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Found 17 results

  1. https://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/34628/austin-hooper-could-be-the-next-falcon-to-cash-in There haven’t been many bright spots so far for the 1-3 Atlanta Falcons, but tight end Austin Hooper qualifies. Hooper, now in his fourth season, continues to evolve as a top pass-catching threat. Through four games, he leads the Falcons with 28 receptions, which ranks fifth-most among all pass-catchers in the league. Hooper has been targeted 33 times and has 307 receiving yards, two touchdowns, 14 first downs and 131 yards after the catch. Although the attention given to wide receivers Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley opens up underneath opportunities for Hooper, it doesn’t diminish how great a weapon he's been for Matt Ryan. "I think Austin has played really well for us," Ryan said. "He’s been very consistent in the pass game. He’s very reliable. When we target him, he’s coming down and making plays with the ball. We’re happy with what he’s done, and I expect that to be the case all year, with the talented guys we have around." Hooper’s play hasn’t gone unnoticed by the front office, which is why general manager Thomas Dimitroff said signing the 2016 third-round draft pick to an extension is a priority. Austin is one of the next important players in line," Dimitroff told ESPN. "That said, however, we are not sure of the timetable." The Falcons have already rewarded extensions to wide receiver Julio Jones, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and linebacker Deion Jones this year. The highest-paid tight end by average per year is veteran Jimmy Graham of Green Bay at $10 million per year. Three players average $9 million-plus per season: Jordan Reed of the Redskins ($9.35 million), Travis Kelce of the Chiefs ($9.195 million), and Kyle Rudolph of the Vikings ($9 million), with Zach Ertz of the Eagles right behind ($8.5 million). Taking into consideration that Hooper is 24 and has outgained Graham, Reed and Rudolph over the past two seasons, it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Falcons make Hooper the highest-paid tight end now, before a significant jump in the market, with the possible extensions of the 49ers' George Kittle and Giants' Evan Engram coming after the 2019 season. Hooper, a one-time Pro Bowler in the final year of his rookie deal, isn’t focused on a contract extension. "It’s definitely an honor to even be having this conversation, that something could possibly happen, but I’m not really worried about it," Hooper said. "I’m in the middle of the season, doing my job. All that stuff will sort itself out over time. I’m just concerned about trying to help us win games. Right now, we need to step it up -- everyone, myself included." If the Falcons are going to turn things around, Hooper is expected to be a significant part of it from an offensive perspective. It certainly helps that he’s put in extra work to establish chemistry with Ryan. Connecting with Ryan Sometimes the trip from his home in the Bay Area to Southern California would take six hours, but Hooper never thought twice about it. He’d jump in his Mercedes at the last minute and make the drive, if that’s what Ryan wanted him to do. He catered to his quarterback’s offseason schedule knowing how much he would benefit in the long run. Hooper started having the one-on-one throwing sessions with Ryan in Southern California during the 2017 season, as Ryan worked with Tom House and Adam Dedeaux of 3DQB training. Those workouts intensified his past offseason, when Hooper and Ryan got together there on three separate occasions. "What has gotten me better? I’d probably say it was time I’ve spent with Matt," Hooper said. "You spend 1,000 reps working on the same thing. So, Matt and I are on the same page. I feel like that’s the biggest difference with me now. Like, I didn’t drop 3/10 off my 40 time this past offseason or anything like that." While working with Ryan, Hooper stayed at his younger brother’s apartment on the campus of UCLA. Justin Hooper, a 6-foot-8, 238-pound pitcher, was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the 14th round, so his apartment was vacant for the summer. But despite having a place to lay his head, Austin Hooper still bounced between Northern and Southern Cali. Back at home in San Ramon, he worked with the same speed-and-strength coach he’s had since he was 12 years old: Dave Spitz of California Strength. Spitz is the senior international coach for USA weightlifting. "Just working on his athleticism," Spitz said. "He came out [of college at Stanford] so young, he was only 21 years old. We’ve just every offseason tried to improve as an athlete. I think you’re seeing the pinnacle of that expression on the football field now. He’s as good of an athlete as he’s ever been." Striving for perfection While reflecting on last week’s 24-10 loss to the Titans, Hooper didn’t mention catching nine passes for a career-high 130 yards. He didn’t reflect on his 28-yard reception in the first quarter that helped set up running back Ito Smith's touchdown. Instead, Hooper talked about a late first-quarter throw from Ryan that he didn’t come up with, a throw that seemed to be a bit behind him. I dropped a ball I definitely thought I could have had," said Hooper, who wasn’t credited with a drop on the official stat sheet. "That changed the game. And my holding penalty ruined a drive. It’s just one thing here and there. "Offensively, we just have to execute at a higher level. I’m definitely guilty of not doing that, at times. That’s why I’m challenging myself to be better. I’ve made tougher catches before. Every ball that’s thrown to me, I should catch." Hooper also has make a concerted effort to improve his blocking, something that wasn't his strength coming into the league. Focusing on self-improvement is why Hooper has gained the respect of his teammates and coaches alike. "I think Hoop has done a really good job of being where he’s supposed to be, catching the football, and running after the catch," offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. "Getting vertical and getting those tough, extra yards and splitting two defenders after contact, I think he’s done a really good job." Hooper isn’t content with being good. He strives to be elite. "Honestly, I don’t really concern myself with comparisons," Hooper said. “I just try to be a better version of myself, and let other people talk about [comparisons]. I feel like I’m competing against myself. I feel like if I continue to compete against myself, I’ll continue to develop. I’m not concerned with tight end rankings. I want to be the best version of myself to help us win games."
  2. https://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/34600 Ricardo Allen was as emotional as anyone after he saw teammate Keanu Neal suffer yet another season-ending injury on Sunday, but the Atlanta Falcons free safety has learned not to dwell on the uncontrollable. Of course, Allen knows that Neal’s presence will be missed on defense for the remainder of the season following an Achilles tendon tear, which typically requires eight months for recovery. But Allen, who suffered a season-ending Achilles tear last season, isn’t about to let his fellow defenders use Neal’s injury as an excuse. "My message to the defense? Do your job. That’s all," said Allen, a team captain. "Whatever your job entitles, do that. Do it as hard as you can for your brothers. That’s it. We’re not asking nobody to be Superman. Just be who you are and what you’re supposed to be for this team. "Yeah, we understand it’s going to be 'mess-ups' here and there, but you’ve got to do it for everybody around you. If you do your job and they beat us doing your job, they deserve it. But if they beat us and we’re not doing what we’re supposed to, that’s on us." The 1-2 Falcons have to do a much better job on defense now without Neal roaming as the enforcer. The 27-24 loss to the undermanned Indianapolis Colts exposed some defensive flaws that could doom the Falcons if they are not corrected. Players were caught looking in the backfield, as Colts coach Frank Reich masterfully designed misdirection and play-action plays. If the Falcons were fooled by Andrew Luck's replacement, Jacoby Brissett, just imagine what type of issues could lie ahead with Deshaun Watson, Russell Wilson and Drew Brees in the next six games. That's not to mention the variety of looks the Falcons could see from offensive gurus Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan later in the season. The Falcons continue to have penalty issues, which point to a lack of discipline. Four of the 16 penalties they drew against the Colts came against the defense on third down, allowing the Colts to pick up first downs. The Colts had seven first downs by penalty in the game. It makes you wonder if coach Dan Quinn should take sterner action against repeat violators. One of those defensive penalties was too many men on the field, as the Falcons were caught switching personnel, and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett couldn’t get out of the game. Quinn, as the defensive coordinator, didn’t feel good about the lack of communication but vowed to get the penalty issues fixed this week while having officials out for practice. The Falcons have done that regularly, but Quinn emphasized it this week in preparation for Sunday’s matchup with Tennessee. The Falcons are tied for 29th in the league in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert 52.8% of the time. They are giving up 21.7 first downs per game, which is tied for 22nd. Their minus-five point differential, with the defense yielding 25 points per game and the offense scoring 20 points per game, ranks 22nd. I think it’s about the small details on defense," cornerback Desmond Trufant said. "I felt like [against the Colts], it was more we were inflicting damage on ourselves than them beating us. I mean, they made some plays, but I think we’ve got to start with doing our job first, getting in position. ... We’ve got to make sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to do." This week’s task likely means preparing for what Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota is capable of accomplishing as a dual-threat quarterback and the power Derrick Henry brings in the running game. At the same time, the Falcons can’t be fooled into thinking it’s all about stopping the run because Mariota might try to go downfield to wide receiver Corey Davis or someone else. More thing anything, the Falcons can’t sulk about Neal not being in the lineup. Quinn talked about Kemal Ishmael stepping in to play some strong safety. But filling in for Neal might be by committee, with Quinn looking at all options. Safety Jamal Carter was elevated from the practice squad for depth. Nickelback Damontae Kazee played free safety last season. But it will be difficult for anyone to mirror Neal’s impact when healthy. "Just the way that he brings the pain, man, and the way that people have to account for No. 22," Allen said. "When they know he’s coming, people pull hands down. Tipped balls happen a little bit more. "That’s why I think we ended up winning that game on fourth down against the Eagles -- because they saw 22 coming and pulled that ball back. You understand when 22 is out there, he’s trying to get that ball. And if he’s not trying to get that ball, he’s trying to get you. He’s an enforcer, and we’re going to miss that. It’s a physical presence that’s hard to match when you take a guy like him off the field."
