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Falcons In-Season News

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One reason to celebrate, one reason to worry after Falcons’ victory over Panthers

 

by William McFadden Dec 27, 2016, 10:00am EST

The Falcoholic  


 

Christmas came a day early for the Falcons, who now hold the No. 2 seed in the playoff hunt thanks to a win over Carolina and a last-second victory by Arizona against Seattle.

Matt Ryan had another excellent day and several players contributed against the Panthers. A whopping 10 players caught a pass on Saturday, and Ryan set an NFL record when he found D.J. Tialavea for a 1-yard touchdown, the 13th different Atlanta player to catch a touchdown pass this season.

The Falcons didn’t reach the end zone as often as they could have and attempted five field goals on the afternoon, but their defense played a solid game overall and continued a promising trend of improvement.

A bye week is on the line against New Orleans, which should give Atlanta even more motivation to sweep its hated rival. The Georgia Dome should be at fever pitch for its final home game, which is the most fitting way for it to enter retirement.

Before that important showdown, however, let’s take a look back at what we need to celebrate and worry about after the Christmas Eve victory.

First and foremost, we should take a moment to celebrate the Atlanta Falcons earning a trip to the playoffs for the first time since 2012!! Let’s go win the Super Bowl, full stop.

One reason to celebrate

Deion Jones: It’s no secret that Arthur Blank wanted three starters to come out of the 2016 NFL Draft, which has been easily accomplished, but the Falcons went above and beyond, and may have found a central figure for several years on defense.

Jones leads the team in tackles, he has one more than fellow rookie Keanu Neal, and recorded a game-high 13 stops against Carolina. Those stats only tell half of the story, however. Jones was very good at limiting yards after the catch and got to the receiver at the same time as the ball.

There were a couple of instances when Jones attempted to undercut the receiver and was just a second too slow. Impressively, his attempt at a big play never prevented him from securing the tackle and allowing a big gain. As he gains experience and a great feel for the game, he should become better at making a true impact in those moments.

Jones has not been perfect all season, but he’s improved faster than most probably expected. His athleticism is apparent and he’s picked up the mental side of the game quickly. Jones’ performance has coincided with the defense’s better play of late, and the future looks bright indeed.

One reason to worry

Breakdowns on the offensive line: We’ve seen over the course of this season what stability up front can mean to a team. The addition of Alex Mack at center solidified the offensive line and the Falcons’ offense has become a historic group.

The play of the guys up front will be even more important in the playoffs, and hopefully, Saturday was an aberration and not a sign of things to come. Ryan was sacked a total of four times and had he not become a virtual wizard at various points against Carolina, he would have been on the ground a few more times.

Atlanta’s only two punts in the first half came on drives in which Ryan was sacked. The Falcons’ offense is at its best when Ryan has time in the pocket to go through his progressions and find the right matchup. Against the Panthers, Ryan’s pocket closed several times, forcing him to hit the check-down man and preventing big plays.

For much of the season, Atlanta’s offensive line has been a major strength. There’s no reason to believe that won’t continue to be the case as we head towards the postseason, but we got a glimpse of how breakdowns can negatively impact this incredible offense.

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NFL power rankings 2016: Atlanta Falcons are (almost) a consensus top five team in week 17

 

by James Rael@falcoholicjames Dec 28, 2016, 12:02am EST

The Falcoholic  


 

The Atlanta Falcons will play an important game Sunday. They have the opportunity to control their own destiny (at least to some extent) in the playoffs. A first round bye and the rest it would afford the team would undoubtedly pay substantial dividends. Meanwhile, Matt Ryan is just about 400 passing yards from making history, catapulting his MVP candidacy in the process. In short, big things are ahead. But it's Tuesday, and there are power rankings to break down, so let's get to it.


The Falcons are on pace for 535 points scored this season, which would be the most for a team since the 2013 Broncos scored 606. The Falcons' high-flying offense needs one more big effort in Week 17 against New Orleans to keep a first-round bye intact.


They have improved on defense, which will be key come playoff time. They have to get stops.


