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  1. FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons two-time Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman, sidelined the past three games due to a right knee contusion, will play in Sunday's matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Falcons coach Dan Quinn said Thursday that Freeman will play. Freeman said Wednesday that he was comfortable enough to return to action. "I'm in-tune with my body and myself, so I know when I can be me,'' Freeman told reporters Wednesday. "Just getting back out there when I'm comfortable enough. I think right now, I'm comfortable enough to get out there. I feel good. I feel explosive. I'm ready to run.'' Freeman injured the posterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in the same knee during last year's regular-season finale, although he did not undergo surgery. He re-injured the knee after playing 39 snaps in the Falcons' 18-12 season-opening loss at Philadelphia. Freeman returned to practice in a limited role last week but was inactive against Cincinnati. "I feel good,'' Freeman said. "I feel real good, excited, about being out here. Coming out doing something I love to do is always a good time. I'm just excited to be out here.'' Tevin Coleman started at running back the last three games with rookie Ito Smith as the backup. The Falcons have found success in the past with the two-headed attack of Freeman and Coleman, with offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian even using them as the same time, on occasion. The Falcons currently rank 21st in the league with an average of 96 rushing yards per game. The Falcons are 1-3 heading into the matchup with the 1-2-1 Steelers. The Steelers allow 115.8 rushing yards per game, which ranks tied for 21st in the league.
  2. FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank shook his head about the commotion created by top wide receiver Julio Jones not catching a touchdown pass through the first four games. "Julio doesn't care about stuff like that," Blank told ESPN. "Julio is a very selfless player. He cares about the team." Blank pointed to the last play of last week's 37-36 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals as evidence of what type of mentality Jones plays with on a weekly basis. "If you watch the replay on that, that was a [45]-yard pass, he caught it at the [10]-yard line, and he almost dragged three guys," Blank said. "He just doesn't give up. I mean, he's blocking all over the field, too. That's the kind of role model you want for a young player like Calvin Ridley. And Calvin's an anxious learner." Jones' lack of touchdown production might frustrate fantasy football owners, but he doesn't care. He often talks about how statistics are meaningless to him, especially if the team isn't winning. And the Falcons are 1-3 right now going into Sunday's crucial road game against the 1-2-1 Pittsburgh Steelers (1 p.m. ET, Fox). Jones leads the NFL with 502 receiving yards on 29 catches, and his 125.5 receiving yards per game puts him on pace to become the first player in NFL history to reach 2,000 receiving yards. However, the focus from the outside always appears to shift to why Jones hasn't scored a touchdown, particularly coming off three total touchdowns last season. In 2017, he didn't score his first touchdown until Oct. 22 against the Patriots. "His production is through the roof," quarterback Matt Ryan said in defense of Jones. "I think he's leading the league in yards. ... He's going to find the end zone. People are accounting for him and are continuing to account for him, even with the production of other guys. So he stays unselfish when he gets his opportunities and makes plays. Nobody plays harder than him. We'd love for him to get in the end zone, but we have to find ways to get into the end zone, whoever [it] is. And he's 100 percent on board with that, too." The Falcons are 12-of-18 in the red zone this season with Ryan throwing eight touchdowns, four to the rookie Ridley, who leads the NFL with six touchdown receptions. Jones has been targeted three times on 25 routes in the red zone and has no catches to show for it. All three targets were in a season-opening loss at Philadelphia, and the last one could have been a game winner had it been placed where Ryan wanted to throw it. In taking a look back at Ryan's eight red zone touchdown passes, each went to the side opposite of where Jones was lined up. Last week against the Bengals, Jones was bracketed out of the slot to the right when Ryan found Ridley for an 11-yard touchdown off a slant to the left. And Ryan found tight end Logan Paulsen for a touchdown on the right side as Jones and Mohamed Sanu aligned left with three defenders, with the safety ready to double either one. "Going into a game, D-coordinators, they're usually going to take me away, and I'm completely fine with that," Jones said. "We've got guys to make them pay. As you see, Calvin's been taking advantage of his opportunities, and that's why we drafted him here, to do those things. Mohamed is another guy. Austin Hooper is another one. I mean, it goes on. A lot of guys are stepping up and making plays when they get their one-on-one matchups." Former NFL coach Bruce Arians, now an analyst for CBS, was impressed with Jones' selfless approach when he sat down with the Falcons star last week. "Julio just wants to win," Arians said. "In talking to Julio, he's so happy for Calvin, and that's what it takes. You need a leader in the room that is unselfish and just wants to win, and they have that." Maybe Jones will find the end zone Sunday in Pittsburgh. Besides, the Steelers have allowed 12 touchdown passes to opponents, the second most in the league behind Tampa Bay (13). But for Jones, a win is much more important than breaking his personal scoreless streak. Right now the Falcons need the offense to carry the load with so many injuries on defense, and Jones firmly believes the offense hasn't played a complete game yet. "It's all about my teammates and being successful, at the end of the day," Jones said. "I've had a lot of success by myself, but it's not good when you can't go and accomplish things as a team and have success as a team."
