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  1. http://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/33656/ex-falcon-roddy-white-believes-julio-jones-can-catch-jerry-rice 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."
  2. A little something positive in this season http://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/33430/gunshot-survivor-now-in-falcons-brotherhood-thanks-to-austin-hooper 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."
  3. http://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/33383/even-brian-urlachers-eager-for-falcons-deion-jones-to-return 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).
  4. http://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/33332/falcons-players-never-jumped-off-steve-sarkisian-bandwagon 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."
  5. http://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/33313/return-of-the-alex-mack-cleveland-helped-falcons-center-become-great 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."
  6. http://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/24883563 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.
  7. http://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/32993/no-touchdowns-yet-for-julio-jones-but-he-prefers-wins-instead 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."
  8. Don't shoot the messenger. Just posting it up.... http://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/32867/falcons-duke-riley-used-to-adversity-ready-to-tackle-it-again 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."
  9. Pretty interesting read. I think Sark is going to get this offense clicking. http://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/32354/entering-year-2-oc-steve-sarkisian-ready-to-unleash-falcons
  10. 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.
  11. 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). espn.com/espn/now?nowId… So stoked about what this defense can be.