Dude, Matt Ryan is not playing around. How does 27 of 33 for 277 yards and two touchdowns suit you? Look, he's not gonna win the MVP. Don't think enough people around the league are taking notice of Ryan's exploits. Tom Brady, Derek Carr and perhaps Ezekiel Elliott are probably ahead of Ryan in the voters' minds. That said, the numbers for the face of the Falcons franchise are staggering: He's completing just about 70 percent of his passes, owns nearly a 5:1 TD-to-INT ratio and ranks third in the league in passing yards (4,613). Oh, and he's led Atlanta to its first NFC South title since 2012. With that high-octane offense, the Falcons could be a scary opponent in the playoffs.


Atlanta has entrenched itself as a top-five team in my power rankings. Don't expect that to change anytime soon. With a hit-you-from-all-angles passing attack and an underrated defense, the Falcons are as good a bet as any to unseat the Cowboys atop the NFC. Let's talk about that defense for a moment. It has now surrendered under 20 points in four of its last five outings. It even features a premier pass-rusher in Vic Beasley. It just manhandled the reigning NFC champions. Any reason why teams shouldn't fear these guys?


The Falcons are back in the playoffs and they are playing well. Their offense will present problems for any opponent during the postseason. But will their defense play well enough for them to keep pace with the NFC's best teams?

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Saints have to admit rival Matt Ryan is deserving MVP contender

 

SN Staff

ESPN.com | 7:00 AM ET


 

METAIRIE, La. -- For the second year in a row, the New Orleans Saints might have to watch one of their biggest NFC South rivals earn the league MVP award.

Last season it was Cam Newton. Now Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is having a career year in his ninth NFL season, making him a front-runner for the award along with Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers and other possibilities.

Perhaps the Saints (7-8) can try to spoil it for Ryan by leaving a bad last impression of him when they travel to Atlanta on Sunday.

But that would require silencing one of the NFL’s hottest players.

Ryan has thrown for 307.5 yards per game and 34 touchdown passes with only seven interceptions -- all career-best numbers -- for the 10-5 Falcons.

His passer rating of 115.5 is the fifth best in NFL history, according to Pro Football Reference. And his yards per attempt (9.26) are the most since Kurt Warner in 2000, according to ESPN Stats & Information’s database.

Ryan also became the first NFL quarterback ever to throw touchdown passes to 13 different players in a season by Week 16, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Both Saints quarterback Drew Brees and coach Sean Payton said Ryan is definitely deserving of the MVP talk, though neither one wanted to offer up a definitive vote for the award.

Defensive end Cameron Jordan was even more reluctant with his praise.

“He’s been playing extremely well. [But] I don’t know if I can ... I mean, I’m probably too biased to give him the MVP nod. But he’s been playing extremely well,” said Jordan, adding that Ryan is “no doubt” playing the best football he has seen from him.

“He’s tops in the league. What he’s done with the offense has been nothing short of incredible,” Jordan said. “Does that put him MVP? I don’t know, I can’t give him that. You’re looking in the wrong spot.”

The Falcons’ offense, which has benefited from dynamic receiver Julio Jones for years, is also benefiting now from recent additions such as second-year offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, newly acquired Pro Bowl center Alex Mack and the dynamic young running-back duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.

Atlanta ranks second behind the Saints in the NFL in total yardage (412.5 per game). But the Falcons rank first in yards per play at 6.61, the fifth highest of any team in the Super Bowl era, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

The Falcons also rank No. 1 in points per game (33.5).

Payton said Ryan’s lack of turnovers and the way the Falcons have spread the ball around to so many targets are two among many things that have really stood out to him this season.

“Oh, I have a hard time picking one guy [for MVP]. There’s been a lot of obviously great performers. He’s certainly a strong candidate. He’s played outstanding,” Payton said. “When you look at not just the [yardage and scoring statistics], I think he’s done a real good job with ball security. One thing you see with this team offensively that’s noticeably different this year is they’re in the top five in the league in regards to fewest giveaways [tied for second with 11].

