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  1. It doesn’t appear the Falcons will be too active in free agency. At least that was the vibe general manager Thomas Dimitroff gave off a couple of weeks ago during a meeting with local reporters. Dimitroff said the team won’t go out of its way to sign numerous players once free agency begins. He also noted that the fixes next year’s team needs don’t necessarily require a complete overhaul. Therefore, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Falcons go after only a couple of free agents in March. “I think there’s a draft out there that can be really beneficial to us, potentially on both sides of the ball,” Dimitroff said. “Front-wise, you can acquire in the draft, as well. We will be very manageable and mindful about how we will be approaching free agency. We will not be throwing out money for the sake of it.” While acquiring quality players through the draft is a favorable scenario for just about every team, that won’t address the short-term fixes Atlanta needs to make. The Falcons probably will need to at least splurge on one player to address the issues on the offensive or defensive lines. With a month to go before free agency begins, here are five high-priced and five budget upcoming free agents the Falcons should potentially look closer at. High-priced free agents OL Ju’Wuan James (Miami): James will be one of the top offensive linemen teams look at once free agency begins. James, who played under his fifth-year option with the Dolphins this past season, had one of the best years of his career. A solid force at right tackle, and at 6-foot-6 and 317 pounds, James is the prototype for what the Falcons are looking for at the position. The Falcons are expected to have a competition brewing at right tackle, considering Ryan Schraeder was benched during the latter portion of the 2018 season. James would cost a decent amount of money, considering he ranks among the top linemen in this year’s free-agent class. DE Dante Fowler, Jr. (Los Angeles Rams): Fowler is only 24 years old and would be a great get for just about any team once free agency begins. Looking toward the future, the Falcons certainly could use a pass-rushing defensive end. Assuming that Vic Beasley is brought back on a new deal, he will be in a make-or-break situation. Bruce Irvin, if he is re-signed, is 31 years old. Atlanta could use another young defensive end with experience on its roster. DE Frank Clark (Seattle): Clark is coming off of a 2018 season that saw him post 13 sacks. Those are the type of numbers that should get head coach Dan Quinn quite excited. The Seahawks drafted Clark in the second round of the 2015 draft, which is the year Quinn left Seattle for Atlanta. Clark should have familiarity with Atlanta’s defense, considering his coordinators in Seattle — Kris Richard and Ken Norton Jr. — previously coached under Quinn. DE Brandon Graham (Philadelphia): Even at age 30, Graham has plenty left to give on the field. While he only had four sacks in 2018, Graham is the poster-child of a pro football player giving everything he has on each play. His career highlight was the strip-sack he had against Tom Brady to help seal Super Bowl LII. Considering his past accomplishments, Graham wouldn’t come cheap in free agency. He also has roots in Philadelphia, seeing that he has been with the franchise the past nine years. But if the Eagles decide to move on, perhaps the Falcons at least take a look. OL Rodger Saffold (Rams): As noted, the Falcons need help along the offensive line at right tackle and at both guard spots. Safford actually would fit the bill for both. A versatile lineman who can play tackle and guard, Saffold has been a consistent presence for a Rams offensive line that has produced big games for Todd Gurley the past two years. Safford, however, publicly said he would be open to a hometown discount if the price is still right. Therefore, a team like Atlanta probably would have to pony up more than maybe the market would dictate, just for the hope of potentially landing him. Budget free agents LB Thomas Davis (Carolina): Davis likely would come at the veteran minimum and on a one- or two-year deal. While Davis has been able to defy physics by lasting this long as he has in the NFL, he is 35 years old and is coming off a season that saw him fail to record a sack for the first time in six years. Still, Davis would be a valuable locker room presence as someone who has seen the highs and lows the league can bring. That was something the Atlanta defense missed a year ago. OL Billy Turner (Denver): The Broncos had a positive season on the offensive line, which was overshadowed by poor quarterback play and numerous coaching blunders. Part of the line’s success can be attributed to Turner, who was asked to play both right tackle and left guard in 2018. While Turner, 27, hasn’t been a dominant offensive lineman as a pro, he has steadily improved as time has gone on. Given up on by Miami after two-plus years, Denver coached up his technique to make him a steady presence up front. QB Ryan Griffin (Tampa Bay): Matt Schaub’s contract is expiring, with the longtime veteran holding a cap hit of $4.5 million in 2018. Needing space, the Falcons are unlikely to bring Schaub back on a similar deal. With Dirk Koetter returning to be Atlanta’s offensive coordinator, it wouldn’t be out of the question for the team to take a look at Griffin, the Buccaneers’ third-string quarterback this past season. Griffin made just less than $1.4 million in 2018 and probably would not hold more than a $2 million cap hit. DT Malcom Brown (New England): Patrick Chung declared Brown the team’s most underrated player near the end of the season. Even so, Brown, a former first-round pick, is set to hit free agency since the Patriots declined to pick up his fifth-year option. Brown’s stats aren’t much as he has only 8.5 career sacks and 14 tackles for loss in four years. In college, however, he played anything from zero- to five-technique, which shows he offers versatility up front. Plus, at 320 pounds, Browns could serve as a space-eater in Atlanta’s 4-3 defense. As a potential role player, Brown could be a bargain in free agency. DE Margus Hunt (Indianapolis): Hunt is coming off the two best years of his career with the Colts, especially as a run defender. In addition, he also posted five sacks this past season. The 6-8 and 298-pound defensive lineman was a steady presence for a much-improved Colts defense in 2018. Hunt, 31, is probably looking at a two-year deal averaging $3-to-4 million each season. At the right price, Hunt potentially could be a solid role-playing addition to the Falcons’ defense.
  2. I'm a little late posting this article, so just ignore the Brooks Reed part..... Matt Bryant earned the nickname “Money” for good reason. Time and again, through his 10 years in Atlanta, it seemed as if Bryant came through with a clutch field goal to put his team ahead late in a game. In 2018, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn made the gutsy call to have Bryant attempt a 57-yard field goal to put Atlanta up by five against Tampa Bay. If Bryant missed the kick, the Buccaneers would have great field position to win with a field goal. But Bryant, as he typically has, came through with a big-time make, albeit at the expense of his right hamstring. The injury kept him out of the lineup for three games, which forced the team to sign Giorgio Tavecchio. In relief, Tavecchio was perfect on each of his attempts, which included a 56-yard field goal against the New York Giants. Tavecchio did more than enough to remain on the roster for the remainder of the season, even when Bryant was ready to resume place-kicking duties. But with Tavecchio sticking around, the chance of Atlanta deciding to move on from the veteran Bryant became a real possibility. Now, that’s a reality. Bryant, 43, revealed that the Falcons were parting ways with him on his Twitter account Wednesday. Later in the day, the Falcons announced that they will decline the team option of Bryant’s contract. This news came fewer than 24 hours after the team confirmed that Robert Alford was being released after six seasons. In 17 NFL seasons, Bryant has made 86.2 percent of his kicks. In 10 years with Atlanta, he made 88.7 percent of his attempts. He is Atlanta’s all-time leading scorer with 1,122 points and ranks 15th all-time in NFL history with 1,717 career points. In 13 games in 2018, Bryant made 20-of-21 field goal attempts, with his lone miss coming in the freezing cold at Green Bay. Helping his team beat the Bucs early in the year, Bryant also kicked a 37-yard field goal game-winner at Tampa Bay with no time remaining on the clock. That ended up being Bryant’s final field goal as a member of the Falcons. Even at his age, Bryant clearly still can kick the ball at an elite level. This move, however, signals the need for the Falcons to free up all of the cap space it can find. Bryant was scheduled to hold a cap figure of $4.16 million for the 2019 season. By releasing Bryant, the Falcons will save $2.83 million as they will still be on the hook for $1.33 million in dead money. That $2.83 million might not seem like a lot, but for the Falcons, a couple of million dollars here or there could be the difference in a needed offensive or defensive lineman in free agency. By prioritizing other positions, the Falcons were forced to sacrifice Bryant’s place on the roster. By taking Alford and Bryant off the books, the Falcons now have an estimated $36.5 million in cap space to work with. Bryant’s release shows that any NFL player can lose his job, even when he is still among the best at his position. The salary cap forces teams to make decisions like this, especially in situations where there are other positions that need to be addressed. And that brings us to this central question. If Bryant can lose his job, could anyone else on the chopping block? Here are a few players the Falcons could make decisions on in the coming weeks: DE Brooks Reed: Financially, Reed would clear a decent amount of cap space if he is let go. Reed is set to earn $5.44 million in 2019 while holding only a $940,000 dead money number. By releasing Reed, the Falcons would save $4.5 million. In 2018, Reed recorded 24 tackles as a rotational member of the defense. Reed, who has been with the franchise for the past four seasons, is entering the final year of his contract. DE Vic Beasley: Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff indicated the franchise wants Beasley back on the roster in 2019. It’s just a matter of whether it can work for both parties. Atlanta may not feel inclined to keep Beasley at his fifth-year option price tag, which is valued at $12.81 million for 2019. A new deal significantly could reduce the cap figure for the upcoming season, and a new deal for Beasley is certainly a plausible scenario. The Falcons have until the new league year begins in March to make a decision as to whether Beasley plays under his option amount. RT Ryan Schraeder: Schraeder seems to be the perfect candidate for a restructured contract. He has Atlanta’s seventh-highest cap figure for 2019 at $7.75 million. He was benched near the end of the season for Ty Sambrailo, who ended up performing better in the role. No one expected for Schraeder to have a down season, considering how well he played in previous years. Schraeder is entering the third year of a five-year deal but is now in position to be competing for a starting job. If the Falcons want to keep him around, they may feel inclined to re-do the deal to free up some cap space. The other option would be to part ways, which would leave the Falcons on the hook for $3.8 million in dead money, albeit with a savings of $3.95 million. WR Mohamed Sanu: Much like the move to part ways with Bryant, releasing Sanu would not be popular with the fan base. The team probably would be advised to not do such a thing, but if the Falcons can cut Bryant, anything is possible. The savings would be $4.6 million for the Falcons in doing so. But would it be worth it? Probably not. Sanu just posted a career-best 838 yards with four touchdowns this past season. Sanu has been a reliable receiver in the slot and complements both Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley almost perfectly. Given his productivity, Sanu shouldn’t accept a request to restructure his current deal either. It seems doubtful the Falcons would release a productive player like Sanu, although you never say never in this league. C Alex Mack: To start with, Mack isn’t getting released. Shortly after the season ended, Quinn said the two positions on the offensive line he felt good about were at left tackle and center. But Mack does have the sixth-highest cap number on the team at $11.05 million. Restructuring his deal, without Mack losing any future compensation, could be on the table if the Falcons are hard-pressed for some cap relief. An easy sell would be to ask Mack to assist the organization so that it can help him out with some quality players up front. The Falcons also will be able to free up some short-term cap space with receiver Julio Jones’ impending contract extension. As of now, Jones holds a 2019 cap figure of $13.46 million. A new deal could move some money around and save the Falcons a sizable sum for the upcoming season. That stated, the Falcons also have to work on a new contract for defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, who isn’t on the Falcons’ books at the present time. But generally, the first year of new contracts tend to be salary-cap friendly, too. The Falcons didn’t expect to be in a position to endure what could be a busy offseason. Last summer, most positions appeared set for the near future. Now, up to three-fifths of the offensive line could be up for grabs, with the Falcons also seeking extra help on the defensive line. As a result in improving those areas, the Falcons probably will have some other tough decisions to make regarding veteran players.
  3. Growing up as an aspiring football player in Mobile, Ala., Ito Smith never had the opportunity to attend a clinic led by professional football players. As a youth, it probably didn’t seem like a big deal as he worked his way into being a high school standout and a college star at Southern Miss. Following his rookie season with the Falcons, Smith was given the opportunity to teach some football skills to a group of elementary school children at a recent clinic at Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta. Smith said it was a good way to spend some offseason downtime while giving back to his new community. “We’re tossing the football around and handing out autographs,” Smith said. “It’s motivating and inspiring them to be like us.” The event was hosted by Panini, a licensed trading card company that was in town for the Super Bowl. Smith, along with NFL players such as Denver running back Phillip Lindsay and Cincinnati receiver Tyler Boyd, was on hand to go through some drills and to sign some autographs for the kids. The players led the kids through some basic drills and taught some fundamentals. Smith said it was good for the school children to get a first-hand experience with the players they look up to on Sundays. “To give back and be there so they can actually see you in person — they see us on TV all the time,” Smith said. “To see us in person, they can say, ‘I saw him! I got his autograph!’ That’s very motivating. It’s a cool thing.” Smith figures to be in line for a bigger role from the start in 2019, especially if Tevin Coleman heads elsewhere in free agency. Selected in the fourth round of the 2018 NFL draft, Smith began last season as the third-string running back and expected to see most of his time on special teams. Injuries to Devonta Freeman relegated him to only two games, which propelled Smith into a greater role. Smith showcased his potential as a shifty and agile runner, with his best highlight coming against Carolina when he spun off of a tackle attempt from linebacker Luke Kuechly. Smith’s rookie season ended with 90 carries for 315 yards and four touchdowns. He also caught 27 passes for 152 yards. Smith’s year concluded before the final two games, however, as he suffered a meniscus injury against Arizona. Prior to the Super Bowl, Smith caught up with The Athletic to discuss his rookie year, his health and what he learned to get through his first long NFL season. How is the knee doing? Are you feeling better, and are you ready to get back in the swing of things? Yeah, I can’t wait to get back. The knee is feeling really good. I’m almost back to 100 percent. I’ll be back for OTAs, and I’ll have a full offseason. I’m just ready to get back out there with my teammates to get that sour taste out of our mouth. Obviously, there were a lot of expectations going into the year. If you could pinpoint something that led to the 7-9 season, what do you think it was? It was just execution and too many mistakes. Turnovers, that killed us. Just execute, man. We have to play better football, sound football. If we make the plays we’re supposed to make, we’ll be fine. Did you all (as players) put that on yourself as a team, as a collective group? Were those things you think you can correct on the field, and not necessarily from anything coaching related? Coaches coach, and we go out there and play. You can watch the games, and we made a lot of mistakes. We have to play better football, like I said. What have you been doing since the offseason began? I assume you’ve been doing some rehab, but what’s been your timeline since that last game? Just rehabbing and relaxing, trying to get my body feeling really good. It’s a long NFL season. I had workouts at pro day, so last year was a really long year for me. I’m trying to get my body back right. I’ll relax while I got the time and enjoy it with my family. I’m going to get my mind right, so I can be 100 percent ready for next season. Are you already anxious to get back? I say that because obviously there is some uncertainty with Tevin being a free agent. If he does go somewhere else you’re that No. 2 back. Are you anxious at all to take on a big role? I’m a competitor so I’d embrace it. I want that bigger role. Tevin did a great job, but whatever happens, happens. Whether I’m the No. 2 or No. 3 guy, I’m going to go out there and do my job the best I can for my team so we can have a better season next year. What do you think you learned the most during your rookie year? Just staying focused. It’s a long season. The weeks, they get redundant. You’re doing the same stuff every week. It’s staying focused and sticking to it. It’s chugging on, I guess. It has to be tough — you get to Week 10, 11 and 12, the hits are harder than they were in college. It’s such a high level. And you still have six weeks to go, and if you’re still playing like right now, it’s up to 20 weeks. How do you keep your mind right with such a long year? On your off days, it’s having a real off day. Get you a little studying in but other than that, you have to get your rest. You can’t be staying up all night. It’s taking care of your body, doing all your rehab — therapy, hot tub, cold tub, needle room, massages. Do whatever you got to do so that when Sunday comes around you’re full-go. Have you had a chance to speak with Dirk Koetter yet since he became your new offensive coordinator? I have not spoken with him yet. Are you familiar with his offense or have you studied any of it yet? They say he’s a very balanced guy so we’ll see. He’s known for a lot of inside zone (runs). I feel like that fits you. Do you feel the same? I’m a good inside zone runner. I’m a good outside zone runner, too. I am a better inside zone runner than outside. I did do a good job with the inside zone runs. It’s continuing on and building off of that. Who or what was your biggest inspiration, whether it was to play football, whether it’s to succeed? I don’t want to say inspiration, but growing up I used to like Reggie Bush. I used to like his style and stay up late watching him when he was on the west coast in college at USC. He was a really good college player. Mainly him.
  4. The beginning of the end for Robert Alford as a high-priced cornerback in Atlanta, came during a freezing-cold trip to Green Bay. Early in the second quarter of the Packers’ 34-20 win, Alford was taken out for rookie Isaiah Oliver, who was used sparingly on defense until that point of the season. Oliver took his lumps that day but continued to rotate with Alford at the position. That rotation would continue throughout the final few games, with Oliver steadily progressing and earning confidence in the spot. That was the first true sign that the Falcons were ready to move on. On Tuesday evening, it appears that what many long expected has come true. Alford confirmed on Twitter that the Falcons are planning to cut ties with him after six seasons. For Alford, it goes to show how life can change in the NFL in two short years. Two years ago to the day, on Feb. 5, 2016, Alford returned an interception for a touchdown Super Bowl LI, which would have gone down as one of the city’s greatest sports moments had the game not been squandered away. Alford jumped Danny Amendola’s route and picked Tom Brady off before zooming past everyone en route the end zone. Of course, that did not become a go-to highlight of jubilation for Atlanta. It was just another moment of what could have been. Alford was a dependable corner early in his time with the Falcons. Never afraid of a challenge while possessing great speed, Alford posted nine interceptions during his first four years. Before the 2017 season, Alford signed a four-year contract worth $38 million. Since then, however, it hasn’t been rosy for Alford. And his rocky 2018 season, which ended with zero interceptions, allowed the Falcons to make this decision, which was certainly needed from a financial standpoint. Just like the Falcons invested a second-round pick in Alford back in 2013, the Falcons spent another on Oliver in 2018. Oliver represents the future at the position and will now be a candidate to step into a starting role next season. Oliver is 6-foot, weighs 210 pounds and has nearly a 7-foot wingspan. His length is a trait that Falcons head coach Dan Quinn covets when it comes to cornerbacks. After Atlanta’s second win over Carolina in December, Oliver, who recorded his first career pick that game, noted how much he was able to learn the position from seeing the increase in live reps. “With playing time that’s going to happen,” Oliver said. “I feel it progresses you as a player so much more being out there on the field, being able to learn on the fly.” Cap ramifications By releasing Alford, the Falcons will save $7.9 million in salary cap space for the 2019 season. Alford was previously due a base salary of $8.5 million and held a $9.1 cap figure. The Falcons will be forced to keep $1.2 million in dead money on the books from Oliver’s deal. The NFL salary cap is expected to be between $187-191.1 million in 2019. By moving Alford off of the roster, and by using the $191.1 million figure, the Falcons are now projected at roughly $33.7 million under the cap.