  3. Don't shoot the messenger. Just posting it up.... FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons linebacker Duke Riley laughed sarcastically while reflecting on the "hate" that followed a subpar individual showing in Week 2 against the Carolina Panthers. Critics flexed their Twitter muscles at Riley, who was thrust into the spotlight at middle linebacker after foot surgery landed Pro Bowler Deion Jones on injured reserve. They jabbed at Riley about his performance, particularly after he failed to wrap up and tackle Panthers wide receiver DJ Moore down the middle on a play resulting in Moore's 51-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter. Riley clapped back. "Honestly, I like it," Riley said of being the target of criticism. "It motivates me. I go on Twitter now and people are just dogging me. But it's like, 'Y'all don't know me. If y'all knew me, you wouldn't say nothing, because y'all would [know] what I put in, what I've been through.' "You know what they were saying. You can type my name and look for whatever. Yeah, I missed the tackle at the end. Everybody misses tackles. But at the end of the day, I should have made the play. Of course I should have made it." Riley has grown accustomed to being doubted. The Louisiana native always was the kid viewed as too slow to ever really excel in football, baseball or whatever other sport he chose. "Where I'm from, even some of your family members dog you," Riley said. "Cousins dog you like, 'You ain't never going to be good enough.' Like, I was told [by family] I would never make it to the NFL and I'd never go to college -- by cousins and everybody." As Riley attempts to rebound with Sunday's NFC South clash (1 p.m. ET, Fox) against his home-state New Orleans Saints, he's always mindful of how his rugged, humbling, yet enjoyable past -- which included a brief bout with a potentially deadly illness and being displaced by Hurricane Katrina -- set him up for success today. Riley, a 2017 third-round draft pick from LSU, defied the odds. But he's far from content with just making it to the NFL. Growing pains Riley was too young to remember every detail, but he recalled sprawling across a hospital bed and being able only to wave to his parents through a glass window. At age 7, Riley said doctors told him he developed spinal meningitis, an infection of the fluid and membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. According to Mayo Clinic studies, the majority of spinal meningitis cases evolve from a viral infection, although bacterial, parasitic and fungal infections are other causes. "You know when somebody is in the hospital really sick and they have kids sending them letters? I was the one getting 'Get well' letters from kids I didn't even know," Riley said. "That's how bad it was. I really don't even know how I got over it. They were surprised I didn't die or even go blind." After a short hospital stay and treatment, Riley proceeded with living what to him was a normal life. He spent his early years in Buras, Louisiana, described by one tourism site as a "small town on a ribbon of road traversing the water-pocked islands and peninsulas of southernmost Louisiana." His father, Duke, worked in the oil fields while his mother, Kesha, was for the most part a stay-at-home mom who also owned a catering business and sometimes moonlighted as a chef. While other kids his age attempted swinging a bat or throwing a football, Riley fired his first BB gun at age 5 and was shooting a 12-gauge before the age of 10. He hunted squirrels, rabbits, ducks and hogs. And the days spent trolling down at the bayou created everlasting memories. "You know how you see people catching those shrimp in the big nets? Oh yeah, I loved it, man," Riley said. "Especially as a kid, sometimes you'd pick up a **** ... we picked up alligators in the trolley net before. We picked up stingrays." Riley said he lived in a three-bedroom trailer with at least 10 other family members, including his mother and grandmother, in 2005. "We used to sleep on a pad, but it was like blankets in the living room," Riley said. "The trailer was so messed up. They used to have holes in the floor. If you were outside, and someone who was walking in the house fell through the floor, you could see their legs. That's how bad it was. "But we were young. We didn't care. We were outside. I was happy. I think life was better back then." Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005, and Riley and his family evacuated to Baton Rouge to escape harm. The only item remaining in the trailer in Buras after the storm passed was a Bible, which Riley said miraculously managed to stay dry while sitting atop a mattress. Riley and his family moved to the town of Kaplan for the rest of '05, then eventually settled in Belle Chasse, 10 miles south of New Orleans. He still considers Buras home, which is why he plans to own a place there one day. "I just want my 2-year-old son [Elijah] to live the life I had as a kid, you know what I mean?" Riley said. "I want him to know what it's like to really use your hands. I don't want to live there because there's nothing there -- before Katrina, there was no Walmarts, and there's not a red light -- but I want a place there so I can get away and hunt and fish and spend the weekends down there with my son." The next phase Riley doesn't take for granted having a starting position in the NFL. He was somewhat of an afterthought coming out of John Curtis Christian School in River Ridge, Louisiana, when LSU didn't offer him a scholarship until a week before signing day. Even with the Tigers, he didn't become a regular starter until his final season in 2016. As a rookie starter at weakside linebacker for the Falcons last season, Riley encountered another obstacle when a meniscus tear set him back. "I don't worry about looking ahead anymore," Riley said. "I looked ahead last year, and I got hurt. I'm not doing that anymore. I'm taking everything day by day, moment by moment, and just enjoying it." The next step is proving the doubters wrong and showing he's a quality starter in the middle (until Jones returns, possibly Nov. 18) or at weakside linebacker. He is sure to be tested Sunday against one of the best quarterbacks of all time in Drew Brees and a dual-threat running back in Alvin Kamara, whom Riley might have match up with out of the backfield in coverage. Kamara had a team-high seven catches for 58 yards on nine targets when the Saints defeated the Falcons, 23-13, last December. Last week, the Falcons had trouble covering Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey out of the backfield as McCaffrey caught 14 passes for 102 yards on 15 targets. Riley tied teammate De'Vondre Campbell with a team-high nine combined tackles in the game, but he missed tackling McCaffrey across the middle right before surrendering the long touchdown to Moore. Falcons coach Dan Quinn wasn't too down on Riley's performance despite the noticeable hiccups. "I definitely thought he had emptied the bucket, in fact so much so at the end we put Foye [Oluokun] in at the end of the game where Duke had really played himself -- OK, he needs a blow and the next guy goes through, too," Quinn said. "So on the first game for him taking all the calls, we were encouraged. Is there going to be some on-the-job learning for him? You bet. But he was definitely ready for the challenge." The injured Jones offered Riley strong words of encouragement, telling Riley he did "a lot of great things" in the game. It would be hard for any player to give the Falcons the same time of production as Jones, who has developed into arguably the best coverage linebacker in the league with his 4.38 40-yard dash speed. Riley, a 4.58-guy, needs to be sound with his tackling and more disciplined with his angles and technique. "The next step for me is to take this next practice and go all out and do what I can," Riley said. "I'm not even worried about the game yet. I'm worried about improving today. "The more reps I get, the better I'll be. The story is always going to flip around. It always has done that throughout my life, so I know it will. I just keep digging. I keep doing what I do."
