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  1. Top 5 Defense in 2018 FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- It's not a goal scribbled across a locker room chalkboard or written on a note inside each defender's locker, but the Atlanta Falcons feel confident about achieving a particular mark in 2018: evolving into a top-5 defense. Last season, under first-year defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel, the Falcons finished in the top 10 in both scoring defense (eighth at 19.7 points per game) and total defense (ninth at 318.4 yards per game) for the first time since 1998. Linebacker Deion Jones and strong safety Keanu Neal both played in the Pro Bowl, and nose tackle Grady Jarrett showed the NFL world why he should be an intimidating force for years to come. The Falcons return nine of 11 players who started on defense in a 15-10 divisional playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. It's still a relatively young unit as defensive end Brooks Reed, at 31, is the only player over 30. But most of the projected starters have at least two years completed in the system. "We're well capable of being a top-5 defense," said linebacker De'Vondre Campbell. "I think last year was just a glimpse of how good we can really be. I think we kind of started to put it all together toward the end of the season, and we've got something to build on now. We're all getting very comfortable with each other, day in and day out. This time of the year, this is when we really become close and get communication and all that stuff down pat. So, I think we definitely can be a top-5 defense. That's on us to make it happen." Falcons coach Dan Quinn certainly knows the makeup of a top-5 defense. He was the defensive coordinator in Seattle during the 2013 and 2014 seasons, as the Seahawks finished No. 1 overall in total defense and scoring defense in back-to-back years. He brought the same fast-and-physical mentality to the Falcons while installing a simple scheme that allows his players to play freely. However, the Falcons evolving into a top-5 defensive unit is not a topic Quinn is ready to approach. "Those are cool things that people can talk about postseason," Quinn said. "But during [the season], the main thing for me is it still comes down to points allowed -- and points scored, offensively -- and then that turnover margin. When those things are in order, you'll be a pretty [respected] defense. "I hope when people watch us play, they see the speed, they see the toughness, they see that ball-hawking mindset to go after it. I feel like we're definitely making progress to be the unit that we'd like to be. Put it this way: The goal is to be the best team." The Falcons, who finished 27th in scoring defense and 25th in total defense during the 2016 Super Bowl run, made their significant improvement last season despite not getting stellar performances from '16 sack champion Vic Beasley Jr. and one-time Pro Bowl cornerback Desmond Trufant. Beasley struggled through a hamstring injury and had to, at times, drop into coverage at strongside linebacker, and Trufant didn't look his confident self coming off a season-ending torn pectoral. Both are expected to rebound this season, specifically Beasley with his focus now solely on playing defensive end. The loss of '17 sack leader Adrian Clayborn to the New England Patriotsshouldn't be too painful as long as Takk McKinley takes the next step in his second season. McKinley continues to be limited coming off shoulder surgery, but the flashes he displayed in limited snaps as a rookie proved he could terrorize quarterbacks while rushing opposite of Beasley. Free-agent signee Terrell McClain and rookie third-round pick Deadrin Senatbring experience and depth, respectively, to the defensive line. Jack Crawford's return from a season-ending biceps injury and the re-signing of once-released Derrick Shelby also will add more bodies up front. The Falcons lost run-stuffing, space-eating defensive tackle Dontari Poe to Carolina in free agency. The team's addition of second-round pick Isaiah Oliver at cornerback, with his length and athleticism, should bolster the secondary -- particularly when it comes to defending taller receivers such as Tampa Bay's Mike Evans. Oliver's potential emergence could kick either Trufant or Robert Alford inside to nickelback, where Brian Poole held the title last season. And the Falcons count on free safety Ricardo Allen as the last line of defense in the single-high look to prevent explosive plays. Tackling and creating turnovers continues to be Quinn's primary emphasis with the group. Last season, the Falcons were minus-2 in the turnover ratio with 16 takeaways and 18 giveaways. Of the teams that finished in the top 5 in either total defense or scoring defense last season, only one -- the Denver Broncos [at minus-17] -- lost the turnover ratio. "Usually when you're really kicking [butt], if you can get to plus 8, 9, 10 for the year, you've played some good ball," Quinn said. "That's usually a good goal, to be in the plus. If you can get double-digit plus, you did a **** of a job. "I generally don't make big stat predictions. ... I don't get too caught up in that as much as I say, 'Did we cause turnovers? Did we take care of the ball? Were we explosive?' Those are the things that I measure and probably talk about with the guys the most." The Falcons have quite a defensive challenge from the outset with the Eagles on the NFL's opening night (Sept. 6). Philadelphia averaged 28.6 points per game last season, the same amount as New England and right behind the league-leading Los Angeles Rams (29.9 points per game). Four of the teams on the Falcons' 2018 schedule averaged better than 25 points per game last season: Philadelphia, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and NFC South rival New Orleans. "We want to be the best defense we can be," Jarrett said. "This program is full of competitors. Why not [top 5]? Guys want to be the best. But at the end of the day, it's about us handling our business, being sharp, and not shooting ourselves in the foot. The rest will take care of itself."
  2. Atlanta Falcons' 2017 draft picks: Analysis for every selection Vaughn McClure breaks down the Atlanta Falcons' 2017 draft class. Round 1, No. 26 overall: Takkarist McKinley, DE, UCLA My take: The Falcons' primary focus going into the draft was finding an edge rusher to team with reigning NFL sacks leader Vic Beasley Jr. The Falcons got quite a talent in McKinley, who referred to himself as "relentless" in regard to his ability to rush the passer. McKinley had 10 sacks for the Bruins during the 2016 season and ranked 10th in the nation with 1.6 tackles for loss per game. The addition of McKinley, along with picking up defensive tackle Dontari Poe in free agency, significantly improves the Falcons' pass rush, especially against a team such as NFC South foe Tampa Bay, which got better with the additions of veteran DeSean Jackson and rookie first-round draft pick O.J. Howard, the tight end from Alabama. Health factor: It was well-documented that McKinley underwent major right shoulder surgery in March and couldn't even work out for the Falcons during the pre-draft process. McKinley initially said the timetable for recovery was four to six months. But as he explained Thursday, he was supposed to wear a sling for five weeks but only wore it for three and was back rehabbing twice a day Monday through Saturday almost immediately after surgery. Falcons coach Dan Quinn said he anticipates McKinley will be ready by training camp, but the Falcons won't force the issue. McKinley basically played through the injury for two seasons. "Ain't no excuses," he said. "If you can play, you can play." Here's how McKinley described the specifics behind the injury: "They started using all these big words. I was like, 'I don't know what a glenoid is. Just tell me it's a bone socket.' I'm just ready to get it healthy and produce." Caught up in emotion: McKinley also took a moment to explain the emotion he showed immediately after being drafted, as he held a framed picture of his grandmother, Myrtle Collins. McKinley said he fulfilled a promise made to Collins -- who died in 2011 due to heart complications -- and his emotions led to dropping the F-word while being interviewed by Falcons Hall of Famer Deion Sanders at the draft. Sanders immediately provided McKinley with his first NFL lesson by telling him to control his emotions and channel them the right way. As Quinn said, "Maybe we need a cool-down period at the draft." The Falcons certainly want McKinley to use all that energy and emotion to track down opposing quarterbacks. Round 3, No. 75: Duke Riley, LB, LSU My take: When the Falcons not only conducted a private workout with the 6-foot, 250-pound Riley but also brought him in for a private visit, you knew there was some serious interest between the two sides. Riley has the run-and-hit factor Quinn looks for out of his defenders. Depth at linebacker was a concern leading into the draft as backup Paul Worrilow left for Detroit via free agency and the Falcons opted not to re-sign veterans Philip Wheeler and Sean Weatherspoon. The Falcons not only addressed depth but got younger and faster in the process. Plus they were able to trade out of the second round, pick up some fifth-round picks for depth, while snagging a quality player in Riley. How he fits: Riley told the Atlanta media that he’s willing to play anywhere. "If they want me to be a deep-snapper, I’ll be the best deep-snapper on the team," he said. "I know that’s not the ideal position, but I’m just saying it doesn’t matter where I’m at. I’m just ready to compete." Riley will start off playing weakside linebacker with his old college teammate, Deion Jones, manning the middle. But don’t get too tied in labeling Riley at one specific spot. He’s an inside linebacker with the versatility to move around, and Quinn will find a way to showcase Riley’s speed. Getting Jones, Riley, and De’Vondre Campbell all on the field at the same time will only make the defense that much faster and physical. Not to mention Riley brings value on special teams, which was his forte at LSU before he became a starter his final year. Round 4, No. 136: Sean Harlow, OG, Oregon State My take: The Falcons needed to look at guard at some point in Day 3 with the retirement of Chris Chester leaving a starting void at right guard. Addressing this position in the fourth round was a much wiser decision than picking a guy early in what was said to be a weak class of offensive linemen. The early word on Harlow (6-4, 305) is that his short arms (32 inch) don’t give him much punch, and his lack of length is the reason he won’t continue as a tackle after 37 starts there in college (23 left, 14 right). But Harlow, who threw up 26 bench press reps, does have some upper-body strength. And he has the bloodlines with his father, Pat, a former All-American offensive tackle at USC who went on to be the No. 11 overall pick of the Patriots in the 1991 NFL draft. It will be interesting to see how he develops. How he fits: Again, the Falcons have a void at right guard after Chester started there the previous two seasons. Quinn has plenty of faith in returning players Wes Schweitzer and Ben Garland, but Schweitzer wasn’t active for a single game last year and Garland made his best contribution at defensive tackle. That means Harlow probably has a legitimate shot to compete or at least add depth. The transition from tackle to guard might be tough, though, as Schweitzer discovered last year as a rookie. Harlow feels confident in his ability to get out and run in the outside zone-blocking scheme. Plus he was recruited out of high school by current Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, formerly the head coach at USC. Certainly Sarkisian wouldn’t have recruited Harlow back then if he didn’t believe he could fit his scheme. Damontae Kazee had 17 career interceptions at San Diego State. Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports Round 5, No. 149: Damontae Kazee, DB, San Diego State My take: Quinn said coming in that the draft was deep at defensive back, so the pick of Kazee isn’t a surprise. He was rated as a fourth-round pick by some, so the Falcons might have gotten good value out of him. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound Kazee has some ballhawking skills, obviously, being San Diego State’s career record-holder with 17 interceptions. He doesn’t have the size to play outside, but Quinn always can find a place for a guy who knows how to play the ball. How he fits: Kazee said the Falcons told him he’d play safety or nickel back in their defense. The Falcons have a solid crew of defensive backs. Kazee would add depth potentially at free safety, with Ricardo Allen now the starter and Brian Poole expected to get an audition at free safety as well. Poole was the primary nickel back last year, but that could change with Desmond Trufant coming back from injury and Robert Alford having the ability to kick inside in the nickel, with Jalen Collins strictly an outside guy. Again, Kazee is a guy who can provide depth if he shows the versatility to play both safety and nickel. Plus, he can make an immediate impression by carving out a role on special teams. Round 5, No. 156: Brian Hill, RB, Wyoming My take: The Falcons filled their biggest needs with a pass-rusher in the first round, a linebacker in the third round and a guard in the fourth round. The fifth round allowed them to look at the best players available to increase competition. On paper, Hill’s impressive resume included 1,860 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns this past season and another 1,631 rushing yards the previous year. Hill didn’t even expect to go to the Falcons based on what the team already has at the position. But he also said the Falcons "got the best running back in the draft in the fifth round.’’ You always like a kid with such confidence. How he fits: The 6-foot-1 inch, 219-pound Hill seems to run through defenders rather than around them, although he’s not necessarily just a power back. That adds another element behind Pro Bowl starter Devonta Freeman with his great vision and backup Tevin Coleman and his explosive speed. In short-yardage situations – like a third-and-1 with the game on the line – Hill might be a guy the Falcons can run between the tackles. The Falcons had three backs on the roster last season, but diminutive Terron Ward was the third. We’ll see what the Falcons make of Hill’s ability to pass protect. Of course, Hill would have to prove himself on special teams, too, but his running style could be an asset for new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. Round 5, No. 174: Eric Saubert, TE, Drake My take: Nothing too spectacular about this pick by the Falcons, and Saubert will have to make the transition from a smaller school that is not exactly known as a football powerhouse. But the 6-4, 242-pound Saubert was a productive pass-catcher with 56 receptions for 776 yards last season and 30-plus catches in all four seasons at Drake. He’s worth taking a look at to see what type of value he brings as a receiver because he’s not a blocking tight end by any means. How he fits: The Falcons have their top two tight ends in Austin Hooper and Levine Toilolo after not re-signing veteran Jacob Tamme, who remains a free agent. The third tight end role was big for the Falcons last season due to a slew of injuries. Saubert could come in and compete for that role against second-year player Joshua Perkins. One would think Perkins has the advantage having played for new Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian at the University of Washington. Saubert has size, strength, and is smart, which will help him. But he’ll have to work on his blocking if he hopes to make the team.
  3. 'Relentless' Takkarist McKinley eager to help Falcons forget Super Bowl Vaughn McClure FLOWERY BRACH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons first-round draft pick Takkarist McKinley doesn't bite his tongue, so the defensive end from UCLA was brutally honest when asked what he knew about his new defense. "I do know they had the Patriots up, 28-3, and they kind of just ran out of gas," McKinley said, referring to the Falcons' collapse in a 34-28 Super Bowl LI loss to New England. Maybe that wasn't exactly one of the first things Falcons fans wanted to hear McKinley utter, but at least he's fully aware of the biggest storyline going into the 2017 season: How the Falcons will respond from their Super Bowl hangover. A player as talented as McKinley should help the cause, especially when teamed with reigning NFL sacks leader Vic Beasley Jr. "For a D-lineman, it's hard to rush every single play," McKinley said. "So if I can just go out there (on) third downs, second down, or whatever just to give them guys a break and continue to pass rush, who knows how far we'll go." When the 6-foot-2-inch, 250-pound McKinley said "them guys," he was referring to Beasley and Dwight Freeney. The veteran Freeney isn't expected back, which puts that much more emphasis on McKinley's role coming in as a rookie. First and foremost, the Falcons have to make sure McKinley is healthy after surgery in March to repair a significant right shoulder injury originally expected to sideline McKinley, possibly until September. General manager Thomas Dimitroff said he was comfortable with the medical reports associated with McKinley's shoulder. And coach Dan Quinn expressed optimism about the timetable for McKinley's recovery. "Training camp, that's my hope," Quinn said. "If not, it will be soon after that." Quinn is confident it won't linger into the season. And he's confident McKinley will have an impact as another edge rusher on a line that now features Beasley, nose tackle Grady Jarrett, defensive tackle Dontari Poe, Adrian Clayborn, Derrick Shelby, Ra'Shede Hageman, and newcomer Jack Crawford. "This guy is a dog competitor," Quinn said of McKinley. Quinn expanded on what exactly he sees in McKinley's pass-rush skills. "The first (trait) was his initial get-off where he can really beat a guy to the punch," Quinn said. "It was that kind of speed that he can get out of his stance and go. We saw him play, at UCLA, linebacker, where he was in a two-point stance, and some where he was down and really going. We saw him play on both sides, that kind of flexibility. I'm anxious to work with him. We feel like we can help develop and train him and get him even stronger. ... But he does have the initial traits that we're looking for." McKinley was asked to describe his playing style. Again, he didn't bite his tongue. "I'm relentless," he said. "I've got heart. I've got the best motor in this class. A lot of guys don't run to the ball. They just jog to the ball. Or a lot of guys don't jog to the ball. For me, if a quarterback is scrambling, I want to be right there in his face scrambling with him to force a bad throw. ... I'm somebody that's going to go hard no matter what."
  4. Falcons' Adrian Clayborn uses stem-cell treatment to recover Vaughn McClure FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons defensive lineman Adrian Clayborn, who underwent knee surgery Nov. 29 but will play Saturday against Carolina, utilized stem-cell treatment to help return to the field faster than anticipated. Clayborn suffered a meniscus tear and a torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee. He had the initial surgical procedure in New York to repair the meniscus damage. The surgery included platelet rich plasma injections -- also a form of stem-cell treatment -- which involves spinning the patient's own blood to separate the platelets and injecting them into the injured area. Then last Monday, Clayborn flew to Arizona for the stem-cell injections. It was a 20-minute procedure that aims to regenerate the tissue and allow the knee to heal faster while preventing scar tissue. Stem cells are the body's raw materials, cells from which all other cells with specialized functions are generated. "I just heard from a lot of different players that it's worth doing," Clayborn said. "It was just going there, getting the shots in the knee, and letting the shots do their work. The team fully supported it." Clayborn, who missed the last three games after suffering the injury against the Arizona Cardinals on Nov. 27, returned to practice this week. "From the moment I started running last week, nothing hurt," Clayborn said. "It was a little bit of awkwardness, but no pain or no nothing. And then this week, we started actually practicing. Last week I did some drills, but [Wednesday] was my first day really practicing and going against other people. I felt like myself." Clayborn initially was expected to return for next week's season finale against New Orleans. However, the timetable shifted thanks to the surgery, the stem-cell injections and his loyalty to using his $24,000 hyperbaric recovery chamber. "That was his goal all along was this game; ours was maybe the next one," coach Dan Quinn said. "He wasn't hearing that and really put the time in to get ready. His knee is strong. He feels great. And he looked terrific in practice. We're pumped to have him back." Clayborn's return should help the Falcons put the heat on Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who has struggled under pressure this season. Dwight Freeney was the only Falcon to sack Newton back in Week 4, a 48-33 Atlanta win. Clayborn's 15 quarterback hits are tied for the team league along with Vic Beasley Jr. Clayborn has 4.5 sacks, second behind Beasley's 14.5, which also lead the league.
