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  1. Link to Article I didn't realize all about Senat. Bless his heart. I know Falcons teammates will welcome him into their family. Atlanta Falcons INSIDE SLANT Inside Slant | Notes, Quotes | Strategy and Personnel | Player Wire Falcons 2018 draft: WR Ridley out to prove himself The Atlanta Falcons went offense early before trying to fill some holes on defense. Falcons head coach Dan Quinn got offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who had a porous first season in his position, a new weapon in wide receiver Calvin Ridley, before going after a big cornerback and then filling the biggest draft need at defensive tackle. The Falcons added Ridley to essentially replace Taylor Gabriel, who was allowed to leave in free agency. He received a lucrative deal with the Chicago Bears. The Falcons could have taken Florida defensive tackle Taven Bryan, who went to Jacksonville three picks later, to fill the hole created by the decision to let defensive tackle Dontari Poe leave in free agency. He signed with Carolina. In the second round, they selected Colorado cornerback Isaiah Oliver, who at 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, will be expected to match up against some of the big receivers in the NFC South. South Florida defensive tackle Deadrin Senat was selected in the third round, 90th overall to fill the defensive tackle hole. The Ridley selection made sense because last season there was a drastic drop in several key statistical areas under Sarkisian, who hadn't been in the NFL since 2005 and never was a full-time NFL play-caller. He spent part of the 2016 college football season at Alabama and worked with Ridley. "He was really cool," Ridley said. "He was trying to get me that ball before he left, I knew that." In 2016, the offense averaged 33.8 points per game under coordinator Kyle Shanahan and dropped to 22.1 last season, which ranked 15th, nearly out of the top half of the league. The Falcons fell off drastically inside the opposition's 20-yard line, the so-called red zone. They were 64.5 percent in 2016, which ranked eighth in the NFL. Under Sarkisian, they were 49.1 and ranked 23rd. Along with inconsistent play from tight end Austin Hooper, the Falcons missed the big-play ability of Gabriel. Gabriel's job was to make teams pay for double-teaming Jones as he did in 2016. That role will now shift to Ridley, whose catch-production at Alabama declined in each of his three years. He went from 89 catches to 72 and then only had 63 last season. He had 1,045 yards as a freshman, 769 yards as a sophomore and 963 last season. Some attribute his decline in catches to the inability of quarterback Jalen Hurts to get him the ball. Hurts was eventually pulled by head coach Nick Saban in the national championship game against Georgia. The Crimson Tide rallied to a 26-20 overtime victory, with Ridley scoring the game-tying touchdown that forced overtime. There was also the matter of 20 dropped passes over his career. The Falcons led the league in dropped passes last season along with San Francisco. "There is no question that we're pretty honed in on that," Quinn said. "We understand that people are going to have their drops, they're going to have their missed plays. In our mind, he far outweighed that in his ability to do what we want him to do. We like his hands a lot, and think he can be big-time playmaker." Ridley, who thought he should have been taken higher in the draft, comes to Atlanta with a chip on his shoulder. "I'm going to prove a lot of people wrong," Ridley said. "I'm very excited to be coming there with Julio (Jones)." Ridley dropped in the draft because of questions about his ability to get off the line of scrimmage against press man-to-man coverage. Some teams believed he was solely a slot receiver. "I felt I could have been picked way before (the 26th pick)," Ridley said. "I'm going to work hard and prove everybody wrong. Those people who doubted me, I'm going to make everybody a believer." The Falcons will count on Ridley to put some big-plays back into the attack. Notes, Quotes South Florida defensive tackle Deadrin Senat was selected in the third round, 90th overall, by the Falcons on Friday in the NFL draft. But he had mixed emotions. "It hurts," Senat said. "I see everybody else with their mom and their dad and I don't have my dad to talk to me. I'm real secretive. I don't put nobody in my business, but family means everything to me. I just don't let anybody in and call them family." Both of Senat's parents are deceased. His mother, Judy, who had diabetes, passed away after complications from a spider bite after she walked home two miles from her job at Popeyes. "She just collapsed," Senat said. His father, Guy, passed away from lung cancer in a hospice. "I was 20 when my dad passed," Senat said. "I went down (to Immokalee, Fla.) mid-week and his last words were to move my sister and her kids up to Tampa with me. I told him I didn't know if I would be able to do it. He said just do it, so I can stay close to my sister. He told me he was giving up. He told me don't miss a game." The Falcons' personnel brain trust, including defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel, flew to Boulder, Colo. on owner Arthur Blank's private plane to hold a private workout for eventual second-round pick Isaiah Oliver on March 14. "They all came out," Oliver said. "We just did a little bit of a workout, me and some of my teammates as well. I felt like the workout went really well. "It was pretty soon after my Pro Day, if I remember correctly. So, it was my first workout. We got some good work in. I really like them and meeting all of them there." His father, Muhammad, played cornerback at Oregon and was a world-class decathlete. He was selected in the ninth round of the 1992 NFL draft by Denver and played five seasons in the NFL. "He taught me a lot," Oliver said. "He was my coach growing up in all of the sports that I (played). He just really taught me everything that I first learned about football." He competed two seasons in the decathlon on Colorado's track team. "That was something that I fell in love with, track and field, but football has always been my love," Oliver said. "I will always do football before anything else." The last player to be selected from the University of Colorado by the Falcons was Don Holmes in the 12th round of the 1984 draft. The Falcons prioritizing running back depth behind Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. The result was the selection of Ito Smith, a quick-twitched running back from Southern Mississippi, in the fourth round (126 overall). Smith fits the versatile mold of the Falcons' top two backs. He doesn't profile as a lead rusher, but expects to be another weapon on third down. He'll replace Terron Ward, who wasn't re-signed, as the team's third back. "I probably compare to (49ers running back) Jerick McKinnon," Smith said. "A guy that can do it all: catch out of the backfield, run routes, block, play special teams, run the ball." The 5-foot-9, 195-pound Smith was electric throughout his four years at Southern Mississippi, culminating in a first-team All-Conference USA selection his senior year. He led the Golden Eagles in rushing three straight seasons. "Stop-start running back, really good running skills," general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "Catches the ball well. Has return ability. He's a versatile guy and fits in very well with our offense." Strategy &Personnel A closer look at the Falcons' picks: Round 1/26 - Calvin Ridley, WR, 6-0, 189, Alabama The Falcons needed a replacement for Taylor Gabriel, who left in free agency. Ridley is a bigger version and is just as fast. He finished second in Alabama history in receptions with 224 and receiving touchdowns with 19 while he ranked third in receiving yards with 2,781. He was named first-team All-SEC by the coaches last season. Round 2/58 - Isaiah Oliver, CB, 6-1, 190, Colorado He entered the NFL draft after his junior season. He recorded 32 pass breakups and tied for the 10th most in school history. He also had three interceptions. In his career at Colorado, he played in 37 games and made 16 starts. He has played with four defensive backs, who have made NFL rosters: Chidobe Awuzie (Cowboys), Kenneth Crawley (Saints), Tedric Thompson (Seahawks) and Ahkello Witherspoon (49ers). Round 3/90 - Deadrin Senat, DT, 6-0, 314, South Florida Senat is shorter in stature, but his weight is well distributed. He is strong at the point of attack and can play two gaps and fight through double teams. He has a high motor. He flashes where he can dominate the action and has the hand strength and agility to be disruptive. Round 4/126 - Ito Smith, RB, 5-9, 195, Southern Mississippi Smith joined Southern Mississippi as a three-star recruit. He started 13 games over his first two years, including a 1,000-yard sophomore season, before breaking out in his junior campaign. Smith ran for 2,874 yards with 27 touchdowns across his final two seasons. He added 855 yards and four touchdowns on 83 catches. Round 6/194 - Russell Gage, WR, 6-0, 186, Louisiana State Gage recorded a career-best 285 yards and three scores on 21 catches last season. He had just 26 catches in his college career, with three scores. He appeared in 27 games (starting six) in his college career. As a receiver, Gage was the Tigers' third leading rusher last season with 232 yards on 28 carries. He carved out a role as a reliable special-teamer. The Baton Rouge native was a permanent team captain for the Tigers in 2017. Round 6/200 Foyesade Oluokun, LB, 6-2, 230, Yale Oluokun played hybrid linebacker at Yale. He made 50 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception in route to second-team All-Ivy League honors his senior year. He blocked two field-goal attempts against Cornell in 2015, but played in just three games that season due to injury. He posted 75 tackles in 2016. Oluokon's athleticism could him contribute on special teams. PLUG AND PLAY WR Calvin Ridley: He was rated as the top wide receiver in the draft because most teams viewed him as a slot receiver. The Falcons, who like to employ 11 personnel with three wide receivers, viewed him as a starter who can play in the slot and outside in some of their formations. He's a another chess piece to play off of All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones and has the speed to get open deep. WILL SURPRISE LB Foyesade Oluojun: The hybrid linebacker will be expected to add some depth to the linebacker corps. He will have to make an impact on special teams first. WHAT THE ****? RB Ito Smith: The projected seventh-round pick was taken three rounds earlier by the Falcons. They valued his ability to play special teams and perhaps be a returner higher than most teams. Smith said he's comfortable playing in the slot and returning kicks. Head coach Dan Quinn assures he'll get a look at returner. He averaged 21.2 yards per kickoff return in 26 collegiate opportunities, though 21 of those came in his freshman and sophomore seasons.
  2. Link Atlanta Falcons INSIDE SLANT Inside Slant | Notes, Quotes | Strategy and Personnel | Player Wire Next on Falcons' redemption tour: High-flying Eagles Playing with unmatched poise, the Atlanta Falcons were able to upset the Los Angeles Rams in the wild-card round of the NFC playoffs. Last seen in the playoffs, the Falcons, the defending NFC champs, blew a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots. They are determined to get back to the big game and atone for that debacle. The next team in the way is the high-flying and well-rested Philadelphia Eagles, who will have to play with backup quarterback Nick Foles. "We are a battle-tested brotherhood, and that kind of experience I thought certainly showed up (against the Rams)," head coach Dan Quinn said. "We talked to the team about passing the baton between offense, defense, special teams, and I thought you saw a good bit of that." The Falcons are fine with going on the road. "We're starting to play our best ball and be the best version of ourselves, and we recognize we're all an extension of each other," Quinn said. "The best part of our team is the team. We've got another prove-it opportunity this week." The Eagles were off to a 10-2 start when star second-year quarterback Carson Wentz suffered a season-ending knee injury. Foles, who has bounced around the league with three teams and is serving his second stint with the Eagles, will quarterback the Eagles when they face the Falcons in the NFC divisional round of the playoffs at 4:35 p.m. Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field. The Eagles finished 13-3 and won the NFC East division. Wentz had just broken the franchise record for touchdown passes in a season when he went down in a game against the Rams on Dec. 10. The Eagles went on to win 43-25 and improve to 11-2. With Foles at the controls, the Eagles won on the road against the New York Giants (34-29), beat the Raiders (19-10) and lost to the Cowboys (6-0). Foles has completed 57 of 101 passes (56.4 percent) for 537 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions. "Most often the scheme stays the same based on who's playing quarterback," Quinn said. "Now, they may feature certain plays more than another based on who that backup quarterback is. That's what we'll go to see, what's the same and what's different in terms of what they do." Wentz had the Eagles passing attack flourishing at a high level. The top three receivers finished the season with a combined 25 touchdown passes. "Likely there's not a wholesale change unless there was a quarterback that had unbelievable movement or ways to run it more based on who he was," Quinn said. The Eagles' rushing attack is led by LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi, who averaged 5.8 yards per carry after being trading to the Eagles by Miami. Ajayi is the only back to rush for more than 100 yards against the Falcons this season. He rushed 26 times for 130 yards to help the Dolphins defeat the Falcons 20-17 on Oct. 15. At the trading deadline, Ajayi was traded to the Eagles for a fourth-round pick. The Eagles' defense is anchored by three-time Pro Bowler, defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, the former Mississippi State standout. The Eagles finished with 38 sacks this season. Defensive end Brandon Graham led the team with 9.5 sacks. Cox had 5.5 sacks and Chris Long and rookie defensive end Derek Barnett added five each. The Eagles ranked fourth in total yards allowed (306.5 per game), first in rushing yards allowed (79.2), 17th in passing yards allowed (227.3) and fourth in points allowed (18.4). "They've played terrifically this year," Quinn said. "I think if I'm not mistaken, they finished plus-11 in the turnover margin (they did) and finished as the No. 1-ranked rush defense, good job in scoring, so we'll have our work cut out for us for sure." Notes, Quotes The Falcons know the Eagles will be stout. "Each week as you get into the playoffs, it's almost like back to the division games," head coach Dan Quinn said. "In our opinion a lot of times you have to throw some of the stats out and say, 'What's the best thing to do to win this game?' This matchup, how to feature our guys with the matchups that we have the very best, and that's what we'll do putting the game plan together." The Eagles beat the Falcons last season 24-15 on Nov. 13 at Lincoln Financial Field. The Eagles ran the ball for 208 yards and had 152 yards in returns against the Falcons' special teams. "We'll definitely go back and look at last year's as well, knowing from a play-caller standpoint on both sides and on special teams as well, look at all the games this year, and we'll certainly look at our game from last year as well," Quinn said. A staple of the Rams' offense was their screen passes. They were able to complete only 4 of 10 for 29 yards. Running back Todd Gurley, who was their leading receiver with 72 catches for 788 yards, caught four passes for 10 yards. The Falcons slowed down the Rams' outside runs, too. The Falcons allowed just 10 rushing yards outside the tackles all game. The Rams were averaging 46 yards on the perimeter. The Falcons didn't throw the ball down the field much against the Rams, but Matt Ryan's wide receivers were able to get him yards after the catch. The Falcons had a season-low in average depth of target in the win over Carolina at 6.4 yards. The Panthers' wild pass rush forced Ryan to get the ball off quickly. Basically, there was no time for any deep breaking routes. With defensive tackle Aaron Donald on the loose, Ryan had to get rid of the ball even quicker against the Rams. Ryan was even less likely to throw downfield against the Rams with a 4.3 average depth of target, according to profootballfocus.com. With the short passes, the Falcons relied heavily on the receivers getting yards after the catch and they had a season-high 70.6 percent of his passing yards coming after the catch against the Rams. Julio Jones caught all nine of his targets for 94 yards and had 13 yards rushing for 107 yards from scrimmage. Sanu has been targeted 19 times and seven times on third down over the past two games. Sanu had 52 yards after the catch on his screen pass that busted open the game in the fourth quarter. Strategy & Personnel PLAYER NOTES RB Devonta Freeman, who had a troublesome three-game stretch, where he averaged just 1.75 yards after contact and had four fumbles, has pulled through his slump. In the last two games, he's averaged 2.93 yards after contact per carry and hasn't fumbled. CB Brian Poole exemplified the Falcons' commitment to open-field tackling against the Rams. Poole had four tackles and three were for stops, a solo tackle that results in a win for the defense, according to profootballfocus.com. He didn't miss any tackles and has more stops in the passing game (24) than any cornerback in the league this season. LB Deion Jones was strong against the run and in coverage. He finished with 10 tackles and was targeted on six pass plays. Jones allowed three catches for 24 yards, but only five came after the catch. OLB Vic Beasley Jr. recorded his first career sack in the playoffs. Beasley finished the game three tackles. QB Matt Ryan went 21 of 30 for 218 yards and one touchdown, with a 101.8 passer rating. Ryan has thrown 19 touchdowns in nine career playoff games. Ryan has a 102.4 postseason passer rating in his career. The only two qualifying players with a higher mark are Pro Football Hall of Famers Bart Starr (104.8) and Kurt Warner (102.8). REPORT CARD VS. RAMS PASSING OFFENSE: B-plus - Matt Ryan was 21 of 30 for 218 yards and one touchdown. Julio Jones had nine catches for 94 yards and a touchdown. A pass play of 27 yards to Jones sparked the Falcons near the end of the first quarter and led to a 51-yard field goal to make the score 6-0. Ryan didn't have much time and was sacked three times in the first half. The Falcons couldn't overcome poor starting field position in the first half, as Ryan completed 11-of-17 passes for 86 yards. The footing was bad as several players were slipping, including left tackle Jake Matthews on the sack he gave up to Rams outside linebacker Robert Quinn. Ryan slipped on his key touchdown pass to Jones, but had enough on the pass to get it to Jones. RUSHING OFFENSE: C-plus Despite getting stuffed early, the Falcons stayed with the run and eventually things worked out. The Falcons wanted to establish the run against the 28th-ranked run defense in the NFL, but opened the first series with three consecutive passes. Devonta Freeman (eight for 19) and Tevin Coleman (four for 15) combined for 12 carries for a paltry 34 yards in the first half. Freeman had a 3-yard touchdown when center Alex Mack carried him in for the final two yards. Julio Jones' 13-yard reverse was the longest gain of the first half. On the opening drive of the third quarter, Freeman broke loose for a 22-yard gain over the left side of the line. The line started to pound the Rams and eventually wore them down. Freeman rushed 18 times for 66 yards. Coleman 12 times for 37 yards. RUSH DEFENSE: B Todd Gurley rushed 14 times for 101 yards, but he had to earn all of it against a sure-tackling unit. The linebackers did a good job of containing Gurley. He did break loose for a 26-yard gain and for some unknown reason, free safety Ricardo Allen hit him out of bounds. Linebacker Deion Jones did a good job of diagnosing plays and filling his gaps. PASS DEFENSE: C - Cornerback Desmond Trufant had a rough day in coverage. Robert Woods had nine catches for 142 yards with most of it coming with Trufant in coverage. On Cooper Kupp's 14-yard touchdown pass, Woods picked nickel back Brian Poole on the play. On the drive right before the half that resulted in a field goal, Trufant, who struggled for most of the day, was beaten inside by Woods for a 38-yard gain. Alford had a strong game with three tackles and three pass breakups. SPECIAL TEAMS: A - Matt Bryant made 4-of-4 field-goal attempts and the coverage units came up with two turnovers that were converted into 10 points. The Falcons received the first big break of the game when the Rams' Blake Countess touched a Matt Bosher punt that was recovered by LaRoy Reynolds on the Rams' 17-yard line. That led to a field goal after the offense stalled. On the ensuing kickoff, the Falcons committed a special-teams penalty as Damontae Kazee had a block below the waist. Instead of being bottled up at the 17-yard line, the Rams started the drive at the 32-yard line. Kazee made up for it by stripping Rams All-Pro returner Pharoh Cooper, and Kemal Ishmael recovered. COACHING: B The Falcons didn't fix their red-zone issues and had to keep settling for field goals. They entered the game 2-of-9 in the red zone over the previous two games. They were 1-of-3 in the red zone against the Rams after their opening drive to start the second half. The offensive line did come out with some fire after getting pushed around in the first half. The defense made Gurley earn his yards, and second-year quarterback Jared Goff was not able to beat them. Despite some flaws, the Falcons are playing hard in order to overcome any shortcomings. They are going to be a tough out in the playoffs as they appear determined to make it back to the Super Bowl.
  3. Link Atlanta Falcons INSIDE SLANT Inside Slant | Notes, Quotes | Strategy and Personnel | Player Wire Defending champ Falcons claw into NFC playoffs The Atlanta Falcons are back. The Seahawks, Cowboys, Giants, Packers and Lions are not. With a gritty win over the Carolina Panthers, the Falcons became the only team from the NFC to make the playoffs in 2016 and 2017. The Falcons earned their second straight playoff berth - 14th in franchise history - with a 22-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers Sunday. This is also the first time since 2011-12 that the Falcons have recorded back-to-back 10-plus winning seasons and just the third time in franchise history posting back-to-back 10-plus win seasons. Quarterback Matt Ryan is set to return to the playoffs for the sixth time over his 10-year career with the Falcons. "I'm really excited to be in," Ryan said. "Now, we've got more work to do. It's a short week for us." After reaching the Super Bowl last season and losing in historic fashion, the road back to the playoffs was bumpy for the Falcons and Ryan. The offense wasn't always in sync under first-year coordinator Steve Sarkisian. Ryan missed a lot of deep passes. The wide receivers led the league in dropped passes with 28 leading into the final game. There were untimely penalties and even a rash of fumbles late in the season. But when the offense could just get a few things going and manage to get over 20 points, the Falcons were 10-0. "I think we've got a tough football team," Ryan said. "It wasn't perfect throughout the regular season by any stretch of imagination, but we battled and found a way to play ourselves into this situation." The defense has elevated its play this season. "We always say on the defensive side, we don't take nothing around from our offense," free safety Ricardo Allen said. "We are not battling with them, but we want people to know this is a defensive team too. "This is a three-headed monster. You have to fight our offense, defense and special teams. You not only have to play against Julio (Jones) and Matt (Ryan). You have to worry about us also." Ryan guided the Falcons to the playoffs as a rookie in 2008. With a strong rushing attack behind Michael Turner, the Falcons finished 11-5. The Falcons didn't return in 2009, but Ryan led them back in 2010, 2011 and 2012. The 2012 team came within six yards of going to the Super Bowl, but lost to Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers. After two down seasons, Mike Smith was fired and Dan Quinn was hired as the head coach. The Falcons went 8-8 in his first season before going 11-5 last season and reaching the Super Bowl. "I've played long enough to know that all that you want is an opportunity," Ryan said. "All that you want is a chance this time of the year. We gave ourselves that opportunity." Ryan has dealt gracefully with the questions about the Super Bowl collapse, his relationship with Sarkisian and why he can't throw more touchdown passes to Julio Jones. "I'm really proud of that," Ryan said. "We answered a lot of questions all year about a lot of different things, and I thought our guys handled ourselves the right way. We had the right mindset to come back and try to be the best football team we could be this year. We put ourselves in position to move forward and we're excited about that opportunity." Notes, Quotes Quarterback Matt Ryan completed 28-of-45 passes for 317 yards against the Panthers. Ryan finished the season with 4,095 passing yards, going over the 4,000-passing yard mark for the seventh-straight season.Ryan's string of 4,000-yard seasons is tied for the second-longest active streak in the NFL, and it is tied for the third-longest in NFL history.Overall, this will be the Falcons' 14th appearance in the playoffs with two trips to the Super Bowl, both losses.The 1998 team was the other team to reach the Super Bowl under head coach Dan Reeves.The Falcons are the only team in the NFC who made the playoffs in 2016 to return to the playoffs.Seattle, Green Bay, Dallas, Detroit and the New York Giants did not repeat."Well, coming into this season, we had talked quite a bit about how difficult the NFC South would be," Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said. "I didn't think anybody would go all the way through and not have a chance to go undefeated through it, and it certainly played out that way."The Falcons finished 4-2 in the division."But once we're in, it's just for this week," Quinn said. "I've heard just that we're going to play out at Los Angeles, and that's the fight that we're in, that's the fight that matters, and we'll be completely, 100 percent ready to ball."A team that was built to perform on offense, now has a top 10-ranked defense. The Falcons spent $90.7 million on the offense and $59.1 million on the young defense, which continued to improve this season.The defensed finished the regular season ranked eighth in scoring defense (21 points per game) and 10th in total defense (323.1 yards per game). The defense finished eighth in rushing defense (105.2 yards per game) and 12th in pass defense (217.9 per game).The Falcons have not ranked in the top 10 in scoring defense and total defense since the 1998 team, which went to the Super Bowl.Deion Jones had a spectacular shoe-string tackle on Seattle's Russell Wilson that likely kept the Seahawks out of field-goal range for a game-winning kick in the 34-31 victory.Against the Saints, he preserved another victory with a game-saving interception in the end zone. He soared so high that he nearly flipped over before landing on his back.In the regular-season finale, he took on the challenge of helping to stop quarterback Cam Newton and rookie running back Chris McCaffrey and finished with 10 tackles.Jones, who some believe was snubbed for the Pro Bowl, leads the defense with 138 tackles. He is a Pro-Bowl second alternate."I think there will be plenty of (Pro-Bowl selections) in his future," Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said. "He's a real emerging player in this league."The Falcons, while taking teams' best shots under first-year coordinator Steve Sarkisian, still had enough firepower.Quarterback Matt Ryan, wide receiver Julio Jones and running back Devonta Freeman did a lot of the heavy lifting. Tevin Coleman did his share and stepped in admirably when Freeman was out for three games in the concussion protocol.Center Alex Mack held the line together, which started three different combinations after starting the same players in all 19 games in 2016. Wes Schweitzer, the new starting right guard, improved as the season progressed and Ben Garland, a mauler, filled in for Andy Levitre for four games.Jones became the fastest player in NFL history to record over 9,000 receiving yards with a 14-yard reception in the third quarter of Sunday's game against the Carolina Panthers.It took Jones just 95 games to reach the milestone, passing San Diego's Lance Alworth (98 games), Detroit's Calvin Johnson (102), St. Louis' Torry Holt (105), Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown (107) and Minnesota's Randy Moss (107).While Freeman didn't get 1,000 yards rushing for the third consecutive season, he essentially played in 13 games (he left the Dallas game on the second play). He had 1,182 yards from scrimmage (865 rushing and 317 receiving) and scored eight touchdowns (seven rushing, one receiving). Strategy & Personnel PLAYER NOTES QB Matt Ryan went 28-of-45 passing for 317 yards and one touchdown. Ryan finished the season with 4,095 passing yards, eclipsing the 4,000-passing yard mark for the seventh straight season. That is tied for the second-longest active streak in the NFL, and it is tied for the third longest in NFL history. K Matt Bryant went 5 of 5 on the day, which is the most field goals he's made in a game all season. Bryant also made a 56-yard field goal, which was the second-longest field goal of the season. Bryant's 1,029 points since joining the Falcons in 2009 ranks third in the NFL over that span. FS Ricardo Allen recorded his first interception of the season - sixth of his career. SS Keanu Neal recorded his first career interception. CB Robert Alford recorded his first interception of the season - 10th of his career. He also posted a team-high four passes defensed in the win. DT Grady Jarrett recorded his career-high fourth sack of the year. He finished the game with three total tackles, two hits on the quarterback and three tackles for loss. RB Devonta Freeman finished the game with 108 total yards, including a career-high 85 receiving yards on nine receptions - second-highest receptions total. Freeman also caught his first receiving touchdown of the season - seventh of his career, which ties him with former Falcon running back Jamal Anderson for the fourth most receiving touchdowns by a running back in franchise history. REPORT CARD VS. PANTHERS PASSING OFFENSE: B plus - Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan completed 28-of-45 passes for 317 yards and one touchdown. He finished with a passer rating of 90.7. Running back Devonta Freeman was targeted 11 times, which tied a career high for a single game. He caught nine passes for a career-high 85 yards. His reception total was the second-most in his career. He also added the Falcons' only touchdown of the game on a 19-yard catch in the first quarter. "Coming into the game, we felt like Devonta Freeman was a good matchup for us in some of their zone coverages going against their 'backers," Ryan said. "He's so talented out of the backfield. He's such a versatile running back that it was a great advantage for us to try and get him the ball." Mohamed Sanu chipped in with seven catches for 71 yards and Julio Jones had five catches for 80 yards. RUSHING OFFENSE: F - The Panthers whipped up the Falcons' offensive line. There was no room to run. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman both had 11 carries for 23 yards. The Falcons were held to 60 yards on 26 carries. It was their second-lowest output of the season. The Panthers held them to 53 yards rushing in the previous meeting on Nov. 5. PASS DEFENSE: A-plus - The Falcons intercepted Cam Newton three times and held tight end Greg Olsen to one catch on his nine targets. Cornerback Robert Alford, free safety Ricardo Allen and strong safety Keanu Neal all had interceptions. Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey caught five passes for 40 yards. Quarterback Cam Newton finished with a 31.5 passer rating. RUSH DEFENSE: A - Falcons linebackers asked for the challenge - and they got it. With the playoffs on the line, the unit wanted to play the Panthers man-to-man in an effort to stop quarterback Cam Newton and rookie running back Christian McCaffrey. Deion Jones led the way with 10 tackles as the defense bottled up the Panthers' multi-faceted duo on the way to a 22-10 victory on Sunday that wrapped up the sixth and final playoff berth in the NFC. Newton and McCaffrey rushed for 201 yards in the previous meeting on Nov. 5, a 20-17 Carolina victory. "We keep it on our linebackers all night," free safety Ricardo Allen said. "They asked for the challenge to get them man-to-man and our linebackers did it. They made the plays and we shut them down." Newton was held to 59 yards on 11 carries and McCaffrey had just 14 yards on six carries. SPECIAL TEAMS: C - Matt Bryant was money on 5-of-5 field-goal makes, but the coverage units played sloppily. They picked up four penalties that resulted in 90 yards of lost field position. Brian Poole and LaRoy Reynolds had holding penalties on punt returns that set the offense back. Safety Damontae Kazee interfered with returner Kaelin Clay's opportunity to catch a punt. Instead of the drive starting at the 25-yard line, the Panthers started at the 40. Reynolds also had the fourth special teams penalty, which was essentially a 27-yard loss. Instead of starting at the Atlanta 47-yard line after a 23-yard return by Andre Roberts, the Falcons started at their 20. Reynolds was busted for blocking Carolina's Shaq Thompson in the back. COACHING: A - With the 22-10 gritty victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, the Falcons finished the regular season 10-6 and earned the sixth and final playoff berth in the NFC playoffs. The Falcons lost to five playoff teams (Patriots, Vikings, Bills, Saints and Panthers) and the Dolphins. If they win that Dolphins game, they would have won the NFC South and would be playing at home as the No. 3 seed. But who's quibbling, now. They are back in the playoffs for the second consecutive season for only the second time in franchise history. The only other time the Falcons went to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons was in 2010, 2011 and 2012 under Mike Smith.
