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  1. http://sports.yahoo.com/news/nolan-finds-promise-struggling-atlanta-165044817--nfl.html Nolan finds promise in struggling Atlanta defense By GEORGE HENRY (Associated Press)3 hours agoAP - Sports FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) -- Mike Nolan knows his second season as Falcons defensive coordinator has been a borderline disaster. He's not sure if coach Mike Smith and Atlanta's front office will want him back next year, but the uncertainty hasn't stopped Nolan from tinkering with his personnel and schemes to find the right formula. Asked this week if he plans to return to the Falcons in 2014 after signing a contract extension last January, Nolan says the decision is out of his hands. ''That's the team's decision, not mine,'' he said, ''so that's a question for later.'' Nolan has worked in the NFL 27 years, spending nearly four full seasons as San Francisco's head coach and 15 as a defensive coordinator. He's been in the league every year since 1987, so Nolan is confident a team will want his services, but he sounds as if he believes the Falcons will bring him back. ''It might not show, but I've really been pleased with some of the game plans as far as giving our players a chance to succeed,'' Nolan said. ''And so going down the road, I think there are some things we'll be able to use in the future.'' That's not to suggest the poor results haven't tried his patience. Veteran defenders Asante Samuel and Osi Umenyiora have struggled all season. Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon missed seven games with a foot injury, and defensive end Kroy Biermann was placed on season-ending injured reserve in Week 3. But several young players have emerged as steady contributors to give Nolan hope. Rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant, a first-round draft pick, has started every game. Rookie cornerbackRobert Alford, a second-round pick, made his starting debut in last week's 22-21 loss at Green Bay as Samuel, who ranks fifth among active players with 51 career interceptions, stood on the sideline for the entire game. Undrafted rookie free agent linebackers Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu took starting jobs from established veterans Akeem Dent and Stephen Nicholas earlier this year. And rookie ends Mallaciah Goodman and Stansly Maponga and rookie safety Zeke Motta have shown promise while second-year end Jonathan Massaquoi is listed atop the depth chart. Nolan believes that Trufant and Alford have a chance to become NFL stars, but the coordinator went to great lengths to praise general manager Thomas Dimitroff's other picks in the 2013 draft. ''I think a couple of them will be upper echelon guys,'' Nolan said. ''It'd be nice to think more than that, but if you can't half a dozen solid guys in a draft, you've done a pretty **** good job. The results, however, have been disappointing as the Falcons (3-10) prepare to host the Washington Redskins (3-10) on Sunday. Atlanta ranks last in third-down efficiency, second-worst against the run, third-worst in takeaways and 29th in scoring average. While advancing to the NFC title game last season, the Falcons were only 24th in total yards, 25th in third-down efficiency and 27th in sacks per passing attempt, but they ranked fourth in scoring and tied for fifth in takeaways. ''This year we just didn't make the plays most of the time to win the game,'' Samuel said. ''That was the difference last year when we were on the other end of the stick when we were making plays to win the game.'' Against the Redskins, Atlanta will face second-year quarterback Kirk Cousins following the benching of Robert Griffin III. Cousins gave Washington a boost last year in a home loss to the Falcons, replacing the injured Griffin during the game to complete 5 of 9 passes for 111 yards with a 77-yard touchdown to Santana Moss. Cousins also threw a pair of interceptions. ''We busted a coverage (on the long TD pass), but he saw it right away and threw right down the middle,'' Nolan said. ''He's very capable. I know they like him a lot and have a lot of confidence in him.''
  2. http://sports.yahoo....02579--nfl.html Jackson excited to have Gonzalez back at practice By GEORGE HENRY (Associated Press) | The Associated Press – 16 hours ago FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) -- Steven Jackson is even more excited about the potential of the Atlanta Falcons' offense now that tight end Tony Gonzalez is back at practice. Jackson signed a three-year, free-agent contract as the NFL's active leading rusher in March for a myriad of reasons. But chief among them was the chance to play alongside Gonzalez, the league's No. 2 career leading receiver behind Jerry Rice. Jackson said earlier this year that he always heard how intensely Gonzalez, a 17th-year veteran, works in practice, later adding that it was impressive to watch in person. Gonzalez's return has reinforced Jackson's belief that working efficiently on the practice field is more valuable than taking snaps in the first two weeks of preseason. ''Now we have Tony back, we haven't been together as a full team, for a whole offense, for a whole game,'' Jackson said on Thursday. ''I don't take anything from (the first two preseason games), but what we've done on the practice field I'm proud of.'' Jackson and Gonzalez both considered retiring after the 2012 season, though Gonzalez's decision was far more publicized - in part because of his place in the NFL record books, but also because theFalcons went 13-3 last season and finished 10 yards shy of the Super Bowl. When Gonzalez announced on March 12 that he would return for a final season, Jackson signed a $12 million contract two days later. Jackson arrived in Atlanta with a reputation for practicing hard and smart, but the regimen never brought him satisfaction in the standings. St. Louis, which drafted him No. 24 overall out of Oregon State in 2004, hasn't had a winning season since '03. But Jackson didn't want to forsake his pride as a professional, deciding early in his career that he wanted to beat the average odds of an NFL running back's career - 3 1/2 years - and play at a high level for several seasons. When Jackson saw how hard his predecessor with the Rams - running back Marshall Faulk - worked in practice, he established a benchmark for himself. Faulk, now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, helped St. Louis win one Super Bowl and advance to another, and he influenced habits that Jackson still uses. ''It's not before a big crowd and lights are on, but I think this is actually when you win games,'' Jackson said. ''This is actually when you put together a winning season. The longevity of a career is on the practice field, continuing to work at your craft and honing it.'' In last week's defeat at Baltimore, the first-team offense improved its performance on the ground from the previous week's loss to Cincinnati, but the Falcons are putting much importance on preseason statistics. ''I thought we controlled the line of scrimmage better from week one to week two,'' coach Mike Smith said. ''I thought Steven did a very nice job, had very good vision. I thought the whole running game improved. Josh (Vaughan) and Antone (Smith) had explosive runs, so we did some nice things.'' Jackson believes it might take several weeks to develop a common understanding with his offensive line, which has a new center in Peter Konz and an ongoing competition at right tackle between Lamar Holmes and Ryan Schraeder. Left tackle Sam Baker, left guard Justin Blalock and right guard Garrett Reynolds are established veterans, but Jackson is having to learn not only the tendencies of each player but the tendencies of the line as a whole. ''I don't think there will be a moment of epiphany that it's all just going to come together in one moment,'' he said. ''But I think over the course of the year, especially as we get into the regular season and games mean something, we'll better get a feel for one another, but right now I'm very pleased at the rate that we're growing.'' The Falcons have a potentially major concern offensively if four-time Pro Bowl receiver Roddy White doesn't recover from an ankle injury before the Sept. 8 season opener at New Orleans. But with White missing practice since getting hurt at Baltimore, Jackson appreciated that Gonzalez's return four days ago boosted the team and gave quarterback Matt Ryan another important target.
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