“And, you know, it’s not like they’re playing very conservative. I think they run the ball very well, but they’re pretty wide open. They get the ball down the field, but very few fumbles and interceptions. To get a takeaway, you’re gonna have to earn it.”

The natural assumption with Ryan is that many of his stats can be attributed to throwing to Jones. But ESPN Stats & Info posted a breakdown this week showing that Ryan actually has completed 74 of his passes with 29 touchdowns and three interceptions when targeting everyone else.

Payton said the Saints put up charts on a team’s favorite targets in areas such as third down and the red zone. Two weeks ago, for instance, Payton said the Arizona Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald and David Johnson stood out well above the pack.

But with the Falcons this season, “there’s Julio, there’s [Mohamed] Sanu, there’s the runners, the tight ends, it just keeps going.”

“I think that makes it more challenging,” Payton said. “So that’s a credit to what they’re doing, and they’re doing it well.”

Saints safety Jairus Byrd agreed, saying Atlanta's offense is clearly “jelling” and “clicking” on tape while getting everyone involved, starting with the quarterback orchestrating all of it.

“He’s doing a great job,” Byrd said of Ryan. “On tape, he’s making all the throws, playing with a lot of confidence, and it’s impressive.”

 

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Kyle Shanahan won't let coaching interviews be a distraction

 

Vaughn McClure

ESPN.com | 12:12 PM ET


 

It came as little surprise when ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has a Friday head-coaching interview lined up with Jacksonville.

Shanahan should be a hot commodity as the architect behind the league's top scoring offense at 33.8 points per game. He is a big reason why the Falcons went 11-5 during the regular season and secured the NFC's No. 2 seed, which resulted in a first-round bye. The Falcons will host a second-round divisional playoff game on Jan. 14 at 4:35 p.m. ET.

This week's bye, which includes no practice on Friday for the Falcons, allows Shanahan to go through the interview process. It wouldn't be shocking to see him hit multiple destinations on his trek, if feasible. According to NFL rules, any interview of Shanahan must be conducted prior to the conclusion of the Wild Card games, with Sunday's Giants-Packers matchup at 4:40 p.m. ET being the last of those four games.

The Los Angeles Rams, as Schefter reported, started doing background work on Shanahan immediately after Jeff Fisher was fired and have requested an interview with Shanahan as well. The Rams scored a league-worst 14.0 points per game this season, so they should make Shanahan's brilliant offensive mind a top priority.

And, of course, there's Denver, where Shanahan served as a ball boy while his father, Mike, was winning Super Bowls as the Broncos' head coach. It would seem only natural for John Elway to make a push for Shanahan after Gary Kubiak stepped down for health reasons. Plus, Shanahan credited Kubiak for helping elevate his career, serving as Kubiak's offensive coordinator in Houston. No doubt Kubiak would endorse Shanahan as his successor.

Here's what Shanahan said on Dec. 15 when asked about the talk of him becoming a head coach:

"It's very flattering to be asked the question and people to ask you that stuff, but it's not hard to block it out because there's so much ... we've got a lot of stuff to do. I've kind of learned over the years, whether it's good or bad, I do a pretty good job of blocking it out. It doesn't help you either way.

"I appreciate people saying that stuff, but I know good things don't happen in this league unless you take care of your business. And we've got a lot of ways to go in this season. I think we're in a great position. I love where we're at right now, and I want to make sure we end this the right way."

Shanahan's mindset hasn't changed. He has mentioned multiple times how no coaches really are happy at the end of the season unless they've won the Super Bowl. The Falcons have a legitimate chance to get there despite the nation's love affair with the Dallas Cowboys.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn said he had discussions with Shanahan about the head-coachin possibilities without going into details about their talks. Quinn, who went through the interview process in the postseason when he was the Seattle Seahawks' defensive coordinator, can offer Shanahan a fresh perspective. The way Quinn handled it was doing all his interview prep prior to the season so there was "zero distraction" during the regular season and playoffs.

Shanahan probably followed the same procedure.