  5. Thomas Dimitroff arrived at the Georgia World Congress Center ready for a round of radio row interviews at around 9:30 a.m. on Thursday. His method of transportation to and from wasn’t the norm for most of the other attendees of the event. Dimitroff rode an electric bicycle from his Buckhead home to the Super Bowl media’s downtown headquarters. It was an estimated 10 miles each way, with Dimitroff taking a shortcut, with the temperature down in the mid-30s. Considering his love for bike riding, Dimitroff didn’t miss the opportunity to get some exercise to fulfill a media obligation he agreed to. Electric bicycles, e-bikes for short, have an integrated motor, which aids in propulsion. With this electric bicycle, Dimitroff noted he can get up to a speed of 29 mph. The e-bike does have a governor, which helps slow it down as it goes downhill. The plan was to ride the e-bike back home afterward. He can’t go to his Flowery Branch office since the Los Angeles Rams are using the Falcons’ facilities for Super Bowl practices. When he arrived to radio row, Dimitroff stopped by two Atlanta stations, 92.9 The Game and 680 The Fan, first. He ended his day with an appearance at the Pro Football Talk tent. Following a slew of radio shows, Dimitroff briefed the local media on the latest news with the Falcons. He provided an update on contract negotiations with both Grady Jarrett and Julio Jones and discussed whether the Falcons need to make a big splash in free agency. On the team’s top priorities this offseason: “Our priority is to jump into focusing on Grady and trying to get that (contract) taken care of and move toward Julio, of course. Then we have some other guys, and we’ll look in free agency, as well. We just need to hone in and take care of our finance situation and see where we are.” How are talks with Jarrett’s representation going? “We will kick off our conversations after the Super Bowl and continue to work on them. We’ve had a number of conversations. We still have a ways to go, of course, but we are confident he’s going to be here for years to come.” On Jarrett’s value to the franchise: “He’s done a really good job for us, on and off the field, as you know, from a leader standpoint. He continues to produce. Interior D-linemen, that’s not an easy place, right? You have one guy out in L.A. (Aaron Donald), he had a lot of sacks. You have a lot of good football players in this league who are in that six, seven and eight area of sacks. You have to look at everything.” Is there a comparable player to Jarrett when it comes to negotiations? “I don’t think we’ll struggle to find a comparable. I think we’re just going to be focused on what we think he is to our organization and make the call between myself and (head coach Dan Quinn) ultimately and decide where we are going to settle on it.” On Jones’ status with his upcoming contract extension: “The Julio thing, we had a great discussion toward the end of the season. Again, we’re really confident that’s going to be done. We’re in a great place. I talked with Jimmy Sexton about it, as well. Once the Super Bowl is over and we can look at it, those are the two that are going to be important. They’re going to set the tone for how we continue into free agency.” On the Rams making multiple major moves prior to the 2018 season: “I think Les (Snead’s) approach to go all-in with Sean McVay as co-team builders and to say not only are we going to get different personalities, but we also have a head coach who knows how to manage them and a defensive coordinator that can handle some of the defensive personalities, I think they all understood what they were getting into. That’s admirable at a lot of levels. They have some really good football players on that team. I think a lot of teams out there, when they start putting teams together and players together, they’re really concerned about making sure they have the character that fits for that head coach and that team. That’s always going to be there. That’s never going to be something you put aside. The team fit is very important. They’ve done a really good job managing it.” Should the Falcons make similar bold moves this offseason? “I don’t think necessarily we need to make a whole bunch of bold moves. I think we have a lot of good football players on this team. We have a very good coaching staff and a head coach that knows how to get the most out of everyone. We have some regrouping to do in a number of different areas, of course. I don’t think that necessarily means dropping a whole lot of money in free agency. I think there’s a draft out there that can be really beneficial to us, potentially on both sides of the ball. Front-wise, you can acquire in the draft, as well. We will be very manageable and mindful about how we will be approaching free agency. We will not be throwing out money for the sake of it.” With Kyle Flood leaving his clock management post for an assistant coaching position at Alabama, has Quinn started looking for a replacement? “Dan is in the market right now. He’s got a really definitive understanding of what he’s looking for. Again, we’re confident we’ll pull someone out for sure that’s going to be beneficial. That’s going to be the wave. We see that in the league. You have some great coaches in this league, and it seems every fan base and every media base is making comments about the head coaches in their respective city. I just think there’s so much on their plate that you need to make sure you have someone in a good spot who (when) the mute button is on and the two of them are talking about what the idea is moving forward. I think Dan has a really good grasp on what he wants there.” On if the Falcons’ draft will center around addressing needs or selecting the best player available: “We really have to sit down and see who we end up with and what moves we make to clear some space, and then we’ll have more of an idea if we’re directed toward best player or need. Again, we are always going to be focused on our need. I want to make sure we’re never going to sit out there and pull a position where we know we have good depth at just because that’s the best player. Need is going to be driving us, but we’re going to be very mindful of the best player, as well. I know that is a very (on the) fence answer, but is the reality of it all.”
  6. MOBILE, Ala. — It was a sight Thomas Dimitroff was happy to see. When the South team, coached by the San Francisco 49ers’ staff, lined up for one-on-one drills in the trenches, the offensive and defensive linemen were engaging more physically with one another than in years past. That actually has been a common complaint from front office personnel, that these interior drills at the Senior Bowl, haven’t been as physical as they need to be. That wasn’t the case during the first practice of the week, which took place Tuesday. Offensive linemen Tytus Howard (Alabama State) and Dru Samia (Oklahoma) stonewalled their men repeatedly, with Howard putting one defender on the ground. Defensive linemen Jonathan Ledbetter (Georgia), Montez Sweat (Mississippi State) and Jaylon Ferguson (Louisiana Tech) showed speed and aggression off the edge. The sheer sight of this was great for a general manager like Dimitroff, who will be tasked with filling holes and adding depth to both the offensive and defensive lines this offseason — with perhaps an emphasis being on the offensive line. A lot needs to play out before the team’s picture becomes clearer in terms of what position it might target in the first round of the NFL draft. The Falcons always could address these positions in free agency and feel good about taking another position earlier instead. In between the South and North teams’ practices at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, Dimitroff took a few minutes to speak with The Athletic about what he is looking for when scouting offensive linemen as the Falcons’ unit could see position battles at left guard, right guard and right tackle this offseason. He also addressed Grady Jarrett’s upcoming contract extension and where things stand with Vic Beasley and the $12.8 million fifth-year option Atlanta picked up last year. With a new offensive coordinator, does that change how you evaluate offensive linemen? Obviously, that’s a position group a lot of people are interested in right now. Offensive line is going to be important for us. We will continue to look at it and build. I want to be very clear to everyone. We have a lot of focus on that position. We not only have myself and Dan Quinn involved, we have our personnel directors and assistant general manager and three O-line coaches (looking at it). We have a lot of focus on it. We know how important it is just like every team in the NFL does. It’s a different situation now with a lot of players coming out (compared to) the way that they used to. Work rules are different. There’s just a lot of things you have to be really honed in on to make sure that you have the right fits. To your question, when you bring a new offensive coordinator in, you’re mindful of the type of nuances to the offensive system. That said, we’re going to be very much consistent. We’ll continue, as Dan mentioned, to not only be on the outside zone scheme, but we’ll be moving inside, as well. That’s important for us as it gives us an opportunity to consider more of a pool of players on the offensive line than strictly being set outside or inside. On top of that, what are you looking for in this week of scouting from the few days you’ll be here? To get an opportunity to see these guys move around against the top-notch talent in the college ranks. That’s a big thing for us. Of course, you don’t get a chance to see physical drills as much — although the O-line and D-line drills (Tuesday) were fantastic. Kudos to (49ers head coach) Kyle Shanahan and the way they approached it. Every year we come in here and complain to the staffs about wanting more physicality. They did a great job; they ran really good O-line and D-line drills, which is good for a lot of us who are maybe looking for those positions. We get to an opportunity to see these guys move around. It’s good to see them physically because during the season some schools you don’t get to. You get an opportunity to see not only the big-time schools against the big-time schools, but you also get a chance to see some of the smaller schools against some of the top-notch schools out there and see how they stack up. Was there anything that stood out in those one-one-drills up front? Yeah, again, without getting into specifics about players … Which is what I wanted you to do … There was some physicality there. And quite honestly, there were a couple of players out there that when you combine their athleticism, and if you’ve done enough research, you can know who those guys are, they were also showing some physicality. When you are deemed an athletic offensive lineman, usually you come here, and you have to show you have physicality to you, as well, and you’re not just considered as finesse. I thought a couple of guys did that. Switching gears a little bit to some contract stuff. With Grady, I believe March 5 is the tag deadline. If you don’t have a deal with him by then, is that a possibility or consideration to franchise or transition tag him? I think with the way it’s set up in the league, you always look at that if you can’t get something done. But our focus is to see where we’re going with this negotiation. Again, he’s a very important part. He is our priority right now. We tabled it, as you know, in the fall, and we focused on the season. Of course, he did a very good job. We love what he does for us, not only on the field but off the field. We’re encouraged we’re going to get something done. On Vic Beasley, you picked up his option last year. What’s the status with that, and is (playing under the option) the plan? Or are you still working through that to figure out what you want to do with him? We’re in the spot right now of looking at the entire team. When the Super Bowl is over, Dan and I will spend a ton of time on it. We’ve already spent a ton of time together talking about it and looking at how things will be pieced together, being creative with our cap, of course. Vic’s a guy we’re continuing to focus on. We want him to be here. We want him to continue to thrive and continue to learn under Dan’s tutelage as a defensive coordinator/head coach and how important that’s going to be. Dan has a really good working relationship with Vic, and that’s important for us. Back to the players you’re looking at, once free agency begins, how much of that will impact what happens in the draft? It impacts it a lot. It impacts the idea of where you can spend your money and where you can get good values in free agency and where you know guys have already proven themselves. That’s a big thing coming into a season. And then go into the draft and focus on some of the guys you know are going to be developing. Free agency, to me, is a really important part. It may not be a situation where you’re picking up three, five or seven free agents. But one or two can be a big difference in how you approach the draft. One thing that’s been sticking with me is cornerback. I know with you guys, offensive line and defensive line have been a big emphasis internally and externally. But where do you stand on cornerback with what you want for the future? We feel we have a good group of corners. We had some play that was good this year, and we also had some inconsistent play. We have a great deal of faith in the number of players we have in that group. We’re going to continue to grow and continue to refine. That said, I don’t think you can ever have enough corners who are not only ready to step up right away but create a legitimate amount of depth. You know how it is over the years. Before you know it, you’re tapping into the fourth corner on your roster. I think you have to be very detailed and focused on that. It will be another important position to continue to look at. Sometimes you can pick a later-round player who can be very beneficial to an organization. I do believe that. There’s one guy who stands out to me, but I doubt you’ll want to comment specifically on him — (I revealed to Dimitroff after the fact it was Delaware’s Nasir Adderley) — but how much does versatility play into that? Obviously, a guy like Damontae Kazee played corner in college and then moved to safety and can play nickel. How much of that goes into the process when you’re looking at a DB? Versatility is big. Versatility is big at a lot of secondary positions. But to play inside and outside is important. It’s a big thing when we’re talking about it. Every scout is pressed to make their categorical comment on whether a guy can be an outside/inside guy or an inside/outside guy. We make sure we’re very detailed on prioritizing what their abilities are and trying to determine whether the guy ideally is inside or outside. To have versatility that way, not only to play the corner position but play safety if need be; yes, that is an important part.
  7. MOBILE, Ala. — NFL scouts were busy Monday, roaming around with the goal of speaking with numerous draft prospects on the second floor of the Renaissance Mobile Riverview Plaza. The floor was crowded, with Senior Bowl participants arriving and immediately speaking with members of various teams’ scouting departments. The Falcons were like every other team, with a group of scouts scouring the area asking prospects to chat. With Senior Bowl week underway, draft season has begun. While most of the players participating in the Senior Bowl won’t go in the first two rounds, there are still plenty of talented players participating who could go in the middle rounds. Everyone knows the Falcons will be looking to fill holes on both sides of the line of scrimmage. There are actually a lot of offensive linemen who seem to fit the prototype that Atlanta is looking for — less than 315 pounds with the ability to move well. It’s a deep group on the defensive line, too. But for the purpose of this story, let’s take a look at players at other positions the Falcons might want to take a closer look at this week. Temple cornerback Rock Ya-Sin: Ya-Sin has the potential to rise up draft boards with a good week in Mobile. He’s a bigger cornerback at 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, which is something Falcons head coach Dan Quinn has coveted in the past. Ya-Sin was known for possessing good press technique at the line of scrimmage during his lone season at Temple, which came after transferring from Presbyterian. Ya-Sin didn’t play much zone coverage in college. With the Falcons utilizing a lot of Cover 3 on defense, that would be a new skill for Ya-Sin to learn at the pro level. At the same time, that would be a learning curve for Ya-Sin with any team that selects him. The Athletic’s Dane Brugler has Ya-Sin pegged as his top senior cornerback in this year’s draft. Massachusetts receiver Andy Isabella: Those who follow both the Falcons and Georgia might recognize Isabella’s name. Isabella torched the Bulldogs for 15 catches, 219 yards and two touchdowns, albeit in Georgia’s 66-27 blowout win. But Isabella earned a lot of attention, and deservedly so, for his performance against the SEC runner-up. He finished the year with an FBS-leading 1,698 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. While Isabella’s physical attributes may not wow scouts at the weigh-in Tuesday, his speed and agility will be on display throughout the week. If the Falcons lose Justin Hardy in free agency, Isabella should be worth a closer look, even with this particular position group showcasing great depth. Boston College tight end Tommy Sweeney: While Austin Hooper had a Pro Bowl season, the Falcons could have a tight end spot to fill with Logan Paulsen slated to hit free agency. With that in mind, Sweeney could be a potential name for the Falcons to keep an eye on this week. Sweeney fits the size profile at 6-5 and 255 pounds. He is balanced as an in-line blocker and receiver. Like all prospects, there is plenty for Sweeney to improve upon. At the same time, he has a lot of promise as a developmental tight end. Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew II: Quarterback isn’t exactly a position on the forefront of Atlanta’s wishlist, considering Matt Ryan has plenty of years of high-level football left. At the same time, the Falcons could be in the market for a backup quarterback if they decide not to re-sign Matt Schaub. This year’s Senior Bowl quarterback lineup is pretty strong, with Drew Lock, Daniel Jones and Will Grier headlining the group. A mid-round prospect of note is Minshew, who threw for 4,776 yards, 38 touchdowns and nine interceptions in Mike Leach’s air raid attack this past season. While there is a lot Minshew would need to learn at the NFL level, his arm strength and mobility could be intriguing for plenty of teams during the draft weekend. Kentucky cornerback Lonnie Johnson Jr.: Johnson has a great chance to boost his draft stock this week. While he only recorded one interception in two seasons at Kentucky, Johnson has the physical attributes that will have at least a few teams interested. With a good outing, perhaps Atlanta could become one of them. Johnson is 6-3 and 206 pounds, which would offer the Falcons the kind of size they don’t have at cornerback. There certainly will be some risk involved, considering Johnson didn’t post gaudy stats after transferring to Kentucky from Garden City Community College. Without a big-time week, Johnson could wind up being a mid-round developmental player. But as everyone knows, great cornerbacks can come from any round of the NFL draft.
  8. It’s not like Dirk Koetter is walking into an unfamiliar position. Having been with the Falcons just five years ago, he previously worked with some players still with the organization. The obvious example is quarterback Matt Ryan, who saw his career blossom under Koetter’s guidance. Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder also were on the roster then. The hope, when it comes to welcoming Koetter back to the team, is that Atlanta’s offense can hit the ground running without any type of learning curve. With each of the past two offensive coordinators, this learning curve existed. It took some time for the offense to jell with Kyle Shanahan in 2015. Steve Sarkisian underwent an adjustment period with his personnel in 2017. Having coached some of these players before, Koetter, who was Atlanta’s offensive coordinator from 2012-14, shouldn’t have those growing points. That’s the goal at least. “I can speak from my own personal experience of a player you may have coached at one spot and then you revisited with them again,” Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said. “You can definitely get up to speed more quickly.” Quinn spoke with local reporters on a conference call Thursday to discuss his new hirings. He also hit on a few other topics in what was roughly a 25-minute media session. Finding the right kind of balance Considering how the past couple of seasons went, it seemed slightly odd for Quinn to tab Koetter as his next offensive coordinator. Koetter’s Tampa Bay teams threw the ball a bunch while running it less than 40 percent of the time throughout the past two years. But digging a little deeper into Koetter’s history shows he has run the ball effectively, especially when he was Jacksonville’s offensive coordinator. In 2007, Fred Taylor totaled 1,202 rushing yards and five touchdowns with Maurice Jones-Drew running for 768 yards and nine scores. In 2009, Jones-Drew ran for 1,391 yards and 15 touchdowns and followed up that season with 1,324 yards and five scores in 2010. In 2011, Jones-Drew posted a career-best 1,606 yards, while punching in eight touchdowns. He did so on 343 carries. Coaches don’t typically like making comparisons, but it is worth noting that Jones-Drew and Freeman are built similarly. Both are shorter backs ranging from 205 to 210 pounds. “I understand the comparison, but really it will be the way we can feature (Freeman) in different ways,” Quinn said. “Although the players’ production can be similar, how they’re featured can be done differently. The running game, for us, with (Freeman) and how we attack, is really important. We’re going to make sure we can feature those guys in the best ways.” Quinn did note that Jones-Drew, like Freeman, was exceptional at running inside zone plays. With Koetter getting to work with a veteran Freeman, as opposed to the rookie he was in 2014, it will be interesting to see how Freeman is incorporated into the scheme. Ultimately, Quinn wants to see better balance primarily on first and second downs. A quick look at the numbers suggests first down primarily served as a passing down for Atlanta in 2018. The Falcons ran 467 plays on first down, with 62.5 percent of those being passes. On second down, Atlanta passed the ball 59.1 percent of the time. Quinn said he would like for his offense to be a little more unpredictable. “That’s where we’ve had extensive conversations about how we intend to attack,” Quinn said. “In those moments, in what we call regular downs, that’s where it starts. How do you utilize those in openers? And how do you utilize those in different moments of the game? That’s all by game plan, but that’s where you try to have more of your balance.” The offensive ‘blend’ With Koetter and new tight ends coach Mike Mularkey joining the coaching staff, Quinn said the 2019 offense will be a “blend” of what has worked for everyone in the past. The inside and outside zone runs still will be a key part of the offense. Mularkey and offensive line coach Chris Morgan will work in tandem to help improve the run game. While Morgan can continue teaching the zone blocking Atlanta has used the past four years, Mularkey has vast experience running power plays. Koetter obviously has a vertical passing game background. At its core, Quinn said the philosophy will resemble previous Atlanta offenses. At the same time, there will be some wrinkles added in. “A number of the concepts that Dirk runs and that we run are already in sync with that,” Quinn said. “We will keep the passing game here that we have, and Dirk will add tweaks to that. As far as the run game goes, I’d say Mike is really equipped in a lot of ways, with inside and outside zone being one of those. “We’ll establish our identity loud and clear with Chris and with Mike in the run game, as well. The play-(action) pass in the run game will be a big part of what we do continually.” The in-game and clock management assistant Quinn revealed Thursday that Kyle Flood, previously the assistant offensive line coach, will become a senior assistant responsible for program development, in-game decisions and clock management. This will also involve ensuring replays are reviewed timely so Quinn can throw the challenge flag. This has become a new trend in the NFL, with the Los Angeles Rams employing Jedd Fisch to perform a similar role. Other assistant moves Quinn announced that Bernie Parmalee, who coached running backs, will now be an assistant special teams coach. Dave Brock, who was assisting in coaching wide receivers, will now coach the running backs. Raheem Morris, who holds titles of assistant head coach, passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach, will remain in his position. Before taking this role in Atlanta, Morris spent most of his career coaching on the defensive side of the ball. In addition, sources told The Athletic that the Falcons parted ways with defensive assistant/defensive backs coach Charlie Jackson and football research and development staffer Todd Nielson. Jackson assisted defensive backs coach Doug Mallory, and Nielson’s work revolved in analytics.
