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  2. There haven’t been many bright spots so far for the 1-3 Atlanta Falcons, but tight end Austin Hooper qualifies. Hooper, now in his fourth season, continues to evolve as a top pass-catching threat. Through four games, he leads the Falcons with 28 receptions, which ranks fifth-most among all pass-catchers in the league. Hooper has been targeted 33 times and has 307 receiving yards, two touchdowns, 14 first downs and 131 yards after the catch. Although the attention given to wide receivers Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley opens up underneath opportunities for Hooper, it doesn’t diminish how great a weapon he's been for Matt Ryan. "I think Austin has played really well for us," Ryan said. "He’s been very consistent in the pass game. He’s very reliable. When we target him, he’s coming down and making plays with the ball. We’re happy with what he’s done, and I expect that to be the case all year, with the talented guys we have around." Hooper’s play hasn’t gone unnoticed by the front office, which is why general manager Thomas Dimitroff said signing the 2016 third-round draft pick to an extension is a priority. Austin is one of the next important players in line," Dimitroff told ESPN. "That said, however, we are not sure of the timetable." The Falcons have already rewarded extensions to wide receiver Julio Jones, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and linebacker Deion Jones this year. The highest-paid tight end by average per year is veteran Jimmy Graham of Green Bay at $10 million per year. Three players average $9 million-plus per season: Jordan Reed of the Redskins ($9.35 million), Travis Kelce of the Chiefs ($9.195 million), and Kyle Rudolph of the Vikings ($9 million), with Zach Ertz of the Eagles right behind ($8.5 million). Taking into consideration that Hooper is 24 and has outgained Graham, Reed and Rudolph over the past two seasons, it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Falcons make Hooper the highest-paid tight end now, before a significant jump in the market, with the possible extensions of the 49ers' George Kittle and Giants' Evan Engram coming after the 2019 season. Hooper, a one-time Pro Bowler in the final year of his rookie deal, isn’t focused on a contract extension. "It’s definitely an honor to even be having this conversation, that something could possibly happen, but I’m not really worried about it," Hooper said. "I’m in the middle of the season, doing my job. All that stuff will sort itself out over time. I’m just concerned about trying to help us win games. Right now, we need to step it up -- everyone, myself included." If the Falcons are going to turn things around, Hooper is expected to be a significant part of it from an offensive perspective. It certainly helps that he’s put in extra work to establish chemistry with Ryan. Connecting with Ryan Sometimes the trip from his home in the Bay Area to Southern California would take six hours, but Hooper never thought twice about it. He’d jump in his Mercedes at the last minute and make the drive, if that’s what Ryan wanted him to do. He catered to his quarterback’s offseason schedule knowing how much he would benefit in the long run. Hooper started having the one-on-one throwing sessions with Ryan in Southern California during the 2017 season, as Ryan worked with Tom House and Adam Dedeaux of 3DQB training. Those workouts intensified his past offseason, when Hooper and Ryan got together there on three separate occasions. "What has gotten me better? I’d probably say it was time I’ve spent with Matt," Hooper said. "You spend 1,000 reps working on the same thing. So, Matt and I are on the same page. I feel like that’s the biggest difference with me now. Like, I didn’t drop 3/10 off my 40 time this past offseason or anything like that." While working with Ryan, Hooper stayed at his younger brother’s apartment on the campus of UCLA. Justin Hooper, a 6-foot-8, 238-pound pitcher, was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the 14th round, so his apartment was vacant for the summer. But despite having a place to lay his head, Austin Hooper still bounced between Northern and Southern Cali. Back at home in San Ramon, he worked with the same speed-and-strength coach he’s had since he was 12 years old: Dave Spitz of California Strength. Spitz is the senior international coach for USA weightlifting. "Just working on his athleticism," Spitz said. "He came out [of college at Stanford] so young, he was only 21 years old. We’ve just every offseason tried to improve as an athlete. I think you’re seeing the pinnacle of that expression on the football field now. He’s as good of an athlete as he’s ever been." Striving for perfection While reflecting on last week’s 24-10 loss to the Titans, Hooper didn’t mention catching nine passes for a career-high 130 yards. He didn’t reflect on his 28-yard reception in the first quarter that helped set up running back Ito Smith's touchdown. Instead, Hooper talked about a late first-quarter throw from Ryan that he didn’t come up with, a throw that seemed to be a bit behind him. I dropped a ball I definitely thought I could have had," said Hooper, who wasn’t credited with a drop on the official stat sheet. "That changed the game. And my holding penalty ruined a drive. It’s just one thing here and there. "Offensively, we just have to execute at a higher level. I’m definitely guilty of not doing that, at times. That’s why I’m challenging myself to be better. I’ve made tougher catches before. Every ball that’s thrown to me, I should catch." Hooper also has make a concerted effort to improve his blocking, something that wasn't his strength coming into the league. Focusing on self-improvement is why Hooper has gained the respect of his teammates and coaches alike. "I think Hoop has done a really good job of being where he’s supposed to be, catching the football, and running after the catch," offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. "Getting vertical and getting those tough, extra yards and splitting two defenders after contact, I think he’s done a really good job." Hooper isn’t content with being good. He strives to be elite. "Honestly, I don’t really concern myself with comparisons," Hooper said. “I just try to be a better version of myself, and let other people talk about [comparisons]. I feel like I’m competing against myself. I feel like if I continue to compete against myself, I’ll continue to develop. I’m not concerned with tight end rankings. I want to be the best version of myself to help us win games."
  3. The Atlanta Falcons, in need of safety help, traded linebacker Duke Riley and a 2020 sixth-round draft pick to the Philadelphia Eagles for safety Johnathan Cyprien and a '20 seventh-round draft pick, the teams announced Monday. Cyprien, 29, has started 70 career games in six seasons, including four years as a starting strong safety in Jacksonville, where the Jaguars run a scheme similar to that of the Falcons. The 6-foot-1, 211-pound Cyprien is known more as an in-the-box safety but has been a liability in coverage. The Falcons lost their in-the-box safety when strong safety Keanu Neal suffered a season-ending left Achilles tear against Indianapolis. Neal had surgery last Thursday and is expected to make a full recovery. However, the 1-3 Falcons need another body capable of contributing immediately, particularly with tackling. Coach Dan Quinn said after Neal's injury he would explore all options at strong safety. The Falcons brought in veterans T.J. McDonald and George IIoka for workouts without signing either of them. Then the team elevated strong safety Jamal Carter from the practice squad. In Sunday's 24-10 loss to the Tennessee Titans, Quinn experimented with different looks, including playing nickelback Damontae Kazee at free safety some alongside Ricardo Allen, who moved from free safety to strong. The trade would indicate plans to utilize Cyprien in the defense, although Cyprien's role with the Eagles had been limited to 15 total snaps. He was thrust into action last week against Green Bay due to injury. Cyprien also played special teams for the Eagles. Cyprien played some linebacker with the Jaguars and started 10 games with the Titans at strong safety in 2017. Cyprien tore his ACL before the 2018 season while with the Titans. As for Riley, the former 2017 third-round draft pick could not carve out a role on defense after starting 10 games in 2018. He appeared to be on the roster bubble coming into this season but made a few plays in preseason to impress the coaches. But Riley had to settle for a special-teams role.
  4. Calvin Ridley on Dirk Koetter saying he has to do a better job getting Ridley involved after one target vs. Colts: ``If you watch the film, there was nothing for me. There was no windows for me, really. It just wasn’t there. I think [Koetter] does a great job getting me involved. I can’t even be mad because I went back and looked at the film as soon as I got on the plane. Every play was zone, so there were no routes. It was hard to get open.’’ Ridley had 10 targets vs. Philly in Week 2 and 6 targets vs. Minny in Week 1. Calvin saying there was no 1on1 opportunities for him to showcase himself earning more targets while Colts stayed in zone? Gotta find a way to attack zones with Julio to free up Calvin.
