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  1. Ouch! With Ryan, Jones, Freeman, Falcons are spending too much money for popgun offense (The Athletic) PHILADELPHIA — So this is what everybody waited eight months for? An offense that not long ago scorched defenses and lit up the sky like a never-ending fireworks display returned eight months after a playoff splat and too often played like an old, broken Victrola. The defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles have their Philly special. The Falcons have their Atlanta special. It provides heartburn and maybe a field goal. First possession: First-and-goal at the Philadelphia 6 and three shots from the 1. No touchdown. Second possession: First-and-goal at the 10. No touchdown. Five – five – drives punctured the Eagles’ prime scoring territory, and the offense come away with bupkis-field goal-interception-touchdown-bupkis. A total of nine points. For eight months, the Falcons told us they had fixed their problems. They had discovered their flaws. They again were going to make us say, “Wow.” Maybe they were talking about the halftime show for the season opener Thursday night. There were Frisbee-catching dogs. One made a catch at the 3-yard line and walked into the end zone. See? Not so hard. Sign him. Either to play or call plays. The Falcons lost their opener to the Eagles 18-12. It looked a lot like their 15-10 playoff exit in January on the same field. The 2017 season died at the 2-yard line after a fourth-down incompletion that was intended for Julio Jones in the right corner of the end zone. This time, the incompletion came from the 1 on the left side of the end zone. Ryan’s throw was off target, and Jones made the catch, but out of bounds. What does it say that coaches, including offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, and players devoted most of the attention to fixing the problems and somehow they looked … worse. “I can understand how you’d say that,” head coach Dan Quinn said. “The results didn’t show that (progress) for sure. We’ve got work to do. But by no means am I’m going to say, based on the last eight months, and one night of work …” Quinn lost his train of thought there momentarily … “… Am I disappointed? I am,” he continued. “But by the same token, I do know what we have and the things we worked on, and we’ll get that scenario worked on.” Is it timing or play-calling? “I’ll go back and look. I don’t have a clear answer for you,” Quinn said. There was a lot of backpedaling in the postgame. It resembled what we saw on the field. The Falcons can talk all they want about the “Brotherhood” and their work ethic and hanging together in difficult times. But it rings hollow if you can’t fix your problems, especially with this kind of talent. Ryan had a lousy game. He just signed a $150 million contract extension. “I didn’t play well enough,” he said. ” t comes down to when you get chances and you have guys, you gotta hit it. I didn’t do a good job of that.” Devonta Freeman looked ordinary. He’s one year into a $41 million contract. Jones, who skipped OTAs and mini-camp and then got a little salary bump to come to training camp on time, wants a rewrite at the midway point of his $71 million contract. He had 10 catches for 169 yards, but he and Ryan failed to connect in the red zone and appeared on different pages on a third-down pass from the Eagles’ 15 that resulted in an interception. Jones ran his route deep. Ryan threw short. Interception. Jones said he turned around and lost the ball in the lights. Ryan said he “put too much touch on the ball. If I throw it on a line or a little higher, it gives him a chance to make the play.” Jones may have been covering for Ryan. Doesn’t matter. Pick your excuse. Nothing washes. With Ryan, Jones, Freeman, Mohamed Sanu, Calvin Ridley, Tevin Coleman and Austin Hooper, 25 points per game shouldn’t be a problem, and 30 should be the norm. This is unmitigated failure. The defense is fine. The defense held Philly to fewer than 100 yards into the third quarter. The Falcons led at that time only 6-3. That’s a problem. That’s a sign no progress has been made. “Y’all can say that,” Jones said. “But that’s a great defense over there. That’s a great team. You’re not going to just score at will on teams. They won the Super Bowl for a reason.” Try this, Julio: The Falcons have scored two touchdowns in their past eight quarters and eight red-zone situations. Maybe that’s for reasons other than Philadelphia’s defense. Quinn said he doesn’t believe holding Jones and Freeman out of preseason games impacted the offense’s timing in the red zone. Really? Where’s the proof? He said one game shouldn’t suggest significant progress hasn’t been made. So what does it suggest? In the preseason, the Falcons players and coaches said it didn’t matter. Now it matters. Now they even have ex-Falcons banging on them. Their former longtime center Todd McClure tweeted, “Does not resemble a pro football offense to (sic) much talent for Pop Warner plays.” Their former wide receiver Brian Finneran tweeted, “WR screen is my favorite play ever! Said no one ever in the NFL.” (Also, “Screen play with a 3-man rush.”) Sarkisian does fine calling plays between the 20s. The Falcons get plenty of pretty yards. Then they hit a wall. The Eagles’ defense seemed to know what was coming. “I don’t think so,” Ryan said. “I think we just didn’t make the plays when we had the opportunities.” Overthrows. Drops. Penalties. All this for eight months of work. On paper, Atlanta is a Super Bowl team. On the field, the Falcons are still a bit of a mess.
