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Atlanta vs Detroit....Sports Network Indepth Preview


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NFL Preview - Detroit (0-0) at Atlanta (0-0)

By Tony Moss, NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - Matt Ryan will take his first tentative steps as a pro on Sunday, when the No. 3 overall pick in the 2008 Draft leads the Atlanta Falcons into battle against the visiting Detroit Lions at the Georgia Dome.

Ryan, formerly a three-year starter at Boston College, was handed the reins of the Atlanta offense by new head coach Mike Smith following the third week of the preseason. His selection in April was heralded as a page-turning event for an organization that last year suffered through the turmoil of the Michael Vick dogfighting controversy, then was forced to deal with the abrupt resignation of head coach Bobby Petrino with three games left in the 2007 campaign.

After losing two of their final three contests to finish at 4-12, the Falcons and owner Arthur Blank hired a new general manager, ex-Patriots personnel assistant Thomas Dimitroff, following a brief flirtation with Bill Parcells. Weeks later, the team tabbed former Jaguars defensive coordinator Smith as its next head coach, and the new brain trust of the organization promptly began turning over a roster clearly in need of an overhaul.

Veterans like Warrick Dunn, Alge Crumpler, Rod Coleman and DeAngelo Hall were shipped out, while Ryan and five more players selected in the first three rounds of the Draft helped usher in a youth movement. In addition, brought in to fill the running back void left by Dunn was former Chargers running back Michael Turner, who will be a starter for the first time in his career after providing occasional thrilling moments as a backup to LaDainian Tomlinson.

Contending with the new-look Falcons on Sunday will be another franchise attempting to finally emerge from the depths of despair, or at least mediocrity.

The Lions' 7-9 record last season was the organization's best since 2000, but a club that went 1-7 in the second half of 2007 after a promising first eight games underwent its share of change in the offseason as well.

The biggest offseason defection was that of offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who was fired after two seasons on the job. In his place will be former Purdue head coach Jim Colletto, promoted after a year guiding the offensive line. Colletto is expected to display a more balanced approach than the pass-happy one exhibited by Martz.

The defense also got a face-lift, with head coach Rod Marinelli bringing in a number of his ex-Buccaneers charges - cornerback Brian Kelly, safeties Dwight Smith and Kalvin Pearson, tackle Chuck Darby, and most recently linebacker Ryan Nece - to hopefully add some substance to his Tampa-2 scheme.

The Lions were last in the league in scoring defense and 31st in NFL passing defense a year ago.


The Lions lead the all-time series with Atlanta, 23-9, including a 30-14 home victory when the teams last met, in 2006 at Ford Field. The Falcons won the previous matchup, 27-7 in Detroit on Thanksgiving 2005. That loss precipitated the dismissal of Detroit head coach Steve Mariucci with five games remaining in the season. The Lions were 17-10 winners in their most recent trip to Atlanta, in 2004. The Falcons' most recent home win in the series came in 2002.

Marinelli is 1-0 in his career against the Falcons, while Atlanta's Smith will be meeting both Marinelli and the Lions for the first time as a head coach.


Detroit's strength continues to lie in the passing game, where quarterback Jon Kitna (4068 passing yards, 18 TD in 2007) and wideouts Roy Williams (63 receptions, 5 TD) and Calvin Johnson (48 receptions, 4 TD) will certainly be a concern for the Falcons defense. Kitna has posted back-to-back 4,000-yard seasons, but also threw an NFC-high 20 interceptions a year ago and was sacked 51 times. The balanced attack is expected to bring his numbers - of both the good and bad variety - down in 2008. The veteran signal-caller had a near- perfect 150.5 passer rating during the preseason, and Johnson and Williams each caught a touchdown pass. In order for the offense to work, one of the league's weakest running games of the last two years will have to be productive. Rookie Kevin Smith (3rd Round, Central Florida) will likely get the first crack in the backfield, with recently-acquired ex-Bengals starter Rudi Johnson (497 rushing yards, 14 receptions, 4 TD with Cincinnati) serving as the backup for now.

