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Atlanta Falcons Team Report


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Atlanta Falcons Team Report

The Falcons' offseason master plan was based on getting younger, faster, and more mobile, agile and hostile on defense.

So out went longtime veterans like five-time Pro Bowler Keith Brooking and safety Lawyer Milloy. A lot of tackles and the glue the held together a bend-but-not break defense was gone.

But the bleeding didn't stop there as cornerback Domonique Foxworth, strong-side linebacker Michael Boley, and defensive tackle Grady Jackson were also allow to walk out of the Flowery Branch facilities.

Four were allowed to leave during free agency, while Milloy was not re-signed. Foxworth was the most noticeable departure. The Falcons didn't want to match the lucrative four-year, $27.2 million deal he received from Baltimore.

In order to achieve their goals, the Falcons spent seven of their eight draft picks on defense, trying to re-stock the cupboard with youth and speed. They also signed linebacker Mike Peterson from Jacksonville.

But the rookie class got off to a slow start in training camp.

Defensive tackle Peria Jerry is starting to show reasons why the Falcons picked him with the 24th pick in the draft.

Safety William Moore needed arthroscopic surgery on his left knee and missed all of training camp. When he returned, he pulled a hamstring on the same leg.

Cornerback Christopher Owens has been underwhelming in coverage.

So while the Falcons relied heavily on last season's rookie class to propel them to the playoffs, the 2009 class doesn't look like it's going to provide that same initial boost.

Peterson is taking over for Brooking. Stephen Nicholas, a third-year man, is set to play Boley's old strong-side spot.

They will replace Jackson with a committee that will include Jerry and Trey Lewis.

Erik Coleman moved over to strong safety, Milloy's old spot while second-year man Thomas DeCoud steps in at free safety.

The problem spot has been left cornerback. After Brent Grimes had a tough preseason and Owens showed he wasn't ready for full-time duty, the Falcons made a deal for former first-rounder Tye Hill.

They are hoping a change of scenario will help his resurrect his once promising career.

"He's a guy that is going to have an opportunity to come in here and compete," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "Anytime we can upgrade our roster, that's something that we want to do."

Hill played in 10 games as a rookie, eight games the following season and four last season after he tore cartilage in his knee. He started 21 of the 28 games.

"We look at all of the top guys coming out," said Emmitt Thomas, the Falcons' assistant head coach/secondary. "I remember when he was coming out of Clemson. He was a guy about 5-10, real fast and quick."

So much of the training camp focus has been on the defense that the fact that tight end Tony Gonzalez, the 10-time Pro Bowler and future Hall of Famer, was acquired has been all most overlooked. Also, there was that little holdout by Roddy White. White missed almost two weeks before he signed a six-year, $49 million contract extension and hit training camp.

To build on their 11-5 record and wildcard playoff appearance, the Falcons have to quickly integrate Gonzalez into the attack and come up with some quality replacements on defense.

Also, Matt Ryan, can't stumble coming of his rookie-of-the-year campaign. He's felt much more comfortable in his second training camp.

"No question about it," Ryan said. "Just from understanding what it takes from week end to week out to be prepared. What it's like traveling. There are so many factors that go into it. I feel a lot more comfortable this year. Hopefully, with that we'll get better play than we had last year."

The franchise's dubious 43-year streak of never posting back-to-back winning seasons is on the line. If they don't find some answers on defense, the streak could remain intact.

COACHING: Mike Smith, 2nd year, 2nd with Falcons (11-6).

REMEMBERING: 2008 record: 11-5 (2nd in NFC South); lost in wild-card game to Arizona Cardinals, 30-24.

PREDICTING: 2009 regular season record 7-9 (2nd in NFC South); will not make the playoffs.


—TE Ben Hartsock and DB Von Hutchins, members of the highly touted 2008 free agency class, were released by the Falcons.

"This is the time of year when you have to make roster moves," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "They've done a nice job while they were here, but it was a football decision that we made."

Over the 2008 offseason, when the Falcons signed running back Michael Turner, they also added Hartsock and Hutchins.