  4. Link Atlanta Falcons INSIDE SLANT Inside Slant | Notes, Quotes | Strategy and Personnel | Player Wire Falcons control own fate, but must elevate play The Atlanta Falcons, the defending NFC champions, don't need a miraculous combination of events to return to the playoffs. "It's good to have control of our future," Falcons center Alex Mack said. Their plight, after a losing 23-13 to New Orleans, is rather simple. Beat the Carolina Panthers and they will earn the No. 6 seed. The Falcons' regular-season finale is essentially a "win or go home" de facto playoff game. If the Falcons lose and Seattle (9-6) defeats Arizona (7-8) at home, the Seahawks will earn the final spot. The Falcons and Seahawks are both favorites to win. "For us, it's pretty clear what's in front of us," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. "We have to play better than we did (against the Saints.)" The Panthers defeated the Falcons 20-17 on Nov. 5 in Charlotte. The Seahawks beat the Cardinals 22-16 on Nov. 9. "There is nothing magical about playing football," Mack said. "It's about 11 guys doing the right thing, hopefully at the same time. That's not what we did (against the Saints)." The Falcons are elated to have the game at home after enduring the raucous atmosphere at Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where they were mocked on the scoreboard and during the halftime show with 28-3 Super Bowl LI references. Against the Panthers, they must elevate their level of play, show more poise and eliminate the penalties that piled up against the Saints. "If it was an easy thing to point it out, we would," Mack said of the penalties. "But it just seemed like a bad-luck game." The Falcons gave up a season-high 201 yards rushing against the Panthers in the previous meeting. Carolina quarterback Cam Newton did most of the damage rushing for 86 yards and a touchdown. Rookie Christian McCaffrey added 66 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. The Falcons' run defense has vastly improved since that game. The defense gives up 105.2 yards per game and ranks eighth in the league. "We understood what was at stake, a chance to solidify a spot in the playoffs," defensive end/linebacker Vic Beasley said. "We were unable to do that. We look forward to going against Carolina, now." Philadelphia, Minnesota, New Orleans, the Los Angeles Rams and Carolina have wrapped up the top five seeds. Atlanta and Seattle are vying for the final spot. "It's motivation just to be in the playoffs," Beasley said. "We understand that if we won (the Saints) game we would have been in the playoffs. We understand that we have another opportunity next week." The Falcons need to play mistake-free football against the Panthers, who have won three consecutive games and seven of their last eight. "You can't make mistakes," Ryan said. "We made too many of them (against the Saints.) I thought we did some good things in terms of moving the ball, but weren't consistent enough with keeping it going. That's something that we have to correct. We have to be better than that moving forward." The Falcons must figure out a way to get running back Devonta Freeman back rolling. He had perhaps the worst game of his career against the Saints. He had two bad 15-yard penalties, a horrible fumble and got stuffed near the goal line. The penalties troubled head coach Dan Quinn. The Falcons were called for 10 penalties for 91 yards against the Saints. "Totally uncalled for us to have those," Quinn said. "We need to recognize that there are going to be some aggressive fouls when you are playing a thousand miles an hour. Those are part of the game. "The ones that we can control, we know, are the pre-snap ones. That's really having our discipline and being on it. To play clean and to play our best, that can be a factor." Notes, Quotes The Falcons' offense, which led the league in scoring last season under the direction of Kyle Shanahan, has been slowed under first-year NFL coordinator Steve Sarkisian. They will need an offensive explosion to get past Carolina and will certainly need some improved scoring production if they plan to advance in the playoffs. "I certainly was surprised that we did not have more points (against the Saints)," head coach Dan Quinn said. "To have two of those (drives) where we were down inside the 2- and 3-yard line and not come away with points in that one was the factor, for sure." Quinn wants to eliminate the turnovers against the Panthers. The Falcons had two costly turnovers against the Saints. "There is no chance to make any points out of it," Quinn said. "That part we can do better moving forward. I thought that it was a really good play by Deion (Jones) of creating (a turnover) coming out of the half. We talked about let's go out and see if we can knock one (a turnover) out and see if we can make one go. Confidence-wise of the team, we know that we have a good group." Also, there was false-start penalty by fullback Derrick Coleman after a converted fourth-and-1, that Quinn considered a turnover. After the penalty, the Falcons were forced to punt. Without the penalty, the drive would have kept going. Last season, the Falcons finished 11-5 last season, won the NFC South title and earned the No. 2 seed. The team stormed to the Super Bowl after beating Seattle in the divisional round and Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game. They were up 28-3 on New England before collapsing in Super Bowl LI. No losing team in the Super Bowl has made it back to the game since the 1993 Buffalo Bills finished a string of four straight Super Bowl appearances by the franchise. The Falcons can try to change the tide of history, but first they need a victory over Carolina or a Seattle loss to Arizona. "As a competitor, that's the life we live," Quinn said. "We know what is there. That's why we are still excited." Strategy & Personnel PLAYER NOTES WR Julio Jones hauled in his 574th career catch on the first play of the game, passing former Falcons receiver Terance Mathis for second most in franchise history. Jones finished the game with seven receptions for 149 yards, tying a career high versus the Saints. This was also Jones' 39th time going over the 100-yard mark in his career, which ties a franchise record held by former Falcons receiver Roddy White. RB Tevin Coleman caught his third receiving touchdown of the year. He finished the game with four catches for 40 yards. LB Deion Jones picked off Saints QB Drew Brees for the third time in his career. That interception was the third of the season - that leads the team - and the sixth of his career. RB Devonta Freeman was the lowest graded player on the Falcons this week (35.2), and his last three game grades have been his lowest three of the year. QB Matt Ryan had almost no success when pressured by the Saints. On his 13 dropbacks under pressure, he completed just one pass for 16 yards. REPORT CARD VS. SAINTS PASSING OFFENSE: C The Falcons piled up yards through the air, but couldn't deliver any points until late in the game. Julio Jones caught 7 of 11 targets for 149 yards. But why was he out of the game late in the second quarter? Marvin Hall was in and had a ball clank off his hands that Marshon Lattimore intercepted off his butt. The "Butt Pick" was turned into a 54-yard touchdown by the Saints. Matt Ryan completed 22 of 36 passes for 288 yards and one late touchdown. He finished with a passer rating of 84.0. The offense looked disjointed at times. The penalties certainly didn't help. Ben Garland may have been hurt by sharing time in practice with Andy Levitre, who didn't play as he was declared inactive with a torn triceps. Garland needed all of the reps. He had his lowest graded game of the season at 37.4 by profootballfocus.com. He allowed five pressures in pass protection and was beaten by four different Saints. RUSHING OFFENSE: F The Falcons needed to run the ball to take the crowd out of the game and couldn't score inside the 5-yard line twice. Devonta Freeman rushed 11 times for 36 yards and Tevin Coleman rushed six times for 12 yards. The Falcons never seem to recognize that the Saints' linebackers were jumping into the A gap. On the first drive of the game, Saints linebacker Manti Te'o slipped inside of right guard Wes Schweitzer and dropped Coleman for a 4-yard loss to turn a second-and-8 into a third-and-12. Freeman fumbled on the 1-yard line in the third quarter and was stuffed on a fourth-and-goal from the Saints' 1-yard line on the first play of the fourth quarter. PASS DEFENSE: C-minus The Falcons held the Saints to just 239 yards passing and an average of 11.4 yards per catch. However, Desmond Trufant, the team's top cornerback, struggled. Trufant was beaten by the speedy Ted Ginn Jr. for a 54-yard touchdown in the final minute before the half. It didn't appear that he was supposed to have safety help over the top. Trufant allowed a season-high 84 yards in coverage, the 54-yarder and two 29-yarders to Michael Thomas. It was his lowest graded game of the season (38.9) by profootballfocus.com. Linebacker Deion Jones returned an interception 41 yards in the third quarter. Courtney Upshaw had the lone sack. He also had a quarterback hit. Adrian Clayborn had a quarterback hit. RUSH DEFENSE: B The run defense remains stout. They have now held four of the past five opponents to under 100 yards rushing. Mark Ingram II rushed 13 times for 44 yards and one touchdown. Most of his yards came on a 26-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Alvin Kamara rushed 12 times for 32 yards. Overall, the Saints had 31 carries for 86 yards for a paltry 2.8 yards per carry. Deion Jones and safety Keanu Neal led the Falcons with 10 tackles each. SPECIAL TEAMS: B The special teams units did a much better job on Saints returner Tommylee Lewis on four punt returns, holding him to 43 yards. Kamara broke loose for a 49-yard kickoff return. Matt Bryant made both of his field-goal attempts at 37 and 48 yards. Punter Matt Bosher have five punts for 234 yards and a net average 38.2. He placed one punt inside the 20 and had a 55-yard punt with 5.42 seconds of hangtime to force a fair catch. Derrick Coleman, a Pro-Bowl first alternate, had two special-teams tackles. COACHING: C The defense played well enough to win. The offense stumbled about. The Falcons showed a lack of poise and picked up some ridiculous penalties. As the penalties started to mount, the team started to make physical mistakes trying to climb out of a 13-0 hole. There was Hall's drop, Freeman's fumble and the offensive line's inability to put it from the 1 on two occasions. The offense was not ready to play in a big game.
  5. Link Atlanta Falcons INSIDE SLANT Inside Slant | Notes, Quotes | Strategy and Personnel | Player Wire Defense gets Falcons in thick of playoff race With Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan misfiring, the team needed a defensive stop to stay in the NFC playoff race and pick up some ground on the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South. Ryan, the reigning most valuable player, tossed three interceptions - on consecutive possessions - and finished with a passer rating of 55.2. But the Falcons were able to overcome his porous play when linebacker Deion Jones made an interception in the end zone to thwart a late Saints scoring threat. With the game on the line, Jones leaped high to haul down a pass from Saints quarterback Drew Brees to preserve a hard-fought 20-17 victory. "Deion Jones made a terrific play to cap it off," Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said. The Falcons improved to 8-5, while the Saints dropped to 9-4. The Falcons trail the Saints by one game with three games to play. The two teams meet again on Dec. 24 in New Orleans. The Falcons must face Tampa Bay on Monday, Dec. 18. On a day that the Falcons' offense was coloring outside the lines, the defense had to come up with big plays to earn the victory. "We didn't know which phase it was going to come down to at the end," Quinn said. "We hadn't even talked about that. Was it going to be Matt Bryant trying to kick one to win it? Was it going to be the two-minute offense to go after the touchdown, or would the defense have to get a stop to answer? It wasn't all pretty." With Ryan misfiring, the Falcons somehow built a 20-17 lead. The Saints had the ball and were driving. "There were things for us that we'll clean up moving forward," Quinn said. "We knew it was going to be a hard-fought battle. I thought the team, on a short week, did an excellent job in their preparation to get ready. Like I said, I love this team and what they stand for as a group of guys." Quinn turned down a penalty thinking the Saints would kick a field goal on fourth-and-inches. But the Saints elected to go for the first down and picked it up. Two plays later, on second-and-10 from the Atlanta 11, Brees tried to connect with tight end Josh Hill. But Jones dropped back into his zone and made an incredible play on the ball. "I knew I was isolated," Jones said. "I thought Drew knew that. When the tight end looked back, I looked back and the ball was right there. I tried to make a play on the ball. I just happened to catch. It was a long way down. But I had to hold on to it." Jones cradled the ball with both arms. "I was to the right of him," free safety Ricardo Allen said. "He jumped off the ground pretty high. He was up there. He couldn't land on his feet. He ended up falling on his neck. I was surprised he still caught it. But I'm happy that he did." Jones was all over the field for the Falcons. He was in the backfield making tackles. He was in the flat busting up screen plays. He was down the field in zone attacking balls thrown over his head. Jones finished with 13 tackles, three tackles for loss, two passes defensed and one potentially season-saving interception. He is asked to do a lot in the Falcons' defensive scheme. Quinn credited defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel and linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich with knowing how to utilize Jones. They have roles for him in man-to-man defenses and zone coverages. Jones was happy to help the save the game. "It's great, Jones said. "We always talk about getting closure. Being the baddest on the field. It's a product of our hard work." After Ryan's three interceptions, the defense allowed only one score. "The offense I feel like they did a great job," Jones said. "Things just happened. We have had to have their back and make the most of the opportunities when we are out there." Notes, Quotes Falcons running back Tevin Coleman is in the NFL's concussion protocol, head coach Dan Quinn said Friday. He left the game against the New Orleans Saints on Thursday night and did not return. "He had a concussion, and he's in the concussion protocol," Quinn said. "We'll let the doctors do their thing. When he's cleared, we'll go through the whole process with him." Coleman rushed nine times for 32 yards before leaving the game after he was stuffed by Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins for a 3-yard loss in the fourth quarter. Running back Devonta Freeman missed two full games and most of a third with a concussion. While he was out, Coleman took over and rushed for 83 yards against Dallas, 43 against Seattle and 97 against Tampa Bay. When Freeman was in the concussion protocol, Terron Ward backed up Coleman. Falcons head coach Dan Quinn side-stepped a question about Saints head coach Sean Payton's behavior. "On the other sideline, I don't really have any comment on that one way or another," Quinn said. "I didn't see it during the game. So, I didn't actually get a chance to hear much about it. I know it was a big topic, post (game). But no really comment on that." The Falcons are still behind the Saints by one game with three to play. Quinn is not telling the team that they need to win out to make the playoffs. "We probably keep it shorter than that," Quinn said. "Just to know that we are going to throw a **** of a week and get ready to play Tampa." He wants to keep his team focused on the Bucs and not the playoff picture. "Outside, we know that's a conversation for sure," Quinn said. "That's human nature. But the best way for us to control the future is for us to play really well right now." The Falcons don't play again until Monday, Dec. 18. They had their bye week after the fourth game of the season. "We were fortunate that we have this little time to get healed up," Quinn said. "We will treat it almost like a bye from a coaching standpoint where we can address some of the issues where we want to really improve on and for the players to really get healthy. Having this Thursday game at this time of year when our bye started pretty early for us, it's come at the right time. We'll treat it as such and max that out too." Strategy & Personnel PLAYER NOTES WR Julio Jones was targeted 11 times and made five catches for 98 yards. RG Wes Schweitzer recovered a big fumble late in the fourth quarter to keep the closing drive alive. LB Deion Jones had 17 tackles, according to the film review by coaches. CB Desmond Trufant played his first game since coming out of the league's concussion protocol. RB Devonta Freeman rushed 24 times for 91 yards against the Saints. WR Mohamed Sanu had eight targets and caught six passes for 83 yards and one touchdown. REPORT CARD VS. SAINTS PASSING OFFENSE: B - QB Matt Ryan was intercepted in the final minute of the second quarter and nearly cost the Falcons a field goal. Ryan had plenty of time to throw, but the Saints played tight coverage. He had interceptions on three consecutive possessions. Tight end Austin Hooper had a pass that hit him in the chest intercepted on the first play of the third quarter by Saints safety Chris Banjo. Safety Marcus Williams intercepted an ill-advised pass in the end zone on the Falcons' next possession. The Saints converted the turnover into a touchdown to take a 17-10 lead. Ryan answered with an 8-yard touchdown pass to Mohamed Sanu with 10:01 left in the fourth quarter. Jones finished with five catches for 98 yards. RUSHING OFFENSE: A - The Falcons' run game wasn't netting much early, but they stayed with the run and it eventually paid off. Devonta Freeman carried most of the load. He had a 1-yard touchdown run in the second quarter to put the Falcons up 10-3. He had 11 rushes for 30 yards at halftime, for a paltry 2.7 average per carry. Tevin Coleman wasn't much better with four carries for 15 yards for a 3.8 average. They got the run game rolling in the second half and that was key as Ryan didn't have his best performance. Freeman rushed 24 times for 91 yards. Coleman finished with 32 yards on nine carries before leaving the game with a concussion. PASS DEFENSE: B-plus - The Falcons had a mixup on Tommylee Lewis' 26-yard touchdown pass and didn't defend the pick play any better near the goal line that resulted in a Drew Brees to Mike Thomas 1-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter. Adrian Clayborn had a big sack midway through the fourth quarter to get the ball back for the offense with the score tied. RUSH DEFENSE: B - The Falcons knocked rookie sensation Alvin Kamara out of the game in the first quarter. He suffered a concussion on a hit from linebacker Deion Jones on second-and-10 from Atlanta's 12. Kamara did not return. Mark Ingram II had eight rushes for 33 yards for a respectable 4.1 yards per carry at the half. Jones was all over the field making tackles and blowing up screen plays. SPECIAL TEAMS: B - Matt Bryant made a 28-yard field goal to cap the Falcons' first possession and put them ahead 20-17 with a 52-yarder in the fourth quarter. That field goal gave him 1,000 points during his career with the Falcons. Punter Matt Bosher had one punt for 49 yards early. Duke Riley was strong in coverage. The Saints had a bizarre penalty to take a field goal off the board right before halftime when they aligned in an illegal formation. Bosher's 34-yard punt in the third quarter had 4.91 seconds of hang time and forced Lewis to make a fair catch. COACHING: C - The offense continued to sputter as the offensive line couldn't open up enough room in the run game early and Ryan threw three interceptions, two of them on forced throws. He was victimized by Austin Hooper on the other. The defense was ready to play, but had a miscommunication on one touchdown and didn't come underneath the pick on Michael Thomas' 1-yard touchdown grab. The Falcons had some bizarre clock management right before the half. They were hurrying up when they had two timeouts. They should have used one to get in a better play and saved one for Bryant. Quinn will also be second-guessed for declining a holding penalty that would have made it third-and-11 from the 34 instead of fourth-and-inches from the 24. The Saints picked up the first down. Even with the shaky coaching moves, the Falcons are in the thick of the playoff race with three games to play.
  6. Link to article Atlanta Falcons INSIDE SLANT Inside Slant | Notes, Quotes | Strategy and Personnel | Player Wire Road to playoffs goes through New Orleans If the defending NFC Champions are going to return to the playoffs, they must defeat their arch-rivals New Orleans Saints at least once and maybe twice. The Atlanta Falcons playoff picture is starting to become clearer. The Falcons are 7-5 and would not go to the playoffs if the regular season ended today. "Both teams have two really good running backs that like to get after it," Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said Monday. "If you look at both teams, guys who can run, guys who can make plays, we've got a couple around here that make some plays and have some pretty good speed, as well. "If you like running backs, that's your kind of game. We know both teams have a good pair and both teams are going to use them both." The Falcons where pushed down to the seventh seed when the Seattle Seahawks defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 24-10 to improve to 8-4 Sunday night. The Falcons are ahead of Detroit (6-6), Green Bay (6-6) and Dallas (6-6). The Falcons have the tiebreaker over all three of the 6-6 teams, with a head-to-head victory. According to maketheplayoffs.com, the Falcons have an 11.67 percent chance of winning the NFC South division and a 44.92 percent chance of making the playoffs if they win their remaining games. "Everything that we want is still in front of us," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. The Falcons close out the regular season with games against the Saints (9-3) on Thursday at 8:25 p.m. at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium followed by a game at Tampa Bay (4-8) on Dec. 18, at New Orleans (9-3) on Dec. 24 and Carolina (8-4) on Dec. 31. "I know this team from the coaches to the players," cornerback Robert Alford said. "We still know that we are still alive. We just have to do our part and win games. It's not over yet. We just have to own our division and just win out." The Falcons will need to play better against the Saints, who have won eight of their last nine games. "We have to learn from this game," Alford said. "We have to see what went wrong and correct those. We'll watch film and study those guys. Hopefully, we can execute on Thursday." Essentially, the Falcons' playoff hopes have come down to if they can beat the Saints twice. They beat Tampa Bay 34-20 on Nov. 26 and came up short against the Panthers 20-17 on Nov. 5. "We'll get ready for Thursday night," Ryan said. "We'll get some rest tonight. We'll get back to work, and I think we'll be just fine on Thursday. We just have to get our mindset right." If the playoffs started today, Philadelphia and Minnesota would have the first-round byes in the NFC. The Panthers would be the sixth seed and play at the Los Angeles Rams. Seattle would be the fifth seed and play at the New Orleans Saints. New Orleans closes out with games against the Falcons (7-5), Jets (5-7), Falcons (7-5) and Bucs (4-8). Carolina (8-4) finishes with games against the Vikings (10-2), Packers (6-6), Bucs (4-8) and Falcons (7-5). The Seahawks (8-4) are chasing the Rams (9-3) in the NFC West. They close with the Jaguars (8-4), Rams (9-3), Cowboys (6-6) and Cardinals (5-7). The Falcons (.625) have the toughest schedule between the Seahawks (.583), Panthers (.562) and Saints (.479) based on the record of their opponents. The Bears (3-10), the 49ers (2-10) and the New York Giants (2-10) have been eliminated from the NFC playoff race. The Falcons won't allow themselves to look at the big picture. "It's just one at a time for us," wide receiver Julio Jones said. "We're not looking at the stretch. We have conference opponents and things like that, but really it's just one-on-one right now, one game at a time. We aren't looking ahead." Notes, Quotes Falcons starting left guard Andy Levitre, who suffered a left triceps injury against Minnesota on Sunday, is expected to miss the next two to three weeks, according to NFL Media. After the game, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said Levitre wasn't ruled out and could have returned. Quinn was asked about cornerback Desmond Trufant (concussion), but did not give updates on cornerback Brian Poole (back) and Levitre during his media session on Monday. The report said Levitre has a partially torn triceps. The team would not confirm the report that Levitre is out for two to three weeks, but acknowledge he'll have trouble playing against the Saints on Thursday. Levitre being out would be a major blow to the Falcons' playoff push. Ben Garland replaced Levitre against Minnesota and played 43 of 53 offensive snaps (81 percent). Garland eared the lowest grade (40) on the offense from profootballfocus.com. Garland, who lost the battle to be the starting right guard to Wes Schweitzer, allowed two quarterback hits, was called for holding and gave up two other tackles. The Falcons' lethal Matt Ryan to Julio Jones passing combination was stymied by the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday. The Vikings held Ryan out of the end zone for the first time in 30 games and Jones hauled down just two passes for 24 yards in the 14-9 loss at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Ryan completed 17 of 30 passes for 173 yards. It was his lowest output since he passed for 172 yards in a 33-10 loss to Seattle on Nov. 10, 2013. The loss snapped the Falcons' three-game winning streak and dropped them to 7-5 on the season. Ryan and Jones had connected 12 times for 253 yards and two touchdowns in the previous game, a 34-20 win over Tampa Bay. Jones wasn't surprised that the Vikings were able to slow him down. "You always have to keep working," Jones said. "It's just not going to be given to you. People make adjustments and things like that. We just have to adjust and keep working better. We just have to remember who we are and what we do." The Falcons were also inefficient on third downs against the Vikings. They were 1 of 10 against an ornery Minnesota defense. "I thought we had too many third-and-sevens," Ryan said. "I think one of the points of emphasis for us during the week was to try and be efficient on first and second down. We didn't do a good job of that." Jones didn't have any answers for their third-down woes. "We were just missing," Jones said. "We were just off today. Any given Sunday, we were just off today." The Falcons opened the game with a 16-play drive that was marred by three penalties on offensive linemen. Tackle Jake Matthews had an illegal block, while center Alex Mack and guard Ben Garland had holding penalties. Running back Devonta Freeman, who was making his return after missing two games with a concussion, had five carries for 25 yards on the opening drive. He had a 25-yard run called back on Mack's holding penalty. Strategy & Personnel RB Tevin Coleman after seeing just eight targets in the past six game, had five targets against the Vikings. He caught three passes for 27 yards. RB Devonta Freeman rushed 12 times for 74 yards in his first game back after missing two games in the concussion protocol. DE Takkarist McKinley had a sack against the Vikings. CB Brian Poole suffered a lower back injury and will be evaluated day-to-day. He did not play against the Vikings. REPORT CARD vs. VIKINGS PASSING OFFENSE: F - The Falcons tried their quick passing game early and had some success. QB Matt Ryan was under constant pressure and off the mark especially on third downs. The Falcons were 1 of 10 on third downs. Wide receiver Julio Jones was held to two catches for 24 yards. No one else stepped forward to make plays. RUSHING OFFENSE: C-plus - Devonta Freeman returned to the starting lineup and looked good early. The Falcons opened with a 16-play drive that took 7:24 off the clock, but was mired by three penalties. Jake Matthews had an illegal block, while Alex Mack and Ben Garland had holding penalties. Left guard Andy Levitre suffered a triceps injury. Freeman had five carries for 25 yards on the opening drive. He had a 25-yard run called back on Mack's holding penalty. He finished with 74 yards on 12 carries. PASS DEFENSE: C-plus - Minnesota quarterback Case Keenum moved the ball around to nine different receivers as the Falcons played mostly zone defense with top cornerback Desmond Trufant out with a concussion. Blidi Wreh-Wilson was a surprise starter at left cornerback for Trufant. He held up in coverage, but C.J. Goodwin was beaten badly for a 22-yard gain with the game on the line. Grady Jarrett had a sack to end a Minnesota offensive possession. Rooke Takkarist McKinley also had a sack. RUSH DEFENSE: C-minus - Latavius Murray ran hard for the Vikings and busted up the middle for a 30-yard gain in the second quarter. He finished with 76 yards on 16 carries for a strong 4.8 yards-per-carry average. Jerick McKinnon added 24 yards on nine carries. SPECIAL TEAMS: C - Matt Bryant made field goals of 38, 36 and 47 yards. He missed a key 45-yard field with 4:58 to play. P Matt Bosher had 4.5 seconds of hang time on his 42-yard punt in the second quarter that forced a fair catch. Bosher had a 54-yard punt that had 5:37 seconds of hang time in the third quarter. Andre Roberts had two kickoff returns for 45 yards and two punt returns for 8 yards. COACHING: D - The Falcons were sloppy as they committed seven penalties for 55 yards and killed two promising drives in the first half. The Falcons couldn't find an answer for the Vikings on third downs. The offense was held to 1 of 10 and the defense allowed the Falcons to convert on 6 of 10. The decision to kick a field goal down five points with five minutes to play wasn't egregious, but the defense had just given up a 15-play, 89-yard drive that took 8 minutes, 15 seconds off the clock. A three-and-out likely wasn't in the cards even if the Falcons had closed to 14-12. The Vikings ran the clock out.
  7. Link to article Atlanta Falcons INSIDE SLANT Inside Slant | Notes, Quotes | Strategy and Personnel | Player Wire Falcons come up short in short-yardage situations The Falcons have a new offensive coordinator in Steve Sarkisian, but they still don't have a viable plan in short-yardage situations. Faced with a third-and-1 situation against Buffalo, they elected to throw a pass. With the game on the line on fourth-and-1, they threw a pass that was incomplete. This, after making their running back Devonta Freeman, the highest-paid player at his position at $8.25 million per year. The Falcons' potential game-winning drive stalled on the Bills 10-yard line after quarterback Matt Ryan tossed an incomplete pass to Taylor Gabriel on fourth-and-1 with under a minute to play. Ryan had a run-pass option. He said he picked the pass play - play-action fake because the Bills had "eight or nine" players in the box. The film review shows that there were only seven players in the box and that the Bills had just 10 players on the field. They were aligned in a 4-3, with one safety and two cornerbacks. "Yeah, that's why we possibly thought it was a blitz," head coach Dan Quinn said on Monday. "In that moment is it best to throw the slant and so those are the kind of plays where you have an opportunity for a quick pass against blitz, you love those looks. When they don't go that way and you have to go to your second or third option, they made a good play on it." Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier told the Buffalo media that they knew they had 10 players on the field for the final play. A linebacker/defensive end was missing. "Looking back, that was a bummer," Quinn said. "It was the turning point in the game for us (at the end). But there were many moments in the game where I thought we missed our opportunities, but that was certainly one of them." The Falcons have drawn criticism for not running the ball on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 against the Bills. One of the big play-calls in Super Bowl LI was a third-and-1 pass that turned into a sack and a fumble during the team's historic collapse. Former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was heavily criticized for that play call. Meanwhile, Quinn hopes to have wide receiver Julio Jones (hip flexor), defensive end Vic Beasley Jr. (hamstring strain) and wide receiver Mohamed Sanu (hamstring strain) back when they face Miami on Oct. 15 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Defensive tackle Jack Crawford's biceps injury is more serious and has the team discussing whether to sign a free-agent defensive tackle. Jones, Sanu and Crawford were set to have MRI exams on Monday. "Beasley, (Terron) Ward and (Courtney) Upshaw are all making progress so we're hopeful to see where they go for next week," Quinn said. Also, safety Keanu Neal suffered a dislocated finger and missed two plays against Buffalo. "You never hope for a bye, but if there was time that it would come through, now would be a good time," Quinn said. He was reluctant to put timetables on the return of Jones, Sanu and Beasley, who he was calling week-to-week, but now is clear that he suffered at least a four-week injury. Quinn doesn't like releasing the timelines because most players heal differently. "The good news is that both of them aren't going to be long-term," Quinn said of Jones and Sanu. "Both of them, the competitiveness to get going is going to be there. We're hopeful that (since) it's (been) two or three weeks for Beasley that he'll be back in the next week's time. "Until we really see him open up as a runner we don't know," Quinn said. He said that he and general manager Thomas Dimitroff will discuss adding some help along the defensive line, likely to replace Crawford. Players spoke about how tough it would be with Crawford out. "We have to see where Courtney's at because that's such an important part of how we play," Quinn said. "We like to rotate players and put them into unique spots." The Falcons will use the bye week to come up with a better short-yardage plan and to get healthy. Notes, Quotes Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was effusive in his praise of the wide receivers after the 23-17 loss to Buffalo for "stepping up" when Julio Jones (hip flexor) and Mohamed Sanu (hamstring) went out with injuries. But they really didn't step up. Taylor Gabriel was targeted five times, but didn't have any catches. Justin Hardy was targeted six times, but had just two catches for 12 yards and a touchdown. He had a potentially costly fumble determined to be an incompletion after replay. Nick Williams had four targets and three catches for 30 yards. The one incompletion was intercepted. That's five catches on 15 targets for 42 yards, well below the production levels of Jones and Sanu. "For us, we trust all of our guys to go out there and make plays," Ryan said. "We called the plays that we had in the plan and trusted them to go out there and do it. I thought our guys did a pretty good job of stepping up." But they really didn't. On his two picks against the Bills, quarterback Matt Ryan was trying to make a play. The deep ball to Taylor Gabriel shouldn't have been thrown. Buffalo safety Micah Hyde was running with Gabriel. The pass to Nick Williams was behind him and tipped up. With Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu out of the game, Ryan didn't have his top two targets. Ryan struggled under pressure against the Bills as both tackles struggled in pass protection. Ryan completed 7 of 15 passes for just 69 yards and one interception (32.4 passer rating) when pressured. Ty Sambrailo and Jake Matthews combined for 11 pressures (nine hurries, one hit and one sack). Rookie Duke Riley is not off to a good start. Linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich has to get his star pupil ready to play like he did Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell last season. Riley missed four of his six attempted tackles and now has eight missed tackles. His 2.1 tackle efficiency (attempted tackles per missed tackle) ranks last among 33 4-3 outside linebackers this season, according to profootbabllfocus.com. Rookie Damontae Kazee played well while replacing free safety Ricardo Allen. He probably could have broken on a pass to Bills tight end Charles Clay, who had beaten strong safety Keanu Neal. He was late getting over the top to blow up the play. However, he had three tackles, allowed just one catch and earned a game grade of 82.7, which was 10th among safeties to play before the Sunday night game. Strategy & Personnel PLAYER NOTES FS Ricardo Allen is in the league's concussion protocol. RT Ryan Schraeder is in the league's concussion protocol and head coach Dan Quinn is hopeful to have him back for the Miami game. WR Taylor Gabriel was targeted five times against the Bills and did not have a catch. WR Justin Hardy had a 3-yard touchdown reception. It was the first allowed by the Bills this season. QB Matt Ryan went 24-of-42 for 242 yards and one touchdown. Ryan extended his 200-plus yards passing game streak to 59 games and his games with a passing touchdown to 22 games. RB Tevin Coleman had nine rushes for 79 yards, and he also posted four catches for 65 yards, which were both team highs. His 144 combined total yards is a season high and the second highest total in his career. REPORT CARD VS. BILLS PASSING OFFENSE: D - Matt Ryan and running back Tevin Coleman connected on a 37-yard wheel route to get the offense moving in the second quarter after Julio Jones left the game with a hip flexor. By halftime, Ryan completed passes to seven different receivers including two to tight end Levine Toilolo. But Jones and Mohamed Sanu were lost for the game to a hip flexor and hamstring. Taylor Gabriel, Justin Hardy and Nick Williams tried to pick up the slack, but couldn't. Ryan was intercepted by Micah Hyde on a 50-50 deep ball to Gabriel in the third quarter. Hardy caught a 3-yard touchdown pass with 7:00 left to play. Hyde intercepted Ryan again after he tried to squeeze a pass into Nick Williams on third-and-17. The ball clanged off Williams' hands and popped up. Ryan has five interceptions over the past two games. He had his lowest passer rating in over 30 games. RUSHING OFFENSE: C-minus - Devonta Freeman was held to 58 yards on 18 carries. Tevin Coleman had nine rushes for 79 yards. The Falcons used their "12-Gauge" wildcat formation with Sanu at quarterback and he nearly scored on a 4-yard run. Freeman got in behind left guard Andy Levitre for a 1-yard touchdown run on the following play to give the Falcons a 10-7 lead. With the game on the line, the Falcons elected to throw. They need a better short-yardage package. RUSH DEFENSE: C-plus - The shifty LeSean McCoy was difficult to tackle and quarterback Tyrod Taylor got loose outside the pocket on some timely scrambles as they ran 11:20 minutes off the clock during a 19-play drive to help secure the victory. Fullback Patrick DiMarco, a former Falcons standout, was a solid lead blocker. McCoy and Mike Tolbert combined to rush 28 times for 107 yards for a 3.8 yards-per-carry average. PASS DEFENSE: C - Wide receiver Jordan Matthews beat cornerback Desmond Trufant for a 9-yard touchdown pass. Matthews was lined up in the right slot and ran a crossing route to the left. Trufant tried to undercut the route, but Taylor's pass was too high. Also, safety Keanu Neal was beaten by Bills tight end Charles Clay for a 44-yard deep ball and rookie free safety Damontae Kazee was too late getting over the top to break up the catch. Neal left the game with a hand injury and was replaced by Sharrod Neasman. He returned to action. Clay was open all day and finished with seven catches for 112 yards. SPECIAL TEAMS: C - Kicker Matt Bryant made a 28-yard field goal. Punter Matt Bosher was solid. The Falcons continued to get penalties on the punt-coverage team. Brooks Reed and Neasman were called for penalties. Stephen Hauschka made a 56-yard field goal to put the Bills up 20-17 with 4:44 left to play. He followed that up with a 55-yarder. COACHING: C-plus - They still need a plan for short-yardage situations. The Falcons had to get creative when the starting wide receivers were lost for the game. Coleman and Freeman had to carry more of the load. Hardy nearly had a costly fumble, but the play was ruled an incompletion by the replay official. The Bills, who had just 10 men on the field, weren't fooled by a fourth-and-1 play-action pass to Gabriel that was incomplete with the Falcons threatening to score in the final minute.
