Arcega-Whiteside from getting back to the ball. Trufant jumped, grabbed the ball and secured his first interception of the season. The second occurred with less than eight minutes to go in the second quarter. This time, Trufant was matched up against Mack Hollins and stayed on top of his route while recognizing the moment Wentz was set to throw the ball. On film review, it appeared Trufant was the only one in the general vicinity to realize Wentz’s ball was about to fall well short. Trufant quit the route, changed direction and dropped low to the ground to secure the interception. He then popped up and ran it back for 10 yards. This pick, in particular, was big because Atlanta scored a touchdown on the ensuing drive. “He gets a lot of chances to jump in front of some balls,” safety Ricardo Allen said. “We’ve been telling him, ‘If you just catch them, you’ll be one of the top corners in the league every year.’ Everybody knows he can cover. Everybody knows he’s one of the most competitive corners in the league. It’s just the reason a lot of people don’t give him the respect on a yearly basis is because he don’t got as many picks as most corners. If he starts catching them like last game, there ain’t nothing they can do to deny exactly who he is as a player.” On days where Trufant isn’t on the JUGS machine after practice, he will run over to the offense’s Plan D group to catch some passes from second-year quarterback Danny Etling. The Plan D group is designed for the developmental players to get additional reps once practice is over. Obviously, Trufant is not working on being a receiver. To get the feel of catching a ball from a quarterback, he will run some routes as a receiver with Etling, which proves to be mutually beneficial, because Etling also gets additional work. “That’s a testament to how hard he works,” Etling said. “Even after a long, hard day out in the heat, he’s trying to get more catches to better himself and make the plays when they come his way.” Receiver Julio Jones has matched up against Trufant plenty of times at practice over the years. What stands out to Jones are the blended qualities Trufant possesses at the position. He has good size at 6-foot and 190 pounds. He has great speed and agility, too. Not many corners in the league have both attributes, Jones said. “With corners, they’re either long and can’t stop, or they’re too small but have short-space quickness. And they can’t really defend the deep ball or jump ball,” Jones said. “But Tru, he’s got great size, great weight, speed, things like that. He matches up well. It’s fun to get each other better every day at practice. For sure, he’s one of the best to do it.” If Trufant can start accumulating interceptions, he could be in for one of the best seasons of his career. The speed and change of direction have always been there. He spent a good portion of the offseason working on being more physical at the line of scrimmage, which has shown through the first two games. The lone area that hasn’t always surfaced has been the picks. If the game against Philadelphia was an indicator, this year could be different. Trufant worked awfully hard at improving his ball skills at the position. With those two interceptions, his confidence is only growing. “I’m just locked in. I’m ready to take my respect, it’s that simple,” Trufant said. “People say what they say. It doesn’t control me, but I feel it, you feel me? It is what it is. I’m ready to show them what’s good.”
  18. https://theathletic.com/1244262/2019/09/26/a-mothers-love-spinal-surgery-wont-keep-grady-jarretts-mother-away-from-his-games/ Each game, whether it is home or away, Elisha Jarrett will lean over the railing of the first row behind the bench to greet her son, Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, with some encouragement. As the two meet during pregame festivities, their fists pound against one another, with Elisha offering up one word for her son to live by once kickoff takes place. In Week 1 against the Minnesota Vikings, it was “dominate.” In Week 2 against the Philadelphia Eagles, it was “explosive.” Last week against the Indianapolis Colts, that word was “strength.” That word strength also could apply to Elisha, who overcome a world of pain to ensure her streak of attending every single one of her son’s games remained intact. The Monday morning after Atlanta’s loss to the Vikings, Elisha hurried back to the Atlanta area to undergo surgery on her neck and spine at 5 a.m. Grady and the rest of the immediate family were there, with Elisha needing to spend a couple of days at the hospital to recover. By Wednesday, still in a great deal of pain from the procedure, she left the hospital with one particular goal on her mind — getting to Mercedes-Benz Stadium that Sunday to see Grady and the Falcons play against the Eagles. Grady actually was advising his mother to rest, considering the significance of the surgery and the medication required to recover. That didn’t matter to Elisha. No one could convince her to stay home. All about support Growing up in Michigan, Elisha excelled at sports. She played basketball, volleyball and ran track. In college at Jackson State, she was a dancer. But growing up, she was one of eight children to a single mother. When she attended her youth league sporting events, she didn’t have a parent who could make it to every game. The closest thing was when her aunt and uncle could attend one of her sporting events. Therefore, Elisha decided that if she had a child who was serious about sports, she would offer the high level of support she would have loved to have received. Grady turned out to be that child, the middle sibling to older sister Kamilya and younger sister Ashema. In addition to excelling on the football field, Grady was a state-champion wrestler and a standout at baseball, the sport Elisha initially thought he would wind up pursuing. But as Grady honed in on football, she made sure she was a presence at every possible event. When Grady was at Clemson, Elisha would drive from her Georgia home to campus on Wednesdays to attend family night and watch practice. Wherever the Tigers were each Saturday, Elisha was there. With the Falcons, Elisha doesn’t have tickets in the family section — she bought her own PSLs so that she could be close to the defensive side of the bench. Ever since Grady was 5 years old, he remembers seeing his mom in attendance. “Every game in college, every game in the NFL,” he said. “She was there when I first started playing. I’m blessed to have that kind of support.” They often will lock eyes during games, Elisha said, as they have some nonverbal cues to communicate with one another. She laughed about how she’ll sometimes mimic a move he needs to do if he falls short on a play and how he will respond to it later. “He messes with me when I try to do the swing demonstration when he needs to swing to get around the center or guard,” Elisha said. “‘You’re not using your hands.’ He laughs at me, but he takes it.” Roughly two years ago, Elisha suffered a fall at work and broke her ankle in a couple of different places. The accident left her in a walking boot for about 11 weeks. Sometime during that span, her back began to bother her, as well. At first, she was seeing a chiropractor and undergoing physical therapy. When her right arm started falling asleep near the beginning of this year, she realized a bigger problem might be emerging. Her doctor originally wanted to perform surgery last year but she resisted. Agreeing to do so this time around, Elisha initially asked if she could wait until after the Falcons’ football season. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option. “He basically told me if you don’t have it before mid-September, that he was going to refer me out because he would no longer feel comfortable doing it, because daily there was some degeneration going on,” Elisha said. “That’s why the decision was made for me to go ahead and get it done now.” Elisha’s surgeon normally operates on Wednesdays and every other Friday. He made an exception this time. Operating on a Monday would give Elisha the chance to still make the Eagles game and continue her streak. “Some way, somehow, she worked her magic to get it done,” Grady said. ‘I wasn’t going to miss that game’ Elisha said she has been getting better by the day. But her body sure did, and still does, ache out of surgery. “I’m having indescribable pain when it comes to shoulder and back spasms,” she said. Grady, looking out for his mom, told her it would be OK if she missed a game. Instead of walking into a crowded stadium, she could have a nice setup at home and watch the game comfortably. No, she told her son. She was going to be at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. When Grady realized he wasn’t going to convince his mother to take it easy, he arranged for her to sit in one of the Mercedes-Benz suites for the Falcons’ game against the Eagles. He had Atlanta’s security team arrange a wheelchair to take her up to the suite and ensure nothing went awry while she watched the game. Considering the opponent, and the fact that Atlanta and Philadelphia played