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  1. https://theathletic.com/1225924/2019/09/19/heres-the-catch-desmond-trufant-has-worked-hard-to-turn-that-weakness-into-a-strength/ Desmond Trufant, dripping sweat, will stand roughly 10 yards from the JUGS machine, catching pass after pass after practice has ended. He’ll stand there for up to 15 minutes doing what might seem like a mundane chore when he could otherwise call it a day. A lot of times, he’ll do this when practice ends, fatigued from the two-plus hours of work he just put in. Or he could do this before practice, depending on that day’s schedule. And if he’s not on the JUGS machine, he might ask to run some routes for Atlanta’s younger quarterbacks during their Plan D period. Regardless, it has become practically a ritual for Trufant to ensure he works on catching the football. Considering he’s Atlanta’s No. 1 cornerback, Trufant knows he needs to secure more interceptions than the nine he’s had after his first six NFL seasons. Interceptions haven’t been a staple of Trufant’s career. The most he’s ever had in a season is three, which came in 2014. Considering how fast Trufant is, he is able to stay with or recover on just about any NFL receiver. But being able to pick off passes has been a needed area of improvement and one Trufant recognizes. He’s spent plenty of offseasons bettering himself. This time around, he’s devoted even more time to become a more recognizable top-flight cornerback. “I feel like if I can just turn that weakness into a strength, there is no stopping me at this point,” Trufant said. Because Trufant plays cornerback, he’s aware of the attention the position brings. As he dropped potential interceptions during the 2018 season, he was often criticized, whether by media outlets or fans. Trufant said he did his part to keep things from becoming personal. Still, he saw what people were writing and heard what they were saying. And he wants to prove them wrong. Trufant understands this, whether it’s fair or not. It’s the nature of the game. When you’re rewarded with a five-year, $68.75 million contract, the expectations are high. Trufant went into the most recent offseason with the realization that he’d have to do more than he has previously when it comes to interceptions. “It’s the league. I’m in that position. I play corner. It just comes with it,” Trufant said. “But when you know the type of player you are, it is what it is, and I know what I can do on Sundays. It feels good to go out there and play like I know I can play.” Trufant made his presence felt early against the Philadelphia Eagles in last Sunday’s 24-20 victory. For the first time in his career, Trufant intercepted two passes in a single game. The first pick came with less than two minutes left in the first quarter. Off the snap, rookie receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside ran a go-route, with Trufant matching him step for step down the field. Quarterback Carson Wentz was forced to roll out to his right before he launched the ball. The pressure helped force an underthrow, with Trufant using his body to shield Arcega-Whiteside from getting back to the ball. Trufant jumped, grabbed the ball and secured his first interception of the season. The second occurred with less than eight minutes to go in the second quarter. This time, Trufant was matched up against Mack Hollins and stayed on top of his route while recognizing the moment Wentz was set to throw the ball. On film review, it appeared Trufant was the only one in the general vicinity to realize Wentz’s ball was about to fall well short. Trufant quit the route, changed direction and dropped low to the ground to secure the interception. He then popped up and ran it back for 10 yards. This pick, in particular, was big because Atlanta scored a touchdown on the ensuing drive. “He gets a lot of chances to jump in front of some balls,” safety Ricardo Allen said. “We’ve been telling him, ‘If you just catch them, you’ll be one of the top corners in the league every year.’ Everybody knows he can cover. Everybody knows he’s one of the most competitive corners in the league. It’s just the reason a lot of people don’t give him the respect on a yearly basis is because he don’t got as many picks as most corners. If he starts catching them like last game, there ain’t nothing they can do to deny exactly who he is as a player.” On days where Trufant isn’t on the JUGS machine after practice, he will run over to the offense’s Plan D group to catch some passes from second-year quarterback Danny Etling. The Plan D group is designed for the developmental players to get additional reps once practice is over. Obviously, Trufant is not working on being a receiver. To get the feel of catching a ball from a quarterback, he will run some routes as a receiver with Etling, which proves to be mutually beneficial, because Etling also gets additional work. “That’s a testament to how hard he works,” Etling said. “Even after a long, hard day out in the heat, he’s trying to get more catches to better himself and make the plays when they come his way.” Receiver Julio Jones has matched up against Trufant plenty of times at practice over the years. What stands out to Jones are the blended qualities Trufant possesses at the position. He has good size at 6-foot and 190 pounds. He has great speed and agility, too. Not many corners in the league have both attributes, Jones said. “With corners, they’re either long and can’t stop, or they’re too small but have short-space quickness. And they can’t really defend the deep ball or jump ball,” Jones said. “But Tru, he’s got great size, great weight, speed, things like that. He matches up well. It’s fun to get each other better every day at practice. For sure, he’s one of the best to do it.” If Trufant can start accumulating interceptions, he could be in for one of the best seasons of his career. The speed and change of direction have always been there. He spent a good portion of the offseason working on being more physical at the line of scrimmage, which has shown through the first two games. The lone area that hasn’t always surfaced has been the picks. If the game against Philadelphia was an indicator, this year could be different. Trufant worked awfully hard at improving his ball skills at the position. With those two interceptions, his confidence is only growing. “I’m just locked in. I’m ready to take my respect, it’s that simple,” Trufant said. “People say what they say. It doesn’t control me, but I feel it, you feel me? It is what it is. I’m ready to show them what’s good.”
  2. https://theathletic.com/1215361/2019/09/16/what-we-learned-a-little-knee-pain-wont-keep-kaleb-mcgary-from-finishing-a-game/ No one can question Kaleb McGary’s toughness. In the first half, it seemed like the Falcons, who won a thrilling 24-20 game over the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday night, were about to be down yet another rookie first-round offensive lineman. On a first-down play with 8:20 to go in the second quarter, McGary ended up on the turf and was clearly in a great deal of pain. He got himself off of the ground but could not put any weight on his left leg. Obviously, any time someone is suddenly dealing with a knee injury, people expect the worst. It looked especially bad after the “Sunday Night Football” camera crew caught McGary being carted off of the field. And to make matters more difficult, the Falcons lost rookie guard Chris Lindstrom (broken foot) for an indefinite period just a week ago. The notion that Atlanta might be down both of its rookie first-round linemen would have been tough to handle. Fortunately for the Falcons, that turned out not to be the case. The team administered a field test to see if McGary suffered any ligament damage. The test came back negative. As time ticked away, McGary was able to place more weight on the leg. When the Falcons came back from the halftime break, McGary was on the sideline working through his offensive line movements, with his uniform and helmet on. Able to move laterally, he convinced the coaching staff he was good to go. “Once I could put weight back on it, it was just a decision,” McGary said. “I told them I’m going.” McGary didn’t start the second half as Ty Sambrailo continued to play in the third quarter. On Atlanta’s first series of the fourth quarter, McGary checked back into the game. “His toughness is impressive,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “For a young guy to have the mindset to come back. I got tossed into him pretty hard, too. I thought I hurt him when I hit him. For him to have the mindset to come back and play the way he did for us at the end of the game was huge.” McGary said he’ll undergo some additional testing Monday to ensure there isn’t any unforeseen damage to his knee. After the game, McGary seemed tired but happy he was able to finish. Considering how painful the injury looked, McGary playfully was asked if he also needed some testing between the ears administered since he was willing to fight through it. McGary laughed before answering. “I don’t know, man. I just love my job,” McGary said. “I just love what I do.” Offensive line proved it can handle pressure The Falcons came off a season opener that saw the offensive line surrender four sacks, which didn’t sit well with any of the group’s members. Minnesota possesses a talented front seven, sure, and sometimes great players win individual battles. But Atlanta felt it could have done much more to keep Ryan clean and upright in Minneapolis. A week later against Philadelphia, the offensive line proved to be ready to rectify the previous outcome. The Eagles recorded only one sack, which came on a blitz up the middle. The line, however, faced a steady stream of pressure all night. But all three of the tackles, McGary, Sambrailo and Jake Matthews did a good job of preventing the edge rushers from winning against them. The interior linemen held up, too. And Ryan, for his faults when it came to throwing three interceptions, did a good job of getting rid of the ball in a timely manner. This collective effort allowed the Falcons to allow just six quarterback hits. Ryan said the Eagles brought more pressure out of a cover-zero look than he has seen throughout his entire career. For the offensive line to do what it did speaks to the level of preparation heading into Sunday night, he said. “I thought they did a good job,” Ryan said. “I mean, they had more numbers than we had in protection most of the night when they were sending pressures, and it’s going to go well for us if we get the ball out, and we hit it the way we’re supposed to, or it’s going to go well for them. There’s no in-between when they pressure like that. I thought we did a nice job of just keeping the mindset of on to the next play, regardless if there were some plays that happened that didn’t go our way.” Defense looked like the group many expected it to be With head coach Dan Quinn calling defensive plays this season, the expectation was for the Falcons to be aggressive in stopping the run while getting after the quarterback on passing downs. Against the Vikings, Atlanta couldn’t stop the run, which proved to be a major problem in the game’s outcome. Against Philadelphia, the defense looked like the unit many expected from the start of the season. The Eagles weren’t getting to the edges the way the Vikings were able to. Running back Miles Sanders was held to 28 rushing yards on 10 carries. Jordan Howard added eight carries for 18 yards. While the Falcons totaled three sacks, that number had the potential to be even higher. Before Vic Beasley recorded his first sack of the season, he nearly had Carson Wentz to the ground, only to see Wentz somehow get a throw off that was completed. Takk McKinley routinely beat Jason Peters to put pressure on Wentz. Wentz deserves a lot of credit for getting the ball out numerous times when Atlanta was closing in. “Hopefully, we can continue to keep developing, but it is a veteran-esque group now that people that have played some time and experience, so we’re hoping to build on it for sure,” Quinn said. Of course, the defense did have some moments late that need to be cleaned up. After Ryan’s third interception, the defense was unable to stop Philadelphia on a 13-play, 73-yard drive that took 8:29 off of the clock. And after Atlanta took the lead again at 24-20, Nelson Algholor beat Isaiah Oliver on what looked to be a deep touchdown, only for Algholor to drop the pass. On a fourth-and-14 play just a little bit later, Algholor came up with a deep ball that he had to sky in the air for. But on fourth-and-8 at the Atlanta 16-yard line, Oliver and Keanu Neal ensured Zach Ertz did not reach the line to gain, which turned the ball over on downs. Holding Philadelphia to 20 points and 286 total yards was a great feat after what transpired a week ago. And perhaps the defense can keep the ball rolling against an Indianapolis Colts team that, for the time being, ranks in the bottom half of the league (22nd) in yards per game (332.0). Ryan has to do a better job of taking care of the ball Sunday night’s game marked the 37th time Ryan has engineered a fourth-quarter comeback in his career. But if Ryan didn’t throw three costly interceptions, perhaps the Falcons aren’t in a position to need a late-game touchdown. All of Ryan’s interceptions could have been prevented, too, which brings up the question as to why he’s making some of these decisions. In two games, Ryan has five picks. In 2018, Ryan threw seven during the entire season. Last week, his first interception came after a throw toward Julio Jones in double coverage and a second was on a jump ball to Luke Stocker in the end zone. This week, Ryan threw a pass behind Mohamed Sanu that was tipped and picked, underthrew Jones on a deep ball that was taken away and tried to fit a ball over the top of multiple defenders in Austin Hooper’s direction. Those mistakes will need to stop if Atlanta is going to put itself in position to be a playoff team. The Atlanta defense created three turnovers, only for the game to end with a zero turnover margin. “Turning the football over three times, it’s hard to win in this league when you do that,” Ryan said. “But you keep telling yourself, ‘All right, the score is where it’s at. We’re in a good position. Forget what’s happened until this point. Trust the play that’s coming in. Trust what you see on the other side. Go execute.’” More time could, and probably should, be coming for Smith Considering the paycheck Devonta Freeman is earning, it sure seemed like the Falcons were going to ride him in the running game quite a bit this year. And in Sunday’s game against Philadelphia, it seemed like the Falcons still plan to make Freeman the top dog in the rushing attack. He was on the field for 41 plays, which amounted to 62 percent of the offense’s snaps. Ito Smith, conversely, was on the field for 25 plays, or 38 percent of the team’s snaps. Freeman carried the ball 11 times for 22 yards and added three catches for 42 yards. Smith, however, carried the ball only four times and notched 32 yards, which included a nifty 28-yard run that showcased his agility. At the 1:36 mark of the third quarter, Smith burst through a big hole to his left before cutting quickly to get past linebacker Nigel Bradham. Smith sprinted to his right before stopping shortly to let a block set up. He then continued at an angle toward the right sideline before he was pushed out of bounds. The end result was Atlanta’s longest rush of the night. Smith has had some impressive moments during the first two weeks of the season. While Freeman entered the year as a clear No. 1 back, Smith has stated his case for additional touches. Trufant’s practice finally pays off Atlanta’s top cornerback had a tough time with interceptions in 2018. He had multiple opportunities and, for whatever reason, Desmond Trufant just couldn’t get it done. While the results weren’t materializing, he worked every day on the JUGS machine to improve his catching and was grabbing them in practice. Trufant finally was able to breathe a sigh of relief in this department Sunday night. Trufant came down with two interceptions in the first half, ensuring he was in the right place at the right time on each occasion. With less than two minutes to play in the first quarter, Atlanta brought pressure off the edge, with Wentz somehow escaping and rolling to his right. Wentz lofted a pass deep down the field toward JJ Arcega-Whiteside. Trufant was right by the rookie receiver, got in front of him and picked off the pass. Trufant followed that pick with one at the 7:42 mark of the second quarter. Wentz appeared to be looking at Ertz but threw the ball well short of his intended target. Trufant was on the spot and able to catch the errant throw. It was the first multi-interception game of Trufant’s career. The most he has ever had in a season has been three, and he has recorded two in one year only twice before. While the Falcons have had mixed results in their two games, Trufant is off to a great individual start as Atlanta’s No. 1 cornerback. “I was just playing aggressive,” Trufant said. “I was getting in their faces, as a whole, the secondary was playing aggressive and playing physical. The pass rush was great, and we were getting some hits on the quarterback so it was a great game. Now we have to build on it.”
  3. https://theathletic.com/1214218/2019/09/16/schultz-even-after-falcons-late-escape-matt-ryan-knows-he-has-to-be-better/ The Falcons crept to the edge of 0-2 and potential early season doom before something unexpected happened late Sunday night. They won. They rallied to win a game over their recent tormentors from red-zone ****, Philadelphia. They managed to win on a night when their $30 million starting quarterback threw three interceptions in a span of four possessions, making everybody wonder, “What the **** happened to Matt Ryan?” “Turning the football over three the times, it’s hard to win when you do that,” Ryan said. “But you keep telling yourself, ‘All right, the score is where it’s at. We’re in a good position. Forget what’s happened until this point. Trust the play that’s coming in. Trust what you see on the other side. Go execute.'” Ryan makes it all sound so simple and systematic and tunnel-vision like. That thinking is what allows athletes to compartmentalize the noise and disasters and move forward. So the positive is that Ryan again proved he could face-plant in the mud — more than once — and still do something right in the hit. He read Philadelphia’s all-out-blitz, cover zero (no safeties) defense and burned the Eagles with a screen pass to Julio Jones, who blasted off 54 yards for a touchdown. The Falcons won 24-20. But there’s so much to forget. Early film review: • The first interception near the end of the first half when Ryan tried to stop Mohamed Sanu in his route but threw behind him, leading to a turnover and a Philadelphia field goal. Ryan: “I probably shouldn’t attempt that.” • The second interception against all-out pressure in the third quarter when he got hit as he threw and the ball was well short of Jones, leading to another pick and setting up a Philadelphia touchdown. Ryan: “It sucks when that happens.” • The third one, the worst of all, the one in the red zone when the Falcons had a chance to expand their lead from 17-12 when Ryan didn’t see weakside linebacker Nathan Jerry and Ryan’s pass for Austin Hooper was intercepted. Ryan: “That’s just a mistake on my part. But it’s something I can clean up.” He needs to. Otherwise, forget about the Falcons accomplishing anything of significance in 2019. They won a big game. They blew a 17-6 lead and allowed 14 straight points before winning on the last spasm. A beautiful game, it wasn’t. The teams combined for six turnovers. Instead of 0-2, the Falcons are 1-1. They might be the sudden favorites in the NFC South, with New Orleans losing quarterback Drew Brees to a potentially serious thumb injury. But slow down. Ryan has thrown five interceptions in two games, the worst start of his professional career. Some of it can be blamed on defensive pressure. But he has made far too many poor decisions for an 11-year NFL quarterback, let alone one whose pay ranks him among the elite. He knows this. Head coach Dan Quinn knows this. Turnovers submarine football teams, and right now Ryan is sinking his own boat. “He gets pissed,” Quinn said of Ryan’s response after interceptions. “But he resets quickly, whether it’s good or bad.” So it’s visible? “Yes, visible. And audible. “I don’t think (five interceptions in two games) is going to be the norm. It hasn’t been his history. It’s obviously not what he wants or we want. But it’s not a concern for me.” Ryan was not without impressive moments Sunday. He threw for 320 yards. He also threw three touchdown passes against an Eagles defense that held the Falcons to one touchdown and a field goal in a 15-10 Falcons playoff loss in 2017 and to four field goals in an 18-12 loss in the 2018 opener. Both games ended inside the Philadelphia 5-yard line. So greased the exit ramp for former offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. Ryan also deserves credit for perhaps his greatest trait of all: resolve. He helped win a game that he surely would’ve been blamed for losing. “We’ve got each other’s backs. It don’t matter,” Jones said. “We’re an extension of one another. It’s not one person did that or one person did that. We set out to get a W, and we got a W.” Tight end Austin Hooper said even after the interceptions, Ryan’s mood was, “Unwavering. You’ve got to always believe, right? We’ve seen Matt do great things here. The true competitor, the fire, the spirit, the tenacity. That never goes away, whether a ball goes to our team or the other team. You saw him battle back. That’s what he does.” After Jones broke into the open field toward the end zone, Ryan ran around celebrating and pointing to nobody in particular on the Falcons’ sideline. “I honestly couldn’t tell you what was going on,” he said, laughing. “I was just running around like I was 10 years old.” His third touchdown was the 300th in his career. More importantly, it allowed him to move on from three throws he would like to have back.
  4. https://theathletic.com/1214562/2019/09/16/cant-let-them-catch-me-what-julio-jones-and-the-falcons-were-thinking-during-his-game-winning-touchdown/ The pressure never seemed to relent. While the Falcons were able to withstand the varying blitzes the Philadelphia Eagles threw their way, it remained a chore for quarterback Matt Ryan to get rid of the ball quickly and into the hands of his receiving targets. After Sunday night’s thrilling 24-20 win, Ryan said that was the most pressure he has seen a team throw his way throughout his entire career. His teammate tight end Austin Hooper agreed with the sentiment. But just because a defense blitzes as much as Philadelphia did, it doesn’t mean it always will work. As Ryan described it, this style can be “feast or famine.” There isn’t much in between. If a defense sends the house, and the offense dials up the right play, the result can be tremendous. With 2:20 to go in the game, the Falcons seemingly were running out of time and in danger of starting 0-2 for the first time under head coach Dan Quinn. Trailing by three points, Ryan brought his team to the line of scrimmage on fourth-and-3 at the Atlanta 46-yard line. Failing to pick up a first down would give the Eagles a high probability of winning the game. The Falcons (1-1) were coming off a third-down incompletion, with offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter sending in a play to Ryan. But this play also possessed a check to wide receiver screens on both sides of the line of scrimmage. On the right side, three wideouts were lined up, with the inside receivers responsible for springing the outside man. On the left side were Julio Jones, lined up farthest outside, and Mohamed Sanu, lined up slightly to his right. The right side, however, had a wrinkle, with left tackle Jake Matthews responsible for sprinting out and blocking one of the corners in coverage. Ryan had the freedom to check to this play if the coverage suggested an all-out pressure with zero safety help. When Ryan got to the line, he saw the familiar alignment that suggested the Eagles (1-1) were bringing a bunch the front to his face. Ryan made the check. From there, it was all about ensuring the execution of the play. “We came out, we had a different concept call but knew if we had the look we were going to get with all-out pressure, we were going to check to what we checked to,” Ryan said. The ball was snapped, and sure enough, the Eagles brought the house inside. Ryan quickly released the ball in Jones’ direction. Matthews took a perfect angle toward cornerback Avonte Maddox, with Jones catching the ball just before the Pro Bowl left tackle laid out Maddox. Sanu blocked cornerback Sidney Jones out of the way, as well, which created a wide-open path for Jones. The timing of this play was crucial. There is a bevy of factors that could cause a screen to fail. The Falcons, however, spend a ton of practice time on screens, which helped ensure the flawless execution of this timely play. “There’s definitely a big nuance to screens,” Matthews said. “The timing has to be perfect. A lot of times it’s hard to work. The coaches do a really good job. We practice them during the week. We have screen periods. I’m just thankful it worked out, especially against a really good defense.” Said Ryan: “That’s the stuff you have to keep working at. Day in and day out, we do these screen drills all the time. It can be monotonous, but it’s important so that when critical things come up in that situation, you’re just on autopilot. (Quinn) talks about it all the time, ‘Trust your training.’ You go into that moment of trusting what you’ve put yourself in position to do over and over and over. It just feels like it’s automatic.” With screens on each side of the formation, Ryan could’ve decided to go to the one forming to his right. But with Jones to his left, and with Sanu and Matthews blocking, it’s quite obvious why the ball went this direction. “I would throw to Julio, too,” Hooper said. Right guard Jamon Brown said he got excited when the defense showed the all-out pressure. When he heard Ryan check the play to the screens, Brown thought immediately it had big-play potential written all over it. “All we’re thinking about is we got the look we wanted,” Brown said. “This is what we’re asking for. We wanted (cover) zero vs. this — all-out blitz. All we know up front is if we give them the slightest bit of time, it’s going to be a big hitter.” Jones, who finished with five catches for 106 yards and two touchdowns, said that when he heard the check, he was prepared to do what he could to get the first down. Upon catching the ball, the blocks set up perfectly. In that moment, Jones realized he had a shot to beat the rest of the Philadelphia defense to the end zone. “I’m looking around,” Jones said. “Once (Sanu) kicked the guy, I’m looking around, and, ‘OK, it’s a foot race now.’ That was it. It wasn’t like I had to try hard or anything like that. It was just, ‘Stay on course.’” Said Brown: “There’s nobody home. They’re bringing everybody; there’s nobody home. That’s what you saw. (Ryan) made a good throw, made a good catch. And for us big boys, we just throw our hands up baby.” Said Matthews: “He beat one guy, and I was pretty sure he was gone. And then I lost it.” Said cornerback Desmond Trufant: “That’s what you expect from Julio. He’s been doing it since he got in the league. I think he scored on a play like that last year. You love seeing plays like that. It gave us the energy for the defense to go out and finish.” Ryan and Jones have made a habit out of these kinds of plays during their time together. And this one couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. While the defense had an excellent bounce-back game after last week’s loss against Minnesota, it was unable to keep Philadelphia from taking its only lead, at 20-17, with 3:13 to play. And the defense still caught some breaks that could have gone the other way on the Eagles’ final drive. Nelson Algholor dropped what would have been a go-ahead touchdown down the left sideline. Darren Sproles dropped a wide-open pass. And on fourth-and-14 at the Philadelphia 39, quarterback Carson Wentz heaved a deep shot that Algholor somehow came down with, setting up the Eagles at Atlanta’s 18-yard line. The Falcons’ defense buckled down and forced a fourth-and-8. And this time, Isaiah Oliver and Keanu Neal were able to tackle tight end Zach Ertz less than a yard short of the first down to seal Atlanta’s first win of the season. “Any win is big, especially after the week we had,” linebacker De’Vondre Campbell said. “We just needed to come out and play our style of ball. We didn’t feel like we played up to our standard last week, so it was a good opponent to come back and get a good game against.” While the defense showed marked improvement, the lasting impression from this game will be Jones’ heroics on the screen play. Afterward, however, the one thing he wanted to stress was that it is the type of play the Atlanta offense should be making on a regular basis. He said it shouldn’t be a shock to anyone when the Falcons bust these big plays for long scores. As for Jones’ mindset in that particular moment, there was one predominant thought running through his mind as he ran past Eagles defenders, into the end zone and even into the tunnel underneath the stadium. “Can’t let them catch me,” he said.