  5. Ricardo Allen was as emotional as anyone after he saw teammate Keanu Neal suffer yet another season-ending injury on Sunday, but the Atlanta Falcons free safety has learned not to dwell on the uncontrollable. Of course, Allen knows that Neal’s presence will be missed on defense for the remainder of the season following an Achilles tendon tear, which typically requires eight months for recovery. But Allen, who suffered a season-ending Achilles tear last season, isn’t about to let his fellow defenders use Neal’s injury as an excuse. "My message to the defense? Do your job. That’s all," said Allen, a team captain. "Whatever your job entitles, do that. Do it as hard as you can for your brothers. That’s it. We’re not asking nobody to be Superman. Just be who you are and what you’re supposed to be for this team. "Yeah, we understand it’s going to be 'mess-ups' here and there, but you’ve got to do it for everybody around you. If you do your job and they beat us doing your job, they deserve it. But if they beat us and we’re not doing what we’re supposed to, that’s on us." The 1-2 Falcons have to do a much better job on defense now without Neal roaming as the enforcer. The 27-24 loss to the undermanned Indianapolis Colts exposed some defensive flaws that could doom the Falcons if they are not corrected. Players were caught looking in the backfield, as Colts coach Frank Reich masterfully designed misdirection and play-action plays. If the Falcons were fooled by Andrew Luck's replacement, Jacoby Brissett, just imagine what type of issues could lie ahead with Deshaun Watson, Russell Wilson and Drew Brees in the next six games. That's not to mention the variety of looks the Falcons could see from offensive gurus Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan later in the season. The Falcons continue to have penalty issues, which point to a lack of discipline. Four of the 16 penalties they drew against the Colts came against the defense on third down, allowing the Colts to pick up first downs. The Colts had seven first downs by penalty in the game. It makes you wonder if coach Dan Quinn should take sterner action against repeat violators. One of those defensive penalties was too many men on the field, as the Falcons were caught switching personnel, and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett couldn’t get out of the game. Quinn, as the defensive coordinator, didn’t feel good about the lack of communication but vowed to get the penalty issues fixed this week while having officials out for practice. The Falcons have done that regularly, but Quinn emphasized it this week in preparation for Sunday’s matchup with Tennessee. The Falcons are tied for 29th in the league in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert 52.8% of the time. They are giving up 21.7 first downs per game, which is tied for 22nd. Their minus-five point differential, with the defense yielding 25 points per game and the offense scoring 20 points per game, ranks 22nd. I think it’s about the small details on defense," cornerback Desmond Trufant said. "I felt like [against the Colts], it was more we were inflicting damage on ourselves than them beating us. I mean, they made some plays, but I think we’ve got to start with doing our job first, getting in position. ... We’ve got to make sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to do." This week’s task likely means preparing for what Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota is capable of accomplishing as a dual-threat quarterback and the power Derrick Henry brings in the running game. At the same time, the Falcons can’t be fooled into thinking it’s all about stopping the run because Mariota might try to go downfield to wide receiver Corey Davis or someone else. More thing anything, the Falcons can’t sulk about Neal not being in the lineup. Quinn talked about Kemal Ishmael stepping in to play some strong safety. But filling in for Neal might be by committee, with Quinn looking at all options. Safety Jamal Carter was elevated from the practice squad for depth. Nickelback Damontae Kazee played free safety last season. But it will be difficult for anyone to mirror Neal’s impact when healthy. "Just the way that he brings the pain, man, and the way that people have to account for No. 22," Allen said. "When they know he’s coming, people pull hands down. Tipped balls happen a little bit more. "That’s why I think we ended up winning that game on fourth down against the Eagles -- because they saw 22 coming and pulled that ball back. You understand when 22 is out there, he’s trying to get that ball. And if he’s not trying to get that ball, he’s trying to get you. He’s an enforcer, and we’re going to miss that. It’s a physical presence that’s hard to match when you take a guy like him off the field."
  6. FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn never likes to look ahead, but he isn't oblivious to what's going on around him. As a coach who preaches taking care of division play first, Quinn certainly understands how the complexion of the NFC South might have changed to his team’s benefit. Injuries suffered by New Orleans star quarterback Drew Brees (thumb) and Carolina quarterback Cam Newton (foot) make the Saints and Panthers more vulnerable on paper. Brees won’t be placed on injured reserve immediately following surgery and could be back on the field when the Falcons face the Saints on Nov. 10. Carolina is preparing Kyle Allen to step in for Newton. The Falcons’ first matchup with the Panthers is Nov. 17 in Charlotte, followed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at home (Nov. 24). "I think you always check around because it's always in your mind about where you are at in the division," Quinn said. "We don't get a chance to play a division game for a while, so what's really on my mind today is the team that we don't play a lot coming up [Indianapolis]. "For us, we bring the focus right back to now and the things we can control and the things we can do. You always have your eye on [the division], but past that, you don’t get to think about them yet. You don't get to because if you do -- man, you're going to miss what's right here." Quarterback Matt Ryan is aware of what’s going on with Brees and Newton, but he isn't consumed by it. Ryan is just glad to be healthy. He hasn’t missed a game since turf toe in the 2009 season. "I’m certainly thankful to have been able to stay as healthy as I have throughout my career," Ryan said. "And as far as seeing the other guys in the NFC South, you never want to see guys go down. You hate seeing that for them, but that’s part of it in this league. It’s having to have the next guy step up. We’ve had to do that on our side. "We have to focus on our guys and what we’re doing. But personally, you never want to see guys go down around the league." Ryan went on to say that there is a "long way to go" before the team can concentrate on where things stand in the division. Not starting NFC South play until Week 10 takes much of the fun away from the Falcons trying to get a leg up on the Saints and Panthers immediately. But at least they seem to have a little momentum -- particularly on defense -- following last week’s 24-20 triumph over Philadelphia. That win, however, shouldn’t make the Falcons believe they’re instantly in the Super Bowl conversation -- not when the Eagles were without injured top wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery. "I think consistency is key, and we have to go to work and put another good performance together and continue to build, week in and week out," defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. Having wide receivers Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley coming off 100-yard games is something the Falcons can hang their hats on. Watching cornerback Desmond Trufant grab two interceptions -- along with defensive end Takk McKinley, linebacker Vic Beasley Jr. and Jarrett bringing pressure up front on defense -- is reason for optimism too. "We’re just trying to get win each week and keep stacking them up. At the end of the year, we want to be on top of the division," Ryan said. But the Falcons still have a variety of issues to fix -- problems that made the Eagles game maybe tougher than it should have been and made a season-opening loss at Minnesota such a disaster. Those start with Ryan, who has thrown five interceptions through two games after throwing seven in 16 games last season. Quinn isn't stressing about it because he doesn’t believe it will be the norm. Ryan has taken ownership and vowed to fix it, starting now. "I don’t worry about that too much," Ryan said. "At the end of the year, you look back and look at the cumulative total. It’s certainly not the start you want in terms of turning the football over. It happens like that sometimes. You just have to weather the storm and keep making good decisions, be aggressive with the football and believe that it’s going to turn." Other problems plaguing the team include the lack of a running game, with an average of 65 yards per contest through the first two, and penalties, with 20 fouls for 136 yards, including nine offensive/defensive holds and four false starts. econd-year running back Ito Smith has been consistent in the running game with flashes. The Falcons hope two-time Pro Bowler Devonta Freeman, who Quinn says is 100 percent healthy following last year’s core-muscle surgery, can get back on track after averaging just 2.2. yards per carry in the first two games. Injuries have been troublesome as well, with first-round right guard Chris Lindstrom on injured reserve after having surgery on his broken right foot and fellow first-rounder Kaleb McGary, the starting right tackle, in limbo after injuring his left knee. Shuffling bodies on the offensive line doesn’t help build the continuity needed to keep Ryan clean and open holes in the run game. The next challenge for the Falcons, as Jarrett mentioned, is piecing together back-to-back strong efforts. The positive vibes coming off the win over the Eagles will go out the window if the Falcons go to Indianapolis and get pounded by the Andrew Luck-less Colts, with their strong rushing attack and solid defense. The Falcons are 1-7 against AFC opponents the previous two seasons. The Falcons work their way through the AFC South next, as the next three opponents are the Colts, Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans. Then comes the NFC West part of the schedule, with a trip to face the Arizona Cardinals followed by back-to-back visits from the potent Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks. After that, the Falcons can set their sights on the NFC South, which has been won by the Saints in back-to-back season. The Falcons most recently won the division in 2016, when they made it to the Super Bowl. "My thoughts on the division? We have a long time before then," free safety Ricardo Allen said. "I don’t focus on that right now. If you focus on the division right now, you’re going to be losing these games."