some tough, hard-fought games in recent years, that added to Elisha’s desire to be there. “I knew for the life of me I wasn’t going to miss that game,” Elisha said. “I don’t know what game they could have talked me into missing but it wasn’t going to be that one.” Of course, the game turned out to be a slugfest from start to finish. Atlanta won, with Julio Jones’ late-game heroics lifting the team to victory. But Jarrett had a strong game from start to finish. He recorded five tackles, with his most important play being a sack of Carson Wentz in the second quarter. The Eagles were threatening in Atlanta territory, with Jarrett’s play forcing a field-goal try instead of a touchdown. After letting out a celebratory scream, Jarrett pointed to the Mercedes-Benz suite his mother was in and blew a kiss. “That was to my mom,” Grady said. “She made it to the game, not even a week out of surgery … Everybody wanted her to stay at home, but she wasn’t having it.” Did she see his kiss? “Oh, absolutely, 100 percent,” Elisha said. It’s one thing for Elisha to make arrangements to attend a home game. To travel outside the state after neck and back surgery would be another. Last Thursday, Grady said he wasn’t sure if she would be able to fly up for the game. By Friday, she had a bag packed and was ready to go. Elisha had a wheelchair arranged at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to take her to her departure gate. Her twin sister, Dr. Ramona Lancaster-Epps, was by her side during the trip. She flew out of Atlanta shortly after 3 p.m. last Saturday, stayed at the team hotel and made arrangements so that she could get to her seat in the first row behind the defensive bench. By this point she was able to walk, as long as her neck brace — which she had bejeweled with Grady’s No. 97 on it — was on. As the game neared kickoff, the routine stayed the same. She was down by the bench, fist-bumping Grady, telling him the word of the game would be “strength.” Head coach Dan Quinn said you can’t miss Elisha in the stands. In addition to the decorated neck brace, she still wore her bedazzled Falcons hat and jeweled jersey. When Quinn heard she would make the Eagles game, he knew nothing would stop her from making it out to Indianapolis. “It goes to show that a lot of his toughness comes from her,” Quinn said. “The outlook that Grady has, he’s really mentally tough, too. It’s awesome to see their connection as mother and son. It’s really strong.” While Quinn is Grady’s professional coach, Elisha will still be in her son’s ear with some football tips, too. If she thinks his first step is slow on a play, she’ll be quick to let him know. She’ll not only re-watch his games, but she’ll scout the opposition and offer up some pointers on who he’s facing that week. Every chance she’s had to learn football, she’s taken it upon herself to do so. This goes back to when Grady was in college, when she would make sure to attend the Dabo Swinney Ladies Clinic each year. Heading into this season, Elisha said the two came up with a mantra. “This year, our thing is, ‘Don’t wait,’” Elisha said. “What are you dancing for? Don’t wait. Don’t wait until the second quarter to do what you could have done in the first quarter. Don’t wait until the second half. Don’t wait. That’s what I tell him.” When the Falcons take on the Titans on Sunday, you can bet Elisha will be in her spot, cheering on her son once again. Nothing — not even spinal surgery — can keep her away from supporting her son on the gridiron. “More reasons than anything it’s that support for him,” she said. “I think he’s going to do his thing either way. It does him good, whether he admits it or not, and it certainly does me good for him to turn around and look in the stands for some confirmation.”
  19. https://theathletic.com/1241823/2019/09/25/how-the-falcons-are-addressing-their-penalty-problem-plan-at-strong-safety/ Upon walking out to the Falcons’ practice field Wednesday, it was tough not to notice the additional officials wearing black-and-white striped shirts. Three days after Atlanta committed 16 penalties for 128 yards in a 27-24 loss at Indianapolis, head coach Dan Quinn invited a full allotment of referees to officiate practice. Typically, three officials will take part in a Falcons practice and throw flags when necessary. This week, and until further notice, seven referees were present at each officiating position. The ultimate goal is for Atlanta to cut back on the penalties that have helped cause the early 1-2 record. “They brought them in so we could be aware of real-game situations,” defensive end Adrian Clayborn said. “We’re trying to learn what we did wrong. They said we’re first in the league in penalties. Something’s wrong. We need to fix it. We need more refs.” The Falcons are tied for first place with the Browns with 35 total penalties. This goes against the norm of Quinn-coached teams, as his teams previously have been in the bottom half of the league in this category since getting the job in 2015. In 2015, the Falcons ranked 25th with 100 penalties. In 2016, the Falcons ranked 20th with 104 penalties. In 2017, the Falcons ranked 20th with 101 penalties. In 2018, the Falcons ranked 22nd with 101 penalties. For whatever reason, the Falcons have not been able to keep the flags from flying through three weeks. In each game, the team’s penalty total has gotten worse — nine against Minnesota, 10 against Philadelphia and 16 against Indianapolis. Quinn hopes that by bringing in a full officiating crew this week, it will help point out the areas the coaching staff has missed when it comes to teaching how not to draw a flag. “For me, it’s more of a teaching emphasis,” Quinn said. “I don’t know how long I’ll do it for, but I wanted to get it started. When you have a problem, you have to address it. The current way we addressed it wasn’t getting fixed to my standard that I liked it to be. So you got to take it further.” Of the Falcons’ 16 called defensive penalties — two were declined — 13 resulted in first downs. No other team in the NFL has had more penalties result in first downs than Atlanta. The most frequent culprit is defensive holding, which Atlanta has committed five times in three games. The Falcons have also committed two defensive pass interference penalties and have been called twice for lowering the head to initiate contact. Linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich said eliminating these kinds of penalties that have extended drives will be a focal point throughout the week of practice. Ulbrich stressed the need for players to recognize where they are on the field so that they can let go of an offensive player once they are 5 yards removed from the line of scrimmage. “Technique has to be improved across the board — linebackers, DBs, everybody in coverage,” Ulbrich said. “We have emphasized it, we have to continue to emphasize it and eliminate it. The NFL is hard enough. The opponent is enough of a challenge. To be beating ourselves at times, it has to go away.” Quinn hopes that having a full officiating crew on site for the week, or maybe even longer, will help point out Atlanta’s problem areas. As for some of the players, there wasn’t too much of a noticeable difference with the extra officials. Quarterback Matt Ryan said that he doesn’t typically notice referees during games, outside of the basic functions they perform, much less at practice. Cornerback Desmond Trufant said he saw some flags on the field Wednesday but noted that would be the case at most practices. More importantly, Trufant said his team must focus on preventing drive-extending penalties from occurring this week against Tennessee. “It’s in everybody’s head,” Trufant said. “We can’t hurt ourselves. In big situations, on third down, we can’t afford to have those type of penalties.” While Quinn is doing his part to have his team cut down on penalties, players have their own methods for handling matters internally. Trufant said that everyone on the team knows how much Sunday’s penalties affected the game’s outcome, so there’s no use in embarrassing anyone. But he noted it is a conversation being discussed among teammates. “It’s out there. We know about it, we’re aware of the issue,” Trufant said. “Everybody’s locked in. Nobody’s going to disrespect anybody. We’re all grown, everybody works. People make mistakes. The ones we can control in big situations, where we know we can avoid it, we gotta eliminate those.” Clayborn said it can be useful to point out certain penalties, especially after games like Sunday’s against the Colts. “Nobody wants to be called out by their teammates,” Clayborn said. “On the other end, nobody wants to cause your team a 5-yard penalty or turn a third down into a first down. That hurts more than a fine, to me.” Quinn said there will be some “in-house” discipline when it comes to penalties moving forward. As for what that entails, nobody knows. Players across the league have their own means of policing one another for such a thing. Some locker rooms may have position groups that institute fines for penalties, like a kangaroo court. Self-imposing fines doesn’t appear to be