  8. Link to Article Atlanta Falcons INSIDE SLANT Inside Slant | Notes, Quotes | Strategy and Personnel | Player Wire Falcons try to go 4-0 before Patriots rematch The Atlanta Falcons found a win in Detroit on a controversial weekend with reigning most valuable player Matt Ryan, not on top of his game. "What a team effort yesterday," Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said on Monday. "I was really pumped about the defense and its resiliency, coming back and making some stops in some really opportune times. We knew it was going to take everything (we had)." The Falcons will host the Buffalo Bills on Sunday before receiving the early bye week. After the bye, they will face the New England Patriots on the road in a rematch of Super Bowl LI, a game they led 28-3 before losing 34-28 in overtime. "There's no doubt that we have to be better with the ball," Quinn said. Ryan opened on fire against the Lions, but cooled off and threw three interceptions that the Lions used to rally and nearly pull out the victory. He was having his way with the Lions' defense until free safety Glover Quinn stepped in front of his 17th pass attempt and returned it 37 yards for a touchdown. Ryan hadn't thrown an interception over his last 211 passes. He was victimized on the other two when running back Tevin Coleman and wide receiver Mohamed Sanu had passes clank off their hands and into the waiting arms of Darius Slay. "It comes down to taking care of the football, for sure," Ryan said. "We talk about that all the time. When you're minus-3 in the turnover differential, it's tough to overcome that. We were able to do it (against the Lions), but that's certainly something that we have to clean up moving forward." Ryan hadn't thrown three interceptions in a game since doing it against Indianapolis in a 24-21 loss on Nov. 22, 2015. Ryan has thrown at least three interceptions in a game eight times during his career. Ryan was 24 of 35 for 294 yards and two touchdowns. He finished with a 77.6 passer rating. Ryan opened the game by throwing a bomb to Julio Jones that was incomplete. The Falcons called pass plays on nine of the first 12 plays in the opening drive, which culminated with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Sanu. After the Falcons loosened up the Lions with all of those passes, the offensive line was able to maul them in the running game. Running back Devonta Freeman rushed for 106 yards on 21 carries and scored a touchdown and Coleman rushed for 46 yards on six carries. "I'll just say we're getting better and better every week," Freeman said. "You know what I mean? It's a process, and next week we're going to get better. And we're going to rest the next week, and the next week coming back, we're going to try to continue to get better." Freeman caught three passes for 32 yards and Coleman had three for 43 yards. Combined, the running backs had 33 touches from scrimmage for 227 yards and a touchdown. "I thought we played well offensively," Ryan said. "Our offensive line did a fantastic job today, we ran the ball extremely efficiently, had some explosive chunk runs." Right tackle Ty Sambrailo, who was starting for Ryan Schraeder, gave up two sacks, but overall Ryan was pleased. "They did a great job in pass protection against a defense who's been getting a lot of pass pressure, pass rush the first two weeks," Ryan said. "So, I was proud of the way our offensive line played." Jones caught seven passes on 12 targets for 91 yards. But slot receiver Taylor Gabriel had an electrifying 40-yard touchdown on a screen pass. He finished with five catches for 79 yards. "It was good to have Taylor (Gabriel) back, he really made some plays today," Quinn said. "I thought on third downs, a nice touchdown on the screen, so for him, dealing with an injury in the offseason, it was awesome to see him back in action today. Kind of looking how all of us are accustomed to seeing that kind of speed." The Falcons' offense recorded a season high 428 total yards, including 151 yards on the ground, also a season high. It was the second straight game the Falcons had rushed for more than 125 yards. The Falcons also had two scoring drives of 10 plays or more, and now have seven drives of 10 plays or more this season. Notes, Quotes For Grady Jarrett and Dontari Poe, it was a simple decision to kneel during the national anthem on Sunday after President Donald Trump referred to any NFL player who has protested racial and social injustice by taking a knee as a "son of *****." "I felt like me, myself, Grady Jarrett is the son of a Queen and that's my message," Jarrett said after the game. Jarrett had been thinking about protesting for a while, but the comments by Trump pushed him to do more. "My spirit moved me in a way and it was on my mind," Jarrett said. "It was on my mind man, and ... it is so awesome because having the support of your brothers and support of an organization like this, this has been, this is truly a blessing. It's truly a blessing. And I'm just thankful." Poe knelt to make a statement against racial and social injustice in the country and said he intended no disrespect to the flag or the military. "I know people (in the military)," Poe said. "I have a girl friend who's in the Air Force. She's in the reserves now. I'm not disrespecting that at all. I wouldn't disrespect her like that. At the same time, I felt it wasn't disrespecting the flag, but I was just standing up for what I believe in." Poe said he was moved by teammate Adrian Clayborn's speech about the diversity on the team and how he wished the country was like the Falcons' locker room. The team often refers to itself as "The Brotherhood." "He put it in such great words," Poe said. "It was something that I paid close attention to. It was all truth in it. Basically, he wishes the outside world was like our locker room, with people of all different colors and creeds ... we're fighting together. We are a Brotherhood. "We don't look at nothing else but that. He said he wished the world was like that and that it would be much better place. I totally agree with him." Clayborn was the only player on the team to respond to the tweets from President Trump. He spoke to the issues of privilege in the nation. "It so diverse in football," Clayborn said. "We come from everywhere and it's a shame we can't all get along. I wish we could be like that, but it probably will never be. If it was, it would be a way better place." Teams across the league protested President Trump and labeled his tweets "divisive" to the fabric of the country. Falcons owner Arthur Blank and Lions owner Martha Ford, who is 92 years old, both stood on the sidelines with their teams. "I'm not going to lie," Clayborn said. "It was hard pre-game, just trying to focus on the actual game. But once it started I was locked in. Thank God I got my brain locked in. When you get so much hate and so many people hate your guts because of something you believe in, it's crazy. But we locked in. We got it done." Clayborn, who is from St. Louis where they've had two police officers acquitted in high-profile shooting cases of African-Americans, has become the socially conscious member of the team. "It was a team meeting," Clayborn said. "It's our brotherhood coming together. People are saying nasty things about us and we have to stick together. It's coming in hot." Falcons head coach Dan Quinn stood during the national anthem and supported having Blank on the field with the team. "I'd like to recognize Arthur being down on the field with the team prior to the game and showing his solidarity for not just the Falcons, but for the NFL in general," Quinn said. "He continues to demonstrate what a class act he is to all of the players and staff and coaches. We really appreciate him." Blank was fine with players' decisions. "What they do is their choice," Blank said. "I'm supportive of our players. I'm certainly supportive of their rights to express their freedom of speech. I don't think ... the people that fought for this country going back several hundred years primarily weren't fighting for geography. They were fighting for way of life, and part of that is reflected in the freedom of speech and the ability to speak up and speak out on issues." Blank was not pleased with the comments of President Trump about players who have elected to kneel during the national anthem. "It's unfortunate that the president chose to go in that direction and speak out the way he has," Blank said. "Love conquers and that kind of divisiveness and calling out accomplishes nothing, satisfies nothing." Blank was not one of seven NFL owners who donated $1 million to Trump's campaign. Blank was a strong supporter of President Barack Obama. Players around the league have been protesting social and racial injustice in the country. "The issues that they point to are legitimate issues," Blank said. "They need to be talked about it. We need to make progress as a country moving forward with them. We don't do it by creating walls. We don't build walls. That doesn't create better listening or better responses or connections." Blank noted that the Falcons are one of the busiest teams when it comes to doing community service. "I think our players love this country," Blank said. "They not only play this game, but they work their fannies off physically and financially giving back in a variety of ways to our communities throughout the National Football League. We are the first to step up and do very significant things. They do it day in and day out. I see it every day with our players." Blank believes the players' issues should be addressed. "Opening up thoughtful and positive discussions based on inclusiveness and not based on divisiveness," Blank said. "Divisiveness is never going to solve anything in a positive way. It never has in the history of this country." The Falcons held the Lions to 71 rushing yards and sacked Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford twice. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn recorded his second sack of the season. Rookie defensive end Takk McKinley recorded his first career sack. The defense has recorded a sack in 18 straight games. The defense also recorded five hits on the quarterback and they currently are tied for first in the NFL with 22 hits on the quarterback. Strategy & Personnel PLAYER NOTES K Matt Bryant went three-for-three on field goals, including two 40-plus-yard field goals. Bryant is first in the league with eight made field goals. WR Julio Jones had seven catches for 91 yards, but sustained a back injury. He's limited in practice, but is expected to play against Buffalo. FS Ricardo Allen is in the league's concussion protocol. RT Ryan Schraeder is in the league's concussion protocol and head coach Dan Quinn hopes to have him back for the Buffalo game. RB Devonta Freeman crossed the 100-yard mark for the first time this season. He also scored his fourth rushing touchdown of the season and 27th of his career. The Falcons are 16-2 when Freeman rushes for a touchdown. He finished the game with 21 carries for 106 yards. RB Tevin Coleman had 89 total yards. He and Freeman combined for 227 total yards against the Lions. That is the seventh time the duo has reached 200-plus combined yards and the team is 7-0 when the two running backs reach that mark. WR Taylor Gabriel recorded his first touchdown reception of the season. The 40-yard touchdown catch was Gabriel's sixth career touchdown of 30-plus yards and his seventh touchdown reception of 25-plus yards. REPORT CARD VS. LIONS PASSING OFFENSE: B - Matt Ryan entered the game having not thrown an interception over his last 195 passes. He had 16 more attempts in the game without an interception before Lions free safety Glover Quinn stepped in front of a pass intended for Julio Jones and returned it 37 yards for a touchdown. Lions cornerback Darius Slay intercepted Ryan in the third quarter and picked off another one that bounced of Mohamed Sanu's hands. Ty Sambrailo was overpowered twice in pass protection and gave up two sacks while subbing for Ryan Schraeder, who is in the concussion protocol. Ryan hadn't thrown three interceptions in a game since doing it against Indianapolis in a 24-21 loss on Nov. 22, 2015. Ryan has thrown at least three interceptions in a game eight times over his career. Ryan was 24 of 35 for 294 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. RUSHING OFFENSE: B-plus - Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman gashed the Lions early and that opened up things for the offense. Freeman added his fourth rushing touchdown of the season. The Falcons found some success running inside against the Lions, who were without rookie middle linebacker Jarrad Davis. Freeman rushed 21 times for 106 yards and one touchdown. Tevin Coleman added 46 yards rushing on six carries. PASS DEFENSE: B - Lions wide receiver Golden Tate was flanked out to the left and came across the middle with the Falcons playing zone. He caught the ball and scored the Lions' first offensive touchdown from 11 yards out with 4:51 left in the third quarter to make the score 23-20. Defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Takkarist McKinley had a sack each. McKinley tipped Stafford's pass on third down in the fourth quarter that forced Detroit to settle for a field goal. Tate was stopped by Brian Poole on the game's final play at the 1-yard line. RUSH DEFENSE: A - The Falcons held Lions running back Ameer Abdullah in check. He was coming off rushing for a career-high 86 yards against the Giants. He rushed 14 times for 47 yards. The strong play against the run kept the Lions out of the red zone until under 7:00 was left in the third quarter. SPECIAL TEAMS: A Matt Bryant made all of his extra points and field goals of 36, 48 and 40 yards. The kickoff return team was stuffed in the third quarter after the Lions closed to within three, 23-20. Matt Bosher didn't have his first punt until there was 3:26 left in the game. Andre Roberts had a 27-yard punt return and a 38-yard kickoff return. COACHING: B-plus - The coaching staff was able to get the team focused enough to win on the road during a controversial weekend. The defense made enough plays and had three stops down the stretch to secure the win after the offense started to sputter. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian came out throwing. He called passes on nine of the first 12 plays. Ryan completed eight and was sacked on one.
  9. Link to article Atlanta Falcons INSIDE SLANT Inside Slant | Notes, Quotes | Strategy and Personnel | Player Wire Injuries affecting Falcons ground attack The Atlanta Falcons offense, which led the league in scoring last season, looked shaky against in its "dress-rehearsal" game for the regular season. There was no running back Devonta Freeman, who is in the concussion protocol. They didn't get the ball to All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones, who was making his exhibition debut after offseason foot surgery. And quarterback Matt Ryan, the league's reigning most valuable player, was off the mark on 7 of his 11 passes. Falcons head coach Dan Quinn has not been pleased with the offense's rushing attack during the exhibition season. Freeman is set to return to practice on Monday and should give them a boost in practice. "Devonta Freeman, you'll see back," Quinn said a day after an exhibition game loss to the Cardinals. "He'll return to play (Monday) in some individual (drills). So, that part is good from an injury standpoint." Freeman, a two-time Pro Bowl player, is in the final stages of the league's five-step concussion protocol. He left practice Aug. 13 and has not practiced since. "He's still going through the protocol and part of that is returning to practice," Quinn said. "He'll do some individual work. ... He'll start the return-to-play process with us beginning (on Monday)." The Falcons' exhibition finale is scheduled for Thursday at home against the Jaguars and Quinn has already declared Freeman out for the game. Freeman agreed to a five-year, $41.25 million contract extension that made him the highest-paid running back in the league earlier this month. The deal had a $15 million signing bonus and included $22 million in guaranteed money. Last season, Freeman had 1,079 rushing yards with 11 touchdowns and 462 receiving yards with two touchdowns. In his three-year career, Freeman has rushed for 2,383 yards and 23 touchdowns. Running back Brian Hill (ankle), a fifth-round pick from Wyoming, was battling for the third running back spot. He was declared out for the exhibition season finale with an ankle injury. The injury hurts for Hill, who appears to be behind Terron Ward for the third running back spot. "Brian, for sure, would have gotten extended carries again (against Jacksonville)," Quinn said. "We tried to feature him in each of the games to see what he can do. Really, in this system, to get more reps." That Ward is playing better is no surprise to Quinn. "It's Terron Ward's third year in the system," Quinn said. "That's over 30-something games for him watching and practicing and getting the looks at it. Brian is still gaining experience in it. For him to miss a week, this week, all of it counts, especially when you're first learning." The Falcons are high on Hill, but he's off to a slow start rushing the football. "He's improving, Brian is, on special teams," Quinn said. "We are going to keep working like crazy on offense. One of the areas of emphasis heading into the summer was catching out the backfield. It wasn't a big part of what he did at Wyoming. He's certainly improved in that area." Ryan tried to connect on a couple of deep passes for Jones, but both were off the mark. "We are going to take some opportunities down the field and give our guys chances," Ryan said. "They didn't work out and that'll be something that we talk about moving forward. That's part of the game. You're going to give your guys chances down the field. Some are going to hit and some don't." Notes, Quotes Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was elated for his pal, Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who was made the highest paid player in the league on Monday. They vacation and play golf together. The Lions and Stafford agreed to a five-year $135 million contract, with $92 million of it guaranteed. "I'm happy for Matthew," Ryan said. "Obviously, he's played really well on a high level for a long time. I'm happy for him. It's well deserved." Ryan is set to make a base salary of $15.75 million in 2017 and $19.25 million in 2018. Ryan will likely get an extension in the offseason and won't play the 2018 season on his last contract, which was worth $103.75 million over six years. "He's another guy," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said recently of team contract talks. "He's got a couple more years. We are going to settle in after this (running back Devonta Freeman) deal and see how the season goes on everything. Rest assured our time will come with Matt for sure. He knows that and we know that." Ryan is fine with offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian calling plays from the sideline. Last season, the Falcons led the league in scoring at 33.8 points per game with former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan calling plays from the press box. "I've done it every which way with the coordinators throughout the years," Ryan said. "It's whatever they are most comfortable with. He's done a good job on the sidelines for us." Former Falcons coordinator Mike Mularkey called his game from upstairs from 2008 to 2011). Dirk Koetter, who was the offensive coordinator from 2012 to 2014, called from upstairs and the sidelines. "He's a guy who's done it from the sidelines for most of his career," Ryan said of Sarkisian. "Maybe that's where he feels most comfortable, but we'll be good either way." Strategy & Personnel PLAYER NOTES RB Devonta Freeman was cleared from the league's concussion protocol program and returned to practice. He was wearing a black no-contact jersey. FS Damontae Kazee (ankle injury) was working off to the side with the trainers. T Austin Pasztor (pectoral injury) was limited in practice and will not play in the exhibition finale against Jacksonville. T Kevin Graf (ankle) was declared out of the exhibition finale on Thursday against Jacksonville by head coach Dan Quinn. LB LaRoy Reynolds (chest) was declared out of the exhibition finale on Thursday against Jacksonville by head coach Dan Quinn. Reynolds, a reserve and special teams player, had started three games at weak-side linebacker this preseason. QB Matt Ryan was 4 of 11 for 36 yards and one interception against the Cardinals. DE Jack Crawford had a sack and a forced fumble against the Cardinals. SS Keanu Neal had a forced fumble against the Cardinals. CB Jalen Collins had a forced fumble against the Cardinals. TO BE DETERMINED With Falcons LB LaRoy Reynolds out with a chest injury, rookie Duke Riley appears to have a shot at the starting weak-side linebacker spot. "We've been very encouraged by where he's at, at this point," Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said. "We see him taking on a big role for us at this linebacker spot." Riley was selected in the third round (75th overall) of this year's draft out of LSU. He played 32 snaps on defense in the 24-14 loss to the Cardinals and spent some time with the first unit. He had two tackles, a tackle for a loss and a fumble recovery. "This week we felt that Duke made a really big jump," Quinn said. "It started back in practice in terms of the speed (and) the physicality that showed him playing even more downhill."
  10. Link to article Atlanta Falcons INSIDE SLANT Inside Slant | Notes, Quotes | Strategy and Personnel | Player Wire Top pick McKinley has strong first Falcons practice The Atlanta Falcons were looking to add a pass rusher opposite for Vic Beasley in the draft. When they saw the pass rushers flying off the draft board, they made a move to trade up in the draft five spots to land Takkarist McKinley of UCLA. McKinley missed the offseason while recovering from shoulder surgery. He was cleared before the outset of training camp, but Falcons coach Dan Quinn slowly worked him back into the operation. On a third-down in 11-on-11 in his first practice on Tuesday, he zoomed past starting left tackle Jake Matthews and sacked quarterback Matt Ryan. The Falcons are hoping he has plenty more sacks in his 6-2, 250-pound frame. "I'm back to football, back to what I love doing," McKinley said. McKinley was selected 26th overall in the 2017 draft. He had surgery to repair a torn labrum and the glenoid socket in his right shoulder on March 6. McKinley won over the fans with a passionate speech on draft night about how he wanted to honor his grandmother, who raised him. He was so emotional that he let loose with a few expletives. After his first practice, McKinley had a long session with defensive line coach Bryant Young. "We are just getting started with him," Quinn said. "We are anxious to put the work in over the next month." While out and not allowed to attend OTAs or minicamp because of the NFL academic rules for schools on the quarter system, McKinley picked up the defensive scheme during his Facetime session with Young. "Between him and Bryant Young, they did a good job together," Quinn said. "They had to put the work in. That was his way to show I'm committed and I'm in. ... Although there was some frustration about (not) playing, (he) could still do (his) part from a scheme standpoint. ... I have to commend him for putting in the work over the summer to get ready." McKinley admitted that he had some butterflies in his stomach. "I was nervous," McKinley said. "It was my first time in pads since November. To be able to go out there and play football again, felt real good." McKinley wasn't perfect in his first practice. "The biggest thing is to play fast," McKinley said. "I know coming out as a rookie that I'll make a few mistakes, but as long as I'm playing fast and hustling to the ball, I'll be good." McKinley felt well about how he performed. "Those were my first one-on-ones," McKinley said. "I was just trying to go with a bull rush and try to show of my strength and stuff like that. To be honest that might be my only rush so far, just to kind of help the shoulder feel better." McKinley's knows there will be some adjustments to the NFL game. "The tackles are bigger, stronger and more athletic," McKinley said. "They are faster. The game is faster. "The quarterbacks ... you might have a freshman quarterback who takes his time at the line (in college), but in practice you are going against Matt Ryan and it's quick. In the NFL, you've got Cam (Newton) and (Tom) Brady and whoever else. The games will go by much faster. It's all about knowing your plays, getting lined up and going." Notes, Quotes Falcons wide receiver Taylor Gabriel believes the team has moved past its collapse in Super Bowl LI. "We had a team meeting before we came back and (coach Dan Quinn) told anybody has anything on your chest, get it off your chest right now," Gabriel said. "It was a group setting, and after that meeting our focus has been this year. I feel like everybody feels that way. At the end of the day, we have to move on." Gabriel didn't speak up. "I felt like there wasn't any need to say anything," Gabriel said. "We all came back. We were upset about the outcome. ... As long as we stay focused, we went to a Super Bowl last year so there was nothing we did wrong. "If anything, I feel like it makes us hungrier." Gabriel is limited in practice as he recovers from a leg injury. He's been catching puts and checking with the officials on how high he has to raise his hand on fair catches. "I'm feeling good," Gabriel said. "As long as I get to 100 percent, I feel like I'll be OK. That's the goal, getting 100 percent before I go out there (full time). I don't want to go out there at 65 percent and hurt myself again. "The training staff has been great. I'm close, just going out there getting my confidence back getting in and out of my breaks." Gabriel, who was claimed on waivers from Cleveland at the start of last season, believes the wide receiving corps will be strong again in 2017. "We had 13 different guys score (receiving) touchdowns, not just (wide receivers). ... It's all around the board," Gabriel said. "When you sit back and look at our group, I feel like there's really no downfall. Everybody's competing for a spot." The rookies, including former Georgia wide receiver Reggie Davis, are doing well, too. "He looks good, and a lot of other younger dudes look good," Gabriel said. "It's very surprising how far along they are." Former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield was at the Falcons' morning practice on Tuesday. Falcons coach Dan Quinn is a big fight fan and had Holyfield break down the team after practice. The players got a kick out of meeting Holyfield and took pictures with him. Normally in training camp, teams might be a little sloppy after a day off. But the Falcons returned to practice strong on Tuesday after having Monday off. "For us to have the off day and push each other like we did, I was encouraged by that," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. Strategy & Personnel Falcons outside linebacker Vic Beasley, who led the league in sacks last season with 15.5, is excited about the team's defensive prospects. The defense needs to make a major move under first-year defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel. The Falcons, playing seven first- or second-year players, last season ranked 26th in rushing yards per play (4.52 yards), 28th in passing yards (266.7), 26th in sacks per pass attempts (5.19), tied for 29th in first downs per game (22.4), 26th in third-down percentage (41.78), 32nd in red-zone percentage (72.73) and 27th in points allowed (25.4). With the addition of defensive tackle Dontari Poe, defensive ends Jack Crawford and Takkarist McKinley and the return of Derrick Shelby from a rupture Achilles injury, Beasley likes the unit's prospects. "I'm looking forward to seeing what this team can do," Beasley said. Beasley, who was taken eighth overall in the 2015 draft, had four sacks as a rookie before busting out last season. He's beaming with more confidence. "It did a lot," Beasley said when asked if last season boosted his confidence. "I feel like our defense can feed off each other, and we can be the best that we can be." Beasley likes Manuel's approach to running the defense. "Oh, he's a great coach," Beasley said. "Having him last year as the defensive backfield coach, I knew that he would be a great defensive coordinator. Having him in that position has been great so far and I know he's going to continue to do great things in the future." PLAYER NOTES RB Devonta Freeman, who's hoping to sign a contract extension, reportedly has taken out a $10 million insurance policy. He's set to make $1.8 million in 2017. WR Julio Jones (foot surgery) remains limited in practice. He was catching passes along the sidelines on Tuesday. WR Devin Fuller sustained a torn ACL on Friday and is out for the season. He suffered the injury in a non-contact drill. Fuller, who was drafted in the seventh round out of UCLA last year, was placed on injured reserve last year after sustaining a shoulder injury during the exhibition season. CB Jalen Collins, who started in the Super Bowl, was working with the third-team defense on Tuesday. He was also on the special teams knit-cap/scout team. WR Mohamed Sanu made a spectacular catch on a deep pass from Matt Ryan on Tuesday. WR Bra'Lon Cherry was signed on Friday. He played at N.C. State. WR Reginald Davis III also signed on Friday. State. Davis, who's 6-foot and 185 pounds, played at Texas Tech. Davis signed as an undrafted free agent May 1, and the Falcons waived him May 18. BATTLE OF THE WEEK Cornerback Jalen Collins, who started in the Super Bowl, was working with the third-team defense on Tuesday. He was also on the special teams knit-cap/scout team. Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford are working with the first-team. C.J Goodwin and Deja Olatoye were working with the second team. Collins took over for Alford at right cornerback down the stretch of last season after Trufant went out because of a pectoral injury. Alford moved over to left cornerback. UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS: QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Matt Ryan. Backups - Matt Schaub, Matt Simms, Alek Torgersen. Ryan thrived under offensive coordinators Mike Mularkey and Dirk Koetter, when protected, for the first seven seasons of his career. He had a bumpy 2015 season, with a 21-to-16 touchdown-to-interception ratio while adjusting to then-coordinator Kyle Shanahan's scheme. With a year under his belt in Shanahan's system, Ryan was nearly flawless in 2016 and guided the franchise to its second Super Bowl appearance since starting play in 1966. Ryan was absolutely dynamic as he threw touchdown passes to 13 receivers. With some pinpoint accuracy, Ryan led the league's top-scoring offense, setting franchise records in passing yards (4,944) and touchdowns (38). He started all 16 games and completed 373 of 534 passes (69.9 completion percentage; third in the NFL), with only seven interceptions and a 117.1 passer rating. Schaub returns to serve as his backup. RUNNING BACKS: Starters Devonta Freeman. FB Derrick Coleman. Backups Tevin Coleman, Terron Ward, Brian Hill, B.J. Daniels, FB Tyler Renew. Freeman is set to make $1.838 million in 2017, but would like a contract extension. The team is not expecting any issues despite rumblings from Freeman's representation that surfaced at the Super Bowl. While the Falcons hope to continue the blend of Freeman and Coleman, they drafted Hill in the fifth round. He must beat out Ward while they attempt to replace fullback Patrick DiMarco with Coleman, a former Seattle standout. Freeman and Coleman combined for 1,599 rushing yards, and 85 receptions, 883 receiving yards and 24 combined touchdowns. Hill is the wild card and perhaps insurance if Freeman's negotiations go off the rails. If Hill turns out to be the player that the Falcons scouted in college, he'll be quite the change-of-pace and perhaps a solution for the team's short-yardage woes. TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Austin Hooper. Backups - Levine Toilolo, Joshua Perkins, D.J. Tialavea, Eric Saubert, Darion Griswold. The Falcons are passing the baton at tight end from Jacob Tamme to Hooper, a second-year player. The Falcons elected not to re-sign Tamme, in part because of Hooper's promise. With Toilolo and Perkins, the tight-end group was productive in 2016, catching 10 touchdowns passes: Tamme (three), Hooper (three), Toilolo (two), Perkins one) and Tialavea (one). In the playoffs, Hooper caught six passes for 65 yards and one touchdown. Toilolo caught three passes for 31 yards. Toilolo will remain a key cog in the run game and in pass protection. WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu. Backups - Taylor Gabriel, Justin Hardy, Andre Roberts, Reggie Davis, Marvin Hall, Devin Fuller, Nick Williams, Anthony Dable, Deante Burton, Josh Magee, Bra'lon Cherry, Reginald Davis. Despite being slowed by injuries, Jones turned in another spectacular season with 83 catches for 1,409 yards and six touchdown catches. In the playoffs, Jones made 19 catches for 334 yards and three touchdowns. Sanu had a career-high 59 catches for 653 yards and four touchdowns last season. Gabriel had the highest passer rating of any receiver on passes thrown to him in 2016, according to Pro Football Focus' unofficial data. The rating of 148.1 on balls thrown to Gabriel last season was significantly better than the second-best rating of 129.8 on passes to Patriots wide receiver Chris Hogan. Gabriel finished with 35 catches for 579 yards and six touchdowns, playing as the No. 3 receiver behind Jones and Sanu. Hardy and Roberts provide quality depth. OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Jake Matthews, LG Andy Levitre, C Alex Mack, RG Wes Schweitzer, RT Ryan Schraeder. Backups - T Kevin Graf, T Will Freeman, T Daniel Brunskill, T Andreas Knappe, C Ben Garland, C Travis Averill, G Ben Garland, G Marquis Lucas, G Sean Harlow, G Cornelius Edison, T Larson Graham. In all 19 games last season, the Falcons started the same offensive line. With the retirement of right guard Chris Chester, there will be a new starter in 2017. Mack, who was named second-team All-Pro, helped the Falcons be Pro Football Focus's sixth-ranked overall offensive line in the NFL last season, grading out as the team's best run blocker and overall offensive lineman. Schraeder was rewarded with a five-year, $32 million contract extension last season. Matthews, who was selected sixth overall in 2014, needs to step up to Pro-Bowl level. They must find a backup swing tackle to replace veteran Tom Compton, who signed with the Chicago Bears in free agency. DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - DLE Vic Beasley Jr., DT Grady Jarrett, NT Dontari Poe, DRE Adrian Clayborn. Backups - DE Takkarist McKinley, DE Martin Ifedi, DE Jack Crawford, DE Derrick Shelby, DE Chris Odom, DT Courtney Upshaw, DT Taniela Tupou, DT Ra'Shede Hageman, DT Joe Vellano. Improving the defensive line was the Falcons' highest priority this offseason as they poured $28.5 million into the renovation project. After saying goodbye to former defensive line coach Bryan Cox and hiring Bryant Young, they signed Poe (one year, $8 million) and Crawford (three years, $10.3 million) in free agency and drafted McKinley (four years, $10.2 million). The team elected not to re-sign 12-year veteran Jonathan Babineaux and released veteran Tyson Jackson. With a stouter interior of Poe and Jarrett, the Falcons are hoping that Beasley can build on his breakthrough season in which he led the league in sacks with 15.5. Clayborn can also be a factor in the pass rush. LINEBACKERS: Starters - WLB Kemal Ishmael, MLB Deion Jones, SLB DeVondre Campbell. Backups - Brooks Reed, Jack Lynn, LaRoy Reynolds, Josh Keyes, Duke Riley, Jermaine Grace, J'Terius Jones. Stardom is predicted for Deion Jones, set to enter his second season in the league. He had a dynamic rookie season and is trying to get more vocal as the team's defensive signal-caller. He also wants to add some weight and play between 230 and 235 this season. Jones led the rookie class with 108 tackles and three interceptions last season. He also had 14 passes defended, which was third-most among rookies. Campbell played 11 games, starting 10. He rang up 48 tackles, seven pass breakups and a pick. Ishamel is making the move from safety and must hold off a challenge from Riley. Reynolds is a quality backup. Grace is another speedy linebacker with a chance to contribute. DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Desmond Trufant, RCB Robert Alford, FS Ricardo Allen, SS Keanu Neal. Backups - CB C.J. Goodwin, CB Akeem King, CB Janor Jones, CB Brian Poole, CB Blidi-Wreh-Wilson, CB Damontae Kazee, CB Jalen Collins, CB Deji Olatoye, CB Quincy Mauger, FS Sharrod Neasman, FS Marcelis Branch, SS Kemal Ishmael, SS Jordan Moore, SS Deron Washington. Collins was forced to start down the stretch last season. With the return of Trufant from pectoral surgery, the Falcons now have some quality depth at the position. Collins slid down the depth chart after he was suspended for the first four games of last season. He started the final six games of the regular season and three playoff games. He played 428 defensive snaps (38.3 percent) during the regular season. He compiled 48 tackles, including 10 in the Super Bowl, 12 pass breakups and two interceptions. With Trufant, Alford, Poole and Collins all seasoned now, the Falcons have some options to mix and match their coverages better. Neal played roughly 83 percent of the team's snaps, third-most on the defense. He played his highest snap percentage (40) at down low at linebacker level, according to Pro Football Focus' unofficial data. Neal is expecting more of the same with some additional middle-of-the-field duties. Allen made the transition from cornerback to free safety. He played 1,101 defensive snaps (99.1 percent), most on the team last season, in just his second year at free safety. Drafted as a cornerback in the fifth round of the 2014 draft out of Purdue, Allen was cut and then made his way back to the roster from the practice squad. SPECIAL TEAMS: K Matt Bryant, K Mike Meyer, P Matt Bosher, LS Josh Harris, KOR Andre Roberts, PR Andre Roberts. When the Falcons elected not to re-sign Eric Weems, that created at least three openings on the special-teams units. Weems, a former Pro Bowler, was a coverage player, and the punt and kickoff returner. Roberts signed in free agency and will get the first shot at kickoff and punt returner jobs. Roberts averaged 22.2 yards on kickoff returns and 11.7 on punt returns with two touchdowns last season for Detroit. Meyer is a player to watch just because Bryant turned 42. Bosher is back as a weapon on kickoffs and with his superior directional punting skills.