  5. Falcons might be wise to rest Julio Jones (turf toe) a game or two Vaughn McClure FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn has stated all season how star receiver Julio Jones is a warrior through injuries, but Quinn might want to intervene to make sure his warrior is ready for the stretch run. Quinn revealed Monday how Jones is dealing with turf toe, which is a sprain of the ligaments surrounding the big toe. It affects the ability to plant and cut, which is a big part of Jones' explosive game. Medical experts will tell you the mildest case of turf toe involves one to four weeks of recovery. A moderate case can be two to six weeks of recovery. And a severe case can be four weeks to an indefinite period. The last time Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan missed a game was in 2009 as a result of turf toe. In fact, Ryan missed two contests and three-plus quarters of another game as a result of the injury. It can be a serious issue if not treated with extreme caution, meaning the Falcons might want to consider at least sitting Jones this Sunday against the Rams, if not longer. Quinn said he's not worried about this being a serious case of turf toe for Jones, but the big picture of having Jones at his best for a playoff run has to be at the forefront of the Falcons' thoughts. Quinn was asked about handling Jones' injury delicately. "You know, I have a good relationship with him, and that's something we discuss together," Quinn said. "When he can perform at a level that he's comfortable with -- he knows he's not going to feel 100 percent, much like a lot of the guys in the locker room. You ask them what hurts, and there's going to be a long list if you ask them. "However, there's a level that he knows he can play with ... He is an extremely fast healer, all the work that he puts in off the field to get right. ... Knowing what he's capable of, knowing what he's capable of playing with, that's a conversation that he and I will have together." No doubt Jones will insist he's "good to go," just like he did after suffering the left-foot injury in Sunday's 29-28 loss to Kansas City, and just like he's maintained the entire season. He hasn't missed a start despite appearing on the injury report with ankle, shoulder, calf, and knee injuries through the first 12 games. In fact, the last game Jones missed was Dec. 14 of 2014 against Pittsburgh as a result of a hip injury. So, Jones has played in 30 consecutive games. There's nothing wrong with that streak coming to an end, particularly if it's best for the team. And Jones, who leads the NFL 1,253 receiving yards, said he doesn't care about individual numbers. He wants to do what's best for the team. The Falcons are 4-0 this season in games when Jones has 35 or less receiving yards, meaning the offense is capable of functioning without him. At 7-5 and tied atop the NFC South with the Buccaneers, the Falcons should be able to contend with the Rams (4-8) without Jones, and certainly should be able to beat the 49ers (1-11) at home in a couple weeks if Jones is resting. It might be a tougher task for Ryan if he's without Jones, left tackle Jake Matthews (knee sprain), and receiver Mohamed Sanu (groin strain), but the Falcons have a two-headed monster in the backfield with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman and a beast at center in Alex Mack. We'll see how Quinn proceeds with the situation after taking a look at Jones' progress come Wednesday. But the Falcons certainly want their best player as healthy as can be for when it matters most.
  6. Falcons' rookie Keanu Neal learns hard lesson in loss Vaughn McClure ATLANTA -- Keanu Neal didn't have his best game. There was no getting around it. The Atlanta Falcons strong safety and rookie first-round draft pick took a step back in Sunday's 29-28 loss to Kansas City, and he knows it. "There were opportunities that I had that I didn't make," Neal said. "I was lined up on the tight end a lot, Travis Kelce. He got me a few times. He got the best of me." Late in the game, when the Falcons needed a defensive stop, Neal gave up a key first-down reception to Kelce on second-and-10 from the Chiefs' 8-yard line. Neal was also in coverage on a 35-yard pass play from Alex Smith to Kelce on the Chiefs' initial drive. Kelce made a quick stutter move as if he was about to cut off his route, then simply outran Neal down the left sideline. The play set up a touchdown. Neal also had a noticeable missed tackle on Kelce in the second quarter, allowing Kelce to pick up 27 yards and set up another touchdown. And Neal was blocked to the ground by Kelce on an end-around play that went for 23 yards. "There's always a lesson in the struggle," Neal said. "It's just going to make me a better player in the end, but it sucks to experience this stuff. I do know it's going to help me in the long run. I just can't let that stuff happen." Neal was asked which play irritated him the most. "There's no specific play," he said. "It's just the opportunities that I had, I didn't make. That's it." Falcons coach Dan Quinn was asked what he saw in the noticeable mistakes made by his rookie draft picks: Neal, middle linebacker Deion Jones, and weakside linebacker De'Vondre Campbell. "I do know some missed tackles, usually that comes down to leverage, and I know those are correctable and fixable," Quinn said. "No need for us to go further than that until I look at the tape with them and get those issues corrected. "Tackling still comes down to leverage and owning that leverage and making your hits. When we have those, it usually looks pretty good. And when we lose that leverage, oftentimes that’s not. I know those issues if that’s what you're speaking of specifically. We’ll get that addressed."
  7. Falcons TE Tamme (shoulder) likely out for remainder of season Vaughn McClure FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Atlanta Falcons are likely to lose tight end Jacob Tamme to season-ending shoulder surgery, while the outlook for Pro Bowl cornerback Desmond Trufant and running back Tevin Coleman appears optimistic as they recover from their respective injuries. Tamme is scheduled to get a second opinion Wednesday on the right shoulder he injured Oct. 30 against Green Bay. It's highly likely Tamme will then have surgery Thursday. "We're bummed for him,'' Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "It's a significant one. He's been trying like **** to rehab and just not coming through like he wanted.'' Quinn said that is not the case with Trufant, who suffered a shoulder/pectoral injury in a 43-28 win Nov. 3 at Tampa Bay. This week's bye gives Trufant extra time to recover before the Falcons play the Arizona Cardinals on Nov. 27. "He's definitely dealing with it," Quinn said of Trufant. "We're hopeful that he can practice some next week. And if he can, whether it's Arizona or whoever we play after Arizona, we've got to find out. He's doing good now. He's running and doing everything. So now we just have to see where he's at.'' Quinn insisted that Trufant will return at some point and the injury is not serious enough to be season-ending, even with the pectoral element factored in. "You totally can [play with the injury],'' Quinn said. "It depends on the severity of what he has and how deep. ... If it was something really significant, then he would have had the procedures done." "I'm trying to be mindful of him knowing that he's wanting to play. He's going to practice hopefully some the Arizona week. And then we'll determine, 'Does he look good enough to play, or do we wait another week?' And then we'll kind of go from there.'' Meanwhile, Quinn said he expects Coleman to be a full participant in practice after the bye coming off a hamstring strain. Coleman has missed the past three games because of the injury. Punter Matt Bosher, who exited Sunday's 25-14 loss at Philadelphia with a hamstring strain, could be back for the Falcons' next game. The Falcons have no immediate plans to sign a punter. Kicker Matt Bryant handled the punting after Bosher left the Eagles' game, though wide receiver Mohamed Sanu volunteered to punt. The loss of Tamme, who caught 22 passes for 2010 yards and three touchdowns through eight games, will mean an increased role for rookie Austin Hooper at tight end with a rotation that also will include Levine Toilolo and rookie Joshua Perkins. Until Trufant returns, Jalen Collins will run with the starters at cornerback. Quinn said Collins played "solid'' against the Eagles in place of Trufant.
  8. Falcons D-line coach Bryan Cox: Sack total gets media off our back Vaughn McClure FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons defensive line coach Bryan Cox doesn’t get too caught up in statistics, but he admitted the 20 sacks recorded by the team through nine games -- one more sack than last season’s league-low total -- has brought about a significant change. "It’s nice because it stops the media from talking about it," Cox said with sarcasm. "But that ain’t never been my motivation. Our motivation, it’s always been about getting the quarterback off the spot." The Falcons have figured out how to consistently generate pressure, led by Vic Beasley Jr. with his 7.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. According to ESPN Stats & Info research, the Falcons lead the league since Week 5 with 16 sacks and 38 contacts with opposing quarterbacks. Many factors have contributed to the surge. Cox offered his thoughts on some of them: Beasley more focused: Beasley, who dealt with his share of criticism last season as a rookie first-round draft pick, seems to have found his stride in Year 2. He told ESPN.com he has really become student of the game in breaking down film of other great pass-rushers while studying his own technique as well as opposing offensive linemen. Falcons defensive coordinator Richard Smith, formerly the linebackers coach in Denver, introduced Beasley to Super Bowl MVP Von Miller. Beasley used Miller’s advice to help elevate his game. Cox notices the difference in Beasley’s approach. "I think that’s a testament to him having an open mind and a willingness to go and ask the right things, a willingness to be able to draw on some of his experiences, too," Cox said of Beasley. "But also, he’s on Earth right now. You never know where Vic is. He might be on Jupiter. He might be on Mars. He might be on Earth. I’m just happy right now he’s on Earth.’’ Freeney's professionalism: Beasley is more grounded because of the time he has spent with seven-time Pro Bowl defensive end Dwight Freeney, one of the best pass-rushers in NFL history. The 36-year-old Freeney brought his signature spin move and a wealth of knowledge to the Falcons this season. He has recorded three sacks and eight quarterback hits as a nickel pass-rusher. "I cannot tell you what the presence of having Dwight Freeney has meant to us," Cox said. "That might be the single biggest addition to our team. "He’s a pro. You talk about having numerous Pro Bowls behind him. You’re talking about studying tape. You talk about running players-only meetings. You talk about getting guys on the same page. You talk about the signal-caller calling out the [stunts]. You’re talking about just a true pro. You’re talking about somebody who is able to teach young guys, and even old guys, 'Hey, here’s what we’re going to do. Here’s how we’re going to do it.'" An example of Freeney’s professionalism took place a few weeks ago. He suffered a Grade 2 quadriceps tear in a Week 7 loss to San Diego. It was supposed to keep him out at least three weeks. With the Falcons in the midst of a two-game losing streak, Freeney played the very next week at Green Bay. "At that situation and at that time, we just came off two losses ... that were hard losses because we should have won both of them," Freeney said. "So I felt like we really needed to win the Green Bay game. I felt like we couldn’t afford to not have everybody ready to go. And I felt like I had the most experience against Aaron Rodgers and that offense." Cox expressed admiration for Freeney’s decision. "That just probably speaks to who he is; his character and his ability to put team first and take himself out of it," Cox said. "He has been really good for me in terms of temperament and in terms of just having somebody that’s been through a bunch of wars and through the battles, so when I say something, he’s someone who can just carry the message." Clayborn’s relentless effort: The unsung hero of the Falcons' defense might be Adrian Clayborn, the veteran defensive end and former first-round pick of Tampa Bay. Clayborn is second on the team with 4.5 sacks and leads the Falcons with 14 quarterback hits. His relentless style is evident on a weekly basis. Does Cox think Clayborn’s contribution is overlooked? "No," Cox said. "From inside this building, we understand who he is and what he does. That’s all I’m caught up in. Any other noise from anywhere else outside this building, it’s like water off a duck’s back. His mindset, he’s just one of the tougher guys on our team. The way that he approaches it is just professional. "We’ve had success coming from various people, [Clayborn] included." Not to be forgotten is nose tackle Grady Jarrett, who had three sacks until the NFL took away one of his two sacks from last week’s Tampa Bay game. Blitzing cornerback Desmond Trufant (two sacks) and outside linebacker Brooks Reed (one) also have contributed to the team’s sack total. Now it’s up to the Falcons to keep the pressure going against the Eagles and rookie quarterback Carson Wentz this Sunday. Although Wentz is 3-0 at home, he has had some struggles against pressure, particularly in the red zone. Beasley, Freeney, Clayborn and crew have to make sure Wentz remains uncomfortable. And playing without the injured Trufant (shoulder) only makes it more of an emphasis for the Falcons to get after the quarterback. We'll see if the pass-rushers keep the media silent, as Cox would say.