  9. Where things stand, what we know about Falcons' offensive... Jason Butt 8-10 minutes Seven days into the new year, there is still no reason for the Falcons to rush this offensive coordinator search. If the franchise wants to hire a high-quality candidate who believes in head coach Dan Quinn’s vision for the offense, the best course of action is to wait and see who becomes available during the coming weeks. And that has been the plan thus far. While the Falcons have spoken with a number of candidates already, it is evident there is no clear front-runner or favorite for the position at this time. On Thursday, Quinn said there wouldn’t be a timetable on the search, alluding to the fact that it could take some time to finally nail down the right candidate. He even noted he would like to speak to other candidates still coaching in the postseason. There are eight head coaching openings right now. Before the Falcons zero in on a short list for this position, those jobs need to be filled first. Generally, when one team hires a head coach, others soon follow suit. When that happens, a clearer picture of who will be available for Atlanta will emerge. In addition, the Falcons, much like they do with their player personnel, will seek the right fit for this coaching hire. Quinn wants to keep the same philosophy as previous seasons while offering a better balance between the run and the pass. For those following the search, it may seem frustrating that the process isn’t moving at a faster pace. But having let go of his three previous coordinators and deciding to take on defensive play-calling duties, Quinn is aware of just how important this hire will be — for the franchise as a whole and for his own future. Checking in on Kubiak While Denver blocked Atlanta from interviewing Gary Kubiak, which was first reported by ESPN’s Adam Schefter, there is still a chance Atlanta could get a crack at him in the end. This hinges on whoever the Broncos decide to hire as their next head coach. Kubiak wants to coach again but only as an offensive coordinator. Therefore, if the Broncos hire an offensive-minded head coach who wants to call plays or run a different scheme than Kubiak’s, general manager John Elway could reverse course and allow Kubiak out of his contract. Elway is basically playing it safe right now. He doesn’t want to lose Kubiak if he doesn’t have to. Clearly, the Falcons want the opportunity to speak with Kubiak if the opportunity presents itself. And there are many obvious reasons why the Falcons would love for Kubiak to run the offense. Throughout his career, Kubiak has been among the best at the zone-running scheme. His style would match Atlanta’s personnel. His commitment to the run game is something that is certainly enticing to a head coach like Quinn. The 2018 season marked the first time in four years that Atlanta didn’t run the ball at least 420 times. In 2017, the first for former Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, the Falcons ran the ball on 43.7 percent of their plays. This past season, the Falcons ran the ball only 34.8 percent of the time. With Kubiak, there isn’t a worry of whether he will remain committed to the run game. Kubiak also has had a knack for getting the most out of his offensive linemen, which was an underperforming group for Atlanta in 2018. Under Quinn, the Falcons’ offense has been at its best when the run game is going and the play-action pass can work off of it. Those happen to be Kubiak’s areas of strength. For Kubiak to work in Atlanta, Denver would first have to hire a head coach who prefers a different offensive scheme. If Elway hires someone like-minded to Kubiak, he more than likely will be Denver’s offensive coordinator. But if Denver goes a different route, it is believed that Elway could let Kubiak out of his contract to pursue coaching opportunities elsewhere. While the Falcons were blocked recently from speaking with Kubiak, they aren’t ruling him out as a possibility just yet. Another high-profile name to keep an eye on While the Falcons are willing to wait on Kubiak, there is another potential candidate to start monitoring. The Falcons would be interested in speaking with Adam Gase for their offensive coordinator position if he is unable to land a head coaching job. As of now, Green Bay and the New York Jets have expressed interest in the former Miami head coach who was fired shortly after the 2018 regular season ended. With that in mind, how often does someone fired following his first head coaching stint find a job elsewhere in the same role? Gase went 13-19 the past two years after going 10-6 in year one. But with eight head coach openings, perhaps another team thinks he will be a better fit than what he was in Miami. The Miami Herald did report that Gase had several verbal disputes with Dolphins owner Stephen Ross. One has to wonder how much this affects his head coaching candidacy with other teams. If Gase strikes out on a head coaching opportunity, look for the Falcons to enter the picture, especially if Kubiak stays put. When Gase was in Denver, he coached a potent offense that saw Peyton Manning throw for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns in 2013. It’s worth noting that the 2018 Dolphins ran the ball 44.9 percent of the time. Considering the skill position talent surrounding Matt Ryan, landing a brilliant offensive mind like Gase would be of intrigue to the organization. Regarding Koetter and Bevell One thing to keep in mind with this search is the scheme fit. Quinn wants a coordinator who will offer balance while maintaining a commitment to the run. This wouldn’t seem to favor Dirk Koetter, the former Tampa Bay head coach who was Atlanta’s offensive coordinator from 2012-14. Koetter’s run-to-pass ratio in Tampa Bay this past season was actually similar to Sarkisian’s, with the Bucs running the ball only 38.4 percent of the time. In 2017, Koetter’s offense ran the ball 39.1 percent of the time. The closest to 50 percent the Bucs got under Koetter was in 2016 when his offense ran the ball 43.9 percent of the time. When Koetter was in Atlanta, his offenses ran the ball 38.1 percent of the time in 2012, 32.8 percent of the time in 2013 and 37.1 percent of the time in 2014. Within the Falcons’ organization, Koetter is not considered the favorite or front-runner for the job. In addition, conventional wisdom would suggest that if Koetter was, or is, the leader for Atlanta’s position, he would have been hired after his recent interview. When it comes to Darrell Bevell, one of the first names linked to the job, he has great familiarity with what Quinn wants to run. While Bevell eventually was fired by Seattle in 2017, he had some success — the final offensive play of Super Bowl XLIX notwithstanding — in the two years he and Quinn worked together on Pete Carroll’s staff. In 2014, Bevell’s offense ran the ball 53.6 percent of the time. In 2013, Seattle ran the ball 54.8 percent of the time. While teams are passing more than ever in the NFL, Bevell would seem to be the safer option when it comes to offensive balance as a play-caller. On Mularkey Early on, the Falcons spoke with Mike Mularkey, which was initially reported as an interview for the offensive coordinator job. According to a source, however, the Falcons were not considering Mularkey for this job. Instead, the Falcons were interested in speaking to Mularkey about a non-coordinator assistant coaching job. It is worth noting that Mularkey has prior experience as an NFL tight ends coach, which is a position Atlanta has open after firing Wade Harman. That isn’t to say Mularkey interviewed for a specific role. But he isn’t being considered to be Atlanta’s offensive coordinator.
  10. Falcons plan to interview assistants who are still coaching in the NFL postseason Jason Butt One of the most interesting items from the Falcons’ end-of-year news conference Thursday was the revelation that Dan Quinn wants to interview assistants still coaching in the postseason. Twelve teams are still playing, with those coaches, per NFL rules, not yet able to talk to teams about other job opportunities. For Atlanta, several names have been linked to the offensive coordinator job: Gary Kubiak, Darrell Bevell, Dirk Koetter and Mike Mularkey. Kubiak, Bevell and Mularkey didn’t coach in 2018. Koetter recently was fired as Tampa Bay’s head coach. Two of these candidates already have been interviewed by Atlanta — reportedly Mularkey and presumably Bevell. With Quinn wanting to speak with assistants still coaching, there is a chance for this search to last a little while longer. “I didn’t put a deadline amongst ourselves due to teams that are still playing,” Quinn said. “Obviously, that’s a factor in it.” Now, this could have more to do with the special teams coordinator spot than the offensive coordinator position. That’s because, from the looks of it, only three names from the 12 teams would make sense as potential offensive coordinator hires. At the same time, the teams themselves would have to grant the interviews and not block the Falcons from potentially hiring them away. While three assistants appear to make sense, two of them seem unlikely for very different reasons. Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy: It certainly would be a challenge for the Falcons to pluck away someone with the same title, even if the Chiefs granted an interview. Plus, Bieniemy, wrapping up his first season as the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator, is seen as a candidate for head coaching jobs. The Falcons could sell the move as an upgrade with more money, potentially with an additional title like assistant head coach and with play-calling responsibilities. In Kansas City, Andy Reid calls the plays. Bieniemy getting the opportunity to call plays would be a big boost to his résumé if he winds up without a head coaching job. Bieniemy is lauded greatly in coaching circles, which is why the Buccaneers, New York Jets and Cincinnati have been interested in his candidacy to take over their teams. Although Atlanta hypothetically could sell play-calling duties, it could still be tough to convince Bieniemy to leave a sure thing in Kansas City. New Orleans quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi: Lombardi obviously has been in a great situation, having been able to coach Drew Brees directly for eight total years. Lombardi first joined the Saints’ organization in 2007 and spent two years as an offensive assistant. In 2009, he became the quarterbacks coach. He has held that role except for two seasons when he went to Detroit to be the offensive coordinator in 2014 and 2015. But he didn’t last the full two years with the Lions. Lombardi’s offense ranked 19th in 2014 and was abysmal through seven games in 2015. This came despite having Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate throughout this stint. That resulted in his firing, with Lombardi taking his old position back in New Orleans in 2016. Sure, Lombardi can point to play-calling experience, and maybe he has learned enough to be ready for another go at it. Even so, it would still be seen as quite the risk for the Falcons to make such a move. There does appear to be one intriguing candidate flying under the radar at this time. Los Angeles Rams senior offensive assistant Jedd Fisch: Fisch has two previous years of NFL play-calling experience, which came with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2013 and 2014. While Lombardi had some talented pieces to work with in Detroit, Fisch had Blaine Gabbert at quarterback in year one and Blake Bortles as a rookie in year two. Finishing 31st in total offense in both seasons, Fisch was fired. Fisch then went back to the college ranks at Michigan as a quarterbacks and wide receivers coach to go with a passing game coordinator title. Under Fisch, Michigan got more out of quarterbacks Jake Rudock and Wilton Speight than many could have anticipated. Speight, in particular, had a solid sophomore season in 2016 under Fisch, throwing for 2,538 yards, 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions. When Fisch left to take the offensive coordinator job at UCLA in 2017, Speight saw a drop-off from a 61.6 completion percentage to 54.3, before a season-ending injury occurred. With the Bruins, Fisch guided Josh Rosen to 3,756 yards, 27 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He was out of a job, however, when Jim Mora was fired from the Bruins’ head coaching position, which ended with Fisch taking over as UCLA’s interim head coach in the program’s final two games of the 2017 season. This year, Fisch has been a senior offensive assistant with the Rams, learning the ins and outs of head coach Sean McVay’s system. Fisch’s game-day responsibilities are to assist McVay in clock management situations, an area McVay admitted he struggled with during the 2017 campaign. Fisch and Quinn are friends and have known each other for a while. Fisch actually was considered for the open quarterbacks coach position last January before Quinn opted for Greg Knapp. If other top options don’t materialize, perhaps Fisch could be a candidate for this role. If another option works out, Fisch could still be an option to bring on in a promotional opportunity — if the Rams and his contract allow it. You’re not fired … yet In addition to the coordinator firings, Quinn confirmed that tight ends coach Wade Harman has been let go from the Falcons staff as well. A decision has yet to be reached on anyone else, with the impending coordinator hirings having a great say in who stays and who goes. “There may be some adjusting moving on within the staff. But in terms of position changes, no other changes at this time,” Quinn said. The Harman news was somewhat surprising, considering tight end Austin Hooper steadily has progressed the past three years. It was also an interesting decision since no one else got the preemptive firing treatment. Good news on the injury front For all of the bad news the Falcons got with injuries in 2018, the new year is beginning with some positivity in this department. Quinn said he expects for every player who ended the year on injured reserve to be available when training camp begins during the late summer. This includes safeties Keanu Neal (ACL) and Ricardo Allen (Achilles). Running back Devonta Freeman (groin), running back Ito Smith (knee), offensive guard Brandon Fusco (broken ankle) and long-snapper Josh Harris (hip) also will be ready to go in training camp. “I don’t think there is anybody in any jeopardy in training camp,” Quinn said. “I think there would be some on a limited basis. But not from a training camp.” Derrick Shelby (groin) and Andy Levitre (triceps) ended the year on injured reserve but soon will be free agents.
  11. Matt Bosher’s tackle sets the tone for the Falcons: ‘I can’t make fun of him for being a punter no more’ Jason Butt CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Usually, it’s a bad sign when reporters crowd around a specialist. It often means an errant kick occurred at a critical time in a loss. One of the greatest jokes, especially for punters and long snappers, is that people only want to talk to them when they screw up. That wasn’t the case Sunday after the Falcons’ 24-10 win over Carolina at Bank of America Stadium. Matt Bosher, the team’s punter who also handles kickoffs, seemed somewhat surprised to see a cluster of photographers and writers suddenly appear in front of him even though he came through with what was easily the play of the day. Right around the 5:25 mark of the second quarter, Bosher left a kickoff short at the Carolina 3-yard line. Kenjon Barner found a seam and hit the hole with what, for a split-second, looked to be a solid return. That’s when Bosher stepped into the hole and lowered his shoulder into Barner’s upper body. By doing so, he sent Barner airborne and then landing flat on his back. The tackle sent shockwaves through the Falcons’ sideline. Just as Bosher was fielding his first question about the tackle, place-kicker Matt Bryant playfully toned down his teammate’s accomplishment. “Tell them the truth,” Bryant said. “You caught the guy slipping.” Bosher laughed and said he did. “Kenjon is a **** of a returner,” Bosher said. “He just caught it at the wrong time with the jump cut. My job is to stand back there and be a safety, be head-up on the ball and make a play when it gets to me.” Bosher was modest about the tackle. He politely answered a few questions but didn’t seem too interested in hyping it up — although he did flex over Barner following the tackle. And, of course, Bosher had to dish out some trash talk in the moment. “I mean, I went to Miami,” Bosher said. His teammates, however, were more than willing to share their recollections of Bosher’s tackle and even offered some insight on why Atlanta’s punter and kickoff specialist was able to execute a tackle that set the tone for the remainder of the day on defense. In the weight room, Bosher often works out with Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Austin Hooper. Jones and Ridley said Bosher is a lot stronger than the average person may think or expect. Jones said when it’s leg day, Bosher can squat 315 pounds easily. While Jones said he doesn’t stereotype any NFL player based on his position, he noted that Bosher isn’t your typical kicker. “Him just slamming somebody like that, it was pretty cool to see,” Jones said. Ridley said it is impressive to see Bosher lift as heavy as he does. “He’s strong — really, really strong,” Ridley said. “He squats, benches. I’m not surprised (about the tackle). Well, a little bit because he hit him really, really hard.” That seemed to be the takeaway from Bosher’s teammates. They are aware Bosher is in great physical shape. Even so, the force he displayed dropped their jaws. Cornerback Isaiah Oliver was chasing Barner as Bosher stepped into the hit. The sheer violence of the play had Oliver in disbelief. “I didn’t see him at first; he came out of nowhere,” Oliver said. “He just picked the dude up and dumped him. I was shocked at first. I didn’t know who it was. Then I realized it was Bosher. It was a great hit.” Could he have expected that from Bosher? “A hit like that? Not necessarily,” Oliver said. “He’s a physical guy. He’s not like most kickers in the NFL — or the idea of most kickers, at least. He’s a physical guy; he’s a great teammate, great player. You don’t really expect that from a kicker like that, to go in there and risk his body like that.” Defensive tackle Jack Crawford’s locker is next to Bosher’s at the team facility in Flowery Branch, so he is always offering up some good-natured teasing about being a punter. Those jokes, however, are going to stop for a while. Crawford offered up an explanation for Bosher’s hit. A running joke in the Falcons’ locker room, Crawford said, is that there is “Happy Bosh” and “Angry Bosh.” When Bosher is jovial and chatting his teammates up, he’s happy. When he’s quiet, they assume he’s angry. “I think that was ‘Angry Bosh’ on the field because that guy just, man, he got stopped on a dime,” Crawford said. “That was a good play.” After the game, Crawford told Bosher that he didn’t know he had it in him to make such a play. While it was a special-teams tackle, Crawford expects to see it, from every angle, on the cut-up Monday in the defensive meeting room. “He leveled that guy,” Crawford said. “I can’t make fun of him for being a punter no more. He always says he’s a punter, and he’s not really about that noise. I can’t make those jokes anymore. He’s my locker mate; I’m used to making those jokes. I’m going to lay off a little bit.” These past two wins over Arizona and Carolina have given Atlanta a major morale boost. Music was blaring in the postgame locker room. Players hung around a little longer afterward on a road trip than they usually do. They were thrilled to talk about Bosher’s play. They were ecstatic that Jones, Ridley and Mohamed Sanu all caught touchdown passes in a single game for the first time this season. They loved the fact they forced the Panthers into four turnovers, with three taking place in the red zone. Grady Jarrett was pumped for Crawford’s first career interception. “Jack is always running to the ball,” Jarrett said. “When you’re running hard, good things will happen.” The Falcons shut the Panthers down after they opened with a 14-play touchdown drive. While the Falcons recorded only two sacks, they added eight quarterback hits, with Takk McKinley notching four. Carolina quarterback Taylor Heinicke, who gutted out what looked to be a painful elbow injury, was frequently running for his life. Atlanta also totaled more than 100 rushing yards for the third consecutive week, with Brian Hill making the most out of his first game of extended action. Hill rumbled for 115 yards on only eight carries, including a late-fourth-quarter handoff for a 60-yard gain. While the Falcons were eliminated from the playoffs last week, it does appear they are doing what they can to make the most out of the situation. At 6-9, Atlanta has a shot to end the year on a three-game winning streak at Tampa Bay on Sunday. “Any time you come into another team’s stadium and beat them on their turf, there’s nothing better than that feeling,” Crawford said. “Coming in and getting the W and flying home is great. It definitely heightens the sense of the brotherhood we have and brings everybody closer. We’re going to get lessons out of it, too.”