  2. **** Butkus, gentle soul and wallflower that he was, never struggled to justify his level of destruction on a football field. “When I played pro football,” Butkus said, “I never set out to hurt anyone deliberately. Unless it was, you know, important, like a league game or something.” The NFL has a problem. For years, it ignored the obvious signs and scientific evidence that football collisions in general and head injuries and concussions in particular had a cumulative effect, leading to possible permanent brain injuries like CTE. Had league officials not operated with blinders several years ago, the NFL would not be in this position, forced to suddenly jam new rules in place and somewhat exaggerate their definitions of them, like we’re witnessing in this preseason. Falcons safety Keanu Neal was slapped with a personal foul penalty for “lowering his head to initiate contact” against Kansas City. It was a poor call for anybody who saw the play. Neal went over the top of Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt. Falcons ead coach Dan Quinn disagreed with the penalty. That’s one of nearly two dozen penalties that have been called in the preseason for leading with the helmet or roughing the passer, which has been expanded to include a defender pushing the quarterback into the turf. Quinn showed cut ups of some of the penalties to players in a team meeting Tuesday. Even he grimaced at times, not surprising given defense is his calling card. The roughing-the-passer penalty against Minnesota’s Antwione Williams in an exhibition has become Exhibit A for NFL overcompensation. “Most of the defensive lineman were, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ ” Quinn said when asked his reaction in the room. “And the quarterbacks were like, ‘Yeah, that’s a good call.’ They’ll always be that side of it.” He was smiling. He assumes, or hopes, that the officials are erring to the side of “guilty” in the preseason with plans to roll it back when the season starts. But he’s legitimately concerned about how games will be officiated this season at crucial moments. Like, “That third-down play when it’s a really good hit. If it’s close and there’s a judgment, is that going to be called? We all know like when it’s a clear holding (penalty). I’m hopeful that this turns into just the real obvious calls, where everybody in the stadium would throw out a flag.” That’s not the case now, and there’s really no guarantee officials will either downshift or operate with any consistency from game to game or week to week. Every official may have a different definition of “leading.” Is this going to be like pornography — they’ll know it when they see it? Neal is a little worried. He said the new rules have a “gray area.” He also believes that as one of the league’s top hitters, he may have a target on his back. “There’s been some calls that, personally, I think shouldn’t have been called, and there’s some where I think, ‘OK, I see that,’ ” he said. “Maybe they’re just overemphasizing it now because it’s the preseason. Hopefully they get it fixed.” When asked about the call against Williams, Neal said, “It’s a physical sport. It’s a contact sport. It’s what we’ve always played and what we signed up for. It’s kind of tough to take the physicality out of the game.” Is he concerned, especially given his own reputation? “To a certain extent. When you see a hard hit, it kind of throws up a red flag, like, ‘Was he leaning with his head? Was he not?’ Any hard hit would trigger (a referee),” he said. “Seeing it from the ref’s standpoint, it’s tough to call that. But I’ve just got to keep playing my ball and do what I do. The calls will come my way sometimes, and sometimes they won’t.” It’s an obvious concern around the league. Indianapolis released Shamarko Thomas after he was ejected from a preseason game for a helmet penalty. Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer said if new rules continue to be enforced at this level, “It’s going to cost some people some jobs. Playoffs, jobs, the whole bit, I guess.” The Chicago Bears, during protracted contract negotiations with first-round pick Roquan Smith from Georgia, attempted to have potential fine money for hits taken out of the guaranteed portion of the player’s contract. (They eventually folded.) The NFL is right to want to make the game safer, particularly with the intent of reducing head injuries. But rules need to be realistic, and officials must understand the game will always come with inherit risk. Concerns about tackle football morphing into flag football might be overstated, but they might not. As Richard Sherman Tweeted, “Even in a perfect form tackle the body is led by the head. The rule is idiotic and should be dismissed immediately. When you watch rugby players tackle they are still leading by their head. Will be flag football soon.” Neal has been playing football in pads since he was 7 years old. He said he actually didn’t enjoy the collisions at this age but changed by the time he was in middle school. “I guess I grew into it,” he said. “When there’s something that you do for a long time, it’s hard to break out of it.”