  9. Falcons rookie Deion Jones has no problem sharing reps Vaughn McClure Atlanta Falcons rookie starting middle linebacker Deion Jones didn't seem the least bit disturbed about having to share some reps with LaRoy Reynolds during Sunday's 24-15 loss at Philadelphia. Jones played 59 of 79 defensive snaps, while Reynolds subbed in and played 20 snaps. Both players say it was a predetermined rotation by the coaches. Jones, the team's second-round draft pick from LSU, didn't view it as any sort of demotion or indictment of his play. He played all 80 snaps the previous week in a win at Tampa Bay, while Reynolds did not play at all on defense against the Buccaneers. "Surprising? No. We already talked about it," Jones said. "LaRoy works hard during the week. He's a baller. He's a dog. And I don't mind sharing my reps with him. He's going to play fast. I know it gives me a chance to get a blow. And I trust him out there." Although Jones missed one game with a sprained ankle, he said injury had nothing to do with the coaches' decision to rotate against the Eagles. In fact, the Falcons did the same at Will linebacker with rookie starter De'Vondre Campbell and former starting middle linebacker Paul Worrilow, who has played exclusively at the Will during his limited defensive reps this season. Campbell had a serious ankle injury earlier in the season, while Worrilow missed time following groin surgery. "Coach [Dan Quinn] wanted to let everybody be a part of this," Reynolds said. "I think we can help each other out just switching up the rotation a little bit. That was planned this week, so I just stuck with it, did what Coach asked, and that was it. "I commend [Jones] for those words and I appreciate it. But I think, as a group, I think we all feed off each other. We all understand that we can all do the job. And it shows a lot of maturity for him. I think that’s big." Quinn made a general statement regarding the rotation of players against the Eagles. "Some of it was injury related, some was just a matter of where we wanted to keep a guy fresh and keep going," Quinn said without getting into specifics about injuries. Although Jones led the team with 11 tackles against the Eagles, it's hard to say the rotation worked in the Falcons' favor, considering they gave up a season-high 208 yards rushing, including 109 yards and two touchdowns to Ryan Matthews. It was the first time the Falcons had surrendered 100 yards rushing to a player since Minnesota's Adrian Peterson went for 158 at the Georgia Dome last November. Although defensive lineman Tyson Jackson pointed the blame at the defensive front and not the linebackers for surrendering so many rushing yards, Jones certainly took the poor performance personally. "I feel like I need to buckle down this week, really look at how I’ve been playing, the things I’ve been doing well and mostly correcting the things I’ve done wrong," Jones said. "This week during the bye is a good week to reset and focus on all of those things and get back to work next week." Reynolds took things to heart, as well. "I think as the Mike linebacker, that’s what you do. Any linebacker, you want to take ownership," Reynolds said. "You want to be the lead dog. You want to be able to control everything, make sure everybody is lined up and in the right place. For me, it’s a big responsibility. I just try to prepare like I’m starting and make sure I’m getting the guys ready." Reynolds was asked if he expects to get increased reps to spell Jones. "We’ll see," Reynolds said. "It’s the bye week so I think this will be a good opportunity just to watch the film, see how we played, and see where we go from there."
  10. Falcons' Jalen Collins: I owe my teammates one Vaughn McClure FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The pressure Atlanta Falcons cornerback Jalen Collins feels going into his 2016 debut Sunday has nothing to do with being last year's second-round draft pick. It has everything to do with Collins wanting to make amends for the misstep that led to him being away from the team to begin the season. The second-year player from LSU was suspended for the first four games after violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances. Collins was then inactive the past two weeks as the coaches elected to stick with the same group of special-teamers. He'll play Sunday against the visiting San Diego Chargers, with reserve cornerback/special-teamer C.J. Goodwin ruled out as a result of a hamstring injury. "The only pressure for me is for me to go out there and perform for my team," Collins said. "I owe it to them guys. I made a mistake, and I just have to go out there and get back to it." Collins never disclosed what substance led to the suspension. He trained at a local gym before being reinstated. Falcons coach Dan Quinn commended Collins for taking ownership of the mistake and expressing an obligation to his teammates. "I love that he has that mindset," Quinn said. "Like he's so committed to his brothers on the team. ... 'Man, I want to show I want to help.' The first way he's helped is over the last few weeks of going for it in practice, standing up battling for it. I knew he was ready. He looked fit coming in. "Sometimes when you're guy that's got something to prove, that could be a dangerous person." Collins, who struggled as a rookie last season while starting two games, will fill a role outside as a gunner on special teams Sunday. He seems unlikely to get much time on defense unless starting cornerback Robert Alford continues to have issues with penalties. Collins has yet to display the type of consistency and ball skills that made him a higher draft pick and even, in some eyes, a first-round talent. "He’ll stay mostly outside, but the times that we match that’s when you see the other guys go inside," Quinn said of Collins' role on defense. "You’ve seen Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford inside, so on times that we’ve matched some people you would see Jalen inside, but we’d like to keep him outside." Collins didn't sound too consumed about what role he'll play. "Those guys [Trufant, Alford and nickel back Brian Poole] have been doing a great job," Collins said. "As far as me, I'm just grateful to be back. Whatever they need me to do, I'm going to do it. I've just got to come back ready."
  11. Falcons rookie Keanu Neal looking to be more than just a big hit Vaughn McClure FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Dan Quinn knew Keanu Neal would be a big hit, and the rookie strong safety has been steady and physical on defense since rebounding from preseason arthroscopic knee surgery. But now the Atlanta Falcons' coach wants to see another level of play from his first-round draft pick. So what does that entail? "Ball-hawking," Quinn said. "He’s such a physical guy, so now can you force some fumbles or can you get the ball off of guys because the man-to-man matchups and the tackling that he’s had, it’s exactly like we’d hoped it would be. And then the next step as a ball player is having that same physicality and then, oh by the way, trying to get the ball out as well." The Falcons have five interceptions but just one fumble recovery on defense. Neal and pass-rusher Vic Beasley Jr. each have forced two fumbles, but the opposing team has recovered all of them. League-leader Buffalo has six fumble recoveries, and 25 teams have two or more fumble recoveries this season. Atlanta is plus-1 in the turnover ratio, much better than last year's minus-7 finish. Yet the defensive-minded Quinn is, of course, greedy when it comes to wanting more turnovers. Forcing the ball out on defense is emphasized daily. That's why defensive players are required to punch at the ball on every play in practice. Neal has gotten used to the routine. Now he just has to put it to better use. "I didn't get a ton [of forced fumbles or recoveries] in college, but that's something I can do," Neal said. "It's something I'm going to focus more on throughout the week. That's what are program is all about. It's all about the ball. Being ball-aware is huge, and I want to make sure I do that." That's not the only aspect of his game that Neal is trying to refine. He's played in just four regular-season games, so he's still has some learning to do. "It's understanding what offenses are doing and what they're trying to do, how they're trying to attack us," Neal said. "I have an idea, but I want to be really, really dialed in and really detailed on that. I'm studying more. I'm seeing it from a perspective of, 'What are they trying to do to me?'" Neal is third on the team with 32 tackles. His hard-hitting style is evident every week. The only thing that might slow him down is if his knee gives him issues once again. He popped up on the injury report Thursday as limited in preparation for Sunday's game against San Diego. Quinn said it will just be a case of maintenance throughout the season. Neal's not overly concerned. "It feels fine," Neal said. "It feels good."