  7. FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Vic Beasley Jr. isn’t oblivious to the criticism. Skeptics wonder why the Atlanta Falcons' defensive end hasn’t been nearly near as productive the past two years (10 sacks combined in 2017-18) as he was during his 15.5-sack 2016 season. His decline has turned the 2015 first-round pick into a punchline on talk radio and the subject of angry rants from fed-up fans. Beasley knows the only way to silence the doubters is to perform at a high level every week, which is what he intends to do. "I know I'm a good player," Beasley said. "There's a lot of things that I can work on, but I know that I'm a good player. For me to remain in this league and to be the great player that I want to be, I have to be consistent. “I just have to do better. Humans make mistakes in life. You have to make it up in your mind that you're going to do better. A lot of times when you strive to be great, sometimes things don't go your way. But you continue to remain optimistic in those situations." Beasley set the bar high in his second NFL season, when he topped his buddy Von Miller (13.5 sacks) of the Denver Broncos for the NFL sack title. Everything appeared to align right for Beasley in ‘16 as he used his speed off the edge to create havoc. Not to mention he drew a couple favorable matchups, such as squaring off against current teammate and former Bronco Ty Sambrailo on an afternoon Beasley recorded 3.5 sacks along with two forced fumbles. Once the calendar flipped to 2017, the buzz around Beasley faded. He didn’t have a sack in the Falcons' three postseason games tied to their Super Bowl run. Then during the ‘17 regular season, Beasley finished with just five sacks in 14 games -- and three of those sacks came in the first six games. Beasley missed time due to an early-season hamstring injury but never used the injury as an excuse for his drop-off -- just like he never pointed to the torn labrum in his shoulder during his rookie campaign. Plus, Beasley took on more coverage responsibilities while playing strongside linebacker in ‘17. Then last season, Beasley, back into more of a pass-rusher role, had just five sacks as the Falcons finished in the bottom 10 of the league with 37 sacks. According to ESPN's pass rush win rate powered by NFL Next Gen, Beasley beat his blocks in 2.5 seconds on 26.9% of pass rushes, which ranked 23rd in the NFL among players with at least 300 pass rushes. He didn’t force any fumbles, something he showed a knack for when he tied Bruce Irvin with a league-high six forced fumbles in 2016. "Again, it’s just consistency," Beasley said of last year’s woes. "That's what keeps you around this league: consistency. You had one great year. You have to get back to that. Any player in this league, if they're not consistent, how do you gain trust with that individual?" The Falcons expressed some amount of trust in Beasley by picking up his fifth-year option worth $12.81 million this season. They have not, however, made a long-term commitment after this season. Irvin, who played with the Falcons last season, thinks Beasley can play. "I think Vic can ball," Irvin said. "I just think Vic needs an older guy to push him. And I think he really needs DQ [Falcons coach Dan Quinn]. DQ is really the perfect coach for Vic."’ So far through training camp, Quinn seems intent on getting the best out of Beasley’s freakish athleticism, whether that means rushing off the edge, setting the edge against the run, or dropping into coverage. Quinn, doubling as the defensive coordinator, vowed to spend more time trying to bring out the best in Beasley. Those one-on-one teaching moments have come during camp since Beasley opted to train on his own during the offseason program. "I thought in the run game, those fundamentals, I thought that's been an improvement," Quinn said of Beasley’s play in camp. "We've worked hard, for him, in the pass rush. I won't get into all the specifics but some things: counters, what to set off with. So we've spent a good bit of time on that. ... He's off to a good start.’’ Now, it’s about the finish. The Falcons need him to be a strong edge rusher along with Takk McKinley on the other side, with tackle Grady Jarrett being one of the best interior rushers in the game and others such as Adrian Clayborn, Allen Bailey, and John Cominsky bringing some pass-rush ability. Beasley wouldn’t reveal exactly what elements of his pass rush he’s working on, but he continues to study the Broncos’ Miller because of their similar builds. Beasley still relies -- maybe too heavily -- on his speed rush yet has shown flashes of counters such as dipping inside or working more diligently with his hands. Asked if he needed to play with a little more nastiness, the soft-spoken Beasley responded, "I feel like everybody has an angry side to them. If somebody was to attack your mom, what are you going to do? Are you going to turn the other cheek? You never know what you're going to do until you're put in that situation. "As far as being an aggressive, angry player, I guess that's not necessarily my mold, my build, my personality. But if someone was to push me, I can't just sit up there and say I'm going to turn the other cheek.’’ Beasley has to worry more about turning the page on those down seasons and becoming the player he expects to be. Those expectations remain rather high: nothing short of double-digit sacks through a full season. "For me, it is about double-digit sacks because I'm not just a guy, you know what I'm saying? I'm a good player," Beasley said. "For me and the person that I am, consistently for me, that's what I need to do."
  8. Falcons Rookie chooses compassion over hate for his brothers killer! "For some reason, you thought it was right to go and gun down my brother that morning of Oct. 14. You had that choice. My brother, at gunpoint, didn't have a choice to live. It wasn't up to him. He lost the two greatest things God gives us as people: He lost his ability to choose, and he lost his life. Now here I am, and I have this choice to hate you or not. I choose not to. I don't hate you, Denzel. I hate what you did, most certainly. But I still think your life is just as precious as the next person's. No life means more than another's. None of us are perfect." This is an excerpt from a letter Qadree Ollisonwrote Aug. 1, 2018, the night before 22-year-old Denzel Lewis was sentenced for the murder of Lerowne "Rome" Harris, Ollison's 35-year-old brother. The 800-word letter was read in court by Wayne Ollison, Qadree's father, just before Lewis received a 25-year sentence for first-degree manslaughter. Wayne, who initially questioned Qadree for not hating his brother's murderer, read his own letter, which called for the maximum punishment for the man who killed his son in "cold blood." Meanwhile, Qadree, a fifth-round draft pick of the Atlanta Falcons out of Pittsburgh, figured he couldn't proceed in life or football without getting some closure after his brother's 2017 murder. The native of Niagara Falls, New York, also realized, because of his faith in God, there was no reason to be spiteful toward Lewis, whom he attended middle school with and once considered a friend. “I believe you can’t live with hate in your heart,” Qadree said. “You can’t move on from something with hate in your heart.” Qadree could have expressed outrage over a senseless act of violence. Instead, his words showed compassion toward Lewis, who shot Harris to death in broad daylight. Qadree’s strength in a time of grieving helped bring an already tight-knit family closer. "It just shows that he's a special guy," Wayne said of his son. "I'm telling you as a father, I didn't have that forgiveness in my heart. Qadree understood that and said, 'Well, Dad, one day you will get there.' It takes a special person to lose their older brother, their idol, and still be able to put your head down and move forward." 'Everybody was just devastated' That October day, at 10:20 a.m., Harris was shot three times -- twice in the back -- following a gas-station encounter with Lewis. According to police reports, Harris ran across the parking lot after being shot, then was put into a nearby vehicle and driven to Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center, where he died. Qadree had a noon game at Pitt against NC State, and his family didn't inform him of his brother's death until after the 35-17 loss to the Wolfpack. "My immediate reaction was that I was devastated," Qadree said. "Everybody was just devastated. It's not something that you can prepare for." Lewis is incarcerated at Attica Correctional Facility and eligible for parole in March 2039. He could have been charged with second-degree murder and faced life in prison had the Ollisons taken the case to trial. But after a meeting with prosecutors, an agreement was reached, and Lewis pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. "In my line of work, you get two ends of the spectrum: You get families that show compassion, and you get those that want to exact revenge, and this was definitely a family that showed compassion," said Doreen Hoffman, assistant district attorney for Niagara County. When asked if his relationship with Lewis from middle school influenced his decision to forgive his brother's killer, Qadree's answer was an emphatic "no." "We were cool in middle school, but that was like nine years before I last saw him," Qadree said. "It wasn't about somebody that I knew. I try to have compassion for anybody, whether I know them or not." Wayne said he