The Lions will undoubtedly look to test a young Falcons secondary early and often. Of the four cornerbacks on the Atlanta roster, only one - second-year- pro Chris Houston (58 tackles) - has any starting experience. The other CB starter, Brent Grimes (12 tackles), is a first-year free agent from Division II Shippensburg. In that respect, the pressure on veteran safeties Lawyer Milloy (90 tackles, 2 INT) and Erik Coleman (51 tackles with Jets) will be great. Atlanta will also need starting defensive ends John Abraham (32 tackles, 10 Sacks) and Jamaal Anderson (30 tackles) to apply heat to Kitna in order to keep the pressure off the men on the back end. Anderson, a 2007 first-round pick who had a disappointing rookie season, needs to have a breakout campaign. Though they finished 26th in the league against the run a year ago, the Falcons are probably best up the middle, with tackles Grady Jackson (21 tackles) and Jonathan Babineaux (44 tackles, 3 sacks), along with outside linebackers Michael Boley (109 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INT) and Keith Brooking (110 tackles, 2 sacks), all lending experience. Rookie middle linebacker Curtis Lofton (2nd Round, Oklahoma) is a newbie, and an important one.


Ryan showed enough during a preseason that saw him complete 34-of-59 passes for 294 yards, with two touchdowns and a pick, to win the starting job over holdovers Chris Redman and (the since-released) Joey Harrington. The youngster's biggest problem could be finding time to throw, since left tackle Sam Baker (USC) is a rookie and center Todd McClure is the only o-lineman with more than two years of experience. When he throws it, Ryan will look to locate Roddy White (83 receptions, 6 TD) and Michael Jenkins (53 receptions, 4 TD). White had a breakout season in 2007 despite Atlanta's fluid quarterback situation. Ben Hartsock (12 receptions with Titans) is the starter at tight end, but is better known for his blocking abilities than his pass-catching. Despite the presence of Ryan, the Falcons and coordinator Mike Mularkey will likely try to employ a run-first approach, with Turner (316 rushing yards, 1 TD with Chargers) and holdover Jerious Norwood (613 rushing yards, 1 TD, 28 receptions) doing the dirty work. Turner and Norwood have never been full-time load-carriers, but both have averaged well over five yards per rush during their pro careers.

Ryan, White, and company will look to take advantage of a Lions secondary that had its struggles a year ago but was upgraded in the offseason. The two new starters are cornerback Brian Kelly (21 tackles, 2 INT with Buccaneers) and safety Dwight Smith (51 tackles, 4 INT with Vikings), who have better cover ability than their predecessors. Cornerback Travis Fisher (78 tackles, 2 INT) and free safety Gerald Alexander (72 tackles, 2 INT, 2 sacks) are the holdovers. A pass rush that no longer has the services of top 2007 sack man and tackle Shaun Rogers will have to apply some pressure to the rookie. Ends Dewayne White (43 tackles, 6.5 sacks) and Jared DeVries (29 tackles, 6.5 sacks) will look to take advantage of a young Falcons line. The run-stopping group lost its biggest space-eater, Rogers, but believes the lighter Darby (12 tackles with Seahawks) and Cory Redding (37 tackles) can be more effective in the scheme. Weak side linebacker Ernie Sims (134 tackles) and middle man Paris Lenon (118 tackles, 2 sacks) were 1-2 on the team in stops a year ago.


It's hard to know just how great an impact the change in scheme is going to have on the Lions' fantasy numbers. You have to believe a team with weapons like Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson is going to utilize them frequently, and though Kitna's passing numbers will undoubtedly go down, he won't kill fantasy managers with turnovers either. Probably best to wait and see on any of Detroit's running backs, starting tight end Michael Gaines, and/or the overhauled defense.

The Falcons have few fantasy plays, though Turner figures to see the football a lot in Week 1 and White was a remarkably consistent fantasy receiver a year ago given the state of Atlanta's quarterback situation. Like Detroit counterpart Jason Hanson, the Falcons' Jason Elam is a veteran with a reliable leg, especially in a dome.


The Lions' rebuilding project is in year three of its current phase, while the Falcons' begins on Sunday. Frankly, if Detroit can't beat a rookie quarterback guiding a team that went 4-12 a year ago and possesses a bunch of new faces working together for the first time, than Rod Marinelli should be very worried about the long-prospects for his team in 2008. The Falcons do have some talent and won't roll over and die in Week 1, but the Lions should be more cohesive and make fewer mistakes in their first test of the year.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Lions 20, Falcons 14

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