something Atlanta will do. But being accountable to one another, to ensure these penalty woes discontinue, remains at the forefront. “We can do (fines), but at the end of the day we have to be professional,” Clayborn said. “We all got a lot of money so $100 isn’t really going to do ****. We just have to hold each other accountable, do it that way.” The plan at strong safety With Keanu Neal (Achilles) on season-ending injured reserve, the Falcons are now forced to adjust how they will handle the strong safety position. Considering everything Neal could do — from being an enforcer in the run game to covering well on passing downs — this is a role anticipated to take place by committee. On Tuesday, the Falcons brought in veteran safeties George Iloka and T.J. McDonald for tryouts but decided against both players. Instead, the Falcons promoted practice-squad safety Jamal Carter, who has a shot to rotate at strong safety with veteran Kemal Ishmael. “The two veterans did an excellent job,” Quinn said. “For them to have the careers they’ve had, and the tape they’ve shown — ****, we’ve played against both of them. I saw firsthand how good they are. What we saw is that sometimes you need your shot, you need your chance. Jamal’s shown he’s certainly capable of that. It was the time we saw him on tape and in the time here during his first three weeks that he was growing into the position and we thought that’s where we’re going to go.” Ishmael, who began his career at strong safety before moving to linebacker, moved back to his original position this preseason. It appears he will get the early nod to start in Neal’s place. Ishmael has the body to be a box safety on run downs, which should come in handy this week against the Titans, who are built to establish the run and rank 12th in the NFL in rushing yards at 112.7 per game. Derrick Henry, in particular, ranks 11th in the league with 210 rushing yards. Against Indianapolis, Ishmael totaled six tackles on defense, with none of them assisted. Carter entered the league as an undrafted free agent out of Miami in 2017. With the Hurricanes, Carter was a rotational player before becoming a senior captain and full-time starter in 2016. In his final year, he recorded 85 tackles and broke up three passes. Carter spent his first two seasons with the Denver Broncos before being waived at the end of this past preseason. Quinn said he liked Carter’s style of play in college and followed his stint with the Broncos, which included facing him in this year’s Hall of Fame Game. Carter recorded two tackles on defense and an additional one on special teams in the exhibition. “We followed him through his time at Denver, and it was really in the preseason that we saw him play really physical,” Quinn said. “We thought he had all the traits to do it. He was somebody we thought could develop in the position. After three weeks, he certainly showed a lot of those traits — speed, toughness. At practice, we’ve been giving him some reps to see where he’s at.” Carter said Atlanta’s defense is a perfect fit since he’s a box safety who likes to be physical at the line of scrimmage. It didn’t go unnoticed to him that the Falcons chose him over Iloka and McDonald. “It shows how much they like me,” Carter said. “It shows how much work I’ve been putting in, and it’s paid off.” While Ishmael and Carter appear to be in the strong safety plans in run situations, Quinn made it sound like the personnel could change some on third downs and in obvious passing situations. That could mean either Sharrod Neasman or Kendall Sheffield might see some additional playing time in certain packages. Quinn, however, didn’t want to give away too much about Sunday afternoon’s plan. Replacing Neal is impossible, due to the skill set he possesses. Atlanta will hope it can piecemeal some players into different coverages to help make up for the talented former first-rounder who won’t be available for the remainder of the season. “(Neal’s) our vocal leader, he’s a tone-setter,” Ishmael said. “We have to come together and play as one. He’s down and we’re going to miss him.”
  20. https://theathletic.com/1235336/2019/09/23/schultz-whether-its-the-messaging-or-the-players-dan-quinn-has-a-problem/ Dan Quinn is a really good guy. He is beloved by his players and everybody he comes in contact with at the Falcons’ headquarters. He helped build a roster that he then coached to a Super Bowl in 2016 in only his second season as an NFL head coach. But Dan Quinn has a problem. Whatever he is doing, coaching or saying isn’t working. The Falcons have a talented enough roster to be 3-0 or at least 2-1. Instead, they’re 1-2 and could be 0-3. These perceived talented players are doing dumb and undisciplined things, like committing penalties (a league-high 35 for 274 yards, exceeding the average distance of three scoring drives), blowing basic coverages, failing in basic run defenses and committing turnovers (seven, led by Matt Ryan’s six interceptions). Getting outscored 41-3 in the first half of two road games also suggests focus or hotel wake-up calls are lacking. The 1-2 start isn’t about Keanu Neal’s horrible luck of having a second straight season wiped out by injury. It’s not about other injuries or a young offensive line still coming together or a mostly new staff of assistant coaches getting settled. It’s about Quinn. He’s the one who sets the tone and messaging. He’s the one who brought in most of the players and coaches, in concert with general manager Thomas Dimitroff. This defense, this team, they’re Quinn’s. Safety Ricardo Allen, who is as smart and professional a player as there is in the NFL, acknowledged that being known as a “talented” team isn’t necessarily a good thing. There’s a danger of that creeping into one’s mindset. “The best thing you can do as a player is be accountable for your actions,” he said. “We’re a 1-2 team. You’re not an overly talented team — you’re a 1-2 team. You have to be realistic with it. I don’t care how much talent you have. If you can’t find a way to win with it, you gotta shake something up.” Asked if he was concerned about some players not being accountable, Allen paused briefly and said: “No. If this was in the middle of the season, and it keeps going, yes. As of now, no. I think players are really trying to do all they can and play as hard as they can.” It’s fair to wonder whether Quinn’s style and messaging just aren’t working anymore, whether the whole “Brotherhood” thing needs to be drop-kicked in favor of something with more flames. The Falcons returned predominantly the same team following the Super Bowl, save offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, but suffered in 2017 from inconsistency, including home losses to Buffalo and Miami. They made the playoffs but lost in the second round to Philadelphia. Last season was submarined by injuries. But there’s a case to be made that things fell apart beyond what they should have. The Falcons are 18-17 in the regular season since the Super Bowl. That doesn’t cut it. Quinn is taking a lot of heat. After Sunday’s 27-24 loss in Indianapolis, when the Falcons dug themselves a 20-3 hole and committed a dizzying 16 penalties, the coach’s three-minute postgame news conference was live-streamed on Periscope. Those watching Quinn’s conference had the ability to comment live, and they unleashed a number of verbal grenades. A selection follows: “I want blank to fire you. … FIRE QUINN. … Trash defense. … Blah blah blah brotherhood blah blah blah. … Blame is on DQ shouldn’t allow penalties to get so high. … Clown. … Sorry but u gotta go. … You are an awful coach!!! … We don’t want to hear the excuses Dan. … Go back to Seattle. … Get your **** together dan. Every week it’s like this. I love my falcons but ******** man.” So, yes. He has lost the benefit of the doubt in Atlanta. Quinn doesn’t run from the criticism. He understands the anger and the questions about his messaging. “The messaging is always important: You know you’re on it when the team lives it,” he said. But this team is not living it. So does he feel the need to change it? “I may say some things in a different way, but it’s still the same message,” he said. Louder, more in your face? “It would depend on who the person was,” he said. “Sometimes it has to be louder, in their face. But not every player reacts in the same way. Sometimes it needs to be in front of everybody and louder and stronger than some. Others, you may need to talk to them one-on-one.” When asked again whether he feels the need to change who he has been in the past, Quinn said: “You have to look at it. I wouldn’t say change. But you have to make sure the people who need to get addressed have my attention, for sure.” It’s an important subject because in any sport a coach’s messaging can get stale. That’s why even some with early success might have a limited shelf life. Allen said: “I’m going to fight to the end with him. Until the clock hits zero, zero, zero.” But Allen, Julio Jones and Grady Jarrett, three of the team’s acknowledged leaders, can speak only for themselves. The problems puzzle them as much as anybody. Allen also puts it more on the players than the coaches. He referenced a practice in the days leading up to the Indianapolis game when players were flat. “Last week we had a time where we came out and we started off slow, and it took the coaches to say something,” he said. “It has to be the players.” Allen believes the Falcons play better when they “think we’re the underdogs and nobody cared about us and we didn’t have people saying we were the high-flying (Falcons).” So here’s the good news: Keep losing and they’ll be underdogs all the time. But Quinn said he isn’t going to change his core principles or be influenced by outside noise. He told a story about when the Falcons lost their 2016 season opener to Tampa Bay, which was then coached by Dirk Koetter, Atlanta’s former (and present) offensive coordinator. “There were some columnists, maybe they’re sitting here, maybe they’re not, who were just, ‘Maybe (Koetter) should’ve been the coach here,’” Quinn said. “I remember hearing that, and it took me a day or two, and I’m thinking, ‘What the **** am I doing?’ And then we ended up going out to Oakland and winning. That was a lesson to myself: Stay true to the process. I’m not happy how we’ve started after three games at all. Some of the self-inflicted wounds we’ve had I know are correctable. We **** sure are planning on getting those fixed.” But we’ve heard those words often. Maybe try fewer promises and more action.
  21. https://theathletic.com/1233704/2019/09/23/what-we-learned-penalty-problems-continue-to-get-worse-for-slow-starting-falcons/ INDIANAPOLIS — The Falcons have a penalty problem. And if this problem persists, it’s going to be difficult to win games and ultimately end up where they want to be by the season’s end. Sunday’s 27-24 loss to Indianapolis was very much a winnable game. While Atlanta started slow again — it has been outscored 41-3 in the first half of its three games — it was able to cut a 17-point deficit to three twice. But hurting the Falcons in the process of coming all the way back were penalties. The Falcons committed 16 of them for 128 yards. “That’s like another running back in a game,” safety Ricardo Allen said. “If a running back gets out there and runs for 120, that’s a terrible job. You can’t do that. You can’t give up 120 of invisible yards.” Each week, dating back to the first preseason game, penalties have been a talking point. The problem for Atlanta is that this is a trend that continues to get worse. The Falcons committed nine penalties against Minnesota, 10 against Philadelphia and now 16 against Indianapolis. Seven of the penalties against the Colts resulted in first downs. Each week, it seems head coach Dan Quinn has said the same thing. The pre-snap penalties, especially, are the ones that bother him the most but that they are correctable. But, as everyone knows, it’s tough to win, especially on the road, when they aren’t fixed, which they haven’t. Atlanta committed five pre-snap penalties on Sunday afternoon. Jack Crawford was called for a neutral zone infraction twice, Grady Jarrett committed one neutral zone infraction, Kaleb McGary false started once, and the defense had too many men on the field on one occasion. The second of Crawford’s penalties occurred on third down, which continued that Indianapolis drive in the second quarter, and it resulted in a field goal. On Indianapolis’ second touchdown drive, the Falcons had what would have been a stop on third-and-1 with Keanu Neal sacking Jacoby Brissett. The Falcons, however, had too many men on the field, which continued the scoring drive. “We’ve got to get that part under control, for sure,” Quinn said. While pre-snap penalties are the worst for any team, Atlanta has to figure a way to limit the in-play penalties, too. On the same touchdown drive during which the Falcons had too many men on the field, Neal was called for pass interference on a third-and-9 that otherwise saw the ball fall incomplete. (It should be noted that after he significantly injured his Achilles, Neal threw his helmet and was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, which seems like a ridiculous penalty for a referee to make in that situation.) In the fourth quarter, with the Falcons needing a stop, Brissett threw an incompletion on third-and-10 from the Indianapolis 47. Damontae Kazee was flagged for holding, which extended the drive. Marlon Mack scored a touchdown four plays later. “We were inflicting more damage to ourselves than them beating us,” cornerback Desmond Trufant said. “They made some good plays, but I think we got to start with doing our job first, getting in position. If they make a play, they make a play. But we have to make sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to do.” The defense committed 10 penalties for 73 yards, while the offense accounted for six penalties for 55 yards. Atlanta was able to get away with 45 of those offensive penalty yards, with those particular flags occurring on both of the second-half touchdown drives (Calvin Ridley: offensive pass interference; Jamon Brown: holding, illegal block above the waist; Jake Matthews: holding; McGary: false start). James Carpenter’s first-quarter holding penalty proved to be a big deal as it occurred on a third-and-5. The Falcons picked up 2 yards on the play, which would have made it fourth-and-3 from the Indianapolis 33. From there, it would have been a 50-yard field goal attempt for Matt Bryant. Atlanta also could have chosen to go for it on fourth down, with the entire playbook at the team’s disposal. Instead, the Falcons ended the series with a punt. Penalties proved to be killer for Atlanta in Sunday’s loss. If this team is to start stacking wins in successive weeks, this area must be cleaned up as soon as possible. “It’s just more attention to detail and fixing the little things in critical situations,” running back Devonta Freeman said. “Just trying to be great so when this situation happens, we know how to overcome it and stuff. Just got to go back to the drawing board and do a lot of work.” Through three games, it hasn’t been about the ball Every Thursday, the Falcons emphasize protecting the football on offense and creating turnovers on defense. It’s “about the ball,” as they say. Through three games, the practice mindset hasn’t transitioned to games. In Atlanta’s two road games it has failed to create any takeaways while turning the ball over four times. In last week’s home win over Philadelphia, the defense turned the Eagles over three times, only for Matt Ryan to throw three interceptions. That puts the Falcons at minus-4 for the season in turnover margin, which ranks tied for 28th in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos. The only two teams worse than Atlanta in this category? The New York Giants (31st, minus-5) and the Miami Dolphins (32nd, minus-6). Making matters worse is the fact that Ryan threw his sixth interception in only three games Sunday afternoon. And his interception, like the previous five, could have been prevented with better decision-making. This time, deep in Colts territory, Ryan was looking for Luke Stocker over the middle of the field, despite the fact he was bracketed in coverage. On top of that, the ball was overthrown, which made it an easy pick for Clayton Geathers. Ryan obviously wished he made a better decision on that play, which took points off the board for Atlanta. “Check the football down and understand that we’re in a spot where we’ve got three points on the board with (Bryant) as our kicker — get the football to an outlet, keep moving it,” Ryan said. “We did a nice job of that most of the day. But at this position and in this league, it’s every snap. You’ve got to make great decisions every snap, and that was a poor decision on my part.” The same type of play kept killing the defense Brissett ended his day with 310 passing yards and two touchdowns. A chunk of those — 118 yards to be exact — went to his three tight ends. Atlanta had a hard time slowing down Jack Doyle, Eric Ebron and Mo Alie-Cox, especially when it came to making plays in the flat, whether they be on the right or left side of the field. In total, Atlanta did a good job of stuffing the run. While Mack got loose for a 26-yard gain late, the Colts were held to 79 rushing yards. But maybe the early establishment of the run on the first couple of drives caused the Falcons to overcommit and not stay home on their assignments. This allowed Indianapolis to misdirect the Falcons’ defenders and hit them with a number of play-action passes, sometimes on bootlegs, that went for sizable gains. “When you’re running the ball and you’re having some success, it’s natural to get people who fill gaps — little things start to cross their faces, and they start keying in on the back,” Allen said. “They stop keying in on their keys.” The most notable play-action pass that hurt the Falcons came near the end of the game. On third-and-4, the two teams lined up against one another with Colts head coach Frank Reich seeing something that led him to call a timeout. Out of the break, he had Brissett fake the handoff, with Doyle pretending like he was going to block a defender. Doyle then broke