tried to look Lewis in the eyes during every court proceeding to let him know the family wasn't scared, but Lewis kept looking forward with a blank stare. Prosecutors said Lewis never offered an apology and, in fact, acted "cocky" in court. If Qadree were to talk to Lewis today, he would advise him to try to find peace. "I really would tell him to try and get rid of whatever demons he has inside of him, try to find God," Qadree said. "If you don't want to believe in God, you want to believe in something. Try to find whatever it is that would bring peace to him and help him. It's a lot deeper. If the point of prison is to rehabilitate, then let it do that. Come out 20, 25 years from now and be a different person if you get another chance." Brotherly love Not until after Harris' death did Qadree have the chance to appreciate his older brother's football talent. A family friend made a film of Harris' youth-league highlights as a memorial. "My older brother, as any older brother, he was a role model for me," said Qadree, who was 14 years younger than Harris. "He was somebody I looked up to, somebody I tried to be like, especially on the football field. He was the one who kind of got me started. ... He used to always say he was the one who put the football in my hands first." Harris never evolved beyond a youth-league star after being consumed by street life. He dropped out of high school before 11th grade. But, for Qadree, football was a way out of the rugged Jordan Gardens housing projects of Niagara Falls. He and his siblings grew up there with single mother, Vicki Harris, who still works as a local bartender. Although his parents were no longer together, Qadree said his father, a plant supervisor who lived five minutes away, was there to coach football and make sure he had food and clothes. Scan through a police blotter on Jordan Gardens from the past couple of months and you'll find crimes ranging from a man assaulting police officers after giving them a fake identity to a 9-year-old girl getting forced at gunpoint from a stolen vehicle. "I grew up in a rough neighborhood, like any type of projects where drugs, and gangs, and violence are evident," Qadree said. "Really, just to be blunt, my brother got caught up in that lifestyle." Department of corrections records show Rome Harris spent time between 2014 and 2016 in Wyoming Correctional Facility on weapons and criminal contempt charges. Qadree didn’t approve of his brother’s criminal lifestyle but said he understood it. "When you're trying to provide for your family and trying to help out our mom because we didn't have a whole lot -- and we still don't have a lot," Qadree said. "He wasn't doing it just trying to be cool. He was trying to take care of his family, and take care of his [four] kids." Despite Harris' criminal behavior, he kept Qadree off the streets, refusing to let him follow the same treacherous path. "That's what I mean when I say he was a role model for me; not because of what he was doing, but because how he looked after me and made sure I never turned left," Qadree said. "He always kept me away from it." Harris' life choices prevented him from seeing much of Qadree's high school or collegiate football career. However, Harris was present for the opening game of the 2017 college season, when Pitt defeated Youngstown State 28-21 in overtime. Qadree scored a pair of touchdowns and rushed for 91 yards on 22 carries. Wayne remembered the joy Harris got from seeing his brother succeed. "When Rome had a chance to see Qadree play, he was excited about it," Wayne said. "We tailgated the morning of and had some fun. "To be able to see his brother run out of the tunnel. ... Qadree was a leader of the team, a focal point of the team. Rome wasn't shocked about what was going on, but he was like, 'Wow, my brother is really popular here at this university, and all these fans are cheering for my brother.' It was an emotional time. Rome broke down and cried a couple times. It was just good that God set it up so that Rome could at least get a chance to see Qadree play before God called him up to heaven to do work for him." Keeping the faith Qadree was able to get through losing his brother, in part, because of his strong faith. As a kid, he believed in God but wasn't a churchgoer. He became more spiritual in college thanks to his close friend and former Pitt teammate Kellen McAlone, a walk-on receiver who earned a scholarship as a senior. "He kept nagging me like, 'Come to this Bible study,' and I was like, 'I don't go to Bible studies. That's not for me,'" Qadree said. "Then I went to this Bible study at Pitt that was just for student-athletes. It was something I really enjoyed. I think that's where it all started." Qadree began reading one Bible verse every day and praying every night before going to sleep. It all became part of his routine. His faith helped him through tough football challenges such as rushing for 1,000 yards in 2015 only to lose his starting role when current Pittsburgh Steelers star James Connerreturned from injury. But nothing put Qadree's faith to the test more than losing his older brother. "I stayed at Pittsburgh and practiced really the whole week," Qadree said. "I went home for the funeral and was grieving. Then the very next day, I flew out to North Carolina to play Duke [Oct. 21]. That was my approach to it: I don't want to sit out a game. I wanted to be there for the team. And I think practicing and playing helped me cope with it, in a way." His "Pittsburgh family" admired the composure Qadree showed. Panthers running backs coach Andre Powell marveled at how Qadree continued to be a vocal leader. "You really could never tell anything happened because he came to work just like he normally did, energetic and focused," Powell said. "We understood. We were conscientious of it. But he came to work every day like nothing ever happened." Qadree wore No. 30, his brother's youth football number, during his senior season as a tribute. He finished his final season as a Panther with 1,213 yards and 11 touchdowns on 194 carries and was named second-team All-ACC. On Senior Day, he wore a T-shirt bearing his late brother's image. Qadree rushed for 235 yards and three touchdowns during a 52-22 victory over Virginia Tech. When he got the call from the Falcons during the draft, Qadree shed tears with his mother and father and thanked the community for supporting him. Although he still has to make the roster with Devonta Freeman and Ito Smith as the top two backs, his size -- 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds -- should give Qadree a strong chance to be the team's power back. Wayne is just as proud of his son for earning two degrees from Pittsburgh: one in communications, the other in physical education. The father knows what type of mindset Qadree will carry into the first day of practice with the Falcons, starting with rookie minicamp this weekend. "He's the kind of kid that's not satisfied with just being drafted," Wayne said. "He said in his interview that 'just because he get drafted doesn't mean you've arrived.' He still has to go and compete and make the team." Qadree, who already agreed to a four-year rookie contract, plans to buy his mother a new home outside of Jordan Gardens. He also wants to get his brother a headstone and burial site; Harris' ashes currently sit on a television stand inside his father's home. As for the No. 30 jersey, it's currently worn by Falcons fullback Ricky Ortiz, who isn't guaranteed a roster spot. That jersey could be Qadree's when all is said and done, whether Ortiz is on the team or not. "To make it, it definitely would give me the platform where I can inspire other people," Qadree said. "That's all I really want to do. Our city is so small, and only a couple of people have actually made it out, whether it's sports or anything. I just want to be an inspiration." He hopes to inspire while keeping memories of Rome alive. Qadree concluded the letter read in court with a simple yet heartfelt message to his late brother:
  9. FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Maybe the public didn't get to see his initial reaction, but Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan no doubt smiled with relief at some point during last week's NFL draft. At least that's the impression general manager Thomas Dimitroff left when asked by ESPN if Ryan applauded the organization for drafting a pair of offensive linemen in the first round. Ryan was sacked 42 times last season, the second-highest total in his career. “He texted me, and actually, he just said, 'Thanks, I appreciate that a lot, wow,'" Dimitroff said of Ryan's response. Protecting their $150 million franchise quarterback had to be the Falcons' top priority, no matter how many mock drafts had them targeting a defensive tackle or cornerback first. Team owner Arthur Blank hinted at the team's draft direction when he said in a phone interview, “I think we've got to get younger on the offensive line” before mentioning any other position. “Make no mistake about it: We knew what we needed to do this offseason and that was to continue to fortify that line and make sure that we were protecting Matt,” Dimitroff said. “And we weren't going to run into what we ran into last year.” The Falcons indeed got younger --- and they believe a little nastier -- with the additions of 14th overall pick Chris Lindstrom, a guard from Boston College, and 31st overall pick Kaleb McGary, a right tackle from Washington. Maybe those additions will help the Falcons