  11. Link to Article Atlanta Falcons INSIDE SLANT Inside Slant | Notes, Quotes | Strategy and Personnel | Player Wire Falcons must overcome Super Bowl Suck Syndrome The Atlanta Falcons must figure out a way to move on after their historic collapse in Super Bowl LI. After blowing a 28-3 lead and losing 34-28 in overtime, the Falcons will open training camp loaded with talent and positioned for continued success. However, they will have a psychological minefield to navigate. The team started laying the groundwork in the offseason by addressing their issues of success, defeat and then the ultimate football tragedy. Dan Quinn, set to enter his third season as the head coach, spoke with several other professional coaches and front-office executives on how to deal with the major losses. He talked to the NBA's Steve Kerr, whose Golden State Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the finals in 2016. He spoke with Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona, whose team kicked away a 3-1 lead in the World Series last fall. Quinn took the issue head on and had "embrace the suck" bands made. Quarterback Matt Ryan even made a Gatorade commercial about the collapse. When you give up 31 unanswered points in the Super Bowl with millions around the world watching, your issues don't just evaporate. You cannot just sweep it under the rug or throw it into the closet. We even saw Peyton Manning taking shots at the team on the recent ESPY awards. So, it will be a rolling issue, as training camp and the season moves on. The Falcons have the opening of a new stadium to help as a distraction, but they need to get use to addressing it as they move forward. There's also that little fact about no losing Super Bowl team returning to the league's big game the next year since the 1993 Buffalo Bills returned to play in the Super Bowl in January, 1994. "That's an interesting one," said Bob Harmison, the Kibler professor of sports psychology at James Madison. "One, anecdotally, that we look at and say there has to be something to that. Then I don't think anybody, I'm not familiar with anybody, who's actually looked at that from like a scholarly or empirical sort of way. "I think to me, it's a pretty good reflection that it's pretty **** hard to get to the Super Bowl. There are a lot of things that have to go right for teams to get back to the Super Bowl. It could be a part of, maybe a little bit of a hangover or it takes a lot emotionally to prepare yourself week after week after week to be at that level." In addition to making sure the Falcons are mentally sharp, focused and prepared, there's the issue of good health. Quinn's upbeat approach should be helpful. "It's very simple," said Howard Falco, a self-empowerment expert who's worked with college and professional athletes. "You focus on the positive that got you there and you were ahead all the way through two and a half quarters. You focus on the positive. "The second things is, how does it serve us to look at it in a negative way if we are trying to be champions this season? The simple answer is that it doesn't serve them at all." That's what the offseason was about, addressing the negative part of the collapse. "How you get over the negative is that you don't even think about it," Falco said. "All you're thinking about is this season, this year and what we are going to accomplish based on what we already have built and what we did last season. "Now, they know it is undeniable. They know they got there. Now, they have to keep pushing until they reach that tipping point to where they win." The Falcons played the same offensive line for all 19 games last season. "Then it doesn't take much for the train to be derailed," Harmison said. "You could get an injury here or a lucky play there, and you know that you're not going to get back to that high level of performance." TOP THREE TRAINING CAMP GOALS: Improve the pass rush. To improve there, the Falcons added defensive tackle Dontari Poe and defensive end Jack Crawford in free agency. They also selected Takkarist McKinley in the first round of the draft. While Vic Beasley Jr. had a breakout season and led the league with 15.5 sacks, more pressure is needed from other players in the pass-rush operation. Poe, a two-time Pro Bowler, has only 13 sacks over 78 NFL games. He had a career-high six sacks in 2014. The Falcons believe that Poe and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, who had three sacks in the Super Bowl, can add to the pass rush from the middle of the defense. Stabilize the offensive line depth. The Falcons are thin at the interior line positions and have no one who's started an NFL game behind center Alex Mack and left guard Andy Levitre after placing center/guard Trevor Robinson on the reserve/retired list. Hugh Thornton also retired during the offseason. Both had NFL experience and were signed to minor make-good contracts. The Falcons also lost starting right guard Chris Chester to retirement. Wes Schweitzer and Ben Garland are set to battle to replace Chester and neither has started an NFL game. Robinson, 27, who played at Notre Dame, started seven games with Cincinnati (2012) and 14 with San Diego (2014-15) as a center. Thornton, 25, signed March 21 after playing in 37 games and making 32 starts for the Colts. Get more production out the tight ends. The Falcons targeted their tight ends just 83 times last season, but utilized them well in the red zone as the group scored 10 touchdowns. They can get more involved on third downs and in the regular flow of the passing game. Notes/Quotes The Falcons have a potential situation with running back Devonta Freeman and his contract situation. General manager Thomas Dimitroff and owner Arthur Blank expressed their profound love for Freeman, the person and player. The market for running backs changed drastically with Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles being released from their big-money contracts in Minnesota and Kansas City, respectively. Freeman was watching closely as Pittsburgh was not able to reach a long-term deal with running back Le'Veon Bell. He is set to play for the $12.12 million franchise tag. The Falcons are under no obligation to extend Freeman, set to make $1.8 million on the final year of his rookie contract in 2017. He could then be franchise tagged for the next two seasons. But the Falcons have been discussing a contract extension in some "good-faith" negotiations. A modest to very generous increase is definitely in order, but the Falcons own most of the chips like most teams do in NFL negotiations. His camp wants him to be paid like an "elite" running back. They made it known during Super Bowl week and again during free agency, before trying to distance themselves from tweets from Luther Campbell. The Falcons have remained calm. "It's not going to be a contentious issue in my mind," Dimitroff said during the offseason. "It's going to be one that is going to be fairly quick. We know what the market is and we are confident that we can get something done." Blank said on June 26 that things should be done "fairly soon." With camp set to open in a week, there should be some movement on a deal soon. Some contract clarity is coming. The Falcons have $8,588,895 million available under the salary cap, according to the NFLPA report Tuesday. In another milepost toward next month's opening of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the cranes have been removed from the field and preparations have begun for installation of the artificial turf playing surface. Rookie defensive end Takkarist McKinley's No. 98 jersey ranks No. 8 in jersey sales among NFL rookies on the ***** Sporting Goods Jersey Report. After being taken 26th overall in the draft, McKinley's jersey is the 17th best-selling jersey among NFL defensive players and the third-highest selling Falcons jersey after receiver Julio Jones and quarterback Matt Ryan. TOP SUMMER BATTLE The battle royale of training camp will be between Wes Schweitzer and Ben Garland for the starting right-guard position. The Falcons need a replacement for Chris Chester, who elected to retire during the offseason. Quinn has declared Schweitzer and Garland as the top contenders. The Falcons drafted Sean Harlow in the fourth round and have converted the former Oregon State tackle to guard. Last season, Chester won a battle over Schweitzer, who was selected in the seventh round of the 2016 draft. Garland played on offense and defense last season. The competition is considered a toss-up heading into camp. Schweitzer tried to make the switch from college left tackle to guard last season. "We are excited about where Wes is headed," Quinn said during the offseason. The Falcons started three rookies last season on defense and have not been afraid to get their young talent on the field. Harlow, whose father, Pat, was the 11th pick in the 1991 draft, by New England, will get a good look, too. Strategy & Personnel With a new offensive coordinator and position coach, what will Matt Ryan do for an encore to his MVP season in 2017? The Falcons' franchise quarterback turned 32 on May 17 and appears set to enter the prime of his career. Ryan, who arguably had his worst and best performances the past two seasons under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, has a new offensive coordinator in Steve Sarkisian. "The system is pretty much the same as it was before, which is good," Ryan said. Sarkisian is a former college head coach at Washington and USC who fell out of grace because of alcoholism. He came to the Falcons after a stint at Alabama as an assistant/consultant, and he's never called a game in the NFL. UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS: QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Matt Ryan. Backups - Matt Schaub, Matt Simms, Alek Torgersen. Ryan thrived under offensive coordinators Mike Mularkey and Dirk Koetter, when protected, for the first seven seasons of his career. He had a bumpy 2015 season, with a 21-to-16 touchdown-to-interception ratio while adjusting to then-coordinator Kyle Shanahan's scheme. With a year under his belt in Shanahan's system, Ryan was nearly flawless in 2016 and guided the franchise to its second Super Bowl appearance since starting play in 1966. Ryan was absolutely dynamic as he threw touchdown passes to 13 receivers. With some pinpoint accuracy, Ryan led the league's top-scoring offense, setting franchise records in passing yards (4,944) and touchdowns (38). He started all 16 games and completed 373 of 534 passes (69.9 completion percentage; third in the NFL), with only seven interceptions and a 117.1 passer rating. Schaub returns to serve as his backup. RUNNING BACKS: Starters Devonta Freeman. FB Derrick Coleman. Backups Tevin Coleman, Terron Ward, Brian Hill, B.J. Daniels, FB Tyler Renew. Freeman is set to make $1.838 million in 2017, but would like a contract extension. The team is not expecting any issues despite rumblings from Freeman's representation that surfaced at the Super Bowl. While the Falcons hope to continue the blend of Freeman and Coleman, they drafted Hill in the fifth round. He must beat out Ward while they attempt to replace fullback Patrick DiMarco with Coleman, a former Seattle standout. Freeman and Coleman combined for 1,599 rushing yards, and 85 receptions, 883 receiving yards and 24 combined touchdowns. Hill is the wild card and perhaps insurance if Freeman's negotiations go off the rails. If Hill turns out to be the player that the Falcons scouted in college, he'll be quite the change-of-pace and perhaps a solution for the team's short-yardage woes. TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Austin Hooper. Backups - Levine Toilolo, Joshua Perkins, D.J. Tialavea, Eric Saubert, Darion Griswold. The Falcons are passing the baton at tight end from Jacob Tamme to Hooper, a second-year player. The Falcons elected not to re-sign Tamme, in part because of Hooper's promise. With Toilolo and Perkins, the tight-end group was productive in 2016, catching 10 touchdowns passes: Tamme (three), Hooper (three), Toilolo (two), Perkins one) and Tialavea (one). In the playoffs, Hooper caught six passes for 65 yards and one touchdown. Toilolo caught three passes for 31 yards. Toilolo will remain a key cog in the run game and in pass protection. WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu. Backups - Taylor Gabriel, Justin Hardy, Andre Roberts, Reggie Davis, Marvin Hall, Devin Fuller, Nick Williams, Anthony Dable, Deante Burton, Josh Magee. Despite being slowed by injuries, Jones turned in another spectacular season with 83 catches for 1,409 yards and six touchdown catches. In the playoffs, Jones made 19 catches for 334 yards and three touchdowns. Sanu had a career-high 59 catches for 653 yards and four touchdowns last season. Gabriel had the highest passer rating of any receiver on passes thrown to him in 2016, according to Pro Football Focus' unofficial data. The rating of 148.1 on balls thrown to Gabriel last season was significantly better than the second-best rating of 129.8 on passes to Patriots wide receiver Chris Hogan. Gabriel finished with 35 catches for 579 yards and six touchdowns, playing as the No. 3 receiver behind Jones and Sanu. Hardy and Roberts provide quality depth. OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Jake Matthews, LG Andy Levitre, C Alex Mack, RG Wes Schweitzer, RT Ryan Schraeder. Backups - T Kevin Graf, T Will Freeman, T Daniel Brunskill, T Andreas Knappe, C Ben Garland, C Travis Averill, C Cam Keizur, G Ben Garland, G Marquis Lucas, G Sean Harlow, G Cornelius Edison. In all 19 games last season, the Falcons started the same offensive line. With the retirement of right guard Chris Chester, there will be a new starter in 2017. Mack, who was named second-team All-Pro, helped the Falcons be Pro Football Focus's sixth-ranked overall offensive line in the NFL last season, grading out as the team's best run blocker and overall offensive lineman. Schraeder was rewarded with a five-year, $32 million contract extension last season. Matthews, who was selected sixth overall in 2014, needs to step up to Pro-Bowl level. They must find a backup swing tackle to replace veteran Tom Compton, who signed with the Chicago Bears in free agency. DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - DLE Vic Beasley Jr., DT Grady Jarrett, NT Dontari Poe, DRE Adrian Clayborn. Backups - DE Takkarist McKinley, DE Martin Ifedi, DE Jack Crawford, DE Derrick Shelby, DE Chris Odom, DT Courtney Upshaw, DT Taniela Tupou, DT Ra'Shede Hageman, DT Joe Vellano. Improving the defensive line was the Falcons' highest priority this offseason as they poured $28.5 million into the renovation project. After saying goodbye to former defensive line coach Bryan Cox and hiring Bryant Young, they signed Poe (one year, $8 million) and Crawford (three years, $10.3 million) in free agency and drafted McKinley (four years, $10.2 million). The team elected not to re-sign 12-year veteran Jonathan Babineaux and released veteran Tyson Jackson. With a stouter interior of Poe and Jarrett, the Falcons are hoping that Beasley can build on his breakthrough season in which he led the league in sacks with 15.5. Clayborn can also be a factor in the pass rush. LINEBACKERS: Starters - WLB Kemal Ishmael, MLB Deion Jones, SLB DeVondre Campbell. Backups - Brooks Reed, Jack Lynn, LaRoy Reynolds, Josh Keyes, Duke Riley, Jermaine Grace, J'Terius Jones. Stardom is predicted for Deion Jones, set to enter his second season in the league. He had a dynamic rookie season and is trying to get more vocal as the team's defensive signal-caller. He also wants to add some weight and play between 230 and 235 this season. Jones led the rookie class with 108 tackles and three interceptions last season. He also had 14 passes defended, which was third-most among rookies. Campbell played 11 games, starting 10. He rang up 48 tackles, seven pass breakups and a pick. Ishamel is making the move from safety and must hold off a challenge from Riley. Reynolds is a quality backup. Grace is another speedy linebacker with a chance to contribute. DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Desmond Trufant, RCB Robert Alford, FS Ricardo Allen, SS Keanu Neal. Backups - CB C.J. Goodwin, CB Akeem King, CB Janor Jones, CB Taylor Reynolds, CB Brian Poole, CB Blidi-Wreh-Wilson, CB Damontae Kazee, CB Jalen Collins, CB Deji Olatoye, CB Quincy Mauger, FS Sharrod Neasman, FS Marcelis Branch, SS Kemal Ishmael, SS Jordan Moore, SS Deron Washington. Collins was forced to start down the stretch last season. With the return of Trufant from pectoral surgery, the Falcons now have some quality depth at the position. Collins slid down the depth chart after he was suspended for the first four games of last season. He started the final six games of the regular season and three playoff games. He played 428 defensive snaps (38.3 percent) during the regular season. He compiled 48 tackles, including 10 in the Super Bowl, 12 pass breakups and two interceptions. With Trufant, Alford, Poole and Collins all seasoned now, the Falcons have some options to mix and match their coverages better. Neal played roughly 83 percent of the team's snaps, third-most on the defense. He played his highest snap percentage (40) at down low at linebacker level, according to Pro Football Focus' unofficial data. Neal is expecting more of the same with some additional middle-of-the-field duties. Allen made the transition from cornerback to free safety. He played 1,101 defensive snaps (99.1 percent), most on the team last season, in just his second year at free safety. Drafted as a cornerback in the fifth round of the 2014 draft out of Purdue, Allen was cut and then made his way back to the roster from the practice squad. SPECIAL TEAMS: K Matt Bryant, K Mike Meyer, P Matt Bosher, LS Josh Harris, KOR Andre Roberts, PR Andre Roberts. When the Falcons elected not to re-sign Eric Weems, that created at least three openings on the special-teams units. Weems, a former Pro Bowler, was a coverage player, and the punt and kickoff returner. Roberts signed in free agency and will get the first shot at kickoff and punt returner jobs. Roberts averaged 22.2 yards on kickoff returns and 11.7 on punt returns with two touchdowns last season for Detroit. Meyer is a player to watch just because Bryant turned 42. Bosher is back as a weapon on kickoffs and with his superior directional punting skills.
  12. Link to article Atlanta Falcons INSIDE SLANT Inside Slant | Notes, Quotes | Strategy and Personnel | Player Wire After bitter loss to Chiefs, Falcons found their way Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn noticed a different team after his team's devastating 29-28 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Dec. 4. It wasn't an artistic gem, but the Chiefs needed a pick-six, a two-point conversion returned for two points and a fake punt to score a touchdown to pull out the victory. The Falcons knew they outplayed the Chiefs, but their blunders were too costly to overcome. So the team set out to eliminate those miscues down the stretch and it started at the top with quarterback Matt Ryan, who was bested twice in the game by Kansas City safety Eric Berry. Atlanta tried to improve each week and won its final four regular-season games to claim the NFC's second seed. They took that momentum into the playoffs and are set to face the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI after steam-rolling the Green Bay Packers 44-21 in the NFC Championship Game. The Falcons will make their first Super Bowl appearance since their first during the 1998 regular season. New England is set to make its ninth overall Super Bowl appearance. Patriots coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady are making their seventh trip together. "That's not within my control," Quinn said about the Patriots' advantage in terms of Super Bowl experience. "We are not going to make that up in two weeks." The Falcons are in the early stages of their evaluation of the Patriots. "When we get to the game, it's still going to be the game," Quinn said. "Our process of getting ready is not going to change. Those things will stay consistent." Quinn was Seattle's defensive coordinator when the Seattle Seahawks lost to New England in Super Bowl XLIX. He's seen Tom Brady and the Patriots offense up close. "It's an offense that's well-versed," Quinn said. "They have different ways that they can attack you." With Atlanta ahead 44-21 late, Pro Bowl quarterback Aaron Rodgers was pulled from the game. He completed 27 of 45 passes for 287 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, but never came closing to finding the magical rhythm he played with as the Packers (12-7) won their final six regular-season games and two playoff games. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan won the battle of his more celebrated counterpart. He completed 27 of 38 for 392 yards and four touchdowns. He also ran three times for 23 yards and a score. Atlanta did not turn the ball over. The Packers coughed it up twice. Quinn was proud that his young defense was able to shut out Rodgers for nearly three quarters. "It was a good mixture between our zone and man (defense)," Quinn said. "We are just doing things better." The Falcons' last Super Bowl bid was botched before it started when safety Eugene Robinson was arrested for solicitation the night before the game. Quinn doesn't anticipate that he'll have a problem of that nature this time around. "On some teams that I've been on you might have worried, but not this team," Quinn said. "This team is so tight and the accountability that they have for one another is so strong. They are playing for something bigger than themselves." Notes, Quotes After beating the Packers in the NFC championship game on Sunday, the Falcons didn't know who they would face in Super Bowl LI. Atlanta wide receiver Julio Jones said it wouldn't matter. Jones said that if the Falcons continue playing at a high level, they would defeat either the Patriots or Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl on Feb. 5. They will play the Patriots. "Yeah, I would say so," Jones said. "Because at the end of the day it doesn't matter about who we are playing and what we are doing. It's all about us. If we go out there and don't have any mistakes or things setting us back, most definitely (we will win)." The Packers can attest to just how difficult it is to stop the Falcons. "We ran into a buzzsaw," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "Those guys performed great and we didn't have enough to keep up with them with where we are." Falcons defensive end Dwight Freeney, the 15-year veteran, will make his third trip to Super Bowl. A few months ago, he wasn't even sure he'd play football again. He was convinced that he could be a pass-rushing specialist and signed a one-year contract with Atlanta. He went to the Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts after the 2006 and '09 seasons, beating the Chicago Bears and losing to the New Orleans Saints. Freeney, 36, appreciates his third Super Bowl trip the most. "In a way, you do because you're older and you realize these moments don't come often so you kind of take a second and take it all in, all the moments," Freeney said. "That's what's been happening this whole process for me ... taking it all in because I don't know when it will happen again (or) if it will ever happen again." Freeney came close last season, reaching the NFC Championship Game with the Arizona Cardinals before losing to the NFC champion Carolina Panthers. "I told the guys there's nothing we can do in these moments, but get better," he said. "We started to get hot at the right time. All the stuff that happens in the regular season is to try to get ready to get in this position. Anything can happen in the playoffs." Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is still in the running for the San Francisco head coaching vacancy. Under Shanahan, who's in his second season with the Falcons, the offense led the league in scoring with 540 points. Shanahan is free to meet with the 49ers on Saturday. The Falcons will leave for Houston on Sunday. Shanahan is the son of former NFL coach Mike Shanahan, who guided the Denver Broncos to two Super Bowl titles including Super XXXIII over the Falcons. Strategy & Personnel PLAYER NOTES C Alex Mack left the game for one play in the second quarter with an apparent left foot injury when running back Devonta Freeman rolled over it on a stuffed running play. QB Matt Ryan completed 27 of 38 passes for 392 yards and four touchdowns in the win over the Packers. He had a passer rating of 139.4. Ryan is the first quarterback in NFL history to throw at least three touchdown passes in four consecutive postseason games. WR Julio Jones caught nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns against the Packers. FS Ricardo Allen had a key second-quarter interception against the Packers. CB Jalen Collins had a key second-quarter forced-fumble and recovery inside the red zone against the Packers. CB Brian Poole led the Falcons with seven tackles and had two quarterback hurries in the NFC Championship Game. He laid two solid hits on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. REPORT CARD VS. PACKERS PASSING OFFENSE: A Matt Ryan passed for 271 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. Julio Jones made the Packers pay for trying to cover him man-to-man and took a crossing route 73 yards for a touchdown on the first possession of the third quarter. Ryan's four passing touchdowns were the most in a single postseason game in franchise history. He became the first player with four touchdown passes in a conference championship game since Kurt Warner with the Cardinals in 2008 against the Philadelphia Eagles. Ryan now has 16 postseason touchdowns, which ties him with Bernie Kosar for 24th on the NFL's all-time list. RUSHING OFFENSE: B Ryan was the leading rusher on two carries for 23 yards in the first half. Ryan recorded a rushing touchdown, the first of his postseason career and his first since 2012. The 14-yard touchdown run was the longest touchdown run of his career, and he is the only quarterback in franchise history to have a rushing touchdown in the postseason. PASS DEFENSE: B-minus Jalen Collins was beaten early for a 17-yard gain by Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson, but he settled in. Ra'Shede Hagemen had a nice one-handed sack. Brian Poole laid two big hits on Rodgers in the second quarter. The Falcons' defense sacked Rodgers twice, extending their streak to 17 straight games with a sack (including postseason). The team also forced two turnovers their 13th in the last six games. RUSH DEFENSE: A The unit held up as the Packers really didn't try to test the run defense early. When they did, Collins stripped Green Bay running back Aaron Ripkowski of the ball and made the recovery. SPECIAL TEAMS: B The coverage units were steady and controlled Green Bay's return men. Punter Matt Bosher placed his two punts inside the 20. Eric Weems returned one punt 14 yards. COACHING: A Coach Dan Quinn had the team ready to play in all three phases. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and Ryan masterfully cut up the middle of Green Bay's zone defenses. The Falcons started off the game by scoring on their eighth straight opening drive. The offense finished with 493 total yards, which was a playoff franchise-record. The Falcons also became the fifth team since the merger to score 44-plus points in a conference championship game. The team has also scored 30-plus points in six straight games (including playoffs). The defense attacked Rodgers and never let him get in command of the game.