  12. Dwight Freeney could give Falcons additional boost with leadership Vaughn McClure Dwight Freeney has been there before. The seven-time Pro Bowler experienced the ultimate high of winning Super Bowl XLI while with the Indianapolis Colts. He also went through an extreme low as a part of the Colts' 2-14 implosion in 2011 without the injured Peyton Manning. Such experiences are part of the reason why the 36-year-old Freeney was such a valuable addition to a young Atlanta Falcons defense -- and to the team, period. With the Falcons off to a 4-1 start and riding a four-game winning streak into Sunday's game against the Seattle Seahawks, Freeney surely can offer his own perspective on why how you finish is much more important than how you start. Remember, the Falcons were 5-0 last season but finished 8-8 and failed to make the playoffs. "Last year was a different team, and I wasn't here," Freeney said. "And I'm not saying I'm here to change everything. All I know is I have a lot of experience with over 300 games played. I understand what it takes to win every week and focus in every week. "Come Mondays, I don't care what we did on Sunday. We're 0-0. We haven't won a game yet, in my mind. I try to talk to the guys about that all the time. At halftime, if we're winning, it's 'Guys, it's 0-0. We haven't done anything yet.' Keep that mentality. Then at the end of the year, you add it all up and it's like, 'We had a great year. We won the Super Bowl.'" The Falcons need a strong voice to emerge in the locker room, and maybe Freeney can be that guy. The team lost its most vocal leader when linebacker Sean Weatherspoon went down with a season-ending Achilles tear. Then the Falcons' decision to re-sign then cut O'Brien Schofield was just a tease of having Schofield's leadership to fall back on. Quarterback Matt Ryan has a leadership role, of course, but he's not one you expect to raise his voice often. The team's top player, wide receiver Julio Jones, leads by example. The same has been said about unheralded safety/linebacker Kemal Ishmael. But Freeney is the one guy in the group with a Super Bowl ring to back his talk. "In Indianapolis, I think we made it to the playoffs [nine] straight years and [nine] straight years of 10-plus wins. That means at some point, something had to sink in for me,'' Freeney said. "The biggest thing Tony Dungy and those guys instilled was taking things one week at a time. That's all you worry about." Falcons coach Dan Quinn offered his take on Freeney filling a leadership role. "It's nice to have a person who has experience, who has had real success, and to go through the process they do to get ready," Quinn said. "One of the things that everybody is just so impressed with Dwight is the process he goes through to get ready. He has relentless film study getting ready for a game. It's very contagious. A player may look and say, 'OK, that's what it looks like,' which is nice not coming from a coach. "If you know you're really working, you're really battling for it to try and find any edge that you can. And I think that's really what describes Dwight. For sure, that can be an impact on any team, especially a young one." Not to mention Freeney has started to make a noticeable impact on the field with a sack in each of the last three games. We'll see if he keeps the streak going against the Seahawks and Russell Wilson, who has been sacked nine times this season.
  13. Falcons' Tevin Coleman brushes off sickle cell concerns to soar in Denver Vaughn McClure DENVER -- Atlanta Falcons running back Tevin Coleman didn't go into Sunday's game thinking about worst-case scenarios. His concerns over how being a carrier of the sickle cell trait could have a negative effect in Denver's altitude were well-documented, although such a disorder is more of an issue in extreme heat. Coleman didn't have any health issues in Sunday's 23-16 win over the Denver Broncos. In fact, he racked up 163 yards on 10 touches. He hauled in his first career touchdown reception on a 31-yard pass from Matt Ryan in the third quarter, a play that gave the Falcons breathing room at 20-3. "I put it out of my mind," Coleman said of the health concerns. "I wasn't even thinking about it because I knew everybody had my back. The trainers, they had my back. Every time I came to the sideline, there was something to drink. There was oxygen. They prepared me to go out there and play." Coleman led the Falcons with a career-high 132 receiving yards on four catches (six targets). He looked like a seasoned receiver when he lined up in the slot and beat linebacker Brandon Marshall down the field for the touchdown. "I mean, yeah, right now I'm going out there and making big-time catches and running routes," said Coleman, who was not known for his hands last season. "It's kind of half and half now: half running back/half receiver." A hybrid, right? "You could say that," Coleman said with a laugh.
  14. Falcons set to face Cam Newton, angry Panthers team looking for revenge Vaughn McClure LOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Carolina Panthers felt pretty good about themselves riding into the Georgia Dome last year with a 14-0 record. Then the Atlanta Falcons ended their dreams of an undefeated season. Surely the Panthers, off to a 1-2 start, still have a bad taste in their mouths after that 20-13 loss to the Falcons in Week 16. And now they come to Atlanta fresh off a 22-10 home loss to a Minnesota Vikings team playing without Adrian Peterson. Can the 2-1 and NFC South-leading Falcons duplicate last year's feat? Well, it will be quite a challenge against a Panthers defense that is light years better than the one put on the field by the Saints Monday night. And although reigning NFL MVP Cam Newton got thrown around like a rag doll against the Vikings (eight sacks), he is a dangerous dual-threat quarterback capable of outscoring the Falcons by his lonesome. Here are six Panthers to watch, courtesy of ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton: QB Cam Newton: Not all of the eight sacks against the NFL MVP by Minnesota can be blamed on the offensive line. Pro Football Focus credited three of the sacks on Newton for holding onto the ball too long. Teams are going to blitz Newton after seeing how Denver and Minnesota have disrupted him with it. Newton has to adjust and get rid of the ball quicker. He was 6-for-11 for 61 yards with three sacks when blitzed by the Vikings. WR Kelvin Benjamin: Cam Newton said it was "baffling and wowing" that Benjamin was held without a catch against Minnesota, the first time in his NFL career that has happened. That Benjamin was only targeted once, and that one almost was intercepted late, was just as baffling. The 6-foot-5 receiver was averaging 5.3 catches and 10.2 targets a game before Sunday. This came after Benjamin had 13 catches for 199 yards and three touchdowns in the first two games. Yes, wowing and baffling, but there should be plenty of targets against a suspect Atlanta defense. LT Michael Oher: Oher struggled against Minnesota's pass rush, giving up two sacks and five hurries. The Vikings often loaded up Oher's side and came right at him. He'll likely get similar looks from Atlanta, and for Cam Newton to be effective he'll have to play stout instead of looking like he is on skates going backwards. DEFENSE CB James Bradberry: The matchup with Atlanta wide receiver Julio Jones was one former Carolina cornerback Josh Norman looked forward to the past two seasons. Norman more than held his own. Now that task likely falls on Bradberry, a second-round pick out of Samford. Bradberry has played well when matched up against Denver's Demaryius Thomas and Minnesota's Stefon Diggs. He had PFF's highest cornerback rating in Week 2 against San Francisco, and graded out at 80.8 on Sunday against Minnesota. He limited Diggs to three catches for 34 yards on six targets. He's got the height (6-1) and physicality to match up with Jones (6-3), but this definitely will be his toughest test to date. LB Luke Kuechly: He's coming off his best game of the season with 12 tackles against Minnesota. He also played his usual stout self in pass coverage despite giving up a couple of first downs to tight end Kyle Rudolph. But Kuechly, as we saw when he wound up about 50 yards downfield covering Julio Jones last season, has to be at the top of his game against an Atlanta offense that will attack the middle of the field with Jones and a tandem of running backs that carried the offense against New Orleans. CB Robert McClain: Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan is again looking like the Pro Bowler that racked up big passing numbers. That could mean a lot more nickel for the Panthers, which would mean a lot more McClain. If so, he'll play a big role since the Falcons will line Julio Jones up all over the place to get him more involved against a Carolina defense that will make it tough to run.
  15. Falcons looking to fix 'embarrassing' pass rush Vaughn McClure FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – When Atlanta Falcons defensive end Adrian Clayborn looks at the stat sheet and sees one sack for the team through two games, he shakes his head. "Nobody wants to see that, man. It's embarrassing," Clayborn said. "That's embarrassing, to be honest." Vic Beasley Jr. is the guy credited with the one sack, and it came only as a result of Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr running out of bounds with Beasley in pursuit. "It's hurtful," Beasley said of the team's sack production. "But we know what we're capable of. We just have to keep going. We have to keep the right mindset and stay positive." The Falcons enter Week 3 at the bottom of the league, along with the Pittsburgh Steelers, with just one sack. Remember, the Falcons finished last in the league with 19 sacks a year ago. And, according to ESPN Stats and Info, the Falcons have posted two sacks or fewer in 19 consecutive games, by far the longest active streak. The next longest streak is held by the Raiders, Panthers, and Browns (five consecutive games each). Monday night's game against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints would be the perfect time to start generating pressure, no matter how difficult it will be to get after the quick-trigger veteran quarterback. The Falcons sacked Brees just once in 81 pass attempts last season. They would love to mirror the performance from December 2014, when the Falcons sacked Brees five times and picked him off twice in a 30-14 win to eliminate the Saints from playoff contention. For the Falcons to affect Brees, they’ll have to work in unison. "It's coming together," said Dwight Freeney, the seven-time Pro Bowler who was signed this preseason to get sacks. "Pass rush is like chipping on a boulder -- keep hitting at it, keeping chipping at it, and one of these games or ones of these times, that boulder's going to crack. So, it's going to happen. I think we've got some stuff installed." First and foremost, the Falcons might be able to take advantage of the Saints' injury situation. Starting left tackle Terron Armstead is out for the game with a knee injury, meaning Freeney could see Andrus Peat, Senio Kelemete or Tony Hills while rushing from the right side. Going back to the season opener against Tampa Bay, the Falcons ran somewhat of an effective stunt with Freeney and Clayborn on the right side that allowed Freeney to come free on an inside rush, although it didn't result in a sack. Running such stunts effectively -- and quickly -- might be part of the solution against Brees, with the aspect of bringing pressure in his face and disturbing his vision. When pressure comes off the edges, the savvy Brees typically has the pocket presence to step up and make a play anyhow. "In practice, it works well," said defensive lineman Derrick Shelby, who typically works off Beasley on the left side, of the stunts. "We just have to transfer that over to the game. Brees, he's a shorter guy, so you’ve got to have guys in his face. And once he starts to move, he's not nearly the quarterback he is sitting in the pocket. That's always the plan with Brees. You've got to get him off the spot." Last year at the Georgia Dome, Beasley came on an inside rush against Brees in the red zone and put his hands up to deflect a pass, but Beasley was called for roughing the passer after hitting Brees in the head with his follow-through. In the same game, the Falcons tried to pressure Brees by sending linebacker Philip Wheeler on the blitz. Wheeler, known as the team's best blitzer, is moving back to inside linebacker, so maybe he'll be involved Monday. At the same time, the Falcons believe they're better equipped to blitz and play man to man when rookie linebacker De'Vondre Campbell is on the field in coverage. Campbell is out again this week with a significant left ankle injury. Brees is completing 73 percent of his passes so far this season when he's not blitzed, by the way. However, if the Falcons plan to attack Brees, they have to be more disruptive than they've been the first two games. "Everything is good," Freeney said. "It's coming. Some games, the ball is going to come out quickly. If it's under 2 seconds or 2.5 seconds, I don't care who you are, you're not going to get the sack."