regain the same type of offensive swagger they had during the 2016 Super Bowl run, when they started the same offensive line in all 16 games, led the league at 33.8 points per game, and saw Ryan win the MVP. This latest draft was just the second time in team history the Falcons selected a pair of offensive linemen with their first two draft picks. In 2012, the Falcons picked center Pete Konz with their first selection in the second round (55th overall) then followed with tackle Lamar Holmes in the third round (91st). They didn't have a first-round pick. Both Konz and Holmes played just three seasons. The Falcons would hope for longevity from both Lindstrom and McGary, even if coach Dan Quinn was hesitant to designate them as immediate starters. As ESPN's Adam Schefter pointed out, a potential starting offensive line of Jake Matthews at left tackle, McGary at right tackle, James Carpenter and Lindstrom at the guard spots, and Alex Mack at center would mark the first time in the common draft era (1967) that a team would start five first-round picks along the offensive line. Having a first-round line doesn't matter if you can't keep your quarterback upright. Quinn admitted having concerns about how many times Ryan got hit throughout last season, which led to plenty of shuffling along the offensive line. The Falcons used six different starting offensive line combinations last season due either to injury or ineffectiveness. Five of those starters -- Ryan Schraeder, Andy Levitre, Zane Beadles, Brandon Fusco, and Ben Garland -- are no longer with the team. Schraeder, who was released, remains a free agent along with Levitre and Beadles, who are both considering retirement. Garland was signed by the San Francisco 49ers. Fusco, who had a season-ending ankle injury last season after starting seven games at guard, got released Monday. Wes Schweitzer, another starter from last season at guard, is expected to return as backup at guard and center this season, if he remains on the roster. According to ESPN Statistics & Information tracking, Ryan was sacked, hit while throwing or hit while running 76 times in 2018, the most in a season during his career. He didn't miss any games but had some nicks and bruises. Ryan told ESPN he dealt with a nagging left wrist issue throughout last season and reaggravated it in the final game against Tampa Bay, though he never considered taking any plays off. It did cause him to turn down an invitation to the Pro Bowl as an alternate, but Quinn said Ryan wouldn't be limited once the Falcons begin organized team activities. Although Quinn continued to emphasize the need for balance in Dirk Koetter's second stint as the Falcons' offensive coordinator, the reality is Koetter runs a pass-friendly offense that should cater to Ryan's strength. And Koetter won't be afraid to go down the field to Julio Jones or Calvin Ridley off play-action, provided the line gives Ryan adequate time to throw. Having two-time Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman from last year's season-ending groin surgery should help the offense flow. Plus, getting bigger up front with the offensive line additions could pave the way for more downhill blocking rather than stretch plays outside. Again, just because the Falcons drafted a pair of first-round offensive linemen and added four others as free-agents -- Carpenter, Jamon Brown, Adam Gettis and John Wetzel -- doesn't mean all of their problems are solved. There will be an adjustment period for the rookies, with Lindstrom being asked to put on a little more weight for added power and McGary probably not ready for the top pass-rushers he could face early in the season, such as J.J Watt and Danielle Hunter. And there is some uncertainty about Carpenter, a respected veteran who is coming off shoulder surgery. However the line comes together, the Falcons can't afford to have embarrassing performances like they did against Pittsburgh last season, when Ryan was sacked six times and hit 14 times. Both Lindstrom and McGary known protecting Ryan is the top priority. “You're trying to establish a relationship with those guys, and you have a love for your teammates, and you don't want to see anything happen to them -- especially with the quarterback,” Lindstrom said. “Doing your job and being accountable, making sure that those guys aren't being touched, it's the reason why we're here as offensive linemen.” Said McGary, “I can't wait to come and compete and try to contribute, hopefully, do everything I can to help make [Ryan] and whoever else feel safe. That's a lineman's job, and that's all I want to do is my job.”
  10. FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Roddy White knew his standing as the Atlanta Falcons' all-time leading receiver would be in jeopardy sooner than later with Julio Jones still on the roster. But as Jones sits 381 receiving yards from surpassing White's franchise mark of 10,863, White has much loftier goals set for his close friend and former teammate. "The pace that he's at right now, he can not only be the all-time leading receiver in Falcons history, to me he has enough talent to be the all-time leading receiver in the NFL," White said of Jones. "That's if he plays long enough." Hall of Famer Jerry Rice is the league's all-time leading receiver with 22,895 yards. Rice, who retired at age 42, accomplished the feat in 20 seasons while playing 303 games. Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald is second with 16,108 yards. Jones, 29, snickered when told of White's thoughts about him catching Rice. "I don't know what's wrong with Roddy, man," Jones said. "Jerry played, what, 20 years? You know what I'm saying? Jerry played a long time." In the same breath, Jones seemed to ponder the thought as a very realistic challenge. "What that says about Roddy is he knows the work ethic, everything I've been through, the way I work ... it's very achievable," Jones said. "But for me, I'm not a numbers guy. I didn't even know when you said that's next for me as far as surpassing Roddy. I didn't even know if I was close or not. I just play ball." Jones, who has 10,483 yards through 108 games, has the highest per-game average for receiving yards in league history at 97.1. Rice averaged 75.6. So, essentially, Jones could break the mark by keeping the same average over 128 more games -- or eight more seasons. He would have to stay healthy, of course. Jones has dealt with his share of nagging injuries and played in only five games during the 2013 season after suffering a foot fracture. The Falcons already announced intentions to address Jones' contract situation with two years remaining after making an adjustment to this year's salary. "I can't tell you how long I want to play," Jones said. "For me, right now, I feel great. I still feel like I'm 17, 18 years old right now. I don't hurt. I can run. I can stop. I can do everything. I can do whatever I want to do. I feel great and I've played eight years. So if I feel like this, I know I can play at least eight [more] years. "But with family and stuff like that, a lot of things happen. That's why I don't like to speak on stuff down the road. I'm one year at a time, and whatever comes." Jones marveled about how Rice was able to play into his 40s and still have an impact. At age 40 in 2002, Rice caught 92 passes for 1,211 yards and seven touchdowns for a Oakland Raiders team that went to the Super Bowl. "Yeah, 22,000 is a lot," Jones said. "I have a lot of respect for Jerry Rice. The way he works, his work ethic, everything about him. He wasn't a guy who was going to wow you with his physical ability. But the way he works, he's going to outwork you. You're not going to outwork Jerry Rice. He's going to make you suffer." Jones has developed a reputation for his relentless work ethic, too, on top of being blessed with tremendous physical size and incredible athleticism. The 2011 sixth overall draft pick, who achieved 10,000 receiving yards faster than any receiver in league history (104 games), reached another milestone this past Sunday when he became the first player in NFL history to post five straight 1,400-yard seasons. Jones leads the league with 1,429 receiving yards on 94 receptions, and that's despite drawing double-team attention regularly. True to his usual modest self, the five-time Pro Bowler dismissed it as no big deal when asked what the accomplishment meant to him. "Nothing," Jones said. "I'm trying to find a way to win. All that stuff is always nice, but I'm trying to find ways to win." The 4-9 Falcons take a five-game losing streak into Sunday's matchup with the 3-10 Arizona Cardinals. With three games remaining, Jones would need to average 127 yards per game -- 17 yards better than his season average -- to break White's franchise mark this season. It's attainable with the Cardinals, Carolina Panthers, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the final three opponents. Jones' career-high for a game was 300 against the Panthers, and he's gone off for 253 against the Buccaneers and 189 against the Cardinals. "Will he get the [franchise] record this year? Yes. Definitely," White said. "He ain't playing no world-beating secondaries where he can't catch no balls. "Just him getting to 10,000 yards, that's a big feat, especially in this league. When you hit that mark, that means you're playing at a high level in the NFL. The guys that are on that list, frankly, a lot of them are Hall of Famers. To get to that point a good eight years into the league, that's a tremendous accomplishment."