  13. Link to article Atlanta Falcons INSIDE SLANT Inside Slant | Notes, Quotes | Strategy and Personnel | Player Wire Ryan tests MVP title vs. Packers, Rodgers The Pro Football Writers of America selected quarterback Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons as the NFL's 2016 Most Valuable Player and Offensive Player of the Year. Ryan is the first Falcons' player to earn PFWA's MVP award in its 43-year history and is a top candidate for the Associated Press MVP Award, which was voted on before the playoffs and will be announced during Super Bowl week. Ryan already has been voted to the 2016 Associated Press All-Pro team and the Pro Bowl. It was his first All-Pro selection and fourth Pro Bowl honor. Ryan has passed for a franchise-record 4,944 yards with 38 touchdowns and only seven interceptions while completing a career-high 69.9 percent of his passes. The Falcons earned the NFC's No. 2 seed are set to face the Green Bay Packers in the NFC championship game Sunday at the Georgia Dome. Ryan will face quarterback Aaron Rodgers of the Packers, another MVP candidate, who has led Green Bay to eight straight victories since the Pack was 4-6. "I don't specifically have to go out on the field and defend Aaron (Rodgers) which is a good thing for us," Ryan said. "It's fun. I've played against him a number of times and I've gotten to know him throughout the years. He's a good friend and I respect him so much because he's such a great competitor." Rodgers knocked Ryan and the Falcons out of the playoffs as the No. 6 seed back in Jan. 2011 with a 48-21 pasting. The Falcons took a switchblade to a gunfight and couldn't keep up in what turned out to be a shootout. "Regardless of the situation, he goes out there, competes hard and plays really well week in and week out," Ryan said. "He's had an unbelievable year. "For me, I think once we get into it it's about trying to do the best we can against their defense and focusing on how well we can play. At the end of the day, that's where my focus will be at on Sunday." Ryan has studied Rodgers' ability to make plays out of the pocket. "He makes a lot of really good plays and he's not just been doing it last week," Ryan said. "He's been doing it for his entire career. He's a great player. There is no question about it and has made some great plays throughout his career." Ryan carries the burden of having not taken his team to the Super Bowl. He's not sure if that will be required to be considered in Rodgers' class. "I don't know," Ryan said. "It's not really for me to decide. I don't think about it all that much. I think one thing I've learned throughout my career is that if you sit there and you're worrying about all these things that don't make a difference for this week, your focus is not where it should be. "Would it be nice to do that and all those things that you mentioned? Absolutely, but it's not going to help us Sunday. At the end of the day, the only thing that really matters is trying to focus all of my energy and my mental preparation toward what's going to have us play our best Sunday. "I don't think about those things all that often and certainly not this time of the year." Notes, Quotes Falcons All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones did not practice Wednesday because of a lingering foot injury. "We will get him more work as the week goes on," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. Quinn said earlier in the week that there is no doubt Jones will play against the Packers. Jones has dealt with foot/toe issues for more than a month. He didn't finish the divisional playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks on Saturday after he was in and out of the game several times. Jones played 42 of 72 offensive snaps (58 percent) against Seattle and caught six passes for 67 yards with a touchdown. Jones played the final two games of the regular season after missing two games because of a sprained left toe, but hasn't regained his usual form. In victories over the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, Jones didn't appear to have his usual explosiveness and periodically took himself out of the games. When the Falcons' playoff run is completed, the San Francisco 49ers hopes to name Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan as their new head coach. While it's not 100 percent certain Shanahan will say yes, owner Arthur Blank became aware of San Francisco's level of interest last week when he spoke to 49ers owner Jed York at NFL owners meetings. "I know (Shanahan) has been interviewed and I know he has interest," Blank said. "I saw Jed York at an owners' meeting and we chatted a little bit about his candidate pool. I spoke highly of Kyle. We'll see what happens." Blank said losing Shanahan, who with quarterback Matt Ryan has orchestrated the NFL's highest scoring offense this season, would be a significant loss, but he didn't appear overly concerned in terms of the future impact on the team. "That's what happens in the league," Blank said. "It's the same for any organization." Falcons safety Keanu Neal and middle linebacker Deion Jones were selected to the Pro Football Writers of America's All-Rookie team on Tuesday. Neal, who was drafted with the 17th overall pick last year, finished second on the team with 105 tackles. He started 14 games and added a physical presence to the defense. Jones started 13 of 15 games and led the team in tackles with 106. He also had three interceptions and 11 passes defensed. BY THE NUMBERS: 4 This is the fourth time in team history the Falcons have advanced to the NFC championship game. The last time was in 2012 when the team took on the San Francisco 49ers. They also advanced to the NFC title game after the 2004 and 1998 seasons. The 1998 team advanced to the Super Bowl. QUOTE TO NOTE: "The great coaches in the league, whether it's Bill Belichick or Mike Tomlin or Andy Reid or Bill Parcells, they've groomed coaches, but they found ways to bring up other people behind. If Kyle does go on to San Francisco, we certainly wish him well. He deserves an opportunity and I'm sure Dan (Quinn) is thinking if that happens, this will be my plan for that position. One of the advantages we have in this particular case is Matt has been in the system for a couple of years and he knows it real well at this point." Falcons owner Arthur Blank, on the possibility of losing offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to the San Francisco 49ers. Strategy & Presonnel The Falcons must hem in Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers. In the previous meeting, they used Vic Beasley to spy him late in the game. Atlanta sacked Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson three times, marking the 16th straight game (including postseason) the Falcons have recorded a sack. The Falcons also forced two turnovers during the game. The team has forced 16 turnovers in the last nine games 11 in the last five. PRACTICE INJURY REPORT ATLANTA FALCONS DID NOT PARTICIPATE Wednesday: WR Julio Jones (toe) Thursday: WR Julio Jones (toe) LIMITED Wednesday: DT Jonathan Babineaux (shoulder), WR Taylor Gabriel (forearm), S Keanu Neal (foot) Thursday: DT Jonathan Babineaux (shoulder), WR Taylor Gabriel (forearm) FULL PARTICIPATION Wednesday: None Thursday: S Keanu Neal (foot) PLAYER NOTES WR Julio Jones (foot) did not practice on Wednesday. DT Jonathan Babineaux (shoulder) was limited at practice. WR Taylor Gabriel (foot) was limited at practice. SS Keanu Neal (foot) was limited at practice. QB Matt Ryan was 26-of-37 for 338 yards with three touchdowns and a 125.7 passer rating against Seattle in the divisional round of the playoffs. Ryan has had a 120-plus passer rating in each of his last five games. In those five games he's been 115-of-157 for 1,469 yards with 14 touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 131.8 passer rating. PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Center Alex Mack. Mack is making his first appearance in the playoffs is the glue who holds the offensive unit together. "It is my first chance to play in the playoffs," Mack said. "It has been pretty exciting. I'm liking it. It's fun. It's a great opportunity and definitely exciting. I think the focus really is trying to ignore that. It's another football game." Mack didn't want to minimize his role "I think offensive line play is really important," Mack said. "You really set your team up to have success. It's a team sport without a doubt, but we need to do our job. We need to keep the quarterback clean in the pass game and try to open up some holes and get the runner to the second level. "It takes everybody. It's not just one person really making a play. Why we have had a lot of success is that everyone has really bought in and they are making the blocks. Receivers are blocking great on the run plays and making those small runs really big ones because they are on the second level blocking." GAME PLAN: Atlanta's running backs must continue to run wild. The Falcons need big games from running backs Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman, who have averaged a combined 221 rushing and receiving per game. Freeman gained 545 yards from scrimmage in Games 14-17. He has rushed 59 times for 333 yards (5.6 average) and caught 19 passes for 212 (11.2). Over the last four games, Coleman has carried 42 times for 249 yards (5.9) to go with 11 catches for 90 (8.2). The backs have combined for eight touchdowns. MATCHUPS TO WATCH Packers FS Morgan Burnett, who will be in charge of the banged up secondary, vs. Falcons QB Matt Ryan, the top MVP candidate. Burnett and his defensive backs must find a way to slow down the Falcons. Ryan was 26-of-37 for 338 yards with three touchdowns and a 125.7 passer rating against Seattle. Ryan has had a 120-plus passer rating in each of his last five games. In those five games, he's been 115-of-157 for 1,469 yards with 14 touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 131.8 passer rating. Packers WR Jordy Nelson, who has a rib injury, vs. Falcons CBs Brian Poole and Jalen Collins, who have both struggled in press coverage. Nelson helped lead the revival with Rodgers after the Packers dropped to 4-6. He was knocked out of the wild-card game and didn't pay in the divisional round. He returned to practice on Wednesday on a limited basis, but it's still not known if he will play. He had 97 catches for 1,257 yards and 14 touchdowns during the regular season. Packers TE Jared Cook, who had the big catch against Dallas, vs. Falcons SS Keanu Neal, who was selected to the PFWA all-rookie team. Cook finally got healthy and caught 30 passes for 377 yards and one touchdown. He's been a big safety valve for Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Neal has played well in the box and probably will get help with Cook, who has the speed to open up the seam. SERIES HISTORY: 32th overall meeting, fourth playoff meeting. The Packers hold a 15-13 advantage in regular season games. The Falcons became the first team to win in the playoffs at Lambeau field after the 2003 season, and the Packers, on their way to a Super Bowl title, defeated the Falcons, 48-21, on Jan. 15 2011.
  14. Link to article Atlanta Falcons INSIDE SLANT Inside Slant | Notes, Quotes | Strategy and Personnel | Player Wire Falcons to face big brothers in Seahawks Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn served two stints in Seattle and was their defensive coordinator from 2013-2015. The Falcons are set to face the Seahawks in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs on Saturday at the Georgia Dome. Over the bye week, Quinn wanted the Falcons to focus on self-improvement. Also, the Falcons couldn't fixate on the Seahawks because they also could have faced the Packers or Giants in the NFC's divisional round. But while answering a question about the return of Seattle safety Kam Chancellor from injury, Quinn offered his view of a rematch of their Oct. 16 loss at Seattle. "He's a factor," Quinn said. "It's the physicality that he plays with. But, like I said, all teams are a little different now and I'd say we're a better version of ourselves then when we played them." Now the Falcons will get the chance to prove it and they'll be relatively healthy as Quinn said he anticipates that all of his players will be healthy enough to participate in the team's practice on Tuesday, its first full-speed session in preparation for Saturday's divisional playoff game against the Seahawks. That would mean the return of two starters, tight end Austin Hooper (knee) and cornerback Robert Alford (knee), as well as No. 3 wide receiver Taylor Gabriel (foot). Gabriel and Hooper did not play in the regular-season finale against the Saints. Alford suffered his injury during the Saints game and last week worked on the side with trainers when the Falcons practiced during the bye. Quinn said Alford "looked good" while participating in Monday's walk-through practice. "To see him move and have his intent right, we were encouraged," Quinn said. Quinn said it's possible some players would be limited for Tuesday's practice. Four players played against the Saints after appearing on the injury report: wide receiver Julio Jones (toe), guard Andy Levitre (hip), safety Keanu Neal (ankle) and tight end Joshua Perkins (neck). The Falcons beat the visiting Seahawks in the divisional round of the 2012 playoffs. The Seahawks won the Super Bowl the following season and then lost to the Patriots in the next year's Super Bowl when quarterback Russell Wilson threw a late interception near New England's goal line. Quinn was Seattle's defensive coordinator during both of those seasons. The Seahawks have not been as formidable this season as they were during those runs. A Football Outsiders metric that measures weekly variance in performance rated the Seahawks as the fourth-most inconsistent team in the NFL from game to game. The Seahawks believe they rediscovered their identity in the 26-6 victory over the Lions. The Seahawks punished the Lions with their running game, Wilson made some key throws and the defense kept the Lions out of the end zone. Cornerback Richard Sherman was the Falcons' antagonist in their 26-24 loss in Seattle. The Falcons were furious that he wasn't called for pass interference after pulling down star wide receiver Julio Jones on their final play. A penalty would have set up the Falcons for a potential game-winning field goal in the last minute. The Seahawks improved to 4-1 with that victory, but went 6-4-1 the rest of the regular season. The defeat at Seattle dropped the Falcons to 4-2 and they were 7-3 after that. Seattle's defense remains one of the top units in the league, especially against the run. The Seahawks ranked first in the league in rushing yards allowed per play this season and also were third in points allowed. But the Seahawks have been vulnerable against the pass, especially since safety Earl Thomas suffered a season-ending leg injury five weeks ago. Seattle allowed 33 passing plays of 25 yards or more during the season, tied for fifth-most in the league. In October, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan completed four passes of 24 yards or longer against the Seahawks, including touchdown passes of 46 yards to Levine Toilolo and 36 yards to Jones. To advance to the NFC Championship Game for the third time in four years, the Seahawks will have to do so on the road and slow the NFL's top-ranked offense. "(The Falcons) are an incredible team and I love the job that Dan has done," Carroll said. "They are loaded on offense. They've got an aggressive group. Really good on (special) teams. Tons of playmakers." Notes, Quotes Falcons rookie safety Keanu Neal has an autographed Kam Chancellor Seahawks jersey hanging up in his locker stall. The Falcons play the Seahawks on Saturday in an NFC divisional playoff game but Neal said he has no plans to move the jersey out of sight this week. "I don't see it as '(playing) against the Seahawks so I've got to hide it,'" Neal said. "It's Kam Chancellor. He's a brother to me." Neal and Chancellor worked out together last summer after Chancellor reached out to him. Chancellor wrote a message on the autographed jersey wishing Neal success. Neal said he and Chancellor stay in touch via text messaging. "He's helped me out football-wise and off the field, as well," Neal said. "It's a brotherhood. He's huge on helping people. He's big on 'each one, teach one,' just being able to help everybody. And he's definitely helped me a lot." The Falcons selected Neal with the No. 17 overall draft pick. The Falcons envision Neal growing into the enforcer role that Chancellor, also a safety, plays with the Seahawks. Falcons coach Dan Quinn worked with Chancellor as Seahawks defensive coordinator in 2013 and 2014. Vic Beasley Jr.'s cadence was hard to hear much like he hopes that Falcons fans make it difficult to catch the voice of Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson in Saturday's playoff game against the Seahawks. Try as he did to pump the value of crowd noise in the Georgia Dome, the Atlanta second-year defensive end from Clemson couldn't rise up above the cacophony of a nearby Alabama super fan. Fellow All-Pro Julio Jones, a former Crimson Tide standout, was all riled up. Beasley said that fellow former Clemson teammate Grady Jarrett, now a Falcons defensive lineman, were going to watch Monday's national championship game together. "Yeah, we plan to," he said. "He'll probably bring some folks over, and we'll definitely have a big screen TV." At about the same time, Jones - who was not available to media for interviews Monday - may have found a foil. "Put your money up!" he bellowed from about 10 feet away from Beasley's media scrum to an unknown teammate. Without much to say about the national title game itself, he tried to focus on questions about the Seahawks. Mindful of the crowd noise that Seattle fans made when the Falcons lost 26-24 there on Oct. 16, and the effect of similarly raucous Atlanta fans in a season-ending victory over the Saints in the Dome, he echoed head coach Dan Quinn's call for racket Saturday. "It was very loud," he said of the dome experience. "We're definitely looking forward to having that. On defense, you can't even translate a call; you have to do hand signals. Keep your voices down (when the Falcons are) on offense, but keep it up on defense." With a smattering of teammates getting dressed, and quarterback Matt Ryan playing ping-pong nearby, Jones boomed again: "We're going to whip this dude." Then, "SEC all day!" Someone, not Beasley, offered, "ACC!" One part of the narrative for Saturday's Falcons-Seahawks game is head coach Dan Quinn facing his old team and boss. The more interesting angle is this will be Quinn's first playoff game as a head coach. His decisions will face more scrutiny than ever and, if the regular season is an indication, expect Quinn to be aggressive. A Wall Street Journal analysis of in-game coaching decisions this season ranked Quinn as the fourth-most aggressive coach in the NFL. The study compared coaches' decisions against the league average in three categories: fourth down, general offense and defensive play-calling (and) special teams. The analysis considered "game situations," including score and time remaining. Quinn's play-calling aggressiveness was about average, ranking 15th among the 32 head coaches. But he was fifth-most aggressive with his special-teams calls and seventh-most aggressive with his fourth-down decisions. Seattle head coach Pete Carroll, Quinn's former boss, ranks in the middle of the pack at No. 17 overall in aggressiveness. Some caveats: The WSJ's data didn't include the final regular-season game. And the article is not clear on the specifics of its methodology regarding play-calling. Quinn, like all head coaches, does not make every offensive and defensive play-call though he obviously is in charge of game plans. However, the special teams (when to go for two or onside kick, for example) and fourth-down categories are pretty straightforward. Quinn has been among the most aggressive coaches in those situations. Quinn's aggressiveness on fourth-down calls likely goes back to his wrongheaded decision to punt late in the game at San Francisco in 2015. Actually, that's more than a guess: Quinn has said several times that he regretted the call because it didn't signal confidence in his team. That's a qualitative reason to knock the decision. It was also the wrong call from a quantitative standpoint because it decreased his team's chances of winning. Quinn has been more aggressive after that episode. But the strategy backfired in two Falcons losses this season. Tied in overtime against the Chargers, the Falcons failed to convert a fourth-and-1 from their 45-yard line. San Diego went on to kick the winning field goal. Against the Chiefs, a failed two-point conversion by the Falcons while trailing 27-22 with 11:57 still to play led to another two-point try when they went ahead 28-27. Eric Berry returned Matt Ryan's interception for the first winning "pick two" in NFL history. In that game the Falcons also failed to convert a fourth-and-1 at Kansas City's 10-yard line while down 27-16 with nine minutes left in the third quarter. Quinn's decisions didn't work in those cases, but bad outcomes don't always mean bad decisions. For example, Brian Burke of ESPN Analytics offered a quantitative defense of Quinn's fourth-down call against the Chargers. But the primary reason head coaches don't take more chances, even if the numberw say they should, is that when unconventional decisions lead to losses it means intense public criticism and possibly decreased job security. Starting Saturday, Quinn's decisions will be examined more closely than ever. It will be interesting to see if he stays aggressive under the brighter lights of the playoffs. Strategy & Personnel PLAYER NOTES QB Matt Ryan completed 373 of 534 passes (69.9 percent) for 4,944 yards with 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions for a 117.1 passer rating, the fifth-highest single-season passer rating in NFL history. WR Julio Jones has 83 catches for 1,409 yards and six touchdowns. DE Dwight Freeney finished with three sacks. DE Adrian Clayborn finished with 4.5 sacks. LB Vic Beasley finished with 15.5 sacks, which was tops in the league. TE Austin Hooper (knee) is expected to return to practice on Tuesday. WR Taylor Gabriel (foot) is expected to return to practice on Tuesday.
  15. Link to article Atlanta Falcons INSIDE SLANT Inside Slant | Notes, Quotes | Strategy and Personnel | Player Wire Ryan, Falcons looks to improve playoff record Quarterback Matt Ryan doesn't feel there's any added playoff pressure on him after a three-year hiatus. The NFC South champion Falcons (11-5) will face the highest seed to advance from the NFC wild-card round at 4:35 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 14, at the Georgia Dome. Ryan, who was drafted in 2008, took the Falcons to the playoffs in four of his first five seasons in the league. The team has missed the playoffs for the last three seasons before earning the No. 2 seed this time. Ryan has a 1-4 record in the playoffs as the Falcons were knocked out each time by the team that went on to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Green Bay and the New York Giants went on to win Super Bowl titles, while Arizona and San Francisco lost in the Super Bowl. "I don't think so," Ryan said. "We've won in the playoffs before. I don't really worry about that too much. For me, it's about how do we get the one win next week, whoever it's going to be against. I think putting any more pressure on yourself, other than that, is a waste of time." The Falcons reached the NFC championship game after the 2012 season. Ryan and the slightly-favored Falcons were knocked out of the wild-card round after the 2008 season by Arizona. After missing the playoffs in 2009, the Falcons were the No. 1 seed after the 2010 season, but were upset by Green Bay, 48-21, at the Georgia Dome. Green Bay went on to beat Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl. Following the 2011 season, the Giants called out the Falcons offensive linemen as "dirt bags" and shut down Ryan and the offense in a 24-2 rout. The Giants went on to beat New England in the Super Bowl. After the 2012 season, the Falcons defeated Seattle in the divisional round after blowing a 10-point lead. In the championship game, the Falcons' blew a 17-point lead and lost to the 49ers, 28-24. "I think that's one of the things that I've learned," Ryan said. "All of the extra-curricular pressure, the outside noise that people talk about, doesn't make a difference. "What makes a difference is how well we play. In order to play well, we need to practice well." Ryan noted that the Falcons could win the Super Bowl without playing a down outdoors. "I think any quarterback would be lying to you if they said they didn't like playing a dome where you are going to have good conditions to throw the ball," Ryan said. "I think that's a good thing for us. We are ready to play wherever, but obviously, playing indoors as a quarterback is always pretty nice." The fact that Falcons coach Dan Quinn has been to two Super Bowls as Seattle's defensive coordinator helps his message in the locker room. "I think that talk of keeping it normal, keeping the routine normal and based on what we've done up until this point, I think that's really true," Ryan said on his radio show on 680 the Fan. "Dan talks all the time about the way that we prepare, the way that we practice, the way that we compete, makes everything seem real normal when we get in the games. I think that's true. I think guys have done that. "I think the approach and knowing that Dan knows how to get it done, he's been there and has gone through that process before makes a difference. He understands what it takes, guys believe in that and trust in his process." Notes, Quotes Falcons coach Dan Quinn said the left shoulder injury sustained by linebacker Vic Beasley on Sunday against the Saints won't limit the Pro Bowl linebacker and won't prevent him from practicing this week. "He came through the game fine," Quinn said Monday. "It was sore, but he did a really good job." The injury forced Beasley to leave the game in the first quarter before returning before halftime. Beasley said his shoulder popped out of place and that he believed the injury was to his labrum. Beasley played his rookie season of 2015 with a torn labrum in the opposite shoulder. Beasley led the NFL this season with 15.5 sacks and six forced fumbles. The Falcons selected him with the No. 8 overall pick in the 2015 draft. The Falcons hope to get tight end Austin Hooper (knee) back from injury for next week's game. All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones (toe) was closer to 100 percent against the Saints, but welcomed the bye week rest. Wide receiver Taylor Gabriel (foot) is expected to return soon. The NFL has rules for teams interviewing coaches in the playoffs. Falcons coach Dan Quinn knows the rules well. He was interviewed during the "open" period back in 2014 when he landed the Falcons' head coaching post. The team elected to wait for him to finish his duties with as Seattle's defensive coordinator. Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who has the league's top-scoring offense, is set to interview with Jacksonville, Los Angeles, Denver and San Francisco over the weekend. BY THE NUMBERS: 117.1 Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan's league-leading passer rating. QUOTE TO NOTE: "For us, it's not a distraction because we do what we do and you don't have to leave anywhere to (interview). There's not a process that changes. I can comment on that because I went through it first-hand. Really as coaches any work that you may do it's been done long ago." Falcons coach Dan Quinn. on offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan interviewing for head coaching positions. Strategy & Personnel Falcons running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are a key part of the offense. They combined for 2,482 yards and 24 touchdowns as rushing and pass-receiving threats. Freeman, who was selected to the Pro Bowl, rushed 227 times for 1,079 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also caught 54 passes for 462 yards and two touchdowns. Coleman, who missed three games because of a hamstring injury, rushed 118 times for 520 yards and eight touchdowns. He also caught 31 passes for 421 yards and three touchdowns. PLAYER NOTES QB Matt Ryan completed 373 of 534 passes (69.9 percent) for 4,944 yards with 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions for a 117.1 passer rating, the fifth-highest single-season passer rating in NFL history. WR Julio Jones had 83 catches for 1,409 yards and six touchdowns. DE Dwight Freeney finished with three sacks. DE Adrian Clayborn finished with 4.5 sacks. LB Vic Beasley finished with 15.5 sacks, which was tops in the league. PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: OLB/DE Vic Beasley helped to revive the team's pass rush in 2016. Rushing from defensive end in nickel situations, he finished with 15.5 sacks to lead the league. The Falcons finished with 34 sacks, which ranked them tied for 16th in the league. The Falcons had only 19 sacks in 2015, which was 32nd in the league. "He did great," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said of Beasley. Beasley (shoulder) left the final game against the Saints, but returned to the action. "Once I knew he came out I was really pumped for him to say, like he knew how important it was to come and battle for his guys," coach Dan Quinn said. "He came through the game fine and it was sore, but he did a really good job."
  16. Link to article Atlanta Falcons INSIDE SLANT Inside Slant | Notes, Quotes | Strategy and Personnel | Player Wire Falcons' Jones should benefit from bye week Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones didn't appear limited by his bothersome toe against the Saints sUNDAY. Still, Jones said he looks forward to the postseason bye week the Falcons earned by winning 38-32 at the Georgia Dome. "It's a long season," Jones said. "But, yeah, it will be beneficial for me for that week, especially with the toe injury I had. A week will be great for me." Jones had seven catches for 96 yards and a touchdown against the Saints. It was his second game back since missing two because of the toe injury that he suffered during a game against the Chiefs on Dec. 4. Jones played 39 offensive snaps in the victory over the Carolina Panthers the previous week. In addition to Jones getting some rest, the Falcons young defense received one more test before venturing into the playoffs. For three quarters the Falcons controlled the best offense they had faced in two months. But they flailed at the finish as Saints quarterback Drew Brees came alive in the fourth quarter. What happened? "It's Drew Brees," safety Ricardo Allen said "At the end of the day, the only stat we care about is wins and losses. It's Drew Brees. He's a great quarterback. Yeah, we could have finished better. We should have finished better. But at the end of the day we got that win. We fought long enough." The Saints came to the Georgia Dome ranked No. 1 in yards per game (422.9) and second in points (29.1). They gained just 218 yards through three quarters while falling behind 38-13 before adding 255 yards and three touchdowns in the fourth. The Falcons had held firm against seven consecutive opponents since the Packers scored 33 points against them on Oct. 30. But only one of those foes, the Chiefs, are better than average offensively and four of them are well below. The Saints presented the toughest test the Falcons' defense had faced in some time. They passed that test in the end, but still showed some cracks. "We had a couple mistakes here and there," linebacker Vic Beasley said. "We'll go to the film room and fix those things." Atlanta's defense benefited from its offense scoring touchdowns on its first five possessions, forcing the Saints to play catch-up, and then holding the ball for 11:37 of the third quarter. After opening with a three-and-out New Orleans scored on consecutive possessions to get within 14-10 late in the first quarter. The Falcons held the Saints to a field goal over their next three possessions and swelled the lead to 35-13 at halftime. The Saints ran just seven plays in the third quarter and gained 23 yards before erupting for five plays of 20 yards or longer in the final period. The Falcons made a key stop when cornerback Jalen Collins intercepted Brees' pass in the end zone with 6:52 to play. "We are a group of guys that play hard for each other," second-year tackle Grady Jarrett said. "We are young in some spots, we have veterans in some spots, and we feed off each other. "It is definitely a special group to be a part of because we got better as the season went on and are encouraged for where we are at right now. This was a top-two offense in the league we played, so we had a good showing. We did not finish as well as we wanted to, but we are definitely hitting our stride for the right point in the season." The young defense believe it's ready for the playoffs. "Absolutely, it is good being back in the playoffs," Jarrett said. "Being an Atlanta kid myself, just making it to the playoffs is great, but we want to have success. Just making it is not our goal and it is not the other guys on the team's goal, so we are hungry for more and are definitely in a good position." Notes, Quotes Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is scheduled to interview with the Jaguars, Broncos and Rams for their vacant head coaching positions. Under Shanahan, who is in his second season with the Falcons, the offense led the league in scoring with 540 points. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan flourished in the offense. Ryan completed 373 of 534 passes (69.9 percent) for 4,944 yards with 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions for a 117.1 passer rating, the fifth-highest single-season passer rating in NFL history. Ryan believes that Shanahan could be a fine NFL head coach in the future. "Oh yeah, I think so," Ryan said when asked recently on his weekly radio show 680 The Fan if Shanahan would make a good head coach. "I think whenever he does get an opportunity, he'll do a great job. I hope it's not for a while because we've got a good thing going on. Whenever he gets his opportunity, he'll do a great job." Shanahan is the son of former NFL coach Mike Shanahan, who guided the Broncos to two Super Bowl titles, including Super XXXIII over the Falcons. "I think he's a good leader," Ryan said. "I think he's got a good feel for talent evaluation and getting the guys that he wants to make it work for him. I think if he ever gets that chance, he'll do a great job." The Falcons, winners of the NFC South title, will open in the playoffs at 4:35 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 14, against the highest remaining seed from the Jan. 7 and 8th games. Seattle, the three seed, is set to play Detroit, the sixth seed. If the Seahawks win, they will face the Falcons. If Detroit upsets Seattle, the Falcons would face the winner of the Green Bay and New York Giants game. Green Bay is perhaps the hottest team, steaming into the playoffs on a six-game winning streak. The Falcons defeated the Packers 33-32 on Oct. 30 at the Georgia Dome. The Falcons went toe-to-toe with the Seahawks before losing 26-24 on Oct. 16 in Seattle. The Falcons blew a late 24-23 lead when quarterback Matt Ryan threw an interception off the hands of wide receiver Julio Jones. Also, there was a controversial non-call as Seattle defensive back Richard Sherman held Jones on a deep pass play that would have put the Falcons in field goal range for the victory. Falcons head coach Dan Quinn came to the team from Seattle, where he was their record-setting defensive coordinator. The Falcons avoided a serious setback to their postseason chances when a left shoulder injury suffered by Pro Bowl pass rusher Vic Beasley wasn't serious enough to keep him out of the game on Sunday against the Saints. Beasley said his left shoulder "popped out" when he collided with a Saints player on a play in the first quarter. Beasley said he immediately suspected he had hurt his labrum because the pain was familiar after he had played the previous season with a torn labrum in the opposite shoulder. After the injury Beasley went to the locker room, where he said X-rays taken on the shoulder were negative. Beasley returned to the game early in the second quarter and sacked the Saints' Drew Brees just before halftime. "I was still able to function," Beasley said. "I did a little workout, and just fight through the pain. We did a couple exercises to keep that movement, to keep that mobility, and I started feeling better later." Beasley was scheduled to get an MRI on Monday. Beasley entered the final week of the regular season with the NFL lead in sacks (14.5) and forced fumbles (six). The Falcons selected Beasley with the No. 8 overall pick in the 2015 draft out of Clemson. Strategy & Personnel PLAYER NOTES QB Matt Ryan completed 373 of 534 passes (69.9 percent) for 4,944 yards with 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions for a 117.1 passer rating, the fifth-highest single-season passer rating in NFL history. WR Julio Jones caught seven passes for 96 yards against the Saints. He finished with 83 catches for 1,409 yards and six touchdowns. CB Jalen Collins has had an interception in the final two games. TE Austin Hooper (knee) may return for the playoff game. CB Robert Alford (knee) said that he was fine and would be ready for the playoffs. SS Keanu Neal (concussion exam) was examined for a possible concussion and cleared. Neal said that he will be ready to play in the playoffs. LB Deion Jones led the Falcons in tackles with six tackles and three passes defensed. REPORT CARD VS. SAINTS PASSING OFFENSE: A-minus Chants of "MVP! MVP! MVP!" rang from all corners of the Georgia Dome on Sunday. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan's dissection of the New Orleans' defense was masterful and complete. Ryan, who also set a franchise mark for most yards passing in a season with 4,962 yards, directed touchdown drives on the team's first five possessions as five different players scored. Ryan set the previous mark of 4,719 yards in 2012. Ryan completed 27 of 36 passes for 331 yards and four touchdowns to lead the Falcons. RUSHING OFFENSE: B On the Falcons' second possession, Devonta Freeman broke open off the right side of the line, bounced outside and out-raced cornerback Sterling Moore to the end zone for a 75-yard touchdown run. Mohamed Sanu, who was in the backfield inside of the tight end and right tackle Ryan Schraeder, picked up the key block. Saints safety Roman Harper was in the box to stop the run, but Sanu punished him and allowed Freeman to scoot outside and break Moore's containment. It was the fifth time this season that Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for 200-plus yards in a game and third game in a row. They had 223 yards against the Panthers and 221 against the 49ers in the two previous games. They combined for 20 rushes for 140 yards and eight catches for 96 yards against the Saints. PASS DEFENSE: C The pass defense started out well, but ended up getting torched in the fourth quarter as Drew Brees led a furious rally. They gained just 218 yards through three quarters while falling behind 38-13 before adding 255 yards and three touchdowns in the fourth. RUSH DEFENSE: C The Saints rushed for 132 yards on 23 carries and average 5.7 yards per carry. SPECIAL TEAMS: C-plus Punter Matt Bosher averaged 43.8 net yards on four punts. He had seven kickoffs for touchbacks. COACHING: B-minus The Falcons' offense came out smoking. The defense was on point early, but allowed a lot of yardage late to let the Saints make the game closer. The defense will need to play stronger for four quarters in the playoffs.