into the flat for a wide-open catch that went 11 yards to seal the game. The Falcons’ defense appeared to get sucked in on the initial run action on the play. At a certain point, when a team, especially in the second half, starts having success with a certain type of play, it’s on the coaching staff to relay that information to the players. Someone should have been made aware that the tight end might leak out into the flat on third-and-4. Yet no one seemed to know. In the end, however, you still have to give the Colts credit for setting the Falcons up in those situations. “I think they had a good scheme,” defensive end Vic Beasley said. “They tried to establish the run, get you to bite on the run and then throw the play-action in there. It’s a good scheme. You get more men in the box, and then you throw a pass in there. They had a good game-plan and executed better than we did.” Freeman finally runs free, to a degree One positive the Falcons can take away from Sunday’s game is the fact that Freeman finally was able to break off some runs. His first carry of the game went for 28 yards, which gave him more than the 11-carry, 22-yard performance he had against the Eagles. He finished with 16 carries for 88 rushing yards. During the offseason, Quinn said he wanted to offer a balanced attack, which begins with establishing the run. Freeman totaled 93 yards from scrimmage — a season-high. Still, the Falcons only totaled only 93 rushing yards, which isn’t ideal for a team that does want to be strong in this department. Through three games, Atlanta ranks 27th with an average of 74.3 rushing yards per game. Being in the bottom tier of rushing was something the Falcons would like to avoid this year. Even so, getting Freeman more involved is a good sign. It does seem he’s beginning to turn the corner as he gets up to speed after missing most of the 2018 season with knee and groin injuries. Offensive line keeps Ryan clean A second positive takeaway is that for the first time in three games, the Falcons’ offensive line kept Ryan from bringing sacked. The Colts were credited with only four quarterback hits, which is certainly an improvement. The Falcons invested a lot — in free agency and in the draft — in the offensive line, which had a good performance in pass protection. Outside of Ryan’s costly interception, he had himself a good game, considering the clean pocket he was able to throw out of. Ryan finished 29-of-34 passing for 304 yards and three touchdowns but had the aforementioned pick. In the second half, Ryan was 22-of-23 for 216 yards, with all three scores coming after halftime. Ryan is off to a good start for the most part. He just has to figure out how to eliminate the turnovers that have hurt his team.
  22. https://theathletic.com/1231828/2019/09/22/keanu-neals-injury-looms-large-in-falcons-loss-it-didnt-look-good/ INDIANAPOLIS — The look on his face said everything. Tears were streaming down as Keanu Neal placed both hands over his face. Looking to be in a world of pain, Neal seemed to realize the non-contact Achilles injury he just suffered was serious. The team declined to provide an update after Sunday’s 27-24 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, although it probably didn’t need to. Given how Neal went down, and the anguish he displayed, the Achilles injury at least appears to be significant. Head coach Dan Quinn said he will provide an update on Neal on Monday. For Neal, it has to be excruciating physically and mentally. After tearing his ACL in last year’s season opener, Neal spent nearly a full year undergoing rehab, which was grueling at times. To suffer this kind of injury in only his third game of the season is a brutal blow. It’s one all too familiar to fellow safety Ricardo Allen, who suffered an Achilles tear a year ago. “In his eyes, it didn’t look good,” Allen said. Allen’s Achilles injury occurred two weeks after Neal’s torn ACL. The two friends often rehabbed together at the team facility. It was a big deal for both to return in time for the start of this season, and it obviously hurt Allen to see his teammate go down. “Sucks. It ain’t a good thing. Keep your head up, keep your mind right,” Allen said. “He understands that. He’s done it before. You have to keep believing, keep fighting. There ain’t nothing else to do. You can either fight or give in.” The fact that the Falcons lost a winnable game on the road was enough of a bad thing. If Neal’s injury is as serious as it seems, it will be hard for his teammates to handle. Neal is one of the most well-liked players in Atlanta’s locker room. The work he put in during the summer to ensure he would be ready for the season was noticed by everyone. His absence also would change how the Falcons line up defensively, considering Neal’s balance against the run and the pass. Neal’s penchant for being an enforcer certainly will be missed if the injury falls under the worst-case-scenario category. “It’s definitely tough,” cornerback Desmond Trufant said. “Just the type of person he is, he’s a great person. You hate to see something bad like that happen to him. He definitely doesn’t deserve that. But that’s the game we play. Sometimes it’s like that. I know we’re going to fight for him and leave it all out there on the field. We’ll definitely pray for him.” Said defensive end Vic Beasley: “It’s sad to see him go down. He’s a kid who you want it so bad for. He put a lot of time in. I’ve seen him working. I feel sad for him.” Sunday’s loss bore eerie similarities to last season in terms of injuries, considering how many the team endured a year ago. In addition to Neal, Grady Jarrett suffered a toe injury and couldn’t finish the game. Ito Smith and Kenjon Barner were evaluated for concussions, with Smith being the only one confirmed to have suffered one. Right guard Jamon Brown injured his hand, and Takk McKinley injured his knee, but both were able to return. Losing Neal would force Quinn into a contingency plan, much like last year. His top option would have been J.J. Wilcox, but he tore his ACL on the first day of training camp. The backup safeties on the roster right now are Sharrod Neasman and Kemal Ishmael, and they could be used in much the way the Falcons used Neasman and Jordan Richards in 2018. Richards played on run downs, and Neasman played in passing situations. Neasman said it was disheartening to see Neal carted off the field. “It’s just heartbreaking, man,” Neasman said. “The guy puts in so much work on his body. He spends countless amounts of money on his body, every week. He’s always thinking about it. He’s always on the details of everything he does. For it to be taken out of your hands just sucks. We can’t do anything but keep him in our prayers, check on him, make sure his mind is in the right place, his head is good, and he fights back from it. “He’s a fighter, he’s a warrior. He’s going to get through it. I’m a firm believer that God doesn’t put you through anything you can’t get through. We can only keep him in our prayers and let him bounce back from it.” Losing Neal is the biggest piece of news, especially in the bigger picture of Atlanta’s season, to come from Sunday’s defeat. In the short view, the loss was especially frustrating for a team that started slowly but still had every opportunity to rally to win. Atlanta scored only three points in the first half but had another drive stall in Indianapolis territory after Matt Ryan threw his sixth ill-advised interception of the season. The Falcons committed 16 penalties for 128 yards, with the Colts committing only four penalties for 39 yards. Atlanta’s defense, after forcing a punt on Indianapolis’ first drive of the second half, couldn’t get a stop on either of the following series. All of those factors contributed to the loss, with Atlanta inching fairly close to must-win territory next week against Tennessee. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom in the postgame locker room. Trufant noted that most of the mistakes made are correctable. While it’s maddening, for example, to allow seven first downs off penalties, a chunk of the issues came before the snap, which Trufant said can be addressed during the upcoming week of practice. “We made a lot of mistakes (Sunday), I feel like,” Trufant said. “They’re all fixable. A lot of them are mental. That’s why I’m still encouraged. You hate losing, but sometimes you’ve got to lose to look yourself in the mirror and then bounce back.” Through three games, there have been two iterations of the 2019 Atlanta Falcons. There are the slow-starting road Falcons, who’ve had their share of defensive trouble. Then there are the home Falcons, who played a hard-fought physical battle in a victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 2. Atlanta surely hopes the home Falcons show up at Mercedes-Benz Stadium next Sunday against the Titans. “I think everyone is angry with not performing the way we can,” Ryan said. “The penalties, the turnovers and those types of things — we’ve had too much of that the first couple weeks of the season. We had too much of that (Sunday). Those are things we’ve got to clean up to be a better football team.”
