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  1. FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Logan Paulsen almost got stumped by his own game. The Atlanta Falcons veteran introduced Austin Hooper and his other fellow tight ends to a trivia contest in which he would say a letter of the alphabet and challenge them to name movie titles starting with that letter. Hooper admitted the older Paulsen is undefeated, dating to when Paulsen first started the competition during organized team activities. So how about the letter E, Logan? "Let's see, 'Ever After' ... s---, E is a tough letter," Paulsen said with a laugh. "Let me think. Let me think. 'Everlasting,' that's a new one, right? 'Enchanted.' There we go. There's a couple." The levity and football IQ that Paulsen, 31, has brought to the tight end room already has rubbed off on the 23-year-old Hooper, who is looking to have a breakout year in his third season. The two have bonded like "Step Brothers," although you're unlikely to catch them wearing matching sweater vests. "I mean, Logan is like the mentor in our room," Hooper said. "He's a nine-year vet. He's seen it all, done it all. Just to have him as a resource in the room is amazing. He'll tell you what's about to happen before it even happens, tell you small nuggets of information that you might miss. "In the film room, he'll be like, 'I played this guy in 2015. He likes to do this. His tell is this.' Me still being a young player in the league, I haven't played a lot of these guys multiple times over the years, and he has. He has a lot of good insight into any opponent and any situation." Hooper and Paulsen share the same agent, Steve Caric, so they spoke on the phone multiple times before Paulsen signed a one-year deal with the Falcons in March. Hooper, "The California Kid" from San Ramon who played college football at Stanford, appreciated having another Cali guy in the room after fellow Stanford Cardinal and San Diego native Levine Toilolo was cut. Paulsen comes from the southern part of the state and played his college ball at UCLA. "It was a pretty easy friendship," Paulsen said. "He's a different kind of guy, a little bit more free-spirited. I'm pretty boring, to be totally honest. I've got a wife. I've got two kids. That's kind of what I do when I'm not here." When at the facility, Paulsen's daily routine offers a blueprint for Hooper to follow. His day starts with a meal that includes chicken, vegetables, oatmeal and orange juice or milk. He welcomes Hooper to join his "Breakfast Club" at any time, although eggs aren't always on the menu. "Eggs are one of these foods, they're really good for you, but if you eat too much eggs, you're likely to develop a food allergy," Paulsen explained. "So I try to take a couple of months just eating chicken in the morning. I find it helps decrease some of the inflammation. It doesn't have to be chicken, but some alternate source of protein as opposed to eggs every single day." Paulsen, who learned work habits from watching London Fletcher and Phillip Daniels in Washington, typically studies film for about an hour after breakfast, dissecting different defensive fronts to get ahead on the game plan. Every day is "Training Day" when it comes to the weight room, as Paulsen goes through stretching exercises and completes overhead squats post-practice to get his body to reset. "He's just a professional," Hooper said of Paulsen. "His whole day, he has it down to a science. The stretching, the pre-practice, the post-practice -- it's just incredible all the stuff he does. It makes me question and say, 'I really need to be doing more than I thought was enough.' It's great to have a guy like that." Maybe most important of all, Paulsen has helped Hooper develop in the run game. The Falcons signed Paulsen because he's a true "Y" blocking tight end, but he's shown good hands, too. Paulsen already had familiarity with the offense having played under ex-Falcons coordinator Kyle Shanahan last season in San Francisco and in the past with Washington. Hooper, as the "F" in this offense, is more of a pass-catcher who is trying to enhance his blocking skills. He's not all the way there yet, but Hooper has had some "Raging Bull" moments this preseason that show more of a willingness to mix it up as a blocker. The Falcons even experimented with three tight ends lined up next to each other in the formation -- Hooper, Paulsen, and fast-rising Eric Saubert -- which was an indication of how vital the tight end role will be as the offense tries to regain its swagger. The tight ends' ability to block certainly will be tested in next Thursday's season opener against Philadelphia's swarming defense and sometimes-unstoppable edge rushers. Paulsen played in the NFC East his first five seasons with the Washington Redskins and is familiar with the Eagles. He could offer more insight to Hooper, who saw Philly in last season's NFC playoff loss. "Obviously, my career is not super-storied, and nobody's going to remember me when we're done playing football, but my impact on these young people, it's really important to me," Paulsen said. "I've had the privilege of playing with some very good young tight ends: Niles Paul, Jordan Reed, George Kittle, Ben Braunecker, Dan Brown. Just being able to teach those guys what it means to be a pro and that they should take advantage of this opportunity, I think that's something that's really special to me." If Hooper lives up to the preseason hype and Paulsen does his job blocking, the offense certainly will benefit. Both know they could be called upon to make a big play on "Any Given Sunday" in 2018.
  2. FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Calvin Ridley has heard nothing but praise for months, but the Atlanta Falcons rookie wide receiver realizes he's not immune to criticism. Such was the case following Saturday's preseason loss at Jacksonville. Ridley had his first taste of NFL adversity when he dropped a pass from Matt Ryan that would have been a first down right in front of Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey. Ridley also had another play that went through his hands although defensive back Tyler Patmon made a good play on the ball. Falcons coach Dan Quinn wasn't pleased. "That's part of 'Tell the Truth [Monday],"' Quinn said. "Nobody escapes that. ... That's part of the process that we go through to say, 'Hey man, we expect you to own that moment.' It wasn't just him. There were other people that had that. "I'm sure he doesn't like having that play in front of the rest of his teammates in the team meeting, just like Matt [Ryan] doesn't on a play or anyone else." "But I think to be a true team, you have to show all the examples: the ones that he really lights him up good and the ones that he had a drop," Quinn continued on about Ridley. "Last week, he was on his way to becoming the next Pro Bowl rookie receiver, and then he had a drop and [the media] brings it up. Welcome to the NFL." Quinn isn't overly concerned, though. He knows his first-round draft pick won't sulk over such a mishap. "He's really detailed and a really prideful guy," Quinn said of Ridley. "And I'm sure you guys have noticed too the way he practices. There's an intensity about him that he brings that's past maybe the age of him. So I really respect that part of his game." One of the reasons why the Falcons are so excited about Ridley is that he already has proved to be mature beyond his years. A big part of that maturity has to do with Ridley already having a firm grasp of the playbook. Mastering the offense Ridley displayed a confident smile when asked how much of offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian's offense he knew upon joining the Falcons. "Forty percent," Ridley said. "The majority of the formations and some of the plays." The head start had to do with Ridley playing college football at Alabama, where Sarkisian served as an offensive analyst and offensive coordinator during the 2016 season. Such familiarity made Ridley's transition much easier. "A lot of things, from the formational standpoint, make sense to him," Sarkisian said. "I think a lot of the concepts make sense to him. The words are different, but the concepts make sense. So, I can see where his comfort level feels pretty good, just from a formational standpoint." Sarkisian said knowing where to line up is pretty much the same for Ridley, "which is a big task for people breaking the huddle." Ridley has moved around in the offense both outside and in the slot, but he only has been asked to master the "Z" receiver role, which typically lines up off the line of scrimmage. That hasn't prohibited him from getting up to speed with all the receivers and their routes. Although the playbook only comes in a digital format, he takes down extensive notes on a separate piece of paper. "Pretty much for me when I'm studying, I learn concepts," Ridley said. "When there's a play, I learn every route for each position. I write down the whole concept, and that's how I study. If I studied just one, I'd be really confused. "With every install, I write every route. Say I get Install I. I'm going to write out every single route on the top of the page. It could be 50 routes out there, I'm going to write down every route. I write every concept out so I can learn them." So how long does Ridley study his hand-written notes? "Not that long because I'll get off focus and watch TV," Ridley said with a laugh. "To tell you the truth, for like an hour. Once I come from the facility, with the veterans and good coaches we have, I've pretty much got it. I leave here, we go over it and then I've pretty much got it." That doesn't mean the offense is easy to digest, by any means. As explained, the previous time spent under Sarkisian certainly has helped Ridley's cause as the Falcons move into Year 2 under Sarkisian. The "new wrinkles" Sarkisian has put in after basically adjusting to and continuing to implement the previous offensive scheme installed by former Falcons coordinator Kyle Shanahan are aspects that all the players are getting accustomed to now. Fellow wide receiver Mohamed Sanu admires Ridley's ability to pick things up quickly. "This offense, when I first got here, it took me a while to get ... about Week 7, Week 8," said Sanu, who came in during Year 2 with Shanahan. "This offense is very detailed at little things, just with route running and where to be, how to be there, blocking. It's a lot of details. "I'm surprised that [Ridley is] picking it up as fast as he is, but I'm not surprised because of the amount of work he puts in. It's a great thing for him to be able to pick it up this fast and just keep growing and growing, because that's what we need. We need him." The plan in motion There was one element of the offense that threw Ridley for a loop from the outset. "I'd say when I first got here -- not much is difficult for me anymore -- but when I first got here, the details of how they wanted the routes ran," Ridley said. "There were just weird routes that I never ran. I was like, 'OK, I've got to do this; put my shoulder a certain way and my body a certain way.' So it was just kind of confusing. I didn't understand." It all became simplified when Ridley joined Ryan, Sanu, Julio Jones and a group of other offensive players in California for a weeklong passing camp. "I went to L.A. with Matt, and they taught me all the details," Ridley said. "I feel great about it now." Ridley has stated numerous times how Jones and Sanu have helped him adjust to the nuances of the offense. One could see Jones, who has been held out of game action this preseason, giving Ridley detailed instruction on the sideline during the last game. "They know where to be," Ridley said of his fellow veteran receivers. "They know how Matt wants you to look and how he wants to run it. It's just little things that are going to make me a better player." Ridley, drafted for his speed and ability to create separation, made his presence felt in live action with three catches for 49 yards and a touchdown, along with two kickoff returns for 52 yards, in the second preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs. His outing included a 36-yard hook-up with Ryan, the type of explosive, down-the-field plays that will help open up the offense and alleviate some of the load from Jones. "I had a deep post, they motioned me down, and the guy had outside leverage," Ridley explained. "So I wanted him to think I was about to run around him, and I just put a foot in it and I created a little bit of separation. And Matt put a great ball on me." Now it's up to Ridley to sustain that type of playmaking ability while eliminating drops and negative plays heading into the Sept. 6 season opener (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC) on the road against the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. He could emerge as the No. 2 receiver behind Jones, who led the Falcons with 88 receptions for 1,444 yards and three touchdowns on 148 targets last season. Last season's No. 2 receiver, Sanu, had 67 catches for 703 yards and five touchdowns on 97 targets. Ridley averaged 74.7 catches, 927 receiving yards, 6.3 touchdown receptions and 112.3 targets per season at Alabama. Teammates constantly rave about Ridley's work ethic and big-play potential. Ridley brushes it off as simply doing his job. "It makes you feel good, but I know I need to continue to keep getting better and better," Ridley said. "I mean, it's a compliment, so, 'Thank you,' but I just have to keep moving ahead."