  17. Link to article Atlanta Falcons INSIDE SLANT Inside Slant | Notes, Quotes | Strategy and Personnel | Player Wire Defense getting mileage from rookies The key to the Atlanta Falcons season is how fast some of their young defenders develop. Some are stepping forward but one has fallen into the league's concussion protocol. Overall, there was no sign of the figurative "wall" for Atlanta's rookies against the San Francisco 49ers. They'll face a new and different test when the Falcons visit the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. Two of them, linebacker Deion Jones and safety Keanu Neal, led the defensive effort in the Falcons' 41-13 victory over the 49ers. Weakside linebacker De'Vondre Campbell, who was drifting down the stretch, left Sunday's game and is in the NFL's concussion protocol. Jones forced a fumble in the first quarter and Neal recovered it, leading to the second Atlanta touchdown. Neal led the team with 10 tackles and added two passes defended while Jones made eight tackles. The Falcons selected Neal in the first round (No. 17 overall) of this year's draft, took Jones in the second round and picked linebacker De'Vondre Campbell in the fourth. Campbell and Jones were starters from Week 1 and Neal joined the lineup once he recovered from knee surgery that sidelined him for the first two games. Atlanta hoped to improve its team speed and physical play and the rookies have shown signs of coming on after some growing pains. Jones especially is peaking: He's earned his highest grades from Pro Football Focus over the past five weeks and had another standout effort against the 49ers. "It's a matter of learning my keys better and locking in and taking all the keys to the field," Jones said. "It allows me to play faster and know what is going on." Jones ended San Francisco's second drive when he jarred the ball loose from running back Carlos Hyde at the 49ers' 49-yard line. The ball bounced into the open field and Neal recovered it at the 50. "Really just trying to make a profile tackle that we always talk about in the strike zone because that's where the ball is at," Jones said. "I put my head on it and it ended up coming out." That play helped set the tone for a dominant defensive effort by the Falcons. In addition to getting the turnover, the Falcons forced the 49ers to go three-and-out on four of their 10 possessions series (not including a meaningless series to end of the game). "Getting that ball back into the offense's hands, you know they are going to score," Falcons safety Ricardo Allen said. "That's our challenge to ourselves. How many times can we get the ball back into our offense's hands? We went out there and kept getting three-and-outs. "Even when they got a first down, we made sure we stopped them. They got a touchdown or two but we kept playing the whole game and we got the ball back to our offense and you see what they did." The Falcons are getting an unexpected boost from defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, who had a sack. The former second-round pick has been inactive for four games this season and has gotten the message. "We were very excited about that," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "It was good to see him battle. I think his play over the last few weeks has really improved. "It's been difficult for him at times whether he was inactive or playing, he's the one that made the real I'm putting a line in the sand to see how good I can get and how good I can play. I'm pleased for him." Notes, Quotes All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones has missed two games with a sprain toe. The Falcons are hoping to get Jones back for the Carolina game. "I'm hopeful that he's back," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "I think that he will. We are going to take it all the way through practice Tuesday and Wednesday, and then we'll have a good shot, but I am hopeful for that. I can't say it's for sure until he can explode like he can but I think he's a heck of a lot closer than he has been the over last two weeks." The win over the 49ers left the Falcons at 9-5, ensuring their first winning record since 2012. Former coach Mike Smith followed a 13-3 season and a loss in the NFC title game with 4-12 and 6-10 seasons and was fired. Dan Quinn went 8-8 in his first year after a second-half collapse. With games remaining at Carolina (5-8) and home against New Orleans (6-8), the Falcons have a chance to finish 11-5. Tampa Bay's loss to Dallas on Sunday night dropped the Buccaneers to 8-6, moving the Falcons closer to clinching the NFC South. They have a one-game lead and own common-opponents and conference-record tiebreakers over Tampa Bay. The teams are tied in division record. The Bucs finish with games at New Orleans and at home against Carolina. Finishing as a No. 3 or 4 seed in the NFC would give the Falcons a home playoff game, and they're currently third (by virtue of common opponents tiebreaker against Detroit). Atlanta is only one-half game behind Seattle (9-4-1) for the No. 2 seed behind Dallas (12-2). The second seed would give the Falcons a first-round bye. The Falcons play two beatable divisional opponents, as does Seattle, which is home against Arizona (5-8-1) this week and visits San Francisco (1-13) in the finale. Matt Ryan's 9-yard touchdown pass to tight end Austin Hooper, who was injured late in the game and carted off, and Matt Bryant's extra point made it 21-0. Those points gave the Falcons 449 this season, setting a franchise record. The previous mark of 442 was set by the 1998 team, the only team in franchise history to advance to the Super Bowl. Ryan tied his career high in touchdown passes with 32 on the pass to Hooper. He also had 32 scoring passes in 2012. The Falcons did not need any more bad injury news, but rookie linebacker De'Vondre Campbell left the game with a concussion and did not return. With less than three minutes to play, tight end Austin Hooper left the game with a knee injury. Wide receiver Taylor Gabriel had a shoulder injury, but he later returned. The Falcons played the 49ers without wide receiver Julio Jones (sprained toe), defensive end Adrian Clayborn (knee), cornerback Jalen Collins (knee), wide receiver Nick Williams (concussion) and safety Robenson Therezie (ankle). Strategy & Personnel PLAYER NOTES QB Matt Ryan completed 17 of 23 for 286 yards with two touchdowns and finished with a 144.5 passer rating against the 49ers. WR Julio Jones is set to have a "full speed" test on Wednesday. The Falcons are hopeful that he can return of the Carolina game. CB Jalen Collins (knee) is set to have a full speed test on Wednesday. The Falcons are hopeful that he can return after missing the past two games. TE Austin Hooper (knee) does not have a "long-term" injury. But no timetable was given for his return to action. He left the game against the 49ers on a cart. DE Ra'Shede Hageman had his sack of the season against the 49ers. SS Keanu Neal led the Falcons in tackles with 10 and he recovered a fumble. REPORT CARD VS. 49ERS PASSING OFFENSE: A-plus Matt Ryan completed 17 of 23 for 286 yards with two touchdowns and finished with a 144.5 passer rating. He tied his career and franchise record for most touchdown passes in a single season (32). Also, Ryan's 144.5 passer rating is the second highest passer rating in his career. The Falcons had their sixth-best yardage total in franchise history 550 yards. Wide receiver Aldrick Robinson recorded his first 100-yard receiving game of his career. He finished the game with four receptions for 111 yards. Wide receiver Taylor Gabriel recorded his sixth receiving touchdown of the season seventh total. He has now scored a touchdown in five of the last six games. Gabriel finished the game with three receptions for 60 yards. Tight end Levine Toilolo had one catch for 30 yards and Austin Hooper had a touchdown grab of 9 yards. He left the game in the fourth quarter with a serious injury. The Falcons, who have already lost Jacob Tamme for the season, have D.J. Tialavea on the practice squad. The line also kept Ryan clean. He was sacked once and hit three times. RUSHING OFFENSE: A-minus The team amassed a season-high 248 yards rushing, which is the highest total Atlanta has recorded since week 17 of 2011 (251 yards). Devonta Freeman had his third three-rushing touchdown game of his career. He finished the game with 20 carries for 139 yards on 7.0 yards per carry. He broke seven tackles along the way. Freeman became the ninth Falcon with two seasons of 10 or more touchdowns. Freeman and Tevin Coleman finished with 221 total yards. This is the third time this season the two have combined for 200-plus yards. The two have combined for 2,023 total yards and 21 touchdowns this season. Freeman's fumble on the 1-yard line lowered the grade. Can't have those dreaded red-zone turnovers. The offensive line got physical with the 49ers and was determined to run the football. "We want to run the ball, we want to move it, we want to get linebackers going," right tackle Ryan Schraeder said. "It makes it easier on us in the passing game." PASS DEFENSE: A-minus Strong safety Keanu Neal made his presence felts with 10 tackles, including a nice open-field form tackle. C.J. Goodwin, the converted wide receiver, started at left cornerback and held his own over 39 snaps. The Falcons held 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to 183 yards passing while sacking him two times moving their sack streak to 13 games. Linebacker Vic Beasley Jr. had a sack to boost his league-leading total to 14.5. He is two sacks away from tying John Abraham for the single-season franchise record. RUSH DEFENSE: A-minus Middle linebacker Deion Jones forced his first fumble of his career, which was recovered by fellow rookie safety Keanu Neal. Atlanta's 16 forced fumbles on the season are the most the defense has recorded since 2009 (17). Weakside linebacker De'Vondre Campbell left the game with a concussion and did not return. Paul Worrilow took over for Campbell and played 36 of 55 defensive snaps (65 percent). He finished with three tackles and two passes defensed and was highest-graded (84) player on the defense by Pro Football Focus. Carlos Hyde rushed for 71 yards on 13 carries, but most of the yards came after the game was out of hand. SPECIAL TEAMS: A-minus Returner Eric Weems set the offense up with a 42-yard punt return to San Francisco's 47-yard line to start the game. "Everything goes to the guys up front," Weems said. "They did well setting up and getting their blocks. I just found the creased that they gave me." Matt Bryant nailed a 50-yard field goal and punter Matt Bosher averaged 33.5 yards on two flopper punts that pinned the 49ers inside the 20-yard. The only blemish was a holding penalty on Justin Hardy that brought back a 39-yard return by Weems. COACHING: A-plus The coaching staff had the Falcons ready to play. The offense continued to flourish and Kyle Shanahan's head coaching prospects continued to improve. The team also broke the franchise record for most points scored in a season on Hooper's 9-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter. The team now has 469 points on the season. The team also matched their total for most points scored in a quarter this season (21). The Falcons also averaged 8.3 yards per play.
  18. Link to article Atlanta Falcons INSIDE SLANT Inside Slant | Notes, Quotes | Strategy and Personnel | Player Wire Falcons must regroup after devastating loss The Atlanta Falcons are picking up the pieces after a devastating loss the Kansas City Chiefs on a pick-two after taking the lead with under five minutes to play. Falcons coach Dan Quinn knows that he can't let the loss linger. "That's part of the game and the world that we live," Quinn said. "It's hard to find a space mentally for tough losses, but that's what it's about, being tough-minded and having resiliency is what our team totally stands for." The Falcons' locker room was stunned after the game. Even the coaches had hard-pressed looks etched into some of their seasoned brows. "It's hard, but we're going to get right to the truth of it and put our plan together to go play at our best (against the Rams next week)," Quinn said. "That part of our game mental toughness and resiliency we've got a lot of tough competitors, so I expect that part to come to fruition very quickly." Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was reeling. His two interceptions including a pick-six and a pick-two by Eric Berry led directly to nine points for the Chiefs. He also had two drives that stalled at the 4-yard line. But he still has plenty of support in the locker room. "It's tough," right tackle Ryan Schraeder said. "You can't put it all on one play. We've got Matt's back. We kind of beat ourselves." With 4:32 to play, Kansas City safety Eric Berry stepped in front of a pass intended for rookie tight end Austin Hooper and returned it for a two-point conversion score. "It was a poor play on my part," Ryan said. "(I was) expecting combination coverage to the outside and Eric Berry did a good job of coming down off and going on to the tight end. A disappointing play. A bad play on my part. Ultimately, that was a tough one." With the score tied 13-13, Berry intercepted Ryan and returned it 37 yards for a touchdown. "That was a decision that I can't make," Ryan said. "I've got to check the ball down or move on. I made a mistake there." Ryan didn't like the interceptions, but seemed to be more troubled by being stopped at the 4-yard line twice in the first half. The Falcons had to settle for two 22-yard field goals. "They did a good job in the tight red zone, inside the 10," Ryan said. "They did a pretty good job all day against us. Credit to them. I thought they played well. We just didn't make plays when we needed to down there. "They played tight man-to-man coverage and we just couldn't come away with touchdowns down there. ... That probably costs us today." Ryan believes the team will bounce back from this tough defeat. "It's always tough to deal with," Ryan said. "Always hard. It's disappointing. We'll learn from it though and get back at it again tomorrow. We'll try to get better. We did some good things today. Just, ultimately, a couple of mistakes cost us." Ryan still believes the Falcons can make a playoff push. "You have to flush it out," Ryan said. "That's part of being a professional. Sometimes it's hard. Sometimes it's tough. But it's really important to move on and get ready for next week." The Falcons must find a way to play better defense. They gave up touchdowns on the opening drives of the past six games. Before this week's games, only four NFL teams had fewer pass plays of 20-plus yards than Kansas City's 29 and the Chiefs had scored two first-half touchdowns in just three games. Against the Falcons' defense, Kansas City transformed from a grinding offensive attack to one that gained big chunks of yards through the air. The Chiefs gashed the Falcons for five passing plays of 20 yards or more. Kansas City also had three running plays of at least 10 yards, including Albert Wilson's 55-yard touchdown on a fake punt. Kansas City made six of those big plays in the first half, when it scored two touchdowns for the first time in their past five games. The Chiefs joined the Cardinals, Eagles, Buccaneers, Packers and Chargers with game-opening touchdown against the Falcons. Notes, Quotes It only got worse for the Falcons when the Buccaneers Falcons South with Dirk Koetter, Mike Smith and a host of former Atlanta players and coaches won at San Diego to forge a tie atop the NFC South. But here's the thing: If both the Falcons and Buccaneers win out to finish 11-5, the Falcons would win the NFC South by virtue of a tiebreaker. So, really, the Falcons are in a similar position as they were before choking away the game to the Chiefs. They lost all of their breathing room, and did so in a shocking way, but they still control their own destiny. The Falcons offense recorded 418 total yards on Sunday. That marked the fifth time this season the offense has surpassed the 400-yard mark. The offense also went 6 for 10 on third down, converting 60 percent of their third downs, which is tied for the second-highest third down conversion total on the season. The team also recorded 32 total first downs, which is the second most ever recorded in a game in franchise history. Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews suffered a left knee sprain late in the second quarter and did not return in the 29-28 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Matthews' knee was examined behind the team's bench by the team doctor. After the exam, a sleeve was removed from the knee and Matthews tested the knee out by running on the sidelines. They put the sleeve back on and he ran around some more before being taken into the locker room right before halftime. "It was a sprain for him and we'll have more information for you tomorrow," Falcons coach Dan Quinn aid. "He was not able to return today. He was certainly trying to, so hopefully it won't be a long-term issue with him." Matthews was replaced in the lineup by Tom Compton, who did a reasonable job in both the run game and in protecting Ryan against a good Chiefs pass rush. Matthews, the sixth overall pick in the 2014 draft, did not return to the game. Right tackle Ryan Schraeder talked to Matthews. "He's really positive," Schraeder said. "Jake is a tough guy. He's going to recover and he's going to be just fine." Compton was drafted in the sixth round of the 2012 draft out of South Dakota by Washington. He's in his first season with the Falcons. Soon after the Falcons selected Vic Beasley with the No. 8 overall pick in 2015 draft, the former Clemson pass rusher boldly predicted he would have at least 10 sacks as a rookie. Beasley had a solid first season as a pro, but he didn't come close to reaching that goal. He only needed 12 games to reach that mark in what's shaping up to be a standout second season. Beasley's sack of the Chiefs' Alex Smith on Sunday gave him 10.5 for the season. He also forced a fumble on the play, his fifth of the season. Beasley has a chance to finish the season with the NFL lead in sacks and forced fumbles. Entering Week 13, Beasley's 9.5 sacks ranked third behind Von Miller (12.5) and three players tied with 10, and his four forced fumbles were tied for most in the NFL with teammate Keanu Neal and three other defenders. "I feel like I'm making a lot of strides as a pass rusher and as a run stopper," Beasley said. "Just learning from (teammate Dwight) Freeney and executing the game plan the coaches present every week. I go out there and do what I can to help the team get a win." Beasley showed superlative quickness and effort on his sack of Smith, who was trying to pass on third-and-3 from the Falcons' 39-yard line in the first quarter. Beasley beat Chiefs right tackle Mitchell Schwartz around the corner and reached out to grab Smith around his legs. Smith shook free from that tackle attempt and stepped to his left as Beasley recovered and got back in the play. Smith cocked his arm to throw as Beasley arrived and knocked the ball free, and Falcons tackle Grady Jarrett recovered the ball at the 43-yard line. "I just kept playing," Beasley said. "I was able to get back up and he still had it in his hands." Beasley is the first Falcons player with at least 10 sacks since John Abraham had 10 in 2012. Strategy & Personnel PLAYER NOTES QB Matt Ryan went 22-of-34 for 297 yards and one touchdown. Ryan kept his streak of having at least 200+ passing yards alive, moving it to 51 games. He has thrown a touchdown pass in 14 straight games. RB Devonta Freeman became the first running back since Michael Turner (2010-11) to have at least 1,000 scrimmage yards in back-to-back seasons. Freeman also recorded rushing touchdowns No. 6 and 7, for his nine total touchdowns on the season. This is his sixth multi-touchdown game of his career, and the second time in his career he's had back-to-back multi-touchdown games (2015: Weeks 3 and 4). WR Julio Jones, who has turf toe but is expected to practice on Wednesday, passed former Falcons receiver Terance Mathis and moved to second on the franchise's all-time receiving yards list on the first play of the game. He now has 7,454 receiving yards for his career, and he finished the game with seven receptions for 113 yards. This is the seventh time this season he's reached the 100-yard mark and the 35th time in his career he's accomplished that feat. LT Jake Matthews left the game with a left knee sprain and did not return against the Chiefs. He will not practice on Wednesday. WR Mohamed Sanu, who suffered a groin injury against the Chiefs, will not practice on Wednesday. OLB Vic Beasley Jr. now has 10.5 sacks and five forced fumbles on the year. He's the first Falcon with double-digit sacks since John Abraham (10 in 2012). Also, his five forced fumbles on the season are tied for the second most in franchise history with DE Lester Archambeau (five in 1998). REPORT CARD VS. CHIEFS PASSING OFFENSE: D-plus In addition to Matt Ryan's two interceptions that led to nine points, Ryan also had two drives that stalled at the 4-yard line. Ryan completed 22 of 34 passes for 297 yards and one touchdown pass. He had a passer rating of 90 and completed passes to seven different receivers. Ryan didn't like the interceptions, but seemed to be more troubled by being stopped at the 4-yard line twice in the first half. The Falcons had to settle for two 22-yard field goals. This game will revive the 'Why can't the Falcons get the ball to Julio Jones in the red zone?' line of questioning. He gets it all day in between the 20s, but when it's time to score touchdowns, they can't seem to find him. Justin Hardy, ostensibly the fourth receiver, got two targets in the red zone. The Falcons opened the game by throwing three consecutive passes to All-Pro Jones. Jones caught four passes for 52 yards on the drive. The Chiefs' became determined to hold Jones in check and used a safety to help cornerback Marcus Peters. Jones didn't catch another pass until 10:30 was left in the third quarter after the Chiefs had built a 27-16 lead. Jones ended up with seven catches for 113 yards and no touchdowns before leaving the game with an apparent ankle injury that was called a "lower body" injury. Taylor Gabriel had five catches for 44 yards and had a touchdown called back because of holding penalty on Jake Matthews. Mohamed Sanu, who left the game with a groin injury, had two catches for 26 yards. Tight end Levine Toilolo had a big 42-yard gainer, while Austin Hooper, the target on the pick-two, was shut out. RUSHING OFFENSE: C-plus Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined to rush 27 times for 105 yards (3.9 per carry) and two touchdowns by Freeman. Overall, the Falcons rushed 30 times for 128 yards (4.3 yards per carry). Atlanta's inability to run inside the red zone against the Chiefs helped to stall two promising early drives. The Falcons had to get cute with outside swing passes, bootlegs and tosses and the Chiefs were all over those plays. The line wasn't built to power the ball inside the tight red zone so it's hard to down grade them for the struggles inside the 10. The running game averaged 4.3 yards per carry and Ryan generally had time in the pocket. The unit gave up two sacks and nine quarterback hits, which can be attributed to the Chiefs tight coverage. Matthews left the game in the second quarter with a left knee sprain and did not return. Tom Compton came on and was solid over 41 of the 74 offensive snaps (55 percent). PASS DEFENSE: D-minus Falcons rookie safety Keanu Neal was drafted, in part, to help the defense improve its pass coverage against tight ends. Neal, who was selected with the 17th overall pick, learned some tough lessons against Kansas City's Travis Kelce in the 29-28 loss on Sunday. "He's a technician," Neal said. "He's smart with his routes. He knows how to play the game. He's a great tight end. I don't know what to say. He's a great route runner. He can play ball. That's why he's a pro bowler." Kelce caught eight passes for 140 yards against the Falcons. He caught a 35-yarder with Neal in coverage on the team's opening drive. He also caught a 14-yard pass to keep the game-clinching drive moving. Cornerbacks Robert Alford and Jalen Collins held up in mostly zone coverage. Free safety Ricardo Allen led the team in tackles with eight. RUSH DEFENSE: C-minus The Chiefs rushed 22 times for 123 yards (5.6 yards per carry) and two touchdowns. Deion Jones (seven) and De'Vondre Campbell (five) combined for 12 tackles, but no impact plays. Philip Wheeler and LaRoy Reynolds had one tackle each. SPECIAL TEAMS: F Kicker Matt Bryant made three field goals, including a 59-yarder. Ra'Shede Hageman blocked an extra point. The punt coverage team gave up a 55-yard touchdown run right up the middle. Punter Matt Bosher, who was back after missing a game with a hamstring injury, was not able to boom his kickoffs deep into the end zone. Bosher had just one touchback on six kickoffs. Chiefs returner D'Anthony Thomas had six returns for 130 yards (21.7 per return). COACHING: D-minus The team fights through adversity and never gives up. The coaching staff must be commended for the spirit of the team, but they need to get the defense better prepared to play and the offense must find some answers in the red zone. Chiefs coach Andy Reid, and co-offensive coordinators Brad Childress and Matt Nagy, the former Georgia Force Arena Football League quarterback, had their way with the Falcons' defense. Taking out the three kneel downs for minus 3 yards, the Chiefs ran 45 plays and amassed 392 yards for an average of 8.7 yards per play. Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan needs to find a jumbo package to run from in the red zone and must move Julio Jones around to get him free. The special teams touchdown right up the middle of the coverage unit was absolutely unacceptable.
  19. Link to article Atlanta Falcons INSIDE SLANT Inside Slant | Notes, Quotes | Strategy and Personnel | Player Wire WR Gabriel serves as Falcons' secret weapon The Atlanta Falcons have a secret weapon on offense. With everyone worried about wide receiver Julio Jones and running back Devonta Freeman, the Falcons unleased wide receiver Taylor Gabriel against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. After his recent showing, Taylor carved out a niche in future game plans. Gabriel didn't need many touches to make an impact against the Cardinals. The speedy wide receiver totaled four receptions and one rushing attempt but gained 102 total yards and two touchdowns to help Atlanta rout Arizona 38-19. In the Falcons' last game, Gabriel's 76-yard touchdown catch gave Atlanta a lead it would quickly relinquish in a 24-15 loss in Philadelphia. Sunday, his first score a 35-yard catch and scamper off a screen pass gave the Falcons a lead they would not let slip away. "They called a screen and I jumped back and I (saw) Julio (Jones) in front of me, and I made a few moves. I really just followed behind Julio the whole time," Gabriel said. "Just great blocks in front of me. I really just had to run." Gabriel has not been asked to do much this season, but when the ball does end up in his hands, he consistently finds a way to make big plays happen. As the Falcons continue to push toward the postseason, the third-year speedster from Abilene Christian should continue to get opportunities to bust open big plays. Whether it's leaving defenders in the dust as he sprints down the field or if it's by juking his way through the masses before hitting the turbo to reach pay dirt, Gabriel is finding a way to provide a punch for the NFL's highest-scoring offense. He said his recent success has not given him a boost in self-confidence, but instead more assurance in his teammates. "Just confidence within my brothers and them blocking, just knowing they'll have my block," Gabriel said. Sunday was the fourth straight game in which he reached the end zone and the first game of his career with multiple scores. In an offense that gets so many players involved in the passing game, Gabriel wedged his name into the conversation to get more touches and demand more attention from opposing defenses. "That's what Gabe do," running back Devonta Freeman said. "It's been phenomenal for him. I'm excited for him. And he's a hungry kid. He takes advantage of every opportunity he gets." Gabriel's approach is rather simple. "The little things, they turn into big things and they turn into big plays," Gabriel said. "I feel like you guys saw that today." Gabriel ignited the offense. Gabriel was the answer to the Cardinals' exotic blitzes as he scored on two screen passes and had a long-gainer on a reverse. He finished with four catches for 75 yards and touchdown receptions of 35 and 25 yards. "Everything that we've asked him to do, he's done it very well," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. "He's been a boost for us offensively." Jones is fine with sharing some of the play-making ability. "(Taylor) Gabriel is a very fast guy, especially to people who do not really know how fast he is," Jones said. "He is real shifty as well. He made some great plays for us and defenses have to watch out for him." Notes, Quotes The Atlanta Falcons' young defense suffered another blow on Sunday with the loss of defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who is facing surgery and is expected to miss at least month of action, according to an espn.com report. Falcons coach Dan Quinn wouldn't reveal the extent of Clayborn's injury when asked about it on Monday. He doesn't have to release his injury report until Wednesday, but he did say that Clayborn could not have re-entered the game. Clayborn reportedly tore the medial collateral ligament, partially torn his meniscus and likely will undergo surgery and is expected to miss a month, according to the report. Clayborn is second on the team with 4.5 sacks. He leads the team with eight tackles for losses and totals 20 tackles and one pass breakup. With Clayborn out, the Falcons used linebacker Philip Wheeler as a rush end at times against the Cardinals. Clayborn is listed as the No. 2 defensive end behind Brooks Reed. Dwight Freeney is listed No. 3. Clayborn played 28 of 66 defensive snaps (42 percent) against the Cardinals before suffering his injury. Punter Matt Wile, who played at Michigan and was making his NFL debut on Sunday, handled the punting and kickoff chores for the Atlanta Falcons with Matt Bosher out with a hamstring injury. Wile, who was signed to the 53-man roster last Tuesday, was a four-year letterman and appeared in 52 games as a kickoff specialist and punter for the Wolverines. He appeared in 18 games as a punter and placed 29 punts inside the 20. After the 2015 draft, Wile was signed by the Panthers as an undrafted free agent. He was in camp with the Cowboys in 2015. Bosher suffered a hamstring injury against the Eagles and couldn't finish the game. Kicker Matt Bryant took over and punted twice and had a 33.5 average. Bosher played in 90 straight regular-season games since being drafted in the sixth round of the 2011 draft. Wile's kickoffs were not returned, and he boomed punts of 57 and 59 yards. Quarterback Matt Schaub handled the holding duties on extra points and field goals. Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant, who suffered a torn pectoral and shoulder injury against Tampa Bay on Nov. 3, is set to have season-ending shoulder surgery on Thursday. Truant practiced in a limited role all week and was listed as questionable. He didn't play against the Cardinals. Although he practiced, Trufant was pretty sure that he wouldn't be able to play. After the Tampa Bay game, he missed the contest the following week against Philadelphia, which the Falcons dropped 24-15. Jalen Collins took over most of Trufant's role against the Eagles and the Cardinals. "I'm ready to take over at left cornerback," Collins said. "I'm out there to play football. That's what I did. We prepare, so I'm sure I can get I done." Collins tied for the team lead with six tackles. He also had a tackle for a loss and three pass breakups. "Our game plan was that we know these receivers run certain routes and from certain formations," Collins said. "We knew what kind of looks we were going to get. We stuck to our game plan and what we have been practicing all week." Strategy & Personnel PLAYER NOTES DE Adrian Clayborn suffered a knee injury against the Cardinals and is expected to miss a month. RB Tevin Coleman returned from his hamstring injury and scored a rushing touchdown against the Cardinals. CB Desmond Trufant is set to have surgery on his shoulder and pectoral injury on Thursday. DE Dwight Freeney is over his quadriceps tear and was back at practice. RB Devonta Freeman now has 23 touchdowns as a pro, which ties him with T.J. Duckett for the second most touchdowns through a Falcons player's first three seasons. Only Gerald Riggs (26) had more. He also owns 17 rushing touchdowns, which bumped him to 11th on the franchise list, tied with Dave Hampton. REPORT CARD VS. CARDINALS PASSING OFFENSE: A Quarterback Matt Ryan completed 26 of 34 passes for 269 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He finished with a passer rating of 106.1. His 269 yards are the highest passing total the Cardinals defense allowed all season. Ryan is the first player in NFL history to pass for 200-plus yards in 50 consecutive games. Ryan threw at least one passing touchdown in 13 straight games. Ryan is the first player in NFL history to pass for 200+ yards in 50 consecutive games. It was his eighth game this season with a passer rating of 100 or more. He threw passes to nine different receivers and completed passes to eight different receivers. His interception was on a pass that hit wide receiver Julio Jones in the hands and should have been caught late in the second quarter. The Falcons offense put up 360 total yards against the Cardinals, who were ranked first in opponent's total yardage coming into week 12 (287.4). The offense averaged 6.6 yards per pass. The line was under siege with all of the aggressive blitzes but the unit held up for most of the day except for a series to start the third quarter. Ryan was sacked four times, with one of them nullified by penalty. The unit regrouped and went on a 13-play, 77-yard touchdown drive on the subsequent possession. Ryan was sacked three times and hit six times. RUSHING OFFENSE: C-plus Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman ran hard against a stout run defense. Freeman rushed 16 times for 60 yards (3.8 per carry) and Coleman rushed eight times for nine yards (1.1 per carry). Freeman had two rushing touchdown and Coleman added one. Overall, the Falcons rushed for 116 yards on 30 carries (3.9 per carry). WR Taylor Gabriel added one carry for 27 yards. Coleman scored his sixth rushing touchdown of the season in the third quarter on a two-yard run. He and Freeman are currently tied for the team lead with seven total touchdowns. The two also combined for 108 total yards on the day, which is the seventh time this season the two combined for 100-plus yards. WR Mohamed Sanu added a carry for five yards. Ryan had four scrambles for 15 yards. PASS DEFENSE: B-minus Vic Beasley harassed Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer into an intentional grounding call. De'Vondre Campbell was targeted by Palmer, but he came through with an interception and three pass breakups. Campbell had a tough task having to match up with Arizona's dynamic running back David Johnson. For the most part, he was up for the challenge. On five targets, Campbell allowed our receptions for 53 yards. The one incompletion was because of a nice pass-defensed he had. The Falcons recorded two sacks and six hits. Falcons coach Dan Quinn said they had 18 quarterback hits after the coaches' film review. Jalen Collins, Robert Alford and Brian Poole were in position and didn't give up any big plays against a fine wide receiver corps. Alford did get one shaky pass interference call. Poole was strong in run defense as he finished with five tackles. Poole also had a sack. Collins made his fourth NFL start and held up well. He had three passes defenses and pronounced that he's ready to take over for Desmond Trufant, who set to have season-ending shoulder/pectoral surgery on Thursday. Poole had a great day in coverage. He was in on 41 coverage snaps, and on those snaps, he allowed four receptions on five targets for 29 yards. This was the fewest number of receiving yards allowed by any of the Falcons CB's, according to Pro Football Focus. RUSH DEFENSE: B The defensive line was determined to make a good showing against the run after getting blown off the line of scrimmage by Philadelphia. Arizona running back David Johnson got off to a strong start, but was held to 58 yards rushing on 13 carries. The Cardinals had to abandon the run after the Falcons took a 24-13 lead in the third quarter. Grady Jarrett and Courtney Upshaw had three tackles each. Veteran Jonathan Babineaux added a big stop in the backfield. Linebackers Deion Jones (five tackles) and De'Vondre Campbell (four) tackles were solid against the run. SPECIAL TEAMS: A Punter Matt Wile had a fantastic NFL debut filling in for injured Falcons punter Matt Bosher. Wile averaged 58 yards gross on two punts and put all seven of his kickoffs in the end zone for touchbacks against the Cardinals. Arizona had two punt returns for a total of 12 yards. "It was a ton of fun," Wile said. "It felt pretty good. I was a little nervous before the game but once I was out there it felt comfortable. It felt right." The Falcons signed Wile early last week as insurance in case Bosher couldn't play after a hamstring injury forced him to leave the Nov. 13 game at Philadelphia. Wile was a four-year letter winner at the University of Michigan and last year spent time in camp with the Panthers and Cowboys. Wile's longest punt against Arizona went 59 yards and, for a moment, it appeared it may have been too long. The Falcons had a fourth down at their 20-yard line when Wile sent a high, booming kick to return man Patrick Peterson at Arizona's 21-yard line. Wile's punt went several yards beyond the Falcons gunners, leaving Peterson lots of room to maneuver in the middle of the field, but Atlanta defenders closed in and held Peterson to a six-yard gain. "I thought I hit them pretty well overall," Wile said. "I was lucky to have great coverage team on my punts, so that was nice. I thought I had a pretty decent game. COACHING: A-minus After a bumpy start, the defensive coaches put on their thinking caps and came up with an assortment of defenses that held the Cardinals to six points in the second half. The defense held one of the NFL's leading rushers to only 58 yards on 13 carries. In the past 27 games, the defense only allowed two 100-yard rushers. The defense also recorded a sack in 10 straight games. Offensively, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan called a couple of well-times screen passed to Taylor Gabriel that went for touchdowns. The line quickly adjusted to the blitzes after the Cardinals had four sacks in one series. The front office must be commended for having a quality punter like Matt Wile on speed dial. He had a great day. The Falcons tied their season-low for penalties with four. They also had just four against New Orleans in Week 3. They 23 yards penalized was a season-low. Atlanta lost 35 yards in the Saints game.