  16. Kyle Shanahan likes spreading the ball, giving Julio Jones more quality looks Vaughn McClure FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan emphasized Friday the benefits of having quarterback Matt Ryan spread the ball around despite the team having a dominant wide receiver in Julio Jones. In the 35-28 Week 2 victory over Oakland, Ryan completed passes to nine different receivers, and starting running back Devonta Freeman -- second on the team in receptions last season -- wasn’t one of them. "It’s been nice," Shanahan said. "Teams are going to have to do something to Julio, with how good Julio is. And everyone knows that. You really hope Ju is one on one, and you feel pretty good about those matchups. But it’s nice when he’s not and he’s got some bad looks, there’s a lot of other opportunities out there at the tight-end position, the receiver position and the running-back position. "You’ve got other guys who have made plays. It makes it easier. You don’t have to force it into tough looks. You can go where the coverage tells you. And when you do that, it kind of balances the field out and makes Ju’s catches a little more valuable. You might not have the same numbers for Ju and stuff, but I think the result ends up improving the offense." Jones, who is recovering from a calf injury, leads the Falcons with 172 receiving yards and two touchdowns catches. However, he is second on the team in catches with nine to tight end Jacob Tamme's 11. Jones had been targeted 13 times, three fewer than Tamme and the same number of times as fellow receiver Mohamed Sanu (eight catches, 99 yards, TD). Six Falcons have four or more catches through the first two games. Through the first two games last season, Jones had 22 receptions for 276 yards and two touchdowns on 27 targets. The Falcons won both of those games -- against the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants -- but that doesn’t mean force-feeding Jones automatically equals victory. Having other receivers make plays and beat one-on-one coverage is likely to give Jones more chances at one-on-one opportunities. We’ll see if the Falcons spread the ball around Monday night in New Orleans, with the Saints giving up their share of passing yards (336 yards per game) and having a banged-up secondary. The Saints mix in some man coverages with their deep zones and are likely to try to double Jones. Running the ball with Freeman and Tevin Coleman would be wise, of course, to help set up explosive play-action plays. And the Giants and Eli Manning, who ran a lot of no-huddle, had success moving the ball down the middle of the field against the Saints in Week 2, although New Orleans certainly tightened up in the red zone by not allowing any touchdowns.
  17. Matt Ryan, Falcons looking to air it out Vaughn McClure Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan vowed to take more shots down the field this season. Thanks to Week 2, he’s on a good pace. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Ryan trails only Oakland’s Derek Carr in completion percentage of passes thrown at least 20 yards downfield through two games. Ryan has hit on 4 of 6 of those passes for 185 yards. (Carr is 3-of-4 for 108 with one touchdown). Ryan was 3-of-3 on balls thrown 20-plus yards in the air during Sunday’s 35-28 victory over Carr and the Raiders. The Falcons signal-caller threw a 46-yard pass to Julio Jones that resulted in a 48-yard gain. He also threw a 31-yard pass to rookie tight end Austin Hooper that resulted in a 44-yard gain, as the wide-open Hooper picked up 13 yards after catch. Ryan also threw a 25-yard pass to Hooper that led to a 34-yard gain. And in the season-opening, 31-24 loss to Tampa Bay, Ryan threw a 23-yard pass to a wide-open Mohamed Sanu that resulted in a 59-yard gain. Last season, Ryan was 19-of-44 (43.2 percent) for 612 yards with three touchdowns and four interceptions in passes 20-plus yards down the field. Going deeper does lead to a lower completion percentage, but the Falcons need to take chances, particularly with the dynamic Jones usually on the receiving end. Jones was one of the first to say Ryan’s arm is much stronger this season, and Ryan with through intense training with a pair of ex-baseball players to improve his long ball. We will see if Ryan and the Falcons continue to go deep, particularly Monday night against the rival New Orleans Saints (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). The Saints, with a depleted secondary, surrender 336 passing yards per game and 8.51 passing yards per play. "I think you definitely try to attack," Ryan said during his weekly appearance on WCNN-AM 680 The Fan in Atlanta. "Part of what we do every week is try and find where we have an advantage offensively. ... I thought [the Saints' defense] did a good job against New York in terms of they gave up yards, but they did a good job of keeping things in front and being really tough in the red zone. "We've got to find ways to create explosive plays, which I think we'll be able to do. And then when we get in the red area, we've got to be really effective."
  18. Falcons defensive reinforcenments Keanu Neal, O'Brien Schofield could return soon Vaughn McClure FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Atlanta Falcons are on pace to add at least two fresh defensive pieces, including their first-round draft pick. Falcons coach Dan Quinn said rookie safety Keanu Neal, who hasn't played this season after having arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in the preseason, is expected to return to practice Thursday on a limited basis. Also, free agent outside linebacker O'Brien Schofield, considered one of the team's strong voices last season, told ESPN.com he expects to re-sign with the Falcons this week, although the move is not quite official. Adding Neal and Schofield should be a positive as the Falcons head into their Week 3 showdown with the rival New Orleans Saints on ESPN's "Monday Night Football". Neal showed in the preseason that he's capable of swarming the field as a hard-hitting tackler, something the Falcons could use after missing 10 tackles in their 35-28 win at Oakland. However, Neal's replacement, Kemal Ishmael, had 15 tackles and a key fourth-down stop against the Raiders, which might allow the coaches to be patient before inserting Neal into the lineup. "It's the tackling down in the box, that's where he's featured best," Quinn said of Ishmael. "When Keanu's able to come back, Ish will certainly still have a role in doing what we do. He is very reliable in terms of his tackling, his approach." Regardless, the Falcons expect the return of Neal to boost the defense. As for Schofield, he's expected to come back and fill the same strongside linebacker role he played near the end of last season, with some pass-rush responsibilities sprinkled in. Right now, the Falcons are using Vic Beasley Jr. and Philip Wheeler at that spot. With Schofield in the mix, Wheeler could go back to playing inside linebacker, because rookie inside linebacker De'Vondre Campbell is recovering from an ankle injury with no timetable for a return. Schofield spent extensive time this summer working alongside former Seattle Seahawks teammate Michael Bennett to improve his pass-rush skills. Last season, Schofield had two sacks and was second on the team with 13 quarterback hits. The Falcons enter Week 3 with just one sack, by Beasley, and that came after Raiders quarterback Derek Carr scrambled out of bounds for no gain. Seven-time Pro Bowl pass-rusher Dwight Freeney, who was signed in the preseason, hasn't contributed much as of yet. Quinn offered his assessment of the pass rush thus far. "It's an area I'm not pleased with, I can tell you that," Quinn said. "For us to play like we need to, that part of our game has got to come through. I think nine times (against Oakland), we got the quarterback off his spot, with three hits. We're a work in progress for sure there." Getting more pressure will help alleviate some of the explosive plays the Falcons have surrendered. Against the Raiders, the Falcons gave up seven plays of 15-plus yards, including three of 25-plus yards. That doesn't include cornerback Robert Alford's 36-yard pass interference penalty. Once Schofield is signed, the Falcons would have to make a corresponding roster move. It is not believed to involve placing the rookie Campbell on injured reserve. Defensive end Brooks Reed is the other player banged up with a shoulder injury, but Reed's status remains unclear as well.