  3. https://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/34392 FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Vic Beasley Jr. isn’t oblivious to the criticism. Skeptics wonder why the Atlanta Falcons' defensive end hasn’t been nearly near as productive the past two years (10 sacks combined in 2017-18) as he was during his 15.5-sack 2016 season. His decline has turned the 2015 first-round pick into a punchline on talk radio and the subject of angry rants from fed-up fans. Beasley knows the only way to silence the doubters is to perform at a high level every week, which is what he intends to do. "I know I'm a good player," Beasley said. "There's a lot of things that I can work on, but I know that I'm a good player. For me to remain in this league and to be the great player that I want to be, I have to be consistent. “I just have to do better. Humans make mistakes in life. You have to make it up in your mind that you're going to do better. A lot of times when you strive to be great, sometimes things don't go your way. But you continue to remain optimistic in those situations." Beasley set the bar high in his second NFL season, when he topped his buddy Von Miller (13.5 sacks) of the Denver Broncos for the NFL sack title. Everything appeared to align right for Beasley in ‘16 as he used his speed off the edge to create havoc. Not to mention he drew a couple favorable matchups, such as squaring off against current teammate and former Bronco Ty Sambrailo on an afternoon Beasley recorded 3.5 sacks along with two forced fumbles. Once the calendar flipped to 2017, the buzz around Beasley faded. He didn’t have a sack in the Falcons' three postseason games tied to their Super Bowl run. Then during the ‘17 regular season, Beasley finished with just five sacks in 14 games -- and three of those sacks came in the first six games. Beasley missed time due to an early-season hamstring injury but never used the injury as an excuse for his drop-off -- just like he never pointed to the torn labrum in his shoulder during his rookie campaign. Plus, Beasley took on more coverage responsibilities while playing strongside linebacker in ‘17. Then last season, Beasley, back into more of a pass-rusher role, had just five sacks as the Falcons finished in the bottom 10 of the league with 37 sacks. According to ESPN's pass rush win rate powered by NFL Next Gen, Beasley beat his blocks in 2.5 seconds on 26.9% of pass rushes, which ranked 23rd in the NFL among players with at least 300 pass rushes. He didn’t force any fumbles, something he showed a knack for when he tied Bruce Irvin with a league-high six forced fumbles in 2016. "Again, it’s just consistency," Beasley said of last year’s woes. "That's what keeps you around this league: consistency. You had one great year. You have to get back to that. Any player in this league, if they're not consistent, how do you gain trust with that individual?" The Falcons expressed some amount of trust in Beasley by picking up his fifth-year option worth $12.81 million this season. They have not, however, made a long-term commitment after this season. Irvin, who played with the Falcons last season, thinks Beasley can play. "I think Vic can ball," Irvin said. "I just think Vic needs an older guy to push him. And I think he really needs DQ [Falcons coach Dan Quinn]. DQ is really the perfect coach for Vic."’ So far through training camp, Quinn seems intent on getting the best out of Beasley’s freakish athleticism, whether that means rushing off the edge, setting the edge against the run, or dropping into coverage. Quinn, doubling as the defensive coordinator, vowed to spend more time trying to bring out the best in Beasley. Those one-on-one teaching moments have come during camp since Beasley opted to train on his own during the offseason program. "I thought in the run game, those fundamentals, I thought that's been an improvement," Quinn said of Beasley’s play in camp. "We've worked hard, for him, in the pass rush. I won't get into all the specifics but some things: counters, what to set off with. So we've spent a good bit of time on that. ... He's off to a good start.’’ Now, it’s about the finish. The Falcons need him to be a strong edge rusher along with Takk McKinley on the other side, with tackle Grady Jarrett being one of the best interior rushers in the game and others such as Adrian Clayborn, Allen Bailey, and John Cominsky bringing some pass-rush ability. Beasley wouldn’t reveal exactly what elements of his pass rush he’s working on, but he continues to study the Broncos’ Miller because of their similar builds. Beasley still relies -- maybe too heavily -- on his speed rush yet has shown flashes of counters such as dipping inside or working more diligently with his hands. Asked if he needed to play with a little more nastiness, the soft-spoken Beasley responded, "I feel like everybody has an angry side to them. If somebody was to attack your mom, what are you going to do? Are you going to turn the other cheek? You never know what you're going to do until you're put in that situation. "As far as being an aggressive, angry player, I guess that's not necessarily my mold, my build, my personality. But if someone was to push me, I can't just sit up there and say I'm going to turn the other cheek.’’ Beasley has to worry more about turning the page on those down seasons and becoming the player he expects to be. Those expectations remain rather high: nothing short of double-digit sacks through a full season. "For me, it is about double-digit sacks because I'm not just a guy, you know what I'm saying? I'm a good player," Beasley said. "For me and the person that I am, consistently for me, that's what I need to do."
  4. NFL CBA quirks that could have a big effect on the 2020 offseason Its a long article.. You can read it at the link but here is a summery IF A NEW CBA DEAL IS NOT SIGNED BY NEXT OFFSEASON 1.In a normal year you can use either the franchise or transition tag on 1 player per team... Next year in 2020 you can usage both the franchise and transition tag on players (so you have 2 tags) 2.There is no No post-June 1 designations next year... Since there is no guaranteed year after next year.. If we cut a player next all season the team would have to take the full charge 3. The 30% rule (Which can make Grady contract a little difficult or any big time FA) ... "So if a player signs a five-year contract this offseason, and his 2020 salary is $10 million, the rules state his scheduled 2021, 2022 and 2023 salaries can't be higher than $13 million, $16 million and $19 million, respectively" 4.