  20. Link to article Atlanta Falcons INSIDE SLANT Inside Slant | Notes, Quotes | Strategy and Personnel | Player Wire Falcons must avoid another late-season collapse For the second season in a row, the Atlanta Falcons are 6-4 after 10 games. Last year, the Falcons dropped four of their final six games to finish 8-8 and missed the playoffs for the third consecutive season. But there's a major difference that suggests there won't be a collapse this time around. Quarterback Matt Ryan is having the best season of his career. He has completed 236 of 346 passes (68.2 percent) with 24 touchdown passes and just five interceptions. Ryan is averaging a league-leading 13.8 yards gained per completion. At times, that has not been enough. The Falcons blew fourth-quarter leads against Seattle, San Diego and Philadelphia. Ryan is on pace to surpass 5,000 passing yards in a season this year. Only a handful of NFL signal-callers have passed for 5,000 or more yards. Hall of Famer Dan Marino was the first to pass the mark when he finished his second NFL season (1984) with 5,084 yards, averaging 317.8 yards per game. It was another two decades before anyone would pass for 5,000 yards again. The New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees threw for 5,069 yards in 2008. He remains the only quarterback to repeat the feat, finishing with a record-setting 5,476 in 2011 and with 5,177 yards in 2012. Matthew Stafford (5,038) and Tom Brady (5,235) both challenged Brees for most yards in 2011. Brees' yardage record remained for just two seasons until the Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning set the mark with 5,477 passing yards in 2013. Ryan came close to the mark in 2012 when he threw for 4,719 yards. Ryan has 3,247 yards, averaging 324.7 per game after 10 games this season. The Falcons still hold the upper hand. The Falcons are in first place in the NFC South with a one-game lead over Tampa Bay (5-5) and a two-game lead over New Orleans (4-6) and Carolina (4-6). They host Arizona (4-5-1) on Sunday at the Georgia Dome. "We know the exciting challenge that's in front of us after the bye," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "We have five of the six games in the NFC. So we'll be completely pumped for that." In addition to the play of Ryan, the Falcons play four of their final six games at the Georgia Dome. After the Cardinals, the Falcons host the Chiefs on Dec. 4, play at Los Angeles and then host San Francisco on Dec. 18. They then play at Carolina on Dec. 24 before closing the Dome regular-season schedule against New Orleans on Jan. 1. The Falcons are 2-2 at home with losses to Tampa Bay and San Diego and victories over Carolina and Green Bay. "Let's hope that we can make it as loud as we possibly can ... in the Dome," Quinn said. "Our fans will be ready to rock and our team will be as well." Injuries could be a factor with tight end Jacob Tamme (shoulder surgery) out for the remainder of the season. He had shoulder surgery to repair his A/C joint. Tamme has been replaced in the starting lineup the past two games by veteran Levine Toilolo. However, rookie tight end Austin Hooper played 55 of 73 snaps (55 percent) against Tampa Bay and 36 of 50 plays (72 percent) against Philadelphia. Cornerback Desmond Trufant (shoulder/pectoral) has the next most serious injury coming out of the bye week. He returned to practice on Monday. Notes, Quotes The Falcons' defense has to improve, especially against the run. The unit was just gashed for a season-high 208 yards by the Eagles on Nov. 13. Arizona running back David Johnson, their next challenge, was a force in the Cardinals' 30-24 loss to Minnesota on Sunday, rushing for 103 yards on 22 carries and a touchdown. He also added seven catches for 57 yards and a receiving touchdown. Quinn said it was "frustrating" how the Eagles ran the football on the defense without doing anything special schematically. He simply said the unit was "out-executed." The Falcons are in first place in the NFC South with a one-game lead over Tampa Bay (5-5) and a two-game lead over New Orleans (4-6) and Carolina (4-6). The Buccaneers beat Kansas City on Sunday. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan took part in a ceremony to retire his Boston College jersey number during halftime of a between Boston College and Connecticut on Saturday in Boston. Falcons safety Keanu Neal was fined by the NFL for a hit he made on Eagles receiver Jordan Matthews. Neal, a rookie and the 17th overall player taken in the 2016 NFL draft, was fined $24,309. He led with his helmet on the play. Eagles coach Doug Pederson said the NFL office told him that Neal's hit should have been a penalty. In the game, no penalty was called. Neal got in trouble by leading with his helmet in to the neck-and-head area on Matthews in the fourth quarter of the Eagles' 24-15 win over the Falcons on Sunday. The receiver protested the non-call and said his face mask was bent on the play. Falcons coach Dan Quinn defended Neal's hit, and Neal contended that it was not a bad hit. In celebration of Thanksgiving, fullback Patrick DiMarco will provide a catered Thanksgiving meal to 125 men from the Shepherd's Inn, the men's facility of the Atlanta Mission. Falcons players will prepare and serve Thanksgiving lunch to the homeless at Crossroads Community Ministries for the eighth straight season on Tuesday. The Falcons Feast presented by Publix will provide more than 750 families with a full meal on Tuesday to take home and cook on Thanksgiving, courtesy of Atlanta Falcons players, the Arthur M. Blank Foundation and Publix. In celebration of Thanksgiving, kicker Matt Bryant, punter Matt Bosher and long snapper Josh Harris will provide a catered Thanksgiving meal to 300 women and children from My Sister's House, the women's and children's facility of the Atlanta Mission, on Tuesday. Strategy & Personnel PLAYER NOTES RB Tevin Coleman has a hamstring injury but returned to practice on Monday. CB Desmond Trufant has a shoulder injury, but he returned to practice on Monday. RT Ryan Schraeder signed a five-year, $33 million contract extension with the Falcons on Monday. He was a former undrafted player from Valdosta State. DE Dwight Freeney is over his quadriceps tear and was back at practice. P Matt Bosher, who suffered a hamstring injury, was at practice on Monday. REPORT CARD AFTER 10 GAMES PASSING OFFENSE: A Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has diversified the attack this season by completing passes to at least six receivers in all 10 games. Ryan has completed passes to at least eight receivers in eight games. He completed passes to seven receivers in the Denver game and six in the Philadelphia game. The diversified passing attack has allowed him to flourish and help keep defenses off balance. Ryan also set the NFL record with 46 consecutive games of passing for 200 yards or more and pushed the record to 49 games. Several longtime observers believe that Ryan is playing the best football of his career. The only blemish on Ryan's first 10 games were the two late-game interceptions against Seattle and San Diego that led to losses. All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones has been the main target with 61 receptions for 1,105 yards and five touchdowns. Mohamed Sanu has been a good pickup. He has caught 39 passes for 430 yards and three touchdowns. Ryan has also used his tight ends and running backs. Combined, Atlanta's tight ends Jacob Tamme, Levine Toilolo and rookie Austin Hopper have made 44 catches for 586 yards and seven touchdowns. Tamme will missed the remainder of the season. Coleman and Freeman have been nightmares for linebackers to cover out of the backfield. Freeman has caught 26 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns. Coleman, who worked on his pass catching in the offseason, has caught 19 passes for 330 yards and one touchdown. He has displayed receiver-like skills while gobbling up yards after the catch. RUSHING OFFENSE: B-plus Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman have rushed the ball effectively as the team has averaged 4.3 yards per carry. Freeman has 145 rushes for 669 yards and three touchdowns. Coleman, who missed three games with a hamstring injury, had a strong seven games. He has rushed 59 times for 234 yards and five touchdowns. Terron Ward came out of the bullpen and has been a solid backup. Freeman and Coleman are interchangeable in the team's outside-zone run system. The addition of Alex Mack has helped to solidify the interior of the offensive line. Left guard Andy Levitre must be commended for eliminating the rash of penalties that marred his play in 2015. The Falcons tried to replace right guard Chris Chester in the offseason, but the bidding got too high for J.R. Sweezy. Chester beat back a challenge from rookie Wes Schweitzer to retain the job. The young tackles, left tackle Jake Matthews and right tackle Ryan Schraeder, are having strong campaigns. PASS DEFENSE: C-minus The coverage must improve in the final six games as the Falcons are giving up 297 yards per game. The pass defense has been hurt at times by cornerback Robert Alford, who has nine penalties. He has five defensive pass interference calls. Nickel back Brian Poole, an undrafted rookie, has been solid but has seven penalties. Desmond Trufant has been strong as he has taken on the opposition's top receiver when the Falcons decide to play man-to-man coverage. His status is in question after he suffered a shoulder/pectoral injury against Tampa Bay. Jalen Collins could play more down the stretch. Rookie strong safety Keanu Neal has helped with the coverage of tight ends and been a physical presence against the run. The Falcons have benefited from a revived pass rush led by defensive end/linebacker Vic Beasley, who has 9.5 sacks. Veteran Dwight Freeney started fast before slowing down in the last five games. Adrian Clayborn has also been a pass-rush presence. RUSH DEFENSE: C-minus The Falcons are giving up 102.9 yards rushing per game. Veterans Tyson Jackson and Jonathan Babineaux have showed second-year tackle Grady Jarrett how to survive in the trenches. The loss of Derrick Shelby to an Achilles injury hurt the depth, but the development of converted-linebacker Courtney Upshaw has been impressive. The defense has given up six runs of 20 yards. Four teams Oakland, New Orleans, Green Bay and Philadelphia have rushed for more than 100 yards against the Falcons this season. The Falcons won three of those games. The big news here has been the decreased role for Ra'Shede Hageman, a former second-round pick. The Falcons were hit hard in linebacker group with injuries to four players in De'Vondre Campbell, Deion Jones, Paul Worrilow and Sean Weatherspoon, who was lost for the year with an Achilles injury. Campbell missed four games with a high-ankle sprain. Jones missed one game with an ankle injury. Worrilow missed four games after having groin surgery. Jones has shown some big-play capability. The injury clearly slowed Campbell, a fourth-round pick from Minnesota, who was the rave of the exhibition season. Philip Wheeler had been a dependable backup against the run. SPECIAL TEAMS: C-plus Kicker Matt Bryant broke former Falcons kicker Morten Andersen's franchise record for points scored. He has connected on 23 of 25 field goal attempts this season. Punter Matt Bosher is averaging 46.9 gross and 41.8 net. The Falcons are averaging 22.7 yards per kickoff return. The Falcons are averaging 11.7 yards per punt return. They have made 10 fair catches. DE Ra'Shede Hagemen has a blocked extra point attempt. COACHING: B-minus The Falcons have fixed their problems on offense. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has tailored the attack to better suit Ryan. He's also running more no-huddle in order to keep defenses off balance. He has been able to get Jones the ball but hasn't figured out how to break him free in the red zone. Shanahan has dazzled the opposition with an array of formations. He masterfully used 13 personnel one back, three tight ends against the Raiders to help slow down their outside rush. The Falcons have made it a habit of going to an empty backfield set with 21 personnel two backs and one tight end and then hitting the running backs deep down the field against some poor linebacker. The defense is a work in progress. The Falcons knew it would be that way when they elected to start four rookies and three second-year players (we count Ricardo Allen as a second-year free safety) in their base and nickel package. Defensive line coach Bryan Cox has done a masterful job creating a pass rush. They have resorted to blitzes and stunts to get the much-needed pressure. The hope is that the young unit will continue to improve in the final six games. The Falcons must work on cutting down their penalties. They have committed 83 penalties for 619 yards, 173 nullified yards and 22 first downs. The focus is on the pre-snap and special teams penalties.
  21. Atlanta Falcons INSIDE SLANT Inside Slant | Notes, Quotes | Strategy and Personnel | Player Wire Falcons look to fix leaky run defense Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Tyson Jackson was not happy after the defensive front was pushed around by the Philadelphia Eagles. During the bye week, the Falcons will have to consider how they fair against some top running backs left in the final six games. The list includes Arizona's David Johnson, Kansas City's Spencer Ware, Los Angeles' Todd Gurley and Carolina's Jonathan Stewart. Jackson was not too pleased after the Eagles rushed for 231 yards in their 24-15 victory over the Falcons on Sunday. Running back Ryan Mathews did most of the damage as he became the first back to rush for more than 100 yards against the Falcons since Minnesota's Adrian Peterson eclipsed the mark last season, 15 games ago, on Nov. 29, 2015. Mathews had 109 yards on 19 carries and scored two rushing touchdowns. "They just had a really good game plan," Jackson said. "They came out and executed very well. We didn't do a very good job on defense. I'm speaking about the front seven. We just have to get off the field." Jackson seem to contend that the defensive front, which has revived the team's pass rush, might have overlooked the required toughness needed to stop the run. "It doesn't matter how many sacks that you get in the National Football League," Jackson said. "People today are impressed about sacks and sacks and sacks, but if you can't stop the run, you are going to have a long day no matter what football team you are playing. We have to do a better job. We have to stop the run." The total was a season high. The previous mark was the 155 yards the Falcons gave up to the Oakland Raiders in the second game of the season. "It's been a recipe where if you keep a team under 100 yards, your chance of winning goes up tremendously," Jackson said. "We didn't do that today. We have to go back to the drawing board, figure things out and continue to get better." The Eagles didn't catch the Falcons off guard with any new running plays. "We had plenty of opportunities to slow the run game down and we were unable to do that," defensive end/linebacker Vic Beasley Jr. said. "It wasn't anything really unique. We had practiced against all of their scheme and all of their plays this week. They were just more successful today than we were." With the Eagles taking time off the clock, the Falcons' high-powered offense was slowed to a crawl. The Falcons entered the game leading the league in scoring at 33.9 points per game. The Eagles, who had a time of possession advantage of 16 minutes, 10 seconds, kept them off the field. "We had some opportunities," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. "We couldn't really get into a rhythm offensively and that was a product of not converting enough third downs." The Falcons were 2 of 11 on third-down conversions (18 percent). "We are disappointed," Ryan said. "We'll learn from it. We'll get back to work tomorrow, take a look at it and then get some rest. Hopefully, we'll come back refreshed and ready to play the remainder of the season." The Falcons' problems on third down stemmed from their inability to run the ball on first and second down. Overall, nine of their 11 third-downs situations were 7 yards or longer. "I think we were in a lot of third-and-long situations," Ryan said. "When you are playing against good defenses, you want to stay on schedule. I don't know how many third-and-longs that we had, but we had a number of those. We came up a little bit short. That's an area where we can certainly be better." Notes, Quotes Eagles running back Jordan Matthews caught six passes for 73 yards. He was knocked out of the game on a big hit by Falcons safety Keanu Neal in the fourth quarter. "That's just not the type of player that I am," Neal said. "Coach Quinn always talks about the strike zone. You know, I'm a physical player, but I'm not trying to hit the dude in the head. They didn't call a flag. I didn't try to hit him in the head. I don't think I hit him in the head." The Falcons blew their third fourth-quarter lead of the season against the Eagles. They had late leads against Seattle and San Diego and couldn't close the deal. The Falcons had the ball twice late against the Eagles but couldn't put together scoring drives to pull out the victory. Another failed fourth-down try and poor play on third downs led to their demise. The Falcons converted on 2 of 11 third downs (18 percent). With the Falcons trailing 13-9 in the fourth quarter, wide receiver Taylor Gabriel got behind Eagles cornerback Leodis McKelvin for a 76-yard touchdown to give the Falcons their first lead of the game at 15-13. Matt Bryant missed the extra point attempt for just the fifth time in his career. It was his first missed extra point with the Falcons. After an exchange of possessions, the Eagles benefited from two Falcons penalties and marched in for a touchdown drive to retake the lead. Eagles running back Ryan Mathews scored on a 5-yard run and a two-point conversion to make it 21-15 with 6:49 to play. The Falcons' ensuing drive stalled when Jones dropped a pass from Ryan with 5:26 to play. The defense held and got the ball back for offense with 4:55 to play. The Falcons had another opportunity to pull out the win. Atlanta started at the 35 after a personal foul was called on Eagles linebacker Najee Goode for hitting Eric Weems out of bounds. On third-and-4 from Atlanta's 41, third-string tight end Joshua Perkins was called for offensive pass interference. Ryan had completed a pass to Devonta Freeman for a 29-yard gain. After the penalty, the drive stalled after the Falcons couldn't convert a fourth-and-5 from their 40. Ryan's pass for Julio Jones was incomplete. "We had some opportunities," said Ryan, who completed 18 of 33 passes for 267 yards and one touchdown. "We couldn't really get into a rhythm offensively and that was a product of not converting enough third downs. We are disappointed." The bright spot for the Falcons' defensive line was the play of defensive end/linebacker Vic Beasley Jr., who had two sacks and a forced fumble. He now has 9.5 sacks this season. It was clear that the Eagles wanted to run the football and keep the Falcons' offense on the sideline. They opened the game with a 12-play, 81-yard touchdown drive. The Eagles deferred to open the game and got the ball to start the second half and went on a 14-play, 70-yard march that was capped by a 29-yard field goal by Caleb Sturgis to put the Eagles up 10-6. Later in the third quarter, they put together a 10-play drive that carried over into the fourth quarter. Strategy & Personnel PLAYER NOTES RB Tevin Coleman has a hamstring injury but is expected to return to practice after the bye. CB Desmond Trufant has a shoulder injury but is expected to return to practice after the bye. TE Jacob Tamme is getting a second opinion on his shoulder injury on Wednesday. But is likely facing surgery for a separated shoulder on Thursday. QB Matt Ryan was 18 of 33 for 267 yards and one touchdown on Sunday against the Eagles. Ryan extended his streak of games with 200 or more passing yards to 49 and his streak of games with at least one passing touchdown to 12. Also, Ryan eclipsed 3,000 yards this season (3,247). This is the second time in his career that he has thrown for more than 3,000 yards in the first 10 games of the season. WR Julio Jones surpassed 1,000 yards for the third straight season. This is the third time in franchise history a receiver has passed 1,000 yards through the first 10 games of the season (Jones 1,189 - 2015; Roddy White 1,017 - 2010). Jones finished the game with 10 receptions for 135 yards, marking the sixth time this season he has clipped 100 yards and the 34th time in his career his accomplished the feat. PK Matt Bryant broke Morten Andersen's franchise record for most field goals made with a 46-yard field goal in the third quarter on Sunday. Bryant has 185 made field goals in his career as a Falcon and he is 23 of 25 this year. He also missed his fifth extra point attempt of his career on Sunday. SLB/DE Vic Beasley Jr. posted his third multi-sack game of the year and reached 9.5 sacks for the season. He is the first Falcons player with 9.5 sacks since John Abraham in 2012 (10). Beasley Jr. also had his fourth forced fumble of the year. RB Devonta Freeman was held to 49 yards rushing on 12 carries against the Eagles on Sunday. P Matt Bosher suffered a hamstring injury and couldn't finish Sunday's game. Kicker Matt Bryant had two punts. Bosher is expected back after the bye, but the team is expected to sign a punter so he can rest his leg. REPORT CARD VS. EAGLES PASSING OFFENSE: C-plus The Falcons'offense amassed 303 total yards on Sunday as quarterback Matt Ryan finished 18 of 33 for 267 yards and one touchdown. Ryan extended his streak of games with 200-plus passing yards to 49 and his streak of games with at least one passing touchdown to 12. Also, Ryan eclipsed 3,000 yards for the season (3,247). This is the second time in his career that he has thrown for more than 3,000 yards in the first 10 games of the season. A drop by Julio Jones and an untimely offensive pass interference penalty by rookie tight end Joshua Perkins stymied Ryan's comeback effort after the Eagles reclaimed the lead. Ryan completed passes to a season-low six different receivers. Jones surpassed 1,000 yards for the third straight season. This is the third time in franchise history a receiver has passed 1,000 yards through the first 10 games of the season (Jones 1,189 - 2015; Roddy White 1,017 - 2010). Jones finished the game with 10 receptions for 135 yards, marking the sixth time this season he has topped 100 yards and the 34th time in his career he accomplished the feat. Mohamed Sanu had only two catches for 14 yards. Taylor Gabriel ran a nice double-move route on his 76-yard touchdown play. RUSHING OFFENSE: C-plus Devonta Freeman could never get into a rhythm and averaged 4.1 yards per carry on 12 attempts. He had 49 yards rushing. With the Eagles dominating time of possession, the Falcons had to get away from the rushing attack. Running back Terron Ward had one carry for minus-1 yard. He was seen holding his right arm awkwardly and heading to the x-ray room after the game. Tevin Coleman should be back after the bye week. Overall, the Falcons averaged just 3.7 yards per carry. Right tackle Ryan Schraeder and right guard Chris Chester both has false start penalties. PASS DEFENSE: C-minus Jalen Collins, Robert Alford and Brian Poole were in position and didn't give up any big plays. Collins was starting for Trufant. Poole got into trouble a couple of times in coverage. Poole also had a fumble recovery in the second quarter. Safety Keanu Neal had a big-hit on Eagles wide receiver Jordan Matthews that will likely draw a fine. He finished with eight tackles, a pass breakup and a forced fumble. He's starting to make an impact on the unit and give it some personality. The Falcons had two sacks and two quarterback hits. Eagles tight end Zach Ertz caught six passes for 55 yards. RUSH DEFENSE: F-minus The defensive line got blown off the line of scrimmage. The defense gave up a season high 231 yards rushing. The previous high was 155 yards against Oakland in the second game of the season. Ryan Mathews became the first running back in 15 games to rush for more than 100 yards against the Falcons. Tyson Jackson was not pleased with the effort and was not looking forward to "Tell the Truth" on Monday. "It doesn't matter how many sacks that you get in the National Football League," Jackson said. "People today are impressed about sacks and sacks and sacks, but if you can't stop the run, you are going to have a long day no matter what football team you are playing. We have to do a better job. We have to stop the run." Deion Jones led the way with 11 tackles. De'Vondre Campbell had a forced fumble overturn by replay. Philip Wheeler (four tackles), LaRoy Reynolds (three tackles) and Paul Worrilow (three tackles and one on special teams) also received some action as the Falcons were pushing all the buttons to try to get the Eagles' run game slowed down. SPECIAL TEAMS: D The Eagles had the No. 1 special teams units in the league, according to footballoutsiders.com. Kenjon Barner and Wendell Smallwood made sure the Eagles had good starting position. They combined to return five kickoffs for 146 yards. Barner had returns of 31, 31 and 52 yards. After the Falcons took a 15-13 lead, Barner busted his 52-yard return to set the Eagles up at the Falcons' 45-yard line. Punter Matt Bosher left the game with a hamstring injury. Kicker Matt Bryant punted twice as his replacement. COACHING: C-minus The Falcons had eight penalties for 67 yards and continued to have pre-snap penalties. There was almost another 12-man on the field penalty, but the Falcons got the timeout while three players were trying to get off the field. This one was on the players. The Eagles didn't do anything fancy. They lined up and played smash-mouth football with the Falcons. The kickoff coverage unit did not meet the challenge of controlling the Eagles' dangerous return game.