Hartsock, was a blocking tight end who caught only three passes last season, signed a four-year, signed a $9 million deal with $2.25 million guaranteed. Hutchins, who spent last season on injured reserve after suffering a Lisfranc (foot) injury), signed a four-year, $9-million deal with $2.35 million guaranteed.

—TEs Keith Zinger and Jason Rader are in a battle for the final tight end position on the roster behind Tony Gonzalez and Justin Peelle.

"I think that the other two guys that are still on our roster are viable options," Smith said.

—While the starters will not play much this week, the first-team secondary will be under scrutiny.

"We got a little dented from last week's game, but they came back this week and have worked hard," said Emmitt Thomas, assistant head coach/secondary. "We are eager to put that behind us."

—Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey likes the play of veteran pickups Marty Booker and Robert Ferguson.

"Booker, against San Diego made plays inside and outside," Mularkey said. "Ferguson made plays outside. They both have enough experience to know what it takes to play in this league. They've done well for being here for a short time."

—C Todd McClure raises bucking Bulls on his 60-acre ranch in Louisiana.

"My uncle was a bull rider," McClure said. "He was a rodeo clown for awhile. I like going to the rodeos. It is something that I have a passion for. Then one of my uncle's good friends also wanted to do it. He raised a bunch of roping steers. He'd haul those to rodeos, too.

"We just kind of got hooked. Two years ago, we brought 24 mommy cows that were bucking stock and they were breed that way. Now, we've probably got around 60. We went out and brought a herd sire. I don't know how much you know about rodeo. But there's a bull call Blueberry Wine, one of the best bucking bulls every. We brought a son of his to breed all of our cows too. ... it's hobby of mine. I really enjoy it. That's kind of what I'll do when I get done playing. I've got 60 acres back in Louisiana. I'm trying to get a little more around the property that I've got now. I enjoy it. The kids enjoy it. The wife enjoys it. My son got his first bull. It was a little small bull that we are raising. He'd been begging me to get on. I let him name it. It's Maverick's Missile."

BY THE NUMBERS: 12.98 — The yards per completion average for Matt Ryan in 2008 which ranked second in the NFL.

16.5 — DE John Abraham's sack total for 2008, a franchise record. He had 11.5 from the right side and five from the left side.

376 — How many carries Michael Turner had during the regular season in 2008, which led the NFL.

251 — Consecutive regular-season games PK Jason Elam has scored at least on point.

112 — Consecutive regular-season games C Todd McClure has started, dating back to 2001.

36 — Consecutive regular-season games in which Roddy White has caught at least one pass.

10 — Consecutive years TE Tony Gonzalez has been named to the Pro Bowl.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's a great guy. He's a great corner. He has all of the tools. He'll be a great addition to our team." — Falcons safety Jamaal Fudge of cornerback Tye Hill. The two played together in college at Clemson.



—CB Chris Houston had a tough day guarding San Diego's Vincent Jackson in the third preseason game. He was coming off a groin injury.

—PK Jason Elam has been perfect on 6-of-6 field goals in the preseason.

—QB Matt Ryan has a preseason passer rating of 113.3, while completing 26 of 35 passes (74.3%) for two touchdowns through three preseason games.

—RB Michael Turner is averaging 7.0 yards per carry in the preseason.

—WR Marty Booker, who was signed as a free agent on Aug. 6, leads the team in receptions with 10 in the preseason.

—LB Tony Gilbert, who was inactive for all 16 games last season, has had a strong preseason which included a 42-yard interception return for a touchdown.

After Philip Rivers and Billy Volek tortured the Falcons cornerbacks in the third preseason game, the team didn't sit quietly.

Unhappy with the soft play of Chris Houston and Brent Grimes, general manager Thomas Dimitroff struck a deal with St. Louis for cornerback Tye Hill, who was struggling there and had been injury plagued.

Hill will be expected to compete for the starting left cornerback position. He was the 15th player taken in the 2006 draft, but the Falcons only sent a 7th round draft pick to the Rams for Hill.