  4. Pretty interesting read. I think Sark is going to get this offense clicking.
  5. link Falcons' Deion Jones came of age in Philadelphia last year FLOWERY BRANCH , Ga. -- It was far from Deion Jones' best outing, but it was probably the one with the most impact for the young Atlanta Falcons middle linebacker outside of the Super Bowl. In Week 10 of the 2016 season, Jones and the Falcons visited Lincoln Financial Field to face the Philadelphia Eagles. It was Jones' 10th NFL game and sixth on the road during his rookie season. Deion Jones, a Rookie of the Year contender in 2016, managed to step up his game even more a year later with memorable plays. AP Photo/Danny Karnik The Eagles beat up the Falcons on both side of the ball in a 24-15 win. It was the first time the speedy Jones looked physically overmatched as a pro, with the Eagles' offensive linemen routinely getting to the second level and pushing the 220-plus-pound Jones out of the way. He learned he couldn't just rely on his speed and athleticism and needed to use his eyes, leverage, and hands. And there were moments in that game when Jones had to rotate with reserve linebacker and primary special teamer LaRoy Reynolds. "It was the turning point for myself last year, realizing what I could do better," Jones said as the Falcons prepare for a return to Philadelphia for Saturday's NFC divisional playoff game. "It came at the right time. It helped me out during the next stretch. I pretty much have taken everything that I learned from that experience. Now, it's time to put it on display another week." Jones, who finished third in the Defensive Rookie of the Year voting a year ago, took his game to the next level this season while leading the Falcons in tackles. His leaping, game-saving interception of Drew Brees in a home win over the New Orleans Saints was one of the most memorable moments of the season. The one aspect of his game Jones said improved the most from last season's loss at Philadelphia was his communication. "Communicating and being on my details," Jones said. "I feel like I've been doing a good job with that season. Now, I just have to keep the ball rolling." Falcons defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel has seen Jones' growth spurt since the last trip to Philadelphia. "I'll tell you one thing: He has become the leader of our defense," Manuel said. "Granted, he was maturing from that process. Even from that Philly game on, you saw that maturation process. This year, he has taken that even further, not only in the run game but in the passing game." Manuel said the perfect example of how Jones has matured into a leadership role is when Jones glances over to the sideline and screams, "M, I got it. I heard you the first time." To Manuel, it's a sign of a player who knows how to orchestrate a defense. "It's not said in a disrespectful way," Manuel noted. "Now I can go talk to the DBs. I always talk to [Jones] first, then I talk to Rico [free safety Ricardo Allen] to tell everybody on the back end. We are so unison that it helps the communication." The defense has been a big part of the Falcons' late-season success. Falcons coach Dan Quinn mentioned numerous times the jump between Years 1 and 2 for players such as Jones, strong safety Keanu Neal, linebacker De'Vondre Campbell and nickel back Brian Poole. The Falcons had 3,071 defensive snaps from rookies last season, the most in the NFL according to ESPN Stats & Information. The next step for Jones and company is slowing down what has the potential to be a solid Eagles running game, led by Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount. Ajayi was with the Miami Dolphinswhen he rushed for 130 yards on 26 carries in an October win over the Falcons. The Falcons aren't ignoring the Eagles' passing game, with Nick Foles in at quarterback after MVP candidate Carson Wentz suffered a season-ending ACL tear. "He's still a good quarterback and you can't sleep on him," Jones said of Foles. "He did do his thing with that team for a minute. It's just a matter of locking in and doing what we have to do." The Falcons are 5-1 this season, including the playoffs, when they hold an opponent to 17 or fewer points. The Eagles averaged 28.6 points per game during the regular season but most of it was with Wentz at quarterback. The Eagles scored 34 points in Foles' first start in place of Wentz against the New York Giants. Foles had four touchdown passes in a 34-29 win.
  6. Falcons' defense 2017: Yards per game (9th), rushing ypg. (9th), passing ypg. (12th), red zone (5th), points (8th). 2016: Ypg. (25th), Rypg. (17th), Pypg (28th), red zone (32nd), points (27th).… So stoked about what this defense can be.