  3. Schultz: Quinn finding comfort level with Sarkisian on field now Jeff Schultz Because last season died in the red zone in Philadelphia, and because Steve Sarkisian was perceived by some as the Falcons’ worst first-year, play-caller since, well, the previous one, and because even with questions about the offense there was still debate as to whether the team erred spending a first-round pick on a wide receiver and not a defensive lineman … OK, cleansing breath time. The view of the Falcons’ offense improved significantly Friday night. Granted, this is still exhibition football. It’s the time of year when the NFL sells a counterfeit product for full retail. Any declarative statement is foolish. But if the offense looked lousy for the second straight week, alarms would’ve gone off from Moultrie to Calhoun. And so, here goes: The starting and No. 2 offenses, directed by Sarkisian, looked strong against Kansas City, despite the absences of Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman. Matt Ryan completed 5-of-7 passes for 90 yards and touchdown in two series, and he and Matt Schaub converted two of three red zone possessions into TDs in the first half. Ridley, the first-round draft pick taken over Florida defensive tackle Taven Bryan, looked like a difference-maker. He made his debut as a kickoff returner and returned one 34 yards. He also had three catches for 49 yards in the first half, including a 7-yard touchdown in traffic on third-and-goal from Schaub and a 36-yarder over the middle from Ryan. The Falcons’ regulars took a 14-3 lead over the Chiefs. The roster’s remainders lost the game 28-14. Whatever. About Sarkisian The most positive sign coming out of this exhibition might not have been Ridley but rather the Sarkisian-Greg Knapp dynamic. Sarkisian’s occasional struggles last season have been well-chronicled. What hasn’t been discussed as much is that he spent most of his college career calling plays from the field. Most NFL offensive coordinators tend to be in the press box. Sarkisian began last season on the field but was sent upstairs after a few weeks by Quinn after the offense struggled. In the first two exhibitions, Sarkisian has been back on the field, and it may stay that way. The addition of Knapp as the quarterback coach has helped because he has been an offensive coordinator for much of his career and is accustomed to seeing the game from upstairs. Quinn suggested he has a comfort level with Sarkisian downstairs now that he didn’t have in 2017. Quinn said of Knapp, “His eyes in the press box are really valuable. He gives instant feedback on the way (the defense) is playing somebody. Sometimes in the first 15 plays or so, that’s what you’re looking for. Greg is very quick to see that.” He suggested Sarkisian prefers being on the field, anyway, saying, “He has more experience that way. All of his time in college he did it that way. … As it stands, I’m comfortable with how that looks. We said after this game that we would evaluate it.” Also noteworthy Friday was that Sarkisian called several play-action plays. That was a staple of the offense in 2016 (27 percent of snaps, according to Football Outsiders) but less so in 2017 (22 percent, which represented the biggest percentage drop of any team). One of the early play-action plays saw Ryan bootleg left after the fake and throw a 4-yard touchdown to tight end Austin Hooper on the opening possession. Quinn on the play-action, “I definitely want to make sure that’s (one) of our priorities. When the run game and the play-action go hand-in-hand, it’s such a challenge for the defense. We want to make sure we stay connected to that. You’ll see more of that for sure.” On Ridley Ridley was dynamic at Alabama, but offseason losses on the defensive line led many to wonder why they drafted a wide receiver over a lineman, like Bryan. But Ridley was impressive in his first home game, both as a returner and receiver. Jones watched and tutored him from the sideline. “He did a great job for us,” Jones said. “One of the things we talked about was (controlling his) adrenaline. He just has to get acclimated from the practice to the game. But he made some plays, and now he just has to build on that.” On his mentoring role, Jones said, “I always try to talk to him afterward. I don’t want to coach him on the field. I’ll sit down and watch film with him and ask him what he felt. I don’t want to give him too much information on the field because it kind of messes you up there.” I asked Quinn about Ridley’s ability to find the open spot in Kansas City’s coverage at the goal line from his 7-yard touchdown. “And just knowing where the leverage of the (defender) is knowing not to move,” he said “He’s come to the team from college pretty equipped from a learning standpoint. He was playing in an offense that was as close to a pro-style as there is.” So it wasn’t a meaningless night in a meaningless game.