  11. A little something positive in this season ATLANTA -- If he could walk, Louisiana native Kyron Greenup probably would strut into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Thursday, proudly wearing his custom-made Atlanta Falcons jersey. If he could move his hands freely, Greenup probably would pump his fist every time the Falcons score a touchdown, especially if his new friend, tight end Austin Hooper, is the one crossing the goal line. But Greenup can't perform the simplest movements -- not with multiple bullet fragments still lodged in the back of his head. He's in a wheelchair and has been since 2014. That year, a dispute he had no part of, according to a police report, resulted in random shots being fired around his Reserve, Louisiana, neighborhood, an area known for gun violence. The shot that pierced his skull altered his life. "I've come from not being able to talk, not being able to move nothing at all," Greenup said with optimism. "I had a feeding tube. I had a catheter. But it's all eliminated now. I'm working on standing. I'm doing squats. I've come a long, long way." The shooting occurred less than a year after Greenup's younger brother, Kyrian Gray, was shot and killed by gunfire during a graduation party 30 miles west of New Orleans. Doctors have told Greenup that he has a chance to walk again, but they won't put a timetable on his recovery, so three or four days a week, he turns what are supposed to be one-hour rehab sessions into three-hour grinds. His relentless spirit not only caught the eye of his therapists at Atlanta's Shepherd Center, where Greenup has spent time since exiting two nursing homes. It also drew the attention of Hooper. After hearing Greenup's story, Hooper made a few calls to Falcons' staff members and helped arrange for Greenup to be a guest at the Saints-Falcons game in Week 3. The organization took matters a step further, designating Greenup an honorary game captain. "It was good that everyone rallied to make Kyron's day," Hooper said. "If he can go through life the way he does, with such a positive attitude, what are our everyday problems? Little things that you go through, they're meaningless. Kyron's outlook is the way more people should be." Greenup, 25, grew up in Louisiana rooting for Deuce McAllister and the Saints. But the generosity displayed by Hooper and the Falcons made him switch sides. He'll cheer for the visiting team when the Falcons (4-6) battle the Saints (9-1) on Thursday (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC). "I'm a Dirty Bird," Greenup said. "I like the Falcons. Those are my brothers. I'm in the brotherhood for life now." Nothing short of a miracle One person was killed and another wounded Tuesday evening in St. John the Baptist Parish. That was the lead of the news story posted on a Louisiana television station's website on May 7, 2014, the day after Greenup was shot. "I was the one dead," Greenup said. "They had pronounced me dead." According to a St. John the Baptist Parish sheriff's report, Greenup, then 20, was found slumped over near the side of the street in a "pool of bright red blood" as a number of men and women screamed for help. Another victim, a 15-year-old boy, had been shot in the leg and survived. Deputies on the scene discovered 15 bullet casings and one live round on the ground near Greenup, who remembered none of it. "I wasn't even paying attention when the shots were fired," Greenup said. "It was broad daylight, and I had just come from work at the warehouse. I still don't remember that day vividly or visually. All I can tell you is when I woke up, I was in a hospital." From what a friend told Greenup, the shooting occurred after a stranger drove into the neighborhood, was stopped and questioned by one of the residents, and then engaged in an argument with that resident. Shortly after, shots were fired. An ambulance arrived, and one of the paramedics, Tony Grandolfo Jr., performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on Greenup. Grandolfo, now a patrol officer, remains a family friend to this day. "He was the one who saved my life," Greenup said of Grandolfo. "He told me, 'I actually felt your heart stop. I did all I could. After that, you just kept fighting.'" Greenup was transported to River Parish Hospital in LaPlace, Louisiana, then airlifted to University Hospital in downtown New Orleans. He was treated by neurosurgeon Gabriel Tender. "I'm glad that he's alive, and I'm very happy that he's going to walk again," Tender said. "He came in in really bad shape. I'm surprised he's still alive, to be honest with you. But the fact that he's going to walk again is nothing short of a miracle, with the type of damage he had and the shape he was in." Greenup, who was on a ventilator for an extended time, had to undergo a decompressive craniectomy, a procedure in which part of the skull is removed to allow a swelling brain to expand without being squeezed. After the swelling subsided, Tender inserted an artificial skull graph. The bullet traveled from one side of Greenup's head to the other. Tender opted not to remove the bullet fragments because doing so could have punctured the superior sagittal sinus, which, when bleeding, becomes nearly impossible to stop. "We risked killing him by trying to take those out," Tender said of the fragments. The bullet penetrated the motor cortex, which controls the movement of the arms and legs, on both sides of Greenup's brain. The damage left him in a wheelchair. But, as Tender explained, surrounding areas of the brain attempt to compensate and assume functions, which is why Greenup is on the path to walk again after recovering his speech. Michelle Greenup, a mother of five boys and one girl before the murder of her son, Kyrian Gray, moved to the Atlanta area in an attempt to start a new life after she received the call about Kyron. She knew the hostile atmosphere in Louisiana was no good for her family, which is why she had moved to Jacksonville, Florida, years before. She left Kyron and Kyrian with their grandmother so they could finish high school. "I just prayed, cried and was like, 'I'm not going to see a body. I'm going to see my child,'" Michelle Greenup said of her emotions upon hearing the news on Kyron. "When I got to the hospital, he was disfigured. But I was glad just to know he was still here with us, laying up there living." Two men were arrested the week after the shooting. The one who shot Greenup, Jontrell Cosey, initially was charged with attempted second-degree murder but eventually plead guilty to aggravated battery and aggravated criminal damage to property. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Michelle asked to meet with Cosey following the trial. "I forgave him," she said. "I truly forgave him. It wasn't for the public or nobody else. I forgave him because I had to go on. Seeing him have life [in prison] or hating him, it wouldn't have changed my baby's situation. He's still in a chair. And that's just me. I'm going to show love, however. I love God for real. So showing compassion was not a problem." Police concluded that there was no motive behind the shooting. They were surprised Greenup was hit because witnesses said he was nowhere near Cosey. Cosey, who lived in the neighborhood, was someone Greenup had known since childhood. "He wasn't my best friend or anything, but I'd speak to him," Greenup said of Cosey. "I've known him all my life. They were just shooting. That's it. It wasn't gang-related or anything, just shooting. "What would I say to him now? I have nothing to say. We don't have anything to talk about. He can't change my situation. I can't change his situation. Just go ahead with your life, and I'm going to do the same." Part of the Falcons' brotherhood Greenup beamed as he directed his eyes toward the signed white football bearing the Falcons' logo sitting on his living room shelf. It was a birthday present from coach Dan Quinn, who added a team beanie in the surprise package. On the ball is the following message from Quinn: "Kyron, Happy birthday. We admire your toughness & resiliency. In Brotherhood." For Greenup, the gift serves as a daily reminder of his moment as the Falcons' honorary captain. The surprise was supposed to be revealed to him the Friday before that Sept. 23 Saints-Falcons game. But Greenup's therapist let the secret out Tuesday of that week. "She wasn't going to be there Friday, so she wanted to see my facial expression," Greenup said. "She told me about it, and I was like, 'Wow, are you serious? Y'all playing.' And she was like, 'Nah, I'm serious. Guys are going to come to get you that morning. So be ready.'" He was. Greenup could barely control his excitement while he was shuttled to the stadium. When he arrived on the sideline for warm-ups, he met Hooper. "He came over and gave me some dap," Greenup said of Hooper. "He was like, 'It's nice to meet you, man, but let me go ahead and get back over here to warm-ups before I get in trouble. We can talk more after the game.'" Greenup, wearing his No. 1 captain's jersey, posed for pictures with Falcons owner Arthur Blank. He sat in awe as Quinn came over and addressed him. "He really gave me some motivational words," Greenup said of Quinn. "He was just telling me to keep working and don't give up because anything is possible. He was like, 'You're in the best place for rehab. You're going to see the outcome at the end of it all.' His message was just to not give up." Greenup was wheeled to midfield for the coin toss alongside Falcons game captains Tevin Coleman, Robert Alford and Justin Bethel. Across from him stood Drew Brees and Cam Jordan, but he didn't mention growing up a Saints fan. Greenup was hoping for a Falcons victory, but the Saints pulled off an overtime thriller 43-37. Regardless, Greenup came away a winner. Hooper made good on his promise to catch up afterward. He invited Greenup to a friend's home that night for steak fajitas and to watch the Sunday night game between the Patriots and Lions. "We actually, actually hung out after the game," Greenup said. "It felt really good. I was like, 'Wow, I'm really hanging out with Austin Hooper. I got him to sign a ball and that hat you see right up there." Hooper brought a couple friends with him: five-time Pro Bowl center Alex Mackand defensive end Derrick Shelby. Both Mack and Shelby walked away impressed by Greenup's upbeat demeanor. "It was just cool to hang out and tell stories, and I know he really appreciated it," Mack said. "I know his life is difficult, and he has a great attitude. The things that you think are easy, like taking a sip of water, is, like, a struggle. But he's really working hard, and it's cool to see that." Said Shelby, "Just visiting with people that are going through hard times, it uplifts their spirits and helps them not think about the situation. You just try and treat him like he's one of the guys and have fun." Greenup and Hooper have maintained their friendship. Hooper recently sent Greenup a bed for his new apartment, which he moved into three weeks ago. Greenup's mother and younger brother, Kyree, live 30 minutes away but sometimes stay the night to help him get around. Otherwise, Greenup gets assistance from a certified nursing assistant. Hooper also checked into getting Greenup into Thursday night's game in New Orleans, but Greenup said his family's plan to spend the holiday in Louisiana changed. Maybe one day, Greenup will walk the sideline by himself prior to a Falcons-Saints game. "They just told me I'm going to have to put in the hard work and that it's 'going to be up to you' when I walk again," Greenup said. "I just don't give up. Never."