  5. https://theathletic.com/1206951/2019/09/12/the-falcons-focus-on-turnovers-needs-to-show-up-more-in-games/ It’s all about the ball. That’s the emphasis every Thursday when the Falcons practice. The ball, the physical oblong object itself, is the most important possession to each player. The offense does everything it can to secure it. The defense does what it can to take it away. The ultimate goal is to instill into each Falcons player’s mind that possessing the football is ever-important. And on Sundays, the idea is for these teaching moments to replicate themselves. Of course, coaching turnovers into existence is a hard feat. Coaches can drill techniques as hard as they want. But for a defender, the ball still has to bounce or move his way. On the offensive side, teams can’t account for the unforeseen turnovers, such as when the opposing defender simply makes a better play. Still, the emphasis is present every week because the numbers suggest that the team winning the turnover margin battle has a greater chance at victory. In fact, since head coach Dan Quinn took over the Falcons in 2015, the team has recorded a 70.8 winning percentage when it causes more turnovers than the other team does. “We teach it in the classroom; we teach it on the field,” Quinn said. “We talk about it every day because we know how important it is.” Here are some numbers to show how important turnover margin has been to Atlanta: The Falcons are 17-7 when it produces more turnovers than the other team. In each of Quinn’s four years, the Falcons are better than .500 in games when accomplishing this. Including Sunday’s loss to Minnesota, the Falcons are 7-14 under Quinn when they lose the turnover battle. Under Quinn, when Atlanta has drawn even in turnovers, the team is 12-8. The Falcons are 8-1 the past four years when recording a plus-2 turnover margin. Anything better than plus-2? The Falcons are 3-0. It’s not complicated. Turnovers created on defense combined with an offense that secures the ball usually delivers positive results. Only twice under Quinn have the Falcons won a game while posting a minus-2 or worse in turnover margin. Both games came in 2017 (at Detroit, vs. New Orleans). All of this information sets up the obvious conundrum. While it’s all about the ball at practice, it hasn’t always been the case during games. Including Sunday’s game, the Falcons are dead even in turnover margin since Quinn arrived in 2015. In his first season, the Falcons finished minus-7 in turnover margin. In 2016, the Falcons were plus-11, which was aided by a plus-5 showing against the Los Angeles Rams. In 2017, that number fell to minus-2 Last season, the Falcons finished the year plus-1 but were at minus-4 after 13 games. Turning the ball over three times against Minnesota, without creating one of their own, definitely played a major role in the outcome. And it’s something the Falcons once again will need to rectify heading into this week’s game against Philadelphia. “We all know the percentages. If you even go minus-1 in this league, it’s tough enough to win,” safety Ricardo Allen said. “Going minus-3, that’s just something you don’t want to do. It shows us as a defense, if they’re finding a way to get the ball from us, we have to find a way to get the ball back. We have to find a way to even it out. We have to try to keep digging at it, keep going at it. Teams understand we’ll be going for it, so they’re trying to cover it up more. We have to find a way to get it.” The Falcons, however, have ranked in the top 10 once under Quinn in turnover differential. That occurred in 2016, with their plus-11 mark tying for fourth-best in the league. Otherwise, the team ranked 27th in 2015, 19th in 2017 and tied for 15th in 2018. Each Thursday, the team works through various scenarios where the defense is trying to take the ball away. The defensive players practice punching the ball out, and they’ll work on the tip drill. Of course, the offense works through plays with the goal of not turning the ball over. “We do some turnover circuits,” cornerback Desmond Trufant said. “The offense is trying to keep it from us. We’re trying to take it from them. It’s an emphasis on who can get the ball the most and if they can keep it from us. The defense is always training the offense, the offense is always training us. We have to keep working on it and it will carry over into Sunday.” Of course, drilling and coaching turnovers, and simultaneously preventing them, won’t always show up on game days. Grady Jarrett forced a fumble when sacking Kirk Cousins, only for Minnesota to recover the ball. Sometimes the ball doesn’t bounce a team’s way on these kinds of plays. Considering Minnesota ran that particular play at its own 28-yard line, a turnover could have helped turn the tide. “Through the years, defenses have gotten better and better at trying to go after it because everyone knows the importance of it,” Quinn said. “If you win the turnover margin, you have an excellent chance to win it. Defensively, what happens, over the last 20 years, people are teaching it and going for it.” Atlanta’s three turnovers Sunday, conversely, were of the unforced variety. Matt Ryan’s first interception was thrown to Julio Jones in double coverage, although it is possible Ryan didn’t see safety Anthony Harris drop back after it looked like he might crash down in the box. Ryan’s second pick was a jump ball for Luke Stocker, which the veteran tight end never had a chance to bring down. Harris was the one who picked that pass off, as well, and was aided by some pressure in Ryan’s face. The Falcons’ third turnover came when Devonta Freeman coughed up the ball at the Minnesota 21-yard line in the second quarter. Such plays make it difficult to win games. Freeman said the Falcons need to do a better job of protecting the ball and taking advantage of their opportunities. “It’s more so a mindset,” Freeman said. “Once you establish the mindset with all the guys, including myself, you protect the ball. That’s the No. 1 pillar of our program, to protect the ball. We just got to do a better job of it. That’s it.” Successful teams do a great job of protecting the ball on offense and taking the ball away on defense. While the Falcons devote time each week to accomplishing this, the results have been hit or miss the past four-plus years. Only one game has taken place this season, so there is plenty of time for Atlanta’s fortune with turnovers to reverse course. “I bet if you went from Smyrna (little league) ball — they’re talking about ball security — to high school ball, to college ball, to us,” Quinn said. “The emphasis of the football is really significant. That’s how you do it on the field. You practice it, you drill it, you do it in the meeting rooms. And then it has to carry over to the games.”
  6. https://theathletic.com/1203833/2019/09/11/the-film-doesnt-lie-falcons-goal-is-to-fix-costly-offensive-line-mistakes-in-opener/ It’s not an ideal way for an offensive lineman to spend Monday in the workplace. But members of the Falcons’ offensive line had no other choice but to pore over the game film from Sunday’s 28-12 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, which included many mistakes from the line. There were plenty of grunts and groans in the room, as anyone could imagine, considering the Falcons allowed quarterback Matt Ryan to take four sacks and seven quarterback hits. The phrase “I wish I had that one back,” or some variation of it, was muttered often. And, of course, at times a clip went up and players knew exactly what was going to happen before the play button was pressed. It’s not fun to relive those moments, especially when an offensive lineman is aware that his mistake is about to be on full display for his teammates and position coaches. But it’s a necessity to bring attention to these errors if the line wants to improve. “The film doesn’t lie,” left tackle Jake Matthews said. “If you have something to fix, you have to fix it. That’s what I’m focused on.” Matthews owned up to what he called a “disappointing” performance Sunday. On the Falcons’ first offensive play, Matthews surrendered a sack, which he said was his fault and resulted from a miscommunication. The Vikings initially lined up Everson Griffen on the defensive line with Anthony Barr behind him. Barr then moved down and lined up outside of Griffen before the ball was snapped. After the snap, Matthews initially went after Griffen before realizing Barr had a free rush at Ryan. The Vikings’ second sack came at the 1:54 mark of the second quarter, with defensive lineman Danielle Hunter avoiding a chip on the right side of the line. In the third quarter, Griffen got Matthews with a spin move before bringing down Ryan. In the fourth quarter, Hercules Mata’afa generated pressure up the middle, which caused the pocket to collapse. Hunter and Linval Joseph cleaned the play up. “This isn’t the way we wanted to start the season, so everyone’s pretty down,” center Alex Mack said. “Everyone’s pretty pissed, but we’ve got a long season ahead of us. There was some really good stuff on film. There was some bad stuff. We’ll fix that stuff, keep the good stuff and move on to next week.” Said Matthews: “I was frustrated that a couple of plays I wanted to go my way didn’t. I got to improve from it. The beauty of it is it’s a new week. We have another game this Sunday. We’ll get ready for it now and come out of it 1-1. That’s the plan.” The Falcons line, which surrendered 42 sacks in 2018, will need to regroup with a new face at right guard. And that won’t be easy, considering the circumstances. Chris Lindstrom, the rookie guard Atlanta selected 14th overall in the draft, suffered a broken foot during the third quarter of the opening-game loss. Lindstrom will miss, at minimum, the next eight games as he’s now on injured reserve. The good news for the Falcons is that he isn’t expected to miss the entire season. The timetable for Lindstrom’s return may depend on whether he can tolerate the pain that any soreness might bring once his broken bone is stabilized post-surgery. Dr. Kenneth Jung, a foot and ankle surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, said a broken bone in the foot typically takes six to eight weeks to heal. Sometimes the muscles around the fractured bone are also affected. “You can have some soreness in the bone, at that fracture site itself … those soft tissues can have soreness, as well,” said Jung, who also is a medical consultant to the Los Angeles Rams. “Typically not sharp pain, but aches and pains they have to work through, as long as everything is stable.” With Lindstrom out, coach Dan Quinn said Jamon Brown will receive the first look at right guard against Philadelphia. During organized team activities and minicamp, Brown practiced with the first team at right guard before Lindstrom supplanted him when training camp began. Brown, who was signed to a three-year, $18.75 million contract in the offseason, was a healthy scratch in Atlanta’s Week 1 loss, which he called “surprising.” The Falcons made the offensive line a priority in the offseason to ensure it had the right kind of depth in case injuries affected the first team. They will count on Brown to fill what is a huge loss up front, especially given how well Lindstrom was playing against Minnesota before his injury. Brown said he is up for the challenge of starting at right guard. While Brown didn’t play this past week, he was in the film room watching the game’s mistakes unfold again. After Monday’s film session, Brown said the line believes it can fix the miscues. “That was tough to watch,” Brown said. “But you never really cower away from those. Those losses are lessons. You just try to take that in stride. You watch that play you might have done bad on, you don’t look at how bad you did. You look at the coaching point and the part where I can be better.” At right tackle, Atlanta may still opt for a rotation between Kaleb McGary and Ty Sambrailo or Matt Gono. Gono, who missed the opener with a back injury, returned to practice Wednesday in a limited fashion. Quinn said the plans of a tackle rotation could change as Atlanta gets closer to game day. Ultimately, he wants to settle on having McGary play the position. “We don’t plan to stay that way,” Quinn said. “As long as the communication is right — if it was a concern of that, then we wouldn’t do that. Once we feel like, from a conditioning standpoint, that he can take over for the whole time, then Kaleb will do that.” McGary was pleased with his first NFL performance but noted that by no means was it phenomenal. He said he gained confidence by proving to himself that he can hang against a group of NFL first-team defensive linemen. Like Brown, McGary said Monday’s film review was tough but necessary. Once you go through the previous game’s mistakes, he said, it’s time to move on and focus on the upcoming opponent. “It’s serious, and it’s honest. You’ve got to tell the truth,” McGary said. “Whether it’s something you want to hear or not, the only way you can fix it is if you know you did something wrong. Fortunately, but unfortunately, as an offensive lineman, there’s no mystery if you messed up. You will always know. You just got to tell the truth. Everyone accepts that; everyone’s mature about it. If you messed up this play, fix the problem, don’t do that again.” While the Falcons seemingly upgraded the offensive line, it appears to be in flux for the short term. At the same time, one of the easiest things to do is read too much into how teams perform in season openers. Generally speaking, teams don’t jell until the fourth or fifth game. It’s not out of line to assume Atlanta’s offensive linemen will put forth a better performance against the Eagles. “It was never an issue where it was like, ‘Man, we’re in trouble,’” Brown said of the film session. “A lot of mistakes that were made could be simply fixed, whether it be technique or communication. It’s all small things, minor things that don’t put any worries in anyone’s head. It’s something we’re aware of and that we got to get fixed. “And we will.”
  7. https://theathletic.com/1182994/2019/09/03/schultz-arthur-blank-on-his-teams-divorce-beating-cancer-twice-donald-trump-and-julio-jones/ These are interesting times for Arthur Blank. His NFL team — the Falcons, who are coming off a non-playoff season — begins a new year Sunday in Minnesota. His MLS club, Atlanta United, won the league championship in only its second season and is starting to get its footing after a few bumps under new coach Frank de Boer. In his personal life, Blank went through a divorce from his third wife, Angela, and recently overcame a recurrence of prostate cancer, which he initially battled in 2016. Blank sat down Tuesday with The Athletic to discuss all of those issues, as well as ongoing contract negotiations with Julio Jones, which appear to be nearing resolution; the futures of Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff; criticism some NFL owners are receiving for supporting President Trump; and mandating PSLs for all tickets sold at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. When we set up this interview, my assumption was the Julio Jones contract would be done. Our assumption, as well. What can you say other than you hope a deal gets done? I think we’re very, very close. I’d be surprised and disappointed if we didn’t get it done this week. If you walked into a sportsbook, what day would be the favorite for the signing? I don’t know that. But it’s very reasonable to assume it gets done this week. What tells you that? Just where the negotiations are and the discussions are. Is this just posturing? It’s just a dance. There’s a lot of money involved for Julio. He deserves a lot of money, and we’ll make sure he gets it. We have to make sure he gets in a contract and a construct that’s fair to him and respectful to him and everything he’s done for us and will do going forward but respectful to the franchise, as well, and continues to give us the flexibility to make sure we have other pieces around the entire team. We need to have a winning formula. It’s not about one player. It never is, not even the quarterback. Last year, Matt (Ryan) didn’t have a great offensive line; he got hit 104 times and sacked 42 times. So we have to do the right thing for the franchise, and we definitely want to do the right thing for the players, including Julio. When was the last time you put forth an offer to Julio’s people? They’ve been going back and forth on a daily basis now. You don’t seem concerned at all. This has been an on-going situation for really two years. I’m not concerned. We made an adjustment last year. Julio played well and had a great year for us, and this year he’ll play well and have a great year for us. We’ll get the contract resolved. You don’t have a concern that if it’s not resolved this week, he may sit out the season opener? I don’t have that concern. He’s scheduled to meet with the media Thursday. Well, then, you can ask him about it. Maybe he’ll have a reason to be celebrating Thursday. How important is this season to the futures of head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff? You’re asking me if they’re on the hot seat. I never know how to define “hot seat.” I have great confidence in coach Quinn. I have great confidence in Thomas. You look back — Thomas has been with us since 2008. Coach, his first year was an average year because we were going through a transition, second year we were in the Super Bowl, third year we were in the playoffs. Last year was not a good year, but most of that I would attribute to the injuries that we had and lack of performance on the offensive line. But I think they’ve addressed that in the offseason, both in free agency and the draft. Barring any unforeseen injuries, which sadly is the nature of the sport we’re in, it’s not pingpong — maybe there’s injuries in pingpong, I don’t know — I think we’ll have a very competitive team this year. I like where we are. I like where we are offensively and defensively. Dan has taken over the responsibility of defensive coordinator and will call the plays himself, which I think will make a huge difference. All the players we had last year are coming back. I’m pretty optimistic about both sides of the ball. I think special teams will be good. I like the fact Money Matt (Bryant) is back with us. I felt badly for both Giorgio (Tavecchio) and Blair (Walsh). Maybe one of them will be in our future; you don’t know. Will bringing back Bryant require some adjustments financially with other contracts? It always requires some adjustments. We’re right at the edge of the salary cap, which is where we’re supposed to be. That’s where I want us to be. I want to spend every dollar we can to get the best players we can to give us the best chance to win. So the answer is: It will take some creativity. Between Thomas and (director of football operations) Nick (Polk), I think they’ll do that. They have to do it, I should say. Barring injuries, is there a minimum bar for success you’re looking at? Not really. You want the team to be competitive every week. I think we’ll win our share of games. The only people I’ll conjecture with are my kids. They’ll guess, I’ll guess, but that’s between me and my children. You’ll have to get it out of the game. I think we’ll have a competitive team, and if you get in the playoffs, single elimination, anything can happen. We have an experienced quarterback who’s playing at a high level, and physically, mentally he’s in a great place. We have a great receiving corps, running backs, the offensive line has been improved. I feel good about where we are. But so probably does every owner the week before the start of the season. Switching sports: Frank de Boer has been your soccer coach for about eight months. Any thoughts on the job he has done, considering the bar was much higher when he took over? There was no bar at first — there was a bar we envisioned but hadn’t established, and it turned out in the first two years, we exceeded that in every way we could. Frank has done an excellent job, in my view. When you change a coach, no matter which version of football you’re talking about, there’s always adjustments: the scheme, the players, players get to know the coach, the coach gets to know them, the chemistry issues. What can they do well? How can they adjust to my scheme? Is it a minor adjustment or major? In our case, it wasn’t major, but it wasn’t no adjustment. Frank has gotten to know our players now, and they’ve gotten to know what’s important to him. I think our team is peaking at the right time now, going into the playoffs. We’ve won three cups in the last 365 days. We couldn’t have a better year than that, and we want to continue to build that going forward and continue to win cups. I’m very happy with him. He understands us. He appreciates our fans and appreciates the players and what they’ve given to him. What were your thoughts when you saw reports of problems with players over his style or personality? None, really. I took that with a grain of salt because some of that was pulled out by the media. Some of the players don’t speak English fluently, and even Frank sometimes will use a word that’s not exactly the meaning. But I think when you have an elite group of players and everybody wants to play, everybody doesn’t understand why they’re being taken out of a match, but the coach has done a good job just explaining that and developing relationships with them. I think it’s fine. It takes a little bit of time for that to happen. He took some heat when he said he doesn’t favor equal pay for men and women in international soccer. Were you concerned, given your history of being inclusive and supporting such issues? I think Frank clarified his comments on that. I talked to him about that same subject several days before. We had a dinner at our house with several players and staff. Obviously, Frank believes, I believe and, hopefully, all our organizations and businesses believe the men and women are equal in terms of their competency and their abilities, and you pay people based on what their value is to the organization. I think the biggest issue with women’s soccer, and I said this to Frank, is I think it needs to be supported more on a global basis. That’s the essence of the issue. The success of the Women’s National Team in World Cup soccer and continued growth around the world — my son Josh took a two-week trip to Europe and spent some time with the women’s team in Lyon, France — it’s coming together. But there’s a history there, and it’s going to take a while. I would hope at some point in time equity would be there, regardless of gender, based on the model. Women’s soccer at the collegiate level is becoming more significant, and hopefully, that will continue to be a pipeline for women’s soccer at the professional level. You turn 77 in a few weeks. You seem to be in good health. I could lose a few pounds maybe but, yeah, my health is good. My cancer is gone. Hopefully, it will stay that way. You went through a scare with prostate cancer in 2016. And I had a reoccurrence last year, so I dealt with that. Did you have chemo or some kind of treatment again? It wasn’t chemo. But whatever the treatments were, I went through exactly what the doctor recommended and came out with a good result, so I’m happy about it. How did that impact you? Last spring it impacted me in terms of my schedule a little bit. But I would encourage all men to stay on top of their PSA. Get it checked frequently, and if you have any issues, deal with them sooner rather than later. Have you changed your diet or routine in any way? Yeah, there are some things I do now that I didn’t before. There’s a lot of issues in terms of what’s the cause of prostate cancer, and nobody is exactly sure. But I know it’s early detection cancer that you can deal with and get good outcomes from. Sometimes people go through a health situation and it causes them to step back and reflect. Did that happen to you? As you get older, I think you quite normally go through that. Probably dealing with that illness, it focused me a little bit more. I try to make every day an important day, every day a valuable day, every day a day with blessings, a productive day for myself, my family, businesses, people I care about. Your father passed away at a young age, correct? Yes, 44 (of a heart attack). I was 14. It was tough on me, my brother, Michael, and my mother, obviously, who was only 37 at the time. Staying on a personal level, in January it was reported that you and your wife, Angela, were divorcing. But you’ve also been seen together recently. Did something change? Obviously, we decided we shouldn’t be married, but we definitely should spend time together. I enjoy being with her; she enjoys being with me. I love her; she loves me. We enjoy social time. We also enjoy shared work in terms of our foundation and things she’s heavily involved in, including the transition of the military back home. Is that unusual that a couple would get divorced but still enjoy that kind of relationship? It’s a little unusual, but we get along really well, and we have shared interests. When you blend a family, it’s not always easy. But she has great kids. I love her kids, she loves my kids, and we spend time together. It’s all very public. And I have a great relationship with (second wife) Stephanie. We’re doing an event here for the Boys & Girls Club. She’s happily married, but we spend time together with our three children and in a variety of ways. Divorce is not death. People who are divorced still can have healthy, productive relationships — caring, loving relationships — at least around the things they still share together. At the risk of stereotyping, it’s not uncommon for highly driven, successful people to struggle in their personal lives. Is it fair to say this is an area in which you have struggled? I think that is a stereotype. I think we also see a lot of people who don’t come from a lot of wealth, and they come from broken homes. So I don’t think it has anything to do with being successful. Divorce is caused by many factors. When you get married, you always hope you’re going to be married forever. That certainly was true with my first wife, Diana, and I. But I’d rather celebrate the fact that I have great relationships with all three of them. I celebrate my life with them and my children with them. I’m not going to focus on those things which took place in my life that weren’t exactly what I wanted. I learned from them, I’ve moved on and I’m focused on today and tomorrow. On another subject, you bought a $180 million yacht. Did I get the price right? No, but that’s OK. It’s not important. Was this a bucket list item? Not really. I spent 30 years enjoying (late former Atlanta developer) John Williams’ boats. He was a close friend, almost a brother to me. Every year we would sail with him; he would give us a boat to use for the weekend, and we did. I always loved spending time on the water and spending time with the family in that setting. John and I started to do this together, and then, sadly, he got sick and passed away a year and a half ago. John’s memory is with me on the boat. It’s called “Dream Boat.” We had 17 family members all throw names into a bucket, and it turned out to be a really good name because it’s that kind of experience. Were you recently on a long trip? I was gone for two weeks. We were in Italy mostly, the Amalfi Coast. Just being away, being on the water. Part of nature that you’re connected to. Being on the water is almost a spiritual experience for me. The family loves it, and I love doing things with them. ****content omitted***** Since you moved into Mercedes-Benz Stadium, some fans have taken exception to your PSL policy and not selling single-game tickets. Do you believe the policy is in conflict with your fan-first philosophy? It’s not really in conflict with it. There hasn’t been a stadium built in a long time that doesn’t have PSLs, and a third to half the clubs in the NFL have PSLs. It gives season-ticket holders certain rights. We look at the value of the ticket and the value of the PSL together and make sure that the experience is going to be affordable for our fans. Whatever we feel, we feel, but fans across the NFL and Major League Soccer voted us No. 1 in fan experience. To be clear, the issue isn’t about having PSLs. It’s about having a stadium with 100 percent PSLs and not holding back any single-game tickets for a general sale, even a small block. You don’t see a need for that? No. There are no plans to ever? I wouldn’t say ever to anything. We have to look at what’s the right model based on where our fans are and what we’re hearing from them. We’re always open to changes and being responsive to what fans are telling us. (Editor’s note: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Tim Tucker recently reported the Falcons have approximately 1,500 unsold tickets, ranging in price from $750 to $5,000 for the season, including PSL cost. The team will continue its policy of selling those tickets only to groups of 10 or more.) Everybody seems to hate four or five preseason games. Should that change? Not everybody hates them. Players who are trying to make teams don’t hate them. There are coaches who don’t hate them because they need to evaluate them. But do there need to be four? No. It’s too many. Is the only trade-off for owners a long regular season? Whatever the CBA negotiations lead to, whether it’s an expanded season or expanded playoffs, I’ve said this publicly: An equal amount of weight has to be given to player safety, first and foremost. It can’t be a dilution of that commitment. But how the (preseason) is traded off for other opportunities, there’s certainly some flexibility in that area. How much longer will Arthur Blank be a sports owner? Hopefully a long time. My hope and aspiration is to keep these great teams in the hands of family — I can’t say forever, but for the foreseeable future. I love doing what I’m doing, and I love competing for our fans.