  22. Link to article Inside Slant Ryan unwilling to leave margin for error Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was acting like that fisherman who let the big blue marlin off the hook. Instead of basking in the glory of torching of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Ryan was genuinely upset that the offense stalled and didn't score touchdowns after the defense forced two turnovers. "We had some opportunities early to come away with more points than we did and so from that standpoint it is a little disappointing," Ryan said. "You need to capitalize, especially when your defense gives you a short field opportunity. "I think we had two of those. We came away with field goals I think both times. We've got to be better than that offensively." That's the type of tenacity that the high-flying Falcons will take with them to Philadelphia to face the Eagles and rookie sensation Carson Wentz on Nov. 13. Ryan, widely considered Atlanta's midseason most valuable player, had a passing rating of 144.7, his highest of the regular season, in the 43-28 pasting of the Buccaneers on Thursday night. However, the humble Ryan, who's from the suburbs of Philadelphia, wants to spread the credit around. "Julio (Jones) got us going, kind of sparked us," Ryan said. "His play really got us going." After missing the playoffs over the past three seasons, the Falcons have that postseason look to them and Ryan is leading the resurgence. "It feels good," Ryan admits. Ryan is spreading the ball around and that has led to a diversified attack, which has increasingly included wide receiver Taylor Gabriel. "Well, I think he's fitting in pretty good," Ryan said. "He's done a great job for us. Obviously he's made some really big catches but also he is a versatile guy." The Falcons also used the speedy Gabriel on two jet sweeps. "He's just another piece of the puzzle, which is a good thing," Ryan said. "I think for us to be at our best, we have to get a lot of guys touches and we've done that pretty well so far." Also, Atlanta's tight ends continue to turn in some solid play. With Jacob Tamme out with a shoulder injury, Ryan tossed touchdown passes to Levine Toilolo and rookie Austin Hooper. "I think at different times we have had a lot of different people step up," Ryan said. "I thought our tight end play was really good, both in the run game and pass game (against Tampa)." The Falcons have taken major strides since a season-opening 31-24 loss to the Buccaneers. "First game of the year, (Tampa Bay) played a little bit better than we did that day," Ryan said. "I felt like we have continued to improve from that time of the year. "For me, that's like the best thing from a confidence standpoint is that we continue to get better week in and week out. In terms of in division, always you want to take care of business in division and especially on the road." The normally buttoned-down Ryan doesn't mind getting in on a little fun. Atlanta's running backs have been tossed the ball to linemen after they score so that the linemen can spike the football. Fullback Patrick DiMarco tossed the ball to Ryan and he gave it a good spike. "That's kind of a little thing our running backs have gotten into," Ryan said. "When they score touchdowns they give it to the offensive line to spike. I guess Pat confused me with an offensive lineman so I couldn't let him down, leave him hanging, so I tried to give him my best spike attempt." Notes, Quotes Falcons Pro Bowl cornerback Desmond Trufant left Thursday's game in the second quarter with a shoulder/pectoral injury and did not return to the action. Falcons coach Dan Quinn said he'll have an update on Wednesday. With Trufant out, second-year cornerback Jalen Collins entered the game. Collins, who has been working his way back into the lineup after missing the first four games of the season because of a suspension for using performance enhancement drugs, had a nice break-up of a pass intended for Bucs wide receiver Cecil Shorts on third down-and-2 on their first possession of the third quarter. He also had a big hit that knocked Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston out of the game. Wide receiver Taylor Gabriel turned in another solid showing for the Falcons. In addition to catching five passes for 54 yards, Gabriel ran the ball twice on jet sweeps and scored on a 9-yard run. Gabriel, who caught a 47-yard touchdown pass on Sunday against the Packers, is developing into a dangerous third wide receiver for the Falcons. He had two rushes for 24 yards and took some of the pressure off wide receivers Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu. Atlanta's young defense had a tough time slowing down the Bucs in the first half, but a couple timely stops in the second half was all they needed. With two stops, the offense was able to string together three touchdown drives and blow the game open. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett led the way with two sacks. Adrian Clayborn also added a sack and linebacker De'Vondre Campbell, who had a forced fumble, led the team with nine tackles. With the three sacks, the Falcons have 21 on the season, surpassing last season's total of 19, which was last in the league. In addition to the three sacks, the Falcons had eight quarterback hits. In the season opening 31-24 loss to the Bucs, the Falcons didn't record a sack and had six quarterback hits. "It felt good getting pressure, most definitely," Jarrett said. "(That was) one of our objectives as a unit. We got that done. Got a couple quarterback hits, a couple sacks and it feels good. We're just trying to improve week-by-week as a unit and just keep it going." The Falcons have recorded 17 sacks over the past four games. "We're just kind of finding our stride working as a whole versus working as four different individuals," Jarrett said. "It's the whole defense as far as the coverage, the up front. So it all worked together. We're improving week by week. Just got to continue to work on our finish. I feel like we're building something good." With the Falcons looking for a jolt, they turned to All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones and he delivered against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "It felt great," Jones said about sparking the offense. "The talent that we have out there. Any guy can take over at any moment." Jones caught four passes in a row during the team's first possession of the second half to ignite a touchdown drive and a route. "It was just more of us jelling together and being on the same page from the offensive coordinator (Kyle Shanahan) on down," Jones said. "Just knowing the talent that we have on this team, we know we can win one-on-one match ups." Jones added a nice grab for a 3-yard touchdown and finished with eight catches for 111 yards and one touchdown. Strategy & Personnel PLAYER NOTES QB Matt Ryan completed passed to seven different receives and threw four touchdown passes to four different receivers. He threw for 344 yards and had a season-high passer rating of 144.7. WR Julio Jones recorded his fifth receiving touchdown of the season. He also passed the 100-yard mark for the fifth time this season, finishing the game with eight catches for 111 yards. His 33 career 100-yard receiving games, are tied with Calvin Johnson for most in the NFL since his debut in 2011. TE Levine Toilolo recorded his second touchdown reception of the year. His two receiving touchdowns of 30-plus yards this season are tied with the New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski for the most 30-yard receiving touchdowns by a tight end this season. That touchdown was also his sixth career touchdown, and it ties a single-season career high (two). FB Patrick DiMarco recorded his first touchdown of the season. That touchdown was the fifth receiving touchdown of his career. LB De'Vondre Campbell forced the first turnover of the game with his first forced fumble of his career, which was recovered by rookie CB Brian Poole his first fumble recovery of his career. TE Austin Hooper caught his second touchdown pass of the year. The rookie tight end is now fourth on the team's receiving yardage list this season. CB Desmond Trufant forced the second turnover of the night for the Falcons, with his second forced fumble of the season third of his career which was recovered by LB Paul Worrilow, the first for him this season. REPORT CARD VS. BUCCANEERS PASSING OFFENSE: A-plus Matt Ryan was magical as he completed 25 of 34 passes for 344 yards and four touchdowns to four different receivers. He completed passes to seven different receivers and had a season-high passer rating of 144.7 before being replaced by backup Matt Schaub. The Falcons recorded 461 total yards, which was the third-highest total of the season and the fourth time they've recorded 400-plus yards. The offense also went 6-of-10 on third downs. The 60-percent third down conversion percentage was also the second-highest of the season. Ryan now has 23 passing touchdowns, which is two more than he had all last season. With the Falcons looking for a spark, they turned to All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones and he delivered against the Buccaneers. The Falcons held a 20-14 halftime lead, but had the ball to open the second half. On third-and-5 at Atlanta's 35, Ryan threw a low strike to Jones, who went down and dug out the pass for an 11-yard gain. Ryan went back to Jones on the next three plays for gains of 21, 16 and 11 yards to move the ball down to Tampa Bay's 8-yard line. Five plays later, Ryan tossed a 1-yard touchdown pass to fullback Pat Dimarco and the fuse was lit. Taylor Gabriel caught five passes for 52 yards, ran the ball twice on jet sweeps and scored on a 9-yard run to give the Falcons a 20-14 lead with 3:56 left in the second quarter. Tight ends Levine Toilolo and Austin Hooper both caught touchdown passes. Tight end Joshua Perkins had a TD pass, but dropped it. RUSHING OFFENSE: C-plus Devonta Freeman churned out 77 yards on 17 carries for a strong 4.5 yards-per-carry average. The dependable Terron Ward had eight rushes for 30 yards and Stevan Ridley made his debut for the Falcons with three carries for seven yards. Overall, the Falcons rushed 34 times for 136 yards and averaged 4.0 yards per carry. The Bucs held Atlanta's running backs to 42 yards on 19 carries in the season-opening loss. With the running game as a threat, Ryan was able to used play-action to find his wide open receivers in the second half. PASS DEFENSE: C-minus Progress was made in this area. The pass defense was giving up an average of 285.4 yards passing over the first eight games. The defense held Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston to 261 yards passing. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett led the way with two sacks. Adrian Clayborn also added a sack. With the three sacks, the Falcons have 21 on the season, surpassing last season's total of 19, which was last in the league. In addition to the three sacks, the Falcons had eight quarterback hits. In the season opening 31-24 loss to the Bucs, the Falcons didn't record a sack and had six quarterback hits. The Falcons have recorded 17 sacks over the past four games. "We're just kind of finding our stride working as a whole versus working as four different individuals," Jarrett said. RUSH DEFENSE: B-minus Rookie De'Vondre Campbell led the Falcons in tackles with nine, including a forced fumble. He's appears to be healthy again and over his high-ankle sprain that slowed him in previous games. Deion Jones added six tackles and Vic Beasley had three tackles and one quarterback hit. The Falcons held the Buccaneers to only 73 yards rushing on 3.8 yards per carry. Rookie Peyton Barber got the start for the Bucs. He was held to 31 yards on 11 carries. The Falcons defense held the Buccaneers to only 73 yards rushing on 3.8 yards per carry. The team also recorded three sacks, extending their streak to eight straight games with a sack. It is the longest sack streak the Falcons have had since 2012 (21 games: Week 11, 2011 to Week 15, 2012). The team now has 21 total sacks, which surpasses their total from last season (19). SPECIAL TEAMS: B Kicker Matt Bryant made field goals from 29, 41 and 50 yards. Matt Bosher had a partial night off. He never had to punt, but he still had to complete his kickoff duties. He booted the ball deep into the end zone for nine touchbacks. Returner Eric Weems averaged 27 yards on two punt returns. COACHING: B-plus The coaches would have received an A if the defense didn't let the Bucs score two meaningless touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, nine games into the season, continues to come up with wrinkles that end up with receivers streaking down the field wide open. He got all three of the tight ends open for touchdowns, but Perkins dropped his opportunity. The defense continues to find a spurt or two to play well. It had to be disappointing to allow the Bucs two late garbage-time touchdowns after opening the 40-14 lead. The Falcons had just six penalties for 34 yards.
  23. Link to article Atlanta Falcons INSIDE SLANT Inside Slant | Notes, Quotes | Strategy and Personnel | Player Wire Falcons have more lasting power than freefall of '15 version Quarterback Matt Ryan has the Falcons off to a hot start, just like last season. Atlanta opened the 2015 season with five consecutive victories and went out to 6-1 before crumbling and finishing 8-8. This year the Falcons are 3-1, lead the NFC South by two games, and have a pair of litmus tests coming up with road games at the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks. While Ryan and All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones were unstoppable against the Carolina Panthers (1-3) on Sunday, Ryan was still able to spread the ball around to nine different receivers in all. Ryan's 130th regular-season start was one for the record books as he guided the streaking Falcons over the Panthers by passing for a franchise-record 503 yards. Ryan also had season highs in touchdowns (four) and passer rating (142.0) - his highest passer rating and completions (28) against Carolina in his career. Ryan and Jones became the first pair of teammates to have 500 passing yards and 300 receiving yards in NFL history in the same game. "Well, we had good matchups and (coordinator) Kyle (Shanahan) did a great job of dialing up plays all day, he stayed aggressive," Ryan said. "But at the end of the day, it comes down to Julio making some plays. I thought he played awesome, was huge for us in critical situations and showed how great of a player he is. That was fun to be a part of that." Jones turned a simple crossing route into a 75-yard touchdown run after picking up a good block down-the-field from Mohamed Sanu. "Well, it looked pretty good from where I was standing," Ryan said. "That was a great call, a really aggressive call by Kyle in that situation. But we knew they were going to be downhill against the run game, did a good job with play-action passing, got Julio the ball in space and when he gets the ball in space, he's so explosive. He just finished the run so well and that was impressive to see." Jones had 12 catches for 300 yards and a touchdown. He's looking forward to playing Denver, and is expected to see Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib for most of the day. "We are hitting on all cylinders as far as the passing game because we had a great week last week in the run game," Jones said. "Carolina figured they were going to come out here and stop the run game and they tried to do that. They left me one-on-one out there and we made some explosive plays down the field." Jones, who was coming off a one-catch game and his lowest production over the past 54 games, wasn't expected to be so open against the Panthers. "Especially against a divisional opponent to play one-on-one," Jones said. After the hot start last season, teams started to figure out the attack. Defenses were able to take away Devonta Freeman and slow down Julio Jones. The Falcons didn't have enough playmakers to make defenses pay. "It's been really good for us spreading the ball around and getting a lot of different people involved," Ryan said. "It makes it difficult for a defense when you have that many guys catching passes." Ryan also recognizes the value of new center Alex Mack. "Well, Alex is awesome," Ryan said. "He's a great leader, he's a great teammate, a really good competitor. He's great during the week, he prepares as well as anybody I've been around. "But I think all five of those guys have really played extremely well through the first quarter of the season. An offensive line is all about the chemistry between the guys and being able to work together, specifically within our scheme and I think we've got a good group of five guys that are playing really good ball right now." Notes/Quotes Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon suffered a ruptured right Achilles and is out for the remainder of the season, according to his agent Ryan Williams. "I feel terrible for him," Williams wrote in an e-mail to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday. Weatherspoon couldn't put any pressure on his right leg as he exited the field during the Falcons' 48-33 victory over the Panthers on Sunday at the Georgia Dome. Weatherspoon underwent tests to determine the extent of his injury Monday. The Falcons are already thin at linebacker with De'Vondre Campbell, who suffered an ankle injury in during the closed portion of practice on Sept. 15, and Paul Worrilow (groin surgery) out. Campbell was told by the team that he would be out 4-6 weeks. But just two weeks after the injury, Campbell was running with trainers last week. Campbell, a fourth-round pick from Minnesota, started the season-opener against Tampa Bay at weak-side linebacker. Weatherspoon, who has an extensive injury history, was filling in for Campbell. Weatherspoon's injury was announced as a calf/Achilles injury on his right leg. The team doctor had Weatherspoon lay down on a table as he tried to flex the Achilles on his bent leg. "I think so," Campbell said when asked if he was close to returning. "It's getting better." Campbell said he's going to try to play against Denver in Week 5. "I may have to," he said because of the injuries. "They said I'm healing fast. I may have to come back. We'll see." Weatherspoon missed the entire 2014 season with a torn Achilles and was injured Sunday in the fourth quarter of a 48-33 win over the Carolina Panthers. Weatherspoon, 28, also had a Lisfranc foot injury in 2013. The Falcons brought him back on a one-year, $1 million deal this season after he spent 2015 with the Arizona Cardinals. Atlanta drafted Weatherspoon in the first round of the 2010 draft. He signed a five-year, $17.5 million deal as a rookie. Panthers left tackle Mike Remmers was expecting Falcons defensive end Dwight Freeney's famous spin move, and that's what he saw - until he didn't. When Freeney started to spin back inside, Remmers stepped to his right in anticipation. But Freeney spun back to the outside, leaving Remmers flat-footed as Freeney ran free to quarterback Cam Newton and sacked him for an eight-yard loss in the second quarter. At 36 years old and near the end of what probably will be a Hall of Fame career, Freeney apparently still has some new tricks. "I've got to keep pulling them out," Freeney said. "The older you get, the more tools you better have. You can't just be athletic and beat everybody. I've got a bunch of them. If I've got to do a cartwheel, I'm going to do a cartwheel. Whatever it takes to get there." Freeney had his second strong game rushing the passer in as many weeks, and this time he got plenty of help from his teammates. Freeney had the only sack for the Falcons against the Panthers, but they registered eight quarterback hits and several other pressures. Freeney and Adrian Clayborn had two quarterback hits and four players had one each: Derrick Shelby, Ra'Shede Hageman, Brooks Reed and Vic Beasley. Falcons cornerback Robert Alford returned an interception 30 yards for a touchdown and ended Sunday's game with another interception against the Panthers. Alford had struggled earlier in the game in coverage. The Falcons got cornerback Jalen Collins back on Monday after he served his four-game suspension for using performance enhancing drugs. Collins will get a chance to compete with Alford for the starting right cornerback spot. "I feel like we went out there, and we did what we were coached," Alford said. "Towards the end, we just have to learn how to finish it. We let them get a little too close towards the end. It is just something that we have to work on and study film." Alford finished with two tackles and three passes defensed. "We were pleased to see him come back and battle," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "He has terrific ball skills. With the interception, it would've been OK with us if he took a knee and went down, but we came back." The Falcons ran the same play and got an even better result from rookie tight end Austin Hooper. Quarterback Matt Ryan rolled to his right and threw back to the left sideline to Hooper, who was wide open in the Panthers secondary. He caught the ball and easily scored his first career touchdown on the 43-yard play. Hooper had a 42-yard catch against the Raiders in the previous game on a play that looked similar. "Same design, same exact play," Hooper said. "The linebackers were being real aggressive, trying to sell out the run, so that's kind of our counter to that. It kind of keeps them honest. (Offensive coordinator) Kyle (Shanahan) called it, we executed it, Matt threw the perfect ball and I just caught it and turn around and run." Hooper said the moment was so "surreal" that he didn't do much celebrating. He handed the ball to a game official before Falcons tight end Levine Toilolo, his former teammate at Stanford, retrieved it. "Levine is like, 'Don't do that!'" Hooper said. "He grabbed the ball said, 'You need to keep this one. It's special.'" The Falcons selected Hooper in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft with the expectation that he would improve the passing game with his speed and receiving skills. For the season Hooper has five catches for 140 yards and the touchdown. Strategy & Personell PLAYER NOTES RB Devonta Freeman recorded his first rushing touchdown of the season. He finished the game with 13 carries for 57 yards. The rushing score was the 13th of his career and his first since week 16 of 2015. RB Devonta Freeman recorded his first rushing touchdown of the season. He finished the game with 13 carries for 57 yards. The rushing score was the 13th of his career and his first since week 16 of 2015. DE Dwight Freeney reached the quarterback for the second time this year, giving him 121.5 for his career, 19th in NFL history and third among active players. CB Robert Alford recorded two interceptions during the game, including his first defensive touchdown of the season and the second of his career. REPORT CARD VS. PANTHERS PASSING OFFENSE: A Matt Ryan continued to spread the ball around as he connected with nine different receivers. While passing for a franchise record 503 yards, Ryan also had season highs in touchdowns (4) and passer rating (142.0). Julio Jones has 12 catches for 300 yards and one touchdown. Tight ends Jacob Tamme and Austin Hooper and wide receiver Aldrick Robinson also had touchdown catches. RUSHING OFFENSE: C - Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman rushed 21 times for 76 yards for a sub-par 3.6-yard average per carry. Freeman had a nice touchdown run up the middle from 13 yards out. Ryan added 14 yards on four scrambles. PASS DEFENSE: B-minus - Cornerback Robert Alford helped to salt the game away with an interception return for a touchdown and another interception. The Panthers completed 31 of 48 passes for 337 yards and three touchdowns. Most of the yards came after the Falcons took a 34-10 lead and the Panthers tried to rally. Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin was held to three catches for 39 yards and tight end Greg Olsen didn't get a catch until the fourth quarter. RUSH DEFENSE: B - The Panthers rushed 15 times for 49 yards for 3.3 yards per carry. Linebackers Deion Jones and Sean Weatherspoon led the charge defensively. Also, Vic Beasley had a big stop of Carolina quarterback Cam Newton on a third down. SPECIAL TEAMS: B-minus - Returner Eric Weems let three balls bounce that were downed inside of the 2-yard line by the Panthers. He was replaced in the game by Justin Hardy. Punter Matt Basher averaged 47.3 net yards on three punts. The coverage teams also did a good job of containing Carolina's Ted Ginn. COACHING: A-plus - Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has the offense working at a high level. The Falcons had two touchdown drives of 98 yards or more. Ryan continues to move the ball around to all of the receivers and the running game, while stymied, still produced a touchdown run. Defensively, the Falcons' prevent defense needs some work. After going up 34-10, the Panthers were able to score too quickly. The special teams continued their solid, but not spectacular play.
  24. Link To article Atlanta Falcons INSIDE SLANT Inside Slant | Notes, Quotes | Strategy and Personnel | Player Wire Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan turned in a strong showing and was sharp and crisp with his passes in the team's second exhibition game. Ryan was 0-for-4 in the exhibition opener and had just two three-and-outs. The offense fluently moved the ball against the Cleveland Browns and Ryan spread passes around to his top weapons, including the newly acquired wide receiver Mohamed Sanu. Ryan was particularly fond of the team's touchdown on their opening drive. "I thought it was good," Ryan said. "It was obviously a good drive for us on that first one. We had some opportunities on the second and third drives, too to come up with some points, but we feel a little bit short. "But I thought it was good. We ran the ball really well all night which is encouraging to see. I thought we made some plays in the pass game. I thought we were a little bit more sharp than we were the first week." Ryan was pleased with the play of Sanu, who ran with power after his catches. "I thought he did a nice job of making plays after the ball was in his hands," Ryan said. "He was fighting for every yard that he could get. There was one on a little short route to the right that he caught and battled for another 5 or 6 yards after contact. Obviously, he had the long one up the middle. I think he's a talented guy. I think he's a strong guy and he did a nice job for us tonight." In addition to getting Sanu involved, running back Devonta Freeman added a red-zone touchdown run. "That's what Devonta brings to the table," Ryan said. "He did that all last year for us. He's elusive after he gets the ball in his hands. It's tough for those first guys to bring him down because he's so smooth with the ball in his hands. He did a nice job. I thought our offensive line did a great job the entire night. Those were the guys who really got it going for us." Jones was also pleased with the offensive attack. "It was good," Jones said. "The hard work and preparation is paying off. Like I said before, we are not game-planning, but we can go out here execute, score touchdowns without game-planning for people and going after their weaknesses, it shows a lot." Jones is looking forward to playing more in the third exhibition game against Miami in Orlando on Thursday. "We have to keep building," Jones said. "We have to take from this game. We have some corrections that we have to clean up. But other that than, we just have to keep moving forward. Just working off each other and feeding off of each other." Ryan plans to keep the offense in high gear against the Dolphins in the all-important third exhibition game. "The third week is usually your dress rehearsal for what the season is going to be like," Ryan said. "We'll have an opportunity to practice during the week the way that we will during the regular season. We'll game plan for the first time this year. It will be a good dry run." Falcons coach Dan Quinn was not worried about Ryan coming around in the second year of running Kyle Shanahan's offense. "I thought he really looked sharp and came out and performed," Quinn said. "Just getting some of the connections going right off the bat. Any time we get the run game and the play action, that goes with it, it's a handful." Notes, Quotes The Falcons are hoping that defensive end Dwight Freeney is able to show second-year linebacker/defensive end Vic Beasley some pass-rushing tricks of the trade. "I think Vic is a tremendous talent," Freeney said. "He has a lot to learn. The upside is absolutely amazing for him. I'm going to try to help him out as much as I can. "I'm going to navigate him through all of the troubled waters and all of the things that he's going to run into that he hasn't experienced yet. I'll try to catch him up to speed as much as possible." Freeney is aware that Beasley has studied film of his play and said that makes him feel "old." But film study is part of the game. "I can't watch Reggie White," Freeney said. "There is no way that I'm humping (moving) anybody or flipping somebody over. But I might watch a guy like Derrick Thomas or Lawrence Taylor." With the injury to strong safety Kemal Ishmael, undrafted rookie Damian Parms will get an opportunity to shine when the Falcons face the Cleveland Browns. Parms is listed as the third strong safety behind Keanu Neal and Ishmael. He played 13 snaps against Washington and tied for the team lead with five tackles and had a forced fumble. Ishmael and rookie linebacker Deion Jones also had five tackles. Parms played 10 plays on special teams and made one tackle. "I'm going to get my opportunity for sure, like everybody will," Parms said. "When I get in there, I'm just going to capitalize on every opportunity that I get." Nose tackle Chris Mayes, an undrafted rookie from Georgia, suffered a foot injury early in practice on Monday and was waived injured on Tuesday. On Monday, Mayes was escorted from the field by the training staff. Mayes was listed as the fourth-string nose tackle on the team's depth chart. He played seven snaps against Washington and was considered a longshot to make the team. Backup center Jake Reed (foot) was also not at practice. The Falcons were awarded offensive guard Jordan Walsh on waivers Tuesday, and they released tackle Shahbaz Ahmed, according to the league's transaction wire. Walsh, 6-foot-2 and 292 pounds, played at Iowa. Ahmed played at Temple. Walsh was waived by the Saints on Saturday to make room for veteran safety Cortland Finnegan. Ahmed was listed as the third right tackle behind Ryan Schraeder and Bryce Harris. Strategy & Personell P Matt Bosher left Thursday's exhibition game with a chest injury. Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said the team sent the NFL video of the questionable hit that knocked Bosher out of the game at Cleveland. He was hit by Cleveland linebacker Tank Carder. LB/DE Vic Beasley did not play against the Cleveland Browns on Thursday with a shoulder injury. Falcons coach Dan Quinn said the injury was not related to the torn labrum in his right shoulder that he played with in 2015. RB Terron Ward (ankle) did not play against Cleveland on Thursday. SS Kemal Ishmael (shoulder) did not play against Cleveland on Thursday. C Jake Reed (foot) reached an injury settlement with the Falcons. PK Matt Bryant (tightness) did not play against Cleveland on Thursday. Nick Rose missed a 48-yard field goal attempt. DE Dwight Freeney made his debut with the Falcons. "It's hard to get that rust off," Freeney said. "I got about six to eight plays. I definitely felt a little rusty, but that's what the (exhibition) season is for." Freeney has 119.5 career sacks. WR Mohamed Sanu had three catches for 45 yards against the Browns. "I think we did phenomenal," Sanu said. "We came out, we played hard, competed and played physical. We went out there and executed the best that we could."
  25. Link to article Atlanta Falcons INSIDE SLANT Inside Slant | Notes, Quotes | Strategy and Personnel | Player Wire While Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan struggled over two series, backup quarterback Matt Schaub put on a passing clinic in the exhibition opener against Washington on Thursday. Ryan did not move the ball against Washington as he had two three-and-outs and was 0-for-4 passing before he left the game and was replaced by Schaub. The first-team offense, which included key free-agent signees center Alex Mack and wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, was in some tough spots. "Obviously tough field position to start with, we've got to do a better job of being able to punch that and change the field position," Ryan said of the opening drive, which started at Atlanta's 2-yard line. "It's a great learning experience for us and something we can improve on as we get into practice next week." Mack's debut went well. "I thought our offensive line did a nice job," Ryan said. "We've got to make some plays on the outside to keep those drives going and that's something we can improve on, but I think our guys up front did a nice job." Ryan was undaunted by the performance. "Just got to get back out there and keep working, that was our first opportunity to go out and do it live," Ryan said. "We weren't as good as we wanted to be, but we've got a long way to go and a lot of time to improve." Schaub, 35, was 10 of 15 for 179 yards and directed three scoring drives before he gave way to Sean Renfree, who was followed by Matt Simms. With Schaub as insurance, it's the first time the Falcons have had a former long-term NFL starter in the backup role since they drafted Ryan in 2008. Schaub also comes with the benefit of previous experience in Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's system. The Falcons paid up to get Schaub, and he gave a glimpse at the benefits of that investment. He had a pair of big plays to wide receiver Aldrick Robinson, a 47- and 68-yard gain. "It was good to see Matt (Schaub) take a few shots, and that's why he's here, to show that he can do it and for him to be in the rhythm," Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said. "I thought he had a good night. We aren't surprised. He's had a good training camp. He's been a terrific partner with Matt Ryan. We're fortunate we have him here." The Falcons signed Schaub to a one-year contract for $2.75 million, with $500,000 guaranteed in March. His salary ranks about in the middle of the pack for NFL reserve quarterbacks, but is significantly more than the pay for the last Falcons veteran backup, T.J. Yates, who made $645,000 in 2014. Last season, Ryan's backup was Renfree, a seventh-round draft pick who made about $590,000. In 2013, it was Dominique Davis, a former college free agent who was paid about $480,000. Veteran Luke McCown made $825,000 in 2012. Chris Redman ($2.55 million in 2011) was the last Falcons reserve quarterback to make significant money for the position. Only three NFL teams are allocating more 2016 salary-cap dollars to their starting quarterback than the Falcons. Unable to develop a young (and relatively cheap) quarterback behind Ryan, the Falcons decided to pay for the assurance that a veteran such as Schaub provides. Schaub returns to the Falcons after he served as Michael Vick's backup during the 2004 and 2005 seasons. "It was good to get back out there," Schaub said. "It was good to be back in the Georgia Dome. My teammates made a lot of great plays, and that was the key. The guys up front protected well." Notes, Quotes Falcons defensive tackle Courtney Upshaw played strong-side linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens over the past four years, but the Falcons have converted him to a defensive tackle. He's currently listed as the primary backup to starting tackle Grady Jarrett, and has plenty to prove on a one-year, $1.25 million contract. "The Falcons are giving me a chance," Upshaw said. "As you know, with the one-year deal, I'm here to try to make the best of it." Upshaw has embraced his move to tackle. "It's something new, but at the end of the day, I'm down for the challenge," Upshaw said. "I appreciate coach (Dan) Quinn bringing me in and not just limiting me to one position. He's trying to allow me to make plays in camp so that I can get on the field." Upshaw is expected to see plenty of action against Washington in Thursday's preseason opener. "I feel that it's going good, but it could always be better," Upshaw said. "I'm taking the good with the bad. My goal is to get better so that I can get on the field and help the team." He senses that the team is ready for the start of the exhibition games. "Of course, we are all ready to get out here and see what we can do," Upshaw said. "We've got a lot of young guys here along with myself and we appreciate that we're here. We want to show that we can go out here and help the team." While rookies Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell have dominated the spotlight at the linebacker position in training camp, veteran LaRoy Reynolds, who was signed in free agency, has quietly gone about his business. Reynolds, who played for the Bears last season, was signed for $675,000 in free agency. He's a speedy special teams player. "I was just grateful to have another opportunity to do something," Reynolds said. "After you get released, you are grateful for the opportunities that you do get. I was just excited to get here and be a part of the good group of guys." With the young guys being developed, Reynolds is not delusional about his status with the team. "Just my energy, my juice and my leadership," Reynolds said of what he can bring to the team. "I think that's a big part of who I am as a person. Just being able to bring that to the younger guys and then on special teams. I can show the guys how to really practice. How to really go after it and how to be a part of the defense. For me, it's just being that leader and having that role." The Falcons had a special visitor at practice in wrestler Ric Flair on Tuesday. The players were elated to see "The Nature Boy." "You could see the energy," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "He was talking with us and having some fun. It was great to have his support and to have him be a part of it today. You could tell that he's a big fan and that we're also big fans of his." During, the early team meeting, Quinn showed from clips for Flair's wrestling days. In the Olympic spirit, Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones was asked who would be on the team's 4x100 meter relay team. "We got a lot of fast guys out here," Jones said. "Robert Alford, Tevin Coleman, Aldrick Robinson, and probably myself. I'm trying to think of who else. Yeah, that's about right." Jones believes he'd be the anchor. "Most definitely," Jones said. "That or third leg." Falcons defensive end Ra'Shede Hageman is quietly going about having a strong training camp. Hageman, who was drafted in the second round (37th overall) of the 2014 NFL Draft, has been moved to defensive end. "He's done a good job in that transition," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "Right now, he's playing really solid ball and I think he's improved player from the 2015 season at least now in training camp." Hageman played in all 16 games, including 12 starts. While he was stout against the run, Hageman didn't make much of an impact as he finished with 27 tackles, one sack, no hurries, six quarterback hits and one pass defense. Hageman is listed No. 2 behind Derrick Shelby at left defensive end. The Falcons want to see Hageman develop some consistency. "Now, we've got to take it into the exhibition season games and allow that work to continue," Quinn said. "We are pleased with the start of where he's at heading into this year." Strategy & Personnel While Eric Weems handled most return duties last season, running back Tevin Coleman is the leading candidate to replace Hester as the kickoff returner. Coach Dan Quinn said Nick Williams, second-year pro Justin Hardy and rookie Devin Fuller are punt return candidates. Weems became the primary returner when Hester missed 11 games due to injury. He averaged 11.6 yards on 19 punt returns with a long of 41 yards, and 26.9 yards on 15 kick returns with a long return of 50. Williams returned nine kickoffs while with the Redskins in 2013 and averaged 20.9 yards with a long of 29. He also had one punt return, a fair catch that he fumbled. PLAYER NOTES DE Dwight Freeney, who had just three practices, was held out of the exhibition opener. He's expected to play against Cleveland in the second exhibition game on Thursday. SS Keanu Neal, who was held out of the Washington game with a trunk/torso injury, is set to return to practice on Sunday. TE Levine Toilolo, who didn't play in the Washington game because of a hand injury, is set to return to practice on Sunday. SS Kemal Ishmael suffered a shoulder strain against Washington and will not practice on Sunday. RB Terron Ward, who has an ankle injury, did not play against Washington and will not practice on Sunday.
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