  5. I'll just post what ESPN, Bill Barnwell said about the Falcons. The link is below. http://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/25966875/five-2019-offseason-moves-nfc-team-make-bill-barnwell-predicts-trades-free-agency-cuts
  6. http://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/33656/ex-falcon-roddy-white-believes-julio-jones-can-catch-jerry-rice FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Roddy White knew his standing as the Atlanta Falcons' all-time leading receiver would be in jeopardy sooner than later with Julio Jones still on the roster. But as Jones sits 381 receiving yards from surpassing White's franchise mark of 10,863, White has much loftier goals set for his close friend and former teammate. "The pace that he's at right now, he can not only be the all-time leading receiver in Falcons history, to me he has enough talent to be the all-time leading receiver in the NFL," White said of Jones. "That's if he plays long enough." Hall of Famer Jerry Rice is the league's all-time leading receiver with 22,895 yards. Rice, who retired at age 42, accomplished the feat in 20 seasons while playing 303 games. Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald is second with 16,108 yards. Jones, 29, snickered when told of White's thoughts about him catching Rice. "I don't know what's wrong with Roddy, man," Jones said. "Jerry played, what, 20 years? You know what I'm saying? Jerry played a long time." In the same breath, Jones seemed to ponder the thought as a very realistic challenge. "What that says about Roddy is he knows the work ethic, everything I've been through, the way I work ... it's very achievable," Jones said. "But for me, I'm not a numbers guy. I didn't even know when you said that's next for me as far as surpassing Roddy. I didn't even know if I was close or not. I just play ball." Jones, who has 10,483 yards through 108 games, has the highest per-game average for receiving yards in league history at 97.1. Rice averaged 75.6. So, essentially, Jones could break the mark by keeping the same average over 128 more games -- or eight more seasons. He would have to stay healthy, of course. Jones has dealt with his share of nagging injuries and played in only five games during the 2013 season after suffering a foot fracture. The Falcons already announced intentions to address Jones' contract situation with two years remaining after making an adjustment to this year's salary. "I can't tell you how long I want to play," Jones said. "For me, right now, I feel great. I still feel like I'm 17, 18 years old right now. I don't hurt. I can run. I can stop. I can do everything. I can do whatever I want to do. I feel great and I've played eight years. So if I feel like this, I know I can play at least eight [more] years. "But with family and stuff like that, a lot of things happen. That's why I don't like to speak on stuff down the road. I'm one year at a time, and whatever comes." Jones marveled about how Rice was able to play into his 40s and still have an impact. At age 40 in 2002, Rice caught 92 passes for 1,211 yards and seven touchdowns for a Oakland Raiders team that went to the Super Bowl. "Yeah, 22,000 is a lot," Jones said. "I have a lot of respect for Jerry Rice. The way he works, his work ethic, everything about him. He wasn't a guy who was going to wow you with his physical ability. But the way he works, he's going to outwork you. You're not going to outwork Jerry Rice. He's going to make you suffer." Jones has developed a reputation for his relentless work ethic, too, on top of being blessed with tremendous physical size and incredible athleticism. The 2011 sixth overall draft pick, who achieved 10,000 receiving yards faster than any receiver in league history (104 games), reached another milestone this past Sunday when he became the first player in NFL history to post five straight 1,400-yard seasons. Jones leads the league with 1,429 receiving yards on 94 receptions, and that's despite drawing double-team attention regularly. True to his usual modest self, the five-time Pro Bowler dismissed it as no big deal when asked what the accomplishment meant to him. "Nothing," Jones said. "I'm trying to find a way to win. All that stuff is always nice, but I'm trying to find ways to win." The 4-9 Falcons take a five-game losing streak into Sunday's matchup with the 3-10 Arizona Cardinals. With three games remaining, Jones would need to average 127 yards per game -- 17 yards better than his season average -- to break White's franchise mark this season. It's attainable with the Cardinals, Carolina Panthers, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the final three opponents. Jones' career-high for a game was 300 against the Panthers, and he's gone off for 253 against the Buccaneers and 189 against the Cardinals. "Will he get the [franchise] record this year? Yes. Definitely," White said. "He ain't playing no world-beating secondaries where he can't catch no balls. "Just him getting to 10,000 yards, that's a big feat, especially in this league. When you hit that mark, that means you're playing at a high level in the NFL. The guys that are on that list, frankly, a lot of them are Hall of Famers. To get to that point a good eight years into the league, that's a tremendous accomplishment."
  7. Falcons will consider keeping Freeman-Coleman tandem together http://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/33644/falcons-will-consider-keeping-freeman-coleman-tandem-together FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- At the end of last season, Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said he could envision a scenario in which the team would re-sign running back Tevin Coleman, even after inking starter Devonta Freeman to a long-term contract. That scenario remains a possibility, according to coach Dan Quinn. As the 4-9 Falcons dig deeper into the process of evaluating the roster approaching the offseason, it's fair to wonder how the running back situation will come together in 2019. Asked Monday if he thought there was a chance of Freeman and Coleman being the team's backfield duo of the future despite Coleman being in the last year of his rookie deal, Quinn didn't rule it out. "Yep. For sure," Quinn said. "Everything's on the table. When we're in the scenario that we're in, which we're not very pleased at, you evaluate anything and everything. So, yeah, we're certainly going to consider every single option in every way." Devonta Freeman, left, and Tevin Coleman have combined to score 64 TDs for the Falcons during their careers. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images Whether it all plays out that way remains a question mark, if not doubtful. Freeman, a two-time Pro Bowler, signed a five-year, $41.25 million extension ($22 million guaranteed) through 2022. But he knows nothing is certain about his future with the team despite the deal, especially when folks start throwing around trade scenarios. Freeman played in just two games this season and remains on injured reserve following groin surgery. He is eligible to return for the Dec. 23 game at Carolina, although there is no guarantee he'll be activated despite the optimism Quinn expressed last Friday. "For us, the No. 1 thing is keep making progress," Quinn said of Freeman's status. "When we do that, then we'll cross the bridge of what's next in terms of him playing. But keep making progress, first." Freeman has had a variety of injuries, including multiple concussions and knee problems, which had left some league executives wondering about his durability. But the Falcons, ranked last in the league at 81.2 rushing yards per game, obviously would have fared much better with Freeman's elusiveness and aggressiveness in the lineup. Not to mention Freeman runs routes like a receiver when asked to line up against linebackers. He has 37 touchdowns in 63 career games. "Another player had said, 'At the end of runs, he lets 'em know,' and I thought that's a clear illustration where he's able to drop his shoulder on a guy to finish a run over his pads and downhill," Quinn said of Freeman. "I think I love the fact that at the end of runs, he can really get downhill and finish. The 4-yard run goes for 8 yards. I'd say it's his change of direction. When somebody is ready to size him up thinking they got the hit, the foot goes in the ground and he explodes. ... He brings a lot of energy to the team." Quinn said all that without directly addressing if he has any concerns regarding Freeman's long-term health. At least one opponent believes the absence of Freeman has had a major effect on the Falcons. "I think he's an X factor for them," said Sheldon Rankins, a star defensive tackle for the rival New Orleans Saints. "I think his ability to run as well on the edges as well as he does inside between the tackles, and his ability in the passing game, kind of takes the offense to a whole new dimension. Without him, they had to kind of go to a committee-type role, and you kind of saw they kind of threw the ball a lot more. "And I think when that team is really rolling, you've seen in the past, is when they can feed their running backs and they can gash teams with the run game, the play-action pass, get Julio [Jones] deep and those guys. So I think [Freeman]'s an X factor for them, and they've obviously missed him this year. I know they'll be happy whenever they can get him back." There are mixed reviews about Coleman around the league. One AFC head coach said back in February, "He's a great complement to the starter, and he could fill the role of a starting running back because of his great speed and athleticism. Can't discount his ability to score the football." Meanwhile, an NFC executive said recently he was surprised Coleman hadn't shown a lot more fire and taken full advantage of starting in place of Freeman, which might indicate he is not ready to assume a starting role. Coleman has rushed for 559 yards and two touchdowns on 138 carries while starting 11 games. For his career, Coleman has 27 touchdowns in 53 games. Coleman said during the season that he wants to remain with the Falcons. His agent, Adisa Bakari, is the same agent who represents Pittsburgh Steelers running back holdout Le'Veon Bell. So, it would be hard to imagine Coleman accepting a bargain deal if the chance exists for him to secure more money in free agency. The Falcons have rookie fourth-round pick Ito Smith sharing the load with Coleman, and Smith gives the team a change-of-pace back who can get into the end zone (team-leading four rushing touchdowns). Smith, however, isn't a guy anyone envisions being the Falcons' workhorse back. The Falcons have drafted a running back in four of the past five drafts -- Freeman in 2014 (fourth round), Coleman in 2015 (third), Brian Hill in 2017 (fifth) and Smith in 2018 (fourth). The last free-agent running back the Falcons signed who made a significant impact was Michael Turner, who signed a six-year, $34.5 million deal ($15 million guarantee) in 2008. Turner had three 1,000-yard seasons and rushed for double-digit touchdowns in each of his five seasons with the team. Quinn reiterated how important the running game is to success moving ahead, regardless of which players are carrying the load. "It has to be a part of our identity -- and a big part of that," Quinn said. "I think it adds to the overall circle of the toughness of your team. But it also so clearly sets up the line of scrimmage like we'd like for the run game and the play-action to balance off of one another. Our identity is tied into that." The other important element, of course, is the play of the offensive line. In all fairness to both Coleman and Smith, the holes haven't been there consistently this season, in large part, due to poor blocking. And if the Falcons plan to have success running the ball beyond this season, they'll need to make sure they have linemen physically capable of getting the job done. They'll probably need to address both guard spots, and the benching of Ryan Schraeder leaves doubts about the right tackle situation. "There's always things we can do to improve," said center Alex Mack. "If we just block everybody, you could be back there. Unfortunately, [defenses] are good. That's when you need a running back who is making people miss. Some of the runs are 100 percent on those guys doing really good things and making people miss. "The better we can do to block people, the more space we can open up, the more we can run the ball." ESPN Saints Reporter Mike Triplett contributed to this story