  3. http://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/32597/3-touchdown-season-has-julio-jones-seeing-red-inside-the-20 FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Everytime Julio Jones steps to the podium, he's asked a question about the Atlanta Falcons' red zone offense. And every time, Jones' tone seems to become more defiant, as if he's eager to shut up all the nonbelievers. Fixing last season's red zone woes continues to be an emphasis for the Falcons throughout training camp. Jones scoring a red zone touchdown on a jump ball from Matt Ryan in front of cornerback Robert Alford and free safety Ricardo Allen on Tuesday didn't stop the Falcons from putting in extra work on the same throw 10 minutes after practice. "It's very important for me and Matt to be on the same page down there in the red zone," Jones said. "Over the years, I have the ability to make plays, and he has the ability to put balls there. But it's all about us being on the same page, not having to think when we get down there, knowing where he's going to put the ball, and knowing what I can do before he puts the ball in there." The Falcons finished 23rd in the league in red zone offense a year ago, converting at a 50 percent clip (27-of-54). During the Super Bowl run in 2016, the Falcons ranked ninth in red zone offense, hitting on 61.9 percent of those opportunities (39-of-63). It was part of the reason their scoring average dipped from a league-best 33.8 points per game to a pedestrian 22.1 points per game last season. Jones had nine receptions on 24 red zone targets last season, including the playoffs. His two red zone touchdowns came in a Week 7 loss at New England and in the playoff matchup with the Los Angeles Rams. Although Jones doesn't play for statistics, he surely wants to score more than the three touchdowns he had during the 2017 regular season, with two of those scores coming against struggling Tampa Bay. Jones emphasized, as he has multiple times, how the Falcons have to be smart in scoring situations and not try to force him the ball. "It's one of those things when you're down in the red area, a lot of teams double me," Jones explained. "Two-man, guys sit underneath me, so I can't really slant. They have a safety kind of cheated out, as far as the fade balls and things like that. But when we get our opportunities, we've got to make people pay." Maybe those one-on-one opportunities will arise more often based on personnel. The addition of playmaking rookie wide receiver Calvin Ridley should take some of the defensive attention away from Jones. During 11-on-11 drills Tuesday, the Falcons showed a look with Jones wide left, Ridley wide right, and Mohamed Sanu in the slot, a look that could become familiar during the regular season. During a 10-play drive near the end of Tuesday's practice, when the offense seemed to work on certain clock situations as it approached the end zone, Ryan targeted tight end Austin Hooper five times with four completions, including a red zone score for Hooper. The possible emergence of Hooper as a legitimate red zone threat is another factor that could create more opportunities for Jones. Plus, the Falcons have a strong two-headed monster out of the backfield in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and running the ball effectively in the red zone is equally important. The secret weapon could be newcomer Logan Paulsen, a blocking tight end who can catch the ball as well. Paulsen could help give his teammates much-needed space by clearing holes. But everyone knows the Ryan-Jones connection is the one that will strike fear in opponents, especially when clicking at a high level. A reporter asked Jones if he felt he wasn't always on the same page with Ryan last season. "No, not at all," Jones said, dismissing any such disconnect. "It's just that the more you work something, the better you get. That's all it is. We worked on it, but we're making it a big emphasis this year for us to just be more on the same page. "We were on the same page. Like I said, I make plays when the ball is in the air, and he can throw some balls down there. But it's another thing to know what each other's thinking, and [at] a certain time, where the defense is at, things like that."
  4. Link to Article Falcons' Ito Smith has long-distance fan in namesake Judge Ito When Falcons rookie running back Ito Smith was a baby, a 4-year-old cousin blurted out that he "looks just like the judge off TV," and "everybody in the family has been calling me Ito ever since," Smith said. Courtesy of Raven Smith-Isaac 8:10 AM ET Vaughn McClureESPN Staff Writer Facebook Twitter Facebook Messenger Pinterest Email print Lance Ito grew up a Los Angeles Rams fan. He cheered from the L.A. Memorial Coliseum stands in October 1961 when five-time Pro Bowler Jon Arnett returned a kickoff 105 yards for a touchdown against the Detroit Lions. Although his heart and loyalty remain with the Rams and the hometown UCLA Bruins, the 67-year-old Ito now has a legit reason to root for at least one player on a football team located outside Los Angeles. It's a guy nicknamed after the famed judge from the well-publicized O.J. Simpson murder trial: Atlanta Falcons rookie running back Ito Smith. "No, I was unaware of the existence of a pro football prospect by the name of 'Ito' Smith," Judge Ito told ESPN. "Having looked him up and discovering he is a handsome and talented fellow, certainly not a bad thing. Pro football is a tough business, and I wish him a long and healthy career." Smith's eyes bulged and his smile widened when told of Ito's well wishes. The story behind Smith's nickname, told countless times, never seems to lose its luster. The Falcons selected running back Ito Smith in the fourth round. Dale Zanine/USA Today Sports Smith, from Mobile, Alabama, was born weighing 7 pounds, 8.5 ounces on Sept. 11, 1995, the day Judge Ito ordered the prosecution to begin its rebuttal in the Simpson case. Smith's given name is Romarius. But when Smith's cousin, Brittney Smith, entered the hospital room, she saw her baby cousin's features and blurted out, "That little baby looks just like the judge off TV." Brittney was just 4 years old at the time. "I guess she had been watching the trial with her grandmother," Smith said of his cousin. "And everybody in the family has been calling me Ito ever since." Smith's mother, Raven Smith-Isaac, still laughs when recalling how her son's nickname evolved. "I've heard the story told about 20 different ways," Smith-Isaac said, "and I'm the one who has to go into all the whole details. I'm just used to it now. "Of course, everybody was paying attention to the trial because it aired day and night. But we didn't know Brittney had really been paying that much attention. When she first saw the baby, it was the first thing that came out of her mouth, that he looked like Judge Ito." Judge Lance Ito on Sept. 8, 1995, during the O.J. Simpson trial. AP Photo/Eric Draper, Pool Through middle school, Smith's peers called him Romarius. His mother called him the same only when she was angry and had to yell Ro-marius with emphasis. But by high school, Ito had caught on with everybody as Smith started to establish himself on the football field. "I always was good," Smith said. "But when I got to high school, I started getting more serious about it. I used to work out every day by myself. Then I got to college and started working even harder." Telling the story behind his name became almost as routine as going for a workout. Smith admitted to not knowing much about Judge Ito and the Simpson trial until he started watching documentaries on Netflix. Does he agree he looked like Judge Ito as a baby? "A little bit," he said with a laugh. "I guess I looked like a little Japanese baby." What Smith might not know is that Judge Ito, who is of Japanese descent, was a standout athlete himself. He won the senior scholar-athlete award from L.A.'s John Marshall High School in 1968. It was given to the sports letterman graduating with the highest grade-point average. Ito played tennis. Judge Ito was honored as a scholar-athlete at Los Angeles' John Marshall High School in 1968. Courtesy of Judge Lance Ito "Although I was a better-than-fair athlete, I was a little guy, and football was not a realistic possibility," Judge Ito said. "No, I did not receive any college athletic-scholarship offers." Attending law school at the University of California, Berkeley worked out rather well instead. Although Judge Ito is sure to always have a place in American history, the future will determine whether Ito Smith makes himself a household name in the NFL. The fourth-round draft pick from Southern Mississippi joins an already crowded backfield, with Devonta Freeman the starter and Tevin Coleman the backup, though Coleman has just one year remaining on his contract. Smith had some impressive moments during offseason workouts and will have to carve out a role on special teams with his return ability. However, the Falcons also are high on undrafted rookie running back Malik Williams, so Smith can't relax and think he is assured a spot on the 53-man roster. Some evaluators projected Smith as a seventh-round pick, but the Falcons had no problem selecting him much higher. "I've been overlooked all my life, man," Smith said. "It's nothing new to me. I'm actually kind of used to it. It doesn't really get me mad because I know God always makes a way for me, no matter what. He always comes through for me. I'll just continue to work hard and keep that chip on my shoulder and just give it all I've got." He'll win over a lot of fans in Atlanta with such an attitude. He already has one person with a familiar name backing him from the West Coast.