  12. FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons Pro Bowl linebacker Deion Jones has picked up quite a few fans during his 32-game NFL stint. Brian Urlacher is among them. Urlacher, the Hall of Fame middle linebacker who starred for the Chicago Bears, didn't hold back on the superlatives when discussing Jones' likely return to the lineup from early-season foot surgery. "That's a bad mother f-----," Urlacher said of Jones. "Is he coming back? I know he got hurt the first game of the year. I like that he can come back from [injured reserve] later in the season. That's a good move. "He's already a star, dude. He's the fastest middle linebacker in the NFL. He can cover anybody. He's great in the run game. He's so athletic. He's one of the guys I really love watching play." The Falcons (4-5) would love to watch Jones makes plays rather than run ladder drills on a side field. Coach Dan Quinn reiterated Monday that the team will take things "step by step" with Jones despite Jones being eligible to return off IR for Sunday's matchup against the Dallas Cowboys (4-5). Quinn said he won't put Jones back out there until Jones' repaired broken right foot is completely healed. But the return of Jones would be critical for the Falcons' playoff hopes, with the NFC picture far from undecided. The Falcons' struggling defense sorely needs him. A 28-16 loss to rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns emphasized how much the Falcons miss Jones in the middle of the field. Speed erases mistakes, and Jones is a 4.38 40-yard dash guy who could track down a running back before a 92-yard touchdown. He has developed into a solid tackler, and missed tackles have been a glaring issue for the Falcons. Plus, Jones knows how to find the ball with seven career interceptions -- including two pick-sixes -- and a forced fumble. If Jones returns this week, he'll be counted upon to help slow down Ezekiel Elliott, the league's second-leading rusher with 831 ground yards. If Jones doesn't return until the Thanksgiving night showdown against his hometown New Orleans Saints, then he'll give Drew Brees something to think about, with three interceptions of Brees in four meetings. Not to mention the Falcons had trouble defending running backs out of the backfield such as Carolina's Christian McCaffrey (14 catches, 102 yards) and New Orleans' Alvin Kamara (15 catches, 124 yards), something Jones could help minimize the second time around with his coverage skills "I know Deion as a person and I know he wants to be out there with us," fellow linebacker De'Vondre Campbell said. "The fact that he can't be, it kills him. I let him know, 'Maybe this was a sign from God that you needed this rest.' "Him coming back, that's huge for your defense in general. He's the captain of the defense. He's the Mike. He's does some things really well that not a lot of people can do. Just having him back is going to be huge in general." Said pass-rusher Vic Beasley Jr.: "It's going to be awesome to get Deion back. He's a great player, a great leader for our team. We're looking forward to having him back and we're excited for him." The Falcons enter Sunday's Dallas game ranked second-to-last in the league in third-down defense (51.9 percent conversion rate), yards allowed per play (6.54), and yards allowed per rush (5.19). They lost starting safeties Keanu Neal (ACL) and Ricardo Allen (Achilles) to season-ending injuries, and Jones hasn't played since the season opener in Philadelphia. The Falcons, who have placed six starters on IR, are allowed to designate two players to return. Jones' return appears imminent, and the Falcons could bring back two-time Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman from groin surgery for the Carolina game (Dec. 23).
  13. FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons tight end Austin Hooper wore a smirk on his face when asked about the early-season criticism directed toward offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. "In the city of Atlanta, everyone's a critic," Hooper said. "When we were 1-4, everyone hated us. Now everybody seems to be back on the train. All we worry about is the guys who are in the building. So, we had Sark's back from Day 1. And that's all that matters: The connection we have to each other. People outside the building are always going to say what they're going to say." Said receiver Julio Jones: "For us, in-house -- we try to keep everything in-house -- we always believed in Sark. And we're going to continue to believe in Sark." Well, the people outside suddenly are calling Sarkisian brilliant, with the offense clicking on all cylinders and the Falcons riding a three-game winning streak into Sunday's road contest against the Cleveland Browns (1 p.m. ET, Fox). Sarkisian's offense ranks first in the NFL in third-down conversion percentage (53.3 percent), fifth in points per game (28.5 PPG) and seventh in red zone efficiency (69.2 percent). A reporter asked Sarkisian on Thursday if he felt like giving a verbal middle finger to his critics. "No, not at all," Sarkisian chuckled. "I've said this before: I've been in this business for a long enough time now to know it comes with the territory. When things are good, people probably think you're better than you are. And when things aren't going great, they probably think you're worse than you are. "The challenge as a coach and a player, really, is not to ride the emotional roller coaster of what's going on outside of the building. And not getting too high and not getting too low, but finding that even keel. You trust your process, you trust your work, and you believe in yourself and you believe in the people you have around you. And you do the best job you can do. That hasn't changed for me." Quarterback Matt Ryan, who is having an MVP-caliber season while completing 70.8 percent of his passes, pointed to one play in particular that illustrated just how much Sarkisian should be respected as a playcaller. It was the screen pass to Jones on third-and-2 in the fourth quarter Sunday in Washington. Jones followed his blocks, shook off a tackle attempt by safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at the 5-yard line and backed into the end zone for a 35-yard touchdown -- Jones' first score of the season. "Well, we had that up here for a few weeks, and we had been practicing that play," Sarkisian said. "I actually didn't call it in practice in a competitive period against defense, and Matt and Julio were giving me a hard time about, 'Just call it, Coach. Just call it.' "When the situation came up in the game and I called it and it scored, they were kind of ribbing me pretty good, 'See, if you would have called it in practice, the same thing would have happened.'" Here's a little of what the players had to say about Sarkisian using that play in Washington: Tight end Logan Paulsen: "It's three tight ends, so 13 personnel. Only one receiver on the field. That's a personnel group that you predominately run the ball out of. We got into a formation where we run like a very specific type of run, so I think it kind of gets the defense thinking, 'Oh, they're running a crack toss to the right.' You could see everyone's eyes. They're like looking over here [to offense's right]. They think action's coming over here. We fake the pitch, right. The whole defense runs over. Basically, it turned into a one-on-one situation with Josh Norman and Julio. And we had the left tackle get out there, and Jake [Matthews] did such a good job of knocking [Norman] down. And everyone else kind of sucked over that the guard [Wes Schweitzer] was able to come out and kind of seal the defense off. So it was just one-on-one with the middle-of-the-field safety. And that's how you draw it up." Jones: "We talked about it for two weeks or so, about running that particular screen to me. I was like, 'Sark, what's up? I need a screen. I need a screen.' He finally called it, and I was like, 'OK, it's money time.' It's like one of those things, you're going to make it work regardless. If I had to run around the whole field, I probably would have done it." Hooper: "In that situation of the game, we were trying to run the ball so much to close out the game by running out the clock that we did a fake toss sweep to the right and turned around and threw a quick screen left. The whole defense was pursuing the run action, which was the fake toss to the right, so it created a lot of space for Julio. It was the perfect call for the defense at the right time of the game."