  8. Free-falling Falcons start to look to future in fifth straight loss http://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/33636/free-falling-falcons-start-to-look-to-future-in-fifth-straight-loss GREEN BAY, Wis. -- A dejected Matt Ryansnapped off his chin strap and screamed in the air after a fumbled snap in the red zone -- when center Alex Mack hit a motioning Mohamed Sanu with the ball -- led to a missed scoring opportunity in the fourth quarter. Ryan's rage was indicative of how frustrating the season has been for the reeling Atlanta Falcons. And Sunday's implosion at Lambeau Field marked another sign of why it's time for the Falcons to turn their attention toward evaluating the roster and fixing the issues for 2019. Coach Dan Quinn figured his team would get things corrected after he called for the locker room leaders to step up and take charge. Instead, turnovers, penalties, execution issues, and an overall lack of discipline plagued the 4-9 Falcons again as they dropped their fifth straight game after a 34-20 loss to the Packers. It assured a below-.500 mark for the first time under Quinn. What was Quinn's message to the team afterward? "I said, 'As dark as it is, the men that will get it right here in these three weeks are the men that are standing in this room,'" Quinn said. "Just wanting it to get better isn't a great way for real progress. You've got to make changes that are consistent to playing better." So what's next for the Falcons? Quinn doesn't want to look at the big picture, but there were signs of the Falcons spinning ahead to see what can be done to resolve a variety of problems, even if those signs were minor. The most obvious was the benching of right tackle Ryan Schraeder, who was signed to five-year, $31.5 million extension ($12.5 million guaranteed) in November 2016. Schraeder, who is signed through 2021, gave way to Ty Sambrailo, acquired from Denver in exchange for a fifth-round draft pick. It was the major move along the offensive line, with right guard Ben Garland benched in favor of Zane Beadles. Schraeder was asked what he believes the benching means regarding his future with the team. The Falcons will have to address the line in the draft. "I'm not to sure, at this point," he said. "We'll see how the rest of the three games play out and go from there. ... I've got to get whatever they're telling me to do right and hopefully get back in the starting lineup." Matt Ryan, getting sacked by Clay Matthews, says "it's OK to be frustrated" about the Falcons' struggles. "It's part of this game." Jeffrey Phelps/AP Photo The Falcons also gave rookie cornerback Isaiah Oliver, a second-round draft pick from Colorado, a more extended look against the Packers after starter Robert Alford struggled early in the contest. But Oliver said being in the rotation was part of the plan going into the game as he lined up at both corner spots and was part of the dime package along with Alford and fellow starter Desmond Trufant. "Just getting more reps, basically," Oliver said. "It was good to get out there and be able to play. I think [my play] was a good. As a team, though, we missed the mark. We need to play a lot better. That goes for everyone across the board. We know what we're capable of." Quinn also utilized running back Brian Hillsome at fullback and gave safety Ryan Neal a look on special teams. But Quinn didn't make a big deal out of giving other players long looks, although it's something that would be wise to do the remainder of the season. Despite some glaring holes, the Falcons have enough talent to be competitive, with players such as the one-time MVP Ryan, five-time Pro Bowler Julio Jones, and one-time Pro Bowl linebacker Deion Jones, just to name a few. But they've sorely missed key injured players such as two-time Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman (groin), Pro Bowl strong safety Keanu Neal (ACL), free safety Ricardo Allen(Achilles), and Deion Jones (foot) before he returned to the lineup last week against the Ravens. "It just comes down to everyone doing their job," defensive end Vic Beasley Jr. said. "Every team makes mistakes. Whoever makes the most mistakes is probably going to lose the game. Sometimes, things go your way. Teams that normally execute greatly, they are normally great teams, and they normally find themselves in the playoffs."
  9. http://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/33587/falcons-offense-fails-at-wrong-time-of-season ATLANTA -- The Atlanta Falcons were supposed to be carried by an explosive offense this year. Sure, it would have been a tall task to ask the Falcons to duplicate what they accomplished during the Super Bowl run in 2016, when they led the league at 33.8 points per game. But when you have a one-time MVP in Matt Ryan, a five-time Pro Bowler in Julio Jones, an electric rookie in Calvin Ridley, and a host of other capable weapons, points are supposed to come a little easier. Such hasn't been the case for the Falcons over the last 22 days during a four-game losing streak that put any playoff talk to rest. They've averaged just 17 points per game over that span while dropping to 4-8. This week's 26-16 loss to the Baltimore Ravensmagnified all that has gone wrong for the Falcons on the offensive side of the ball. They knew they had a challenge against the league's top defense in the Ravens, but no one would have expected the Falcons to gain 131 net yards, their lowest total in a game since managing just 106 in a 26-7 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Dec. 12, 1999. Ryan, sacked three times and hit seven times by the Ravens, threw for 131 yards on 16 of 26 passes -- a career-low when he has attempted 20 or more passes, according to ESPN Statistics and Information. And once again, the Falcons failed to put together any semblance of a running game with 34 yards on 15 carries, averaging 2.3 yards per carry. During the current four-game skid, the running back combo of Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith has combined for 159 yards on 54 carries (2.94 yards per carry). It emphasizes how much Devonta Freeman (groin surgery) is missed. Say what you want about the Ravens dominating the time of possession against the Falcons, which they did with having it almost 20 minutes longer. The Falcons didn't take advantage of their opportunities when they did have it, going 2 for 9 on third down and driving into the red zone just once. "It was a point of emphasis for us to get the run game going. We didn't do a good enough job," Ryan said. "We didn't execute as well as we needed to. "We had some [opportunities] that were closer than they might have looked. But consistently, when you're not making first downs, you're not moving the chains, it's hard to get that [run game] going." Going down the field with passes didn't work well either, whether it be due to drops or poor passes. Give Ryan credit for pointing blame at himself for overthrowing Coleman on a wheel route early in the game that might have led to a touchdown rather than settling for a field goal. "I'd love to have that one back," Ryan said. "Just throw it a yard or two shorter and let him kind of take it to the house. You never know if momentum changes from that point." The Falcons have lost a lot of steam, and coach Dan Quinn has noticed. Quinn talked about the effort being their but there being moments where he saw the energy of his team dip. It would seem to be even harder to maintain a high level of energy over the final four games, starting with next week's trip to Green Bay. The Falcons don't have much to play for. "Early on you have that moment where it's `OK, we will get it turned,'" Quinn said. "So I think when you hit the reality where you're fighting to get to .500, yeah, that stinks. And that hurts. ... It's never a group of guys that has been like, `Let's back off and step away.' We're way more of, `Wow do we go about improving and fixing what we need to get done?'" Matt Ryan had the fewest passing yards in a game in which he started and finished in his career on Sunday. John David Mercer/USA TODAY Sports Seeing Pro Bowl linebacker Deion Jones return to the lineup for the first time since right foot surgery and post 15 total tackles and a sack was a positive for the Falcons to build upon, as was seeing quiet first-round pick Vic Beasley Jr. returning a Grady Jarrett forced fumble 74 yards for a touchdown. It was the team's first fumble recovery of the season despite forcing six fumbles. But from an offensive perspective, the Falcons have plenty of work to do to feel positive moving forward. Critics will continue to point to offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian when they see failed run plays up the middle or a pass by Mohamed Sanu out of the Wildcat sail incomplete on third-and-1. But, as Ryan said, there are plays where the players have to execute, and the Falcons didn't. And Quinn continues to support Sarkisian, just like owner Arthur Blank continues to support Quinn. The Falcons already made one change on the offensive line with inserting Zane Beadles at right guard ahead of Ben Garland. The change didn't necessarily keep Ryan off his back or open up holes in the run game, though the blame does not fall directly on Beadles. The line, as a whole, has to do better. And the backs have to pick up blitzers. Ryan has sounded like a broken record in talking about the mindset the Falcons have to possess moving forward. But there's not much else to say. "We've got to get back to work," Ryan said. "We've got to find a good way to win. As far as stay together, I think we have a good group of men in our locker room, coaching staff, and front office that are willing to work."