  4. These have been life-altering months for Matt Ryan. In April, he and his wife Sarah announced the birth of their twin boys, following a difficult pregnancy that included the impending father resting for a playoff game while on a hospital bed. In June, the Falcons gave their quarterback an NFL record $150 million contract, reaffirming generations of Ryans should never struggle to pay for diapers or onesies, even if wealth didn’t seclude him from the every-day realities of fatherhood. Sleepless nights. Disrupted days. Spit-up on the shirts. Etc. Lots of etc. “I’ve been up through the night,” Ryan said. “Helping out, getting the bottles, the stuff every parent goes through.” Yes. All the … stuff. “There’s only two people in the world that are allowed to **** on me,” he joked. Then he referenced Marshall and Johnson, his two not-quite-six-month-olds, a set of bookend rushers who have learned how to weaponize their body parts and attack their father from the blindside. “Been pee’d on, too,” Ryan said. “You gotta cover (that area). But when you’re trying to do two at once and they’re screaming, sometimes you’re just like, ‘Whatever. …’ ” This might not seem like relevant insight going into Ryan’s 11th NFL season. But the success of any professional athlete, particularly at a position as demanding as quarterback, hinges on his ability to shut out outside distractions. Few have done that as well as Ryan, who owns every major passing record in franchise history, led the Falcons to the Super Bowl during an MVP season two years ago, with any logical ending should have a championship ring on his finger and last season played a playoff game after studying and sleeping in Northside Hospital, where Sarah resided for seven weeks. Ryan said his difficult days leading up to the Philadelphia playoff game are not the reason the Falcons lost. He said he was “locked in” when he was on the field in the game, even through the obvious distractions of Sarah being in the hospital. “It was a trying week. But I actually thought I played pretty well,” he said. The 15-10 loss was a microcosm of the 2017 season, a game that could’ve been won with better red zone production. The Falcons’ season died with a goal-to-go drive that ended on the Eagles’ 9-yard line. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian was targeted for much of the criticism, but Ryan said, “From a players’ perspective, we had to make more plays. We have to take ownership, whether it’s make a better throw, come down with the catch or make a better decision in certain situations.” He includes himself. His numbers against one of the NFL’s strongest defenses – 22-for-36, 210 yards – were solid, not spectacular. If his preparation was off just a tad, there’s a reason. He had spoken in April about Sarah being hospitalized because of complications in the pregnancy and his two infant sons remaining in Northside Hospital for several weeks until doctors believed they were strong enough to be taken home. But Ryan went into more detail Tuesday about trials of that game week. It began on Tuesday, Jan. 9, five days before the game. Ryan received a phone call at 8:15 a.m., just 15 minutes into the quarterbacks’ meeting at the team’s Flowery Branch facility. After a routine exam early that morning, Sarah was told she needed to check into the hospital immediately. She required bed rest through the remainder of the pregnancy. “I was in the meeting room at 8, got a call at 8:15, and I was on the way,” Ryan said. He missed practice and meetings Tuesday (the team announced he was excused for personal reasons). He practiced and attended meetings Wednesday and Thursday, the last two major work days of the week before the travel day to Philadelphia. But there was nothing normal about the week. Instead of returning home after practice and meetings, he would drive to Northside to be with Sarah and slept on a hospital bed. He watched video and went over the game plans on his laptop in his makeshift meeting room. “You talk about trying to be as efficient with your time as you can, (but) you’re setting up a little mini office in Northside Hospital,” he said. “It was difficult. Amy time there’s complications with the pregnancy, regardless of what time of the year it is, that’s not fun. It’s scary because you really don’t have any control over it. So that part was nerve-wracking. But I had a lot of support that week – from the organization, from teammates, from family. They helped me navigate that week to have the best possible week, professionally and personally.” Great athletes can compartmentalize things in their personal lives. Some things are more difficult than others to put on a shelf. “It’s hard because your mind’s never really off what’s going on, no matter how hard you try,” he said. “We’re human. While (football) is one of the most important things in my life, and I’m committed to it, my children and my wife are more important to me than that. That takes precedent. People understand that.” Today is bliss. Sarah is doing splendid. The twins are sleeping through the night. Contract negotiations also have been put to bed. (Sarah, an entertaining follow on Twitter and Instagram, recently posted a picture of Ryan holding one of the boys and looking out the window, with the caption: “My guess as to what Matt was thinking as he longingly gazed out the window… “Training camp will be a breeze compared to this…”) The only thing missing from this perfect picture is a championship. But Ryan and the Falcons have come close before, and he has a good feeling about this team. He loves the addition of Calvin Ridley, the work put in this offseason by tight end Austin Hooper, the plans for how receiver Mohamed Sanu and running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman will be utilized. And, yes, the players and Sarkisian are “further along” than they were a year ago. The Falcons don’t need to score 540 points in the regular season like they did in 2016. Those were video game numbers. But they need to function better in the red zone and in key situations than last year, when they dipped to 353 points. What makes Ryan so certain this season will be better? “The consistency in practice,” he said. “There’s a feel, there’s an energy, and the good teams I’ve been on have felt that way. Production during practice to me is the first step to production during games, and I feel we’ve been productive during practice.” He defended Sarkisian, who has been any disgruntled fan’s favorite punching bag. “Sark has a much better feel for all of us and our skill sets and how to utilize that, and we have a better feel for why he’s calling certain things in situations,” Ryan said. “Those things together eliminate any gray area.” There’s a belief that this is the Falcons’ prime window to win a championship and that they need take advantage of these years. Ryan doesn’t dispute that, other than to say, “From a player’s perspective, the window is always one year.” Maybe this one will be less chaotic at the end.