  5. I am not the kind to embrace rookies. I'm old school and I say trite things like, "I won't give you a dime for potential...show me," all the time. Until now. I'm hitching my fan wagon to a rookie WR. I've seen young guys who work hard (Worrilow). I've seen guys who have talent (Hageman). It is different when you have a guy who has innate mental talent, innate physical talent, and a desire to outwork the guy next to him. Freeman is that type of guy. Coleman is that type of guy. Ryan is that type of guy. J. Jones is that type of guy. The Falcons are loading up on that type of guy. We haven't even got to the defensive side of the ball yet. Every word that is written about Ridley slides me further into his corner. This article is a good summary of everything I've read. This man will not settle for being the 3rd of 4th WR. He will work until he has earned the right to be on the field for every significant snap. It may not happen this year, but I suspect it will. This guy will work and he can play. Buy his jersey. He's a keeper. Article Link
  6. http://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/32201/poor-mans-marvin-harrison-could-get-falcons-groove-back FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn dropped a NFL draft hint months ago. Back during his season-ending news conference alongside general manager Thomas Dimitroff, the defensive-minded Quinn started rattling off numbers tied to the offense's lack of big plays in 2017. He mentioned the 19 explosive plays outside the red zone that the Falcons had in 2016 -- when the Falcons led the league with 33.8 points per game -- and how those plays dropped to just seven last season, when the Falcons averaged 22.1 points and ranked 15th in the league. Quinn wanted to jump-start the offense. Enter wide receiver Calvin Ridley, the Falcons' first-round draft pick from Alabama and the player ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper said for weeks the team should target because of his dynamic ability. "He's a great route runner who knows how to use his speed and play fast," one AFC executive said of Ridley. "A true threat to score both vertically and with his patterns. He can separate from defenders with relative ease. He just needs to get stronger, but he was my favorite wide receiver in the draft and has a chance to make an immediate impact. A poor man's Marvin Harrison type." Does that mean the Falcons have the offensive woes from last season solved? Not exactly. But things appear to be pointing in the right direction when it comes to a more explosive attack heading into Year 2 with offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. "Explosive plays often times lead to scoring plays, so every offense that really has their game together, those scoring opportunities are where it's at," Quinn said. "By adding guys like C-Rid to the group, you add your explosiveness. You add [opportunities] for scoring plays. That's what we're looking to do all the time: keep attacking. In [Ridley's] instance, he definitely adds to that just because of the nature and style of his play. You've got to have real speed to make big plays, and he has that." In order to have offensive success all-around, the Falcons will have to rely on much more than just the addition of one rookie. Quarterback Matt Ryan said the Falcons need to find more consistency, and he put it on himself to make more plays when they present themselves. The receivers, running backs and tight ends have to do a better job securing the ball after dropping 34 passes last season, according to Pro Football Focus. The offensive line has to do its part to protect Ryan and allow him adequate time to make throws down the field. The Falcons didn't address the guard spot in the draft and seem content to move forward with Andy Levitre and free-agent addition Brandon Fusco, which might not be ideal with defensive lines around the NFC bulking up this offseason. "I think we need to continue to build off last year," right tackle Ryan Schraeder said. "We need focus on execution for all 11 players, every play and every game." Naturally, the Falcons hope five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Julio Jones dominates and becomes much more of a scoring threat after just three touchdowns last season. If Jones continues to attract all the defensive attention, the Falcons will look to Ridley, Mohamed Sanu, Justin Hardy and tight end Austin Hooper to make plays. Last season in the red zone, Jones was targeted just 18 times and had five receptions for 33 yards with one touchdown. Adding Ridley should help. In three seasons at Alabama, Ridley was targeted 43 times in the red zone and caught 20 passes for 107 yards with 10 touchdowns. An underrated element of the offensive equation might be the addition of a true blocking fullback who will not only clear holes in short-yardage situations but also give Ryan more time to throw against blitzing teams. The Falcons are auditioning undrafted fullbacks Luke McNitt (Nebraska) and Daniel Marx (Stanford) beginning at rookie minicamp on Mother's Day weekend. The Falcons must trust in Sarkisian to implement a strong game plan after he drew criticism in his debut last season, and he's expected to throw in some more wrinkles to keep defenses guessing. Remember, the Falcons didn't exactly flow smoothly in their first season under Kyle Shanahan, but they came back strong in Year 2 and rode the high-powered offense all the way to the Super Bowl. "I have complete faith in Coach Sark," Hooper said. "He's very professional, very matter of fact. He's smart. I think he has a good feel on how to use his personnel, put the right guys in the right positions to be successful. But a lot of that comes with time, right? The more you're around people, the more you know people, in general, better."
  7. http://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/32099/the-prototype-teams-looking-to-draft-the-next-deion-jones Love me some Debo!! FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Deion Jones initially tried to brush it off as no big deal, but the Atlanta Falcons' Pro Bowl middle linebacker's smile revealed just how flattered he was about the high praise. A number of folks going through this year's draft process -- executives, coaches, agents and prospects themselves -- have mentioned Jones as the type of linebacker teams are trying to add to their roster. It's quite the compliment, considering the 6-foot-1 Jones, who plays at around 230 pounds, is entering just his third season and has much more to accomplish. But his blazing speed and playmaking ability -- 246 tackles, six interceptions, two defensive touchdowns and 13 pass breakups through 31 games -- already speak volumes. Deion Jones has been mentioned as an example of the type of linebacker teams are seeking to draft into their rosters. Patrick Smith/Getty Images "It's a blessing," Jones said of being mentioned in such high regard. "Just a little kid from New Orleans who never even fathomed that he would be like the prototypical linebacker that people are looking for. It moves me. But I don't want nobody to be me. I want everybody to hone their own game and play their own style. Nobody has to be me." Top linebacker prospect Roquan Smith said he's drawn comparisons to Jones through the draft process. The 6-1, 236-pound Georgia product is projected as a top-10 pick by ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. "I haven't talked to him but the games I did see, he has motor," Jones said of Smith. "He plays fast. He plays with all his heart. That's a good thing. That's definitely going to help him out in the league." Another linebacker compared to Jones is Oren Burks, a fast-rising prospect from Vanderbilt. Burks (6-3, 233) might not have the same blazing speed, but his athleticism [39.5 vertical] and long arms have NFL teams intrigued. Burks has studied film of Jones. "More recently, I've followed his game a lot more, trying to watch some highlights of how he made that transition to the league and became an impact player," said Burks, projected as possibly a second-day pick. "Look at the combine numbers, I thought I stacked up pretty well to him. It's kind of interesting to see how you match up with guys who have proven they can do it." Burks and Jones each ran the 40 in 4.59 seconds at the combine. However, Jones' stock soared to another level when he turned around at LSU pro day and ran a blistering 4.38. It certainly got the Falcons' attention, as they went on to select Jones in the second round of the 2016 draft. "Pro day, that clock helped a lot," Jones said with a laugh. "I knew I was a 4.4 guy. That's what I was hitting when I was training. It was very intimidating at the combine, to tell you the truth. At LSU, I had my support behind me, my brothers. I knew I had put on for my boys." Talk of being undersized never fazed Jones because he knew what he was capable of being a playmaker. The prospects in this year's draft should carry the same mentality based how the perception of the type of linebacker has changed. "That old-time, prototypical, downhill inside linebacker who stuffs the run, all that point-of-attack stuff is secondary to coverage," said one NFC assistant who works with linebackers. "People are looking more for that guy who has coverage ability who can cover those backs who are coming out. And the NFC South might be the toughest division in terms of covering running backs. "From an athletic standpoint, there's probably about a half a dozen guys in this draft like [Jones] that people know about. The reason people overlooked Deion is because he was a bit undersized. But some people just don't do their homework, and they miss an opportunity to get a guy like that."
  8. http://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/31661/falcons-could-reward-safety-ricardo-allens-stellar-play-with-long-term-deal The Atlanta Falcons often talk about how important free safety Ricardo Allen is to the success of the defense. Now they have a chance to show him with a financial commitment. Allen is a restricted free agent, but that doesn't preclude the Falcons from rewarding him with a long-term deal, either heading into the 2018 season or at some point during the season. Allen made $615,000 in 2017 as an exclusive-rights free agent. “Yes, I believe we can create space for Rico and a number of other players,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said when asked if Allen could receive a long-term deal rather than just play under the one-year restricted free-agent tender. “That said, we are always striving for creativity. And decisions made on certain free agents, whether they be restricted or unrestricted, oftentimes are contingent on the creativity they enable or not.” The Falcons seem likely to at least place a second-round tender on Allen to ensure he doesn't reach free agency. Allen opened eyes across the league with his consistent play, so placing a lower tender on the 2014 fifth-round draft pick from Purdue wouldn't make much sense, as it would increase the possibility of losing him. “He's an eraser, he's got instincts, and he's very smart,” one league executive said of Allen. “The more he plays, the better he's going to look because he's going to get that experience. He's always been an instinctive guy because he was a corner. He's got a real good feel for the game. If the Falcons were to put him out there, you'd have a handful of teams jumping out at him because he's in the prime of his career.” A second-round tender was worth $2.553 million in 2016 and $2.746 million last year. It should be just under $3 million this year. The deadline for a restricted free agent to sign an offer sheet from another team is April 20, and the deadline for a team to withdraw the tender is June 15. Even if Allen were to sign an extended tender, that doesn't prevent the sides from reaching a long-term deal in the same breath. Allen is represented by powerhouse agent Drew Rosenhaus, who is accustomed to negotiating top-level contracts. Rosenhaus client Brandon Marshall, a linebacker for the Denver Broncos, signed a $2.553 million restricted-free-agent tender at the deadline in June 2016, and then immediately agreed to a four-year, $27.64 million extension that included $20.053 million guaranteed. The $2.553 million in the first year made it basically a $30 million deal for Marshall. The Falcons had a similar case with right tackle Ryan Schraeder, who signed a $2.553 second-round tender in March 2016 only to agree to a five-year, $31.5 extension that November, an extension that included $12.5 million guaranteed. Allen could bet on himself and play out next season under the one-year RFA tender, put together a Pro Bowl season, then command an even more lucrative contract in 2019. That appears to be the scenario for Carolina offensive guard Andrew Norwell, who played under the $2.746 million RFA tender this past season, played well, and now is expected to cash in as a top unrestricted free agent this offseason. However it all unfolds for Allen, he is due for a significant raise. Rosenhaus surely will argue that Allen deserves to be paid among the top-tier free safeties in the league based on his value to the defense. Allen played multiple positions throughout this past season and logged 902 defensive snaps. He was the team's most consistent tackler and was a designated “chief” as one of the team's leaders. The three highest-paid free safeties regarding average per year -- Arizona's Tyrann Mathieu, Minnesota's Harrison Smith, and Seattle's Earl Thomas -- make $12.5 million, $10.25 million, and $10 million per year, respectively, with Thomas currently looking for a new contract. New England's Devin McCourty averages $9.5 million, while Jacksonville's Tashaun Gipson, Denver's Darian Stewart and Philadelphia's Rodney McLeod each average about $7 million per season. When asked about his future in the moments after a playoff loss to the Eagles, the last thing Allen wanted to talk about was contract numbers. He did speak, in general terms, about his goals for next season and beyond. “My goal is just to push this defense as hard as I can, pulling the best out of my brothers,” Allen said. “For me personally, I want to take that next step and be considered among the elite safeties. I thought this past season, I did a good job of taking my chances when I needed to. I felt my game took another jump. But personally, I know I can play at an even higher level.” The Falcons rewarded their top two cornerbacks with long-term deals in 2017, signing Desmond Trufant to a five-year, $68.75 million extension ($41.526 million guaranteed) and Robert Alford to a four-year, $38 million extension ($21 million guaranteed). We'll see how much they are willing to invest in Allen. Dimitroff said the upcoming contract extension for quarterback Matt Ryan should create more flexibility for others. Again, the Falcons have gone out of their way to praise Allen's value to the defense. "He might not be that big, he might not be that fast, but he does the job and he gets it done," defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel said of the 5-foot-9, 186-pound Allen. "We were better on defense that he only had two missed tackles all year. Not a lot of free safeties can say that, maybe that being Earl [Thomas].” Allen appreciates the praise from his coaches and teammates, but he's more concerned about elevating the defense as a whole. The Falcons finished in the top 10 in total defense and scoring defense for the first time since 1998. “I think if we keep taking steps, there's no reason why we can't push this to a higher standard and become a top-five defense,” Allen said. “All we have to do is keep developing and maintaining our high standards. I think it will all play out the way it should if we keep doing if that way.”