  10. Despite 4-7 record, Falcons owner Arthur Blank supports coach Dan Quinn http://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/25352056/atlanta-falcons-owner-arthur-blank-says-supports-coach-dan-quinn NEW ORLEANS -- Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank gave coach Dan Quinn a vote of confidence after Thursday's 31-17 loss to the Saints dropped the Falcons to 4-7 and all but ended their playoff hopes. Blank expressed total faith in Quinn, who guided the Falcons to the 2016 Super Bowl. "Absolutely. We love our coach," Blank told ESPN. "Our coach is not the problem." Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff were rewarded with three-year extensions in July. They are signed through 2022. The Falcons have been inconsistent throughout this season, starting 1-4, winning three straight to even their record, then dropping the past three games. Injuries have been an issue, with six starters placed on injured reserve, including Pro Bowlers Devonta Freeman, Keanu Nealand Deion Jones. Falcons coach Dan Quinn is under contract through 2022. AP Photo/Bill Feig "It's a reason, but it's not an excuse," Blank said of the injuries. "That's what the coach would tell you. That's what the players would tell you. There have been some crippling injuries, but other guys have stepped up and played the best they can. Some cases, that's good enough. In some cases, not quite." Blank saw a simple reason behind the implosion in another loss to the rival Saints. "I thought it was pretty obvious tonight: We had a few turnovers, which are always brutal," Blank said. "To have four of them, it's nearly impossible to win. And we couldn't run the ball tonight; couldn't stop the run. That's the story of the game." Quinn implied on Thursday that there could be changes coming to the offensive line after a bad performance against the Saints. As far as any coaching changes, Quinn has expressed confidence in both offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian and defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel throughout the entire season.
  11. A little something positive in this season http://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/33430/gunshot-survivor-now-in-falcons-brotherhood-thanks-to-austin-hooper ATLANTA -- If he could walk, Louisiana native Kyron Greenup probably would strut into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Thursday, proudly wearing his custom-made Atlanta Falcons jersey. If he could move his hands freely, Greenup probably would pump his fist every time the Falcons score a touchdown, especially if his new friend, tight end Austin Hooper, is the one crossing the goal line. But Greenup can't perform the simplest movements -- not with multiple bullet fragments still lodged in the back of his head. He's in a wheelchair and has been since 2014. That year, a dispute he had no part of, according to a police report, resulted in random shots being fired around his Reserve, Louisiana, neighborhood, an area known for gun violence. The shot that pierced his skull altered his life. "I've come from not being able to talk, not being able to move nothing at all," Greenup said with optimism. "I had a feeding tube. I had a catheter. But it's all eliminated now. I'm working on standing. I'm doing squats. I've come a long, long way." The shooting occurred less than a year after Greenup's younger brother, Kyrian Gray, was shot and killed by gunfire during a graduation party 30 miles west of New Orleans. Doctors have told Greenup that he has a chance to walk again, but they won't put a timetable on his recovery, so three or four days a week, he turns what are supposed to be one-hour rehab sessions into three-hour grinds. His relentless spirit not only caught the eye of his therapists at Atlanta's Shepherd Center, where Greenup has spent time since exiting two nursing homes. It also drew the attention of Hooper. After hearing Greenup's story, Hooper made a few calls to Falcons' staff members and helped arrange for Greenup to be a guest at the Saints-Falcons game in Week 3. The organization took matters a step further, designating Greenup an honorary game captain. "It was good that everyone rallied to make Kyron's day," Hooper said. "If he can go through life the way he does, with such a positive attitude, what are our everyday problems? Little things that you go through, they're meaningless. Kyron's outlook is the way more people should be." Greenup, 25, grew up in Louisiana rooting for Deuce McAllister and the Saints. But the generosity displayed by Hooper and the Falcons made him switch sides. He'll cheer for the visiting team when the Falcons (4-6) battle the Saints (9-1) on Thursday (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC). "I'm a Dirty Bird," Greenup said. "I like the Falcons. Those are my brothers. I'm in the brotherhood for life now." Nothing short of a miracle One person was killed and another wounded Tuesday evening in St. John the Baptist Parish. That was the lead of the news story posted on a Louisiana television station's website on May 7, 2014, the day after Greenup was shot. "I was the one dead," Greenup said. "They had pronounced me dead." According to a St. John the Baptist Parish sheriff's report, Greenup, then 20, was found slumped over near the side of the street in a "pool of bright red blood" as a number of men and women screamed for help. Another victim, a 15-year-old boy, had been shot in the leg and survived. Deputies on the scene discovered 15 bullet casings and one live round on the ground near Greenup, who remembered none of it. "I wasn't even paying attention when the shots were fired," Greenup said. "It was broad daylight, and I had just come from work at the warehouse. I still don't remember that day vividly or visually. All I can tell you is when I woke up, I was in a hospital." From what a friend told Greenup, the shooting occurred after a stranger drove into the neighborhood, was stopped and questioned by one of the residents, and then engaged in an argument with that resident. Shortly after, shots were fired. An ambulance arrived, and one of the paramedics, Tony Grandolfo Jr., performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on Greenup. Grandolfo, now a patrol officer, remains a family friend to this day. "He was the one who saved my life," Greenup said of Grandolfo. "He told me, 'I actually felt your heart stop. I did all I could. After that, you just kept fighting.'" Greenup was transported to River Parish Hospital in LaPlace, Louisiana, then airlifted to University Hospital in downtown New Orleans. He was treated by neurosurgeon Gabriel Tender. "I'm glad that he's alive, and I'm very happy that he's going to walk again," Tender said. "He came in in really bad shape. I'm surprised he's still alive, to be honest with you. But the fact that he's going to walk again is nothing short of a miracle, with the type of damage he had and the shape he was in." Greenup, who was on a ventilator for an extended time, had to undergo a decompressive craniectomy, a procedure in which part of the skull is removed to allow a swelling brain to expand without being squeezed. After the swelling subsided, Tender inserted an artificial skull graph. The bullet traveled from one side of Greenup's head to the other. Tender opted not to remove the bullet fragments because doing so could have punctured the superior sagittal sinus, which, when bleeding, becomes nearly impossible to stop. "We risked killing him by trying to take those out," Tender said of the fragments. The bullet penetrated the motor cortex, which controls the movement of the arms and legs, on both sides of Greenup's brain. The damage left him in a wheelchair. But, as Tender explained, surrounding areas of the brain attempt to compensate and assume functions, which is why Greenup is on the path to walk again after recovering his speech. Michelle Greenup, a mother of five boys and one girl before the murder of her son, Kyrian Gray, moved to the Atlanta area in an attempt to start a new life after she received the call about Kyron. She knew the hostile atmosphere in Louisiana was no good for her family, which is why she had moved to Jacksonville, Florida, years before. She left Kyron and Kyrian with their grandmother so they could finish high school. "I just prayed, cried and was like, 'I'm not going to see a body. I'm going to see my child,'" Michelle Greenup said of her emotions upon hearing the news on Kyron. "When I got to the hospital, he was disfigured. But I was glad just to know he was still here with us, laying up there living." Two men were arrested the week after the shooting. The one who shot Greenup, Jontrell Cosey, initially was charged with attempted second-degree murder but eventually plead guilty to aggravated battery and aggravated criminal damage to property. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Michelle asked to meet with Cosey following the trial. "I forgave him," she said. "I truly forgave him. It wasn't for the public or nobody else. I forgave him because I had to go on. Seeing him have life [in prison] or hating him, it wouldn't have changed my baby's situation. He's still in a chair. And that's just me. I'm going to show love, however. I love God for real. So showing compassion was not a problem." Police concluded that there was no motive behind the shooting. They were surprised Greenup was hit because witnesses said he was nowhere near Cosey. Cosey, who lived in the neighborhood, was someone Greenup had known since childhood. "He wasn't my best friend or anything, but I'd speak to him," Greenup said of Cosey. "I've known him all my life. They were just shooting. That's it. It wasn't gang-related or anything, just shooting. "What would I say to him now? I have nothing to say. We don't have anything to talk about. He can't change my situation. I can't change his situation. Just go ahead with your life, and I'm going to do the same." Part of the Falcons' brotherhood Greenup beamed as he directed his eyes toward the signed white football bearing the Falcons' logo sitting on his living room shelf. It was a birthday present from coach Dan Quinn, who added a team beanie in the surprise package. On the ball is the following message from Quinn: "Kyron, Happy birthday. We admire your toughness & resiliency. In Brotherhood." For Greenup, the gift serves as a daily reminder of his moment as the Falcons' honorary captain. The surprise was supposed to be revealed to him the Friday before that Sept. 23 Saints-Falcons game. But Greenup's therapist let the secret out Tuesday of that week. "She wasn't going to be there Friday, so she wanted to see my facial expression," Greenup said. "She told me about it, and I was like, 'Wow, are you serious? Y'all playing.' And she was like, 'Nah, I'm serious. Guys are going to come to get you that morning. So be ready.'" He was. Greenup could barely control his excitement while he was shuttled to the stadium. When he arrived on the sideline for warm-ups, he met Hooper. "He came over and gave me some dap," Greenup said of Hooper. "He was like, 'It's nice to meet you, man, but let me go ahead and get back over here to warm-ups before I get in trouble. We can talk more after the game.'" Greenup, wearing his No. 1 captain's jersey, posed for pictures with Falcons owner Arthur Blank. He sat in awe as Quinn came over and addressed him. "He really gave me some motivational words," Greenup said of Quinn. "He was just telling me to keep working and don't give up because anything is possible. He was like, 'You're in the best place for rehab. You're going to see the outcome at the end of it all.' His message was just to not give up." Greenup was wheeled to midfield for the coin toss alongside Falcons game captains Tevin Coleman, Robert Alford and Justin Bethel. Across from him stood Drew Brees and Cam Jordan, but he didn't mention growing up a Saints fan. Greenup was hoping for a Falcons victory, but the Saints pulled off an overtime thriller 43-37. Regardless, Greenup came away a winner. Hooper made good on his promise to catch up afterward. He invited Greenup to a friend's home that night for steak fajitas and to watch the Sunday night game between the Patriots and Lions. "We actually, actually hung out after the game," Greenup said. "It felt really good. I was like, 'Wow, I'm really hanging out with Austin Hooper. I got him to sign a ball and that hat you see right up there." Hooper brought a couple friends with him: five-time Pro Bowl center Alex Mackand defensive end Derrick Shelby. Both Mack and Shelby walked away impressed by Greenup's upbeat demeanor. "It was just cool to hang out and tell stories, and I know he really appreciated it," Mack said. "I know his life is difficult, and he has a great attitude. The things that you think are easy, like taking a sip of water, is, like, a struggle. But he's really working hard, and it's cool to see that." Said Shelby, "Just visiting with people that are going through hard times, it uplifts their spirits and helps them not think about the situation. You just try and treat him like he's one of the guys and have fun." Greenup and Hooper have maintained their friendship. Hooper recently sent Greenup a bed for his new apartment, which he moved into three weeks ago. Greenup's mother and younger brother, Kyree, live 30 minutes away but sometimes stay the night to help him get around. Otherwise, Greenup gets assistance from a certified nursing assistant. Hooper also checked into getting Greenup into Thursday night's game in New Orleans, but Greenup said his family's plan to spend the holiday in Louisiana changed. Maybe one day, Greenup will walk the sideline by himself prior to a Falcons-Saints game. "They just told me I'm going to have to put in the hard work and that it's 'going to be up to you' when I walk again," Greenup said. "I just don't give up. Never."
  12. http://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/33383/even-brian-urlachers-eager-for-falcons-deion-jones-to-return FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons Pro Bowl linebacker Deion Jones has picked up quite a few fans during his 32-game NFL stint. Brian Urlacher is among them. Urlacher, the Hall of Fame middle linebacker who starred for the Chicago Bears, didn't hold back on the superlatives when discussing Jones' likely return to the lineup from early-season foot surgery. "That's a bad mother f-----," Urlacher said of Jones. "Is he coming back? I know he got hurt the first game of the year. I like that he can come back from [injured reserve] later in the season. That's a good move. "He's already a star, dude. He's the fastest middle linebacker in the NFL. He can cover anybody. He's great in the run game. He's so athletic. He's one of the guys I really love watching play." The Falcons (4-5) would love to watch Jones makes plays rather than run ladder drills on a side field. Coach Dan Quinn reiterated Monday that the team will take things "step by step" with Jones despite Jones being eligible to return off IR for Sunday's matchup against the Dallas Cowboys (4-5). Quinn said he won't put Jones back out there until Jones' repaired broken right foot is completely healed. But the return of Jones would be critical for the Falcons' playoff hopes, with the NFC picture far from undecided. The Falcons' struggling defense sorely needs him. A 28-16 loss to rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns emphasized how much the Falcons miss Jones in the middle of the field. Speed erases mistakes, and Jones is a 4.38 40-yard dash guy who could track down a running back before a 92-yard touchdown. He has developed into a solid tackler, and missed tackles have been a glaring issue for the Falcons. Plus, Jones knows how to find the ball with seven career interceptions -- including two pick-sixes -- and a forced fumble. If Jones returns this week, he'll be counted upon to help slow down Ezekiel Elliott, the league's second-leading rusher with 831 ground yards. If Jones doesn't return until the Thanksgiving night showdown against his hometown New Orleans Saints, then he'll give Drew Brees something to think about, with three interceptions of Brees in four meetings. Not to mention the Falcons had trouble defending running backs out of the backfield such as Carolina's Christian McCaffrey (14 catches, 102 yards) and New Orleans' Alvin Kamara (15 catches, 124 yards), something Jones could help minimize the second time around with his coverage skills "I know Deion as a person and I know he wants to be out there with us," fellow linebacker De'Vondre Campbell said. "The fact that he can't be, it kills him. I let him know, 'Maybe this was a sign from God that you needed this rest.' "Him coming back, that's huge for your defense in general. He's the captain of the defense. He's the Mike. He's does some things really well that not a lot of people can do. Just having him back is going to be huge in general." Said pass-rusher Vic Beasley Jr.: "It's going to be awesome to get Deion back. He's a great player, a great leader for our team. We're looking forward to having him back and we're excited for him." The Falcons enter Sunday's Dallas game ranked second-to-last in the league in third-down defense (51.9 percent conversion rate), yards allowed per play (6.54), and yards allowed per rush (5.19). They lost starting safeties Keanu Neal (ACL) and Ricardo Allen (Achilles) to season-ending injuries, and Jones hasn't played since the season opener in Philadelphia. The Falcons, who have placed six starters on IR, are allowed to designate two players to return. Jones' return appears imminent, and the Falcons could bring back two-time Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman from groin surgery for the Carolina game (Dec. 23).