PLAYER TO WATCH: WR Eric Weems, after spending parts of the last two seasons on Atlanta's practice squad, is closing in on a roster spot. After being signed as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Bethune-Cookman in 2007, Weems has been on the Falcons practice squad before being elevated to the 53-man roster late in each of the last two seasons. He played in six games last season and even caught one pass from scrimmage. After the season-ending injury to Harry Douglas, Weems has a 34-yard punt return to his credit in the preseason.


Rd. 1/24, DT Peria Jerry, Mississippi — Did not start the first two exhibition games, but has played well and showed explosiveness off the ball. He has to play with a lower pad level and with better technique.

Rd. 2/55 SS William Moore, Missouri — Suffered a knee injury early in camp that required arthroscopic surgery. May have come back too soon — three weeks — went out and pulled the hamstring on the same leg.

Rd. 3/90 CB Christopher Owens, San Jose State — He's having some difficulty in man-to-man coverage, but is tough and has top-flight speed. Could eventually vie for a starting position once he adjusts to the speed of the game.

Rd. 4/125 DE Lawrence Sidbury, Richmond — Could be one of the steals of the draft. Plays extremely fast, but as to create more hand violence. Could hit the field as a designated pass rusher.

Rd. 5/138 CB William Middleton, Furman — Has been steady in the preseason and could help to fortify one of the weaker positions on the game. Has the ability to cover slot receivers and could find a spot in the nickel package.

Rd. 5/156 OT Garrett Reynolds, North Carolina — Is being groomed for the right tackle spot. He's a big kid, who needs to work on his footwork.


QUARTERBACKS: Starter — Matt Ryan. Backups — Chris Redman, D.J. Shockley, John Parker Wilson.

Ryan was spectacular as a rookie but in order to avoid another late-season dip in his play, he spent the offseason in the weight room bulking up and adding strength. Through 12 games he threw only six interceptions. Over the last five games he threw seven. Ryan is expected to continue to grow with a better understanding of defenses. Redman returns as Ryan's backup.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters — RB Michael Turner. FB Ovie Mughelli. Backups — Jerious Norwood, Jason Snelling, Thomas Brown.

After years as a backup to LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego, Turner showed that could carry a heavy load. He led the league with 376 carries on his way to 1,699 yards and a team-record 17 rushing touchdowns. Turner uses his great vision to find holes and accelerates through with power. Norwood provides a change of pace and is a dangerous third down back. He has developed into a nice pass-catching option out of the backfield. Mughelli is a solid lead blocker.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Tony Gonzalez. Backup — Justin Peelle.

Gonzalez was acquired in a pre-draft trade and provides Ryan with a vaunted pass catching threat. The 10-time Pro Bowler, who is 33, doesn't appear to have lost a step. He can still get down the field and is a big target on third downs and inside the red zone. Peelle was the top tight end last season and is solid at finding the soft spots in zones and is a more than adequate blocker. Last season, only six percent of Ryan's passes went in the direction of a tight end. Expect that percentage to triple.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Roddy White, Michael Jenkins. Backups — Marty Booker, Brian Finneran, Eric Weems, Robert Ferguson.

White and Michael Jenkins, two former first-round picks, are turning into one of the league's better tandems. White is seeking to post more than 1,200 yards receiving for the third consecutive season. Locking in White, who's strapped with a six-year contract extension worth $49 million, was extremely important for Ryan. Last season, Ryan threw 34 percent of his pass attempts in White's direction. White turned in a spectacular season in 2008, setting a franchise record with 1,382 yards and earning his first Pro Bowl trip. The Falcons suffered a blow in the preseason with the season-ending loss of slot receiver Harry Douglas.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters — LT Sam Baker, LG Justin Blalock, C Todd McClure, RG Harvey Dahl, RT Tyson Clabo. Backups — C/G Brett Romberg, T Will Svitek, T Garrett Reynolds, G Quinn Ojinnaka.