We'll see how everything unfolds, but the Falcons seem destined to lose Shanahan. Then there will be talk of how MVP candidate Matt Ryan will fare with yet another offensive coordinator. The Falcons would rather answer those questions after the Super Bowl, of course.

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First-round bye gives Julio Jones, Falcons chance to get healthier

 

Aaron Schatz

ESPN.com | 11:11 AM ET


 

ATLANTA -- Julio Jones exhaled in relief as he talked about his Atlanta Falcons securing a first-round playoff bye and earning the NFC's No. 2 seed.

“We're going take this bye week and get healthy, and then we'll see how everything pans out,” Jones said.

Certainly the Falcons need a little a rest and recovery before they begin their playoff journey Saturday, Jan. 14. Jones has dealt with a toe sprain for weeks now and continues to progress. Fellow wide receiver Taylor Gabriel missed Sunday's regular-season finale, nursing a foot injury. Rookie tight end Austin Hooper continues to recover from an MCL sprain. All three players are key factors for the league's top scoring offense heading into the postseason.

“It's [important] for us to get this bye week and get guys back out there on the field,” Jones said. "Myself included. I got nicked up early on, so this week right here will do me some good.”

Defensively, NFL sack champ Vic Beasley Jr. has an MRI scheduled for Monday after feeling his left shoulder pop out during Sunday's 38-32 win over the Saints. He'll welcome the week off, provided the exam doesn't reveal any serious damage.

“Definitely time to recover and get my injury in better health,” Beasley said. “So, we're looking forward to this bye week.”

 


The Falcons survived key injuries throughout the season and still finished 11-5 and won the NFC South. Pro Bowl cornerback Desmond Trufant was lost to season-ending pectoral surgery, but Jalen Collins has stepped in and performed admirably in his place. The loss of productive veteran tight end Jacob Tamme was minimized as players such as Levine Toilolo, rookie Joshua Perkins and long shot D.J. Tialavea contributed touchdown receptions from the position. And the vocal leadership provided by veteran linebacker Sean Weatherspoon before going down to a season-ending Achilles tear was missed, but rookie Deion Jones started raising his voice.

Now the Falcons just have to maintain a good bill of health for the next month or so. Fans certainly cringed watching Beasley exit to the locker room Sunday. Then rookie strong safety and first-round pick Keanu Neal exited and was evaluated for a head injury after a crushing hit on Saints receiver Willie Snead.

“I felt fine,” Neal said. “I was a little dizzy, but that's part of the game. They went through safety precautions and took me in, but that's part of it. They're big on safety, particularly head injuries. And the bye is huge because it allows us to recover.”

The other injuries to monitor before the Falcons host a game in the second round are cornerback Robert Alford's knee and the leg injury to nickelback Brian Poole.

“Essentially it's like a playoff win today, getting us to the second round,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “As far as time off, we will see what [coach] Dan [Quinn] has scheduled for us. It will be a good chance for us and the guys who need rest to get healthy.”

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Dan Quinn: Vic Beasley (shoulder) has no limitations moving forward

 

Vaughn McClure

ESPN.com | 4:25 PM ET


 

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn said star pass-rusher Vic Beasley Jr., who suffered a left shoulder injury in Sunday's regular-season finale against the New Orleans Saints, will practice during this playoff bye week.

Beasley told reporters he felt his shoulder pop out of place and thought it was his labrum, the same injury he played through last season in his right shoulder. Quinn expressed little concern about Beasley's injury without sharing specifics of what Monday's MRI might have revealed.

"He did great and came back into the game and finish the game, so no limitations for him moving forward," Quinn said. "It was sore, but he did a really good job."

Asked if Beasley would practice this week, Quinn said, "He will, yep."

Beasley finished as the NFL's sack leader with 15.5, two ahead of reigning Super Bowl MVP Von Miller.

"We're all pumped for him," Quinn said of Beasley. "One of the byproducts of that is his ability to get the ball. So for him to have the forced fumbles this year that he did [six] -- between he and Keanu Neal -- that's been a real factor."