  5. Not long after the NFL season ended, Vic Beasley took a trip. This wasn’t the typical, get-away-from it all excursion for football players, which often includes beach, sun, water, lounge chair and some sort of aqua blue drink with an umbrella out of a smoking coconut. But rather, it was a spiritual trip to the Holy Land. “I went to Israel,” Beasley said. “I’m a pretty religious guy, and it’s some place I always wanted to visit, given my beliefs. See where Christ grew up. See Tel Aviv, Jerusalem. Go to The Wall. See things in person that you actually read about, see what you worship. It was a special moment. An amazing experience.” Beasley was back on less holy land Wednesday: Flowery Branch. As the Falcons’ best edge pass rusher, he’s back trying to find his way, in the less spiritual sense. It’s about sacks. As much as some believe sack totals can be misleading, you’ll seldom see a team that’s piling up sacks and losing games. Those roads rarely intersect. Since being drafted in the first round out of Clemson in 2015, Beasley has had a confounding string of NFL seasons. In Year 1, he had only four sacks and two forced fumbles. (The Falcons finished 8-8.) In Year 2, he had a league-leading 15½ sacks and six forced fumbles and earned All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors. (The Falcons went 11-5, won the NFC South and went to the Super Bowl.) In Year 3, Beasley dropped to five sacks and one forced fumble. (The Falcons went 10-6, finish third in the division and lost in the second round of the playoffs.) Notwithstanding all of the attention paid to the drop in production by the offense, the clear truth is that sacks equal success. Sacks lead to turnovers, which give the ball back to the offense for more possessions. The Falcons had that in 2016 (22 takeaways) but not as much in 2017 (16). There are extenuating circumstances to Beasley’s roller-coaster numbers. In his first season, he was learning. In his second, it all clicked, and he understood he wasn’t playing Boston College and Wake Forest any more. In his third, he missed two games early with a partially torn hamstring. Then Duke Riley suffered a knee injury, prompting coaches to move Beasley to outside linebacker, giving him responsibilities other than terrorizing quarterbacks. But excuses for last season aside, he needs to be better. He knows that. The coaches know that. They’ve told him that. “From a production standpoint — yeah, that’s something that our team relies on, and Vic’s aware of that,” head coach Dan Quinn said. Beasley said sack numbers can be misleading, adding, “Even if you have a lot of sacks, it doesn’t mean you or the team had a good year.” But … “But shoot, I’m a dog. I want to put up numbers.” So you’re saying it is about numbers? “Who doesn’t want to put up numbers? Obviously, you want to win; you don’t want to take away from the team. But you know that if you put up numbers, you’ve been a dog out there.” (That’s dog in a good way.) Beasley looks back at 2017 and says, “I felt like I could have had a little bit more production. But that’s just motivation for me for the next year. I want to lead the league in sacks again.” Beasley traveled to Israel with a half-dozen NFL players in a trip put together by the non-profit group American Voices. He visited holy and historical sites, the Gaza strip border, saw an attack tunnel dug by terrorists and met with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Beasley’s spirituality, he said, has taught him to be “more accountable and not take things for granted.” Transition to football here . . . Quinn has spoken to Beasley about what’s expected of him this season. The Falcons are expected to have one of the NFL’s best defenses, but the team is depending heavily on a more active pass rush than a year ago. Harried quarterbacks make mistakes and mistakes lead to turnovers. Quinn invited former Falcons pass rusher Patrick Kerney to camp this week, along with Chuck Smith, to work with Beasley, Takk McKinley, Brooks Reed and Derrick Shelby. Quinn and Kerney overlapped one year in Seattle (2009), and the coach referred to the former All-Pro as “one of the most detailed players I’ve ever coached.” Quinn acknowledged Beasley’s injury and position change last season, but Quinn didn’t go out of his way to make excuses for Beasley’s lower sack total. “He has to be consistent, using the technique and the speed that he has. He has the ability to get the ball out.” An NFL team’s success is never about one player, but there may be only two Falcons with the ability to impact the team as much this season: Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. If Beasley returns to form, the Falcons have the ability to return to the Super Bowl. It’s their sport’s promised land, and it would be a much shorter trip for Beasley. The game is in Atlanta.