  23. https://theathletic.com/1215361/2019/09/16/what-we-learned-a-little-knee-pain-wont-keep-kaleb-mcgary-from-finishing-a-game/ No one can question Kaleb McGary’s toughness. In the first half, it seemed like the Falcons, who won a thrilling 24-20 game over the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday night, were about to be down yet another rookie first-round offensive lineman. On a first-down play with 8:20 to go in the second quarter, McGary ended up on the turf and was clearly in a great deal of pain. He got himself off of the ground but could not put any weight on his left leg. Obviously, any time someone is suddenly dealing with a knee injury, people expect the worst. It looked especially bad after the “Sunday Night Football” camera crew caught McGary being carted off of the field. And to make matters more difficult, the Falcons lost rookie guard Chris Lindstrom (broken foot) for an indefinite period just a week ago. The notion that Atlanta might be down both of its rookie first-round linemen would have been tough to handle. Fortunately for the Falcons, that turned out not to be the case. The team administered a field test to see if McGary suffered any ligament damage. The test came back negative. As time ticked away, McGary was able to place more weight on the leg. When the Falcons came back from the halftime break, McGary was on the sideline working through his offensive line movements, with his uniform and helmet on. Able to move laterally, he convinced the coaching staff he was good to go. “Once I could put weight back on it, it was just a decision,” McGary said. “I told them I’m going.” McGary didn’t start the second half as Ty Sambrailo continued to play in the third quarter. On Atlanta’s first series of the fourth quarter, McGary checked back into the game. “His toughness is impressive,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “For a young guy to have the mindset to come back. I got tossed into him pretty hard, too. I thought I hurt him when I hit him. For him to have the mindset to come back and play the way he did for us at the end of the game was huge.” McGary said he’ll undergo some additional testing Monday to ensure there isn’t any unforeseen damage to his knee. After the game, McGary seemed tired but happy he was able to finish. Considering how painful the injury looked, McGary playfully was asked if he also needed some testing between the ears administered since he was willing to fight through it. McGary laughed before answering. “I don’t know, man. I just love my job,” McGary said. “I just love what I do.” Offensive line proved it can handle pressure The Falcons came off a season opener that saw the offensive line surrender four sacks, which didn’t sit well with any of the group’s members. Minnesota possesses a talented front seven, sure, and sometimes great players win individual battles. But Atlanta felt it could have done much more to keep Ryan clean and upright in Minneapolis. A week later against Philadelphia, the offensive line proved to be ready to rectify the previous outcome. The Eagles recorded only one sack, which came on a blitz up the middle. The line, however, faced a steady stream of pressure all night. But all three of the tackles, McGary, Sambrailo and Jake Matthews did a good job of preventing the edge rushers from winning against them. The interior linemen held up, too. And Ryan, for his faults when it came to throwing three interceptions, did a good job of getting rid of the ball in a timely manner. This collective effort allowed the Falcons to allow just six quarterback hits. Ryan said the Eagles brought more pressure out of a cover-zero look than he has seen throughout his entire career. For the offensive line to do what it did speaks to the level of preparation heading into Sunday night, he said. “I thought they did a good job,” Ryan said. “I mean, they had more numbers than we had in protection most of the night when they were sending pressures, and it’s going to go well for us if we get the ball out, and we hit it the way we’re supposed to, or it’s going to go well for them. There’s no in-between when they pressure like that. I thought we did a nice job of just keeping the mindset of on to the next play, regardless if there were some plays that happened that didn’t go our way.” Defense looked like the group many expected it to be With head coach Dan Quinn calling defensive plays this season, the expectation was for the Falcons to be aggressive in stopping the run while getting after the quarterback on passing downs. Against the Vikings, Atlanta couldn’t stop the run, which proved to be a major problem in the game’s outcome. Against Philadelphia, the defense looked like the unit many expected from the start of the season. The Eagles weren’t getting to the edges the way the Vikings were able to. Running back Miles Sanders was held to 28 rushing yards on 10 carries. Jordan Howard added eight carries for 18 yards. While the Falcons totaled three sacks, that number had the potential to be even higher. Before Vic Beasley recorded his first sack of the season, he nearly had Carson Wentz to the ground, only to see Wentz somehow get a throw off that was completed. Takk McKinley routinely beat Jason Peters to put pressure on Wentz. Wentz deserves a lot of credit for getting the ball out numerous times when Atlanta was closing in. “Hopefully, we can continue to keep developing, but it is a veteran-esque group now that people that have played some time and experience, so we’re hoping to build on it for sure,” Quinn said. Of course, the defense did have some moments late that need to be cleaned up. After Ryan’s third interception, the defense was unable to stop Philadelphia on a 13-play, 73-yard drive that took 8:29 off of the clock. And after Atlanta took the lead again at 24-20, Nelson Algholor beat Isaiah Oliver on what looked to be a deep touchdown, only for Algholor to drop the pass. On a fourth-and-14 play just a little bit later, Algholor came up with a deep ball that he had to sky in the air for. But on fourth-and-8 at the Atlanta 16-yard line, Oliver and Keanu Neal ensured Zach Ertz did not reach the line to gain, which turned the ball over on downs. Holding Philadelphia to 20 points and 286 total yards was a great feat after what transpired a week ago. And perhaps the defense can keep the ball rolling against an Indianapolis Colts team that, for the time being, ranks in the bottom half of the league (22nd) in yards per game (332.0). Ryan has to do a better job of taking care of the ball Sunday night’s game marked the 37th time Ryan has engineered a fourth-quarter comeback in his career. But if Ryan didn’t throw three costly interceptions, perhaps the Falcons aren’t in a position to need a late-game touchdown. All of Ryan’s interceptions could have been prevented, too, which brings up the question as to why he’s making some of these decisions. In two games, Ryan has five picks. In 2018, Ryan threw seven during the entire season. Last week, his first interception came after a throw toward Julio Jones in double coverage and a second was on a jump ball to Luke Stocker in the end zone. This week, Ryan threw a pass behind Mohamed Sanu that was tipped and picked, underthrew Jones on a deep ball that was taken away and tried to fit a ball over the top of multiple defenders in Austin Hooper’s direction. Those mistakes will need to stop if Atlanta is going to put itself in position to be a playoff team. The Atlanta defense created three turnovers, only for the game to end with a zero turnover margin. “Turning the football over three times, it’s hard to win in this league when you do that,” Ryan said. “But you keep telling yourself, ‘All right, the score is where it’s at. We’re in a good position. Forget what’s happened until this point. Trust the play that’s coming in. Trust what you see