  9. LINK Assessing the Falcons: Steve Sarkisian 'better than Shanahan' in Year 1 By Vaughn McClure The Atlanta Falcons, at 10-5, entered the 2016 regular-season finale against New Orleans averaging 33.5 points, 412.9 yards per game, 293.5 passing yards and 119.1 rushing yards per game. Entering Sunday's season finale against the Carolina Panthers, with a playoff berth at stake, the 9-6 Falcons are averaging 22.1 points, 364.4 yards, 245.3 passing yards -- and 119.1 rushing yards per game again. This season's Falcons haven't been as consistent on offense while transitioning to new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. But a variety of other factors have contributed to the decline in production. Two NFL assistant coaches who faced Atlanta this season gave their assessments of the Falcons' offense. Both asked to remain anonymous while offering candid, unbiased thoughts: Coach 1: "Everybody needs to remember this: They were getting ready to hang [Kyle] Shanahan three years ago. And then he made a comeback, and they went to the Super Bowl. All of a sudden, he's the second coming of Jesus Christ. He was a combination of what he was the year before when he was s---, and then last year. And this guy [Sarkisian] is better than Shanahan was in his first year. If anything else, they need to be praising [Sarkisian] and saying, 'He's better than Shanahan was his first season.' Instead of crucifying the guy, look at the difference. It makes no sense to me. "I don't think there's anything too predictable about their offense. I love the running back to death, No. 24 [Devonta Freeman]. He's a great kid and competitive. But he's put the ball on the ground. They've shot themselves in the foot on a couple of scoring opportunities. They've gone for it on fourth down a lot [4 of 13]. He [Dan Quinn] likes to do that. Some of them you shake your head at, but at the end of the day that's kind of the mindset that he wants them to have. "They are very well-balanced. They've got a great system. There are just some things that just aren't jiving for them right now. But they are their own worst enemies. It's not like someone else is going in there like, 'Oh, we got them nailed.' There's a lot of people that don't want to play the Atlanta Falcons. Believe me. "They just got hot last year. Everything was going right. They weren't putting the ball on the ground at critical times. They were getting lucky on fourth downs when the coaches would put them in tough situations. "To me, Matt [Ryan] is one of the top five, six quarterbacks in the league. I would say there's a little bit of off throws, but the investigation goes into, 'are the routes being run properly as well?' I love the way he's taking charge. To me, he's mature in that regard. I think the Super Bowl helped him take charge with his confidence. I don't see a chink in his armor. I really don't. "Obviously, you can chase a lot of ghosts, but there's no one thing to pin it on. It's not the offensive coordinator. I think that's crazy. They run the same system they did before, and I think the guy does a pretty good job calling plays, in my opinion." NFL Playoff Machine See what the latest playoff picture looks like and simulate your own playoff scenarios. NFL Playoff Machine Coach 2: "They are f---ing dangerous. I'm serious. I think the skill players are exceptional. Obviously, the quarterback is a really good player. For whatever reason, they're just a little bit off. People are trying to take No. 11 [Julio Jones] away, and now No. 12 [Mohamed Sanu] has become more of a focal point in the pass game. "When you look at them on tape, they're missing some plays here and there in terms of explosive plays. But at the end of the day, I still think they have all the ingredients. I think the play-calling has been good. I think they can be efficient in the red zone. I think they have a lot of good route concepts. And I think they're tough to defend, with so many different weapons. They run the ball well. Those running backs can catch. They do a good job with protections. You've got to make plays on the ball to beat them. "Over the last few weeks, [Freeman's] put the ball on the ground. But with a guy like him who runs so hard and so violent -- he doesn't shy away from the contact -- there's going to be some times when he puts it on the ground. Guys go through those things throughout the course of their careers, where they'll put it on the ground multiple times but then won't ever do it again. If I'm not mistaken, No. 26 [Tevin Coleman] had the same issue when he was a rookie. "They're playing for their lives right now. And I think it's one play here and one play there. Maybe it's a dropped ball. Maybe [Ryan] overthrows a guy here. Maybe someone breaks down in protection on another play. I think it's a combination. I personally think [Ryan] is just a tad bit off with his throws. I don't know if it's a result of him feeling pressure, if he's not getting his feet set, or whatever. Last year, he was hitting all those explosives. "I don't know if Julio is banged up or what. I think people are trying to do different things to take him away at the line of scrimmage. To me, he's still a **** gazelle. And if he gets in the open field, he'll split the defenders and run right past you in coverage. I think his hands are exceptional. I know he's had a couple drops. I think the quarterback trusts him even when he's covered. That's the scary part because physically, he's a mismatch. "I think the offensive coordinator is doing a really good job. If they get in [the postseason], shoot, they can beat anybody."
  10. http://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/31104/matt-ryan-rewards-falcons-offensive-linemen-tight-ends-with-christmas-grills FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan cooked up something to reward his primary protectors. Ryan bought his offensive linemen and tight ends Big Green Egg grills and accessories for Christmas. Left guard Andy Levitre posted a locker-room picture of the gift. "Really cool," Pro Bowl center Alex Mack said. "Just an awesome gift. The appreciation Matt shows us is honoring. He works really hard. And we're doing our job to the best of our ability. For him to thank us is really generous of him." Guard Ben Garland, who started the past two games in place of the injured Levitre (triceps), noted how Ryan didn't just take care of the starters. "He got them for everybody," Garland said of the grill, which can retail for upward of $600. "I've seen quarterbacks get it for a few guys, but to get it for every single [offensive lineman and tight end] -- practice squad, doesn't matter -- I don't think I've ever seen a quarterback do that. That's incredible." Rookie Sean Harlow, inactive for every game this season, appreciated how Ryan didn't leave him off the list. "I wasn't expecting that at all," Harlow said. "I really appreciated it. It's great that he thought about us all and gave us something that we could all use." Mack already has one to use in Atlanta but plans to ship the one Ryan gave him to his home in California for some offseason cooking. Harlow, meanwhile, has never had one before. "I always drive by it going to the stadium and stuff and I'm like, 'I don't know what a Green Egg is,'" Harlow said. "Now I know." Ryan bought his linemen enhanced garment bags last season. "It shows that he has a lot of respect for us and what we do," right tackle Ryan Schraeder said. "We take a lot of pride in trying to keep him healthy and upright. We take it personal because his health is important to us, and we don't like him getting hit. We want him to be successful and get the ball to everyone else. "Matt's always been good to us like that, regardless of what's going on that year. Every year I've been here, he's always shown a lot of appreciation for the line." Ryan has been sacked 18 times in 478 dropbacks through 14 games. Last season, he was sacked 37 times in 587 dropbacks through 16 games. The Falcons rank fourth in the league in sacks allowed per pass attempt. The Falcons (9-5) have a chance to secure a postseason berth and keep their NFC South title hopes alive with a victory over the New Orleans Saints (10-4) on Sunday.
  11. http://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/30652/falcons-dan-quinn-wants-vic-beasley-jr-to-create-more-havoc FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn knows what type of impact reigning NFL sack champ Vic Beasley Jr. can have on a game. Now Quinn just wants to see more of it. Beasley, who had 15.5 sacks last season, enters Sunday's NFC showdown with the Minnesota Vikings with four sacks, tied with rookie Takkarist McKinley and Brooks Reed for second on the team behind Adrian Clayborn's eight. "For sure, they're not," Quinn said of Beasley's sack numbers not being at the same high level. "One of the good parts of Vic's game that he does when he sacks is he gets forced fumbles. He's forever had a knack for that. That part, we really need over the next [five games] of the season, that part of his game to really come through. We totally rely on that." Beasley has one forced fumble through 11 games after leading the team with six last season. The forced fumble he had back in Week 2 against Green Bay was a sack-fumble involving Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and resulted in a 15-yard fumble return for a touchdown by cornerback Desmond Trufant. In all fairness to Beasley, he did miss a couple of games because of a hamstring injury and didn't appear to be 100 percent upon returning to the lineup. Then a knee injury suffered by rookie linebacker Duke Riley forced some shuffling, with De'Vondre Campbell moving back into a primary role at weakside linebacker and Beasley picking up more snaps at strongside linebacker. That meant more setting the edge against the run and more dropping in coverage for Beasley rather than focusing on his primary strength of just rushing the passer. Naturally, Beasley is going to draw added attention from the opposition, which opens opportunities for others such as Clayborn, McKinley, and interior rushers Grady Jarrett and Dontari Poe to make plays. That wasn't necessarily the case in last week's win against Tampa Bay, when Beasley was stood up on his share of one-on-one rushes against right tackle Demar Dotson and left tackle Donovan Smith. Beasley was chipped by the running back on one play. And the officials missed holds against tight end Antony Auclair and Smith against Beasley late in the game. Beasley didn't record a tackle, sack, or quarterback hit in the game.
  12. Julio Jones dominates, but Falcons still find closing a challenge I hold McClure in higher regard than many here. That said, I think he is missing the forest for the trees on this take. A defense that had a very strange looking group of names in the secondary made a critical 3rd down stop, then a 4th down stop. The Falcons offense then executed a perfect 4 minute drive. They chugged it out on the ground until timeouts were burned, and threw when they had to to keep the chains moving. I understand that it didn't have to be a game with 5 minutes left. That said, Tampa's closing two gasps never had a chance and Atlanta's offense just basically closed them out with a very "in your face" type closing drive. I'd say this game was a nice example of how you are supposed to close out a one score game with half a quarter to go. We could still do without the fumble and a couple of penalties. Overall, after they scored off the fumble, I'd say the Falcons did mostly everything in a very solid fashion from there on out. We certainly had a mid-second half swoon. That said, the closing 7 or 8 minutes were top shelf.
