NFC South: Atlanta Falcons

The Atlanta Falcons are set to begin training camp on Friday, and the process begins with the rookies scheduled to report Tuesday.

First-round draft pick Jake Matthews should have no problem making the adjustment. Here are five questions for some of the other rookies as they head into their first training camp:

[+] EnlargePrince Shembo
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesWith Sean Weatherspoon lost for the season, Prince Shembo has a chance to earn a starting spot as a rookie.
1) Will Prince Shembo take full advantage of his golden opportunity? The former Notre Dame Fighting Irish standout could earn a starting role at inside linebacker following a season-ending injury to Sean Weatherspoon (Achilles). Coach Mike Smith said Shembo will get every opportunity during camp and said the coaching staff is excited about his potential. Now, it's up to Shembo to continue his transition from outside linebacker to inside. Physically, it shouldn't be a problem. But he has to be on top of his game, mentally, to bump Joplo Bartu aside.

2) Can Devonta Freeman truly push Steven Jackson for carries? Freeman has to worry about holding off Jacquizz Rodgers first as the No. 2 guy behind Jackson. Freeman looked more than capable in shorts, but let's see how he fares with the pads on. One thing you immediately respect about Freeman is his willingness to work and learn. If he can prove himself to be an adequate blocker in terms of picking up blitzes, then he'll get on the field sooner rather than later.

3) Will Dez Southward put some heat on veteran Dwight Lowery at free safety? Southward didn't really stand out this offseason despite the coaches raving about his potential. The most impressive thing about him from first glance is his attention to detail and tendency to ask questions. Now he has to show the ability to make plays. He lined up at both free and strong but, again, his best chance is to challenge Lowery at free because William Moore is the defensive leader at strong.

4) Can Tyler Starr turn heads again like he did during rookie minicamp? The outside linebacker showed a burst upon arriving from South Dakota. But once Starr lined up against the veterans, he didn't have as much success. Regardless, you can't help but like his energy. And he should be a standout on special teams no matter what. But the Falcons need capable pass-rushers to emerge, so Starr has a shot to make an impact.

5) Will undrafted receiver Bernard Reedy make it hard on the Falcons to cut him? If Reedy shows the speed and deep-threat ability he displayed this offseason, he just might. The 5-foot-7 dynamo gave Matt Ryan all the credit, but Reedy was the one who kept blowing through the defense and catching long balls. Of course, that's going to be Julio Jones' main job once the regular season arrives, but it wouldn't be so bad for the Falcons to have another deep threat at their disposal.
Examining the Atlanta Falcons' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (2)
The Falcons are counting on Ryan to play like an elite quarterback with a full complement of receivers and better protection. They feel like they upgraded the backup quarterback position by trading for Yates, the former Houston Texan who has a playoff win under his belt. If the Falcons indeed go with just two quarterbacks, as expected, look for undrafted rookie Jeff Matthews to be on the practice squad.

RUNNING BACKS (5)

Jackson, who turns 31 on July 22, still has a good year left in him if he remains healthy. He showed signs of his old self last season after enduring an early season hamstring injury. Freeman, a rookie fourth-round pick, will get a chance to push for touches. Rodgers still should have a role, somewhere, while Smith is valuable on special teams.

RECEIVERS (5)

The Falcons are counting on Jones and White to be healthy. If Davis (foot surgery) is the same after starting training camp on the physically unable to perform list, he should be a nice backup. Bernard Reedy, the undrafted rookie from Toledo, might make it hard not to keep a sixth receiver if he continues to impress like he did this offseason.

TIGHT ENDS (3)

No one is expecting another Tony Gonzalez out of this group, but the Falcons do expect Toilolo to make significant strides this season. Pascoe will be kept for his blocking but don't discount the possibility of Shuler.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (10)

The Falcons believe they have a solid starting five after signing the veteran Asamoah to play right guard and drafting the rookie Matthews in the first round to play right tackle. Uncertainty remains about Baker at left tackle coming off a major knee injury. If he can't finish the whole season, then Matthews would have to move over to left tackle. Yes, I left Lamar Holmes off the roster. Undrafted rookie center James Stone could stick on the practice squad.