  12. Falcons Mailbag: What can be done to shore up the offensive line next season? Jason Butt If Julio Jones is able to play, he’ll play. But due to injuries to his hip and ribs, Jones officially was given the questionable designation for the Falcons’ game Sunday against Carolina. Jones was able to get in a limited practice Friday, with head coach Dan Quinn calling Jones a game-time decision. Quinn did seem somewhat confident that Jones could give it a go Sunday. “Usually when he can get some work in on Friday it’s a good thing,” Quinn said. Quinn added that Jones will get some additional work during the walkthrough Saturday before the team heads to Charlotte for the game. Jones was seen running some routes and catching passes from the quarterbacks during the media viewing periods of practice. While the Falcons have had a disappointing season at 5-9, Jones is leading the NFL in receiving with 1,511 yards. He has recorded 1,400 yards in each of his past five seasons and 1,500 yards in three of those. On Thursday, Jones was asked about his availability for the game. “I’m day to day,” Jones said. “I’m getting better. Working every day and doing everything I can to go Sunday. Who knows what’s going to happen? I can’t give you anything right now. I’m just working to get better, and we’ll see what happens Sunday.” On to this week’s mailbag: How can we continue to improve the defensive personnel and their techniques? We have mediocre talent at some positions and too many repeated mistakes (e.g., too far off opponents, DBs aren’t looking back to play the ball, OL reaching for defender, DL aren’t using techniques I’ve seen DQ coach them up on) — Anthony R. While coaching up young players is important, there are specific skill sets young professionals are expected to have once they enter the league. When it comes to the defensive side of the ball, sometimes a coach may think a player has the potential to be coached up based on his raw talent ability. And then that player might end up not have that kind of potential after all. Sometimes, when watching this year’s Falcons team, I wonder if that’s the case for some of these players, that maybe they aren’t as good, relatively speaking in regards to the rest of the league, as we made them out to be in the preseason. Or perhaps, some of them have been in the league for a while and are now seeing an inevitable decline. Unreported injuries are often a factor, too — the “nicks and bruises” that aren’t put on the weekly injury reports. But I definitely see the point you’re making. There have been way too many preventable penalties on both sides of the ball. There have been some technique issues that the coaching staff has harped on. Marquand Manuel noted how Brian Poole wasn’t playing up to his standard until about halfway through the year, which came after Manuel sat down and challenged Poole on the topic. Rookie Isaiah Oliver is a cornerback who has been learning a new technique at the line of scrimmage. He has been getting more playing time lately to hopefully springboard him into next year. With the current personnel, all the coaching staff can do is continue working with the players’ various skill sets. Next season should bring the return of two starting safeties, which should be a big boost. But with the issues you highlighted, which have contributed to this 5-9 season, a staff shakeup is all but expected to happen. Now, who goes and who stays? That has yet to be determined. But I’d have to think assistants responsible for the position groups that have seen the least development are probably the most concerned about their futures with the franchise. We need to stop winning games. A top-five pick is worth more than even a top-10. My question, Jason, is this: Say Atlanta finishes with the fifth-overall pick and decides to trade back (12-15 range), what package of picks could they get back? — Alex J. I hate to break it to you, Alex, but the Falcons aren’t going to try to lose. This isn’t the NBA, where franchises make that conscious decision to tank. In basketball, there is also a much bigger difference in getting a top-five pick and then picking from six through 10. In the NFL, there usually isn’t that wide of a discrepancy in the top 15 — excluding quarterbacks, who are usually the cornerstone of teams. In 2012, Trent Richardson was the third overall pick. At the time, that pick by Cleveland seemed to make sense. That same draft, Philadelphia took Fletcher Cox with the 13th pick. That selection has worked out. In 2014, the Rams took Greg Robinson second and Aaron Donald 13th overall. Robinson was misevaluated. Donald has gone on to prove he should have probably gone second overall in that draft. The point is, the Falcons losing won’t guarantee that they wind up with a franchise-changing player. The NFL draft process isn’t like other sports, where it is easier to identify the players who will go on to have great careers. It makes sense for the Hawks to tank for Zion Williamson, who appears to be a franchise-altering prospect. Would losing the final two games for Quinnen Williams, Ed Oliver or (insert any of the Clemson defensive linemen here) propel the Falcons into years and years of on-field success? There is no way to know. And Atlanta still could get one of those highly regarded defensive linemen in the 10-15 range, considering how deep that position group goes this year. The NFL draft is the biggest crapshoot of them all. So much of it involves luck and whether a player arrives at the right place and right time. Plus, if the Falcons win these final two games and still feel the need to move up to get their player, they will do so. But let’s move on from my soapbox and get to your question. Using last year as a guide in this scenario, the Falcons maybe could expect to get two picks in the second- and third-round range, while also giving up a late-rounder if they were to trade from a mid-top-10 pick to the 12-15 range. Tampa Bay and Buffalo made a similar trade in the 2018 draft, with Tampa Bay giving Buffalo its seventh overall selection for the 12th. In addition, the Bills gave the Bucs two second-round picks. The Bucs also gave up a seventh-round selection. What can (Thomas) Dimitroff do to shore up the offensive line? I imagine our first-round pick will be a defensive player, but in the second round, we could draft a decent lineman. Considering the money we gave Matt (Ryan), we need to give him the protection needed for him to succeed. That’s how it works in New England. I know Dimitroff struggles with drafting OL, but I can’t imagine there’s a lot of money to spend on free agents when we need to extend (Grady) Jarrett and others. — Mark C. I wholeheartedly agree about Ryan needing better protection. That has been quite the issue, especially during that five-game losing streak. Ryan has been sacked 40 times this year (well 39, considering one of those sacks was the fluky botched pass against Green Bay). The most sacks Ryan has taken in a season was 44 in 2013. Five during the next two weeks would supplant that in a single season. As for free agency, I think the Falcons will do what they can to free up some money if there is a player they want on the offensive line. While Jones is expected to get a new deal, there are some candidates to be let go or to have their contracts restructured. Depending on how the draft board shakes out, Jonah Williams and Greg Little are first-round prospects the Falcons potentially could take. If they don’t take an offensive lineman in the first round, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the team address the position in the second-through-fourth rounds. The Falcons also may spend some time developing two younger offensive linemen on the team. Ty Sambrailo is 26 years old and has started the past two games at right tackle. While he gave up a sack against Arizona, he has aided an offensive line that was struggling immensely in weeks prior. Then there is Matt Gono, the 22-year-old undrafted rookie who has been on the 53-man roster all season long but inactive each game. Gono has repped in practice at tackle all year. Well, that is until the past two weeks. On Friday, I noticed Gono taking some reps at guard during the post-practice developmental period, in which practice squad and back-of-the-roster players get together for some drill work. Gono was taking part in one-on-ones at left guard, which, I thought, was an interesting development. “We want to get as many snaps on tape as we can so we have a full evaluation at a couple of spots,” Quinn said after I inquired about Gono. Quinn said that Gono’s physical traits, at 6-foot-4 and 305 pounds, are ideal for the pro game. Gono, who played collegiately at Division III Wesley College, simply has needed to learn the ins and outs of the professional game. It appears the Falcons are preparing Gono for the second offseason, to see if he can help this offensive line in the future. The Atlanta fan base is justifiably calling for the dismissal of Steve Sarkisian. However, the offense at times this year has played to its potential, especially in the passing game. The same cannot be said for the defense as for much of the year it has been generationally bad. Manuel is amazingly escaping the scrutiny Sarkisian receives from all quarters. Tactical errors and sloppy play have cost the team at least half a dozen wins during Manuel’s tenure (see the Saints, Bengals, Browns, Cowboys games from this year alone). Marquand is clearly overmatched in his position. Even factoring in the injuries in the back seven, he has not demonstrated the basic strategic awareness to stop replacement level NFL offenses like the New York Giants and consistently makes poor calls in end of game/half situations. Credited with developing the secondary, virtually all of our young talent regressed this year — see (Robert) Alford, (Takk) McKinley, (Desmond) Trufant, et al. Would you rather not have a seasoned replacement such as Marvin Lewis — remember his Ravens defenses ranked at the top of the league before he became Cincinnati HC. A veteran like ML would, IMO, be a significant upgrade especially if Keanu Neal returns to form in 2019? —David H. I think the masses at large are giving Manuel more of a pass because of the injuries his unit suffered, which you did allude to. While it is important for any team to overcome such losses, the fact that Manuel lost Deion Jones, Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen in the first three weeks probably gave him the leeway to work through retooling and reshaping the unit. Losing the quarterback of the defense in Allen and a matchup nightmare in Neal forced the Falcons’ defense to adjust its style of play, which helped result in what everyone has seen. But yes, even with Jones back, the only game the defense looked exceptional was against Arizona, the worst team in the NFL. That being said, while the defense has shown improvement, it has been gradual at best. And I think that is why you have probably seen more criticism from the fan base directed his way the past few weeks. As for Lewis, I don’t think he, specifically, would be a fit. When he was in Baltimore, he had elite players. It was also almost two decades ago. His time as a quality coordinator probably has passed him by. Not to mention, I would think he wouldn’t want to be a coordinator after all those years as a head coach. That isn’t to say that, in the event that Atlanta makes a change, a veteran defensive coordinator couldn’t succeed in this new-age era of professional football. It’s just all about being the right fit for what the head coach wants. We’ll see what direction Quinn decides to go when the season ends. What are the Falcons college scouts up to right now? Do you see them in the building? Do they scout bowl games? — Andy S. The college scouts are busy all season long. They go to colleges across the country for practices and games. The Falcons’ scouts are no different. When I covered UGA football, I would see NFL scouts from just about every team come through. With UGA being close by, Dimitroff himself occasionally goes to practice. You occasionally will see scouts walking around the Falcons’ team facility, sure. At this time of the year, scouts will be dispatched to bowl games to further the analysis of various prospects. The offense this year has been either feast or famine. Obviously there are some differences in the defenses they’ve had to face (Baltimore and Arizona seem to be on opposite sides of the proverbial defensive production coin), but it’s clear that when this thing is clicking, it’s clicking hard. Matt Ryan’s numbers are continuing to keep pace with his MVP season and Julio Jones continues to set records. Where do you think the inconsistencies lie? Is it execution? Is it focus? Is there anything to the fact that we’re 0-2 (I think) against interim coaches this year? — John K. It’s this simple: The Falcons have not been able to consistently run the ball. If the running game had been there at an average level, perhaps they beat Philadelphia, New Orleans (at home) and Cincinnati. Against the Eagles, the Falcons couldn’t punch the ball in the end zone at the goal line. Against the Saints, they couldn’t chew up the clock with a lead. Against the Bengals, they couldn’t get 1 yard late in the game. And then they didn’t even have a shot against New Orleans (away) and Baltimore because they couldn’t get the running game going whatsoever. For as great as the passing game has been, the lack of establishing a balanced offense has hurt the Falcons quite a bit. When it comes to why the rushing attack has been inconsistent, execution and focus are easily at the forefront. The coaching staff benched Ben Garland (who is back to rotating in at right guard) and Ryan Schraeder for Zane Beadles and Sambrailo in recent weeks. Last Sunday against a bad Arizona team, a big emphasis was placed on focus. And it paid off, with the Falcons having their best rushing day of the season. This will certainly be an area to improve upon in the offseason. As for the final part of your question, I wouldn’t put much stock in the fact the Falcons are 0-2 against interim coaches (Cleveland’s Gregg Williams and Green Bay’s Joe Philbin). As it turns out — and I’m shocked, I tell you! — the Browns are a lot better without Hue Jackson. Given the number of self-inflicted wounds against the Packers, it’s tough to say whether the Falcons would have won if Mike McCarthy was still coaching that day. Have there been any updates on how Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen and Devonta Freeman are progressing in their rehabs? How serious is the injury to Ito Smith? Are they all projected to be ready for minicamp this spring? — Robert H. I’ll start with the running backs. Smith underwent a knee scope, which is a minor procedure. He is expected to be ready to go for the offseason. Freeman is probably in good shape for the offseason program, barring any setbacks. His rehab from groin surgery continues, although he won’t be able to make it back for the final two games of the season. If everything progresses, I’d have to think he’ll be good to go for mini-camp. Neal and Allen are in different positions, considering the severity of their injuries. A torn ACL, which Neal suffered, can take up to nine months. Thanks to modern medicine, players in all sports are returning much quicker from ACL tears. The minimum amount of time missed can actually be six months. So truly, anywhere in the six-to-nine-month threshold is what you can expect with that type of injury. Neal occasionally has posted updates to his social media accounts, and he does appear to be working hard at his rehab. It’s still too early to tell when exactly he will be back. Considering his injury occurred in early September, I suppose there is a chance he could participate in mini-camp. If he is able to, however, I’d have to think the Falcons play it safe. The same can be said about Allen. Achilles tears generally take at least six months to heal following surgery, although those can be longer, as well. You also want to make sure a player like Allen has the proper explosion and is without limitations. The Falcons will take the safe route, more than likely, with these two players so that they will be good to go for as much of the regular season as possible. Do you have any confidence in (the Falcons) dedicating high picks for O-line/larger (still fast) defensive backs? I don’t really think that they have learned the lessons from this disappointing season vis-a-vis the lack of depth and the disadvantage of playing teams that are deep in larger, faster players that use that advantage on defense to blitz Ryan to death, and on offense to regularly consume huge amounts of time off the clock. — Charles M. It really just depends on how the board pans out on draft week. The Falcons won’t take an offensive lineman high just because one is available and it happens to be a position of need. If the player fits and is evaluated around that slot, then sure, I think the Falcons would take an offensive lineman. They needed one in 2014 and took Jake Matthews sixth overall. In all honesty, the defensive back to watch, in my opinion, is LSU’s Greedy Williams. He’s 6-3 and 183 pounds, which is the ideal size for a corner in Quinn’s defense. So I would not be surprised whatsoever if the Falcons go in this direction when the draft rolls around. I’ve mentioned in previous mailbags that this is the most important draft for Quinn and the front office. After a season like this, they have to get almost everything right when it comes to short-term improvements. That’s what truly makes Atlanta’s first-round selection intriguing.
  13. By Jason Butt Imagine being on a wintry early-morning walk near a New York park as the sun slowly rises. You suddenly hear the thud of a foot connecting with a ball, and the subsequent sound of the ball’s bounce upon hitting the ground. You look up and notice that a dark-haired gentleman happens to be kicking these footballs in the direction of a subway tunnel. And the grass at this city park is often covered in snow, so you notice a chunk of it has been shoveled to create a clear path for these kicks. If you live in New York, and if this sounds familiar, it is possible you witnessed Giorgio Tavecchio’s morning routine in the winter of 2017. Tavecchio was still chasing his professional football dream, one kick at a time. He was also in the early stages of setting up a real-world career in the Big Apple, in the event his time as a professional place-kicker came to an end. Living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Tavecchio was a part of a training program at the advertising-technology company MediaMath. After 12 weeks of training, the goal was to receive an offer to either work internally at MediaMath or with a partner company. He also was hoping to continue playing professional football. So, he would kick early in the morning, go home, get dressed and then venture to the 45th floor of 4 World Trade Center, MediaMath’s location, for his day job. When his training came to an end around mid-April, Tavecchio said he had a couple offers to work internally at MediaMath. But lo and behold, the Oakland Raiders, who employed him the previous three offseasons, called him with an offer to return. “All the cards were on the table,” Tavecchio said. “Do I want to go into the private sector and move on from football? Or go with football?” The safe choice, in this moment, was probably the private sector. For five years, he never made it to the regular season with an NFL team. He was basically a yearly camp body since joining the league in 2012. Thinking it through, however, Tavecchio didn’t think his journey was over. He chose football. Back to Oakland he went. A love for football, with the help of barbecue As you can imagine, football wasn’t the first sport this Italian-born athlete was obsessed with. Born in Milan, Italy, Tavecchio grew up with a keen interest in, you guessed it, soccer — or what other countries call football. He relocated to the United States when he was 4 but moved back to Italy at the age of 6. He spent three years in Rome before moving back to America at the age of 9. Tavecchio recalled attending an international school in Rome filled with foreign dignitaries and wealthy Italians. A couple of famous Italian soccer players had sons who attended the school, and Tavecchio would play soccer with them at recess. He was a regular spectator at his father’s pick-up soccer games on Sundays. Even after moving to America for good before his 10th birthday, Tavecchio continued to follow soccer. “Soccer was kind of my life. I’d watch all the Italian soccer games on Sundays,” he said. “In fact, people used to ask me, ‘What’s your favorite American football team growing up?’ I hate to say it, but I never really followed it too closely. Soccer was my passion. I thought I’d end up playing soccer in college. But the Lord had different plans.” Football wasn’t remotely on Tavecchio’s radar until his sophomore year at Campolindo High School in Moraga, Calif. By chance, Tavecchio was walking through the school’s hallways when some friends asked him if he would like to try out to be the team’s place-kicker. He quickly replied, “No.” In the moment, it wasn’t something that interested him. He went home and continued that conversation with his mother. Her advice? “You’re an American. Try it,” she told him. Tavecchio went back to school with a change of heart. He remembers going to his first practice on a Thursday. And it was probably a good thing that Tavecchio’s first-ever football practice was on a Thursday because that also happened to be the day of the team’s weekly tradition. “We had a good barbecue afterwards,” he said. This wasn’t the only time Tavecchio brought up the Campolindo team barbecue in two interviews. Clearly, it made quite the impression. From then on, Tavecchio started to become more interested in kicking the oblong ball than the round ball. In 2008, he walked on at California and hit 75 percent of his field goal attempts in his four years with the program. Although he went undrafted in 2012, the San Francisco 49ers signed him, partly because he was a left-footed place-kicker like starter David Akers. This allowed the team to keep the same field goal operation throughout training camp. The younger Tavecchio didn’t know what to expect at the time. He ultimately realized he was in San Francisco to serve as a camp body. Through his first NFL experience, he learned a lot from the veteran Akers, who he still maintains a good relationship with to this day. But as it would be, that first stint with the 49ers was the beginning of a lengthy professional football route that ultimately would prove to show the power of perseverance. A five-year camp body Being a camp place-kicker is like living in football purgatory. You’re obviously one of the best in the world at your position. But there are only 32 starting spots. It’s a position that teams generally hold one place for, considering the maximum allotment of only 53 players on an active roster. The occasional place-kicker winds up on a practice squad. But generally speaking, teams keep one healthy player at the position. Therefore, after Tavecchio was cut in 2012, he didn’t have another team to turn to. The NFL isn’t like other professional sports, where there are minor leagues or alternative leagues to participate in. Upon his release, Tavecchio went back to California’s campus and became a part-time tutor. He worked with other student-athletes to help proofread papers in social sciences, history and English. He worked in the morning and kicked in the afternoon. In March of 2013, Tavecchio signed with the Green Bay Packers. Near the end of the preseason, he was released. After his Green Bay stint, he worked with a former California place-kicker’s real estate company until the next football opportunity came. That was with the Detroit Lions, who cut him near the end of the 2014 preseason. Interestingly enough, Oakland claimed him off waivers and played him in its final preseason game, which saw Tavecchio hit both of his field goal attempts. The Raiders obviously wanted to get a closer look at Tavecchio, who subbed in for an injured Sebastian Janikowski. But after that final preseason game, the Raiders cut Tavecchio with Janikowski ready to start the regular season. Without a team, Tavecchio took a job with the sports marketing company IMG, which has an office on California’s campus. Meanwhile, he continued to work out for his next shot. As it turned out, the Raiders were fans from his lone preseason game with the team. He was brought back in 2015 and 2016, only to be released at the end of each preseason. Five years, no team for a regular season, which brings this story back to April of 2017. Finally, a breakthrough There was no way for Tavecchio to truly know that 2017 would present him his first golden opportunity. He decided to put off his entry into the real world by signing with the Raiders. He went through the same sort of NFL schedule as before — OTAs, mini-camp, training camp. But as the end of the preseason neared, Janikowski was nursing a back injury. So when the Raiders cut Tavecchio that August, they told him to stay ready because he would be brought back almost immediately. Clearing waivers, Tavecchio was signed to Oakland’s practice squad. And then a day before Oakland’s first regular-season game against Tennessee, Tavecchio got word that Janikowski was heading to injured reserve. Tavecchio found out he would start his first NFL game with 24 hours’ notice. “For me, it’s very much a faithful journey,” Tavecchio said. “I felt like God had a hand — or a foot — in all of this. It was meant to be in that time. When I got to that moment, it was an unbelievable feeling. It was a stark duality, I thought. From a personal standpoint, it’s an unbelievable moment; it’s so special. I finally made it to the regular season. From a professional standpoint, ‘Hey, you’re a part of the team. You have to produce.’” Tavecchio started each of Oakland’s 16 games and make 16-of-21 field goal tries with a long from 53 yards. It was a good enough season to where it seemed likely that he could parlay that, finally, into a career. But the Raiders, finishing 6-10, made a coaching change. Out was Jack Del Rio, and in was Jon Gruden. By the time training camp rolled around this year, Gruden wanted another right-footed place-kicker to compete with rookie Eddy Piñeiro, primarily to keep the field goal operation intact. Out was Tavecchio, and in was veteran Mike Nugent. “The NFL stands for Not For Long,” Tavecchio said. “There was a change of guard in Oakland. They wanted to go in a different direction. I’ll be forever grateful to the Raiders because I was with them for a couple of years. They always gave me a chance to keep at least my pinky toe in the business.” Road to Atlanta For the first time since his rookie year, Tavecchio wasn’t part of a full training camp. He kept in shape and continued working out while he was without a team. While Atlanta had two place-kickers on its preseason roster — veteran Matt Bryant and rookie David Marvin — head coach Dan Quinn brought Tavecchio in for a tryout in mid-August. A couple of weeks later, Tavecchio was signed for the final exhibition against Miami. “This was something that we had planned for a week or two, so we thought that this would be a chance to look at him,” Quinn said at the time. “He did an excellent job in the workout with us a few weeks ago, so we wanted to get a chance to see it in a game.” In the final exhibition against the Dolphins, Tavecchio was only given one extra-point try, which he made. And, of course, like he had become accustomed to, he was released not long after the game. From there, it was yet another waiting game. “I had a couple of workouts between the end of training camp and the beginning of my time here,” Tavecchio said. “A couple of weeks passed by, and I stayed sharp, enjoyed time with my family, reflect, take a bigger picture look on this football journey and pick the lessons God is trying to teach me.” With one monumental field goal at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, everything quickly changed for Tavecchio. Facing a fourth down at the Tampa Bay 39-yard line, the Falcons were leading the Buccaneers by two points with only 1:10 left to play. Bryant came out to kick a 57-yard field goal, which was a gutsy coaching call. If Bryant makes the kick, everyone praises the decision. A miss, and not only is the decision widely scrutinized, but the Buccaneers get the ball at the Falcons’ 44 with a good chance to win. “If I miss it, they’re a little over a first down away from a possible game-winning kick,” Bryant said. “There were a lot of things going on with that kick.” So, yes, the pressure was on. But as he has been throughout his superb career, Bryant was clutch, nailing the long attempt. “Money Matt” was money once again. It just so happened to come at a cost. Bryant knew it was a strong boot. But a split second after that sensation came another that brought a great deal of pain. He immediately grabbed his right hamstring, cognizant of the injury he suffered. “I thought I hit it pretty good, but I never saw it go through,” Bryant said. “I felt the pop. Once that happened, it was instantly disappointing because I knew what that meant to be hurt.” The Falcons were able to hold on 34-29 thanks to the Bryant kick. But that set in motion an NFL return for Tavecchio, who remained ready for the moment. And Tavecchio wasted no time impressing his bosses. Against the New York Giants the following week, Tavecchio was in a somewhat similar position as Bryant the week before. Leading by eight, the Falcons faced a fourth-and-short at the Giants’ 38. This time, a field goal would put Atlanta up by two scores, effectively clinching the game. It was coming from 56 yards out. It was one thing to trot Bryant out there. But Tavecchio? In his first game in an Atlanta uniform? Quinn didn’t blink. Neither did Tavecchio. The kick sailed through the uprights, and the Falcons earned another win. Tavecchio ultimately went 5-for-5 kicking in three games and made every extra point. Bryant’s hamstring healed, and he has since resumed his starting role. Normally, that means the end for a fill-in place-kicker. Not Tavecchio. Not yet at least. What’s next? After a few weeks with the Falcons, Tavecchio was approached by Quinn about his job performance. The head coach told the journeyman place-kicker that he was doing a good job and that he hoped to keep him in the team’s plan moving forward. Tavecchio was appreciative of the comment. But this is the NFL. Things that are said don’t always line up with reality. “If I’ve known anything about Coach Quinn so far, it’s that he’s a very genuine and authentic guy,” Tavecchio said. “When he says that on a personal level, I appreciate that validation and affirmation. But professionally, I know this business has so many working parts and so many things that are out of both his and mine control.” Four games following Bryant’s return to the lineup, Tavecchio remains with the team. It’s unusual for a team to keep two healthy place-kickers on a 53-man roster for this many consecutive weeks. For now, as special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong said, keeping Tavecchio is like an “insurance policy.” Bryant had a preseason injury followed by the hamstring tweak mid-year. He also has recently dealt with a back injury. Given Tavecchio’s performance during his three games, he easily could wind up elsewhere if placed on waivers. Atlanta didn’t want to take that risk. “We thought Giorgio performed well enough that if we didn’t do that, that he’d be in another city in another uniform,” Quinn said. “We said, ‘Let’s treat you for a while like a backup quarterback.’ And due to Matt’s health and not being as strong — from an injury standpoint — we just felt like from a protection standpoint that was the best route to go.” Armstrong touted Tavecchio’s approach, considering how he performed with one of the game’s best place-kickers ahead of him on the depth chart. “He’s come in behind a guy like Matt, and it didn’t scare him,” Armstrong said. “A lot of times, guys will come in behind someone else who has been successful, and they will struggle, simply looking at the stats. It didn’t bother him. Obviously, he’s a hard worker, consistent, really good technique, that kind of stuff. But his mindset, he’s always the same.” During the past few weeks, Quinn has fielded occasional questions about having two place-kickers on the roster. Of course, that naturally leads to speculation about what the franchise will do following the season. After all, it would be highly unlikely for Atlanta to begin 2019 with two place-kickers on the roster. But until that decision comes, Tavecchio will do his part to, as he says, remain in the present. That’s all he has done since his pursuit of professional football began. “It’s a journey of self-discovery,” Tavecchio said. “Sometimes it’s a highway. Sometimes it’s perilous mountain paths. I try to keep the headlights of gratitude bright. I try to look at everything in a perspective that treats everything as a gift. You never know when your last down is going to be. As much as I get caught up in trying to reach a certain destination, in the end, it’s a ride. The more grateful I can be, the better mood I’ll be in and the more positive of an experience it will be because I can grow from it.”