In other injury news, Quinn said tight end Austin Hooper, recovering from a sprained MCL, and wide receiver Taylor Gabriel, who suffered a foot injury, will return to practice this week. The Falcons will have a couple of light practices on Wednesday and Thursday and will get an extended break starting Friday. Some of the other banged up players to monitor this week include wide receiver Julio Jones (toe) and cornerback Robert Alford (knee).

As the NFC's No. 2 seed, the Falcons will await their second-round opponent -- possibly the No. 3 seed Seattle Seahawks, who face the No. 6 seed Detroit Lions on Saturday (8:15 p.m. ET).

The Falcons will host a divisional playoff game on Saturday, Jan. 14 at the Georgia Dome (4:35 p.m. ET). It will be the highest remaining seed after the wildcard round, with top-seeded Dallas hosting the lowest-remaining seed on Jan. 15 (4:40 p.m. ET).

The Packers and Giants are the No. 4 and No. 5 seed and square off in Green Bay on Sunday (4:40 p.m. ET).

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Falcons OC Kyle Shanahan to interview for four teams

 

Around the NFL staff NFL.com

NFL.com  


 

Kyle Shanahan is January's belle of the ball.

The creative offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons will stage no less than four interviews with coach-needy teams over the next week, sources informed of the situation told NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport.

On Friday and Saturday, Shanahan will meet with the Rams, Jaguars, Broncos and 49ers before the Falcons -- armed with the No. 2 seed in the NFC -- begin full preparations for the divisional round of the playoffs.

Shanahan has guided the Falcons to a sensational campaign on the offensive side of the ball. Atlanta rolls into the playoffs ranked first in points per game and second in yards per tilt, while quarterback Matt Ryan looms as a legitimate MVP candidate.

Just 37, Shanahan would become one of the NFL's youngest head coaches if he nabs a job, but forget about his age: This is one of the league's most exciting young talents.

 

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Matt Ryan, Ezekiel Elliott highlight AP NFL All-Pro selections

 

Todd Archer

ESPN.com | 1:28 PM ET


 

The Associated Press 2016 NFL All-Pro Team is showing off the league's new wave of stars.

Three rookies among 17 first-time selections highlight the team, including Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott and Kansas City's Tyreek Hill, who is a unanimous choice as a punt returner.

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is a first-time selection. Ryan edged out New England's Tom Brady, who was suspended for four games to start the season.

Tennessee Titans right tackle Jack Conklin is the third rookie on the roster, which was announced Friday.

"It's special," Elliott said. "Just to be able to come into this league my first year and dominate and just play at the level I'm playing, and just kind of get these honors already as a rookie, it means a lot. I was never even All-American in college. I was never a first-team All-American. I'll never get a Buckeye tree at Ohio State. That's the one thing that I regret the most.

"Kind of seeing it come into the league and making All-Pro this rookie year, it definitely means a lot."

 


It's the first time since 1981 that so many first-year players made the team. Back then, it was future Hall of Famers Lawrence Taylor and Ronnie Lott -- and 1980 Heisman-winning running back George Rogers.

For the first time, the nationwide panel of 50 sports writers and broadcasters who regularly cover the NFL voted for specific positions on the offensive line, a flex player on offense, a fifth defensive back, a punt returner and a special-teamer.

Other first-timers include Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson (flex), Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. (DB) and New England's Matthew Slater (special-teamer).

One other unanimous pick is Baltimore Ravens place-kicker Justin Tucker.

With only seven repeaters from last season's squad, the All-Pro Team has a decidedly new flavor -- not only in alignment, but makeup. Not surprisingly, the Cowboys, who paced the NFC with a 13-3 record, have the most players selected, with five: Elliott, the league's leading rusher; linebacker Sean Lee; and offensive linemen Tyron Smith (left tackle), Travis Frederick (center) and Zack Martin (right guard).

Kansas City is next with four: Hill, tight end Travis Kelce, safety Eric Berry and cornerback Marcus Peters.

Ryan, the league's top passer (117.1 rating, 38 touchdowns, 7 interceptions), is one of three Falcons, joined by edge rusher Vic Beasley Jr., the NFL's sacks leader with 15 1/2, and wide receiver Julio Jones.