  13. http://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/29938 FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones continued with the one-game-at-a-time mantra, but he knows the stakes are about to get higher. The last thing Jones and the Falcons wanted was to go into their first NFC South game of the season riding a four-game losing streak. They won't have that burden to carry after squeaking by the New York Jets on Sunday. Now at 4-3, the Falcons still find themselves behind the New Orleans Saints (5-2) and the Carolina Panthers (5-3) heading to Charlotte, North Carolina, next Sunday. "You know what? I'm looking forward to playing Carolina because they're the next team we play," Jones said. "I mean, we're going to handle that. Every game is the same for us. We don't need to make things up for it." But doesn't coach Dan Quinn always preach, more than anything, handling business in the division? "Most definitely he does," Jones said. "But we're not going to treat this game differently than we treat other games. You see what I mean?" Jones always is cool and calm in his approach, so no situation or opponent fazes him. But collectively, the Falcons understand they have to turn the intensity up a notch and play sounder football heading into division play. They have yet to play their best game, although the defense certainly elevated its effort against the Jets, particularly against the run. And seeing Jones and Tevin Coleman break loose for 50-plus-yard plays, and having Mohamed Sanu make spectacular catches, is more the type of offensive explosiveness most anticipated from the Falcons coming into the season. Now the challenge is to sustain any momentum from the win over the Jets against a Panthers defense fresh off holding Jameis Winston and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to three points. The Panthers, who boasted the league's third-best overall defense going into Week 8, have 27 sacks, 10 more than the Falcons. Julius Peppers, the 37-year-old veteran, has 7.5 sacks. "We'll be ready next week," right tackle Ryan Schraeder said. "It's going to be a fistfight, so I'm excited. I think everybody's got a good attitude right now." Pulling out a win and ending a losing skid will do wonders for morale. "Outside there was a lot of noise, but not inside," Quinn said. "That kind of resiliency and that kind of toughness is what this group stands for. And they support one another like crazy and that's the times you do lean on one another and that's what you want, them leaning on each other when it's not going well. So I wasn't surprised to see them lean on each other, it's what I expected and I admired it." The Falcons started 3-0 against the NFC North and then went 1-3 against the AFC East. The road trip to Carolina is one of two division games in November along with a home matchup with the Buccaneers on Nov. 26. The last four weeks of the season are all division games, with road trips to Tampa and New Orleans sandwiched between a Week 14 Thursday night home game against the Saints. The season finale is on New Year's Eve against the Panthers. The Falcons are 2-3 in their past five games played against the Panthers in Charlotte. "It'll be exciting to get back into the division," Quinn said. "We started within the conference early and then took this trip up to the East, which did not go well for us. So as we're now getting back into our own conference and our own division, we're definitely looking forward to that."
  14. http://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/29862/falcons-ricardo-allen-no-players-only-meeting-needed-to-end-skid FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons free safety Ricardo Allen, one of the designated "chiefs" of the team, said there's no need for a players-only meeting in the midst of a three-game losing streak. The 3-3 Falcons took such a measure two seasons ago following a four-game losing streak then proceeded to lose the next two after the meeting and finish 8-8 without making the playoffs. "No, we don't need one because we're grown men and we know what we've got to do," Allen told ESPN. "We understand: We're not winning games. We understand we've got to tighten up. That's point blank, period. It's not like a surprise. We understand what we're messing up. Safety Ricardo Allen on Atlanta's three-game losing streak: "... we made it to the Super Bowl after a 4-3 start. I'm going to take the positive." AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File "It's not like we're just going out there and all s--- is just going bad. It's small things, and those small things come back to haunt you. We've been here before. We've lost games before because of doing that s---. But we also have gotten it right before and started winning. That's all we have to do." The Falcons started 3-0 but then dropped three straight to AFC East opponents: Buffalo and Miami at home, then New England on the road. They play their fourth consecutive game against the AFC East on Sunday at the New York Jets (3-4). Defensively, the Falcons have been like a sieve against the run, getting gashed up the middle while allowing the Bills, Dolphins, and Patriots to run for 117, 138, and 162 yards, respectively. The Falcons also wiped away two interceptions with roughing the passer penalties and lead the NFC which three such fouls. Offensively, the Falcons converted just 38 percent on third down against the Bills and only 22 percent against the Patriots. They are 4-of-9 in the red zone during the losing streak. Falcons coach Dan Quinn said the "bear is not loose" regarding matters spinning out of control. During "Tell the Truth Monday" the team aired out all issues, as is the case following games. "We always tell the truth," Allen said. "We didn't get in there and it was a brouhaha. It was another meeting that said, 'Get you s--- right, and you know what we have to do.'" Allen is confident this team won't allow the current issues to mount into something like the six-game losing streak that occurred in the first year under Quinn. "And then things went up last year," Allen explained. "If you're going to look back two years, you can also look back one year. If you look at history, we made it to the Super Bowl after a 4-3 start. I'm going to take the positive. I'm going to go off that." The Falcons believe they have leadership in players such as Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Allen, and now veteran linebacker Sean Weatherspoon who just re-signed this week. Allen said he doesn't need to pull anyone aside for a pep talk. "They know," Allen said. "You can look at their faces, and you can tell they know. Just body language, just the sense of urgency around here. You don't see nobody pointing fingers. Everyone knows they have to do it themselves because I'm not perfect. I've got to play better, too. "If I go around him pointing fingers and telling everybody I'm perfect and I'm a god, things are going to start going wrong on me, too. People understand what to do. You're in the league for a reason."
  15. http://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/29450/third-down-turnovers-deep-ball-areas-of-emphasis-for-matt-ryan With a quarter of the season in the books, Falcons QB Matt Ryan identifies his team's goals moving forward. FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Naturally, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan wants to clean up the turnovers after committing six already. But there's another area of emphasis for Ryan as the team returns to action off the bye. "One, I think we can be better on third downs, myself included," Ryan said. "When we have opportunities to keep drives going, especially in that third-and-6-to-10 range, we can be better than we've been. I can be better than I've been up until this point. That's probably the No. 1 thing of all the things that we look at that can help us win games right away. "So if we can be a little bit better there, if I can be a little bit better in that part of the game, I think that's going to help us." Going into Sunday's matchup with the Miami Dolphins (2-2), the Falcons (3-1) actually rank No. 8 of the 32 teams in third-down offense, converting 43.2 percent, which is one percent better than they finished last season. But on third-and-6 or longer, the Falcons are converting 28 percent, just below the league average of 28.3 percent. Ryan, on third-and-6 or longer, has completed 13-of-21 passes for 154 yards with no touchdowns, an interception, three sacks taken, and a passer rating of 64.4. Four of those third-and-long pass plays have occurred in the red zone, and only one has led to a conversion and touchdown: a third-and-16 to Devonta Freeman for 18 yards against Detroit that resulted in Ryan's four-yard touchdown pass to Mohamed Sanu. Of course, success on first and second down can set up shorter third-down situations. The Falcons have converted 70.6 percent of opportunities on third-and-4 or shorter, which ranks seventh. The league average is 58.6 percent. As for the turnovers, Ryan said after a loss to the Buffalo Bills that he planned to clean those up after the bye. Not all were his fault, however, with some tipped and dropped balls. Whatever the case, the Falcons have six giveaways and just two takeaways, giving them a minus-4 turnover ratio that ranks tied for 28th in the league along with NFC South front-runner Carolina. "It's one of those things, sometimes it happens," Ryan said of the turnovers. "That's part of playing the game. Sometimes you have tipped balls. Sometimes you have some plays that don't go your way. But it's about being resilient. "It's about being mentally tough and continuing to stay aggressive; doing the things that we've done to be at our best and trusting that that process and the routine and deal that we have is the right one. And I really believe it is. I think it will start to go our way. We just have to keep working at it." Ryan said the Falcons have to keep working on hitting the deep balls. On passes he's thrown of 30-plus air yards, he has completed 2 of 10 for 127 yards with a touchdown, an interception and a passer rating of 72.9. Last season he was 10 of 22 on such passes for 496 yards, five touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 131.6. One of those completions was a ball thrown 36 yards to wide-open tight end Austin Hooper, who stiff-armed the rest of the way for an 88-yard touchdown in Chicago. The other completion was thrown 32 yards to running back Tevin Coleman for a 39-yard pickup. Ryan is 0 of 8 when targeting his primary deep threats, Julio Jones and Taylor Gabriel, on balls thrown 30-plus yards. Some of that might have to do with not getting a lot of time to work with them leading into the season, as Jones recovering from foot surgery and Gabriel from a lower leg injury. "It's definitely an area we can be better," Ryan said of taking those shots. "We've been close. We just haven't hit them. We've got to keep taking our shots when they're there. And when they're not there, making good decisions with the football." Getting Jones back totally healthy from a hip flexor injury will be key in connecting on those long balls. Ryan hopes the Falcons can find other ways to create explosive plays as well, like giving Jones, Gabriel, Coleman, and Freeman the ball in space to go make plays. Ryan also might have more opportunities to create big plays with better protection, and right tackle Ryan Schraeder is to return to the lineup after missing two games with a concussion. The Falcons certainly will be challenged this week by a strong Dolphins defensive line, led by Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake.