  13. http://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/33332/falcons-players-never-jumped-off-steve-sarkisian-bandwagon FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons tight end Austin Hooper wore a smirk on his face when asked about the early-season criticism directed toward offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. "In the city of Atlanta, everyone's a critic," Hooper said. "When we were 1-4, everyone hated us. Now everybody seems to be back on the train. All we worry about is the guys who are in the building. So, we had Sark's back from Day 1. And that's all that matters: The connection we have to each other. People outside the building are always going to say what they're going to say." Said receiver Julio Jones: "For us, in-house -- we try to keep everything in-house -- we always believed in Sark. And we're going to continue to believe in Sark." Well, the people outside suddenly are calling Sarkisian brilliant, with the offense clicking on all cylinders and the Falcons riding a three-game winning streak into Sunday's road contest against the Cleveland Browns (1 p.m. ET, Fox). Sarkisian's offense ranks first in the NFL in third-down conversion percentage (53.3 percent), fifth in points per game (28.5 PPG) and seventh in red zone efficiency (69.2 percent). A reporter asked Sarkisian on Thursday if he felt like giving a verbal middle finger to his critics. "No, not at all," Sarkisian chuckled. "I've said this before: I've been in this business for a long enough time now to know it comes with the territory. When things are good, people probably think you're better than you are. And when things aren't going great, they probably think you're worse than you are. "The challenge as a coach and a player, really, is not to ride the emotional roller coaster of what's going on outside of the building. And not getting too high and not getting too low, but finding that even keel. You trust your process, you trust your work, and you believe in yourself and you believe in the people you have around you. And you do the best job you can do. That hasn't changed for me." Quarterback Matt Ryan, who is having an MVP-caliber season while completing 70.8 percent of his passes, pointed to one play in particular that illustrated just how much Sarkisian should be respected as a playcaller. It was the screen pass to Jones on third-and-2 in the fourth quarter Sunday in Washington. Jones followed his blocks, shook off a tackle attempt by safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at the 5-yard line and backed into the end zone for a 35-yard touchdown -- Jones' first score of the season. "Well, we had that up here for a few weeks, and we had been practicing that play," Sarkisian said. "I actually didn't call it in practice in a competitive period against defense, and Matt and Julio were giving me a hard time about, 'Just call it, Coach. Just call it.' "When the situation came up in the game and I called it and it scored, they were kind of ribbing me pretty good, 'See, if you would have called it in practice, the same thing would have happened.'" Here's a little of what the players had to say about Sarkisian using that play in Washington: Tight end Logan Paulsen: "It's three tight ends, so 13 personnel. Only one receiver on the field. That's a personnel group that you predominately run the ball out of. We got into a formation where we run like a very specific type of run, so I think it kind of gets the defense thinking, 'Oh, they're running a crack toss to the right.' You could see everyone's eyes. They're like looking over here [to offense's right]. They think action's coming over here. We fake the pitch, right. The whole defense runs over. Basically, it turned into a one-on-one situation with Josh Norman and Julio. And we had the left tackle get out there, and Jake [Matthews] did such a good job of knocking [Norman] down. And everyone else kind of sucked over that the guard [Wes Schweitzer] was able to come out and kind of seal the defense off. So it was just one-on-one with the middle-of-the-field safety. And that's how you draw it up." Jones: "We talked about it for two weeks or so, about running that particular screen to me. I was like, 'Sark, what's up? I need a screen. I need a screen.' He finally called it, and I was like, 'OK, it's money time.' It's like one of those things, you're going to make it work regardless. If I had to run around the whole field, I probably would have done it." Hooper: "In that situation of the game, we were trying to run the ball so much to close out the game by running out the clock that we did a fake toss sweep to the right and turned around and threw a quick screen left. The whole defense was pursuing the run action, which was the fake toss to the right, so it created a lot of space for Julio. It was the perfect call for the defense at the right time of the game."
  14. http://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/33313/return-of-the-alex-mack-cleveland-helped-falcons-center-become-great FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Alex Mack might soon be subject to a fine under the category of excessive celebration. No, the Atlanta Falcons center hasn't orchestrated a touchdown dance with props hidden inside goal posts. Actually, the circumstances surrounding such a punishment would be beyond Mack's control. As right tackle Ryan Schraeder explained, the entire Falcons' offensive line assessed a "fine" to Mack when the team visited Cleveland in the preseason of 2016. It didn't carry a monetary figure, but the "fine" was a result of Mack being recognized with a brief video tribute and ovation at First Energy Stadium for the seven seasons he spent with the Browns. "Yeah, the guys made fun of me for that one, helping the enemy," Mack said with a laugh. "They showed a couple of highlights, and it was my first year gone. It was a preseason game, so it didn't really matter." Another such highlight video is unlikely to be part of the plan this go around, but Mack could get another warm reception when he returns to Cleveland for the first time in the regular season. Sunday's 1 p.m. ET game has a bit more meaning, with the 4-4 Falcons trying to keep a three-game winning streak rolling against the falling Browns (2-6-1). "It will be a little weird again, I assume," Mack said of the homecoming, of sorts. "I went to a friend's wedding in Cleveland this offseason. To fly in there and for it to not be home, it's a bit of a weird feeling. And I wasn't going to my house. Plus a lot of people I used to know there on the team are no longer there. It's just strange." The five-time Pro Bowler, now the unquestioned leader of the Falcons' offensive line, doesn't reflect on his time in Cleveland as a complete disaster despite never winning more than five games in any season. In 101 starts with the Browns, Mack's teams went 29-72. The 2009 first-round pick (No. 21 overall) played for four different head coaches and seemed to snap to a new quarterback on a weekly basis. "It was pretty frustrating when coaches would get fired," Mack said. "You believe in the rhetoric of turning things around, and they would fire a coach after a season and not give him a chance. I never had a coach for more than two seasons there." It didn't prevent Mack from developing into arguably the best player at his position. He established an unbreakable bond with his entire line, including future Hall of Fame offensive tackle Joe Thomas. "We had an excellent offensive line, and Alex was one of the leaders of the group, being the center and being the All-Pro that he is," Thomas said. "We shared struggles and hardship with the record that we had, but we still put forward some good performances, from an offensive line standpoint." Mack credited his first NFL offensive line coach, current Tampa Bay assistant George Warhop, for guiding him through the nuances of the center position. Mack was known as a highly intelligent player from Day 1. "Cleveland made me a great player," Mack said. "I had great coaches. I had great teammates. We had a good O-line. I wouldn't be the guy I am today if I didn't have Cleveland and the Browns to thank for that." Something cooking Mack's transition from California to Cleveland wasn't so seamless. He recalled one of his first dining experiences one night when he craved Bay Area-type Chinese food. "I was tired, I was hungry, so I was like, 'I'll just go order some chicken chow mein,'" Mack explained. "Chicken chow mein on the West Coast is chicken and noodles. Well, that's chicken lo mein, I guess, on the East Coast and in Ohio. "So when I got home with my to-go box of chicken chow mein, it was just this bean-sprout mix of gross food. I was like really disheartened." That would explain why cooking became one of Mack's primary hobbies during his time in Cleveland. The offensive line would hold potluck dinners, and Mack often came through with his Korean short-rib recipe he borrowed from the wife of one of his college coaches. Mack even signed up for a vegetable farm share program where he would get a box of customized food to cook for himself. "I think one of the things for that offensive line, and Alex was one of the ring-leaders, was how much they liked to cook," Thomas said. "Mitchell Schwartz and Alex and John Greco, they were like