on the other side. Go execute.’” More time could, and probably should, be coming for Smith Considering the paycheck Devonta Freeman is earning, it sure seemed like the Falcons were going to ride him in the running game quite a bit this year. And in Sunday’s game against Philadelphia, it seemed like the Falcons still plan to make Freeman the top dog in the rushing attack. He was on the field for 41 plays, which amounted to 62 percent of the offense’s snaps. Ito Smith, conversely, was on the field for 25 plays, or 38 percent of the team’s snaps. Freeman carried the ball 11 times for 22 yards and added three catches for 42 yards. Smith, however, carried the ball only four times and notched 32 yards, which included a nifty 28-yard run that showcased his agility. At the 1:36 mark of the third quarter, Smith burst through a big hole to his left before cutting quickly to get past linebacker Nigel Bradham. Smith sprinted to his right before stopping shortly to let a block set up. He then continued at an angle toward the right sideline before he was pushed out of bounds. The end result was Atlanta’s longest rush of the night. Smith has had some impressive moments during the first two weeks of the season. While Freeman entered the year as a clear No. 1 back, Smith has stated his case for additional touches. Trufant’s practice finally pays off Atlanta’s top cornerback had a tough time with interceptions in 2018. He had multiple opportunities and, for whatever reason, Desmond Trufant just couldn’t get it done. While the results weren’t materializing, he worked every day on the JUGS machine to improve his catching and was grabbing them in practice. Trufant finally was able to breathe a sigh of relief in this department Sunday night. Trufant came down with two interceptions in the first half, ensuring he was in the right place at the right time on each occasion. With less than two minutes to play in the first quarter, Atlanta brought pressure off the edge, with Wentz somehow escaping and rolling to his right. Wentz lofted a pass deep down the field toward JJ Arcega-Whiteside. Trufant was right by the rookie receiver, got in front of him and picked off the pass. Trufant followed that pick with one at the 7:42 mark of the second quarter. Wentz appeared to be looking at Ertz but threw the ball well short of his intended target. Trufant was on the spot and able to catch the errant throw. It was the first multi-interception game of Trufant’s career. The most he has ever had in a season has been three, and he has recorded two in one year only twice before. While the Falcons have had mixed results in their two games, Trufant is off to a great individual start as Atlanta’s No. 1 cornerback. “I was just playing aggressive,” Trufant said. “I was getting in their faces, as a whole, the secondary was playing aggressive and playing physical. The pass rush was great, and we were getting some hits on the quarterback so it was a great game. Now we have to build on it.”
  24. https://theathletic.com/1214218/2019/09/16/schultz-even-after-falcons-late-escape-matt-ryan-knows-he-has-to-be-better/ The Falcons crept to the edge of 0-2 and potential early season doom before something unexpected happened late Sunday night. They won. They rallied to win a game over their recent tormentors from red-zone ****, Philadelphia. They managed to win on a night when their $30 million starting quarterback threw three interceptions in a span of four possessions, making everybody wonder, “What the **** happened to Matt Ryan?” “Turning the football over three the times, it’s hard to win when you do that,” Ryan said. “But you keep telling yourself, ‘All right, the score is where it’s at. We’re in a good position. Forget what’s happened until this point. Trust the play that’s coming in. Trust what you see on the other side. Go execute.'” Ryan makes it all sound so simple and systematic and tunnel-vision like. That thinking is what allows athletes to compartmentalize the noise and disasters and move forward. So the positive is that Ryan again proved he could face-plant in the mud — more than once — and still do something right in the hit. He read Philadelphia’s all-out-blitz, cover zero (no safeties) defense and burned the Eagles with a screen pass to Julio Jones, who blasted off 54 yards for a touchdown. The Falcons won 24-20. But there’s so much to forget. Early film review: • The first interception near the end of the first half when Ryan tried to stop Mohamed Sanu in his route but threw behind him, leading to a turnover and a Philadelphia field goal. Ryan: “I probably shouldn’t attempt that.” • The second interception against all-out pressure in the third quarter when he got hit as he threw and the ball was well short of Jones, leading to another pick and setting up a Philadelphia touchdown. Ryan: “It sucks when that happens.” • The third one, the worst of all, the one in the red zone when the Falcons had a chance to expand their lead from 17-12 when Ryan didn’t see weakside linebacker Nathan Jerry and Ryan’s pass for Austin Hooper was intercepted. Ryan: “That’s just a mistake on my part. But it’s something I can clean up.” He needs to. Otherwise, forget about the Falcons accomplishing anything of significance in 2019. They won a big game. They blew a 17-6 lead and allowed 14 straight points before winning on the last spasm. A beautiful game, it wasn’t. The teams combined for six turnovers. Instead of 0-2, the Falcons are 1-1. They might be the sudden favorites in the NFC South, with New Orleans losing quarterback Drew Brees to a potentially serious thumb injury. But slow down. Ryan has thrown five interceptions in two games, the worst start of his professional career. Some of it can be blamed on defensive pressure. But he has made far too many poor decisions for an 11-year NFL quarterback, let alone one whose pay ranks him among the elite. He knows this. Head coach Dan Quinn knows this. Turnovers submarine football teams, and right now Ryan is sinking his own boat. “He gets pissed,” Quinn said of Ryan’s response after interceptions. “But he resets quickly, whether it’s good or bad.” So it’s visible? “Yes, visible. And audible. “I don’t think (five interceptions in two games) is going to be the norm. It hasn’t been his history. It’s obviously not what he wants or we want. But it’s not a concern for me.” Ryan was not without impressive moments Sunday. He threw for 320 yards. He also threw three touchdown passes against an Eagles defense that held the Falcons to one touchdown and a field goal in a 15-10 Falcons playoff loss in 2017 and to four field goals in an 18-12 loss in the 2018 opener. Both games ended inside the Philadelphia 5-yard line. So greased the exit ramp for former offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. Ryan also deserves credit for perhaps his greatest trait of all: resolve. He helped win a game that he surely would’ve been blamed for losing. “We’ve got each other’s backs. It don’t matter,” Jones said. “We’re an extension of one another. It’s not one person did that or one person did that. We set out to get a W, and we got a W.” Tight end Austin Hooper said even after the interceptions, Ryan’s mood was, “Unwavering. You’ve got to always believe, right? We’ve seen Matt do great things here. The true competitor, the fire, the spirit, the tenacity. That never goes away, whether a ball goes to our team or the other team. You saw him battle back. That’s what he does.” After Jones broke into the open field toward the end zone, Ryan ran around celebrating and pointing to nobody in particular on the Falcons’ sideline. “I honestly couldn’t tell you what was going on,” he said, laughing. “I was just running around like I was 10 years old.” His third touchdown was the 300th in his career. More importantly, it allowed him to move on from three throws he would like to have back.