  8. https://theathletic.com/1185474/2019/09/04/falcons-2019-season-outlook-what-changes-breakout-players-and-predictions/?source=dailyemail A year ago at this time, the Falcons were a trendy pick to reach or win the Super Bowl. The reasoning was clear. They had a proven veteran quarterback, a top-tier receiver, a solid ground game and an experienced defense. One by one, injuries crumbled that experienced defense. Overlooked was an aging and overmatched offensive line — particularly at guard and right tackle. The interior defensive line also became a weak spot, specifically against the run. When a team finishes 7-9, it’s hard to assume it’s ready to bounce back for a big year after one offseason. But the Falcons can boast a preseason narrative similar to last year’s. They still have the proven veteran quarterback and top-tier receiver. The ground game could be good again if Devonta Freeman is able to play in all 16 games. The Falcons bolstered the offensive line by adding James Carpenter, Jamon Brown, Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary. The defense returns its key injured players to go with new additions up front. Perhaps this is now an overlooked team compared with the attention it received a year ago. Atlanta’s players have looked to move past the forgettable 2018 campaign. It’s time to start anew with what could be a promising path to the postseason. What stays the same, what changes on offense? The Falcons brought back offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter for a second stint, although the system previously in place will largely remain the base scheme. Atlanta has done well with the outside zone to play-action scheme in the past, with head coach Dan Quinn wanting to keep this intact. Koetter, however, certainly will be able to place his stamp on the unit. The run scheme won’t change much. The primary focus will be on the outside zone. The object is to force a defense wide before the running back hits an open lane to run through as fast as possible. In previous seasons, the inside zone worked as a counter to the outside zone. Just when a team is getting used to the outside-zone run, Atlanta would hit a rushing play inside. Koetter has used plenty of inside zone runs in previous stops and might use those plays a good bit more. With the passing attack, Koetter’s penchant has been to get his receiving targets down the field. Koetter coached Matt Ryan from 2012 to 2014, so the two know what the other likes and dislikes. The Falcons’ philosophy still will be to run the ball to set up the play-action pass. But there will be some wrinkles that favor Koetter’s style of play-calling. Atlanta should see its receivers get vertical a bit more for big-play shots. And you can count on Koetter dialing up the screen game a good bit. Everyone knows what the top three receivers can do. Julio Jones has gone for more than 1,400 yards in five consecutive seasons. Mohamed Sanu is as reliable as they come, especially on third down. Calvin Ridley caught 10 touchdowns as a rookie. And tight end Austin Hooper has evolved into much more than a reliable safety net for Ryan. The key to this offense, however, is Freeman. When Freeman is at his best, the offense is as dynamic as they come. Freeman runs with great power inside and also has the speed to attack the edges. His ability to be a receiver out of the backfield and in the slot offers great versatility to the offense, which forces linebackers and safeties to account for him. But the most important part that will go into whether this year’s offense is successful will be the line. Quinn said Wednesday that he feels as good about the depth at this position as he ever has. Carpenter and Brown are still battling at left guard. McGary and Matt Gono appear to be the top two still competing at right tackle. The Falcons probably have a good idea who will start at those positions Sunday against Minnesota, although gamesmanship would require holding that information close to the vest. Time will tell if the offseason additions, through free agency and the draft, improve the offensive line enough to prevent Ryan from being sacked more than 40 times. What changes, what stays the same on defense? The biggest change will be two key defenders who will be on the field with their teammates for the first time since suffering injuries a year ago. Safeties Keanu Neal (ACL) and Ricardo Allen (Achilles) didn’t make it out of the first month of last season. They’re back and should make a huge difference. Tyeler Davison up front has been an underrated acquisition, especially in run defense. Allen Bailey recorded six sacks for the Kansas City Chiefs a year ago and should be a factor in the rotation. The Falcons also got bigger on the defensive line by bringing back Adrian Clayborn after he spent a year in New England. Clayborn is a great edge-setter but can also get after the passer — as evidenced by his six-sack game against Dallas two years ago. Another new aspect of the defense hasn’t been seen yet, but there has been quite a bit of chatter about new wrinkles. Players appear excited about trying out some different plays that haven’t been put on film before as Quinn takes over the defensive play-calling. “I can say there are some schematic changes we’ve done,” defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. “We’re excited to put together, as a team, some new things we haven’t done since I’ve been here. He’s definitely maximizing the skill level and the skill type to give us the best efficiency on the field together.” An aspect of the defense that will remain the same is Quinn’s desire to keep things simple for the players. While a certain play may appear complicated with a disguised look, the players shouldn’t have to do too much thinking on the spot. The design of the defense is for each player to react, and attack, quickly. “If you make the information good enough that it’s simple enough that your players can understand it and execute it, they’re comfortable playing as fast as they were when you picked them to come here and be the players in general,” Allen said. “I think the easier you can make it, and the more information that you can give players and the more detail you make things and the harder you can make practices, it naturally frees up the athletic player within the plays.” First four games It’s daunting for any offensive line to be forced to go against the Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles in consecutive weeks to open the season. But there is also ample opportunity to out-scheme the opponents beforehand because there isn’t any true game film yet. This potential advantage, of course, is available to both teams. The opener against the Vikings is a tough one, especially on the road and with the skill position players the Vikings possess on offense. Dalvin Cook is fully healthy and will run in a Gary Kubiak-influenced scheme, which should leverage his skills. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen will provide stiff opening-week challenges to the Falcons’ secondary. The Vikings’ front four of Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter, Linval Joseph and Shamar Stephen will look to make it tough on an Atlanta offensive line that has been in the midst of a rebuild. If the Falcons can come away with a win in Minnesota, it would serve as a big boost — especially with Philadelphia on deck. The Eagles and Falcons played thrillers in consecutive years, one in the divisional round of the playoffs and the other in last year’s season opener. The Eagles have a multitude of offensive weapons and a strong defensive line. But Atlanta will finally have home-field advantage. In Week 3, the Falcons get the Indianapolis Colts, who had to suddenly deal with Andrew Luck’s retirement. Jacoby Brissett isn’t inexperienced, but there could be an adjustment period. Atlanta lucked out — no pun intended — with this occurrence, especially with this game being on the road. And then the following week, the Falcons host the Tennessee Titans. There isn’t a ton of star power on Tennessee’s roster, but it should be noted this team was able to post a 9-7 record in 2018. Led by Derrick Henry, the Titans will look to establish the run and grind out games, an area the Falcons want to improve upon defensively. Second group of four games The Falcons figure to be in a good position if they enter the second quarter of the season at 2-2 or 3-1. That’s because this next stretch begins with trips to Houston and Arizona. The Texans haven’t had the most stable offseason, highlighted by the trade of Jadeveon Clowney to the Seattle Seahawks. Losing Lamar Miller for the entire season was also a brutal blow, which forced the franchise to see if Carlos Hyde has anything left as a running back. The Cardinals are a mystery, considering their new head coach, Kliff Kingsbury, has never coached an NFL game. They’ll start rookie quarterback Kyler Murray, who Arizona will hope is coming into his own by Week 6. After two consecutive trips, the Falcons get tough home contests against the Los Angeles Rams and the Seahawks in Weeks 7 and 8. These two games might be the most important of Atlanta’s season. A realistic goal for every good NFL team is to hold serve at home and go .500 on the road. Getting the Rams and Seahawks right in the middle of the schedule could factor into how the remainder of the season goes. Win those two, or even one, and there should be a great deal of confidence heading into the back set of eight games. Third quarter of the season After a Week 9 bye, Atlanta begins division play with a trip to New Orleans. The Falcons have seen their archrival win the NFC South in two consecutive seasons. That hasn’t been a pleasant thing to witness. New Orleans has won the past three games against Atlanta, so this is something the Falcons will hope to rectify. Week 11 will be another trip, this one to Carolina, with the following game at home against Tampa Bay. This is an important stretch, obviously, with divisional implications at stake. The Falcons follow the home game against the Buccaneers with a Thanksgiving home meeting against the Saints. The third group of four games will feature all NFC South opponents. A 2-2 outcome, at worst, is needed for Atlanta to feel good about itself heading into the final four games of the season. Homestretch In Week 14, the Falcons get the Panthers again. While Carolina should be improved, Atlanta swept the northernmost NFC South team a year ago. Containing Christian McCaffrey will be the key to making this happen again. In Week 17, the same applies in a second game against the Buccaneers. Bruce Arians will look to air the ball out to receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. But the first year of a coaching change is generally when a team is most vulnerable. Atlanta has won its past five games against Tampa Bay. Between those two divisional opponents are winnable games against the San Francisco 49ers (Week 15) and the Jacksonville Jaguars (Week 16). The 49ers should feature an improved offense as long as quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is healthy. The Jaguars will hope their offense is improved now that Nick Foles is at quarterback instead of Blake Bortles. While it’s a little early to project what each team will be this far out, the Falcons appear to have a favorable schedule to end the year with, especially if they can position themselves with a solid record in their first 12 games. Three potential breakout players DE Takk McKinley: McKinley had a solid first season as a rookie but followed it with one he described as disappointing. He dropped some bad weight and has looked fast since the offseason program began. It has also helped that he hasn’t had to spend the offseason rehabbing. He was finally able to participate fully in OTAs and minicamp for the first time as an NFL player. McKinley should finally live up to his first-round billing. LB Foye Oluokun: Oluokun proved to be one of the steals from last year’s draft class as a sixth-rounder. He’s entering the season as Atlanta’s top weakside linebacker and should be on the field quite a bit, especially on run downs. As a rookie, Oluokun totaled 91 tackles and was lauded picking up the defense so quickly. He’ll be counted on to do even more this season. CB Isaiah Oliver: The Falcons need Oliver to be a breakout player. Slated to start at cornerback in only his second season, Oliver will defend some of the NFL’s best receivers on a weekly basis. Oliver had a good offseason and appears ready for the challenge. He had some positive moments down the stretch last season and will hope that catapults him to a big sophomore campaign. Regular-season predictions Record: 11-5 NFC South champs? It’s tough to go against the Saints. So even with the Falcons’ 11-5 record, New Orleans gets the preseason nod by a game. Playoffs? Yes, as a wild-card team.
  9. https://theathletic.com/1136045/2019/08/13/hungry-brian-hill-is-ready-to-carve-out-role-for-falcons-in-2019/ Brian Hill walked off the scorched practice field with his face doused in sweat. With the heat index above 100 degrees, Hill was still among the final few players to wrap up his final individual drill in what’s called the Plan D period. For Hill, who is entering his third NFL season, it’s all about finding ways to be better than where he was the previous two years. If Hill is to carve out a role with this year’s Falcons team, he figured it would need to be by working on his deficiencies. Thus far, the results have been positive. “If I wanted to be better, I had to improve,” Hill said. “I’ve been through two camps so far and have been cut twice. I needed to look at myself and change something.” The Falcons selected Hill in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL Draft. While he initially made the 53-man roster, he dealt with a lingering wrist injury, didn’t log a carry and was waived that October. After he was added to Atlanta’s practice squad shortly, the Cincinnati Bengals eventually snatched him up and carried him for the duration of the season. But after what Hill described as a much better preseason in 2018, Cincinnati parted ways with him during final cuts. He then was presented the choice of choosing the Atlanta or Cincinnati practice squads. He chose Atlanta. Biding his time, Hill eventually was called up to Atlanta’s 53-man roster, with injuries forcing him into an extended role against the Carolina Panthers in Week 16. Hill shined, carrying the ball eight times for 115 yards. Wanting more touches this season, Hill’s personal offseason program changed. “I had to put in more time and more hours in,” Hill said. “Hopefully, it’s starting to pay off right now.” Hill has been one of Atlanta’s preseason stars. With Devonta Freeman sitting out the first two preseason games, Hill has logged 19 carries for 80 yards and a touchdown. More impressively, Hill has shown the ability to make plays as a receiver out of the backfield. He caught a touchdown against the Denver Broncos and has also made a number of plays in practice as a receiving option. Hill said each workout he puts in has a purpose. He has carved out extra time to catch passes. If he’s running sprints, he’s no longer running 30 yards in a straight line. Hill now incorporates cuts in between 5-yard bursts, to simulate the movements he would make on a football field. “This year I wanted to focus on things I would actually be doing on the field,” Hill said. “Whenever I’m doing movement or conditioning, I always want to implement footwork. I need to be able to stay on my feet. I don’t want to just run to be running, to be conditioning.” Quarterback Matt Ryan has seen a different Hill at practice compared to the one who joined the team in 2017. “I think he’s hungry, you can tell that,” Ryan said. “Every day, he steps onto the practice field, there’s a real intent for him to get better. That, to me, has been impressive to see.” Hill’s story from high school to the NFL is certainly an interesting one. Hill wasn’t highly recruited out of Belleville West in Illinois for two reasons, he said. To start, Hill was forced to sit out his sophomore season after transferring high schools. And then as a junior, Hill said he had a “sub-par” season compared to the campaign he put in as a senior. Therefore, there weren’t any big schools clamoring for him. At the time, one of the only schools recruiting him as a running back was North Dakota State, which is where his cousin Pierre Gee-Tucker, a linebacker, played. But after the 2013 college football season, Wyoming hired head coach Craig Bohl away from North Dakota State, with receivers coach Kenni Burns, who was recruiting Hill, making the move, too. Bohl’s Wyoming staff then extended an offer to Hill, which he accepted. And in only three years, Hill became the leading career rusher in Wyoming football history with 4,287 yards. He learned a lot from his sophomore and junior years at Wyoming, which rank as the top two for the program in single-season rushing seasons. As a sophomore, quarterback Josh Allen — now with the Buffalo Bills — was injured in the second game of the season. The offense suddenly was tailored around Hill, who saw stacked boxes each week. Still, Hill was able to run for 1,631 yards and six touchdowns. “It was more of I needed to get through the line of scrimmage before they break through our line of scrimmage,” Hill said. “I need to get on the other side.” With Allen back the next year, Wyoming was able to spread teams out a little more. That freed things up for Hill as he faced mostly seven-man boxes. His yardage total jumped to 1,860, and he scored 22 touchdowns. “It was more seven-man boxes — man on man, block on block, no overloads,” Hill said. “I could just read it out and then explode. I feel like that definitely helped my vision and helped to know my blocking schemes by the end; it was my third year so I was pretty knowledgeable with the playbook.” Hill believes those seasons helped prepare him for the NFL since he could package the need to beat the defense at the jump with following his blocks. Hill elected to enter the NFL draft after his junior year and expected to be a second-day selection. But as the draft spilled over to Saturday, Hill’s name went uncalled. Angry about it, Hill didn’t watch the third day of the draft and spent the afternoon playing NBA 2K. Suddenly, his phone rang, and at first, he wasn’t sure who it was. Hill remembers being in a bad mood when he answered his phone. A few moments later he realized it was Falcons head coach Dan Quinn. “I remember I had an attitude or something, and then I realized I was talking to the Falcons,” Hill said. “I cheered up real quick, just knowing I finally made that dream come true, getting to the league.” He let his confident side show to the Atlanta media on a conference call shortly after, declaring that the Falcons “just got the best running back in this draft in the fifth round.” Fifteen running backs were selected before him, including Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, James Conner and Marlon Mack. To this day, Hill stands by the statement he made then. “I wholeheartedly believe in my abilities on the field,” Hill said. “I don’t really care who the competition is. That’s why we’re here in the league. That’s why we compete. There’s no way I’m going to sit here and say somebody’s better.” Hill, however, did admit his confidence was shaken each of the times he was released. But, as he mentioned, he bounced back with opportunities shortly after. Now, Hill has his best opportunity for an extended role in front of him. While Ito Smith has worked as the No. 2 running back all preseason, Hill has continued competing for the spot. Quinn has gone as far as to say that while Freeman is the top dog, everyone else is grouped together. And to his credit, Hill has been one of the most exciting players for Atlanta this preseason. “He’s making everyone better, not only himself,” receiver Julio Jones said. “The defense has to chase him; they’re getting their conditioning in, they have to take the right angles to pursue, everything. He’s doing a **** of a job for us here.” While Hill has put forth a good preseason to date, he isn’t getting ahead of himself. Asked about his expectation for the upcoming season, his first response was that he hopes to make the team. And therein lies the reason why Hill was dripping sweat when walking off of the practice field Tuesday afternoon. He’s nowhere near finished with where he wants to be. “I just know nothing is promised,” Hill said. “You have to go out there and earn it. No matter what I did over the last two games, I have to go three more and go perform.”