almost Cordon Bleu chefs. They were fantastic. It was pretty amazing." Mack didn't spend all his time away from football in the kitchen. He picked up on duck hunting from the Wisconsin-born Thomas and ventured out to some farmland an hour outside Cleveland to get his fix. Oh, and Mack eventually took a liking to Cleveland cuisine, specifically Crop Bistro and Bar, Nuevo Acapulco, and Mitchell's Ice Cream. "Mitchell's, to this day, is the best ice cream I've ever had," Mack said. "I would recommend for anybody to get the Buckeye, which is like a peanut butter ice cream with fudge and cherry toppings. It's truly amazing." If only playing with Browns quarterbacks was as much of a treat as the local ice cream. Quarterback carousel Mack paused for a moment when asked how many different starting quarterbacks he snapped to during his days with the Browns. "Well, you obviously know the answer," Mack said with sarcasm. "I would say two or three a year in seven years. I would say it would probably be around 12." Good guess. Mack would have played with 13 different Browns quarterbacks had he not suffered a broken leg that limited him to five games in 2014. During Mack's rookie season in 2009, coach Eric Mangini played musical chairs with Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson. "Brady wanted to make every call; he wanted full control, and that's what he wanted to do," Mack said. "The quarterback's always right. That's the important thing for any offense I've ever been in. The quarterback has the final call and what they say goes. He's the one that ultimately controls everything. So, that made a lot of sense. "But when Derek would be in, he didn't really care about making all the calls. He only wanted to worry about a couple calls. So everything else it was like, 'Yeah, you just do what you need to do. Make the calls at center yourself. Go ahead.' And so when Derek was in, I had to make all the calls and do everything and try to do adjustments. And as a rookie, I don't know how I even did anything right." The list of Browns' signal-callers behind Mack also included Colt McCoy, Brandon Weeden, Thaddeus Lewis, Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace, Jason Campbell, Josh McCown, Brian Hoyer, Austin Davis, and, of course, Johnny Manziel. Mack admired the cool, calm demeanor of Campbell and Wallace, while he praised the field vision of both Delhomme and McCown. For McCown, the respect was mutual. "What makes Alex unique, in my opinion, it's his high level of both athleticism and strength," McCown said. "It allows him to be effective in both the run and pass. He's also one of the smartest guys I've played with. So when you add that to those other traits, you can see why he is one of the best in the game." Of all those quarterbacks, Manziel probably was the one who garnered the most attention, although Manziel played just two seasons with the Browns. "It was nice that he was so mobile," Mack said of Manziel. "You just had to watch out, because when he scrambled around to throw, you never really knew where he was going to be. But, yeah, that one didn't work out too well." Mack made no secret he was looking for stability, not only at quarterback but in a franchise as a whole. He attracted a variety of interest during free agency in 2016. The Falcons made him the highest-paid center with a five-year, $45 million contract that included $28.5 million guaranteed. "I think the combination of everything: A big, vibrant city with a lot going on, a franchise quarterback in Matt Ryan, and it had an offense that I really enjoyed and the outside zone scheme that I think suits me really well," Mack said. "And I think Dan Quinn's attitude, his approach to football with competing every day and the positive vibes he's built around the building, it's something really powerful. Like, I enjoy going to work. And I think it's a great atmosphere. People are willing to work hard, and everyone takes care of their business. I couldn't be happier." Cleveland's loss certainly has been Atlanta's gain. Mack made the Super Bowl in his first season with the Falcons and has a 25-15 record in his 40 starts (3-2 record in the playoffs, including the Super Bowl loss to New England.) "With Mack, it's his consistency," Julio Jones said of his teammate. "He's a great leader. He's a great role model, especially for the offensive line. He's the quarterback of the offensive line. He's making sure his guys are on the same page. And I always talk to him, too. He's just a great teammate." Quinn pointed to a play during last week's win against the Washington Redskins when Mack hustled down the field after Mohamed Sanu caught a pass and pushed Sanu for some extra yardage. "It's the downfield plays that he's able to finish," Quinn said. "From the first time being here, I knew he was smart. Probably what I didn't have the appreciation for his how tough he is, and he's demonstrated that over and over and over again. ... I would say the finish that he has in his game probably shows as good an example as anybody how it can be done."
  15. Projecting what an NFL team is going to look like in two years is hard. Go back to Week 1 of the 2016 season and you'll see what I mean. Drew Brees was throwing to Brandin Cooks and Coby Fleener. The 49ers shut out the Rams and starting quarterback Case Keenum 28-0 in a game in which Blaine Gabbertstarted ahead of Colin Kaepernick. The starting running backs in the Dolphins-Seahawks game were Arian Foster and Christine Michael. Things change quickly. Recently, I was talking to Lindsay Jones of The Athletic on my podcast, and we started wondering what the 2020 Raiders' roster might look like as Jon Gruden & Co. make their move to Las Vegas. We didn't get very far, and that was before the Amari Cooper trade happened. I think it's an interesting exercise, though, so I've gone ahead and tried to project which players from each team's 2018 roster are likely to make it onto their roster come Week 1 of 2020. Those rosters will obviously include 2019 and 2020 draft picks, and there are young players who will emerge as meaningful contributors between now and then, so consider this an imperfect look into what each team's long-term core currently looks like, nearly halfway through the 2018 campaign. I've split each team into three groups. The virtual locks section is for players I think have at least a 90 percent shot of making the 2020 roster, given their contract situation and draft status. In most cases, I would expect 2017 and 2018 draft picks taken in the top three rounds to make it to 2020, which is reflected here. The on the bubble group is for the players I think have something closer to a 55 percent shot of appearing on the roster in 2020. They might be starring veterans who have onerous contracts in the future, young players who haven't found their role, or placeholders who are likely to be usurped by a draft pick or let go as part of a regime change. Finally, the unlikely notables section is for players who have no more than a 15 percent shot of making it to 2020 on the same team. This section is for mid-30s veterans who are likely to retire, young players who are riding pine, and regulars whose contracts will be even more difficult to swallow by the 2020 offseason. I've tried to limit this to more notable players, if only to avoid listing every practice-squad member or backup long-snapper and make this column five times as long. As always, I'm sure a player or two sneaked through the list, but this should be some comparative insight into what each NFL organization has built for the future. Some of the cores surprised me. Let's start with a team in the middle of a massive rebuild and go in alphabetical order: Atlanta Falcons Virtual locks: QB Matt Ryan, WR Julio Jones, T Jake Matthews, DE Takkarist McKinley, S Keanu Neal, LB Deion Jones, CB Isaiah Oliver, DT Deadrin Senat, WR Calvin Ridley All the agents for Deion Jones and Neal have to do to point out their clients' value is show tape of the 2018 Falcons' defense after they went on injured reserve. Ridley has nearly as many touchdowns in a half-season (six) as the three top-10 wideouts of the 2017 class have over their first year and a half combined (seven). On the bubble: DE Vic Beasley, C Alex Mack, CB Robert Alford, T Ryan Schraeder, CB Desmond Trufant, S Ricardo Allen, RB Tevin Coleman, DT Grady Jarrett, LB De'Vondre Campbell, RB Ito Smith, CB Brian Poole, TE Austin Hooper, LB Duke Riley Atlanta's defensive collapse might call its cornerbacks into question, with Alford standing out as a frequently burned problem. The Falcons will have to work out new deals for Jarrett after 2018 and Beasley after 2019; given Beasley's lack of production since leading the league in sacks in 2016, the Falcons should lean toward renewing Jarrett and letting Beasley test the market. Unlikely notables: WR Mohamed Sanu, RB Devonta Freeman, G Andy Levitre, G Brandon Fusco, K Matt Bryant Freeman has missed time in both 2017 and 2018 since signing a five-year, $41.3 million extension before the 2017 campaign; the Falcons can get out of his deal with $6 million in dead money before 2020 and might be better off using the savings elsewhere. http://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/25133131/projecting-2020-roster-locks-bubble-players-all-32-nfl-teams#atl