DEFENSIVE LINE (7)

As long as Soliai and Jackson do their jobs up front in the 3-4, in terms of stuffing the run and freeing up the linebackers to make plays, they'll be well worth the combined $25 million guaranteed despite not playing all the snaps. Hageman, the second-round draft pick from Minnesota, is an intriguing prospect. Peters could be the wild card depending on his health coming off an Achilles tear. I think Umenyiora still has a place as a designated pass-rusher, but we'll see.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS (4)

The Falcons are counting on Massaquoi to be a consistent pass-rusher. He definitely has developed a little more nastiness. Just ask Sam Baker. Biermann looks healthy coming off an Achilles tear. Starr, a seventh-round draft pick, showed good signs during rookie minicamp but has to do the same against the big boys in training camp.

INSIDE LINEBACKERS (5)

The group will sorely miss Sean Weatherspoon (Achilles), who was lost for the season. Worrilow showed the ability to tackle last season as an undrafted rookie but still has strides to make. The coaches are really counting on the fourth-round draft pick Shembo to step in and have an immediate impact.

CORNERBACKS (6)

Trufant and Alford could make up one of the best cornerback tandems in the league in the future if Alford continues to mature. Trufant is there already. The high-powered, multi-receiver offenses around the league only increased the need for solid cornerbacks, and the Falcons have a battle for the third corner with McClain, Wilson and Arenas. All three should stick.

SAFETIES (4)

Moore has to take on more of a leadership role with his buddy Weatherspoon done for the season. Newcomer Lowery could be an upgrade over Thomas DeCoud at free safety provided the offseason was indicative of Lowery's ability. There is no guarantee Zeke Motta (neck surgery) will play this season, so he's off the list.

SPECIALISTS (3)

Bosher is one of the best in the league, and Bryant is consistent. They just need to keep it going.
One NFL personnel man said he was concerned with Jake Matthews' strength prior to the draft. At least one team that drafted in the top 10 this year ranked Zack Martin -- the 16th overall pick of the Dallas Cowboys -- ahead of the Atlanta Falcons' rookie right tackle because of concerns over Matthews' ability to finish.

Such nitpicking of his son's game seems comical to Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, particularly the strength part of it.

[+] EnlargeJake Matthews
AP Photo/David Goldman"Obviously, Jake wants to get stronger," said Jake Matthews' father, Bruce. "But look at what's on the tape. ... It's a result league. That's the bottom line."
"Floyd Reese, he was our GM when I was with the Tennessee Titans," Bruce Matthews explained, "and we drafted a guy -- it might have been my last year -- and Floyd goes, 'This kid bench-presses like 700 pounds.' And I go, 'Damn, it's a shame you can't play with a bench on your back.'

"The game is so much more than that. Obviously, Jake wants to get stronger. But look at what's on the tape. I've seen dudes that have run 4.6, weigh 315 pounds, stand 6-foot-6, bench-press 225 pounds 45 times, and they're horrible players. It's a result league. That's the bottom line."

The Falcons firmly believe the end result of drafting the younger Matthews sixth overall this year will be stability at the tackle position for years to come. He showed signs of his NFL readiness during minicamp with his sound technique and eagerness to learn. His maturation will continue a week from now when the Falcons begin minicamp.

Bruce Matthews feels his son has an edge in terms of being fundamentally sound.

"I'd say 95 percent of sacks in the NFL are based off of offensive line error," Bruce Matthews said. "Whether I'm flipping my hips or I'm late off the ball or I'm lunging, it's very unusual for an offensive lineman to be in good position and just get your ass kicked. But it does happen. And you go, 'All right. That's one for him.' But most of the time you lose as an O-lineman in the NFL is because I did something wrong.

"That's the thing that Jake does well: He really owns his pass set and he understands what's required of him, or at least where the quarterback's going to be. And now, you put it in the defender's hand. I'm in a position where you either have to bull rush me ... you have to be definitive about what you're going to do to counter me. You want to make them think."