  10. https://theathletic.com/1175553/2019/08/31/fifty-four-thoughts-on-the-initial-falcons-53-man-roster-for-2019/ With this being the 54th season for the Atlanta Falcons, here are 54 thoughts on the initial 53-man roster, broken down by position. Quarterbacks 1. Matt Ryan looked as good as he has in, perhaps, his entire career this preseason. At 34, there isn’t any sign he’s slowing down. The best example was against the New York Jets, with defensive coordinator Gregg Williams sending multiple blitzes Ryan’s way. Ryan took three sacks and eight hits but still managed to go 10-for-14 for 118 yards. He took his shots but still completed his passes, and while he didn’t complete four of his throws, three of those were dropped. He theoretically could have gone 13-for-14 with a touchdown while under a great deal of duress. 2. For all of the old man jokes thrown Matt Schaub’s way, he proved he can still be the backup. After a rough Hall of Fame Game performance in which Schaub played with third- and fourth-teamers, the longtime veteran bounced back with strong showings against the Dolphins and the Jets. Schaub has been in the league long enough that he won’t be rattled in any moment. While he may not be the player he was during his prime with the Texans, he can be relied upon to finish a game or get through a short stretch if Ryan is forced to sit due to injury. 3. While Danny Etling was waived Saturday, the Falcons will try their best to add him to the practice squad. Atlanta needs at least three quarterbacks at practice and would love to keep Etling in the fold. In fact, the Falcons wanted to sign him after he went undrafted in 2018, only for the Patriots to take him in the seventh round. Running backs 4. It seems like those not paying close attention to Atlanta are overlooking Devonta Freeman. For the first time in a while, he’s completely healthy. Considering his big salary, the timeshares of old are probably unlikely now that Tevin Coleman is in San Francisco. Freeman is a three-down back who can make plays as a runner and as a receiver. It’s time for Freeman to be featured more than he has been in previous years. 5. If anything does happen to Freeman, Ito Smith should be able to take on a bigger load. Although Brian Hill showed the most improvement during the past year, Smith, when given the opportunity, showed he’s the clear No. 2 back. His agility and vision, combined with being an excellent receiver out of the backfield, are reasons why Atlanta was able to part ways with Coleman. 6. Hill did everything asked of him during the offseason and then some. Adding some pass-catching ability to his game took him from the bubble to a lock. 7. The Falcons love Qadree Ollison as a change-of-pace back. With good size and vision, he offers an old-school between-the-tackles style of runner Atlanta hasn’t had in quite some time. He showed Thursday he can play fullback as well. Fullbacks 8. The Falcons elected to keep Ricky Ortiz even though he’s dealing with an ankle injury. There may not be a harder-working player on the team. His best highlight this preseason was when he sealed an outside rusher on a short-yardage touchdown against Miami. Tight ends 9. Austin Hooper’s numbers have improved each season. As a rookie, he caught 19 passes for 271 yards and three touchdowns. In 2017, he caught 49 passes for 526 yards and three touchdowns. After an offseason in which he followed Ryan to various workouts around the country, he had 71 catches for 660 yards and four touchdowns in 2018. In a contract year, Hooper could be in for an even bigger statistical jump. 10. Luke Stocker was given the starter treatment beginning with the first preseason game. He figures to have a big role as Atlanta’s top blocking tight end. His addition proved to be one of the reasons why the Falcons parted ways with Logan Paulsen. 11. Another reason Atlanta could afford to cut Paulsen is the emergence of Jaeden Graham, who spent all of 2018 on the practice squad and wasn’t expected to make a big jump in just one year. But the Yale product showed good strength as a blocker and solid athleticism as a receiver — highlighted by a leap over a Jets safety. He followed up with first-team action against Washington. Graham’s second-year jump also allowed the Falcons to part ways with Eric Saubert, who was traded to New England earlier in the preseason. Saubert did not make the Patriots’ 53-man roster. Wide receivers 12. Julio Jones doesn’t have a new contract yet. This is surprising. That’s really it regarding Jones, who has had more than 1,400 receiving yards in each of the past five seasons. 13. Calvin Ridley caught 10 touchdown passes as a rookie with a lot of his success coming against the New Orleans Saints. In those two games, Ridley had a a combined 239 yards and four touchdowns. 14. A reliable third-down target, Mohamed Sanu is coming off one of the best seasons of his career — 838 yards and four touchdowns. He also has thrown a touchdown pass in each of the past two years. Having completed seven of his eight throws for 233 yards and four touchdowns, Sanu boasts a perfect career passer rating of 158.3. 15. If Hill isn’t the most improved player on Atlanta’s roster, that nod could go to Russell Gage. Although Gage’s preseason concluded early with a hip injury, he made considerable gains as a wide receiver. Not utilized much as a downfield weapon at LSU, Gage has flashed big-play ability all offseason. He could start the season opener against Minnesota as the team’s fourth wide receiver. 16. It’s hard not to go with a proven veteran when the opportunity presents itself, and if anything happens to a starter, Justin Hardy has enough of an established relationship with Ryan to step in and keep the offense rolling. 17. The decision came down to Olamide Zaccheaus, Christian Blake, Devin Gray and Marcus Green for the sixth and final wide receiver spot. The Falcons went with Zaccheaus, an undrafted rookie out of Virginia. It’s likely due to the team not believing Zaccheaus would make it past waivers if he were cut. Atlanta will hope to place Blake, Gray and Green, a sixth-round draft pick, on the practice squad Sunday afternoon. Offensive linemen 18. The biggest question remaining with the offensive line is who will start the opener at right tackle. A case could be made for any of the three options — Ty Sambrailo, Matt Gono and Kaleb McGary — to do so. This upcoming week of practice will decide who gets the early nod, even if the competition continues into the first month of the regular season. 19. Sambrailo didn’t have an ideal preseason. He was injured against the Jets and sat out the final two exhibitions. His tape against the Jets probably looked worse than it should, namely due to the blitzes Williams dialed up in a preseason game. 20. Gono did a good job against quality competition in the dress rehearsal against Washington. An undrafted free agent out of Wesley, a Division III school, Gono spent 2018 on the 53-man roster but didn’t play. Although Gono said he still needs to improve his pass sets, his preseason performance was encouraging. 21. McGary didn’t get any preseason action until Thursday’s game against Jacksonville, and even then, he went against a bunch of players who didn’t make the Jaguars. Still, his showing was encouraging as he displayed his penchant for power in the run while keeping Etling clean in the pocket. At some point this year — whether it’s next week or later — McGary probably will get the starting job. But considering he missed a good chunk of practice time, the team may want to ease him into action. 22. If you want to watch a tactician at work, keep your eyes on Jake Matthews play after play. 23. Alex Mack is still one of the most technically sound centers. He turns 33 in November. 24. The Falcons were comfortable with Chris Lindstrom, the No. 14 pick, starting at right guard the moment the preseason began. Lindstrom got great experience and will open the year with the first unit. 25. With James Carpenter injuring a hip flexor midway through the preseason, Jamon Brown, mostly a right guard before joining Atlanta, was able to get good experience on the left side of the line. Now healthy, Carpenter is back in the competition, which could still go either way. Much like right tackle, the first week of practice will be a deciding factor for who gets the first start against the Vikings. 26. If McGary wins the starting job, it wouldn’t be out of the question to wonder whether Sambrailo or Gono start practicing at guard, simply to cross-train them in the event of injury. One of the Falcons’ primary areas of focus this offseason was to ensure depth and competition along the offensive line and to ensure the issues that popped up a year ago don’t occur again. 27. With Mack cemented as the team’s center, Wes Schweitzer received a lot of time with both the first and second teams as his backup. Schweitzer was drafted as a guard but he may as well be considered a center with how much playing time he has received there this preseason. Defensive linemen 28. Takk McKinley took a former teammate’s advice when it came to eating better, deciding the fewer legs the animal has, the better it is to consume. He lost some bad weight in the process, didn’t have to rehab an injury this offseason and looks ready to put forth the kind of season many expected of him after he was drafted in the first round in 2017. 29. Dan Quinn placed a lot of faith in Vic Beasley, as well as himself, by deciding to pick up Beasley’s fifth-year option. Beasley had a sack against the Jets and looked fast off the edge this preseason. He’ll hope that translates into much-improved production. 30. Grady Jarrett got paid well this offseason — $68 million for four years. The Falcons are very happy they were able to get the deal done considering how important Jarrett is to the franchise. It was a negotiation they were very concerned about until an agreement was struck 70 minutes before the franchise tag deadline. 31. Helping Jarrett inside will be Tyeler Davison, who might just be the most important offseason acquisition Atlanta made. Davison’s presence should shore up its deficiencies against the run, which were problematic, especially late in games, a year ago. 32. The other big addition Atlanta made on the defensive line was to add Allen Bailey, who spent eight seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs. Bailey waited patiently for Atlanta to take care of some other contractual obligations before signing. 33. Jack Crawford is entering the final year of his contract but had the best season of his career in 2018 with 35 tackles and six sacks. With the additions Atlanta made up front, combined with Quinn calling plays, Crawford could be in for an even bigger year. 34. The Falcons traded up two spots to take Division II prospect John Cominsky in the fourth round at No. 135 overall. They did so because they loved his game because they believed Dallas was going to take him at No. 137 overall. Dallas traded out of the spot after Atlanta took Cominsky. 35. Deadrin Senat saved his best football for when it mattered most. Entering his second season, Senat, a third-round pick in 2018, made the 53-man roster over Justin Zimmer and Durant Miles. Linebackers 36. Deion Jones spent the preseason rehabbing his injured foot. Although he hasn’t played in a preseason game, he’s in a good spot mentally. He’ll be ready to go against Minnesota. 37. De’Vondre Campbell figures to be in for a big payday after this season. The question remains whether Atlanta will be the team that can afford his contract. Possibly due to the other defenders around him, Campbell is one of the Falcons’ most underrated players when it comes to his national profile. 38. The steal of Atlanta’s 2018 draft class was Foye Oluokun. Poised to be Atlanta’s top will linebacker, Oluokun was a sixth-round pick. He is one of two former Yale players — joining Graham — on the roster. 39. Duke Riley quietly put together a solid preseason. Highlighted by a goal-line tackle against Washington, Riley said he has improved a good bit with his situational awareness. 40. Jermaine Grace put together too good of a preseason to not be on the initial 53-man roster. His speed at linebacker and his ability to cover on special teams might make him tough to deactivate on game days. It was probably a tough call for Atlanta to go with Grace over Bruce Carter, who offered a veteran presence inside the locker room last season. Cornerbacks 41. During the offseason, Desmond Trufant’s name came up repeatedly as someone could be in for a big season. Trufant’s speed will keep him in plays. His biggest focus has been to be physical at the line of scrimmage and to not bail from rerouting receivers too early. He has done a good job of that in practice and will look for that to carry over into games. 42. Isaiah Oliver, Atlanta’s second-round selection in 2018, will get his first opportunity to be a starter. Oliver has an almost 7-foot wingspan that gives him great length to be physical at the line of scrimmage. His area of emphasis has been staying on top of routes once he’s no longer able to make contact with receivers. 43. Atlanta moved Damontae Kazee from safety to nickel to keep his ball-hawking skills on the field. In Atlanta’s scheme, a lot of principles of playing safety apply to the cornerbacks. Kazee was a cornerback in college, so some believe this move could further aid his development. 44. Kendall Sheffield already might be the fastest player on Atlanta’s roster. He said he ran a 4.26-second 40-yard dash in college at Ohio State, which is believable when you see him move at full speed. He’s coming off of a hamstring injury. 45. Jordan Miller figures to have a role on special teams at the start of the year as the Falcons continue to develop him at cornerback. If not for injuries, Miller could have been taken well before the sixth round, which is when Atlanta selected him. 46. While he’s an outside cornerback only, Blidi Wreh-Wilson has proved to be reliable when called upon. He got the veteran treatment during the preseason, which was an early indicator his roster spot was safe. Safeties 47. Ricardo Allen (torn Achilles) and Keanu Neal (torn ACL) are definitely the feel-good stories of Atlanta’s preseason. It’s rather amazing to think the two had major injuries less than a year ago but are full-go to start the season. Science sure has come a long way. 48. While there are some better athletes on this roster, Allen’s loss might have been the toughest to absorb last year. Allen acts like an on-field coach and is usually the one ensuring everyone is lined up correctly. Neal is an imposing presence at strong safety, considering his hard-hitting abilities against the run and pass. The Falcons missed having a box safety of his caliber in 2018 and are surely thankful to have him back. 49. With Allen and Neal sidelined for the year, Sharrod Neasman got great experience with Atlanta’s defense in 2018. If something happens to either starting safety this year, the Falcons know they have someone with familiarity backing them up. 50. Kemal Ishmael’s primary reason for being on the roster is on special teams. But with J.J. Wilcox going down with a torn ACL on the first day of training camp, Ishmael moved from linebacker to safety — his original position when he entered the NFL — to back up Neal. If needed on defense, Ishmael can play either position and has done so this preseason. Special teams 51. Reporters rarely talk to long snapper Josh Harris. That’s a good thing. When you talk to the long snapper, something bad has probably occurred. 52. Matt Bosher boomed a 60-yard punt against Jacksonville on Thursday. He also can tackle better than the average punter. Just ask Atlanta’s new return man. 53. Speaking of which, Kenjon Barner felt Bosher’s wrath when he was with the Carolina Panthers last year. Barner is opening as Atlanta’s primary return specialist. Whether he handles both kickoffs and punts, or just one, remains to be seen. 54. Money. Matt. Bryant. He’s back.
  11. https://theathletic.com/1165931/2019/08/27/coach-i-can-beat-this-guy-an-oral-history-of-adrian-clayborns-historic-six-sack-game/ It didn’t take long to realize Adrian Clayborn would be in for a big day. Just five minutes into the first quarter of the Falcons’ 2017 game against the Dallas Cowboys, Clayborn beat tackle Chaz Green off the snap in a matter of milliseconds. Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott was looking down the field at two receivers running deep, with two other targets running underneath. But with Clayborn barrelling down on Prescott, there was no time for him to get the ball off. Clayborn wrapped up Prescott, drove him to the ground, stood up and celebrated the sack. It was the first of a historic six-sack day for Clayborn, who set a single-game franchise record with the performance. Clayborn entered that game, the ninth of the 2017 season for Atlanta, with two sacks. He came out of it with eight and ended up leading the team in sacks with 9.5 by the season’s end. After spending last year with New England, and earning a Super Bowl ring, Clayborn returned to the Falcons for the 2019 season. With Clayborn back on the roster, he and his teammates looked back at this monumental achievement. It might make for a better story if there was something obviously different about Clayborn heading into this particular game. It sure would make for better banter to know if he was out for revenge or had an issue with a particular Cowboys player. Instead, Clayborn showed up at Mercedes-Benz Stadium that day like any other game day. No one had a clue or could have come close to predicting what was in store. Linebacker Deion Jones: A.C. is a very calm-before-the-storm kind of person. You see his energy, but you don’t really feel it. Just looking at him, it looked like any other game. He was ready. But you never would have thought he was going to have six sacks. Safety Keanu Neal: Same guy. That’s just him, though. He’s always preparing, working hard. He’s on the quiet side, but that’s just the type of person he is. He’s a great teammate. His preparation is always the same each week. Going into the game it was the same against anyone else, going into any other game. Defensive line coach Jess Simpson, who was an assistant defensive line coach at the time: That’s the thing about AC. When people say he didn’t appear any different, that’s because he prepares the same way every week. Safety Ricardo Allen: The thing about AC is you can never tell anything is different. The way he goes by every week, you can never tell which teams he has vendettas over. You can’t. He’s just such a chill dude. He is who he is all the time. The way he goes about work, the way he does his warm-up, you can never tell if there’s a difference. … That game was one of those games where he just put it all together. He found a matchup he liked and made the most of it. He didn’t slow down. There was one major thing working in Clayborn’s favor this week, but the Falcons truly didn’t know about it until that Saturday afternoon. During Dallas’ previous game, starting left tackle Tyron Smith was injured, with the team making him a late scratch only one day before facing Atlanta. That meant Green, who was in his third NFL season, was slated for the start. Did Clayborn’s eyes and ears perk up at this news? Maybe, maybe not. Clayborn: I didn’t know nothing about the guy. I didn’t know what to expect. I just took what he gave me. Jones: He understood what was up that week, and he took complete advantage of it, with his preparation and how he went for it. He didn’t slow down one bit. Only five minutes ran off the clock before Clayborn brought Prescott to the turf for the first time. In the second quarter, Clayborn recorded his second sack, albeit in unusual fashion for a defensive lineman. Clayborn actually dropped into coverage with a blitz coming from the other side of the formation. Atlanta’s back end covered well, which forced Prescott to move up through an escape lane that formed to his left. This played right into Clayborn’s hands. As Prescott started running, Clayborn closed quickly for his second sack of the game. The third sack came with only 15 seconds to go in the first half. Clayborn bull-rushed Green into the backfield and used a nifty spin move before sacking Prescott. In the process, he knocked the ball loose. Clayborn was able to recover the ball, too, which prevented Dallas from attempting a late-half field goal. Clayborn described this sack as has his favorite of the day. With Clayborn notching three sacks before halftime, his teammates started to notice something special was taking place. Neal: After the third sack, I started thinking, “How many more is he going to get?” Defensive end Vic Beasley: After the first two sacks, and then the third — you’re like, “OK, it’s the first half, he’s up to something.” You expect the offense to make some adjustments, but I’m not sure if they adjusted as much as they thought they should have, looking back. But after the first half, you’re like, “If he keeps going and we keep playing the way we’re playing, he could eventually break the record.” In the locker room at halftime, it was a situation akin to a pitcher in the midst of a no-hitter. No one wanted to bring up the sacks to Clayborn. Jones: We kinda didn’t want to talk about it. We wanted to let him do his thing and congratulate him at the end. We knew he still had more to go. We didn’t want to cloud his mind like he was finished because he was having such a good day. You don’t want to get in his head. Neal: You gotta stay away from him and let him play his game. When you’re on, you’re on. He was on that day. Clayborn did talk to Simpson about the upcoming second half. Simpson: I remember, maybe at halftime, him saying, “Coach, I can beat this guy.” After the break, Clayborn continued to attack. His fourth sack came with 4:35 to go in the third quarter. Clayborn prevented Green’s hands from touching him and was able to sack Prescott yet again. Head coach Dan Quinn: For those who study him, he’s got really two moves. One’s called a chop club, where as a guy is throwing his hands at you, you knock one down, and you throw a big club. The offset of that is going into his power rush. In those moments, how you make one of them look exactly identical — think of the baseball player who can rip a 100 mph fastball. Why is the changeup such a good pitch? Because you’re ready to rip it, and then, “Ah! It’s at a different one.” Kind of the whole art of pass rushing is making one thing look the same, and it could be two different ones. I thought, on that night, specifically, (he was) really in sync with both of those. Clayborn’s teammates figured the Cowboys would start double-teaming Clayborn or at least help Green to some degree. Much to their surprise — and liking — Dallas chose not to do so for the most part. Beasley: After the third sack, you’re like, “They’re going to start chipping, and they’re going to start putting extra guys over there.” They might’ve done that a couple of times, but I didn’t see many chips over there. They just continued to trust in their tackle, and I think AC had his number that day. Allen: That’s why he got six sacks. Six sacks versus a double and six sacks versus a single is still six sacks. It doesn’t matter. That’s their fault, no disrespect to them. It was around this time when Wes Durham, the radio play-by-play man for Falcons games on flagship station 92.9 The Game, started to realize the historical significance that was taking place. The radio station’s researchers quickly looked up that Atlanta’s single-game record for sacks was five, officially set by Chuck Smith in 1997 and unofficially by Claude Humphrey before sacks were kept as a statistic. Durham said he recalled the broadcast team mentioning Clayborn’s record chase coming out of a commercial break. Durham: When it starts to happen and you start to figure it’s the same guy, it’s a little like basketball. You sense a guy is going to go for 30 or 40 (points). That’s when you start to almost steal. My job is to follow the ball, (color commentator) Dave (Archer’s) job is to watch the field. When you see a guy getting hot, you start watching, you start peeking a little bit. Players call it peeking, that’s what you’re doing. You’re seeing where he is. Durham said this wasn’t the first time he saw Clayborn put forth a dominating performance. The first came back when he was in college at Iowa. Durham: I saw him in the (2010) Orange Bowl, where he basically destroyed one side of Georgia Tech’s line. He was unbelievable that night. In fact, I remember saying on air that I’ve seen this before, that this was the Orange Bowl. Except this is the Dallas Cowboys. Clayborn’s fifth sack came on the ensuing drive, with 13:08 to go in the game. Again, Clayborn ran around Green and tracked down Prescott, who, in this moment, seemed to be feeling the effects of a constant pass rush. The Cowboys actually tried to double-team Clayborn on this play. But Clayborn beat Green to the punch, which prevented left guard Jonathan Cooper from helping out. Jones: Sometimes my back is turned. So I don’t see the sack, I just know it. I didn’t see all the moves and stuff until after. Watching film, I was like, “Wow.” The moves, one of them was a spin, it was nasty. Simpson: He was winning with bulls. He threw a couple of counters in there. And he has a great cross chop. The thing is, he’s such a physical rusher. You can’t say, “Oh, he’s just an edge guy.” That day, it was one of those days where it was all working. Neal: It was amazing, it was really cool to be a part of something like that. I love the guy, I love how he plays. Durham: The building started to realize, “Oh God, this guy’s on fire. This guy can’t guard him.” I think the building was almost peeking, too. Everybody started watching him. For his final sack, Clayborn was matched up against Byron Bell, who subbed in for Green late in the game. Clayborn used the same move that worked all day to beat Bell and was able to knock the ball out of Prescott’s hand before he could move his arm forward. Takk McKinley jumped on the loose ball, which gave Clayborn a stat line of six sacks and two forced fumbles. Clayborn: I knew what I had, but I was just playing the game. I’d never had that many sacks. I was just staying in the motions in the game. Jones: I just feel like it was his day. The stars aligned, and it was meant for him to have that type of day for us. To tell you the truth, it took a lot off of the covering guys, too. He took his game to another level to help us out. Neal: It’s not too common. It’s one of the really cool moments, for sure, seeing that happen in person live. And the person who is doing it — he’s a good dude. Beasley: You just salute him, bow to him. Man, he had a crazy day! It’s very rare to have a day like that. That’s like a linebacker having four picks in a day, something crazy like that. That was a special day for AC, and it was a very memorable moment. After the game, a Falcons communications staffer located Clayborn, congratulated him and then asked whether he could walk with him for an on-camera interview with Fox Sports’ Erin Andrews. Initially, Clayborn said he didn’t want to do it. The two moved toward the tunnel that leads to the locker room, with the staffer practically negotiating with Clayborn to get him to do the interview. Reminded of the significance of recording six sacks in a game — which is tied for the second-most in the NFL history behind Derrick Thomas’ seven — Clayborn changed his tune. An easygoing person, Clayborn isn’t one to seek out attention. But realizing the history behind his performance, Clayborn agreed to the full media onslaught — local radio, the locker room scrum and a phone interview with SI’s Monday Morning Quarterback. Clayborn, before flashing a smile: If you haven’t noticed, I’m not really a fan of talking to reporters. I did the interviews and took it to the locker room. Jones, also smiling: That’s the type of person AC is. I call him “Bad Mood A.” It always looks like he’s in a little bit of a bad mood, but he’s a good person, man. Beasley: That’s his personality. He’s a chill guy. But he definitely goes hard on the field. It was a special moment for me because I’d never seen anything like that. I’ve never seen anyone put on a show like that. It was special for me to see something like that. Neal: He works, and he keeps his head down. He doesn’t boast and brag. He is a great player. He can (brag), he just doesn’t. It’s not in him. For him to be humble and still grind the way he does and be the player he is, that gains my respect. That’s really cool. I’m sure that’s why a lot of the other guys like him, too. Allen: I’ve watched AC long enough to know that he is who he is. He doesn’t do it for the people watching. He doesn’t do it for the cameras. That’s not him as a person. Simpson: I remember everybody being so happy for him. That’s a big deal as a D-lineman. That’s a big day. Quinn: Those are career nights that you have, so it’s kind of fun to put up on the shelf and talk about this one day 30 years from now. Clayborn: It’s a cool moment, but first of all, it’s two years ago. Now, in the moment, it’s just another game. You celebrate and get back to work and play the next one. Clayborn is entering his ninth NFL season and second stint with the Falcons. While recalling this historic game, those who played with him previously are ecstatic to have him back. Jones: You just missed him. He was here, I kind of grew with him. He was older, but I grew being on a team with him. Being young, we kind of have that college aspect that everybody’s going to be here for four years. Then when somebody’s gone, it’s like, “Oh, crap!” I feel like I didn’t embrace or get everything I needed to get out of him (the first time). Having him back is dope. Simpson: He brings so much. Coaches can tell you what to do, he can model what to do. And also, he’s a great player, but he’s also a great person. The guys have so much respect and regard for him. Beasley: It’s special. He went to New England, came out on the good side of things there, but it’s good to have him back because I know what he’s capable of. Clayborn: It’s great to be back with my old teammates. It’s great to be back with the coaching staff. I look forward to picking up where I left off here.