  16. http://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/29404/to-falcons-bryant-young-son-who-lost-cancer-battle-was-his-superhero Good read, but heartbreaking...especially as a father. ATLANTA -- Atlanta Falcons defensive line coach Bryant Young often thinks about the joyful times he had with his son Colby, a kid who had a passion for football and a knack for cooking. He also remembers the sadness that overwhelmed him when he uttered his last words to his teenage superhero. "I told him just how much I appreciated his courage and his resilience," Young said as his voice cracked. "And I told him I love him. I told him how much I was proud of him, for the young man to go through something like that." Bryant Colby Young died of pediatric cancer at age 15 on Oct. 11, 2016. Bryant Young knew every day without his son would be difficult, but especially days such as Colby's birthday on Aug. 19 and the anniversary of Colby's death. "Every day has its own challenge," Young said, "but when you're going through the first of everything -- the first birthday, the first year of him passing -- and actually the day before, too, just anticipating what the day would be like. I definitely always want to remember him in a special way." Colby was known as a delightful, vibrant young man. His family never imagined a day of throbbing pain would result in sorrow for years to come. Unexpected news It was 2014, and Colby was an eighth-grader playing football in Charlotte, North Carolina. He came home one day complaining of a headache. Young, a Hall of Fame nominee who played 14 seasons on the San Francisco 49ers' defensive line, figured he knew what the issue was with his son. "I thought he got dinged," Young said. "But he was like, 'No dad, I didn't get dinged.'" Young saw that something was off when Colby woke up on a Wednesday morning in excruciating pain with no desire to eat. There was a middle school retreat the same day, one Colby eagerly packed for the night before, but the pain drained him of his enthusiasm. He couldn't sit up at the dining room table, so Young's wife, Kristin, took Colby to the pediatrician. "The doctor looked at him and thought at the time, he was 13 and was going through puberty, and that's pretty common for a kid that age to possibly have migraines, as growing pains," Young said. "So she prescribed him medication for migraines." The pain never subsided throughout the remainder of the day. Colby began to vomit. The pain intensified by the next morning. "He was bald at the time, but he was trying to pull his hair out of his head, so we knew it was something more serious," Young said. The Youngs returned to the pediatrician. The prescription for the migraine changed. But before leaving this time, Colby underwent a CAT scan, which finally revealed the cause of his painful episodes: a mass on his brain. "Hearing the news, he was scared. My wife was scared," Young said. "They diagnosed it as a pineal tumor. It was about the size of a golf ball in his pineal gland region [vertebrae brain]." Colby needed surgery. The surgeon performing it had completed the "risky" procedure in the past. "He felt pretty confident that with what he had seen before and had removed that it was going to be OK because it wasn't growing out and was contained," Young said. "He said he wouldn't know if it was non-cancerous until sampling the tissue and removing it. We thought we caught it." The surgery dragged on for four hours, which seemed like an eternity. Bryant and Kristin continued to cling to the doctor's words about it being an "operable" process. Then the surgeon emerged bearing news. "Just the look on his face, I didn't like it," Young said. "I just had this eerie feeling about it being bad news. So he gets us into a conference room and tells us that it was cancerous. It was an even bigger blow just to hear that." There were never any signs of Colby being sick while growing up. He played football and basketball without issue. After the surgery, which occurred on a Tuesday, Colby was back in school Wednesday of the following week. But he still had to endure chemotherapy once he recovered from the surgery. "Just what radiation and chemo do to you, it wrecks the body and makes you feel a certain way, and it was just hard seeing him go through that," Young said. "But throughout the whole process, he was strong. He had great support around him. "You hear about others going through stuff like that, and you support others that are going through it. But it's a tough deal when you're in the fire yourself." Coping with reality Young admired Colby's spirit during the bout with cancer and how determined he was to live life to the fullest. But during treatments at the MGH Francis H. Burr Proton Beam Therapy Center in Boston, Colby received more bad news. "He was emotional when he heard about cancer," Young said, "but I think even it hurt him, even more, when the doctor told him, 'Because of the radiation, the muscles in your neck will atrophy, and we highly recommend that you don't play football anymore.' That crushed him." Colby was a cover corner in football and also played outside linebacker. Now he could be only a spectator as he went through radiation treatment from October to the beginning of December 2014. "He was mature in a way that it hurt him, and it was a blow to his spirit, but he didn't let that keep him down," Young said. "So then he really focused on basketball once he went through radiation and recovered from that." Colby started chemotherapy at Duke University in January 2015. It was a four-month process. He relapsed, so the Youngs found a clinical trial at the University of Florida Shands Hospital that entailed immunotherapy, a process that involves using the individual's immune system to try to fight cancer. It wasn't enough to help Colby recover, though the family remained hopeful throughout the various forms of treatment. Kristin documented her son's grueling journey through her blog, chronicling how Colby's cancer grew and how the Christian-based family relied on God's will. The Youngs' other five children -- three daughters and two sons -- came up with T-shirts to support their ill brother, bearing a Superman-themed logo with a large "C" in the middle to represent Colby. Some of Young's former San Francisco teammates wore the shirts to a 49ers-Buccaneers game in October during the NFL's breast cancer awareness month. Young was grateful to have support from the entire 49ers organization and former team owner and NFL Hall of Famer Ed DeBartolo. "Bryant is a one-of-a-kind man with a wonderful and caring family," DeBartolo said. "They suffered so much with Colby all those years but never, ever wavered. I believe if you're lucky enough to be blessed with the ability to help, you have to do whatever you can. I would do anything for Bryant, Kristin or his family -- like a younger brother." The Youngs always emphasized to their children how important it is to give rather than receive. Colby took the message to heart with his "Change for Change" campaign. He wanted to collect $2,000 to donate to the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation by placing change buckets around his town. Colby raised more than $50,000 thanks in large part to the help of his high school, Charlotte Christian. "He was going through it, and he came up with the idea of how he can bring awareness and have people be a part of something that affects so many kids and families," Young said. "It was incredible in terms of what he did." The Youngs also had a short documentary produced by a friend that captured some of Colby's fight as well as his living life to the fullest, including preparing meals such as steak and chicken stir-fry for the family. "Little did we know that we would use that video at his service, not knowing how things were going to turn out," Young said. "Part of what compelled us to share that was our story is not to be our own. We need to share that and allow people to understand the pains while sharing our faith through the process. "It was therapy for us, too, as a family, to be able to tell our story. To do that in the way we did it, I think, was a blessing for us and hopefully for others." After spending most of the last four months of his life in hospice care, Colby died at home on Oct. 11, 2016. "I tried to prepare emotionally for his moment of death, but there really is nothing that can prepare you for it," Kristin said. "Mixed in with the deep waves of grief and sadness on the day he passed away was also insurmountable joy and peace that his sweet soul was free again in heaven." In memory of Before every game, Young quizzes his defensive linemen on a variety of topics related to that week's opponent. Fifteen questions, to be exact. The players weren't aware, but there is a reason Young came up with that number. "Colby was 15 when he passed, so that's my way of just kind of intertwining him in all of that," Young said. "Colby loved football so much that he's a part of what I do with my job. He would be the biggest cheerleader of what we're doing here." Falcons coach Dan Quinn was the defensive line coach in San Francisco in 2003-04, when Young played for the team. Quinn remembers when a 2- or 3-year-old Colby would walk around with a No. 97 49ers jersey that read "My Dad" on the back. Quinn understands the pain the Youngs are going through still today. "I don't know if I helped them, but just being there," Quinn said. "We want to be up there to let Kristin and B.Y. know that, 'Hey, man, this is as tough as it gets. And we'll stand by you, stand next to you.' There are no words of encouragement to give during those moments. It's just, 'I love you, man,' and support." Young stepped away from coaching in 2013, the year before Colby's cancer surfaced. He was the defensive line coach at Florida -- brought there when Quinn was the Gators' defensive coordinator -- and at that time, he wanted to focus more on his family. Colby's health then became the top priority. Young had a coaching internship with the Falcons two seasons ago. Then he replaced Bryan Cox as the defensive line coach in February, following the Falcons' Super Bowl appearance. Returning to full-time coaching after his son's death wasn't a difficult decision. "It was time," Young said. "I wanted to get back. I kind of missed it in that way. We had been through so much. Time allowed that to happen. As things settled down, we took time to heal. And we'll continue to heal. I think football has been a distraction in a lot of ways to help me continue to move forward and live life." This Sunday's game against the Dolphins has been designated as the Falcons' "Crucial Catch: Intercept Cancer" campaign game, part of the NFL's initiative to bring more awareness to the fight against all cancers -- not just breast cancer, which was its previous focus. There is no doubt that Young's mind will be on Colby and the courageous, two-year battle fought by his son. "It put things in perspective," said Young, who plans to wear something special on Sunday to honor his son. "We think it's hard out here. We strain, and we grind, physically, to live another day. But to see firsthand and experience somebody's tough battle through a disease, it lets you know life is precious. "This is just football."
  17. http://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/29315/falcons-ready-to-move-on-to-second-quarter-of-season FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Center Alex Mack paused when asked to reflect on how his 3-1 Atlanta Falcons fared through the first quarter of the season. "It's a good start," Mack said. "You want to win all the games at home, so coming off this loss (at home to Buffalo) is not what you want. Sucks to have that sad feeling all bye week. I think we can turn that into the positive. Every team is hard, and it's going to be a battle every week. With that knowledge going into the last three quarters of the season, it's going to be a grind every day, every week." The Falcons and Carolina Panthers both stand at 3-1 in the NFC South. After this week's bye, the Falcons continue a four-game stretch against AFC East opponents following their loss to Buffalo with games against Miami (1-2), New England (2-2), and the New York Jets (2-2), the latter two on the road. Then division play starts with a Nov. 5 meeting with the Panthers in Charlotte, and coach Dan Quinn always emphasizes winning the division first. "It's in the mind, and it's important that you need to win the division," Mack said. "It's a very real thing. But really, it's about winning each week. You can't control what other teams do. You can't control how everything else shakes out. If you play the best of your ability and you take care of each game each week, you'll put yourself in the best position." The Falcons certainly have some issues to fix once they return from the week off. Here's a look back at how they fared in all areas through the first quarter of the season. OFFENSE: The Falcons averaged a league-best 33.8 points per game a year ago and are currently sixth at 26 points per game while going 8 for 13 in the red zone. Devonta Freeman sits third in the NFL with five touchdowns, Tevin Coleman ranks third at 6.3 yards per rush, and the Falcons average a league-best 6.69 yards per play. Although reigning MVP Matt Ryan ranks in the top 5 at 8.2 yards per pass play, he has five interceptions to go with five touchdowns and has a passer rating of 87.5 -- 22nd among quarterbacks. On passes thrown 20-plus yards down the field, Ryan is 3 of 15 for 161 yards with a touchdown, an interception, and passer rating of 66.3. Julio Jones, though leading the team with 19 catches for 295 yards, doesn't have a touchdown. He is currently banged up along with Mohamed Sanu. Eleven different Falcons have receptions, and nine have at least three or more. The Falcons are 13th in sacks allowed per pass attempt, which could be worse considering starting right tackle Ryan Schraeder (concussion) missed the last two games. Quinn talked about the positives as well as areas in need of improvement with new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. "The part that I like is the ability to utilize guys in different ways," Quinn said of Sarkisian. "I’ve loved seeing the packages where we’ve featured both Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman together, creating opportunities for guys in space to make plays. I’ve been encouraged that we’ve been a really committed running game. "For sure we want to improve on our chances when we can take some shots down the field. Sometimes that comes with a little more time, but to be at our best, that’s where some of the explosive plays happen on some of the play-action plays, so I think that part can come, but I have been impressed by his utilization of the guys." DEFENSE: The Falcons, without reigning NFL sack champ Vic Beasley Jr. (hamstring) the last two games, are tied for third in the NFL with 12 sacks, led by Brooks Reed with three. They ranked 13th in total defense in allowing 318.3 yards per game, down from last year's average of 371.2. Opposing teams are scoring 22.3 points per game against the Falcons, though offensive turnovers have contributed to that total. The defense has created just two turnovers, part of the reason they rank 28th in the league in turnover ratio at minus-4, with those five interceptions and a fumble lost on offense. The Falcons are tied for fourth in goal-to-goal defense and tied for 15th in red-zone defense. Missed tackles have been an issue, with rookie linebacker Duke Riley being a primary culprit. But Quinn said Riley is on the same missed-tackle pace Deion Jones had at the start of last season before finishing third in the Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. Jones leads the team with 27 combined tackles, followed by Brian Poole and Keanu Neal with 24 each. Quinn assessed new defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel, who installed some new red-zone defensive coverages this season. "Man, I’ve been impressed by him in game," Quinn said of Manuel. "He’s really clear-headed. The calls are in quickly, and here’s why I called it. Sometimes we’ll talk in between a series and he’s able to have good recall on what happened and here’s what I’d like to do based on that. I’ve been impressed by that so far." SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Matt Bryant is 9 for 9 on field goals, with a long of 53 yards, and is 11 for 11 on extra points. He's tied for fifth in the NFL with 38 points. Return man Andre Roberts' 181 kickoff-return yards stands sixth in the league, with a long return of 61 yards against Buffalo. He's averaging 10 yards per punt return. Punter Matt Bosher has a net average of 41.6 yards and has seven fair catches on 12 punts. Fullback Derrick Coleman leads the team in special-teams tackles.