  14. By Jason Butt Lennox Lewis was at the top of his boxing career in 2001. Coming off a series of heavyweight title defenses, Lewis inked a championship match against little-known fighter Hasim Rahman, to take place in Brakpan, Gauteng, South Africa. Lewis received 20-1 odds and was expected to win decisively. But as the fight got underway, it became clear the underdog was much more focused than Lewis in the title bout. Lewis was prepared to fight that night, sure. But Rahman was the one paying attention to each detail needed to win. And in the fifth round, Rahman backed Lewis into the ropes. Lewis then dipped his gloves away, creating a window for any talented boxer to land a crushing blow. And that’s exactly what Rahman did. He seized the opening and threw a punishing right hook across Lewis’ face. Lewis fell to the mat and succumbed to a knockout. Falcons head coach Dan Quinn played that clip to his team this week, to reiterate the need for improved focus on Sundays. Quinn honed in on the knockout punch. While the Falcons keep saying their weekly preparation is going well, the results aren’t translating. Atlanta has lost five consecutive games, being in contention in only one of those games — a 22-19 loss to the Cowboys. Throughout this slump, the Falcons have done a little bit of everything to put themselves in position to lose, whether it’s been dropped interceptions, the inability to recover fumbles, missed deep shots down the field or the struggle to consistently run the ball. “Just like that night, where Lennox may have dropped his hands and lost focus, and Rahman filled that hole, for us, I wanted to make sure those are the ones out at practice you get ready for,” Quinn said. “So when these moments come, we’re ready to nail it. You have to have both. You have to have the fighter and warrior mindset. “Our group does but you have to have the focus and mindset when those plays come that you’re ready to go finish on those.” Defensive end Takk McKinley said the Lewis-Rahman analogy made “perfect sense” when it came to the Falcons’ lack of focus during certain games. Against the Packers, the Falcons had opportunities on both sides of the ball to prevent a run of 34 unanswered points. But the defense couldn’t get off the field and the offense seemed to commit inopportune penalties at awful times. From McKinley’s perspective, the attention to detail Lewis overlooked is a great example as to why this team is 4-9 instead of 9-4. “You had one guy who was out there, who trained and prepared for the fight, and another guy who thought he could come in and win the fight,” McKinley said. “It shows you have to put in the work in to be successful. At the time, Lennox didn’t respect his opponent and he got knocked out. It’s that simple.” While McKinley is a fan of the comparison, he is someone his coaches want to see more out of during this final three-game stretch. Defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel noted that McKinley’s effort has gone unquestioned. But there are elements Manuel said the coaching staff must continue to harp on with the former first-round draft pick. Against the Saints, McKinley body slammed an opponent on a special teams play, which cost his team 15 yards. After beginning the year with 5.5 sacks in seven games, he has zero sacks and four tackles in the past six. “You have to continuously keep him focused,” Manuel said. “That’s all of us on the staff. That’s all of us as players. His aggression, we need it in between the whistles. We don’t need it post-snap. We don’t need it on the sideline. Just continuously, in unison, helping out with him.” Manuel said the key is continuing to remind McKinley to focus on the next play. When a play is over, it’s on to the next. Young players often fall into the trap of worrying about a previous play, or letting a sequence of events get the best of them. In a league like the NFL, it is imperative to have a short-term memory in the heat of battle. That’s something Manuel said he hopes they can instill in McKinley as he continues to develop. “To get him to focus on his details and consistently understand in-drive that we need him to rush the quarterback with relentless intent, you just have to continue that part of it,” Manuel said. When asked about his teams issues when it comes to focus, or a lack thereof, McKinley said, “I wish not to discuss that.” But he did offer his feelings on Atlanta’s five-game losing streak, which has been as hard on him as anyone in the locker room. “It sucks. Losing is not fun,” he said. “Losing when you’re not producing like you want to is not fun. All you can do is come back to work, keep grinding and hopefully on Sundays perform like you want to perform.” After discussing McKinley at length, Manuel was asked a related question regarding the rest of the team: Did he still feel that, given the circumstance at hand, his unit was still buying in to the season? “Guys are playing hard. You guys see it, down in and down out, consistent effort,” Manuel said. “You’re not seeing guys quitting on plays, things like that. We’re just not making the plays to win the game. A year ago, statistically we played great, one of the better defenses we had in 20 years. Now, we’re not making those plays to win the game.” Quinn will certainly hope his players take to the Lewis-Rahman example, so that some sort of progress can be displayed before the end of a dreary season. It remains to be seen if this is something that each player will take to heart when it matters most on the final three Sundays of the 2018 campaign. “It’s a really good message, that the fight is one thing, but the focus and the intent and being into it and being prepared is just as important,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “I thought it was a really good message to the guys and one that we responded to well.”
  15. If Deion Jones wanted to prevent further damage to the foot he injured 11 weeks ago, he could sit out the remainder of the 2018 season and save himself for 2019. Jones is a centerpiece of what the Falcons do defensively, a game-changer who excels in coverage and against the run. At 4-7 record wise, the Falcons need to win out and receive a whole lot of help to make a late postseason run. With that in mind, it would be understandable for someone like Jones to take a backseat the remainder of the year. But that’s not the kind of mentality Jones has. If he is able to play, he will play. And that is exactly what he, his teammates and his coaches are hoping for when the Falcons host Baltimore on Sunday. Jones appears optimistic about being back on the field. Head coach Dan Quinn said Jones’ return is “trending” that way but didn’t want to make any promises. This season hasn’t gone according to plan for anyone in Atlanta’s locker room. But for Jones, there isn’t anything like suiting up and playing alongside his teammates. If he is healthy enough to play, Jones is going to play. “The whole thing is I feel like I just want to close out the season with my boys,” Jones said. “We did a lot of work during camp. I feel right. I feel good. That’s just the type of player I am. I want to have one good ride with this team. Every team changes every year. This one, this year, I just want to enjoy it with those guys while I can. “Those are my guys. If we have five games to ride it out together and I’m able to do it, I want to be a part of it.” Players rarely to choose to sit when they physically can play — whether it’s a good season for the team or not. And while there have been exceptions, football teams typically don’t shelve players to prevent further injury or save them for the following year. The players, especially those in leadership positions, usually want to be on the field. If they don’t, that likely won’t go over well in the locker room. Pride is a major factor, too. Even if the postseason is out of a team’s picture, there is a belief that players fight alongside each other for as many remaining wins as they possibly can get. With only 16 games in a season, many players feel their opportunities may be limited. Hence, if players are healthy enough to play, they play. “Every guy we have a chance to that can play, then yeah, we are going to allow them to battle and do their thing,” Quinn said. “They put their heart and soul into it. We’re going to make the best decisions for them and not put them out there when they can’t do their thing. But if they can, then that’s part of their ‘why,’ battling for one another.” When it comes to Jones, Quinn has noticed that attribute for quite some time. Jones underwent a strenuous rehab process followed by sessions with a trainer off to the side while his teammates practiced on an adjacent field. Jones then joined in at practice with the scout team before stepping in with the first-team huddle this week. “He’s dying to get back for himself to play,” Quinn said. “He loves to play; he loves to compete. He’s also dying because he so much wants to help the team. That’s a pretty cool trait and quality to have.” While away from game action, Jones has made his presence felt and heard in the locker room and in team meetings. Therefore, his road to recovery has been closely observed by his teammates. “Most guys would miss the whole season due to (this injury),” cornerback Robert Alford said. “Just to see him bounce back the way he’s bounced back, and seeing him run around the way he’s running around this week on the film, it shows how much he cares about the team.” As for the potential of re-injury, Jones said he has been in constant contact with the coaching staff about how his foot feels. Quinn previously has mentioned that he doesn’t want Jones playing unless he is pain free. Jones said he is now in a good place, both mentally and physically, with the foot injury. “I’ve been really good about communicating and making sure that I am back, feeling the way I did before the injury and making sure I’m not out there thinking about it,” Jones said. “It’s part of the game. You can’t play thinking like that. God forbid anything happens, but this is what I love to do, and it’s what I want to do if I’m able to do it.” While Jones has been listed as limited in practice the past two days, Quinn said he received a full allotment of reps Wednesday. It can be assumed he received the same treatment Thursday. Jones is anxious to get back on the field doing what he loves. As long as he doesn’t suffer a setback in the remaining days before the game, he will, in all likelihood, make his return against the Ravens. “I’ve worked really hard to get back healthy and feel like myself again,” Jones said. “It took some time, and it was a grind. Now I’m back, and I want to play some ball. I’ve been missing it.” Jones’ cleats for a cause On Sunday, NFL players will be allowed to wear customized cleats for the league’s “My Cleats My Cause” campaign. Jones will wear a pair of white Adidas cleats with gold designs painted on it to advocate for pediatric cancer. Last December, Jones visited Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and met a young girl afflicted with cancer. The two formed a bond and started following each other on social media. The idea to wear these cleats came when Jones saw a post the young girl wrote on one of her social media accounts asking why NFL players don’t bring more attention to children’s cancer. “When I saw (her post), I felt that was a chance for me to pay it back,” Jones said. “I definitely had to put on some gold.” Much like pink is to breast cancer, gold is the color used to represent pediatric cancer. Jones said he will wear these cleats during pregame warm-ups. Last year’s visit to Children’s Healthcare marked the first time Jones had met a child battling cancer. He described the moment as “empowering” for him. “She had a really good attitude, embraced it,” Jones said. “She was pretty much the motto of how to fight. I really respected her about it. She is so young and powerful.” Other Falcons players are joining in the “My Cleats My Cause” campaign, as well. Receiver Calvin Ridley is wearing a pair of cleats honoring the SOS Children’s Village in Florida, based on the time he spent there in foster care as a child. Quarterback Matt Ryan’s cleats, which he will wear for the entire Ravens game, will honor the Northside Hospital (Atlanta) neonatal intensive care unit and the March of Dimes. Ryan’s twin boys were born prematurely in January, which has made these two organizations dear to his heart. “I think for anyone that has had children prematurely or has had a pregnancy or is on bed rest in the hospital, the scariest part is when they talk to you about survival rates for children born at certain times,” Ryan said. “That was probably the hardest thing to go through for the both of us. It was amazing for her to spend as much time and to keep our boys in there as long as she did to get the boys to a spot where they could thrive when they were born. We’re both very lucky and very fortunate for that to be the case.” Bryant misses another practice For the second consecutive day, place-kicker Matt Bryant did not participate in practice due to a back injury. This could put his status in doubt for Sunday. Bryant missed three games earlier this season due to a right hamstring injury that occurred while making a 57-yard field goal against Tampa Bay. If Bryant is unable to play, Giorgio Tavecchio will compete in his place. The Falcons decided to keep Tavecchio, who kicked for Bryant when he was out, on the roster after he went 5-of-5 kicking, with a long of 56, in three games.
  16. Jason Butt 7-9 minutes Dan Quinn might not want to publicly discuss his plans along the offensive line in advance of the Falcons’ game Sunday against Baltimore. But during practice Wednesday, the Falcons showed a new look that potentially could occur when Atlanta and Baltimore kick off Sunday afternoon at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. First, before the Falcons broke into stretching, the offense went through some run polish plays, which featured only the interior linemen. Zane Beadles, the veteran and versatile lineman signed during Atlanta’s bye week, was with the first team at right guard. Later during individual drills, Beadles once again lined up in this spot. While Quinn has elected to keep mum, it does appear Beadles earning his first start with the Falcons could be a possibility. Since his arrival to Atlanta, the veteran lineman has been cross-training at all five spots. But quickly after starting his tenure at tackle, Beadles has been groomed for the possibility of stepping into the starting lineup at guard — especially since the franchise lost its top two at the position for the season in Andy Levitre (triceps) and Brandon Fusco (broken ankle). After a loss last week to New Orleans, which saw Atlanta rush for only 26 yards, Quinn mentioned that an offensive line shakeup could be in store. As of now, it would appear Atlanta is taking a closer look at going with Beadles at right guard in place of Ben Garland, who has started the past four games. The rest of the line was unchanged in practice, with left tackle Jake Matthews, left guard Wes Schweitzer, center Alex Mack and right tackle Ryan Schraeder all manning their respective first-team spots. Beadles was with San Francisco last season, which suited him well in his transition to the Falcons’ scheme, he said. San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan was Atlanta’s offensive coordinator during the 2015 and 2016 seasons, with the Falcons keeping the same scheme under Steve Sarkisian. Beadles said the familiarity has helped his adjustment, considering he was without a team from the end of last season until the week before Atlanta’s game against Washington. “Luckily for me, I was in the same system last year,” Beadles said. “I was able to pick up the terminology quicker than someone who hasn’t been in it before. Being here a few weeks now and working out the little intricacies and the adjustments here and there, I feel pretty good.” Beadles said his body feels like it is in as good of shape as it has ever been, which is remarkable for a lineman in his ninth season. Since he didn’t participate in organized team activities, mini-camp or training camp, he spent his time away from an NFL team training in Orange County, California. In addition, he only started five games a year ago. Fresher than the average NFL player at this point of the year, Beadles said he is prepared to give his team a lift if called upon to enter the starting lineup. “I wouldn’t have come here if I wasn’t ready for that,” said Beadles, who has started 115 career games. “I think the time off for me was good physically, being 32 years old and training the way I felt like I needed to for my body. I was really excited to have an opportunity to come here and play football. I’m feeling better physically than maybe I have ever in my career.” Said quarterback Matt Ryan, “You can tell he’s very professional in his approach. That’s been the case since he stepped in this building. We have confidence in him like we have confidence in the rest of the guys.” If Beadles does get the go-ahead to start, he will be the third player to do so this season at right guard. After the Falcons’ offensive line gave up six sacks against the Saints, Garland expressed displeasure with how he performed. And it was enough to where the coaching staff decided to at least make some changes early in the week in practice. “I personally have to play a lot better,” Garland said. Beadles isn’t the only offensive lineman who potentially could earn some playing time. On Friday, Quinn mentioned that Ty Sambrailo, the team’s swing tackle, could be a candidate to move into the starting lineup, too. If this happens, Sambrailo would step in for right tackle Ryan Schraeder. As previously mentioned, Schraeder was with the first team during the media viewing period of practice Wednesday. Then again, football coaches are known to show one thing to reporters before utilizing something different by kickoff. Therefore, nothing can be considered set in stone, even if at least one part — Beadles filling in for Garland — appears likely. “We’ll work through some things this week, but I’ll have no announcements regarding a lineup change or not, and you and everybody else will wait until Sunday,” Quinn said. Jones closer to suiting up? Defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel dropped another hint that could indicate linebacker Deion Jones is close to returning for the game against the Ravens. Manuel noted that Jones, who suffered a foot injury in the season opener, was on the field with the first team at practice, communicating the calls to his teammates. Manuel added that while Jones practiced the past two weeks, De’Vondre Campbell was still the defender making the calls each day. “(Jones) had some good snaps in practice,” Manuel said. “I think the hardest point for him is telling me to get out of the huddle, that he has it now.” The familiarity Manuel and Jones have with one another should allow for better communication on defense. Manuel said that Jones has the ability to finish a call he is making in the event his radio helmet cuts out while on the field. Having Jones, who was limited in the practice Wednesday, back in the fold should ease the additional responsibilities Manuel otherwise has been forced to take on in his star linebacker’s absence. “Getting Deion back, that was refreshing in the huddle,” Manuel said. “That actually added confidence to the other guys.” Rest of injury report In addition to Jones, long-snapper Josh Harris (hip), linebacker Kemal Ishmael (knee) and Calvin Ridley (ankle/elbow) were limited in practice. The only player to miss the practice was place-kicker Matt Bryant, who has a back injury. Previously, Bryant missed three games due to a right hamstring injury. Cornerback Brian Poole has a finger injury but he was a full participant in practice.