  12. https://theathletic.com/1158453/2019/08/23/who-rose-who-fell-projecting-the-falcons-53-man-roster-version-2-0/ Having spent the entire 2018 season on the 53-man roster, but without getting into a game, Matt Gono finally saw his first live action of what it’s like to go against an NFL first-team defense. In Thursday’s dress rehearsal against the Washington Redskins, Gono went against defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, which proved to be a good experience for the second-year offensive lineman. Sure, he went against Atlanta’s first-team defense in practice each week a year ago. But that doesn’t come close to simulating what it’s like to face the best defensive linemen in the league at full speed. Like anyone in his position, Gono noted there were some improvements to make following his first performance. But the development he has made the past year has given him a great deal of confidence. “I’ve been preparing for that ever since we got back to OTAs and camp,” Gono said. “I just tried to treat it normally, treat it like what I’ve been doing in a regular practice week and not overemphasize it too much.” A year ago, Gono was an undrafted free agent out of Division III school Wesley College. The Falcons presumably were concerned that if they waived him during final cuts last year, another team would scoop him up. Therefore, he was on the 53-man roster all year, although he was inactive each week. The Falcons spent a lot of time cross-training him as he saw practice reps at guard as the 2018 season began to wind down. With the offensive line facing injuries to two offensive tackles in the short term, Gono was given his chance to prove his worth with the first team Thursday night. Head coach Dan Quinn liked what he saw during Atlanta’s 19-7 preseason loss to the Redskins. “It felt exactly like I hoped it would,” Quinn said. “When you’re watching the game, watching the guys, it feels real normal as you’re going through, especially at that position. That’s what you hope to see.” Gono has certainly stated a case, through practice and with his preseason performance, for returning to the 53-man roster. But this year, perhaps he’ll find his way onto the field, whether it’s on the offensive line or even on the field goal team. “I feel as though I have come a long way, but there are some things I need to improve, as far as pass sets, things like that in general,” Gono said. “I’m definitely going to keep getting better.” Now, here is The Athletic’s second projection of the Falcons’ 53-man roster: Quarterback (2) Matt Ryan Matt Schaub Bubble: Danny Etling Analysis: Entering his second year, Etling has the makings of a developmental quarterback. He showed a strong arm and good mobility during Thursday’s fourth preseason game. The Falcons placed a waiver claim on him, although he should still likely end up on the practice squad — as long as another team doesn’t sign him to its 53-man roster as a third quarterback. Running back (5) Devonta Freeman Ito Smith Brian Hill Qadree Ollison Kenjon Barner Analysis: Seemingly by default, Barner will be Atlanta’s punt returner. He will also have a great chance to be the team’s kick returner, although Smith has gotten some reps there lately. Barner hasn’t gotten much time this preseason, both due to circumstance and injury, but should be good to go by Week 1. Fullback (1) Ricky Ortiz Analysis: While Ortiz is now dealing with an ankle injury, he continued to see meaningful playing time Thursday night. While some could assume a tight end might take over this job, that might not be how the coaching staff is approaching his position. Until it becomes known that a tight end is actually supplanting Ortiz, he will remain on this projection of the 53-man roster. Tight end (3) Austin Hooper Luke Stocker Jaeden Graham or Logan Paulsen Bubble: Graham and Paulsen Analysis: One of the biggest risers this preseason has been Graham, who has seen his playing time increase quite a bit the past two weeks. Graham worked in with the first team Thursday night and played some fullback after Ortiz injured his left ankle. Graham, however, was forced to exit the game later due to a knee injury. At the time of this story’s publication, Graham’s status has yet to be announced. If Graham avoided a serious injury, he will move ahead of Paulsen on this projection. Wide receiver (6) Julio Jones Mohamed Sanu Calvin Ridley Russell Gage Justin Hardy Christian Blake Bubble: Marcus Green, Olamide Zaccheaus, Devin Gray Analysis: Blake has had a strong preseason and earned a start Thursday night. Meanwhile, Green and Zaccheaus dropped punts and didn’t see much playing time at receiver until the second half. Of course, the Falcons could be trying to limit Zaccheaus’ film at receiver for strategic reasons. But based on what was done on the field, Blake moves up while Green and Zaccheaus move down. Offensive line (9) Jake Matthews Alex Mack Jamon Brown James Carpenter Chris Lindstrom Kaleb McGary Ty Sambrailo Wes Schweitzer Matt Gono Analysis: The offensive line appears to have its core group of nine players to open the season. As a whole, the line played much better against Washington than it did against the New York Jets, as it kept Ryan from getting sacked. Defensive line (9) Takk McKinley Vic Beasley Grady Jarrett Adrian Clayborn Tyeler Davison Allen Bailey Jack Crawford Deadrin Senat John Cominsky Bubble: Justin Zimmer, Ra’Shede Hageman* Analysis: Senat picked a great time to prove he belongs on the 53-man roster. Senat was in on a tackle early in the game and later caused the hit that resulted in a McKinley interception. It was an impressive game from Senat, who showed why he should not only make the team but also continue to further his role on defense. *Hageman can technically begin the year with the team because he is suspended for two games. He won’t count toward the 53-man roster during that span. Linebacker (5) Deion Jones De’Vondre Campbell Foye Oluokun Duke Riley Jermaine Grace Bubble: Bruce Carter, Del’Shawn Phillips Analysis: Grace had a key pass deflection against Washington, which follows up an interception he had two weeks ago at Miami. Grace has been impressive all preseason and has received a lot of praise for his improvement from Quinn. Grace’s rise could spell trouble for Carter, a veteran who seemed safe on the roster as recently as a week ago. Cornerback (6) Desmond Trufant Isaiah Oliver Damontae Kazee Blidi Wreh-Wilson Kendall Sheffield Jordan Miller Bubble: Taveze Calhoun Analysis: The Falcons have a solid group of six at cornerback, with Trufant and Oliver looking to man the outside. Kazee and Sheffield are the top two at nickel but are dealing with injuries at the moment. Safety (4) Ricardo Allen Keanu Neal Sharrod Neasman Kemal Ishmael Bubble: Chris Cooper, Parker Baldwin Analysis: While Cooper earned a start — at nickel — it was due to injuries to Kazee and Sheffield. Cooper stood out, however, especially with his open-field tackling. I’m not ready to put him on the 53-man roster just yet, due to his primary position of free safety, which has Allen and Neasman ahead of him at the moment. During the final week of the preseason, there could be one to four roster spots up for grabs. Cooper very well could be in the mix for one of those. Specialists (3) Giorgio Tavecchio Matt Bosher Josh Harris Analysis: Well, we know Bosher and Harris will be on the roster. Tavecchio making only four of eight field goals this preseason suddenly has his spot a bit murky. The Falcons could bring in another place-kicker in the coming days to compete with Tavecchio.
  13. https://theathletic.com/1157373/2019/08/23/giorgio-tavecchios-struggles-give-falcons-more-worry-than-they-want-about-their-kicker/ For the second consecutive week, reporters crowded around Giorgio Tavecchio’s locker. That’s generally really good or really bad. For Tavecchio, unfortunately, it was really bad. For the third time in four preseason games, he missed a kick. This time, however, his miss wasn’t from long range. It was a 39-yard try, a gimme attempt for an NFL place-kicker. But this attempt went left of the uprights. That adds up to four misses in eight attempts for Tavecchio this preseason. Forget the fact that the pressure would always be there due to the fact he’s replacing a legend in Matt Bryant. Now that Tavecchio has added an essential chip shot to his misses, this moves his roster status from secure to in jeopardy. Tavecchio, to his credit, owned the miss — much like he did a week ago. With the cameras and recorders fixated on him, he expressed his disappointment, stating the team “deserves better.” Head coach Dan Quinn said he would “evaluate that spot like others.” Tavecchio said he wasn’t focused on whether his job is in danger or not. “My focus is always on myself and controlling the controllable,” he said. “There’s a lot of things out of your control in this business. I know when I wake up every morning, I say a little prayer of gratitude and give my best each day.” Tavecchio went into the trajectory of his most recent two misses, which both went wide left. As a left-footed place-kicker, Tavecchio said his kicks naturally move to the right. So his objective is to kick the ball to the left-middle of the uprights, and that way if the ball fades right, it splits right down the middle. That obviously wasn’t the case on last week’s second miss from 52 yards and this week’s lone miss. Tavecchio said he struck both of those balls well, with the ball booming off his foot. But the ball hasn’t moved the way he said it normally does, with it staying left of the uprights. “It’s been a little disappointing from a results standpoint,” Tavecchio said. “But I can say everything else, I couldn’t have asked for a better experience so far in training camp with teammates, coaches, just my own experience in this football journey. I just want the results to reflect that.” Said Quinn: “Any time at any position, when we miss the mark, we want to find out why and what we can do to get better. It’s definitely a spot we are continuing to evaluate and that is always the case.” Facing a salary cap dilemma, the Falcons decided to part ways with Bryant, the legendary place-kicker who made many clutch kicks during his time with the franchise. Tavecchio seemed like a great option to replace Bryant, especially after going 5-of-5 kicking in relief last year, with two of those makes from more than 50 yards. In fact, one was a 56-yarder in a crucial moment against the New York Giants. This offseason, Atlanta was confident enough to stick only with Tavecchio and not bring in any competition. Now, it seems the Falcons have two options: Bring in another place-kicker this week to compete with Tavecchio or outright replace him on the roster with another option. Parting ways with Tavecchio after this game would admit failure on the Falcons’ part, that they didn’t do a good enough job of planning out life without Bryant. Sending a signal to Tavecchio and seeing how he reacts does seem practical. And if Tavecchio misses again next week in Jacksonville, then that might be all the Falcons need when it comes to making a final decision. Tavecchio, generally an upbeat and positive person, understands the business side of the NFL. Having been a journeyman place-kicker to this point, he knows that if he’s to stick around in Atlanta, he’ll have to fix what’s broken in an extremely short amount of time. “I’ll take a look at the film and see if there’s anything systemic that needs to be addressed,” he said. Senat, Cooper stand out in dress rehearsal Up until Thursday night’s fourth preseason game, defensive tackle Deadrin Senat had been fairly quiet. It led some to speculate whether his roster spot was secure. Senat, for his part, appeared to answer any potential questions about his role in 2019 with his performance in Atlanta’s dress rehearsal preseason game against Washington. With Tyeler Davison (strained calf) sidelined, Senat was able to rotate up front with the first team. Early on the first drive, Senat got off a defender quickly to help tackle Derrius Guice for only a 2-yard gain. Two possessions later, Senat was able to beat his man and get to quarterback Case Keenum for the sack. Senat also forced a fumble on the play, with Takk McKinley recovering the football and returning it for 17 yards. The Falcons’ offense capitalized on the turnover by capping a quick five-play drive with an Ito Smith touchdown from 5 yards out. Those kinds of sudden-change plays are huge when it comes to evaluating players. If the coaches had any doubts about Senat, they might have been put to rest after Thursday’s game. Quinn said he loved the energy Senat brought to the game. From multiple accounts, Senat shows up early and leaves late. While he certainly has some more developing to do, Senat flashed his potential in Atlanta’s final home preseason game. Likewise, defensive back Chris Cooper was given a starting opportunity with Damontae Kazee (rib) and Kendall Sheffield (hamstring) out for the game. Cooper joined the Kansas City Chiefs’ practice squad late last season, which gave former defensive coordinator Bob Sutton — now a Falcons senior assistant — some familiarity with his game. Cooper seems to have good instincts as a young defensive back. A safety first, he got the start at nickel with Kazee and Sheffield out. Cooper didn’t disappoint, especially when it came to tackling ball-carriers in space. The fact that Cooper has this kind of versatility could cause the Falcons to think hard about keeping him on the 53-man roster. At the same time, that likely would mean Atlanta would be going with five safeties, and the numbers may not work for five safeties to begin the year on the 53-man roster. But if the Falcons are able to plug Cooper on the practice squad, he would be a quality developmental player who could receive a call-up if needed during the 2019 season. Return woes continue The Falcons drafted Marcus Green in the sixth round to be their return specialist — or at least have a chance to earn that role. Through four preseason games, Green hasn’t had a return that stood out. He has also dropped two punts, the second coming during the second half against the Redskins. It was a bad drop, too, and led to a turnover. Washington was able to recover and scored with the short field. Later in the second half, Olamide Zaccheaus was given a punt return opportunity only to drop it, as well. Like Green, Zaccheaus now has two punt return drops this preseason. “It doesn’t always go like you want, especially for a rookie,” Quinn said. “But you have to live through those moments and keep pushing them forward and learn from them. They’ll get some more chances next week when we head down to Jacksonville.” At this point, the Falcons have no choice but to go with Kenjon Barner as the team’s punt returner to open the season. When it comes to being a returner in a broad sense, Quinn said that Barner will “lead the way for us.” But while Barner deals with a minor injury, Smith has received some reps at kick return, as well. Smith, who also has seemingly locked down the No. 2 running back job, was the first man back at kick returner to open the game. He didn’t log a return. Still, it’s a job he wouldn’t mind doing if the Falcons’ coaches want him to do so. “Last year I did it a little bit,” Smith said. “I didn’t win the job, but it’s just something that’s up for grabs right now. They threw me back there.” Having returned kicks in college at Southern Miss, Smith said he’s comfortable with the job. “Extra touches,” he said.
  14. https://theathletic.com/1151214/2019/08/20/players-not-plays-the-falcons-philosophy-that-allows-the-defense-to-fly-around/ On a given defensive snap, 11 players have individual responsibilities they must fulfill to work cohesively as one unit. For instance, a defensive end might be tasked with setting an edge on a particular play. The basics are to turn the ballcarrier back inside and let the linebackers complete the play. A strong safety’s job on that play might be to guard the tight end, and if it’s a run, to ensure he wins the leverage battle against the blocker. If those things occur, that’s great. The Falcons, however, are coached with the freedom to do more if the opportunity presents itself. If a defensive end sets an edge but feels like he has enough to make a run at the ballcarrier himself, he is allowed to do so. If a free safety’s primary responsibility is to keep the ball from going over the defense’s head, he’ll do so — but not without the freedom to jump a route if that’s his read. Although head coach Dan Quinn has been with the Falcons since 2015, this is the first time he has held the defensive coordinator title. Recently in a meeting, Quinn brought up a philosophy that resonates with him — “players, not plays.” The idea is to put the players in position to make plays, not to come up with elaborate calls with specific demands. Over time, trust develops between the coaches and players, making this easier to implement. Although Quinn has held this philosophy since becoming a head coach, it might be a little more pronounced on defense now that he’s the play caller. “I think the more you’re around the player, the more trust that you gain,” Quinn said. “(And from) him to you.” To an average fan, the idea of an NFL defense, with how it must scheme against high-flying offenses, might seem complex and difficult to understand. (Having sat in on a defensive coaches meeting, it can be incredibly tough for the layperson to follow the verbiage and communication.) To the players, the Falcons’ defense is simple. It’s not that it’s simple in terms of how other offenses prepare for it. It’s just simple for the players themselves to understand. Safety Ricardo Allen said that by not having to process as much information in the moment, it frees players — especially those with exceptional athleticism — to do what they do best. “When you make things simple, it’s easier to not give players too much to overcloud their judgments,” Allen said. “If you make the information good enough, that it’s simple enough that your players can understand it and execute it, they’re comfortable playing as fast as they were when you picked them to come here.” Still, not any player can step in and enjoy the freedom many of Atlanta’s top contributors are extended. In Year 1, a player might feel comfortable with simply doing his job. In Year 2, he could look to expand his role. By Year 3, Allen said that player needs to be making positive plays on a consistent basis. For the Falcons, at least 11 key defenders will have had at least three years under Quinn. There should be plenty of cohesion with what Quinn wants out of the defense this year. “I think in terms of DQ’s philosophy that he likes to give the players a certain amount of freedom to play to their best abilities and help them feel comfortable on the field,” defensive tackle Jack Crawford said. “It’s not a system where the players are robots and play in their discipline and not take any shots or chances or try to make a big play when it’s their time to. He likes to play loose, to have fun out there and take shots.” Crawford, who played for the Oakland Raiders and Dallas Cowboys before joining Atlanta, said defenders are encouraged to take their shot, especially if they read something pre-snap or are able to predict a way a play is unfolding. Even if the player misses, as long as there is a valid explanation after the fact, Quinn is OK with it. Elsewhere, a coach may only be happy if the result nets a positive. He may also only allow certain players — i.e. the high-priced ones — to take risks while others are relegated to specific roles. With anything, mistakes are bound to happen. By playing tentative, the likelihood of producing big defensive plays decreases. Crawford said Quinn’s approach is refreshing since it doesn’t cede any ground with the team’s aggression. “He doesn’t want people to play tight,” Crawford said. “What happens is when you become afraid to make mistakes and when you become afraid to take shots, people become tight, and it makes the defense less aggressive overall.” A common phrase players use with the philosophy is to “make the plays come to life.” Linebacker Deion Jones said this means the defense has to do everything before the snap until the play is finished to distinguish Atlanta’s version of a play from the other 31 teams in the NFL. When the defense lines up, the opposing offense can’t pinpoint a weakness. When the ball is snapped, everyone not only does his job but also tries to find the ball if the initial aspect of the job is accomplished. “(Quinn) calling the call, and us being able to talk it out and talk through the details of it, allows us to all be on the same accord and to play together, and then play fast,” Jones said. “No one’s like, ‘I don’t know what he’s thinking.’ We’re all on the same page. We’re able to fly around.” Said defensive tackle Grady Jarrett: “The mindset is the same as far as being an attacking style of defense, bringing life to the play call — ‘players, not plays.’ I can say there are some schematic changes we’ve done. We’re excited to put together, as a team, some new things we haven’t done since I’ve been here. He’s definitely maximizing the skill level and the skill type to give us the best efficiency on the field together.” Although there are coaches renowned for their expertise in either the offensive or defensive sides of the ball, one could argue that without the right personnel, the results may not be as good. Often, when a play fails, the particular call is questioned, even when evidence exists the play would have gone much differently if one small part was executed better. Sometimes when a successful play occurs, the coach who called it receives too much credit, such as when a star player takes a routine catch or run for a big gain. That’s at least something Allen appears to believe in based on his five years in the NFL. “I’ve seen a fullback trap go for a touchdown, and it was probably designed for a first down,” Allen said. “I’ve seen some plays we thought would be touchdowns go for minuses. It’s never about the play design. Yeah, that all helps. At the end of the day, players have to get out there and play. Coaches call the plays on the sideline and players have to make it work.” At the professional level, especially within the confines of a salary cap, talent will often outweigh coaching. The teams that draft better players tend to win more. Therefore, if the Falcons are drafting well, the coaching philosophy is to put faith in the players the team is bringing into the building. When it’s crunch time, Quinn said he would rather place his players in a good position to make a play than to rely only on what he and his assistants on the sideline and in the booth are thinking. After all, the defenders who contribute the most know the scheme inside and out. Why not allow them to expand on what they already know? “In the critical moments of the games, make sure you can feature the player doing the things that he does best in those moments,” Quinn said. “Whether it’s at the end of a game or a two-minute (situation) or a certain route that a receiver runs best, that is more important than the Xs and Os part of it from a coaching side. ‘Players, not plays’ means, when it comes to those moments, how do you find ways to get a specific player the ball? “Or defensively, ‘Hey, here’s a call that you guys know like the back of your hand, and you’re able to execute it against a lot of different things.’ Critical moments, players not plays, meaning put the guys in the space that they to do their thing the best.”
  15. https://theathletic.com/1142877/2019/08/16/projecting-the-falcons-53-man-roster-midway-through-the-preseason/ With two weeks remaining in the preseason, the Falcons will begin to make moves to get to the initial 53-man roster that will begin the 2019 season. While two games are on the preseason docket, next week’s exhibition against the Washington Redskins will factor more into the evaluation process than the finale against the Jacksonville Jaguars. That final game is generally good for young players who aren’t going to make the team to put some film together. The next game will be useful for many of those on Atlanta’s bubble. Compared to last year, there appears to be a number of directions the Falcons could take with the 53-man roster. Do they want three, four or five running backs? Six or seven receivers? Five or six linebackers? Eight or nine offensive linemen? Is a fullback worth keeping at this point? It will be interesting to see what Atlanta decides to do in the end. For now, here is The Athletic’s first preseason 53-man roster projection. Quarterback (2) Matt Ryan Matt Schaub Bubble: Danny Etling Analysis: At quarterback, it’s cut and dry. But it is worth noting that the Falcons used a waiver claim on Etling this week. Would a team really use a waiver claim on a player it plans to cut at the end of the preseason, with hopes of stashing on the practice squad? The Falcons were highly interested in Etling as an undrafted free agent signing last year, only to see the New England Patriots draft him in the seventh round. Now that he’s with the Falcons, this could be something to keep an eye on after the final preseason game against Jacksonville. Running back (4) Devonta Freeman Ito Smith Brian Hill Qadree Ollison Bubble: Kenjon Barner Analysis: Smith seemed to cement his standing as Atlanta’s No. 2 back with his performance against the New York Jets. While he only rushed for 13 yards on five carries, he scored a touchdown, showed off his agility and hauled in a 28-yard reception. Hill has had a great preseason, and Ollison has shown flashes, including a powerful 16-yard run up the middle Thursday night. Barner’s recent injury complicates matters for him as he continues to compete for a specialist role. Fullback (1) Ricky Ortiz Analysis: Ortiz has gotten too many meaningful first-team snaps to move him off the roster just yet. He also has value on special teams. Tight end (3) Austin Hooper Luke Stocker Logan Paulsen Bubble: Jaeden Graham Analysis: Graham’s performance against the Jets — four catches for 55 yards — was certainly eye-opening. Next week’s dress rehearsal against the Redskins could be big if he’s to earn a 53-man roster spot. There could be a roster spot battle brewing between Graham and Paulsen. At the same time, it wouldn’t be a shock for Atlanta to go with four tight ends. Wide receiver (7) Julio Jones Mohamed Sanu Calvin Ridley Russell Gage Justin Hardy Marcus Green Olamide Zaccheaus Bubble: Christian Blake, Devin Gray Analysis: For now, Green gets the edge over Barner at returner. And from the outside, it sure seems like the team wants Green to win the job. Otherwise, Barner already would have been handed the role. Of the young receivers, Zaccheaus is a potential developmental returner who has come down with some tough catches this preseason. Of Zaccheaus, Blake and Gray, Zaccheaus is probably the biggest threat for another team to take for its 53-man roster if waived at the end of the preseason. Therefore, he gets the nod while Blake and Gray begin the year with the practice squad. This could be the toughest group for Atlanta to nail down with the depth it has. Offensive line (9) Jake Matthews Alex Mack Jamon Brown James Carpenter Chris Lindstrom Kaleb McGary Ty Sambrailo Wes Schweitzer Matt Gono Analysis: If Atlanta could get away with keeping eight offensive linemen, and therefore opening a spot elsewhere, it probably would do so. But for now, both Schweitzer and Gono make the team. Schweitzer has been the only one repping with the second team at center and has received a lot of reps with the first group at the position, too. Head coach Dan Quinn has raved about Gono lately and kept him on the 53-man roster all of last season. Defensive line (8) Takk McKinley Vic Beasley Grady Jarrett Adrian Clayborn Tyeler Davison Allen Bailey Jack Crawford John Cominsky Bubble: Justin Zimmer, Deadrin Senat, Ra’Shede Hageman* Analysis: Talk about a deep group. Adding Clayborn, Davison and Bailey, while drafting Cominsky, sure did complicate matters for Zimmer and Senat as far as making the team this year. If the Falcons wind up with eight offensive linemen, six receivers, five linebackers, three running backs or without a fullback, Zimmer or Senat seemingly would be the top candidates for a roster spot. *Hageman can technically begin the year with the team since he is suspended for two games. He won’t count toward the 53-man roster during that span. Linebacker (6) Deion Jones De’Vondre Campbell Foye Oluokun Bruce Carter Duke Riley Jermaine Grace Bubble: Del’Shawn Phillips Analysis: Grace’s speed might be too much to pass on at this point. He, Carter and Riley can contribute a good bit on special teams, which should enhance their standings with the team. Phillips has had a good preseason, too, with 11 total tackles. That ranks second on the team behind only Grace’s 15. Cornerback (6) Desmond Trufant Isaiah Oliver Damontae Kazee Blidi Wreh-Wilson Kendall Sheffield Jordan Miller Bubble: Taveze Calhoun Analysis: Cornerback looks pretty clear at this point. An injury during the next two weeks potentially could open the door for someone like Calhoun, who is actually dealing with own injury at the moment. Safety (4) Ricardo Allen Keanu Neal Sharrod Neasman Kemal Ishmael Bubble: Parker Baldwin, Chris Cooper Analysis: The Falcons probably can get away with putting both Baldwin and Cooper on the practice squad. Atlanta was one of the only teams that showed major interest in Baldwin during the pre-draft process and thinks he can improve during the long haul. Cooper has upside and could use a full year on Atlanta’s practice squad for developmental purposes. Specialists (3) Giorgio Tavecchio Matt Bosher Josh Harris Analysis: There haven’t been any competitions with the specialists this preseason. Of course, the Falcons certainly hope Tavecchio’s recent misses from long range end before the regular season begins.