"There are so many things that don't show up on the stat sheet," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said of Ryan. "How many people he's affected on our team. He's a fantastic teammate. That's one of the highest praises you can give to a ballplayer."

Jones and Pittsburgh Steelers wideout Antonio Brown are repeaters from 2015, along with Berry, edge rusher Khalil Mack of Oakland, interior lineman Aaron Donald of Los Angeles, linebacker Von Miller of Denver and punter Johnny Hekker of the Rams. Also having previously made an All-Pro team: Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner (2014) and Vikings kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson (2013).

"It still means a ton," said Wagner, who led the NFL in tackles. "Those things are hard to come by. I will always be appreciative of the ... All-Pros, because you look at guys who have played a long period of time at a very high level and weren't able to get them for whatever reason."

First-timers along with the three rookies are Ryan, Johnson, Kelce, Beasley, Lee, Slater, Harris, Peters, Martin, Frederick, Oakland left guard Kelechi Osemele, Denver cornerback Aqib Talib, and New York Giants safety Landon Collins and interior lineman Damon Harrison.

Three players make the first team for the third time: Miller, Brown and Berry.

In all, 14 teams are represented.

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Young Falcons defense still inspired by Dwight Freeney speech

  • Vaughn McClureESPN Staff Writer

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- It was far from a tongue-lashing, but the powerful message still resonates in the Atlanta Falcons' locker room a month later.

On the first Saturday night in December, seven-time Pro Bowl defensive end Dwight Freeney stood up in the defensive meeting room and offered a heartfelt speech to a group that included four rookies and three second-year starters. His purpose was to light a fire going into the final stretch of the season.

“It was very inspiring,” said Vic Beasley Jr., the NFL sacks leader. “Just seeing a vet step up to the plate just speaks volumes for us as players. It was just encouraging, just knowing what we had ahead of us and knowing what we could be. He reminded us of that.”

Although there were some hiccups the next day in a 29-28 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, the defense showed more signs of progress. The momentum really got rolling after that, when the Falcons allowed 14.3 points per game, 11.1 points less than their season average, over a three-game stretch.

Sure, the offenses presented by the Rams, 49ers and Panthers weren't very intimidating, but it certainly helped the Falcons from a confidence standpoint heading into this Saturday's divisional playoff matchup against the Seattle Seahawks.

"I think it was time to address the magnitude of what we were going into, the realm of consciousness that we needed to enter into, knowing that we were going into a fourth-quarter type of mode,” Freeney said. “I just had to explain to them and let them know, 'Look, man, this is December football, bro. This is when it’s time to turn it up. That’s this moment right now.'"

Again, it wasn't an in-your-face type of pep talk. That's not Freeney's style.

"I’m going talk to you like, 'Let me speak to you for a minute,'" Freeney said. “That’s it."

The youthful Falcons certainly understand the magnitude of this moment. The Falcons' offense, averaging almost 34 points per game, has MVP candidate Matt Ryan and the virtually unstoppable Julio Jones. The question is, can a defense playing without top cornerback Desmond Trufant (pectoral surgery) play well enough to keep the Falcons' Super Bowl aspirations alive?

Freeney certainly believes so. And his encouraging words helped the younger players have more belief in themselves going into their first postseason game.

“He was basically telling us that this is the time of the season when you really dig deep and find out what drives you and what your purpose is. Find out why you do this and hold on tight to it,” rookie strong safety Keanu Neal said of Freeney's message. ”He’s so well-spoken. He just gets his point across.”

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Said rookie linebacker De'Vondre Campbell: “It meant a lot coming from a guy who has been in the league for 15 years and has been to countless Pro Bowls and to two Super Bowls. He's been through it all and seen it all. He's reached the ultimate prize. He's won a Super Bowl. He's been there.”If this year's version of the Falcons is going to get there, they need to take care of business first on Saturday. That will include containing Russell Wilson and his ability to make plays with his feet, stopping a running game expected to feature Thomas Rawls as the primary back and possibly third-down threat C.J. Prosise and limiting the big-play ability of receivers such Doug Baldwin, tight end Jimmy Graham and the suddenly emerging Paul Richardson.