  19. Falcons' Matt Ryan will enter Week 3 with high marks Vaughn McClure OAKLAND -- Things certainly worked in Matt Ryan's favor in the Atlanta Falcons’ 35-28 win against the Oakland Raiders Sunday, and Ryan now sits in a rather good spot among NFL quarterbacks. Make that the top spot. As of Monday morning, Ryan is the league’s highest-rated quarterback with a passer rating of 121.4, right above Minnesota’s Sam Bradford (121.2), San Diego’s Philip Rivers (120.3), New England Jimmy Garoppollo (117.2), and Arizona’s Carson Palmer (113.5). Ryan has more passing attempts than any of the four players below him. This is the same Matt Ryan who absorbed his share of criticism after the team's 31-24 season-opening loss to Tampa Bay; the same Matt Ryan who supposedly doesn’t mesh with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s philosophies. So what changed suddenly? Well Sunday, everything seem to come together when the Falcons (1-1) needed it the most. Ryan completed 26 of 34 passes for 396 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. His passing yardage was part of 528 total yards racked up by the Falcons against the struggling Raiders defense. Ryan was on point with his passes, particularly off play-action. He shook off a red-zone interception. He was well protected against pass-rush demon Khalil Mack and, in turn, was able to take some shots down the field to Julio Jones and rookie tight end Austin Hooper. And, of course, the no-huddle worked like a charm as the Falcons used it more often. Ryan engineered scores on six of seven drives over a span between the second and fourth quarters. He helped the Falcons score three consecutive times in the red zone after the Falcons went 0-2 in the red zone in the first half and followed with Ryan’s red-zone interception in the third quarter. "Yeah, I thought we did a great job offensively getting into a rhythm," Ryan said. "We didn’t do a whole lot in the first quarter, but once we kind of found our stride, we kept going and played really well. We did a better job in the red zone; still have some opportunities to continue to improve, areas we can get better." Such is true, but the Falcons will take a performance like Sunday’s from Ryan any week moving forward. Inside the numbers, Ryan completed 7 of 9 passes against the blitz Sunday for 129 yards, two touchdowns, and six first downs, according to ESPN Statistics and Information. Ryan finished 11 of 15 for 196 yards, a touchdown, and nine first downs off play-action, the most yards and attempts off play-action in his career. It certainly helped that running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for 139 rushing yards on 29 carries, allowing for the play-action to be more effective. Freeman led the way with 93 rushing yards on 17 attempts. Ryan found nine different receivers against the Raiders, led by Jones with five receptions for 106 yards and a 21-yard touchdown just outside the red zone. Justin Hardy's first career touchdown came off a jump ball that deflected off the hands of Coleman. And a touchdown pass to Jacob Tamme came on a day Ryan targeted his tight ends 13 times total. Now Ryan and the Falcons just have to sustain the offensive momentum. He said entering the season that the team is capable of averaging 30 points per game. Well, the Falcons could have hit 50 had a few more red-zone opportunities gone their way in Oakland. Next up is the rival New Orleans Saints (0-2) in ESPN's Week 3 "Monday Night Football" matchup. In two losses to the Saints last season, Ryan posted passer-ratings of 102.0 and 103.2 respectively, throwing four touchdowns with one interception. The Falcons don’t need Ryan to be spectacular every week. They just need him to be consistently solid and avoid turnovers.
  20. Falcons still not tackling their primary issues in loss to Buccaneers Vaughn McClure ATLANTA -- In one corner of the Atlanta Falcons' locker room, star receiver Julio Jones tried to explain why an offense intent on improving red-zone efficiency ended up 1 of 4 during Sunday's 31-24 season-opening loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "We just have to play better ball," Jones said. "We got down there and a couple penalties hurt us. It got us out of position to run certain things we run in the red zone. ... We shot ourselves in the foot. That's it." On the other side of the locker room, free safety Ricardo Allen tried to comprehend how the defense allowed Buccaneers running back Charles Sims to shake free from at least six defenders on a critical, 23-yard catch-and-run touchdown right before halftime. "We beat ourselves," Allen said. "If we were going to win that game, we had to do what we did best. And we didn't do that. We weren't us. We didn't play to our standard." Critics would say the Falcons played exactly the same way folks have grown accustomed to seeing them play over the past few years. The same old problems arose in the loss, most noticeably the red-zone woes, the poor tackling, and the lack of pressure -- with no sacks from a defensive line that now includes seven-time Pro Bowler Dwight Freeney. Throw in some untimely penalties -- most notably an unnecessary roughness penalty that appeared to be on cornerback Robert Alford on the third down immediately before Bucs receiver Mike Evans beat Alford and Robenson Therezie for a 45-yard touchdown -- and you had the recipe for another Falcons disaster. Not to mention it's an 0-1 start in the NFC South for a team that enters the season with hopes of competing with Carolina for the division crown. "There's lot of things for us to clean up and tighten up before we get on the plane and head to Oakland," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said about preparing for Week 2. The tackling would be a nice start. All the talk about the rugby tackling style and getting guys to the ground went for naught on that momentum-changing Sims play. "That's using proper technique and proper leverage, so when we didn't do that," Quinn said. "That showed up and that stung us for sure." Had the Falcons scored two touchdowns in the red zone in the first half rather than settling for a pair of 34-yard field goals by Matt Bryant, they would have held a halftime lead rather than having to play from behind, trailing by as much as 31-13 midway through the third quarter. Had the Falcons scored a touchdown with just under five minutes left in regulation rather than settling for Bryant's 29-yard field goal, they could have had the opportunity to win the game with a touchdown rather than only being able to tie it. In the end, it didn't matter, as the Falcons failed to score in the final two minutes. Ryan saw passes dropped by Jones and Mohamed Sanu, who got his ankle stuck, and Ryan's final desperation attempt on fourth down in the final minute was tipped by Gerald McCoy and fell incomplete. If the Falcons continue to fail to generate pressure and miss tackles, the offense truly will have to carry the team the rest of the season. And the offense won't be able to hold up its end without scoring touchdowns in the red zone or generating more than 52 rushing yards -- their rushing total from Sunday. "We got ourselves off schedule a little bit," said Ryan, who finished 27 of 39 for 334 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. "We had some penalties down there which, we control those. When you have procedural penalties, those are things that we have to eliminate. That's something that we control and something that we can do better. "Third downs and red zone, we've got to be good there offensively. We weren't good there today."
  21. Josh Norman: Desmond Trufant a top CB; better than Patrick Peterson Vaughn McClure Desmond Trufant probably doesn't get the respect he deserves when it comes to discussions about the NFL's top cornerbacks. At least one of the league's best corners recognizes how talented the Atlanta Falcons Pro Bowler truly is. Josh Norman, who left the Falcons' NFC South rival, Carolina, to join the Washington Redskins, didn't hesitate to mention Trufant among the elite. "Oh man, Trufant is a great cornerback," Norman told ESPN.com. "He's a young guy coming up. I think he will be one of the top guys in the league here real soon, if he's not already. They don't put as much emphasis on his game. "When they talk about (top) corners, they talk about four guys: myself, Darrelle Revis, Richard Sherman, and Pat (Peterson). He's better than Pat P, if you asked me, shoot. But yeah, (Trufant's) definitely in that conversation. He made the Pro Bowl, so why not? When that day comes, he's going to be one of the top guys in the league for a very long time." Trufant appreciated Norman's words. "It's all about respect," Trufant said. "That's what you play the game for -- your peers respecting you. That's what it's really about. And he's obviously a great player. He had a **** of a year last year. He's a cool guy, so much respect to him as well." We'll see if Trufant soon gets the financial respect both Norman and Peterson received with five-year, $75 million and five-year, $70 million deals, respectively. The Falcons are likely to reward their former 22nd overall pick after already exercising Trufant's $8.026 million, fifth-year option in 2017. Last year, Trufant was barely tested, being targeted a league-low 56 times and allowing just 32 receptions, which was third best among cornerbacks. This year, he might get more opportunities to shadow receivers such as Tampa Bay's Mike Evans with the possibility of more man coverage sprinkled into the Falcons' Cover 3 scheme. Falcons coach Dan Quinn says Trufant's game continues to ascend. "There wasn't a lot of targets that went Tru's way, and in certain games that's just how it went," Quinn said. "When you play outside, you have to be ready every time: 'This is the play they're going to try me. This is the play they're going to try me.' And he has that attitude where he can go and make a play. "He's worked really hard on his ball skills. I've seen it over the last two weeks, maybe even three weeks. The amount of interceptions that he's going for in practice, he's really tracking the ball well. So, that's a great sign for him." Trufant enters Sunday's season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with six career interceptions through three NFL seasons.
  22. Falcons linebacker Paul Worrilow not reserved about playing different role Vaughn McClure FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- True to his character as a team player, Atlanta Falcons middle linebacker Paul Worrilow didn't get too caught up in talk of starting or not starting this season. Worrilow, the team's leading tackler the last three seasons, understood he'd be in a competition from the moment the team drafted speedy Deion Jones. And Worrilow knew Jones would get the majority of the reps throughout the preseason. Now that the Sept. 11 opener against Tampa Bay is around the corner, Worrilow is ready to accept whatever role the coaches ask him to fulfill. "Whatever my role is, I'm going to go out there with the mindset to dominate it and be the best that I can," Worrilow said. "I'm not worried about that kind of stuff because this team is so much bigger than an individual. Any role I can get, I want it. And I want to go out there and play well." The Falcons were intent on improving the speed of the defense, which is why they drafted Jones in the second round after he ran a 4.38 in the 40 at LSU's pro day. Jones' crash course in directing the defense from the middle has led to more special teams duties for Worrilow. The former undrafted player from Delaware earned his opportunity by thriving on special teams during the 2013 preseason. "I love running down on kickoff and all the coverages," Worrilow said. "All the teams, that's ball. Ball is ball, in my mind. Every snap is all the same to me when I'm out there. If special teams in my opportunity to put the helmet on and go there and run around and hit people and contribute to this team, that's where I'm at." Of course the prideful side of Worrilow wants to remain on the field in a primary role. He knows the defense probably better than anyone, and the mental edge is something he has on the rookie Jones, although Jones has adjusted quickly. "I know this defense in and out," Worrilow said, "but I look at it more like whoever is out there, if I'm not out there, if I can be a tool for them -- walkthrough, pointers -- if they come to me with something or something pops up, I can go address it with them. And they know I know what I'm talking about. That's how I look at it. "Like I said, it's bigger than the individual. This team is awesome, man. The culture here, it's about the team first." Linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich appreciates Worrilow's team-first approach. "Not only has he played great on special teams, but he's be super, super solid on defense," Ulbrich said. "I think he's improved his tackling. His knowledge of the defense has increased. He's doing a great job for us. Plus he's really becoming a mentor for these young guys, doing all those little things behind the scenes. "I think he's a guy, whether he starts or not, it's not going to change his appetite to start and his hunger to play on this defense. He's an invaluable guy to our team. I've got ton of respect for him not only for what he does on the field, but also what he does off it."