  16. https://theathletic.com/1142708/2019/08/16/schultz-vic-beasley-on-expectations-disappointment-and-those-who-question-his-desire/ This was another one of those NFL-sanctioned scrimmages. The players who really matter don’t play, or don’t play much, and just want to get out without so much as a hangnail. The Falcons’ first home exhibition against the New York Jets on Thursday night aroused so little interest in Atlanta that one could buy a ticket on StubHub for $7.86 an hour before kickoff, or you could just stand outside and wait for someone to hand you 10 or 12 for free. But it wasn’t a completely meaningless night for Vic Beasley. He was a sack machine and an All-Pro in 2016, the Falcons’ season of near glory. He’s likely at the end of his lifeline in Atlanta. Another mediocre season and the Falcons won’t want him back. A good season and another team is likely to offer more than Atlanta is willing to pay. So 2019 is really about two things: whether he can contribute anything in a pivotal season for this franchise and whether he has a future anywhere. There was a flash of the old Beasley in Thursday’s scrimmage, late in the first quarter. Working in the Falcons’ nickel package on third-and-4, he got a nice jump off the line to force Jets rookie tackle Chuma Edoga into a frantic backpedal, then overpowered him and fought off a block to sack quarterback Sam Darnold and force a punt. “That was the counter,” Beasley said later. “Coach Dan Quinn has worked with us a lot on having the fastball and then throwing a curveball. It’s like being a pitcher, switching it up now and then.” There was another third-down play early in the second quarter when Beasley and Takk McKinley came hard off the edge to pressure Darnold to throw earlier than he wanted. Grady Jarrett, Beasley’s former Clemson teammate, said of Beasley, “It was good to see him get a sack, and we expect a lot more. It’s important for everybody up front to work together and to show up so we can have a successful unit.” Beasley hasn’t always shown up. He’s not a malcontent or a malingerer or a disruption in the locker room. He just hasn’t done nearly enough to match his talent level or expectations, and by own admission. He isn’t oblivious to the criticism. He actually handles it quite well and is willing to stand in front of his locker and respond to difficult questions, putting him ahead of others on the team. The problem is that for three of his four NFL seasons, there have been reasons the questions are asked. Here’s an interesting exchange I had with Beasley after Thursday’s exhibition, in which he conceded he has disappointed even himself and responded to those who question his passion for football. Do you feel after such high expectations and two bad seasons that you need to prove yourself? I have expectations for myself, and I want to be that player. What are those expectations? To be a dominant player in this league. I know my capabilities. I know what I expect out of myself. I know what it takes to be a dominant player. You’ve seen me be a dominant player. There are always contributing factors not in your control. But what’s the level of frustration for an athlete who achieved at such a high level at Clemson and then in 2016 to drop off like you have the last two years? I’m disappointed in my statistics. But despite injuries, despite whatever else happened on the team, there’s still another level I can go to. Did you wonder if the Falcons would bring you back this season? I just left that in God’s hands. I’m sure you did. But were you concerned that your time here was over? I put it in His hands, and then ultimately Q (Dan Quinn) and Thomas (Dimitroff) made the decision. What were your conversations with Quinn like? I told Q I wanted to be consistent. He understood. My word for this year is consistency. So you can put that down. Do you have a number of sacks you wrote down? No. I’ve done that before. My first year coming into the league with the hype, I didn’t live up to that and didn’t get double-digit sacks like I wanted. So lesson learned. So for me, my goal now is just to be consistent each and every year. This may sound like a strange question, but do you still love football? What? Whenever a player’s performance drops off, there are questions about why it’s happening. I’m just being straight with you: There are people who’ve asked me and wondered whether you just don’t love football that much anymore. So I’m asking: Do you love what you do? Do you love what you do? Some days. It’s the same for me. Some days you love it. Some days it gets redundant. But I’m 60. I have an excuse. I have a gift from God. So why not give it my best. And I’ve got great coaches around me and guys who are pushing me. I need these folks. They challenge me. Everybody needs somebody to challenge you. On the field and off the field. Given the circumstances, I felt I had to ask that. We live in a world where there are assumptions. Everybody has their thoughts. Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion in a day. That’s the world we live in. And? Yes, I enjoy the game. Full disclosure: I did not expect Beasley would be back after he dropped from 15.5 sacks in 2016 to five each of the past two years. He looked more like a situational pass-rusher, not the game-changer most expected when the Falcons drafted him eighth overall in 2015 and certainly not one worth a $12.81 million salary. Paying that fifth-year option meant the Falcons would be limited in what they could do financially in free agency. The public narrative was that Quinn, who was returning to defensive coordinator duties and excelled as a D-line coach, believed he could get more out of Beasley. Maybe. But even Quinn doesn’t really know that. It’s believed a major contributing reason Beasley was brought back was to keep the peace. He’s represented by the same agency (CAA) that reps Jarrett and Julio Jones, both of whom were headed for major offseason negotiations (Jarrett has been signed; Jones remains in talks). In the NFL, it’s the way business is done. Quinn’s own future is linked, in part, to Beasley because an improved pass rush is a mandate for the Falcons. So Quinn has spent extra time with Beasley. “Most pass-rushers, you better have the other counter punch to that, which is all of your power to go after the tackle,” Quinn said. “This year, he’s done a better job of mixing those two up. You can’t just continue to float.” No, there has been enough of that.
  17. https://theathletic.com/1141835/2019/08/16/falcons-offensive-line-has-work-to-do-following-preseason-loss-to-jets/ For a preseason game, Matt Ryan was hit well more than anyone on the Falcons’ sideline would have preferred to see. It wasn’t a pleasant sight for Ryan’s teammates, specifically the offensive line that was addressed by the front office during the offseason. Atlanta specifically spent money on two free agents and selected two draft picks to address this issue. Yet, in a game that doesn’t count toward the regular-season standings, Ryan absorbed three sacks and took an additional eight quarterback hits, all in the first half. It’s an exhibition, so it’s not like Atlanta did any in-depth game-planning. Still, the line would like to protect the $150 million quarterback a little better. “We’ll have to see in the film what’s going on,” center Alex Mack said. “You want to keep the quarterback clean. You want to keep him comfortable and able to throw the ball wherever he wants to.” It should be noted that New York Jets defensive coordinator Gregg Williams seemed to call more blitzes than what is typical for most NFL teams in a preseason game. And the Falcons didn’t game plan specifically for it because that’s not what teams typically do in the preseason. As head coach Dan Quinn said, these games are more about players trusting their rules at their various positions. At the same time, that’s Williams in a nutshell. Preseason or not, he wants to call an aggressive style of defense. Therefore, the Falcons probably should have been, at minimum, somewhat prepared for the pressure packages the Jets sent. The positive takeaway would be that the Falcons’ line got some early experience at how to handle a blitz. For a player like rookie Chris Lindstrom, it was his first chance to see a first-team defense come full steam ahead with various players at different positions running after the quarterback. In fact, it appeared on the sack Lindstrom allowed, the Jets used a delayed blitz. There are two schools of thought regarding the offensive line’s outing: There are still plenty of kinks to work out as the new-look line jells with one another. This Jets’ defense was tough to mentally prepare for, considering the kind of pressure it threw at the Falcons. Ryan did seem to expect any and everything out of Williams’ defense. “I’ve played against Gregg Williams for a long time. I know they’ve got all sorts of different pressure packages,” Ryan said. “The first play of the game, they were basically trying to send two corners off the edge. That’s just their style and who they are. Having played against him in New Orleans and Cleveland, and all over the place, that’s how they’ve been in the past.” Obviously, as a preseason game, this doesn’t amount to much from a schematic standpoint. But where it does matter is when it comes to evaluating players. Ty Sambrailo didn’t have his best night and lost a few one-on-one battles on the right side of the line. When rookie Kaleb McGary is cleared to play again, that competition at right tackle figures to resume. In addition, the Falcons will hope James Carpenter can return to the playing field soon, too. Carpenter and Jamon Brown have been battling for the starting left guard job, but Carpenter suffered a hip flexor injury earlier this month. While Brown has had some strong practices, he and Sambrailo haven’t nailed down their respective starting spots. While Thursday night’s loss was only an exhibition, left tackle Jake Matthews said the line needed to do a better job of picking up the Jets’ blitzes. A year ago, Ryan was sacked 42 times. If the Falcons are to return to the postseason, they can’t afford to let the same happen again. Therefore, Matthews said the objective will be to glean as much as possible from what occurred Thursday to prevent it from happening again. “We have to treat it that way,” Matthews said. “Obviously, we can’t have (Ryan) on the ground. We have to do whatever it takes to get better and stop that from happening.” Tavecchio’s two long misses Giorgio Tavecchio has missed three field goals from more than 50 yards this preseason. Against the Jets, the journeyman place-kicker missed a pair of 52-yard attempts — one to the right and one to the left. Obviously, attempting field goals from 50 yards or longer isn’t an easy task. Considering his predecessor, Matt Bryant, had a penchant for hitting some lengthy field goals with the game on the line, Tavecchio has some big shoes to fill in this department. Tavecchio said he didn’t strike the first attempt well, although Quinn said he saw the ball get tipped on the way up. But everything about Tavecchio’s second attempt felt great — that is until he looked up to track it. “The second one I crushed, and when I hit it I was like, ‘Yes!’” Tavecchio said. “And then I looked up and I’m like, ‘Come on, give me a little love!’” Tavecchio said he pondered what he could have done differently on the second attempt, considering how good it felt off his foot. In the end, sometimes kicks that feel good, especially from long range, don’t always go in. Last year, in relief of Bryant, Tavecchio made all five of his field-goal attempts, including a 56-yarder against the New York Giants. Clearly, Tavecchio has enough range to make long field goals, but this preseason hasn’t been too kind in the early going. “It’s a little frustrating,” Tavecchio said. “I need to be a little more precise from deep. I thought I felt good on the rhythm, I felt a good strike on the ball. It just didn’t go in.” Quinn doesn’t seem too concerned about Tavecchio’s misses, considering the overall body of work dating back to last year. “He’s had an excellent camp,” Quinn said. “We have great trust in him. We anticipate getting him lots of opportunities to let it rip.” A trio of injuries Damontae Kazee needed to take a seat on the turf as he was trying to run off the field, banged up following a tackle with teammate Ricardo Allen. Kazee was writhing in pain, which possibly made the injury look worse than what it turned out to be. It ultimately subsided enough to where Kazee could walk off the field under his own power. It was later described as a rib injury, with Quinn saying it didn’t involve any broken bones. Receiver Russell Gage nearly came down with a deep ball in the second quarter but injured his hip after hitting the ground. Gage was unable to put much power on his legs and was carted off the field. Gage, however, also avoided breaking a bone, Quinn said. In addition, rookie cornerback Kendall Sheffield, who backs up Kazee at nickel, left the game with a hamstring injury. The third option at nickel appears to be Chris Cooper, who is also a reserve safety. What went well • While Ryan was hit quite often, he finished 10-of-14 passing for 118 yards. Ryan completed his first nine passes before Gage was unable to haul in a pass on the play he suffered his hip injury. On that same drive, Brian Hill and Justin Hardy dropped would-be touchdown receptions. In addition, Matt Schaub went 8-of-10 passing for 76 yards while leading the Falcons on their only touchdown drive of the night. Despite some struggles from the offensive line, the quarterbacks were able to establish a good rhythm on offense. • While Mack said he wished the line could have helped the offense run the ball better, running back Ito Smith had a good game while seemingly cementing himself as the team’s No. 2 option. While Smith finished with only five carries for 13 yards, he scored on a 4-yard touchdown and had a couple of other nifty moves to dodge defenders. His highlight came on a 28-yard reception down the left sideline as had three receptions for 45 yards. • The somewhat surprise of the night came from tight end Jaeden Graham, who spent his rookie year on the practice squad. Graham is a high-energy player who showcased some of his athleticism Thursday evening. He ended up leading the team in receiving with four receptions for 55 yards, including a 30-yard gain. Graham also hurdled a defender. Graham has been an ascending player of late and could be someone to keep an eye on as the Falcons begin cutting their roster to 53 players. “The urgency he plays with is always there,” Quinn said. “We’re trying to find a role with what he can do.”
  18. https://theathletic.com/1128614/2019/08/09/after-two-preseason-games-here-are-the-falcons-risers-and-sleepers-you-should-know-about/ There is a long way to go before the Falcons’ 53-man roster is finalized. But after two of Atlanta’s five preseason games, a few players have emerged either as borderline locks or ones to keep a closer eye on. While this does seem like the time of year to over-analyze, it’s hard to not notice certain players who continually make plays when their number is called upon. Although the Falcons don’t have many starter jobs up for grabs, quite a few depth spots are there for the taking. Thus far, a few players on Atlanta’s preseason roster have done their part to stand out. WR Russell Gage There may not be a more improved player at any position on this roster than Gage. In college at LSU, Gage was used as a gadget option and didn’t put up eye-popping numbers. His special-teams play certainly earned the attention of the Falcons, who drafted him in the sixth round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Gage, however, suddenly looks the part of a legitimate NFL receiver, at least through two preseason games. The thing is, he’s put up similar kinds of plays during OTAs, minicamp and training camp. It sure seems the Falcons have a reliable fourth option at receiver. Gage has put forth two strong performances, with Thursday’s night exhibition against the Miami Dolphins showing that he could be relied upon more in his second year. Gage’s first catch saw him jump high to corral a Matt Schaub pass for 15 yards. He finished with 33 yards and looks like someone who has all but locked up a spot on the 53-man roster. RB Brian Hill When the Falcons drafted Qadree Ollison, there was some question of what it meant for Hill. Hill is entering his third year in the NFL and is a part of what has turned into a crowded backfield behind Devonta Freeman. But in a situation where running backs need to separate themselves from one another, Hill has done just that. Hill previously showcased an ability to be a bruising runner and someone who could be a short-yardage specialist. This preseason, Hill has displayed better speed and vision. His pass-catching has ramped up a notch, too. Hill has spent a lot of time working on various areas of his game, and it shows in his play. Based on the early results, Hill is making a strong case for a roster spot. OL Matt Gono While Gono has yet to appear in a regular-season game, he remained on the 53-man roster every week of the 2018 regular season. He’s clearly a player the Falcons believe in. Before the preseason game Thursday against Miami, head coach Dan Quinn said Gono was standing out in practice. Gono has worked primarily at left tackle this preseason but can play multiple positions. Toward the end of last season, Gono started cross-training at guard. Some of those reps came at the end of practice, in what’s called the Plan D period. This is when developmental players — and anyone, really — get extra individual reps once the actual practice is over. Gono got a start Thursday night and could be in line for a spot on the 53-man roster once again if he keeps trending the right way in the coaches’ eyes. S Parker Baldwin Of the undrafted rookies in this year’s class, Baldwin may be the one to keep the most focus on. With J.J. Wilcox (ACL) out for the year, Atlanta is searching for a backup strong safety. Baldwin earned a start against Miami and got a large number of reps at the position. Baldwin occasionally has gotten time with the first team in practice, but this has come when Ricardo Allen (Achilles) and Keanu Neal (ACL) have been pulled for cautionary reasons related to their recoveries. It does look like the Falcons are willing to give Baldwin at least a look at being the backup strong safety. Right after Wilcox’s injury, on the first day of training camp, the Falcons moved Kemal Ishmael from linebacker to safety. But against the Dolphins, Ishmael appeared to get most of his reps at linebacker. Baldwin certainly will be someone to monitor over the next three preseason games. LB Jermaine Grace Grace certainly helped his case for the 53-man roster after the game Thursday. The speedy linebacker, who played college ball at Miami, was able to record an interception in front of a number of family members in attendance at Hard Rock Stadium. Grace read Josh Rosen’s eyes, broke on the ball and came close to scoring a touchdown. In today’s NFL, with offenses pass-heavy and spread out, Grace offers ideal sideline-to-sideline speed. He said the coaches want to use him in nickel situations to take advantage of his skills. While the starting linebackers in Atlanta’s base package appear set with Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell and Foye Oluokun, Grace could certainly find a role as a rotational linebacker and on special teams. WRs Marcus Green, Olamide Zaccheaus and Christian Blake Similar to running back, the receiver position is suddenly crowded on the back end. Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Calvin Ridley are guaranteed spots, obviously. Gage, as previously mentioned, appears set given his play of late. Justin Hardy knows the system and is reliable as a role player, which should give him an edge. If Gage and Hardy are the fourth and fifth receivers, there is probably only one spot for three candidates. One would be Green, the sixth-round draft pick who is competing for the return jobs. Green, however, saw only nine plays on offense in the Hall of Fame Game and injured his hamstring. Zaccheaus and Blake, meanwhile, have had some standout moments this preseason. Blake was on Atlanta’s practice squad last season and has made some great plays in practice. In the Hall of Fame Game, he had five catches for 46 yards and followed it up with three catches for 19 yards against Miami. Zaccheaus followed his two-catch, 31-yard outing against Denver with two catches for 35 yards against Miami. Zaccheaus had a highlight-reel grab on the left sideline for 28 yards, too, adding intrigue to the possibility that he latches onto the final roster. All three receivers will continue battling for one of the final spots during the next three weeks. DE Austin Larkin It’s probably too early to start discussing whether Larkin has a shot at the 53-man roster. But it’s noteworthy that Larkin, seemingly out of nowhere, recorded a sack on a nifty spin move and also had two key tackles early against the Dolphins. Larkin spent time with the Dallas Cowboys last preseason but ended up with the San Antonio Commanders in the now-defunct Alliance of American Football. If anything, perhaps Larkin can soon guarantee a practice squad position based on the depth Atlanta has at defensive end. At the same time, if Larkin puts forth more performances like the one he had Thursday, Quinn and the defensive coaches might be forced to give him a closer look.
  19. https://theathletic.com/1133503/2019/08/12/what-ive-seen-heard-and-learned-so-far-during-the-falcons-preseason/ The Falcons took a tight end away from Mike Mularkey’s meeting room Monday, electing to trade former fifth-round draft pick Eric Saubert to the New England Patriots for a 2020 conditional pick. By bringing Mularkey in to coach tight ends, to go with offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter’s penchant to use the position quite a bit, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see Atlanta keep four tight ends on the roster. By trading away Saubert, perhaps the team has other plans. There’s still a chance the Falcons could keep four tight ends, and that depends on whether they think Jaeden Graham, who spent his rookie year in 2018 on the practice squad, is ready to be on the 53-man roster. But considering the depth that has been accrued at other positions, the Falcons might be looking to use what was Saubert’s spot elsewhere. Look no further than what the Falcons have at wide receiver and running back. Receiver looks to be the deepest group head coach Dan Quinn has had since taking the job in 2015. Everyone knows what Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Calvin Ridley can do by now. This preseason, Russell Gage has seen a tremendous jump in his development. From there, Justin Hardy has proved to be a reliable rotational receiver in previous seasons. Christian Blake and Devin Gray, practice-squad members a year ago, have turned heads during practice. Rookies Marcus Green and Olamide Zaccheaus offer special teams value as return specialists. “Receiver is one of those spots where, as you’re looking at roster spots five, six, seven — who has developmental experience to push through? That’s a big deal,” Quinn said. “That’s why these next three weeks, for a number of these guys to show what you can do in those moments, is a big thing.” Typically, teams enter a year with five or six receivers on the roster. Therefore, Quinn saying “five, six, seven” deserved a follow-up: Could he envision keeping seven receivers on the roster? Sure, he said, before being asked to elaborate. “I think when you have the space to do it, who can be totally devoted to a special-teams role? That would be something to consider,” Quinn said. “It seems high, but as you go through it, past receiver, what would the role be on the team? When you look at it that way, maybe it’s a 52-man roster, and then there’s one or two special teams players that we go, ‘But we have to put them somewhere.’ We have to put them at a position. It could be heavy at running back, heavy at receiver, heavy at tight end. It’s just a matter of how we want to utilize those guys.” In this line of thinking, perhaps this is where the return battle between Green and Kenjon Barner comes into play. Barner is a veteran running back who has 1,006 career kick and punt return yards in his career. Atlanta drafted Green this year, with the franchise hoping he can become an explosive option in the return game. In essence, Atlanta might already have its running backs and receivers slotted. And then whoever wins this returner battle winds up in either position group, while essentially serving as the team’s return specialist. If Green becomes the top returner, Atlanta could wind up with seven receivers. But if the Falcons want Devonta Freeman, Ito Smith, Brian Hill and Qadree Ollison all on the 53-man roster, and if Barner is the best return option, the Falcons could open the year with five running backs. While both scenarios might sound crazy, it’s turning into a distinct possibility. Full steam ahead for Freeman Although he has dealt with various injuries in his pro career, Freeman only missed five games in his first four NFL seasons. Then came last year when knee and groin injuries sidelined him for 14 games. While there was a chance for Freeman to return near the end of the 2018 season, he didn’t. And that was a smart decision, considering Atlanta wasn’t in position for a postseason run. Now, Freeman is in good health and hasn’t had any setbacks at the start of the preseason. Based on how he has practiced, Freeman should be in line for a bounce-back campaign. “He’s had an outstanding offseason,” Quinn said. “The energy he brought back, starting with OTAs, he’s a stronger man than what he was prior to his injury. You’ve heard people say, ‘Can you come back stronger from an injury?’ I think this is one of those cases where the answer is yes. He’s more violent in his cuts because of that strength. His mindset, determination is completely on point. He adds a lot to our team.” While the Falcons are deep at running back, Freeman is no longer sharing the backfield with Tevin Coleman. Freeman also is being paid to be a workhorse back. In the third season of a five-year extension, Freeman is set to make a base salary of $3.75 million. His cap hit is $6.75 million, thanks to a prorated $15 million signing bonus. It’s time the Falcons got some extra usage out of their top back and it looks like this will be the season this occurs. After missing most of last season, Freeman seems to have an even greater appreciation for the game. He has been all smiles this preseason, noting how he gets to live out the dream he has had since he “was 7, 8 years old.” He also pointed out that the physical nature of his position will come with a beating at times. It’s not something he can, or will, dwell on. “This is a physical sport, and it’s what I signed up for,” Freeman said. “I’m already expecting to be nicked up, bruised up and banged up. If injuries come, they come. That’s just what comes with this sport. That’s what I signed up for. But I don’t focus on that. I just focus on having fun, executing and making plays.” If Freeman remains healthy, he elevates this offense into a higher gear. He’s a threat as a runner and receiver, and with Dirk Koetter calling plays, Freeman certainly should see a high volume of touches. Defense will feature new wrinkles Teams keep their schemes fairly vanilla during the preseason for obvious reasons. They’re not about to tip what they want to do before the regular season actually begins. Even so, it’s clear that this year’s defense will look different from how it has in prior years. Look no further than some of the alignments the Falcons have used in the early going. Instead of using a traditional outside linebacker at times, Atlanta is using three defensive ends up front, with one, or sometimes two, standing up in a two-point stance. It hasn’t been uncommon to see Vic Beasley, Takk McKinley, Allen Bailey, Grady Jarrett and Tyeler Davison all on the field together. Quinn alluded to some changes earlier in the offseason, telling The Athletic’s Jeff Schultz in June that he wasn’t pleased with some of the pressure packages his team used the past couple of seasons. In practice, when the team has worked the first-team units against one another, the defense has looked instinctive and fast. One word floated around to describe the look of this year’s defense has been “unleashed.” Time will tell if that does turn into an appropriate word to describe this defense. Observations/thoughts • When it comes to running back, there has been a clear pecking order to date. Smith, Hill, Barner and Qadree Ollison have worked in that order behind Freeman. The preseason game this week against the New York Jets could see a change. With Ollison having a strong finish against the Miami Dolphins, he could get his number called a little earlier. The same could be said about Hill, as it pertains to the first couple of series, considering he has been one of the preseason’s standouts. • Sticking with the roster construction theme, the offensive line figures to have either eight or nine after roster cuts. Eight is usually a good number, with seven active on game day. The Falcons, however, are deep at this position group, considering they brought in two free agents and drafted two more in the first round. Locks on the line include Jake Matthews, Alex Mack, Chris Lindstrom, Kaleb McGary, Ty Sambrailo, Jamon Brown and James Carpenter. The other two spots likely will come down to Wes Schweitzer and Matt Gono. Schweitzer seems certain to make the roster since he’s the backup center. In fact, he has spent most of his practice time as the No. 2 center as opposed to guard. But then there’s Gono, the 53-man roster mainstay from a year ago the Falcons have been developing. Quinn has praised Gono for his work during the past year. “As he’s learning on the job, I like that because of the urgency and physicality that he’s playing with. He’s definitely somebody that’s got our attention,” Quinn said. • Jermaine Grace, who recorded an interception against the Dolphins, will be a player to watch Thursday night. Grace has great speed at linebacker and could find a role on passing downs — that is if he makes the 53-man roster. He has been impressive when given the opportunity, and he has had plenty of chances to work in with the first and second units with Deion Jones (foot) and Foye Oluokun (groin) missing practice. • At safety, undrafted rookie Parker Baldwin got the start against Miami and played 54 snaps — the most of any Atlanta defender. Atlanta was one of the only teams to scout Baldwin extensively as he came out of San Diego State. Quinn said the Falcons liked Baldwin’s size and that they believe he can be developed into a good defensive back. While he got a lot of playing time last week, Baldwin might not get as much moving forward, Quinn noted. Ronald Martin is also competing at strong safety, with Kemal Ishmael — who can play safety and linebacker — an option to be Neal’s primary backup, as well.