Beasley could be a game-changer with his devastating first step and ability to track down Wilson. And the rookie combination of Deion Jones, Neal, Campbell and nickelback Brian Poole no doubt will be key factors with their young legs and speed.

“For us to be a young as we are, I think we are a pivotal part in making sure this team is successful,” Campbell said. “We just have to be on our s--- and don't make anything up and do our job. Then we'll be fine.”

They obviously get the message.

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Matt Ryan ready to take his shots at Seahawks, who are minus Earl Thomas

  • Vaughn McClureESPN Staff Writer

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- There has been much discussion this week about the Atlanta Falcons facing a Seattle Seahawks team playing without injured three-time All-Pro free safety Earl Thomas.

To Matt Ryan, it doesn't matter.

That's not meant as disrespect to Thomas. But the Falcons quarterback's attacking mindset won't change going into Saturday's divisional playoff matchup just because the Seahawks surrender more big plays without Thomas. A fractured tibia forced Thomas to season-ending injured reserve seven weeks after the Seahawks defeated the Falcons 26-24.

Matt Ryan hit on four pass plays of 24-plus yards in Week 6 against the Seahawks, including a 36-yard touchdown toss to a wide-open Julio Jones out of the slot. Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

"We created some big plays with Earl in the lineup, too," Ryan said. "There's plays to be made at all times through games. One guy's not going to make it ... Earl's a great player, there's no question about that, but there will be opportunities. There always are during games. Like always, whenever we get our opportunities, hopefully we can make those plays."

During the regular season, Ryan completed 30 of 60 passes thrown 20 or more yards in the air down the field for 1,116 yards with 10 touchdowns and no interceptions. His 50 percent completion percentage was third best in the league behind the Indianapolis Colts' Andrew Luck (50.8 percent) and the Seahawks' Russell Wilson (50.7 percent).

We'll see how many shots Ryan takes Sunday without Thomas lurking. ESPN's Bill Barnwell pointed out Thomas' impact here:

Thomas is known for his range and his ability to "erase" big plays from opposing offenses' plans. The Seahawks have confidence in Steven Terrell at the position, but no one can expect him to be Thomas' equivalent.

Regardless, the Seahawks are sure to play their usual attacking, physical defensive style come Saturday, particularly coming off a 26-6 wild-card win over the Detroit Lions.

"I think their scheme stays pretty consistent," Ryan said. "I think that's probably one of the things that Seattle's done a great job of since Pete [Carroll] has been there. They really don't change all that much. And they do what they do, and they do it really well."

The Seahawks can suffocate you at every level behind cornerback Richard Sherman and safety Kam Chancellor, linebacker Bobby Wagner and defensive lineman Michael Bennett, among others.

"I think they're really good on the defensive side of the ball," Ryan said. "Earl's out; Kam's back in. When we played them, Kam didn't play for them. He's such a good player, too. Kind of sets the tone for them in terms of physical [style] and being aggressive. Earl's a good player for sure and covers a lot of ground.

"Their scheme is really similar. Their front four makes their defense go. They play really well up front against the run, against the pass. I think they tie in really well, front end to back end."

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During the Week 6 matchup in Seattle, Ryan hit on four pass plays of 24-plus yards, including a 36-yard touchdown toss off a straight dropback to a wide-open Julio Jones out of the slot. Thomas was late coming over and Sherman was in the wrong coverage while playing press-man against the tight end.

Most of the attention Saturday will be focused on whether the Seahawks opt to shadow Jones with Sherman. Jones had seven catches for 139 yards in Week 6, when Sherman lined up on Jones' side for 30 snaps.

"We've got confidence in 'Ju' man-to-man or zone coverage," Ryan said. "I mean, he's going to make plays. That's not something I worry too much about."