  18. http://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/29184/falcons-devondre-campbell-sticks-to-plan-d-and-thrives FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Just last week, Atlanta Falcons linebacker De'Vondre Campbell ended practice with an interception, generating a collective roar from his defensive mates. His day wasn't complete. As most players exited toward the locker room, Campbell sought out linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich and lined up across Ulbrich in the far back corner of the practice field. Campbell spent about 10 minutes working on hand drills. "Every single day after practice, he's out there with me working," Campbell said of Ulbrich. "Whether it's pass rush or Plan D stuff, that's extra. That's something that he doesn't have to do. But he's out there doing it with me. It just shows that he believes in me. He knows that I'm right there with him." The "Plan D" Campbell referred to is a concept the Falcons strongly stand by. It's part of a "development" plan coach Dan Quinn brought to the organization when hired in 2015. Although it often involves coaches giving individual instruction to practice-squad players, it encompasses more than just that select group of players. "It’s not just a practice-squad consideration at all," Quinn said. "Often times it’s players that we feel need some real work to take their game to a new spot, and we identify probably between 12 to 18 or 20 players that we’re going to really put the extra work in to see if they can make a big push. "One day, it’s devoted to special teams. Another day is devoted just to your skill work. A third day is devoted to doing some matchups against one another. During that team day, we feel like you can really gain skill development, and that’s where we want to push it really hard. We have a big staff of coaches. Some of their primary roles are before practice or after practice to spend that extra 10 to 15 minutes every day. You keep stacking in minutes and minutes, and before you know it, you’ve had three, four, or five hours of extra skill work to help yourself get really improved." Quinn often talks about how players should make a significant jump between their first and second seasons. Well, Campbell certainly has. The 2016 fourth-round draft pick from Minnesota has stood out through the first three games. He is tied for third on the team with 17 combined tackles, and he has a sack, two quarterback hits and two passes defensed. The 6-foot-3, 234-pound Campbell is seeing the field better after offseason Lasik eye surgery, and he's utilizing his speed and length to his advantage while covering speedy running backs as well as taller tight ends. Campbell credits Plan D, which went into full effect around training camp as Campbell made the transition from weak-side linebacker to strong-side linebacker. "We'd just be out there doing stuff for 10 minutes, and it pays off," Campbell said. "(Ulbrich) is one of my biggest critics. And I feel like if he weren't, then it would show he doesn't really believe in me. So every time he does get on me, I know it's coming from a good place. It might not be what I want to hear sometimes, but it's what I need to hear." Campbell said Ulbrich always preaches sticking to technique when you're tired, and Campbell certainly is spent by the time Plan D sessions start. Working on his get-off always is an emphasis, with the Falcons always developing Campbell's pass-rush skills. Another drill involves Campbell working on either moving in for a strip sack or running after a quarterback who steps up and extends the play -- an element the Falcons will need to be aware of for the third straight week this Sunday with Tyrod Taylor and the Buffalo Bills. Campbell was superb in covering Lions tight end Eric Ebron last week but feel that area still needs to improve through practice and Plan D. He knows he might draw some tough, tight end assignments in upcoming games with the likes of Rob Gronkowski, Jason Witten, Jimmy Graham, and rookie O.J. Howard. "I'm getting better," Campbell said of covering tight ends. "I'm not where I want to be, and I notice that. But that's the reason for being here, to get better. I have really good players to practice against in (Austin) Hooper, (Joshua) Perkins, and (Eric) Saubert. Going against them, it prepares me for anything." Campbell is sure to keep improving in all areas, provided he sticks to the plan.
  19. http://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/28019/falcons-devonta-freeman-gets-some-hands-on-work-with-dan-quinn-on-blocking FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Coming off his second consecutive Pro Bowl season, Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman vowed to improve every aspect of his game. One of the elements in question was Freeman's blocking, considering he missed picking up linebacker Dont'a Hightower in the fourth quarter of February's Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots. It led to Matt Ryan being sacked and losing the ball, which resulted in a momentum-swinging touchdown in the Patriots' 34-28 overtime win. Freeman said missing that block was "a scar" that he would overcome. So it was interesting this week to see Freeman working extensively on blocking technique one-on-one with coach Dan Quinn. Freeman was attentive as Quinn offered hands-on coaching on how to attack the opponent in such a situation. "We were talking cut blocks," Quinn said. "If you throw [the block] earlier, you can see it. If you throw later, that's where you beat a guy to the punch. It was a good topic for us. ... I wouldn't say it was real scientific coaching." But one could tell Freeman learned from it based on his facial expressions and back-and-forth conversation with Quinn during the demonstration. "That's a good connection," Quinn said of the relationship with Freeman. "I love what he stands for as a player. Every time out on this field, he goes for it. And that's what a true competitor does. He loves ball. He's willing to put out and go for it every single day, and I love that about him." Freeman's play has stood out at training camp thus far as he awaits a contract extension. He appears to be even faster with his cuts and explosiveness up the field. He still possesses great hands catching the ball out of the backfield. "I just want to take it to that next level," Freeman told ESPN regarding his goals for 2017. "How can I get to that next level? What do I need to do to get to that next level? You know what I mean? "I'm going to study film harder. I'm going to work harder. I'm going to prepare better. I'm going to eat cleaner, just to get to that next level. I need to be on that next level. That's with anything, especially when it comes to football."
  20. http://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/27929/takk-mckinley-already-letting-his-pads-do-the-talking FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons first-round draft pick Takkarist McKinley received a lot of attention nationally for screaming out profanity during a live interview on draft night. Then McKinley started to develop a larger following on Twitter because he spoke his mind about anything and everything through social media. McKinley has been given the green light to participate in 11-on-11 drills after starting camp limited to individual position work, following rehab from pre-draft shoulder surgery. General manager Thomas Dimitroff said prior to camp the team hoped to give McKinley meaningful reps in the third exhibition against Arizona on Aug. 26. The Falcons have been confident all along about McKinley being ready for the Sept. 10 regular-season opener at Chicago. Now that the defensive end from UCLA is back on the field, he's letting his pads do the talking. Just ask teammates Kevin Graf and Wil Freeman, a couple of tackles who felt the wrath of McKinley's bull rushes over the first week of training camp. And starter Jake Matthews might be next on the list. Don't expect McKinley to brag about any of his plays, no matter how outspoken he might appear to be. "I don't really talk," McKinley said of his on-field demeanor. "I'm not a big talker. I just work. I'm not the rah-rah guy that's like, 'Man, do this, do that.' I'll make plays and celebrate to fire the team up. But I'm a rookie. It's not my place to tell vets, 'Pick it up. Pick it up.' I'm here to work, here to learn and to help us win." McKinley had the respect of his teammates from Day 1. While some outsiders were critical of his outburst on draft night -- real emotion related to him fulfilling a promise to his late grandmother to overcome a rugged past and make it to the NFL -- his Falcons "brothers" viewed him as a guy with passion whom they couldn't wait to welcome to the team. "I knew where he was coming from," middle linebacker Deion Jones said. "I mean, I lost my grandmother. For him to fulfill that promise, that's emotion. That's why he does what he does. And I understand it. A lot of people might not understand it, but I do. He has a lot of passion behind what he does. That's what moves him. That's what keeps him going. That's why he wakes up. That's why he grinds. I'm with it. "His story? You have to feel his passion about that." McKinley's goal now is to make sure opponents feel him, every time he lines up across from them.