  20. https://theathletic.com/1127111/2019/08/09/matt-schaubs-bounce-back-night-and-other-takeaways-from-the-falcons-preseason-loss/?source=dailyemail MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Matt Schaub played two quarters of football as if, during the past seven days, he listened to every local sports radio program, read every blog and scoured each Twitter mention referencing him. As in, it seemed the 38-year-old longtime veteran quarterback was out to prove he is still very much capable to be the Falcons’ backup quarterback. OK, so he didn’t do those things. And sure, it’s probably a bit hyperbolic to state such a thing about two quarters that served as Atlanta’s second preseason game and the first for the Miami Dolphins. Still, the outing was a good one and one that should put his skeptics at ease. Schaub might not be the Pro Bowl player he once was. But during the time he played in Atlanta’s 34-27 loss to Miami, Schaub kept his poise in the pocket, extended plays when he needed to and didn’t force any bad throws. He played the entire first half and completed 12-of-19 passes for 172 yards. While 37 of those yards came on a screen pass to Kenjon Barner, he did hit C.J. Worton downfield for 29 yards and Olamide Zaccheaus for 28. Schaub took a beating from the aforementioned radio waves and social media sites over his showing in the Hall of Fame Game last week. But as football routinely is, it’s a week-to-week ordeal. In one moment, legions of people gang up in anger to wish you nothing but the worst. Seven days later, all is calm again. Schaub has seen it all at this point. He rode the highs as Houston’s starter and felt the lows when his time as the QB1 there came to an end. He still wants to play and be a part of a team. He enjoys playing a vital role in Atlanta as Matt Ryan’s backup. While his critics might hope for someone else to take over his role, Schaub quieted some of that chatter with his game Thursday night. “I love what I’m doing,” Schaub said. “The team believes I can do it. I believe I can still do it. That’s why I’m here. I still love playing this game. I love being around the guys in the locker room and going out and cutting it loose on game day.” There are a few reasons why the Falcons trust Schaub as their backup. If Ryan suffers a short-term injury, the coaches know that Schaub will minimize mistakes at the position during the course of a few games. The moment won’t be overwhelming, considering the 15 years he has spent in the league. Coaches won’t be worried about the offense being in the wrong play based on his football intellect. They also won’t be worried about a quarterback trying to do too much while still figuring out the position at the pro level. With Ryan still in his prime at 34 years old, there’s no reason to draft and develop a quarterback, especially if that young player potentially could wind up on a second contract with Ryan still performing well as Atlanta’s starter. Therefore, the veteran route makes the most sense for this team. By no means was Schaub, nor the first- and second-team offense’s outing perfect. There were some issues that need correcting, most notably when in the red zone. Atlanta was forced to settle for two field goals, one of which came after a sudden-change turnover near the goal line. Still, Schaub and the offense were able to sustain some drives. “We got into a rhythm and got some consistency,” Schaub said. “We still hurt ourselves on some series with some penalties and negative plays. All in all, guys played really hard and executed and did their jobs. We still have a lot we want to clean up and execute better in the red zone going into next week.” Schaub got the start Thursday, with the team opting to sit Ryan as a game-day decision. Ryan originally was slated to get a series or two, but with it raining close to kickoff, and also on a grass field that has been questionable in the past, the Falcons decided to exercise some caution. Very few NFL teams are in a situation where they can turn to a backup quarterback who excites them. Generally, those are bad teams with aging veteran starters who eventually hand the reins to an emerging young quarterback. That’s not the case in Atlanta. Ultimately, the goal will be for Ryan to start every game in 2019. But if needed, Schaub will remain ready. He has also been in this business long enough not to worry about what others think. So did he listen to what was being said or read what was being written? “Not really,” Schaub said with a laugh. “I don’t really have time to listen to the radio — sometimes in the car, but usually it’s the news. Twitter, I’m on it, but I’m on it just to be on it. I don’t check it very often.” From a famous family and trying to establish himself OK, so where did this guy come from? Austin Larkin was an under-the-radar type of signing back at the end of May. He was so under the radar that when he was signed, there was nary a mention about the famous last name he shares with the immediate famous relatives he has. Austin Larkin, the son of former Notre Dame receiver Michael Larkin and the nephew of baseball legend Barry Larkin, has been on a journey to prove he can play with the best. With the Dallas Cowboys last preseason, he tried to put some tape together but ended without an NFL team once the regular season rolled around. Against Miami, Larkin finally made some plays that should pop on his reel. Early in the game, Larkin had two tackles, including one to stall Miami’s opening drive. Later, he recorded his first sack, which came on a nifty spin move off the edge. He ended the game tied for a team-best five tackles. “It was a long time coming,” Larkin said. Out of high school, Larkin walked on at Notre Dame but felt he wasn’t going to see the field any time soon. He transferred to the City College of San Francisco before ending up at Purdue. Undrafted, he spent last preseason with the Cowboys before ending up with the San Antonio Commanders of the defunct Alliance of American Football. In May, he signed with Atlanta. Larkin has always believed in his abilities. Even so, he admitted it’s hard to not get discouraged when teams, both in the college and pro ranks, have looked the other way. He credited his family’s support system, with the great athletes, for keeping him in the right mindset. “Having all those names and having the family background, it makes it feel more attainable,” Larkin said. “It’s not some crazy concept to me. If anybody knows what it takes to get there, it’s them.” Grace’s goal The top defensive highlight for Atlanta came when linebacker Jermaine Grace recorded an interception in the second quarter. Grace said he was reading Josh Rosen’s eyes and saw where the second-year quarterback was going with the football. He jumped the route, picked off the ball and almost ran into the end zone. A former linebacker at the University of Miami, Grace threw up “The U” hand gesture after his turnover. Grace said he had a lot of family in attendance, including his mother, stepfather, aunt and brother. “It was probably one of my best interceptions, besides one in my rookie year, because I’m from Miami, born and raised, went to college here,” Grace said. “I’m back at home, and it was a big interception, being a captain this week. It was a big moment for me.” As a speedy linebacker, Grace said the Falcons want him in the game during nickel situations. Undrafted in 2017, Grace signed with Atlanta, played in five games but was waived that November. After that, he had brief stints with the Indianapolis Colts, Cleveland Browns and Seattle Seahawks before returning to the Falcons’ practice squad late last year. Grace steadily has gotten some reps with the first team at practice on occasion, although Atlanta hasn’t had Deion Jones (foot) participating yet this preseason. Grace is hopeful that when the final exhibition game wraps up, he will have done enough to earn a roster spot and get some time in the defensive rotation. “It’s not just being on the 53-man roster but also to play,” Grace said. “That’s my goal, to be on the football field and be beside (Jones) and all the other guys. That’s my goal this year.” Baldwin earns a start Parker Baldwin just might be someone to watch the next three weeks. Baldwin, an undrafted rookie out of San Diego State, earned a start Thursday night and saw a considerable number of reps. With J.J. Wilcox suffering a season-ending ACL injury on the first day of training camp, a spot to be Keanu Neal’s primary backup opened up. At first, the Falcons moved Kemal Ishmael from linebacker to safety. But against Miami, the Falcons got a closer look at Baldwin, who got the starting nod. “It was definitely a cool experience, getting the start and playing up there,” Baldwin said. “I’m just trying to do my best and show the coaches what I got.” Baldwin said he didn’t have too many interested NFL teams looking at him during the draft process. Atlanta, however, identified Baldwin as a potential add, got in contact with him and stayed in touch. Once the draft was over, Baldwin said it was the right fit to sign with the Falcons, considering the relationships he was able to establish. “They had me out on a visit, I liked the coaching staff and what they had to say,” Baldwin said. “I just felt comfortable. I didn’t want to change it up at the last second with these guys. I felt my best chance is here.” Logjam at running back One of the most interesting developments this preseason is the fact that head coach Dan Quinn might find himself making some tough decisions when it pertains to running back. While Devonta Freeman is obviously the lead back, there are quite a few behind him who are stating a case for rotational time. Ito Smith has the early edge to be Freeman’s backup. But Brian Hill once again had some strong runs against Miami, including a short-yardage touchdown that saw him push through a pile up front. Rookie Qadree Ollison broke off some runs late in the game that included a 15-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. Even undrafted rookie Tony Brooks-James looked quick on an 18-yard gainer. Just how many running backs will Atlanta keep? Generally, a team doesn’t keep more than four, and even then, that seems excessive in today’s NFL. Perhaps some separation will take place during the next three weeks. But for now, it seems like a wide-open race for those two or three running back roster spots behind Freeman.
  21. https://theathletic.com/1120874/2019/08/06/giorgio-tavecchio-ready-for-challenge-that-comes-with-replacing-falcons-legend/ Whenever Giorgio Tavecchio speaks to a relative in his native Italy, he often is explaining what his job entails. After describing American football as a game, he then goes into what he does as a place-kicker. He enters the game for one play, kicks a football and hopes that it makes its way in between two tall yellow uprights for three points (or one point after a touchdown). Given this description, compared with what the vast majority of his other teammates are doing, it sometimes draws a curious response. “Every time I explain it, they’re like, ‘That’s all you do? You go in, kick and then get out of the way? What kind of job is that?’” Tavecchio said with a laugh. While he’s not mixing it up physically on every play, his role for the Falcons is a vital one. In 2018, four of Atlanta’s games were decided by three points or fewer. Eight games were decided by seven points or fewer. Employing a reliable place-kicker is crucial in the NFL. Take for instance the Chicago Bears, who were bounced from the postseason last year on Cody Parkey’s double-doink miss. Knowing you can count on a place-kicker in a critical moment makes a world of difference when it comes to wins and losses. Given the nature of the role, it can also be isolating. Place-kickers aren’t hitting or thudding during practice. They’re off to the side with the other two specialists until asked to come over to kick during special-teams periods. A miss late in a game, with teammates bruised, beaten, bloody and sweating, is especially tough to stomach. But it’s the role Tavecchio has longed for. A training camp place-kicker for most of his career, Tavecchio finally broke through with the Oakland Raiders in 2017. With the Raiders hiring Jon Gruden last year, Tavecchio was cut and available as a free agent for the first half of the 2018 season. When longtime Falcons place-kicker Matt Bryant injured his hamstring during a late-game field goal against Tampa Bay, the Falcons signed Tavecchio, who actually spent a week with the franchise during the preseason. In relief duty, Tavecchio made all five of his field-goal attempts, including a 56-yarder against the New York Giants. His three-game performance, combined with a financial decision the team made in regard to Bryant, helped lead Tavecchio to become Atlanta’s starting place-kicker to enter the 2019 season. Replacing a legend For some who follow the Falcons, it came as a shock that the franchise would part ways with Bryant, especially because it wasn’t like his play was suffering on the field. In fact, Bryant made 20 of 21 field-goal attempts last season, with a long of 57 yards — which also happened to be the kick on which he suffered the injured hamstring. During his 10 years with the Falcons, Bryant made 88.7 percent of his field goals and was almost automatic in late-game situations. Not too often do place-kickers become fan favorites for an NFL franchise. It seems that more often than not, they can draw the ire of an entire city. Again, see: Cody Parkey, Chicago Bears. Bryant, however, was most certainly a fan favorite in Atlanta. At Mercedes-Benz Stadium on game days, it wasn’t uncommon to see someone sporting a Bryant jersey. When the Falcons parted ways with Bryant this offseason, it felt like the end of an era. Replacing a legend is never easy. There always seems to be an even higher standard for the heir apparent to live up to. Tavecchio is well aware of what Bryant meant to the Falcons and the city of Atlanta. “There is a standard here within the Falcons organization, and that’s to do your best and be excellent at what you do,” he said. “I respect Matt’s career, not just what he’s done here, but his career. As I’ve said in times past, I think he’s one of the most clutch kickers, if not the most clutch kicker in NFL history. Getting to spend time with him a little bit, getting to know him — hopefully, I didn’t bother him too much. But I’m here to do my best. There’s nothing more I can do, nothing more I can give than that.” The first sign that Tavecchio might replace Bryant came when the Falcons elected to keep him on the 53-man roster after his three-game stint filling in for Bryant. Teams don’t keep two place-kickers unless there’s an underlying reason. For the Falcons, it was ensuring that Tavecchio didn’t hit waivers and wind up elsewhere. After going 5-of-5 kicking in three games, it would have been tough to imagine Tavecchio remaining a free agent if he was placed on waivers. “Obviously, it was a good sign that they kept me around,” Tavecchio said. “And I’m thankful the few times I got to get some action I was able to come through for the team. But honestly, as a kicker, I live day to day. Every day is my first day and my last day. I’m very joyful but also very grateful. That’s how I try to approach every moment.” Getting to spend time on a 53-man roster with Bryant proved to be a valuable learning experience. Much like he did in the past when he was around Mason Crosby, Sebastian Janikowski and David Akers, Tavecchio tried to get a good sense of what made Bryant one of the best in the game. The great place-kickers tend to produce in big moments under intense pressure. Bryant was certainly one of the best in the business in that department. “All those guys seem to have that switch to where when they step between those white lines, they’re able to find their best,” Tavecchio said. “That’s something I’ve really respected and admired about (Bryant). I hope to keep growing in that space, as well.” From Bryant to Tavecchio Up to this point, Josh Harris spent the entirety of his NFL career snapping for Bryant. The two became close friends to the point that their kids became friends with one another. Harris is forever grateful to play with Bryant and to have shared some of those magical game-winning moments with him. Of course, the NFL is also a game of dollars and cents. By releasing Bryant, the Falcons saved $2.8 million in salary-cap space. Needing help primarily on the offensive line this offseason, letting go of Bryant was a sacrifice the team felt it needed to make. Harris hated to see Bryant go. But if there was anyone to have prepared him for that moment, it was the veteran place-kicker himself. “It was tough at first, but one of the many things I learned from him was that, at the end of the day, this is a business,” Harris said. “Matt understands that; I understand that. It’s a tough part of it. I’m sad to see him go but he may land somewhere at some point as the season progresses. I’m just very thankful and fortunate for the time I had to learn under Matt.” With that being said, Harris noted the transition to Tavecchio has been smooth. It certainly helped that Harris, along with Matt Bosher, the team’s punter and holder, got some experience with Tavecchio last year in training camp and for three games in the regular season. The biggest difference is that Tavecchio is a left-footed place-kicker while Bryant is right-footed. For Harris, that has meant snapping at a slightly different target, and Bosher had to flip his part of the operation completely. Some holders aren’t equipped to do that, but Bosher hasn’t had any problems with it. Doing his part, Tavecchio has been meticulous with his regular routine. Prior to the start of practice, Tavecchio will go through each little detail of his approach, as mundane as it might seem from afar. “I really think it boils down to his work ethic. He works hard,” Harris said. “If there’s anything he needs to work on, he makes it a point that day in practice, that it’s what we’re going to do. If something isn’t right, we’re going to do it again. He’s really good at knowing what he needs to be ready. He’s been around long enough to know what works for him and what he needs.” Tavecchio getting this job has been a long time in the making. Never knowing if he would get a shot at times, Tavecchio made sure to stay ready by getting his reps in, even when he wasn’t with a team. That’s a trait special teams coordinator Ben Kotwica has admired about him. “I think the thing I respect about him is he’s been through the grinder — this is a player that came out of college, and he’s gone through multiple camps, offseason camps,” Kotwica said. “I think that helps in his experience and his database. I’ve been impressed by what I’ve seen on tape.” Not complacent It doesn’t take long for an NFL team to turn on a place-kicker. If a place-kicker misses a couple of field-goal attempts, teams generally aren’t afraid to cut bait and turn elsewhere. That’s why Tavecchio isn’t taking his situation — even if it involves having the greatest job security he has had during his career — lightly. It’s a part of his psyche not to dwell on the surroundings. He said he draws his motivation internally. Much of his journey to date has been to keep his mind focused solely on the present. Asked how he’s able to place so much of the focus on himself, without taking a peek at what’s going on or being said on the outside, Tavecchio let out a soft chuckle. “Maybe it’s a little egocentrism,” he said. “I think as a kicker, that’s just our life. You’re a part of the team but you’re also a little separate. You have this very specific role that requires great focus and precision. Over the years you learn to focus on the things you can control, which aren’t too many things, which is where the attention and focus home in on.” Following a red-eye flight and arriving at the team facility in Flowery Branch last year, Tavecchio walked into the cafeteria and found what he described as an inviting environment, with players eating together and smiling with one another. In that moment, he hoped to remain with the club for some time. After what ended up being a midseason tryout turned successful, Tavecchio is just that — a key member of the 2019 Atlanta Falcons. It took Tavecchio eight years to finally stand comfortably as a team’s only place-kicker for an entire offseason and preseason. Tavecchio, however, is anything but comfortable with where he is. Given the fluid nature of the NFL, he knows he can just as easily lose this job if he isn’t striving for improvement on a daily basis. “If I stay content, sit back and don’t continue to push myself, well, that’s not what this team deserves,” Tavecchio said. “That’s not what we preach here. That’s not the standard. I challenge myself every day. I think a lot of times as a specialist, your standard is so high that you’re never satisfied. You’re always wanting to do better. You make a kick but you want to hit even farther, even higher, even straighter.”