  17. Jason Butt Ben Garland dangled his foot out of the open door of a UH-60 Black Hawk, which, at one point on a recent hazy afternoon, was overlooking Mercedes-Benz Stadium. For the select Falcons team members in the helicopter, this might have seemed a bit much. For Garland, this was nothing short of a thrill. The military helicopter was tilted at an angle, which allowed Garland to hang part of a limb out of a moving aircraft and to stare directly down at the top of the Falcons’ Sunday home. It was an adrenaline rush for Garland, who got to show his teammates what his other job can be like as an Air Force graduate and a captain in the Colorado Air National Guard. This adventure occurred on a recent November afternoon at the Clay National Guard Center in Marietta, where multiple Black Hawks are housed and flown. Two National Guard pilots, 1st Lt. Cory Brandt and Capt. Paul Strella, gave four Falcons players and two cheerleaders an aerial tour of Atlanta, which included flying over Stone Mountain and SunTrust Park. The pilots, along with crew chief Sgt. James Tyler Kelley, were just as pumped as Garland to fly the Falcons around the city in a UH-60 Black Hawk, which uses the same amount of power to hover 10 feet as it does to fly 100 mph at 1,000 feet in the air. “Every time you pick it up, it’s like strapping a big toy on your back,” Strella said. Among the players accompanying Garland was linebacker Bruce Carter, who had been on tourist helicopter rides in San Diego and Tampa. But he never had been on a military aircraft with the doors open. While Garland was thrilled to hover over Atlanta in a UH-60 Black Hawk, Carter was a tad nervous. He did it anyway and survived to tell the tale. “Doors open, it’s a whole different experience,” Carter said with a smile. “For one, the chances you could actually fall out — I know you probably couldn’t — but you’re just thinking it through your head. And all the gear and equipment that’s in there, that’s such a real experience. You can visualize or picture what it is to be at war flying an aircraft.” In the Air Force, Garland never got to fly a Black Hawk, but he flew plenty of other planes, such as F-16s, KC-135s, Diamond DA40s, T10Gs and small Cessnas. Garland said he got to fly a UH-72 Lakota, which is similar to a UH-60 Black Hawk but smaller. More than anything, Garland was happy his teammates got to see another important aspect of his life, one that plays out when he’s not training, preparing and grinding through an NFL season. “That’s one of the best parts,” Garland said. “You get to work with them and get close with them. You get to show them that other side. You see how pumped they are.” Later that afternoon, after their 20-minute flight around Atlanta, Garland, Carter, Eric Saubert and Keith Tandy visited a slew of National Guard troops eager to snap pictures and ask for autographs. Garland seemed right at home in this military environment. “For him, it’s really important,” Carter said. “For him to serve and have a genuine relationship with all those guys in there, you can tell how passionate he is and how important it is to him with what he does.” Military upbringing and a tough choice If you’re a Garland, there is a good chance you are joining the military. Two of Garland’s uncles, his grandfather, his great-grandfather and his great-great-grandfather were all military men. As a child, Garland grew up idolizing his grandfather, Hal Garland, who was a full-bird colonel in the Air Force. Hal was initially in pilot training before going into missiles and logistics. Hal is ultimately why young Ben wanted to join the Air Force. “My grandfather has always been my hero,” Garland said. “He’s the type of man where if you grow up to be half of what he is, you’ve had a successful life.” Garland also happened to be good at football during his days at Grand Junction High School in Colorado. Wanting to be like his grandfather, he enrolled at the Air Force Academy, where he continued his football career. An offensive lineman now, Garland was then a standout defensive tackle for the collegiate Falcons. Perhaps as a young college athlete, he wasn’t thinking about the possibility of playing professionally, considering an active-duty commitment comes with graduation from the Air Force Academy. When Garland was at the Air Force Academy, he assumed he would go on to have a long military career. He worked hard to attain a pilot slot, which he did after three years at the academy in Cadet Squadron 27. But as a senior, Garland discovered he had a shot at the NFL. Scouts started visiting, even though they knew he wouldn’t be able to play for a couple of years after graduating. It was then that Garland had to choice. Would he end his NFL dream for an Air Force career and continue to fly F-16s, KC-135s, Diamond DA40s and T10Gs? Or would he take a chance at the NFL and, in the process, give up his pilot slot? “I was in a tough position because the NFL was a maybe,” Garland said. “But I had a pilot slot. I wasn’t a high draft pick. I was a free agent. My chances of even making a team were very small. But if I gave up my pilot slot, I basically would never get it again.” In the end, Garland — a thrill seeker and a risk taker — chose to open the door with the lowest odds. “I had to make the decision of go for the long shot,” Garland said. “I knew if I didn’t go for it, I would regret it for the rest of my life.” After his senior year, Garland went undrafted but signed a free-agent deal with the Denver Broncos in 2010. He was then placed on the reserve/military list and served an Air Force active-duty commitment. In 2012, after two years of active duty, Garland returned to the NFL and spent his first two seasons on Denver’s practice squad. During the offseason in 2013, Garland went with the Air National Guard to Jordan, which he called “a very cush deployment” compared with where other soldiers have been sent. He saw his first NFL action with Denver in a game against Oakland during the 2014 season. In 2015, he was released by the Broncos but ended up in Atlanta, which is where he has remained. With the Falcons losing both of their starting offensive guards to injury this season, Garland has started the past two games. Garland’s gamble paid off. When Garland isn’t battling through a football season, he is still serves in the military. With the Colorado Air National Guard, he works in public affairs during the offseason. While he is unable to log his hours on weekends during the NFL season, his bosses at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colorado, allow him to make up the time missed in consecutive days when he is able. While Garland, 30, won’t be able to fly the military’s heavy machinery anymore, he is still able to serve his country in a different manner. In his public affairs post, he helps promote what the Air National Guard is doing. His audience is the public … and America’s enemies. “You show other people in the world what kind of power the American Air Force has,” Garland said. “As a deterrent, don’t mess with us.” Honoring others Whether it’s during the NFL the season or not, Garland has made it a point to reach out to military families who have lost loved ones. As an Air Force graduate, Garland has friends who have deployed to war zones. While the danger of not returning exists, it isn’t something soldiers think will happen, Garland said. A few years ago, however, Garland received a dreaded phone call regarding a close friend from his cadet squadron. A former classmate informed him that their friend Jordan Pierson was among those who died after his plane crashed in Afghanistan. Garland said he and Pierson were a part of the “Red Tag ********,” which is the nickname bestowed upon every red-colored class of Air Force cadets. Garland was with the Falcons and doing whatever he could to emotionally get through that week of practice. “My whole world was wrecked,” Garland said. “I played horrible (in practice). Coach was like, ‘Hey, what’s wrong with you?’ It’s one of those things where you don’t expect it to happen. You’re kind of shocked when it does.” In the Air Force, Garland said you are taught that “if you take care of its people then the people will be able to do the mission well.” This has extended to how he treats others affected when their loved ones sacrifice their lives for country. In the first week of November, the Falcons hosted 12 Gold Star wives to a night out at the American Cut steakhouse in Buckhead. Each widow had a story to tell about her husband. Erikka Mitchell, who sat next to Garland for dinner, said she grew up in a military family but that she was always advised to stay away from dating military men. Never seeking one out, she met her husband, Omoro, a lance corporal in the Marines, at a club. Of course, Omoro was everything Mitchell was looking for, and the two quickly fell in love and spent 10 years together. During his Marines career, Omoro was deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq in the years after the 9/11 attacks and helped build bases in Kandahar. They didn’t marry until eight years into their relationship and had a son shortly after. But around this time, Omoro was stricken with a virus that attacked his heart, which Mitchell said was possibly related to his military work. He had a left ventricular assist device installed at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Richmond, Virginia. While she took care of Omoro for the majority of their marriage, she didn’t think there was any way he actually would die. But five years ago, in 2013, Omoro died from complications related to the illness. “He was my person. He was my best friend,” Mitchell said. “It’s been five years, but it feels like a minute. I feel I’m just now getting back to my normal self. My son is 7. It’s taken a long time.” Over dinner, Mitchell told Garland about how she has coped with her husband’s death. She has tried to be more outgoing in his memory. She recently climbed a mountain and went surfing. These are activities she would have never thought of doing before Omoro died. Garland described her as having the mindset of a warrior for persevering amidst her loss. “On top of that mountain, she was exhausted, she hated it,” Garland said. “But she knew he was smiling down on her in that moment.” Thirteen years ago, Vernordia Fuller lost her husband, Sgt. Carl Ray Fuller, to a roadside bomb in Iraq. The day he died also happened to be their son’s birthday, July 24. Losing a loved one in service is something no one forgets, no matter the number of years that pass. “I miss him dearly,” Fuller said. “I’d do anything to have him back.” It’s important for Garland to take in these stories and have genuine conversations with those who tell them. Soldiers have a bond with one another, considering the oaths they take to defend the country. It’s one thing to remember those who die in wartime or while serving. But what about their families? What about the spouses who won’t see their partners come home one final time? Mitchell said she was thankful for Garland — along with teammates Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Kemal Ishmael and Jaeden Graham — for spending time with them. “As widows we’re kind of left,” Mitchell said. “Nobody cares about us, nobody thinks about us, nobody remembers us. It’s a really nice thing for them do.” Said Garland: “Being in the military myself, that becomes a second family to you. It’s a brotherhood that only people who are in it can understand. I’ve had a lot of friends and family who have lost people who died in service. If someone was there for their family afterward, that’s exactly what I would want for them. This is an opportunity to come and support them and be a light in a possibly dark place and tell them you’re supported.” Overseas trip with his football boss During the summer, Garland and his football boss, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, embarked on the NFL’s USO tour, which took them to U.S. military bases in Iraq and Kuwait. Joining Garland and Quinn were center Alex Mack and placekicker Matt Bryant. For Quinn, he got to see Garland in his other workplace element and watched closely how he interacted with those stationed in Iraq. “Watching Ben interact with the soldiers there, he asked deep questions there, like, ‘Why do you serve?’ ” Quinn said. “Those kind of connections and those kind of conversations, they last a long time. When he was with the Air Force guys, he knew all the questions to ask and was in the cockpit with them — ‘Let me get in there!’ It was impressive to see the connection he has and the love he has with the military.” For Garland, it was almost like a family reunion when he visited Iraq. Having never been before, he ran into multiple people he previously served with. He bumped into a captain who trained him at Fort Meade in Maryland who now happens to be a colonel. He saw another captain with whom he shared Air and Space Basic Course in Alabama nine years ago. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Garland said. “It was really cool because you saw the juxtaposition of both of the worlds that are mine. … It was really cool to see them in their element doing their thing. We were able to reconnect.” Both Garland and Quinn acknowledged the obvious differences in military service and football. In the military, lives are on the line. Football is a game played in the friendly confines of stadiums across the country. But the concept of teamwork permeates through both. Garland said that both the military and football serve as microcosms of society, where people of all walks of life come together for a common goal. Quinn said that if it wasn’t for his love of football, he would have wanted some sort of military role. “They serve for something bigger than themselves,” Quinn said. “Some of the best teammates I’ve been around play for something bigger than themselves. I’ve always enjoyed being part of a team. Through the years, that would have been something, where if I wasn’t coaching or teaching, I’d want to be a part of that team.” On Sunday, the Falcons once again will honor fallen soldiers by wearing helmet decals during their home game against Dallas. In what is called the Falcons’ Salute to Service game, the decals will feature the initials of deceased veterans. Garland’s decal will read “ML,” to honor U.S. Air Force Technical Sergeant Michael Lawler. Lawler died in an aviation accident in 2006. His wife, Julie, and son Thomas will be at the game. “When you’re in the military, everyone in the military becomes your family,” Garland said. “They’re your brothers and sisters in arms. Their family is your family. You learn to incorporate everyone.”
  18. As Deion Jones gets 'close,' he could be just what the... Jason Butt 6-8 minutes Deion Jones was asked to place a percentage on the likelihood he suits up in the game Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys. The linebacker hasn’t been able to play a snap since the season opener against Philadelphia. Considering the uphill climb the Falcons have found themselves in when it comes to the postseason, they certainly could use a player of Jones’ caliber to be back in the fold. Jones wouldn’t take the bait, which would further allow those to speculate just how healed he is from the broken foot he suffered in Week 1. His reply, however, was still encouraging. “Close,” Jones said, before letting out a smile. It’s pretty clear the Falcons are going to wait as long as possible before revealing whether Jones will play this week. As of now, he is practicing and has hit every benchmark in his recovery. Two weeks ago, Jones was able to participate in rehab drills outside with a trainer. Last week, he started practicing with his teammates in a limited fashion. On Wednesday, which marks the first practice of the week, Jones was out there and given a limited designation. The plan isn’t to rush him back, so there is still a chance Jones sits against the Cowboys. But considering the team elevated Jones to the 53-man roster Monday, it appears they feel good about where he is at in terms of his availability. “I certainly feel like he’s close,” Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said. “We wouldn’t have activated him if we weren’t really happy with his progress. He’s really champing at it to get going. But we’ll make the right decision for the player first. When he can play like he’s capable of, we’ll let him do his thing. Then he won’t be limited in any way. He’s not a guy we’ll play 10 plays. When he’s in, he’s all in.” Where Jones would help the Falcons the most is underneath in coverage. The Falcons are allowing an average gain of 9 yards per pass over the short middle (26th in the NFL), with 78.1 percent of those short middle throws being completed (27th). Opposing teams also have averaged 7 yards per pass play to the short right (30th), with 79.2 percent of those passes being completed (31st). Needless to say, the Falcons need some help in this area. Jones’ addition certainly would provide that. “He’s a special player because he can cover so much ground from the middle linebacker position and also fill holes in the run game,” defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. “It’s the small things you don’t really realize until somebody like that is gone. It’ll be good because he’s a great playmaker, but also whether it’s from a leadership standpoint or communication standpoint, just having those pillars on every level on defense is very important.” While most teams try to place receivers or faster tight ends on linebackers to gain a matchup advantage, Jones relishes in being able to counter that with his speed and coverage ability. “He’s always someone who is up for the challenge with the matchups,” Quinn said. “At times in the past, we’d go, ‘OK, maybe we’ll put a DB on this player,’ and he’d get pissed — ‘No, no, I want that challenge.’ ” While Quinn hasn’t stated anything definitive about Jones’ availability, it would appear the stars are aligned for Jones to return this week. At the same time, you never know when gamesmanship creeps into the equation. By activating Jones that early in the week, it forces Dallas, at the minimum, to spend some extra time preparing for what Jones could bring to the Atlanta defense. When Jones returns, the Falcons will get arguably their best defender and communicator back on the field. As everyone has seen, he has been greatly missed the past eight games. Jones, himself, is anxious to play again after his long layoff. Whether that is Sunday remains to be seen. “I can’t wait to be out there with my boys,” Jones said. “That’s all I got.” Campbell on Falcons’ focus After the loss Sunday at Cleveland, De’Vondre Campbell said what many of his teammates wouldn’t: The Falcons overlooked the Browns and didn’t have the necessary energy for the game. Campbell was given the opportunity Wednesday to further explain what he meant and didn’t back off his original comment. “It was more that we have to treat every week the same,” Campbell said. “No matter the situation is, we have to approach every week the same. … You’re in the NFL. Everybody’s good. If you don’t treat every week the same, that’s when things get away from you.” While it is still early in the week, Campbell said the attitude among the team was much different Wednesday from what Campbell saw last week. After the loss to the Browns, everyone appeared to be attentive, he said. “It started right there in our walkthroughs,” Campbell said. “When I mean mindset, it’s just the communication piece — everybody knowing what to expect. When we went into the walkthrough, there wasn’t anything that had to be said, compared to last week when I felt like we were kind of slow and everybody wasn’t in it.” Campbell said the Falcons are off to a “fast start” with their preparation compared to where they were a week ago. That will be needed against a Cowboys team coming off a big win over the Eagles. That was echoed by quarterback Matt Ryan, who said the team put in a good practice Wednesday. Ryan added that Atlanta’s sense of urgency was where it needed to be. “The good teams I’ve been on are the ones where it doesn’t matter what happened the week before,” Ryan said. “The attention to detail is there Wednesday when you get in. That’s what we’ve got be, win or loss. We have to come in and have that championship mindset every week.”
  19. Falcons Mailbag: Discussing Deion Jones’ timetable and the future at running back Jason Butt Well, how about that. The Falcons, left for dead three weeks ago, are now riding a three-game winning streak. They are sitting at 4-4 and have a .500 record for the first time since a win over Carolina in the second game of the season. A defeat over the lowly Cleveland Browns would give the Falcons their first above-.500 record of the season. Who thought this could have been possible after Atlanta’s road defeat at Pittsburgh? More importantly, Atlanta is back in the mix with people thinking the playoffs could be a reality again. Of course, the Falcons have to keep winning as there still remains little margin for error with four losses already on the docket. Then again, this team was 4-4 through eight games a year ago and went 6-2 the rest of the way. If Atlanta does the same this year, it should find itself in the postseason a third consecutive year. With that in mind, here is this week’s Falcons Mailbag. 2 Questions: (1) What is the prognosis on Deion Jones? Like you mentioned earlier on the radio – think he’s the key to us competing and winning games down the line in New Orleans and Carolina. (2) Have you ever seen a Falcons fan turnout like we had in Washington? It sounded like a home game live, and when I watched the highlights. Really looking forward to seeing if we can build off a complete game victory against the Redskins, and continue our process. -Matthew E. To answer the first question: Jones did limited practice work this week in practice. But he certainly does appear on track with what the coaches and doctors want to see out of him. We will know more early next week as to whether he will have a shot at playing against Dallas. While Dallas is the first game he is eligible to play in, it’s not a guarantee he will suit up for it. Head coach Dan Quinn has said all along that he wants to ensure Jones returns and can play pain-free. When asked if he was pain-free this week, Jones said he didn’t think about that. Consider that gamesmanship on Jones’ part. And yes, Jones will be huge down the stretch of this season. He does so many things that Atlanta has missed all season. He defends the run well. He communicates at an exceptional level. He can cover tight ends and the seam route. Jones will tremendously upgrade this defense once he is able to play again. I asked Quinn on Friday how Jones came out of the past three days of practice. “He probably made the progression like we (thought),” Quinn said. “We’ll probably do some more (Saturday). The good news is we can do some running with him (Saturday), and Sunday. As we get into Wednesday, is he at the spot where we could really push for more reps? Until then, I won’t know if we can go that way. We’re going to make the right decisions until he can really do it. We’re not going to give it a hope and hope it works out. If he’s symptom-free and able to do that, which he is now — for me, he still hasn’t played in a while so he needs practice time to go.” As for the second question, I have never seen or heard of a Falcons turnout on the road like we saw in Washington. Last year’s opener in Chicago had potential since Georgia faced Notre Dame the day before. But Sunday was a complete surprise. As someone who used to live in the DMV area, I do have a theory as to why there were so many Falcons fans. When I lived there, a lot of people I knew in college at Georgia — and even high school — were living in Washington and the surrounding areas. While on this recent trip, I stopped by Penn Commons, a Georgia Bulldogs bar, in Chinatown with a friend to catch the Georgia-Kentucky game. The place was packed with rowdy Georgia fans. On top of that, there are multiple other UGA bars in the city. While I understand some UGA fans might be fans of other NFL teams, you’d have to assume that many are also fans of the Falcons. Judging by that, it sure appears there are maybe more Falcons fans living in Washington than one would initially think. Since Atlanta and Washington don’t play often, I think it made sense for Falcons fans to snatch up a ticket. For those who don’t get back down to Atlanta often, this proved to be a good idea considering the outcome. Quinn said he wants more turnovers. So why are our DBs taught to watch the man instead of the ball? Can’t intercept when you never look back for the ball. -Anthony R. I wouldn’t say this coaching staff is teaching the defensive backs to watch the man instead of the ball. A defensive back at this level has to figure out, really on his own, how to both. If you only watch the ball, the receiver will burn you. If you only watch the receiver, you don’t have a shot at making a play on the ball. It’s one of the toughest things to do in football, which is why there are so few in this league who are considered lock-down cornerbacks. The best cornerbacks can read the receiver, cover the receiver, match the receiver’s stride and then look for the ball. Isaiah Oliver is beginning to improve in this area. Late in the game against Washington, he got a pass break-up in the end zone where he stayed with his man and got his arm up to knock the ball away. While interceptions are great, the primary focus in coverage is to prevent the opponent from completing the catch. From there, when the opportunity presents itself to come down with an interception, that’s when you want to seal the deal. Defense looks a tick better with (Sharrod) Neasman and (Bruce) Carter out there, and Oliver will get there despite his rough initiation. Jordan Richards — any idea of whether the team will have to fork over the seventh rounder? Hopefully (Thomas) Dimitroff got some type of number of snaps condition that he’d have to play to actually have to move the pick. Don’t quite understand why the Falcons were interested in a player who was a fairly high pick but flunked out quickly in NE – just a look at the (Super Bowl) tape should have clued them in. Also – any chance the team might look for a real punt returner for the second half of the season? Sure, Justin Hardy is a helluva guy, but brings nothing to the return game; and with all the injuries don’t think this team can sit back and assume they’ll win six of eight in the second half without some big plays happening – like, say, a punt return. -James F. More than likely, the conditional pick has to do with the number of games Richards has played. I’d also envision Richards playing some sort of role the rest of the season, whether it’s solely on special teams or a mix of defense and special teams. Quinn likes to use every player available (except for backup quarterback Matt Schaub) in each game. So to answer your question, as long as Richards is on the roster, he will continue to see the field in some shape or form. And if so, Atlanta will fork over that seventh rounder. Now, as for a potential snap count number being a part of the conditions, I’m not sure. That isn’t anything that has been revealed and isn’t written into Richards’ contract. But the Falcons felt like they needed a reserve strong safety when the preseason ended and felt comfortable giving up a seventh-rounder to do so. Remember, the move to get Richards was for depth. It wasn’t like he, Neasman or Damontae Kazee were supposed to play the number of reps they are seeing. With that in mind, it wasn’t the worst idea to give up a seventh-round pick for someone who was originally supposed to play special teams and sub in once every now and then. And I do agree with you about Neasman and Carter. I think both of those players have come along nicely over the past few weeks. Quinn should be commended for coaching up a new-look defense no one expected to see in early September. As for punt returner, nothing has signaled that Hardy will lose this job. The Falcons aren’t going to go hunting for any players on the street right now, and it’s not like any other teams are going to cut their best return men at this point of the season. The Falcons are comfortable with Hardy ensuring the catch and getting what he can after it. Obviously, they would love a big play on a punt return but that hasn’t been able to materialize. Now, one thing I have noticed is Brian Hill catching some punts off of the JUGS machine at the end of practice. Could this mean anything? Maybe, maybe not. But if the Falcons were to ever make a move at punt returner, it would likely be in house. Running back and cap situation. Any chance we get Devonta (Freeman’s) money off the books, retain a more affordable (and as they’ve proven, decently competent) cast of Tevin and Ito, and repurpose that money to shore up some of the worry/shallower depth areas of the team like the linemen on both sides of the ball? With Julio (Jones) getting a big extension next season, which areas of the team are most at risk of declining in quality just because we won’t be able to afford to pay good players? -Nick R. I suppose there is a chance. But even if the Falcons got the bulk of Freeman’s contract off of the books, there would still be $9 million in dead money to account for, along with re-signing Coleman to what could be a heftier deal than you may expect, especially if he finishes the next eight games on a strong note. And if Coleman is to command more than the Falcons would be willing to pay in free agency, then the franchise would be more than happy to have Freeman back in the fold. When healthy, Freeman offers explosion and consistency as a runner. The problem, as we all know, is that Freeman has dealt with injury issues over the past few years. If your $41.25 million running back can’t stay on the field, you have issues. I don’t think Julio Jones’ contract should affect the team elsewhere. The Falcons have long been planning on extending in 2019, so that money will be in the budget. Atlanta has been proactive elsewhere, knowing that Jones would need a new deal next year. But you do wonder when the Falcons will pull the trigger on a new deal for Grady Jarrett. That’s the one that appears to be coming next. I am pretty excited about the growth of the defense. One comparison I have is of the 2016 Atlanta defense. The 2016 defense started off sluggish but eventually grew good enough to achieve wins against foes like Green Bay and Seattle. The 2016 defense lacked experience and as a result of injuries, I feel the same way towards the current defense. What are the areas that you feel that the current defense must improve on to continue growth like we did in good ole 2016? -Jonny G. For starters, when Deion Jones gets back, this defense will immediately improve. Other than that, the current defense must improve its pass rush — and Jones’ presence alone should be able to help. The longer Atlanta can cover, the more effective the players up front can be when getting after the quarterback. Adding Bruce Irvin (more on this momentarily) should help in this area, too, especially with his familiarity with the scheme. It was easy to overlook the notion that this defense could improve back when all those injuries were occurring. But once the injury situation stabilized, you saw this group grow with one another to where they are playing with more cohesion. Obviously, the run defense has been able to improve over the past few weeks. Adding a better pass rush would do wonders. Do you like the addition of Bruce Irvin? -Chris D. How excited should Falcons fans be for the signing of Bruce Irvin? Does he have anything left in the tank? Will his presence force (Vic) Beasley to play better? Can he be a mentor for Beasley and Takk (McKinley)? One of the biggest issues with Falcons CBs this year is that most QBs have had a ton of time to throw the ball in rhythm. Will this signing also improve their performance? Matthew C. I think Irvin’s addition is great for the Falcons. In a worst-case scenario, it’s a rest-of-season rental. In a best-case scenario, they can lock him up for a few more years and continue getting a better pass rush with him on the team. In Seattle, Irvin was a perfect fit for the defense, and Quinn got to coach him in 2013 and 2014. Just a season ago, Irvin had eight sacks for Oakland, which tied a career high in a single season. It became apparent early on this year, however, that Irvin didn’t fit the Raiders’ new defensive scheme. As someone who is a fit for what Quinn has in Atlanta, Irvin is expected to produce. I also think Quinn can get a lot out of Irvin from a motivational standpoint. Now, will Irvin’s presence force Beasley to play better? I don’t know if it will force anything. I do think it should help Beasley play better. If they want to run a NASCAR package with Irvin, Beasley and McKinley, that will be a lot of speed to account for getting after the quarterback. And while I don’t know if Irvin will play a mentor type of role, I do think his experience should bode well for both of the other pass-rushing defensive ends. And with the added speed, you would think the defensive backs will be appreciative. It sure will be interesting to see how quickly, or how long, Irvin’s presence is felt on defense. This might be a crazy idea, but with the emergence of (Foye) Oluokun and (Deion Jones) possibly coming back soon, is there any chance (Duke) Riley gets some run at SS in the packages Keanu (Neal) was essentially lined up as an LB? -Bob F. I don’t think so, and only because that position in this package Neal was playing is more of a hybrid type of role. Neal can cover and he can defend the run. He can hit with power on one play and trail a receiver out of the slot on the next. Riley is more of a traditional linebacker. He has speed, sure, but he doesn’t have that safety skillset. So I don’t think Riley would be positioned for that kind of role. It’s one reason why you’ve seen Quinn and Marquand Manuel rotate multiple players at strong safety. You can’t replace Neal with just one backup. It has to be by committee to combine for what Neal does best. Matt Ryan is playing at an incredibly high level right now but, at age 33½, is getting to be one of the older quarterbacks in the league. At what point would you expect the team to start looking for a quarterback for the post-Ryan era? -John C. It’s tough to tell. While Ryan is 33, he doesn’t play like he’s an aging quarterback on his last leg. He’s in excellent shape and playing some of the best football in his entire career. So when it comes to finding a new franchise quarterback, the Falcons don’t have to be in a rush. There are no signs that Ryan is slowing down or fading into the sunset. Plus, plenty of quarterbacks are still excelling in their mid-to-late 30s. For instance: Aaron Rodgers is 34. Philip Rivers is 36. Ben Roethlisberger is 36. Drew Brees is 39. Tom Brady is 41. Judging by that list, it may be awhile before Atlanta looks for its next quarterback. New England really seems to be the only team that truly needs to think about who will be next up. Well, the Patriots actually did and then dealt Jimmy Garoppolo to San Francisco. But even so, this is a position players can excel at in their later years. While Ryan is no longer considered a young quarterback, he is by no means in his twilight years. Where does Desmond Trufant rank compared to other corners? It seems that his skills have eroded since we gave him a “premier” corner contract. He has dropped 3 interceptions this year…one against (Cincinnati) would have sealed a win! -Ed D. I personally don’t rank players since I focus on the Falcons instead of around the league. So I usually turn to the other outlets that do such a thing and judge from that. With that stated, Pro Football Focus has issued a 62.5 grade for the season to Trufant. That makes him the 60th best cornerback in the league, according to the website, which is considered above average. With Trufant, the dropped picks have been frustrating for the fans. I get that. But the good news is that since the Bengals game, which was a disaster for the entire defense, you’ve seen a secondary that has been on the same page, with Trufant in position to make plays more often than not. For whatever reason, he hasn’t been able to come up with the picks. He continues to work on that part of his game, spending at least 15 minutes per practice on the JUGS machine. I still think Trufant is a really good cornerback. Since the post-injury defense has been able to gel, Trufant’s play has picked up. But yes, he needs to get those picks that come his way. He knows it too. If this winning streak rides out until Thanksgiving, can you see a scenario where the Falcons could have the firepower and momentum to march into New Orleans and beat the red hot Saints in what would be a huge game with big division implications? -Jason L. Absolutely. The Falcons arguably should have beaten the Saints the first time around. Remember, they had to punt after being unable to pick up a third down on their final offensive drive to potentially try a game-winning field goal. That allowed the game to go to overtime, with New Orleans scoring the game-winning touchdown. Atlanta certainly has the offense to score on the Saints. The Saints’ defense hasn’t been a strong suit whatsoever. But will Atlanta’s defense, which should have Deion Jones back by this point, be able to slow the Saints down just enough? And could it do so on the road? I’d expect another shootout, regardless of record, when these two teams meet on Thanksgiving. But as you noted, this game will have huge implications if Atlanta is able to win the next two before the second meeting between the teams.