  21. http://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/27861/sack-champion-vic-beasley-ready-to-take-another-step-after-pass-rush-summit FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Vic Beasley Jr., the reigning NFL sacks leader, has heard before that tweaking his pass-rush stance might lead to even greater success. It wasn’t that the Atlanta Falcons pass-rusher ignored those suggestions. But to listen to such advice coming from a guy who played 12 NFL seasons, collected 138.5 career sacks, and was named to nine Pro Bowls just put more emphasis behind those words of wisdom. So when Beasley took the field at Stanford University for the first annual Von Miller pass-rush summit in June, Beasley listened intently as former Dallas Cowboy and Denver Bronco DeMarcus Ware shared a wealth of knowledge. "DeMarcus was giving me tips here and there," Beasley said. "He was telling me normally my feet are back too far so a majority of the time, just replace my hand with my first step. And he said if I kind of coil up and put my butt up in the air more and take that first step that I'll step out a longer distance. "I've heard coaches at the [Falcons] facility tell me the same thing. But to hear it from DeMarcus Ware -- from former player to current player -- definitely paid off a lot." Over the course of one full day, Beasley did enough studying to earn his Master's in the art of pass rush. Attending the summit was something he had discussed for a while with his buddy Miller, the one-time Super Bowl MVP and the guy Beasley bested by two (15.5 to 13.5) for last year's sack title. Beasley also tied Oakland's Bruce Irvin for the league lead with six forced fumbles as he developed a knack for the strip sack. "It was interesting to see the moves of each different individual," Beasley said. "You can take that and apply that to your game." During the summit, each rusher was asked to stand in front of the classroom and break down his best pass-rush moments. Beasley studied plenty of Miller in the past, and Miller's slippery moves were reinforced at the summit. Beasley saw how effective Oakland's Khalil Mack is in using his long arms and great lower-body strength. He watched how Kansas City's Dee Ford capitalizes on his hands and speed. And Beasley observed how Seattle's Cliff Avril relies on power to complete his moves. Beasley even developed a new bond with Olivier Vernon of the New York Giants. "Great guy," Beasley said of Vernon. "Just being able to talk to him and just hearing his insights ... his game is very different from every other player in that room. He's not really the speed guy. He's not really the get-off guy. He's just a guy that can work his hands very well and can slip off things, similar to Von." Beasley, known for his speed off the edge, hopes to put all those lessons to good use as he chases another sack title and tries to lead a vastly improved Falcons defense. He seems to be playing with a higher level of aggression so far throughout training camp. Although the Falcons have not yet re-signed his mentor from last year, seven-time Pro Bowler Dwight Freeney, the team has surrounded Beasley with more defensive-line talent. First-round draft pick Takkarist McKinley, who had been limited at camp coming off March shoulder surgery, is expected to provide a boost off the opposite edge. Two-time Pro Bowler Dontari Poe was signed to push the pocket on the interior alongside ascending Grady Jarrett. And the wild card is Jack Crawford, a high-energy, strong, versatile lineman who came over from Dallas and has already impressed the coaches. Those additions all could help free up Beasley, who has started to attract added attention and basically got frozen out by the Patriots in the Super Bowl. "It's going to help me tremendously," Beasley said. "The guys that we have up front, we’re just blessed with so much depth this year. Just having that depth will definitely take pressure off me. And guys such as Poe and Crawford, those are great players that people kind of underestimate." Falcons coach Dan Quinn, a pass-rush expert who learned a lot of lessons from being around Hall of Famer Jason Taylor, commended Beasley for making the extra effort to enhance his skills. Quinn talked about the next phase in the development of Beasley, the No. 8 overall pick in 2015. "With Beasley, there's oftentimes a big jump for a player from Year 1 to Year 2. I think there's another one that takes place from Year 2 to Year 3," Quinn said. "You have to go through some experiences to understand, 'How do I deal with this situation?' 'How does this technique work or not work?' and the call of the defense. 'What can I do in this call?' or 'What can't I do in that call?' When you get to that spot and now you really start learning the smaller nuances of it. "For the early player, I really emphasize the stance and some of the basic fundamentals. As you get further along, we try to find new levels that you can go to. He's off to a good start so far." Like the lessons learned at the pass-rush summit, Beasley takes Quinn's advice to heart. "Last year, I did make a lot of improvements and did have a lot of success," Beasley said, "but now the next level of my game is just being more aware of the whole defense is capable of on each play, what defense is being called, and what the cornerbacks are doing and the safeties are doing and linebackers are doing. It's not just simplified as just the defensive line, but [knowing] the whole defense."
  22. http://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/27848/matt-ryan-ready-to-utilize-versatile-two-back-tandem-once-again FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- In case anyone forgot that Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman can do more than just run the ball, both Atlanta Falcons running backs have given spectators friendly reminders throughout training camp thus far. Whether it was Freeman beating Deion Jones down the right sideline Sunday with a double move or Coleman darting across the and securing a pass in traffic earlier in camp, quarterback Matt Ryan knows both backs have the ability to be big-play threats as receivers. The running back duo combined for 883 yards on 85 catches with five touchdowns last season, so their dual-threat ability is not a new revelation. But again, watching them in practice reinforces how much talent Ryan has to work with outside of All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones. "The two guys -- Tevin, Devonta -- they're so versatile for us," Ryan said. "When you watch those guys compete this offseason, the way that they've practiced the start of camp, catching the football out of the backfield, it's going to be critical for us. I think those guys are two of the most talented guys in the league and are three-down backs. They catch the ball really well for us. They run the ball in between the tackles, outside the tackles. And they pass protect for us really well. So we're lucky to have both those guys." Freeman came to the Falcons with soft hands and the ability to run routes like a receiver. He had 73 receptions (for 578 yards) in 2015, second on the team behind Jones, who had 136 catches. Coleman really started to improve as a pass-catcher last season after he got over some of the fumbling issues that plagued him as a rookie. His breakout performance as a receiver came last year against Denver, when he won his one-on-one matchups against linebackers and caught four passes for 132 yards and a touchdown. Health will factor into Coleman's productivity moving forward, as he's dealt with his share of nagging injuries. "The goal is to just finish the season without being injured," Coleman told ESPN. "I had a couple injuries in my past two years, and I just want to finish this season without any injuries." Meanwhile, Freeman, who continues to wait for a contract extension, wants to play at an even higher level than the one that has earned him Pro Bowl selections the past two seasons. "It's another level I can go to," Freeman said. "It's always another level I can go to." New Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who took over for Kyle Shanahan, said one of the tweaks he planned to make was to find even more ways to use his dynamic running back tandem. "I think, first and foremost, we have two really electric tailbacks, and they are bad matchups on defenses," Sarkisian said. "Just making sure we're putting those guys in the best position to be successful -- whether it's separately on the field, whether it's being on the field together."
  23. This was informative for me. I hope you enjoy it. You basically get the full coaching bio in a 5 minute read. LINK Falcons' Marquand Manuel groomed by greats to coordinate defense By Vaughn McClure Ray Rhodes saw all the qualities years ago. The former NFL head coach and longtime defensive assistant recalled how a kid named Marquand Manuel, who played under Rhodes when he was the defensive coordinator in Seattle, used to arrive at the facility well before anyone else to dissect film. Rhodes remembered how Manuel, a safety from Florida, would remain on the field after practice trying to perfect his skills. And Rhodes remembered how Manuel wasn’t afraid to keep teammates afterward to make certain they understood the nuances of the defense. So it came as no surprise to Rhodes when Manuel, at age 37, was named the new defensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons under head coach Dan Quinn. "He was always very studious and very serious about football," Rhodes said. "He studied extremely hard. And he demonstrated the same on the field. And he was one of those guys who understood the game. I saw a young man that I knew would be a coach at some point. Heck, he was a coach back then." Rhodes’ endorsement of Manuel didn’t stop there. In reflecting on Super Bowl XL -- a game the Seahawks dropped to the Pittsburgh Steelers 21-10 -- Rhodes emphasized just how important Manuel was in the grand scheme. Manuel, the starter after Ken Hamlin’s nearly fatal beating outside a Seattle nightclub, got injured tackling Hines Ward in the second quarter and didn’t return. He was replaced by former practice-squad player Etric Pruitt. "My worst moment was when we were playing the Super Bowl and Marquand got hurt because it hurt the team that he wasn’t in there," Rhodes said. "Had Marquand been in the game, I really felt like we would have won the Super Bowl. For me as a defensive coordinator, I felt that good about him and his ability to execute the defenses. He understood everything. He was like a quarterback on the field." Manuel, who addressed the media Tuesday for the first time since being named coordinator, was quick to credit Rhodes for helping guide him to this point in his career. Manuel also praised his other coaching influences, including defensive mastermind **** LeBeau, his first NFL head coach in Cincinnati and currently the defensive coordinator in Tennessee; John Fox, the head coach when Manuel played for Carolina and now the head coach of the Chicago Bears; and Quinn, who was the defensive coordinator in Seattle when Manuel got his first defensive assistant job in 2013. Manuel played for six different NFL teams during his eight-year career and also learned under coaches such as Marvin Lewis, Gunther Cunningham and Leslie Frazier, among others. Manuel said LeBeau was the one who explained things in a calm, gentle manner. He said Rhodes was the one who "put his elbow in you" and taught him about devising game plans and making sure the players make the playcalls come to life. Frazier taught him about studying the demeanor of opponents and keeping calm under pressure as a playcaller. And standing next him on the sideline the last two seasons certainly prepared Manuel to see the game in the same manner as the defensive-minded Quinn. "I always tell the players I’ve been blessed because a lot of people look at me as a journeyman, but actually was blessed in the process of having some great coaches," Manuel said. "Then I go to Ray Rhodes, who collectively put it all together. He put the **** LaBeau with the Gunther; he put everybody together for me. Then I went to John Fox and [Mike] Trgovac. In those guys, there’s a piece that you took away from each one of them. "And me and Dan [Quinn] always talk about it from that standpoint of I’ve played in every defense known to mankind." Now for Manuel, it’s about simplifying things so his players can perform at a high level on Sundays. Of course, Quinn will have a big influence with his defensive coordinator background and after taking over the defensive playcalling from former coordinator Richard Smith at the end of last season. But Quinn, who had the top-ranked defense as the coordinator in Seattle, said Manuel will get ample opportunity to call plays. "No. 1, [it's] utilizing your staff and the preparation that we did throughout the week," Manuel said. "No. 2, understanding the tendencies of an offense and a coordinator in a game. ... I always tell the players this: I cannot adjust on Monday. It's too late. I've got to be able to do that on Sunday." The Falcons finished with the 25th-ranked total defense last season, allowing 371.2 yards per game. They were 28th against the pass (266.7 yards per game), 17th against the run (104.5 yards per game), and dead last in red zone defense, allowing opponents to convert 72.7 percent of the time. That same defense showed remarkable improvement as the season progressed, although it was the league’s top-ranked scoring offense that led the Falcons to the Super Bowl. The challenge for Manuel is getting a defense led by returning NFL sacks leader Vic Beasley Jr., onetime Pro Bowl cornerback Desmond Trufant and Defensive Rookie of the Year finalist Deion Jones to take another step, particularly against an NFC South that improved with the additions of DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard in Tampa, Christian McCaffrey in Carolina, and Adrian Peterson in New Orleans. "Getting DeSean in Tampa, it's understanding how he fits in their offense," Manuel said. "That's the first thing that you have to think about. Adrian Peterson? How does he fit in their offense? The weapons that they picked up as far as the draft, how do they fit in their offense? How is Jameis [Winston] going into this third year? "And I think that's the part of, we got better, too. A lot of people don't want to see that. We went and tagged some holes. Not only did we get better, but we also have our second-year guys that are coming back that now have experience they didn't have the first time. ... When you look at the division, the division has gotten better. It's going to take one week at a time, playing at our standard."
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