The unit, which paved the way for Turner and cut their sacks from 47 to 17, returns intact. Baker, a second-year man, had an injury marred rookie campaign, but played strong when healthy. Veteran Todd Weiner retired so some depth was needed behind the starting tackles. Svitek was acquired from Kansas City and Reynolds, the nephew of Jack "Hacksaw" Reynolds, was drafted. McClure is back to anchor the line. Dahl and Clabo make up a solid right side that is developing a reputation for the nasty style of play and blocking to the whistle. Blalock came on in his second season. Romberg was picked up from St. Louis to provide some interior depth.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters — LE Chauncey Davis, RT Peria Jerry, LT Jonathan Babineaux, RE John Abraham. Backups — E Jamaal Anderson, E William Sidbury, DL Kroy Biermann, DL Trey Lewis.

The rotation approach is en vogue with the Falcons, who try to limit Abraham's snaps to around 40 a game. They'd prefer to use 7 to 8 players that they can rotate in order to retain some freshness for late in the game. Abraham was a terror last season with a team-record 16.5 sacks and was voted second-team All-Pro. Jerry, the team's first-round pick, will get the first shot to replace Grady Jackson at nose tackle. He has an excellent burst off the ball. Babineaux plays bigger than his size at under tackle. Lewis (knee) returns after spending last on injured reserve.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — WLB Mike Person, MLB Curtis Lofton, SLB Stephen Nicholas. Backups — Coy Wire, Tony Gilbert.

Lofton has lowered his body fat and lost some weight in an attempt to improve his speed and quickness. He is set to play on all three downs. He came out in nickel situations last year. Nicholas, a third-year veteran, has been a maven on special teams. The Falcons signed Peterson to takeover for the departed Keith Brooking. He is familiar with the defense from his days of playing under Falcons coach Mike Smith when he was their defensive coordinator. Wire is versatile enough to back up all of the LB positions.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Brent Grimes, FS Thomas DeCoud, SS Erik Coleman, RCB Chris Houston. Backups — Tye Hill, Christopher Owens, William Middleton, Jamaal Fudge, William Moore, Antoine Harris.

Coleman was moved over to strong safety and will take over the role as the team's enforcer. DeCoud, a second-year player from Cal, has won the free safety spot. Houston and Grimes will open the season at cornerback, with Chevis Jackson in for nickel duty. Three defensive backs — Moore, Owens and Middleton — were added in the draft. The rookies will be brought along slowly.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Jason Elam, P Michael Koenen, LS Michael Schneck, KR Jerious Norwood, PR Eric Weems.

The hang-time on Koenen's punts allowed the coverage unit to break the record for fewest yards (49) gained in a 16-game season. Elam is one of the game's clutch kickers. Koenen handles the kickoff chores. Weems is replacing the injured Harry Douglas, who was developing into a touchdown threat.

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The problem spot has been left cornerback. After Brent Grimes had a tough preseason and Owens showed he wasn't ready for full-time duty, the Falcons made a deal for former first-rounder Tye Hill.

:blink: huh? REALLY?!?!?

I saw a 6'5" receiver push off Grimes and haul in a catch but for the most part I've seen Grimes blanketing his man.

Houston, on the other hand, was getting used up and down the field.

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I noticed he said Hill will compete for the *left* cornerback spot. Where did he get that? Last I heard, the coaching staff had not yet decided that. Have they made that decision, or is the article jumping the gun?

He's most likely jumping the gun. If anything, Houston is the one that will be replaced if he keeps hauling in efforts like he did against San Diego. He cant cover well and has no ball skills...at least Grimes can make a play on the ball.

Either way, Hill won't start for at least a couple weeks or so.

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Owens hasn't been as bad as this guys making him out to be. He's been step for step on almost every pass.........This guy needs someone to check his write ups before he submits them, there are a lot of typos.

Yeah, he also said Elam has been perfect on field goals ... but I thought Elam missed one early on. Maybe it was an extra point he missed. Either way, the article gives a false impression of perfection. No biggie, but an annoying little error.

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Yeah, he also said Elam has been perfect on field goals ... but I thought Elam missed one early on. Maybe it was an extra point he missed. Either way, the article gives a false impression of perfection. No biggie, but an annoying little error.

I think he missed a field goal in the Bears game.....

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