  20. Before football, Falcons’ Crawford immigrated from England to star in a different sport Jason Butt When Jack Crawford immigrated to the United States in high school, it was to further his athletic pursuits. But being from England, his sport of choice wasn’t American football. Crawford was a basketball standout back in Kilburn, London, and elected to move across the pond to play his then-favorite sport in the United States. He found a landing spot at New Jersey’s St. Augustine Prep and lived with a host family as a foreign exchange student. Back then, Crawford’s intent was making his mark in the United States as a standout hoops player. “It was just always a dream of becoming a basketball player,” Crawford said. “I’d played a lot growing up. For me, it was what I always wanted to do. I always saw my future over here.” But entering his sophomore year of high school as an international transfer student, Crawford got some discouraging news. Crawford was ineligible to play due to a New Jersey transfer rule and was forced to sit out a year. His first year in America pursuing basketball would be spent from the sidelines. That opened an opportunity for football to catch his attention. He was at least aware of football back in London, but he didn’t know much about it. When he watched his St. Augustine Prep classmates play football on Fridays, he felt like he could do what they were doing. But as a basketball school, St. Augustine brought him to play that particular sport, despite his size and frame at the time — a bio listed Crawford at 6-foot-5 and 256 pounds in high school. Crawford approached the football coaches and asked if he could join the team. From there, a new passion was set in motion. “I kind of inquired first,” Crawford said. “There was something about football that drew me into it.” Seeing his classmates play was one thing. Watching the historic 2006 Rose Bowl between Texas and USC continued to fuel his desire to play. Arguably one of college football’s greatest games to ever take place — with Vince Young’s Longhorns pulling off the upset victory for a national title — Crawford, who said that was the first football game he ever watched on television, was hooked. With two years remaining in high school, Crawford was still green when it came to football’s rules, and it took awhile to become accustomed to the sport. But his size was something that couldn’t be taught. While he played both football and basketball in high school, many more collegiate football coaches came through St. Augustine Prep to visit him. “After my junior year playing basketball and football, I had interest from different schools,” Crawford said. “I had a few local schools for basketball, but for football, I had them all over the country — just because I could run and I was big. It was crazy to see that interest, to see that happen. Every week, there was a coach coming in from a college to recruit me. It was wild. Seeing the kind of scale that I could play on in football, it helped me make the decision to just play football and leave basketball alone.” Crawford chose to play college football at Penn State and ended up in the NFL four years later, first with the Oakland Raiders as a fifth-round draft pick in 2012. Waived in 2014, Crawford spent three years with Dallas before signing with Atlanta in 2017. Crawford spent much of the 2017 season on injured reserve after injuring his bicep in a Week 4 loss to Buffalo. This season, Crawford, amid a slew of injuries affecting the Falcons early on, has turned into a key role player for the defense. Crawford had two sacks Sunday against Washington. That was actually Crawford’s third consecutive game with a sack, as he recorded one in each of the games against Tampa Bay and the New York Giants. For the season, Crawford has 4.5 sacks, good enough for second on the team behind Takkarist McKinley’s 5.5. “He’s having more opportunities,” defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. “He didn’t play last year; he was hurt last year. He’s being who he is, a playmaker. It’s good to be able to play along somebody like that.” Crawford may have had hoop dreams when he arrived to America. But even if he stuck with that, the American style of basketball might not have worked for him. In England, Crawford said he was a guard. In New Jersey, he was a 6-5 center who wasn’t asked to do much, if anything, around the perimeter. As basketball faded, football moved to the forefront of his focus. The Falcons are now reaping the benefits of that change. “I’d like to always think I had the handles. I used to think I could play,” Crawford said. “I wanted to be a shooting guard. When I got to school over here, the coach would put me in at the five, in the post, and wanted me to rebound and pass the ball and post people up. I always felt like I had more to offer. Basketball didn’t go how I hoped. “But everything worked out in the end.” Irvin’s usage against the Browns The big news Wednesday was that the Falcons were the fortunate winners of the midseason Bruce Irvin sweepstakes. Irvin, released by Oakland, was officially placed on waivers Monday and cleared Tuesday. With a few contending teams holding interest, Irvin ultimately chose the Falcons. He returns to the city he grew up in while reuniting with head coach Dan Quinn, his old defensive coordinator during the 2013 and 2014 seasons with the Seattle Seahawks. Quinn isn’t trying to hide anything on Irvin for the game Sunday at Cleveland. Confirming that Irvin will play Sunday, Quinn said the pass-rushing defensive end initially will get some time in the nickel package with McKinley and Vic Beasley. “That’s really where our experience jells together,” Quinn said.“We’ll work him and Takk and Vic and that group a good bit together (Thursday), Friday and Saturday. We have a lot of work to do to get him up to speed, but he’s up to the challenge, for sure.” Irvin was still in the Bay Area early Wednesday, and he is expected to officially sign his one-year contract in the evening. He will make his first appearance at practice Thursday. “It’s by grace that this chance happened,” said defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel, who was on Seattle’s staff when Irvin was drafted in 2012. “It’s an addition to come in and help out our brotherhood and the unison we’re looking for consistently on the pass rush. He’s one of those guys who can come in and help out.” While Irvin will play Sunday, it would be a surprise to see him play a large number of snaps. He likely will rotate a good bit with the other pass-rushing defensive linemen throughout the game. His knowledge of Quinn and Manuel’s scheme certainly will help accelerate his playing time, however, when it comes to the coaching staff trusting him with his soon-to-be new teammates. Left tackle Jake Matthews has experience going against Irvin — Atlanta’s 2016 win over Oakland — and said he is looking forward to seeing what his new teammate can do for the defense. “He’s a good player,” Matthews said. “I’m really excited we’re getting him on our team. When it’s on our side, he’s a good guy.” Jones returns to practice Deion Jones hit another benchmark with his potential return to the field. While he is still technically on injured reserve, his 21-day window to be elevated to the 53-man roster began Wednesday. Jones returned to practice for the first time since injuring his foot in the season opener against Philadelphia. Instead of getting time with the first-team defense, Jones spent a portion of his limited reps against the first-team offense with the scout team. “I’ve seen enough of it in the offseason and training camp. He’s great player,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “I’m happy for him that he’s able to get back onto the field now and start to practice. He’s put in a lot of hard work in terms of rehab.” Neither Quinn nor Jones put a timetable on when he will return to game action. The earliest he is able to do so will be next week against Dallas. To date, Jones has yet to have any setbacks with the injury. When asked what his pain threshold is, he said, “I don’t really think about that.” While Jones is glad to be back at practice, he noted that he will not force the issue and risk re-injuring his foot. “I know me rushing back won’t help my team,” Jones said. “Me being healthy will be the best thing for them.” Jones said it was tough to be away from the practice field the past eight weeks but that he has stayed ready for his eventual return. “It’s really picking up where I left off and being prepared to do that and helping these guys as much as I can,” Jones said.
  21. Alex Mack was quick to deflect the praise placed on how the offensive line performed in the Falcons’ 38-14 win over Washington on Sunday. Yes, the Falcons’ line dominated one of the best defensive fronts, at least to this point of the NFL season. But Mack said it wasn’t the line making the plays. Mack noted the backs deserved the credit for a performance that saw Atlanta total 154 rushing yards while averaging 6.4 yards per carry. “The running backs did a great job of reading the holes and hitting it hard,” Mack said. “They made a couple of big plays. I think they had a lot of success of turning a 4-yard run into a 20-yard run. That’ll help your average. “If you’re a running back who can do explosive plays and make you look right, it’s good for a lineman. They were able to set up our blocks — their track, their path, how they read things. They were able to set up our blocks and make us look good.” The Falcons’ offense has been a strength all year. But the coaching staff emphasized the run coming out of the bye, and the players clearly listened to the message. While quarterback Matt Ryan has been throwing the ball to any and everyone, the threat of a big run hasn’t been there all too often. Worse, the Falcons previously were unable to close games out with the run. That wasn’t the case in Landover, Maryland. Atlanta started by finding early success, somewhat strangely, on some second-and-10 runs, which helped open up the playbook in third-and-manageable situations. From there, the Falcons’ offensive line executed their blocks accordingly, with Tevin Coleman (13 carries, 88 yards) and Ito Smith (10 carries, 60 yards, one touchdown) having a field day on an otherwise strong defense. Right tackle Ryan Schraeder said the attention paid to running the ball throughout the past two weeks paid off against Washington. “I just think the emphasis of it,” Schraeder said. “We knew we were coming up against a good run defense, a stout defense. The coaches did a good job of emphasizing that at the beginning of the week.” It still begs this question: Where was this type of run-game performance earlier in the season? The only other time Atlanta was able to hit some big running plays came in Week 2 against Carolina. The other six games the Falcons previously played before this matchup had Atlanta ranked as the 30th-ranked rushing offense in the NFL (the Falcons have since climbed to No. 28 at 92.1 rushing yards per game). Even the offensive linemen couldn’t explain why the Falcons were able to look as good in this facet compared to other weeks. “I couldn’t pinpoint it,” Schraeder said. “Maybe it’s a mindset. Maybe we just had a good week, and guys got rested up with the bye week. We got healthy. I felt good. I feel like a lot of guys probably felt good going into the game.” Said Mack, “I am not exactly sure why this game was better than some other ones or other ones weren’t as good as this one. But I think everyone focused on the details, did their job and made plays when they needed to be made.” So has the run game finally received its needed spark? We’ll have to wait and see whether this becomes a trend. But to do what it did against a tough Redskins front that has limited everyone else on the ground was quite a feat. If not for a holding call late, Coleman would have been the first running back to rush for 100 yards against Washington all season. He also turned into a dangerous weapon out of the backfield with five catches for 68 yards and two touchdowns. Up front, the Falcons executed the way many assumed this offensive line would from the start. The blocks opened lanes, and both Coleman and Smith acted instinctively with their runs. The Falcons got great blocking from the tight ends and receivers, too. Earlier in the week, head coach Dan Quinn said his team would not shy away from running the ball, even if the Redskins were statistically one of the best in the NFL at defending it. That turned out to be a great decision. “We thought there was something with (Coleman) coming in this game, and we certainly thought it with the offensive line,” Quinn said. “So, I was glad to see the work they put in showed some of the benefits.” While this was an excellent outing for the rushing attack, it marks only the second time this year the Falcons were able to gain traction on the ground. Quinn said play-action passes would be important to help open up the run, and that definitely helped early on. Even on some early first-down misses, it was enough to open some lanes on those aforementioned second-down runs. “The big guys put the work in,” Quinn said. “They did extra. They found their spots for our pad level that we could improve upon, but we’re encouraged to see that. We know we are at our best when both the run game and our pass game are in balance.” It will be imperative to stack another quality performance this week at Cleveland. Given what Atlanta put on tape Sunday, the Browns won’t be as caught off guard as the Redskins were. “That was tough for us,” Redskins cornerback Josh Norman said. “I don’t think any of us expected that. They hit us in the face.” The Falcons are suddenly back in contention The Falcons are now 4-4 in a division some pegged as the worst in the NFL during the first month of the season. Yet now, New Orleans is legitimately one of the league’s best, and the Panthers are rolling. The Buccaneers, naturally, are the division’s outlier. With New Orleans (7-1) staying hot, Atlanta’s hopes of clawing back into the NFC South Division title race do seem slim. It will need quite a bit of help to make this happen. But one of the two wild-card berths will remain up for grabs, and this year, there is a lot of parity behind the NFC division leaders. As it stands right now, the Falcons are seventh in the NFC, with the Panthers (6-2) and Minnesota (5-2-1) ahead of them. If Seattle (4-4) drops behind the Falcons and Philadelphia (4-4), the Eagles would then jump the Falcons based on head-to-head record. But there is still a ton of football to be played, so those sort of scenarios are premature. But the Falcons are in a great position right now. They get the Browns, followed by a home game against Dallas. It is certainly feasible that the Falcons could be 6-4 heading into the Thanksgiving rematch at New Orleans. Atlanta is aware of the bigger picture, of course. But one challenge, after crawling out of the hole it put itself in, has been to keep a singular focus on a week-to-week basis. That is much easier to say than do. “We recognize where the big picture is, but we just try to focus where we’re at,” Quinn said.“We had plenty of stuff we had to improve upon heading into last week, and we’ve still got plenty to work on. So, we’ve got to head back out on the road again and go for it. Although we know the big picture, we do much better when we keep our focus and our target as small as we can. We will do that again this week.” The biggest defensive improvement has been against the run From Week 2 through Week 6, it didn’t seem like the Falcons could stop anyone, whether it was through the air or on the ground. Almost everyone went vertical down the field. Pittsburgh in particular gashed Atlanta with James Conner. But a funny thing happened in Week 7. The Falcons contained rookie running back Saquon Barkley to 43 rushing yards. With Barkley ineffective on the ground, the New York Giants aired it out throughout the second half. On Sunday, the Falcons put in their best performance against the run. Adrian Peterson, who entered the day as the NFL’s fifth-leading rusher was held to 17 yards on nine carries. It seemed that the Falcons were well aware of where Peterson wanted to run before he’d hit his track. “We know the types of runs he likes,” defensive back Sharrod Neasman said. “We know the types of runs he’s the most effective in. We knew the types of runs they had big plays on. All of that. We were just hyped up. We knew we had to stop the run.” The defense has showed signs of growth over the past two games. Having a bye before the Redskins game certainly helped, too. It has helped that the rash of injuries slowed down to where the defenders could see multiple consecutive games with the same teammates on the field. But stopping the run and forcing teams to primarily rely on the pass would be huge for his team moving forward. Even if teams throw for 300 passing yards in a game — which almost seems standard for a lot of quarterbacks in the NFL’s pass-happy era — it doesn’t matter if those yards come on numerous attempts. For instance, Alex Smith threw for 306 yards on Sunday but did so on 46 passing attempts. That’s an average of 6.7 yards per pass attempt, which the Falcons will take all day. “I think the defense had a pretty good start to the game, and I thought that couldn’t have gone any better,” Quinn said. “But you know the opponent, they have had their share of injuries, as well. It’s a good team win, and one we really had to battle for.” Ryan could enter the MVP conversation if Atlanta keeps winning Ryan has posted MVP numbers all year. On top of the gaudy passing stats, his accuracy has been unreal. Against Washington, he threw only his third interception of the season. And according to former Falcons receiver and local radio personality Brian Finneran, Calvin Ridley was supposed to cross his post route in front of Quinton Dunbar. It was a timing route, and with Ridley running behind Dunbar, it became an easy interception. So yeah, Ryan’s lone blemish of the game wasn’t even his fault. Ryan has played some of the best football in his entire career through eight games. But with his team at 4-4 after a 1-4 start, it is easy to see why Ryan isn’t getting any MVP love. And then you throw in the seasons Patrick Mahomes, Todd Gurley and Drew Brees are having, it’s understandable. Ryan will have to take a backseat in this conversation for the time being. But if the Falcons do climb back into the playoff picture with Ryan playing at this pace, you’d think he would have to receive some consideration. Through half a season, Ryan has completed 70.8 percent of his throws for 2,685 yards, 19 touchdowns and three interceptions. He ranks fourth in the NFL in passing yards. As of now, Ryan is on pace to throw for 5,370 yards, 38 touchdowns and six interceptions. “I feel like I’m comfortable with the plans that we have,” Ryan said. “I’m prepared and ready to go week in and week out. I’m surrounded by excellent players and have a lot of trust in the guys around me to go make plays and they’ve done it.” Trufant keeps coming close During the past five games since Atlanta’s loss to Cincinnati, cornerback Desmond Trufant has played some great football. He has done a good job in coverage, done well by breaking up some passes and has made it tough for receivers to get open on his side of the field. But you know where this is going. Trufant dropped what would have been two interceptions against the Redskins. For the season, Trufant has yet to record a pick, even though he could easily have four or five. While that hurts, Trufant being in position to make a play on the ball is a great sign. But yes, capitalizing on those opportunities will be crucial in the second half of the season. But it isn’t like his misfortune can be attributed to a lack of effort. During the game, a team representative mentioned how much Trufant does work on catching the ball so he can come down with these types of plays. During each practice, Trufant spends roughly 15 minutes on the JUGS machine catching passes. Trufant and Brian Poole work together on tracking passes when they are in the air. This has been a focal point for the veteran cornerback, who does have nine career interceptions. For whatever reason, Trufant just hasn’t been able to come through with a pick this year. Given the chances he has had by placing himself in great position, it does make you think Trufant is bound to come up with an interception sooner rather than later. And while the picks haven’t materialized, he will continue to work at it until they do.