  25. https://theathletic.com/1214562/2019/09/16/cant-let-them-catch-me-what-julio-jones-and-the-falcons-were-thinking-during-his-game-winning-touchdown/ The pressure never seemed to relent. While the Falcons were able to withstand the varying blitzes the Philadelphia Eagles threw their way, it remained a chore for quarterback Matt Ryan to get rid of the ball quickly and into the hands of his receiving targets. After Sunday night’s thrilling 24-20 win, Ryan said that was the most pressure he has seen a team throw his way throughout his entire career. His teammate tight end Austin Hooper agreed with the sentiment. But just because a defense blitzes as much as Philadelphia did, it doesn’t mean it always will work. As Ryan described it, this style can be “feast or famine.” There isn’t much in between. If a defense sends the house, and the offense dials up the right play, the result can be tremendous. With 2:20 to go in the game, the Falcons seemingly were running out of time and in danger of starting 0-2 for the first time under head coach Dan Quinn. Trailing by three points, Ryan brought his team to the line of scrimmage on fourth-and-3 at the Atlanta 46-yard line. Failing to pick up a first down would give the Eagles a high probability of winning the game. The Falcons (1-1) were coming off a third-down incompletion, with offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter sending in a play to Ryan. But this play also possessed a check to wide receiver screens on both sides of the line of scrimmage. On the right side, three wideouts were lined up, with the inside receivers responsible for springing the outside man. On the left side were Julio Jones, lined up farthest outside, and Mohamed Sanu, lined up slightly to his right. The right side, however, had a wrinkle, with left tackle Jake Matthews responsible for sprinting out and blocking one of the corners in coverage. Ryan had the freedom to check to this play if the coverage suggested an all-out pressure with zero safety help. When Ryan got to the line, he saw the familiar alignment that suggested the Eagles (1-1) were bringing a bunch the front to his face. Ryan made the check. From there, it was all about ensuring the execution of the play. “We came out, we had a different concept call but knew if we had the look we were going to get with all-out pressure, we were going to check to what we checked to,” Ryan said. The ball was snapped, and sure enough, the Eagles brought the house inside. Ryan quickly released the ball in Jones’ direction. Matthews took a perfect angle toward cornerback Avonte Maddox, with Jones catching the ball just before the Pro Bowl left tackle laid out Maddox. Sanu blocked cornerback Sidney Jones out of the way, as well, which created a wide-open path for Jones. The timing of this play was crucial. There is a bevy of factors that could cause a screen to fail. The Falcons, however, spend a ton of practice time on screens, which helped ensure the flawless execution of this timely play. “There’s definitely a big nuance to screens,” Matthews said. “The timing has to be perfect. A lot of times it’s hard to work. The coaches do a really good job. We practice them during the week. We have screen periods. I’m just thankful it worked out, especially against a really good defense.” Said Ryan: “That’s the stuff you have to keep working at. Day in and day out, we do these screen drills all the time. It can be monotonous, but it’s important so that when critical things come up in that situation, you’re just on autopilot. (Quinn) talks about it all the time, ‘Trust your training.’ You go into that moment of trusting what you’ve put yourself in position to do over and over and over. It just feels like it’s automatic.” With screens on each side of the formation, Ryan could’ve decided to go to the one forming to his right. But with Jones to his left, and with Sanu and Matthews blocking, it’s quite obvious why the ball went this direction. “I would throw to Julio, too,” Hooper said. Right guard Jamon Brown said he got excited when the defense showed the all-out pressure. When he heard Ryan check the play to the screens, Brown thought immediately it had big-play potential written all over it. “All we’re thinking about is we got the look we wanted,” Brown said. “This is what we’re asking for. We wanted (cover) zero vs. this — all-out blitz. All we know up front is if we give them the slightest bit of time, it’s going to be a big hitter.” Jones, who finished with five catches for 106 yards and two touchdowns, said that when he heard the check, he was prepared to do what he could to get the first down. Upon catching the ball, the blocks set up perfectly. In that moment, Jones realized he had a shot to beat the rest of the Philadelphia defense to the end zone. “I’m looking around,” Jones said. “Once (Sanu) kicked the guy, I’m looking around, and, ‘OK, it’s a foot race now.’ That was it. It wasn’t like I had to try hard or anything like that. It was just, ‘Stay on course.’” Said Brown: “There’s nobody home. They’re bringing everybody; there’s nobody home. That’s what you saw. (Ryan) made a good throw, made a good catch. And for us big boys, we just throw our hands up baby.” Said Matthews: “He beat one guy, and I was pretty sure he was gone. And then I lost it.” Said cornerback Desmond Trufant: “That’s what you expect from Julio. He’s been doing it since he got in the league. I think he scored on a play like that last year. You love seeing plays like that. It gave us the energy for the defense to go out and finish.” Ryan and Jones have made a habit out of these kinds of plays during their time together. And this one couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. While the defense had an excellent bounce-back game after last week’s loss against Minnesota, it was unable to keep Philadelphia from taking its only lead, at 20-17, with 3:13 to play. And the defense still caught some breaks that could have gone the other way on the Eagles’ final drive. Nelson Algholor dropped what would have been a go-ahead touchdown down the left sideline. Darren Sproles dropped a wide-open pass. And on fourth-and-14 at the Philadelphia 39, quarterback Carson Wentz heaved a deep shot that Algholor somehow came down with, setting up the Eagles at Atlanta’s 18-yard line. The Falcons’ defense buckled down and forced a fourth-and-8. And this time, Isaiah Oliver and Keanu Neal were able to tackle tight end Zach Ertz less than a yard short of the first down to seal Atlanta’s first win of the season. “Any win is big, especially after the week we had,” linebacker De’Vondre Campbell said. “We just needed to come out and play our style of ball. We didn’t feel like we played up to our standard last week, so it was a good opponent to come back and get a good game against.” While the defense showed marked improvement, the lasting impression from this game will be Jones’ heroics on the screen play. Afterward, however, the one thing he wanted to stress was that it is the type of play the Atlanta offense should be making on a regular basis. He said it shouldn’t be a shock to anyone when the Falcons bust these big plays for long scores. As for Jones’ mindset in that particular moment, there was one predominant thought running through his mind as he ran past Eagles defenders, into the end zone and even into the tunnel underneath the stadium. “Can’t let them catch me,” he said.
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