  23. Falcons looking to get pass rush right with Dwight Freeney, Adrian Clayborn Vaughn McClure Atlanta Falcons defensive end Adrian Clayborn was one of the first to say the addition of veteran pass-rusher Dwight Freeney should make the defense much better. At the same time, Clayborn knew Freeney was signed to rush from the right edge. For Clayborn, the right edge suits him the best, in part, because he was born with Erb's palsy, a condition that caused nerve damage to his right shoulder and arm. Lining up on the right side allows him to extend his left arm and hand to get around the edge. "That's what I played all through college and that's what I played when I was in Tampa," said Clayborn, a first-round pick of the Buccaneers in 2011. "So it's where I'm more comfortable at. It's like if you stick a left tackle at right tackle. You would have to adjust." Clayborn lined up exclusively on the right side during the preseason-opening victory Thursday against the Washington Redskins. So what's going to happen once Freeney gets into the lineup as a nickel rusher? "We're just going to line them up right behind one another," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said with a laugh. "Clayborn and Dwight both know -- and we've communicated that with them -- you'll definitely see Clayborn some inside with Freeney coming outside. ... That's why it's important for Clayborn and Freeney to get together so they can do some of the third-down work that they'll do together. "We're counting on both of them, man, to be a big role. We're going to play over 60 percent of our snaps in nickel, so both of them have a really big role with us. I'm pumped to see what they'll do when we put them on the field together as well." In other words, Clayborn will have to make a sacrifice out of his comfort zone -- again. Remember: Last season, the Falcons used him more as an interior rusher with rookie Vic Beasley Jr. rushing from the right side to start his career. Near the end of the season, defensive line coach Bryan Cox admitted suggesting Clayborn play inside was a mistake. "I think it was probably dumb on my part, to be honest," Cox said. "I waiting too long to pull the trigger to put him outside. I kick myself with A.C. because I knew what he was. I coached him in Tampa, so I knew he could work outside, but I hesitated too long." Clayborn finished the season with three sacks and a team-leading 15 quarterback hits. Beasley, now rushing from the left edge, led the way a year ago with four sacks. It didn't much matter because the Falcons were last in the league with 19 total sacks, which is why Freeney is now a part of the team. Clayborn is going to be a key component, regardless of where he lines up. Quinn was impressed with how he performed against the Redskins. "I felt some real juice from Clayborn," Quinn said. "He was probably somebody that jumped out to me in a good way with guys that we're counting on to have a significant role." Clayborn simply wants to elevate his game. "I'd say more speed rush, and don't be afraid to take it around the edge," Clayborn. "I've got to get tackles moving their feet. Everybody knows that I have power. I have some moves, but I definitely don't burn the edge enough, so I'm looking this year just to come off the edge more." Maybe the addition of Freeney will light even more of a fire under Clayborn. Then again, he has all the motivation he needs. "I think coming off last season, everyone's trying to step up their game," Clayborn said. "Having another guy is definitely going to get guys fired up. Like I said, there's nothing but good going to come out of it."
  24. Veteran Dwight Freeney ready to help Falcons turn corner Vaughn McClure FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Dwight Freeney, the 36-year-old pass-rusher who just signed a one-year deal with the Atlanta Falcons, arrived in Atlanta on Thursday and brought a sense of humor with him. "I love the game and I love to play," Freeney said. "I'm one of those guys you're going to have to pull me off the field. ... So if it's 18 snaps, then it's 18 snaps. If it's 30 snaps, it's 30 snaps. If it's 45, 50, they're going to have to get me an IV, but I'll still go out there and then still play." The Falcons need Freeney to help inject life into a listless pass rush, one that resulted in a league-low 19 sacks last season. Freeney has 119.5 sacks, including eight in 11 games with the Arizona Cardinals last season. He'll be a nickel rusher for the Falcons, not a guy asked to drop into coverage. "I'm excited," Freeney said. "This (Falcons) team that, for the last few years now, I've always looked at this team as having a lot of potential to do some great things. They have a lot of talent, definitely offensively. And then defensively, we're getting it together now. I know I wanted to come here because I see possibilities are endless, especially having a coach like (Dan) Quinn. He has the right attitude, a standup guy. I'm just here just to help turn that corner; one more piece to help this team win." Freeney is eager to help some of the young players such as Vic Beasley Jr. develop, as well as show the world he still has "a lot left" to be a difference-maker on defense. He aims to bring leadership to a defense which could have as many as three rookie starters -- strong safety Keanu Neal and linebackers De'Vondre Campbell and Deion Jones. "You know, it's just being able to help some young guys maybe avoid some of the issues or help them grow as a player," he said. This will be Freeney's 15th NFL season. The seven-time Pro Bowl and former first-round draft pick of the Indianapolis Colts even has a little gray in his beard now. "I've got to color that out," Freeney said with a laugh "It goes by so fast. You never think about it too often, but when you sit back and think, you know 15 years playing in this league, that's a long time. I've been very blessed. I've been a part of some great organizations. "I still love the game. I talked to the Hall of Famer Howie Long and he said, 'Look, play as long as you can if you still love it, because when it's over, it's over, and it's done,'" Freeney said. "I said, 'Why not? I'll give it another try.'" It was somewhat of a surprise to see Freeney sign now, considering he joined the Cardinals in Week 6 of last season. Now, he'll have to go through the grind of training camp. "I tried to hold out as long as I could," Freeney said. "I'm like, 'Man, camp, I'm not looking forward to that. It's hot and the heat. Who wants to go to another camp?' But you know what? It's a blessing honestly, just to be playing, doing something like this, playing a kid's game. And it's still playing the game that I love 15 years. ... Overall, if I have to come a little bit early, I'm sure they'll take care of me."
  25. Falcons owner Arthur Blank anticipates better year for Matt Ryan Vaughn McClure Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank voiced confidence in Matt Ryan as Ryan enters his ninth season as the team’s quarterback. Ryan has yet to make the Super Bowl and has a 1-4 all-time postseason record. Last season, Ryan and the Falcons started 5-0 before finishing 8-8 and missing the playoffs for the third consecutive season. Although he surpassed 4,000 passing yards for the fifth straight season, Ryan also had 21 turnovers, including 16 interceptions. Four of those interceptions occurred in the red zone. "Matt worked really hard this offseason on his own technique," Blank said Thursday following practice. "He had a good year last year in many ways -- over 65 percent completions, over 4,000 yards. But the amount of turnovers that he had were not acceptable to him -- most importantly -- or the club, or our fans, or anybody. Some of that is due to new scheme, communication. Some of that is we had receivers not always in the right spots. So there’s a variety of things. ... Some of it was bad judgment on his part, and he would be the first to tell you that and has told you that." The overwhelming feeling around the organization is Ryan and the offense will be much better in Year 2 of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s scheme. "I think this year, the communication between he and Kyle Shanahan and the players, etc..., is all better," Blank said. "Second year of the scheme, everybody kind of knows the piece parts a little better and are moving in the right direction. So, I anticipate a better year for Matt. And he would anticipate the same for himself." Teammates say Ryan’s arm looks stronger in throwing the deep ball. He also has more weapons to complement top receiver Julio Jones with the additions of wide receiver Mohamed Sanu and rookie tight end Austin Hooper. Not to mention the Falcons signed three-time Pro Bowl center Alex Mack to help protect Ryan. "You don’t want to turn the football over, but you want to play aggressive," Ryan said of his mindset going into this season. "You have to play aggressive. And we need to do a little bit better job in that department -- be a little bit more secure with the football." Blank believes the Falcons have the roster to be a postseason team. They will have their hands full with three-time defending NFC South champion Carolina coming off the Super Bowl, and an unfavorable schedule that includes back-to-back road games against the Super Bowl champion Broncos and the Seahawks. Blank was asked if the Falcons are closing the gap with the Panthers. "It probably is too early to say that," he said. "It certainly is our aspiration. The coach (Dan Quinn) would say, 'We’ve got to win our division. That’s what are goal is. Then get in the playoffs and take it from here. It’s single elimination, so we’ll see what happens.' "I mean, (the Panthers) have a very good team. They’ve won our division three years in a row. They’ve competed in the Super Bowl. And they are a good football team. And they’re a young team. So, we’ve got to go harder and faster, and I think we are. And hopefully that will translate into an even better season than last year, and we can compete with them."
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