  14. FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Alex Mack might soon be subject to a fine under the category of excessive celebration. No, the Atlanta Falcons center hasn't orchestrated a touchdown dance with props hidden inside goal posts. Actually, the circumstances surrounding such a punishment would be beyond Mack's control. As right tackle Ryan Schraeder explained, the entire Falcons' offensive line assessed a "fine" to Mack when the team visited Cleveland in the preseason of 2016. It didn't carry a monetary figure, but the "fine" was a result of Mack being recognized with a brief video tribute and ovation at First Energy Stadium for the seven seasons he spent with the Browns. "Yeah, the guys made fun of me for that one, helping the enemy," Mack said with a laugh. "They showed a couple of highlights, and it was my first year gone. It was a preseason game, so it didn't really matter." Another such highlight video is unlikely to be part of the plan this go around, but Mack could get another warm reception when he returns to Cleveland for the first time in the regular season. Sunday's 1 p.m. ET game has a bit more meaning, with the 4-4 Falcons trying to keep a three-game winning streak rolling against the falling Browns (2-6-1). "It will be a little weird again, I assume," Mack said of the homecoming, of sorts. "I went to a friend's wedding in Cleveland this offseason. To fly in there and for it to not be home, it's a bit of a weird feeling. And I wasn't going to my house. Plus a lot of people I used to know there on the team are no longer there. It's just strange." The five-time Pro Bowler, now the unquestioned leader of the Falcons' offensive line, doesn't reflect on his time in Cleveland as a complete disaster despite never winning more than five games in any season. In 101 starts with the Browns, Mack's teams went 29-72. The 2009 first-round pick (No. 21 overall) played for four different head coaches and seemed to snap to a new quarterback on a weekly basis. "It was pretty frustrating when coaches would get fired," Mack said. "You believe in the rhetoric of turning things around, and they would fire a coach after a season and not give him a chance. I never had a coach for more than two seasons there." It didn't prevent Mack from developing into arguably the best player at his position. He established an unbreakable bond with his entire line, including future Hall of Fame offensive tackle Joe Thomas. "We had an excellent offensive line, and Alex was one of the leaders of the group, being the center and being the All-Pro that he is," Thomas said. "We shared struggles and hardship with the record that we had, but we still put forward some good performances, from an offensive line standpoint." Mack credited his first NFL offensive line coach, current Tampa Bay assistant George Warhop, for guiding him through the nuances of the center position. Mack was known as a highly intelligent player from Day 1. "Cleveland made me a great player," Mack said. "I had great coaches. I had great teammates. We had a good O-line. I wouldn't be the guy I am today if I didn't have Cleveland and the Browns to thank for that." Something cooking Mack's transition from California to Cleveland wasn't so seamless. He recalled one of his first dining experiences one night when he craved Bay Area-type Chinese food. "I was tired, I was hungry, so I was like, 'I'll just go order some chicken chow mein,'" Mack explained. "Chicken chow mein on the West Coast is chicken and noodles. Well, that's chicken lo mein, I guess, on the East Coast and in Ohio. "So when I got home with my to-go box of chicken chow mein, it was just this bean-sprout mix of gross food. I was like really disheartened." That would explain why cooking became one of Mack's primary hobbies during his time in Cleveland. The offensive line would hold potluck dinners, and Mack often came through with his Korean short-rib recipe he borrowed from the wife of one of his college coaches. Mack even signed up for a vegetable farm share program where he would get a box of customized food to cook for himself. "I think one of the things for that offensive line, and Alex was one of the ring-leaders, was how much they liked to cook," Thomas said. "Mitchell Schwartz and Alex and John Greco, they were like almost Cordon Bleu chefs. They were fantastic. It was pretty amazing." Mack didn't spend all his time away from football in the kitchen. He picked up on duck hunting from the Wisconsin-born Thomas and ventured out to some farmland an hour outside Cleveland to get his fix. Oh, and Mack eventually took a liking to Cleveland cuisine, specifically Crop Bistro and Bar, Nuevo Acapulco, and Mitchell's Ice Cream. "Mitchell's, to this day, is the best ice cream I've ever had," Mack said. "I would recommend for anybody to get the Buckeye, which is like a peanut butter ice cream with fudge and cherry toppings. It's truly amazing." If only playing with Browns quarterbacks was as much of a treat as the local ice cream. Quarterback carousel Mack paused for a moment when asked how many different starting quarterbacks he snapped to during his days with the Browns. "Well, you obviously know the answer," Mack said with sarcasm. "I would say two or three a year in seven years. I would say it would probably be around 12." Good guess. Mack would have played with 13 different Browns quarterbacks had he not suffered a broken leg that limited him to five games in 2014. During Mack's rookie season in 2009, coach Eric Mangini played musical chairs with Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson. "Brady wanted to make every call; he wanted full control, and that's what he wanted to do," Mack said. "The quarterback's always right. That's the important thing for any offense I've ever been in. The quarterback has the final call and what they say goes. He's the one that ultimately controls everything. So, that made a lot of sense. "But when Derek would be in, he didn't really care about making all the calls. He only wanted to worry about a couple calls. So everything else it was like, 'Yeah, you just do what you need to do. Make the calls at center yourself. Go ahead.' And so when Derek was in, I had to make all the calls and do everything and try to do adjustments. And as a rookie, I don't know how I even did anything right." The list of Browns' signal-callers behind Mack also included Colt McCoy, Brandon Weeden, Thaddeus Lewis, Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace, Jason Campbell, Josh McCown, Brian Hoyer, Austin Davis, and, of course, Johnny Manziel. Mack admired the cool, calm demeanor of Campbell and Wallace, while he praised the field vision of both Delhomme and McCown. For McCown, the respect was mutual. "What makes Alex unique, in my opinion, it's his high level of both athleticism and strength," McCown said. "It allows him to be effective in both the run and pass. He's also one of the smartest guys I've played with. So when you add that to those other traits, you can see why he is one of the best in the game." Of all those quarterbacks, Manziel probably was the one who garnered the most attention, although Manziel played just two seasons with the Browns. "It was nice that he was so mobile," Mack said of Manziel. "You just had to watch out, because when he scrambled around to throw, you never really knew where he was going to be. But, yeah, that one didn't work out too well." Mack made no secret he was looking for stability, not only at quarterback but in a franchise as a whole. He attracted a variety of interest during free agency in 2016. The Falcons made him the highest-paid center with a five-year, $45 million contract that included $28.5 million guaranteed. "I think the combination of everything: A big, vibrant city with a lot going on, a franchise quarterback in Matt Ryan, and it had an offense that I really enjoyed and the outside zone scheme that I think suits me really well," Mack said. "And I think Dan Quinn's attitude, his approach to football with competing every day and the positive vibes he's built around the building, it's something really powerful. Like, I enjoy going to work. And I think it's a great atmosphere. People are willing to work hard, and everyone takes care of their business. I couldn't be happier." Cleveland's loss certainly has been Atlanta's gain. Mack made the Super Bowl in his first season with the Falcons and has a 25-15 record in his 40 starts (3-2 record in the playoffs, including the Super Bowl loss to New England.) "With Mack, it's his consistency," Julio Jones said of his teammate. "He's a great leader. He's a great role model, especially for the offensive line. He's the quarterback of the offensive line. He's making sure his guys are on the same page. And I always talk to him, too. He's just a great teammate." Quinn pointed to a play during last week's win against the Washington Redskins when Mack hustled down the field after Mohamed Sanu caught a pass and pushed Sanu for some extra yardage. "It's the downfield plays that he's able to finish," Quinn said. "From the first time being here, I knew he was smart. Probably what I didn't have the appreciation for his how tough he is, and he's demonstrated that over and over and over again. ... I would say the finish that he has in his game probably shows as good an example as anybody how it can be done."