  22. https://theathletic.com/1118254/2019/08/05/a-closer-look-at-the-falcons-ongoing-position-battles/ As it pertains to starters, the Falcons haven’t been engaged in too many position battles this offseason. Two spots are up for grabs on the offensive line, and there’s still a competition brewing at both kickoff and punt returner. Otherwise, the starting lineup appears set. Still, there are some depth spots up for grabs when it comes to being involved in the Falcons’ rotation, specifically on offense. With one preseason game in the books, here is a closer look at where these primary position battles stand. Offensive line: Left guard and right tackle A couple of days before the Hall of Fame Game, there were two major position battles up front. Suddenly, those two positions are now dealing with an injury and a medical issue. At left guard, James Carpenter and Jamon Brown have been battling it out, practically in a 50-50 split with the first team. Reps mostly have been divvied up, with Carpenter spending a full practice with the first group and Brown following suit the next day. Head coach Dan Quinn previously mentioned there hadn’t been much separation between Carpenter and Brown, which perhaps suggests that preseason games might factor into a final decision. Well, now, this battle was thrown a curveball with Carpenter injuring his hip flexor in the early going of practice Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Carpenter was forced to leave the field and didn’t return. Carpenter didn’t practice Monday, with Quinn noting the veteran guard will undergo an MRI. “It has been a pretty close call, and that’s why we were rotating the guys through,” Quinn said. “I thought Jamon had his best practice (Sunday) — his movement and quickness. We moved him over from the right side, and he looked like he finally became comfortable. … I felt the urgency. I saw the strength in pass protection. It was the best I thought he’s looked at left guard.” At right tackle, Ty Sambrailo has taken the vast majority of first-team reps during the preseason. But in the week leading up to the Hall of Fame Game, Quinn mentioned that rookie first-rounder Kaleb McGary had been pushing the veteran lineman for the spot. For McGary to break through and take the starting job for the opener, the coaches certainly would like to see him in live action. But the Tuesday before the preseason opener, McGary had an episode related to his atrial fibrillation, which resulted in a cardiac ablation procedure. Therefore, McGary could miss some time at the start of the regular season as the standard recovery period following a cardiac ablation is eight weeks, although it is possible to return in half that time — or even less. For now, Sambrailo will continue to be Atlanta’s starting right tackle. When McGary is cleared to play again, the competition will resume. “As far as competition, it’s still fully underway,” Quinn said. “When Kaleb does get back, we’ll have a better understanding of what that will look like.” Early edge: Brown and Sambrailo. Backup running back Devonta Freeman is being paid like a top-flight workhorse. Therefore, it can be expected for Freeman to receive the bulk of the first-team carries. Quinn has gone as far to say that Freeman is the top back on the roster with everyone jockeying for position behind him. Therefore, it would be a surprise to see the kind of timeshare Freeman and Tevin Coleman, now with the San Francisco 49ers, were a part of in previous seasons. While Freeman will be Atlanta’s lead back, two backups have emerged for the No. 2 spot. Well, one was already there in Ito Smith. Smith was Atlanta’s fourth-round selection in the 2018 NFL Draft and got some great experience with Freeman missing 14 of 16 games a season ago. But 2017 fifth-rounder Brian Hill is staking his case for the role, too. Hill was the lone running back to shine Thursday in the Hall of Fame Game. He followed it up with a standout practice in front of the fans Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Hill has run with power and a purpose this preseason. Maybe it has been to prove a point since the Falcons selected Qadree Ollison in the draft this year, but Hill could be making Atlanta’s roster decisions difficult. If Hill continues at this pace, perhaps the Falcons are forced to keep four — or even five? — running backs on the initial 53-man roster. And if Hill continues playing like this, perhaps he gives Smith a true push for the spot. Quinn repeatedly has said the backup running spot is wide open, even if Smith would appear to be the favorite. The next three of the final four preseason games probably will have a big impact as for whether Hill can leapfrog Smith. Early edge: Smith. Kickoff and punt returner The Falcons gave sixth-round selection Marcus Green every opportunity to stake his claim for being the team’s kickoff and punt returner. Perhaps nerves got the best of him as he muffed a punt and wasn’t able to break any big returns against Denver. He also injured his hamstring and missed practices Sunday and Monday. In addition, undrafted rookie Olamide Zaccheaus had a rough day, muffing a punt of his own. That means the favorite for the job remains Kenjon Barner. While Barner has been slotted fourth at running back in practice, he has the most experience as a returner on the roster. While Green was a standout returner at Louisiana-Monroe, he needs to prove he can do it in the NFL before supplanting Barner. While the veteran Barner didn’t return any kicks or punts in the Hall of Fame Game, he’ll remain the favorite until someone else emerges to challenge him. “I wanted to say, ‘Just because one guy didn’t play — Kenjon — don’t just give him the thing,’” Quinn said. “Let’s compete for it. To have two balls on the ground in the game, that, to me, shows we’ve got work to do in that spot. But by no means is anything settled. We’ll continue to play a number of returners over the next four weeks and we’ll go from there. To have two on the ground, not a good start.” Quinn clearly wants this to be a competition. He probably wants Green to prove he can handle the role sooner rather than later. But if no one stands out, the Falcons more than likely would open the year with Barner in this role. Early edge: Barner. Depth receivers Everyone knows what Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Calvin Ridley can do by now. These three make up arguably the best receiver trio in the NFL. Behind them, however, is where some competition is emerging. Thus far, Russell Gage might be winning an internal award for most improved receiver. Earning his keep as a special teamer early, Gage has flashed his speed and toughness all offseason, to the point where it would seem his roster spot is safe. From there, it would appear there are four receivers vying for two spots. The Falcons know what they have in Hardy, who after spending the past four years with the franchise, was brought back on a one-year contract. Hardy seemingly would have a leg up over everyone else, although he doesn’t enjoy much job security with only a one-year deal. While Zaccheaus struggled as a punt returner in the first preseason game, he has shown that he can be a quality receiver option. He caught two passes for 31 yards against Denver and has come down with contested catches quite a bit in practice. Christian Blake led Atlanta in receiving Thursday with five catches for 46 yards. He has stood out all offseason, even drawing some praise from safety Ricardo Allen before training camp opened “Blake did really good to me. He was killin’ it,” Allen said. “He was putting in some good work. I like to watch him. I’m excited to see him keep rolling. … Seeing him in his transition, he’s trying to take a step in that wide receiver room.” Devin Gray is another receiver to keep an eye on. While he only had one catch for 4 yards against the Broncos, Gray spent the 2018 season with the practice squad and has stood out at times at practice. And then there’s Green, the aforementioned sixth-round pick who has been getting a close look at returner. Green saw nine offensive plays in the Hall of Fame Game but was only targeted once. He’s an interesting possibility in the slot and should see some time there if his hamstring can recover in a timely manner. Early edge: Gage, Hardy, Blake.
  23. https://theathletic.com/1113273/2019/08/02/falcons-takk-mckinley-believes-his-confidence-has-returned/ For the first time as a professional football player, Takk McKinley didn’t have to go under the knife during an offseason. Before his rookie and second seasons, McKinley underwent shoulder procedures, which relegated him to rehab work while his teammates went through offseason workouts and practices. As a rookie, he didn’t feel it affected him too much on the field. During his second season, it proved to be a big reason why he didn’t have the kind of year he expected of himself. McKinley said that while he rehabbed last offseason, his weight got out of control. A typical day involved rehab, eating and sleeping. And by the time the 2018 season started, he wasn’t at a comfortable playing weight. McKinley went into this offseason wanting better for himself. He’s back in shape, with a lot of it having to do with better eating habits — a quirky tip from a former teammate came in handy — and being able to participate in every offseason workout. McKinley spoke with The Athletic about his expectations and what he did to overcome his 2018 setbacks. How would you describe your offseason so far? It’s been going pretty good. I lost some weight from last year to this year. I got my confidence back. What happened to your confidence? What would you say happened with it and how did you get it back? The weight — I was at 273 (pounds) my second year. My first year I was about 250, so I put on a lot of weight. I’m back down to 258. It’s just one of those things when you’re a professional, you have to take care of your body. I kind of lost control of that a little bit. How did you get it back under control? What did you do get back down to a good weight? It’s more mental. It’s knowing the right things to eat. Physical as well, but it’s more mental than anything when it comes to eating habits. I cut a lot of junk food out, fast food out. I’m eating spinach now, stuff like that. That’s funny, Julio (Jones) said when he came into the league, Tony Gonzalez taught him not to eat red meat and pork. Were there any other foods you cut out? It was really more the fast food. One of my teammates from last year, Derrick Shelby, told me (animals with) the less legs are better for you. Chicken have two. Fish have none. It’s funny, I took that route. Cows have four, so I stayed away from them. You had a tweet where you said if you don’t have 10 sacks, you would cut your dreads. Is that something you’re going to stick to if that doesn’t happen? Yeah. I wasn’t really too pleased with how my season went in my second year, especially coming off of a strong rookie year — at least I thought it was strong. I got a lot of expectations for myself. I just didn’t meet them. I care about my dreads a lot, so if I want them, I better get double digits. How long did it take you to grow them out? I’m on my fourth year. It’s been a journey. With (Dan Quinn) going hands-on with the defense, especially with the defensive line, how has that helped you so far? It’s been amazing. DQ worked with some of the best in the game, dating back to Jason Taylor at Miami. He’s a head coach but he’s a D-line guy. To spend time with him every day, learning tricks, it’s becoming an every-down player — not just a pass-rusher. It’s been dope. What do you think the biggest improvement that we’ll see with the defense will be this year? I’m not really trying to make any excuses, but injuries did kind of hurt us last year. Next man up, but at the same time, when you lose two Pro Bowlers, a starting safety, it’s kind of hard to overcome that. At the same time, it’s the next man up. Now that everybody is healthy, I feel we can be the defense we were a couple of years ago in my rookie year. How tough is that mentally to go through such a thing with those injuries, considering in your rookie year, you all didn’t have that kind of run of injuries? It was kind of weird to be real with you because we were going against teams that were injured, and we were healthy. We went to the playoffs healthy. To not see (Deion Jones) out there, to not see (Keanu Neal) out there, (Ricardo Allen), it was weird. But at the same time, next man up. It’s as simple as that. Another thing for you personally, what’s it like coming into this year not having to go through an offseason surgery? Oh, thank God. That also, now I’m not making excuses, but that kind of contributed to gaining weight. Once you get surgery, you just rehab, eat and sleep. I wasn’t eating good. But I was able to get my weight down in my first offseason (without surgery). It’s a little weird, but it’s cool. Normal for me since I’ve been in the league is to rehab in the summer. It was kind of intriguing trying to figure out the time schedule and stuff like that. Entering Year 3, do you feel kind of like a mentor or a vet yet? Man, I don’t have to pick up donuts no more. I don’t have to do no more rookie dinners. I tell the rookies, “Go get snacks,” and they do it. It’s a little weird; we have some undrafted guys and some young guys ask me questions and stuff like that. I try to give them the best advice I can from my experience. Besides the double-digit sacks, what else do you want to prove this year? I just want to win, to be honest with you. I had seven sacks last year, but if we would have won a Super Bowl, I couldn’t give a **** about the seven sacks. If I get double digits this coming up year, and we don’t win a Super Bowl, it’s like, “OK, cool, I met my goal, but the overall team goal. I just want to win.” It’s as simple as that.
  24. https://theathletic.com/1112643/2019/08/02/inside-falcons-rookie-kaleb-mcgarys-heart-procedure-chris-lindstrom-john-cominsky-turn-heads-in-debuts/ CANTON, Ohio — It’s a procedure that, to the layperson, sounds worse than it is. Cardiac ablation. Any time the word cardiac is used in relation to a human being, it tends to be serious. Ablation isn’t exactly a word that gives the fuzzies, either. During practice Tuesday, first-round draft pick Kaleb McGary felt ill and needed to leave the field. As it has happened before, McGary’s heart started racing due to atrial fibrillation, a condition in which the heart essentially short circuits and begins to beat irregularly. A day after the episode, the Falcons said McGary would undergo a third cardiac ablation procedure. After a 14-10 loss to the Denver Broncos at the Hall of Fame Game on Thursday, head coach Dan Quinn provided an update on McGary. “The doctors were certainly happy with the procedure, and we’ll have more updates as we go along,” Quinn said. “The first part of it is they were happy. Now, we’ll go through the same markers, when he goes back to the doc, on when his return to play can be.” While it might have seemed like a scary episode, it doesn’t appear the Falcons’ organization is too concerned about the long-term well-being of McGary, whom they traded up to draft. Quinn was asked if it was a scenario he knew could possibly occur, simply based on McGary’s medical history. Quinn said the Falcons researched McGary’s background, which included medical clearance at the NFL scouting combine. Prior to drafting McGary, there wasn’t any worry from the team. “That’s the stuff that you trust,” Quinn said. “He went through numbers of tests, not just at the combine. When you have those reports, you tend to trust the way they’re going. It’s unfortunate, but the good news is he’s going to come back. That’s the thing that’s most important. When that is, it’ll be as soon as he can, I know that.” Dr. Shephal Doshi, who is the director of cardiac electrophysiology and pacing at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., said it typically takes eight weeks to resume contact sports after undergoing a cardiac ablation. A cardiac ablation, which Doshi emphasized is not a surgery, is minimally invasive and doesn’t require any cutting of the skin. A catheter is inserted into a vein in the groin, and a wire is then run up to the heart. From there, the heart tissue creating faulty electrical signals is burned so the heart does not short circuit. Doshi said that while atrial fibrillation might seem serious, it is by no means life-threatening. The number of cardiac ablations a patient undergoes isn’t a concern, either. Sometimes, a doctor might think he or she fixed the faulty heart tissue, only for an irregular heartbeat to occur again. It’s simply a matter of going through another ablation to fix the problem. “He can have it three times, four times, five times,” Doshi said. “You just have to find the right spot. With this procedure, you don’t know if it works until he has an episode.” The procedure itself might cause some chest soreness that doesn’t last long. The reason a patient might wait up to eight weeks to resume contact sports is that blood-thinning medication must be taken afterward. With the procedure creating a burn in the heart, there is a risk for clotting without a blood thinner. And if a football player is on blood-thinning medication and takes a violent hit on the football field, the risk of internal bleeding greatly increases. On top of that, if a clot forms in the heart, it can travel to the brain and result in a stroke. “You can’t do the procedure without starting a blood thinner afterward,” Doshi said. “The active burning in the heart will cause blood clots in the heart. You have to be able to take the blood thinners after to get the procedure.” Doshi said there is a chance to avoid an eight-week timetable if it is determined there were very few problem areas to burn off. In this hypothetical scenario, it could cut the recovery period to four weeks. In fact, Boston Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy had an ablation in 2018 and missed only two weeks. “Let’s say they go in there, and they find only one or two little spots. They may say he doesn’t need the full eight weeks because they didn’t have to do a full rewiring,” Doshi said. “It was just one or two little spots. It may just be four weeks. There’s potential depending on what they find that he may not be out for eight weeks. But generally speaking, most patients will be on blood thinners for two to three months.” While McGary will miss immediate time, there is no concern for his future. At the same time, the ablation doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t have another episode related to his atrial fibrillation. If it occurs again, he’ll have the same procedure done, with the same recovery, before being cleared to return to football. McGary will be a big part of Atlanta’s plans moving forward. Before practice Tuesday, Quinn mentioned that McGary was beginning to push Ty Sambrailo at right tackle. While there was never a guarantee McGary would open the year as the Falcons’ starting right tackle, he was drafted in the first round to be a key lineman in the foreseeable future. Lindstrom shines Just about every Atlanta starter sat out the Hall of Fame Game. One exception was rookie right guard Chris Lindstrom, who started and played the entire first quarter. Clearly, Quinn wanted to get Lindstrom some early game experience, even if he can be penciled in as a starter this year. Lindstrom showed why the Falcons took him 14th overall. On one play, he assisted a double team and shoved Broncos defensive end DeMarcus Walker to the ground. Lindstrom then moved swiftly back to his left and pushed linebacker Joe Jones to the turf, finishing the block by preventing him from getting up. “Every play I was trying to go as hard as I can, and just compete with toughness,” Lindstrom said. “I was trying to come off the ball, and it worked out great on that play. I’m trying to get more consistent with that and the more I can get out of that, the better.” Hometown hero For rookie defensive lineman John Cominsky, recording his first sack in the Hall of Fame Game was extra special. Cominsky grew up in Barberton, Ohio, which is only a 10-minute drive from Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. And at the 4:57 mark of the second quarter, Cominsky brought down Broncos quarterback Drew Lock in the backfield. Cominsky passionately celebrated the play, which seemed to excite many of his teammates on the field. “I was working a bull-rush move, and I was just working my guard back as hard as I could,” Cominsky said. “The rest of the D-line did a good job caging the quarterback, and he fell right to me. It was electric. My body heated up like 300 degrees, and I was super pumped to get off the field.” Cominsky had a sizable cheering section in attendance. He estimated somewhere between 50 and 75 family members and friends were able to get tickets and passes to the game. Sitting below the press box were a bunch of them, with most wearing No. 50 Falcons jerseys bearing his name. Cominsky said he could hear his name called throughout the stadium. “It was extra special for me because this is my hometown,” Cominsky said. “I grew up 10 minutes from here. I heard ‘Cominsky’ yelled all over the stands. People I didn’t expect, people all over Barberton who are friends and family showed up. So it was extra special for my first NFL game to be in my backyard.” The fourth-round draft pick played defensive end in the base package and defensive tackle in pass-rush sets. Quinn was pleased with how Cominsky performed and said the plan will be to play him a lot in the remaining four exhibition games. “We’re developing John,” Quinn said. “How fast we can do that, there’s a lot to experience. He played a lot tonight and that’ll be the plan moving forward.” Schaub returns The plan was for Matt Schaub to play two series before ceding the rest of the game to second-year quarterback Kurt Benkert. Early in the fourth quarter, however, Benkert went down with a toe injury and was unable to return. Schaub was asked to go back in, considering he was the only quarterback remaining who could play. He wasn’t able to move the ball much behind Atlanta’s third-team offensive line. And after Denver took a late 14-10 lead, Schaub’s final drive stalled. Still, Quinn said it was good experience for the veteran, considering that kind of situation could present itself in the regular season. “You never like to have the backup go in,” Quinn said. “But that’s the exact scenario that would take place. You’re not ready, and then all of a sudden, you have to go. It’s not like you start the game, or you know you’re going in the second series. It’s not ideal at all. But those are the things that happen.” Schaub finished the game only 4-of-14 attempts for 10 yards and an interception. Hit of the night Del’Shawn Phillips proved he can hit a ballcarrier with a great deal of force. Phillips, who finished with three tackles, made his presence felt at the 13:40 mark of the fourth quarter on a fourth-and-1 play for the Broncos. Phillips ran through an open hole untouched and crushed Denver running back Devontae Jackson for a 4-yard loss. By blowing up the play, Phillips was able to give the ball back to the Falcons’ offense. Those are the types of plays that certainly will draw the coaches’ attention in the film room.
  25. https://theathletic.com/1106182/2019/07/30/allen-bailey-tyeler-davison-chose-falcons-in-free-agency-for-similar-reasons/ About a month-and-a-half lapsed between Allen Bailey’s visit and signing with the Falcons. In the end, Bailey said the wait was worth it. After he was brought in to meet with the Falcons in early June, time seemed to move rather slowly before a contract offer could be extended. Atlanta clearly was interested in bringing in the veteran defensive lineman, who recorded a career-best six sacks with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2018. It was just a matter of freeing up the necessary salary cap space to do so. By getting new contracts for Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones completed before the beginning of training camp, the Falcons were able to make room for Bailey, the south Georgia native who bided his time for the opportunity. Playing the waiting game wasn’t an issue, Bailey said. As it turned out, Bailey wanted to play for the Falcons all along. “I’m patient so there was no problem waiting,” he said. This is the first time in Bailey’s career that he will play for a new team. He spent the past eight seasons with Kansas City, which included playing six years under the team’s former defensive coordinator Bob Sutton. Sutton is now a defensive assistant with the Falcons, which should ease Bailey’s transition into Atlanta’s defense. During the free-agent process, Sutton told Bailey to visit the Falcons’ facility so he could experience the organization first-hand before finalizing a decision. “He gave me insight of the environment and how different it was, how much fun it was and how I would succeed in the defense here,” Bailey said. As Bailey waited to finalize his next destination, Quinn acted like a college coach to recruit him to Atlanta. Quinn said he texted Bailey a lot, with Bailey saying it was important to him that Quinn thought so highly of him. In the end, however, Quinn had no idea if his efforts to land Bailey would pay off. All he could do was hope. “There were some people that were in line of who we would potentially sign first,” Quinn said. “‘Hang in there, buddy. Hang in there,’ (Quinn told Bailey). I’m really glad that he wanted to be a part of this because we really wanted him to be here.” Before he signed with Atlanta, at least one other team was in competition to land Bailey. He also took visits to New England, Seattle and Carolina during the offseason. Ultimately, Bailey said the Falcons’ culture was a reason why he chose them. The same can be said about defensive tackle Tyeler Davison, who spent his first four years with the New Orleans Saints. As Davison entered free agency, he looked around for the best fit scheme-wise and for what he thought would be a good work environment. What he determined during his initial trip to Flowery Branch was that the Falcons were more personable than some of the other franchises he visited. Davison spoke with Falcons teammates Taveze Calhoun and Justin Zimmer, with whom he played in New Orleans, about playing in Atlanta. “Everybody, from the coaches, assistant coaches to the people in the lunchroom, to the people in charge of logistics — everybody seems like they have that same mindset, that we’re all in this together, that we’re all trying to raise each other up and go after that goal together,” Davison said. “We all need one another to get there.” When it comes to acquiring free agents, Quinn said he wants the locker-room culture, in addition to a player’s on-field role, to be a selling point. “They were looking for a certain environment to enjoy the team, and we would try to feature them in the ways of the strengths that they had,” Quinn said. “When I had both those guys in, I made tapes of their plays and our plays and how we’d intersect those two. So that the things they do well, they’re going to do here.” After struggling against the run in 2018, Atlanta will depend on both Bailey and Davison to shore up that area. The Falcons know Davison really well as a player, considering they went against him twice per season during the past four seasons in the NFC South. The team also scouted him extensively when he was in college at Fresno State. Bailey can play defensive end and defensive tackle and has a versatile skill set to both stop the run and get after the passer. Both defensive linemen are eager to show that their additions should improve the overall unit. “I feel like we have a really good D-line,” Davison said. “We’ve got a really good group of inside players. I feel like I fit right in there, especially in that role to help stop the run. I feel like it’s a good fit.” Quinn and Neal’s call to help Neiron Ball During a defensive meeting Monday, Quinn asked his players to name the best teammate they ever played with. Names from high school, college and even the current Falcons roster were tossed around. Speaking to reporters a day later, and remembering that conversation, Quinn recalled one player who fit that mold from when he was a defensive coordinator at Florida. That would be Neiron Ball, an outside linebacker who was selected by the Oakland Raiders in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Quinn overlapped with Ball during the 2011 and 2012 seasons at Florida and got to know him on a personal level. Ball’s playing career was cut short, however, due to the congenital disease arteriovenous malformation, which initially was diagnosed when he was still in college. This disease is an abnormal connection between arteries and veins in the brain, which can then cause the blood vessels in the brain to rupture. In 2017, Ball was waived with a non-football injury designation from the Raiders due to this medical condition. A year later, he was placed in a medically-induced coma and is now a quadriplegic. Ball’s family started a GoFundMe page to raise money for his healthcare since, according to the family, his insurance “does not cover the appropriate care necessary to give him the best chance of recovery.” As of Tuesday afternoon, Ball’s family has been able to raise over $80,000. Quinn issued another call for people to help Ball with his medical needs so that he will have a fighting chance at survival. “If you asked the guys on (Ball’s) team when he was playing who the best teammate you ever played with, I would imagine **** near half the team would have listed him,” Quinn said. “He’s in a tough space. I would certainly encourage all of us to look up his story online. He’s a guy who is really worthy of our help.” Ball grew up in Jackson, which is about 50 miles south of Atlanta, before playing at Florida. With the Gators, Ball competed alongside Falcons safety Keanu Neal, who remembered him fondly as a teammate. Neal remembered Ball’s arteriovenous malformation diagnosis at Florida and how serious it seemed then. But then he became more informed about how dire the situation as recently become. Neal said it was “heartbreaking” to see this happen to him. “Aside from the game, aside from sports, there’s a person on the other side,” Neal said. “Being cognizant of that, knowing who he is as a person and what he stood for — him going through this hurts. It gives me courage because I know he’s a fighter, and I know he’s fighting through it.”