  22. LANDOVER, Md. — Damontae Kazee had a purpose when he threw the football into the stands. He had just picked off Alex Smith, thanks to being in the right position as Blidi Wreh-Wilson ripped the ball away from Vernon Davis on a pass down the right sideline. The ball popped into in the air with Kazee coming over the top of the play to record his fourth interception of the season. Immediately, Kazee started running away from the majority of his teammates and toward the sideline. He signaled for Sharrod Neasman to run with him. As Kazee neared the right corner of the FedEx Field South end zone, he suddenly launched the ball into the stands. From afar, it seemed like an impromptu celebration. Kazee actually had a semblance of a plan with it. “My nephew was in that corner so I was just trying to throw it to him,” Kazee said. Whether the football reached his nephew is unclear. But in that moment, with the Falcons holding a big lead on the road against the team leading the NFC East, it sure looked like these Falcons were in the back yard having fun again. It had been quite awhile since anyone saw this kind of performance from this team. In six other outings, the Falcons were clawing to win games in the fourth quarter. Against Pittsburgh, Atlanta was blown out in the second half. In the 38-14 dismantling of Washington on Sunday, the Falcons were finally the aggressors, asserting their will on a Washington team that looked shell-shocked after going down 14-0 and later 21-7. While the Redskins don’t have an offensive juggernaut by any means, they previously did a good job running the ball with Adrian Peterson. But Peterson found very little running room as he was held to nine carries for 17 yards. As a team, the Redskins only mustered 79 rushing yards. A lot of that can be attributed to a Falcons defense that has grown together slowly after injuries dismantled the unit early in the year. The early rash of serious injuries to Deion Jones (foot), Keanu Neal (ACL) and Ricardo Allen (Achilles) did a number on the defense. It took awhile for the defense to communicate as well with the new parts on the field. Against Washington, a team that doesn’t take too many vertical chances, the defense resembled a cohesive, heady group that made key stops and could off the field on third down. Routes were covered downfield. The Falcons forced the Redskins’ offense into being a one-dimensional unit, with Smith throwing 46 passes. “With guys getting more experience, they’re going to play a lot better,” said defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, who had one of Atlanta’s three sacks. “You can see it. It’s exciting to see.” Neasman is one of those players who has stepped up amidst the injuries. Brought back to the roster after Allen tore his Achilles, Neasman slowly has gotten a lot more snaps the past four games. He ended the game Sunday with five tackles and two pass deflections. “The older guys, the ones who have been out there, they embrace us 100 percent,” Neasman said. “That allows us to go out there and play at the level we’ve been playing at. I think a lot of the younger guys have had to step up. We know we have to step up. I think we’ve been playing pretty well.” Said rookie linebacker Foye Oluokun, “It happens over time. You get a lot of guys playing on the same field for a while, you get used to everybody. It’s getting out there and getting experience together. It’s going to help.” The Falcons were joyous after a game for maybe the first time all season. They showed some of that on the field in the fourth quarter. First, there was Kazee’s celebration. Later on, there was the team celebration in the North end zone after Julio Jones stamped an exclamation point on the game with a 35-yard touchdown. After Jones drove his legs through safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix so he could fall over the goal line, Jones’ teammates ran down the field to celebrate. Jones has been one of the most productive players all season long. After going for 86 yards against the Redskins, Jones now has 933 for the season. Yet that was his first touchdown of the season, and you bet his teammates were going to celebrate it. “You saw we had a party in the end zone,” Neasman said. “It was fun. He’s a phenomenal player.” For quarterback Matt Ryan, who had yet another stellar outing with 350 yards, four touchdowns and one interception, it was good to see his top wideout finally reach the end zone. Jones may not care much about statistics, which is a rare trait for a star at this level, but that doesn’t mean his teammates don’t want to see him light up the stat sheet. “Nobody deserves it more than him,” Ryan said. “Nobody works harder than he does. Nobody draws more double coverage than he does around the league. For him to get in and the way he did and the reaction you saw from everybody, that’s been a question we’ve had to answer for a long time. We’ve been scoring points. We’ve been doing a good job with that. He’s been super unselfish. I think we were all fired up for him to get in there.” Jones scored the touchdown on a tunnel screen. After the snap, Jones faked like he was going to run down the field, stopped and turned toward Ryan. Cornerback Josh Norman slipped slightly and was out of position to defend the play. As he pursued Jones, left tackle Jake Matthews flattened Norman with a block that sprung Jones down the field. Jones said the team had been talking about running a screen like that in recent weeks. When it was brought up, Jones said he wanted to be the one taking the play. When it came to scoring on the play, Jones wasn’t going to let Clinton-Dix bring him down. “I just couldn’t let one man take me down in that situation,” Jones said. “We’ve been talking the last two or three weeks about screens. I said, ‘I need a screen.’ They gave me one (Sunday), and I made the most of it.” Atlanta’s defense is improving. The offense continued to click, this time against a Washington defense that entered the day ranked second in rushing yards allowed per game (80.1). The Falcons racked up 154 rushing yards, with Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith averaging 6.4 yards per carry. That wasn’t expected heading into the game. The Falcons are now 4-4, which might have seemed unthinkable four weeks ago. A defense that didn’t appear fixable after a loss to Cincinnati has started to show strides. For Kazee, it was akin to growing pains. A lot of players, himself included, were thrust into bigger roles without expecting to see such playing time that early in the year. As a result, they made their share of mistakes. On Sunday, the Falcons, and a surprisingly large number of their fans who either made the trip or happen to live in the area, saw a glimpse of a unit that might be salvageable after all. “I think what it says is when we get into difficult moments, we know we’ve got to stay the course and lean on one another to get ready,” head coach Dan Quinn said. “It was an excellent performance in all three phases. When we go back, we will go and put the work in. … We have got plenty of work to do, and you can count on this group of guys to do it.” Up next is Cleveland, a team that dropped to 2-6-1 for the season with a loss to Kansas City. A win over the Browns would move the Falcons above .500 for the first time this season. Just a little less than a month ago in Pittsburgh, it felt like the beginning of the end. In a sport where only one game takes place per week, the weekly conversation between games can drown out a team’s effort to improve behind the scenes. A lot of folks on the outside — fans and media alike — checked out on the Falcons, leaving them for dead. Perhaps that was a tad premature. But the win Sunday showed the Falcons were never intent on allowing the outside perception to define them. “We’re all we’ve got; we’re all we need,” Jones said.
  23. Isaiah Oliver has had his share of rookie learning moments. Earlier this season against Pittsburgh, Oliver subbed in for the briefly injured Desmond Trufant and was tasked with defending Antonio Brown. Brown did his best to separate on an out route to the short corner of the end zone, with Oliver staying stride for stride with one of the NFL’s best receivers. Oliver was able to get an arm up and knock the football away for an incomplete pass. Two plays later, Oliver wasn’t so fortunate. The Steelers went back to the same play, with Brown separating and hauling in a touchdown. It was obviously tough for Atlanta in the moment, considering it was a score that went toward a blowout Steelers victory. In terms of the bigger picture, however, those types of mishaps ultimately can help improve young players over time. A second-round pick out of Colorado, Oliver has the ideal length — 6-foot with a wingspan of almost 7 feet — to succeed at his position professionally. But as he learns the nuances of the NFL, he has learned he will take his lumps like everyone before him did. “It’s really more so adjusting to the game,” Oliver said. “It’s just so much different than college is, whether it’s the speed of the game or even the concepts and schemes we play here. It’s different than what I’ve ever played for.” Early on, safety Damontae Kazee noticed that Oliver didn’t like getting beat. That wasn’t something Oliver was used to at Colorado. Like most college stars, each week Oliver was going against players he was better than (0nly one Pac-12 receiver (Dante Pettis, San Francisco) was selected ahead of Oliver in the 2018 NFL draft). More often than not, the Buffaloes held an advantage when Oliver lined up against an opposing receiver. In the NFL, that’s not always the case. “When he first got here I’d tell him, ‘It’s not all right to give up a play, but everyone gets beat. Everyone gets scored on,’ ” Kazee said. “He’s got that young mind, like he’d get mad. But he’s a great player, a great friend. I love Oliver.” Oliver mostly has played a reserve role this season, outside of Atlanta’s game against Cincinnati, which saw him get 63 snaps. In that game, Oliver played a lot at cornerback, with Brian Poole seeing time at safety. It was late in that game, however, when Oliver did not drop back far enough into a Cover 2 zone, which allowed Andy Dalton to find A.J. Green for the game-winning touchdown. After the game, Oliver owned up to play and pledged to learn from the mistake. That mentality has continued each week since. “There are a lot of things you have to learn about the game of football,” Oliver said. “I feel like I had a lot of opportunities to learn a lot of things from the older guys. That’s something that has been very helpful for me.” Oliver could be in line for a lot of playing time Sunday against Washington if cornerback Robert Alford is unable to suit up. Alford has been nursing an ankle injury suffered against the New York Giants two weeks ago, and while Alford was able to finish that game, his ankle has remained sore to the point that he was unable to practice Wednesday or Thursday. Instead, head coach Dan Quinn said Alford has been working off to the side with a team trainer but has not been ruled out of the game Sunday against Washington just yet. “We’re going to try to give him as much as time as we can to see how strong we can get it,” Quinn said. “He did a good job attacking it during the bye to get it strong. But (Wednesday) it wasn’t ready yet. We’ll take it over the next 48 hours and have a better assessment — two-and-a-half days really.” If Alford is unable to play, Oliver will start at cornerback in his place. Quinn said he has taken notice of Oliver’s development, particularly in situations where corners are asked to press and jam receivers. “What I’ve seen from him is just the discipline at the line of scrimmage,” Quinn said. “That part is really improving. The way we want to play our corners — right down and challenge guys at the line of scrimmage. I think he’s certainly improving in that area quite a bit. It suits his skillset, as well. We’re going to keep drilling him in that way.” The early experience, even in moments when he may have lost his individual matchup, have helped prepare Oliver for what could be his second career start with the Falcons. Time will soon tell if Oliver will get another shot at extended playing time. “It prepares you a lot, getting those reps early in the year, however many there are, whenever they are,” Oliver said. “They’re always going to help you for the future. You can’t really determine how much you’re going to play, but every rep is going to help you.” Bryant may have tested leg but not during practice Quinn said he would have a further update on place-kicker Matt Bryant after seeing him test his injured right hamstring Thursday. Well, the kicks Bryant was scheduled to take did not occur during Atlanta’s regularly scheduled practice session. Bryant, who injured his right hamstring three weeks ago against Tampa Bay, was listed as a non-participant in practice Thursday. If Bryant did get some field-goal practice in, it didn’t come during the allotted time for practice. Thursday is the day of the week Bryant generally gets the majority of his kicks in. Special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong said Bryant was with a trainer during practice and that he is unsure what kind of work Bryant was able to put in. If Bryant is unable to play, the Falcons will once again go with Giorgio Tavecchio, who hit field goals from 40, 50 and 56 yards in Atlanta’s victory over the Giants. In addition to Bryant and Alford, receiver Mohamed Sanu (hip) did not practice Thursday. Sanu injured his hip against Tampa Bay but was able to play against the Giants.
  24. While the Falcons have had an excellent offensive season, it has come at the expense of balance. Sure, quarterback Matt Ryan has put up MVP-caliber numbers. The rushing attack, however, ranks 30th in the league at 83.3 yards per game. More importantly, Atlanta has had a couple of opportunities to put games away with some short-yardage runs in the fourth quarter, only to be unable to convert. Therefore, it is easy to see why head coach Dan Quinn wants to improve the run game during his team’s final nine-game stretch. Coming out of the bye week, Quinn said there was an emphasis to figure out how Atlanta can improve in this area. When it comes to putting forth the results, there is one problem the Falcons are — no pun intended — running into Sunday. The team they face, Washington, has been excellent at preventing big gains on the ground. Washington has held teams to only 80.1 rushing yards per outing. New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley managed only 38 yards on 13 carries Sunday. Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott was held to 15 carries for 33 yards two weeks ago. While Washington’s strength seemingly would be a deterrent, Quinn said his offense won’t avoid running the ball against the Redskins. Atlanta may simply have to chip away at the run before hitting some big plays. But to be the kind of offense Quinn wants, he doesn’t believe the Falcons should abandon running the ball. “Just because they’re good (against) the run it doesn’t mean, ‘OK, we can’t,’ ” Quinn said.“We’re going to run the ball knowing that is an important part of what we do, as well. They just happen to be one of the very best at defending it. That doesn’t mean we don’t go down that road.” The Redskins’ trio up front is what stands out to most when inquiring about the run defense. Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne and Matt Ioannidis have been as strong in this phase of football as anyone in the league this year. With teams focusing a lot of attention on Allen and Payne, two prior standouts at Alabama, Ioannidis has been able to thrive quite a bit in one-on-one situations (and in passing situations, Ioannidis has been able to accrue a team-high 5.5 sacks). No individual player has been able to total 100 yards in a game, and teams are only averaging a collective 3.8 yards per carry against Washington. “They’ve got a lot of talent up front. They play really hard,” center Alex Mack said. “They’re big, strong guys. The whole defense plays well together, so that’s a bad combination in that it makes it difficult.” Outside of a win over Carolina (170 rushing yards), the Falcons have not been able to show much consistency running the ball. Tevin Coleman has averaged only 3.8 yards per carry this season, which, to date, is his career low in a season. Rookie backup running back Ito Smith has averaged 3 yards per carry. Ryan mentioned that Washington’s size up front — the starting line averages 6-foot-3 and 306 pounds — will be tough to contend with since so much space that normally would be there to run through is taken up. “When you’re going against a team like that, our execution becomes even more important — how we go out there, trust our technique, get in the right spots and play with really good pad level up front,” Ryan said. “That’s going to be critical for us to play well against a good defense.” The Falcons were in the top 15 in rushing the past two seasons. Running the ball is typically a point of pride for offensive linemen, with the Falcons feeling the need to show improvement now that the bye week is behind them. It will be quite the challenge to do so against Washington. “As long as if we play sound and do our jobs and go back to our fundamentals and go back to our technique, that thing will take care of itself,” right guard Ben Garland said. “It’s focusing on every play and doing it to the best of your ability. You’ll get there if you do everything right.” Beadles takes in first practice Zane Beadles made sure to keep himself active while waiting for an NFL team to call. Beadles, who was with a team for the past eight years, didn’t have an organization to play for once training camp rolled around. When the regular season started, he still didn’t have any suitors. Even so, Beadles continued to train in Orange County, California, hoping a team would eventually reach out. With the Falcons losing guard Brandon Fusco (broken ankle) for the season, Beadles finally got a workout invitation followed by a contract offer. That wasn’t something the veteran lineman, who reached the 2012 Pro Bowl, was used to. “It was hard at times, and it was a little bit of a blessing in disguise sometimes, too,” Beadles said. “I was able to train the way I knew I needed to for my body and be feeling good physically, so when an opportunity would come, I could run with it.” Beadles brings “fresh legs” to the franchise since he wasn’t beat up through training camp and during the first seven games of the year. At the same time, he has to learn the Falcons’ offense and gain chemistry with his teammates. He did note that his most recent team, San Francisco, runs a similar system up front, given that previous Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is the head coach with the 49ers. “There will definitely be some learning, being out for a while and not hearing it over and over, little tweaks here and there,” Beadles said. “But overall, it’s a lot of the same terminology.” While most of Beadles’ playing experience has come at left guard, Quinn said Beadles will start with the team at tackle. Once he gets comfortable there, Beadles could move to another spot. “Bringing Zane in was something that we had on the back burner in case this situation came up because he’s got plenty of experience, and we look forward to adding him to the mix,” Quinn said. “Certainly a bright guy, over the last couple of days getting the chance to meet him and being around the guys.” Jones rehabs during practice Linebacker Deion Jones was outside but off to the side at practice Wednesday, getting some rehab work in with a team trainer. This is a good sign that Jones remains on track to return to the playing field not too long after he is eligible to. Jones, who was placed on injured reserve after a season-opening loss to Philadelphia, must miss the game against Washington and the game next week at Cleveland. He will become eligible to play again Nov. 18 against Dallas. Jones did some change-of-direction work and ladder drills while his teammates practiced. Quinn previously told The Athletic’s Jeff Schultz that if everything progresses well with Jones, he will partake as a limited participant in seven-on-seven drills while the team prepares for the Browns next week. Jones wasn’t listed on the team’s injury report Wednesday since he is still on injured reserve and not on the 53-man roster. As for those on the active roster, cornerback Robert Alford (ankle) and place-kicker Matt Bryant (right hamstring) did not participate in practice Wednesday. Mack (back), wide receiver Mohamed Sanu (hip), defensive tackle Deadrin Senat (neck/shoulder) and cornerback Justin Bethel (back) were limited.
  25. With hopes of rekindling the magic of his eye-popping numbers from 2016, the Falcons wanted to move Vic Beasley back to a full-time role on the defensive line. When the Falcons went to the Super Bowl two seasons ago, Beasley totaled 15.5 sacks and was named to his only Pro Bowl in his first three seasons. The former first-round pick’s trajectory appeared set for great heights after that second year in Atlanta, considering the statistics he was able to accrue. Thus far in 2018, Beasley is cognizant of the fact he hasn’t put up the numbers most people, including himself, expected in his fourth season. Through seven games, Beasley has one sack and three quarterback hits. “The production isn’t what I want, but I think I’m working hard, practicing hard and playing hard,” Beasley said. “I just have to continue to remain optimistic, hoping things will come my way with production. Regardless, if the team is winning, I’m excited and happy.” One area the Falcons certainly hope to have improved off of the bye week is with their pass rush. While Atlanta recorded four sacks against the New York Giants in its last outing, it ranks 28th in the NFL with 14 for the year. A big part of improving the team’s lack of pass rush is for Beasley to get after the quarterback. His counterpart, Takk McKinley, has 5.5 sacks. If Beasley can start matching his numbers on the opposite side — or even on the same side in certain packages — that could help an Atlanta defense that has had a hard time slowing teams down. “I have some misses,” Beasley said. “One was taken away because (Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton threw the ball away) before the sack. I just have to remain optimistic. They’re playing well, but I have to continue going hard.” It has been suggested that Beasley should develop another move or two to help combat some of the blocks he has received on his speed rushes. At the same time, Beasley doesn’t want to get caught freewheeling within the confines of Atlanta’s defensive scheme. Regardless, Beasley is mindful that he has to do a better job getting to the quarterback quicker. “The sequence of games, the sequence of our defense and the plays we have run kind of limit me from doing certain things,” he said. “But for the most part, when I have the opportunities, I can try to use those moves.” One area that could help Beasley out is by getting defensive tackle Grady Jarrett even healthier after the bye. Jarrett returned from a sprained ankle for Atlanta’s game against the Giants, which immediately bolstered the team’s pass rush. With Jarrett commanding more attention, perhaps Beasley can be freed up for more chances to win one-on-one matchups on the edge. On top of that, the Falcons should be getting linebacker Deion Jones back in the next few weeks. The earliest Jones, who injured his first in the season opener against Philadelphia, can return is against Dallas on Nov. 18. While Beasley could have pointed to the injuries around him as a reason why his numbers have suffered, he said it is on him to correct this trend during the next nine weeks. “We’ve had guys step up and have been playing great thus far,” Beasley said. “As guys continue to improve, we’ll be all right.” No trades on the horizon With the trade deadline looming Tuesday, it doesn’t appear the Falcons will look to the outside to add any pieces to their roster. On Monday, head coach Dan Quinn said the franchise is good with where the roster stands at the present time. This follows the Falcons’ line of thinking from when injuries began to pile up earlier in the year, specifically with the defensive side of the ball. After Atlanta lost both Keanu Neal (ACL) and Ricardo Allen (Achilles) to season-ending injuries, the Falcons promoted Damontae Kazee to starting free safety and Jordan Richards to strong safety. Sharrod Neasman, who had previous experience with the team, was brought in via free agency to assist with depth at safety. At offensive line, the Falcons could have looked to add an interior lineman via trade after Brandon Fusco broke his ankle against the Giants. Instead, Atlanta signed Austin Pasztor and Rees Odhiambo to fill in as reserves up front with Wes Schweitzer and Ben Garland manning the starting positions. It is clear the Falcons are preferring familiarity with what they want to do as opposed to adding just anyone to the roster. “Thomas (Dimitroff) and I certainly discussed options, and he obviously fields calls for our team and other teams,” Quinn said. “People do reach out. But we really feel like this team that we have, and where we’re at, and how we can go and attack from here, we’ve got the right men in the building to do that.” Bryant not ruled out … yet Judging by his tone of voice, Quinn seemed pleasantly surprised by place-kicker Matt Bryant’s prognosis for the beginning of the week. By no means does this mean Bryant is on track for a return Sunday against Washington. But Quinn said Bryant did a good job with his rehab during the bye. “You know what? I think (the bye week) treated him well,” Quinn said. “The reason I say that is he’s making a turn for the better. We’re not going to rule him out this week. We’ll see where it goes through Thursday afternoon. That’s usually the day he gets most of his kicking.” Bryant injured his right hamstring during a 57-yard field goal late that put Atlanta up 34-29 against Tampa Bay two games ago. The made field goal forced the Buccaneers to go for a touchdown on their final drive, and they came up short. With Bryant missing Atlanta’s previous against the Giants, Giorgio Tavecchio filled in and ended up starring in a win. Tavecchio won that week’s NFC’s Special Teams Player of the Week award after making field goals from 40, 50 and 56 yards. While Tavecchio is clearly a quality place-kicker, this will be Bryant’s job once he is cleared to participate in games again. While returning for the Redskins game does seem to be a stretch, perhaps Bryant doesn’t have too many weeks left to sit out. “The thing I was fired up about is he’s closer than he was last week by quite a bit,” Quinn said. “He really worked his tail off in the off week to get his strength right. You don’t really know with a hamstring until you go. It’s like running, he has to test his power a bit.”