But as has been the case all season, Ryan knows how to spread the ball around, having hit 13 players for touchdowns. It helps to get speedy deep threat Taylor Gabriel back from a toe/ankle injury and red zone target Austin Hooper back from an MCL sprain.

"I think it's huge when you're at full strength," Ryan said. "I think that makes a big difference. Our guys have shown throughout the year that at any time when their number is called, they're able to go make plays. So when you have guys like Hoop or Taylor back, it gives you two more guys that are capable of making explosive plays at any time, and that's important for us. Depending on how thing shake out, how the game shakes out, who's got the right matchups, those guys could be critical for us."

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Julio Jones

 


ESPN.com | 6:51 PM ET


 

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Falcons receiver , who appeared to be held by Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman on a controversial late no-call back in Week 6, has no plans to "cry" for penalties but won't hesitate to alert officials to foul play in Saturday's divisional playoff rematch.

The previous controversy stemmed from a play with one minute, 39 seconds remaining in regulation of the Seahawks' 26-24 victory in Seattle on Oct. 16. Had a flag been thrown, the Falcons would have sustained the drive for an opportunity at a game-winning field goal.

After the game, Jones insisted Sherman pulled his right side, while Sherman maintained his innocence and said, "I mean, I thought there was interference on offense on a few plays, and they didn't get it. So it was just one of those games. They let us play."

Jones said he would have no problem throwing up his hands and hunching his shoulders if such an incident happens again this time.

"When we're in a game, I'll go look at them like that and say, 'You didn't see it?' if they didn't see it," Jones told ESPN.com. "I'm not going to sit up there and cry about anything. It is what it is. But you've got to alert them. Some refs just let you play, too. It's like, 'All right, you're going to let us play? Then we're going to go out here and play. If you're going to call it, call it. Just let me know how you're going to officiate this game.'"

Those discussion won't take place before kickoff, Jones emphasized.

"But if you grab me early, I'm going to let the ref know," Jones said. "And if they're not calling it, it's going to be a physical game."

Saturday's officiating crew will be headed by Gene Steratore, though he won't have his typical cast surrounding him. Steratore's regular-season crew called a league-low 22 combined penalties for defensive holding (seven), defensive pass interference (12) and illegal contact (three). The league high was Jerome Boger's crew with 58 (23 holding, 24 pass interference, 11 illegal contact).

Falcons coach Dan Quinn had a discussion with NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino after the Week 6 no-call. In the big picture, the loss didn't prove costly. At 11-5 and as the NFC's No. 2 seed, the Falcons secured home-field advantage over the No. 3 seed Seahawks (10-5-1).

However, getting clarity on such penalties moving forward was the reason for Quinn's discussion with Blandino, a discussion Quinn opted to keep private. The coach hasn't address such penalties with his team this week.

"We want to let our play be the judges," Quinn said. "And the attitude and toughness that we want to play with, that to me is the most critical thing. When you're hoping for a call or wanting something different, I think you lose your edge. So for us, it's going to be, 'Let's go attack.' How they call the game, we don't have control over. So let's control the things we can, which is our effort, our ability to try to break guys off. Those are the things that we want to totally establish."

Receiver Mohamed Sanu talked about contending with the Seahawks' physicality, which might sometimes cross the line.

"We play a lot of physical DBs," Sanu said. "I'm physical myself. So we'll see how it goes."

The matchup between Jones and Sherman will be one to watch Saturday, and not just for potential penalties. Sherman often remains at his left cornerback spot but did follow Jones some during the regular-season meeting. In that game, Jones has seven catches for 139 yards and a 36-yard touchdown off a busted coverage.

According to ESPN Seahawks reporter Sheil Kapadia, Sherman lined up against Jones for 30 of 46 coverage snaps. On those plays, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was 3-of-5 for 40 yards when targeting Jones.

Jones downplayed going head-to-head with Sherman once again.

"For me, I'm just getting ready like any other week," Jones told the media gathered at his locker. "I don't have any grudges against Sherman or nothing like that. I'm here to play ball. Whatever happened [in Week 6], it was then. This is now. We've just got to strap on and go out and play ball."

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