Of course, NFL pass-rushers move at a faster speed, although Jake Matthews faced his share of speed rushers in college at Texas A&M. Still, the elder Matthews doesn't believe the speed factor will be a difficult transition for his son.

"The big thing is you can't out-athlete any of those defensive guys," Bruce Matthews said. "We don't match up, no matter how good an athlete they say you are. But the thing you can do, especially when you know exactly where your quarterback is, you get in that position where you don't equip the defender by taking a crappy set. If I take a good set, protection-wise, and I'm in the right spot and I'm in balance, then it's in his court."

In terms of criticism about him not being a finisher, that's an aspect Jake Matthews already discussed with Falcons offensive line coach Mike Tice.

"He knew that he needed to do a better job of finishing because when I asked him at the combine during the interview what he needed to work on, he said 'finishing better,' so he's aware of that," Tice said this offseason.

During minicamp and organized team activities, Tice worked extensively with Matthews on hand placement, so that's obviously an area in need of improvement. Tice is sure to clean up whatever shortcomings the rookie lineman might have.

And it only helps when you have a Hall of Fame father dissecting your play every step of the way.

Camp preview: Atlanta Falcons

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
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NFL Nation's Vaughn McClure examines the three biggest issues facing the Atlanta Falcons heading into training camp.

Julio Jones: Everyone knows how dynamic Jones is when he's healthy, but coming off a second right foot surgery, no one will be at ease until he absorbs his first live contact. Jones was held out of all offseason activity but said he feels stronger due to extensive weightlifting, particularly with squats. The Falcons sorely missed him last season, particularly in the red zone and as a deep threat. Matt Ryan can always throw a quick screen to Jones and rely on him to pick up plenty of yards after the catch. Jones, despite the surgery, seems more confident than ever in his ability, touting himself as the league's best receiver and saying he and Roddy White are the league's top receiver combination. Jones has a career average of 15.7 yards per catch and has 42 catches of 20-plus yards. To put it simply, the Falcons' offense is rather pedestrian without Jones in the lineup. With him, opposing defenses have more planning to do. The Falcons need Jones for all 16 games in a pivotal 2014 season.

Offensive line: Yes, the Falcons invested in the offensive line this offseason by signing right guard Jon Asamoah to a five-year deal worth $4.5 million per season and by drafting right tackle Jake Matthews in the first round. Yes, the Falcons hired Mike Tice, a new offensive line coach capable of instilling some toughness. But none of that will matter if the five guys up front don't develop cohesiveness as a unit. The Falcons expect Matthews to make a seamless transition to the pros, and the expectation is for left tackle Sam Baker to hold his own despite coming off a significant knee surgery. Some of center Joe Hawley's struggles last season can be attributed to weak play next to him at right guard, so having Asamoah in the fold should benefit Hawley. And left guard Justin Blalock was the team's best lineman last season. The Falcons feel like they have some quality depth now with Mike Johnson, Ryan Schraeder and even newcomer Gabe Carimi. But if they have to rely on their second-stringers, it could be another long season along the line.

Lacking at linebacker: Since we've talked so much about the lack of a pass rush, it's time to pinpoint a different area of deficiency on defense. Obviously the Falcons aren't where they need to be in terms of their linebacker situation. The loss of Sean Weatherspoon (Achilles) will be felt, although injuries limited his time last season as well. There's something to be said for having a spiritual leader and coach on the field, and the Falcons will miss that from Weatherspoon. No one can take away what Paul Worrilow accomplished last year as an undrafted rookie, but Worrilow would be the first to say he missed his share of tackles. And the coaching staff doesn't have full confidence in Joplo Bartu. Rookie fourth-round pick Prince Shembo was switched from outside linebacker to inside linebacker, and the coaches believe they can mold him into a capable replacement for Weatherspoon. Shembo has the talent, but even he admitted it will be a quite an adjustment from what he did at Notre Dame. The Falcons worked out veterans such as Jonathan Vilma and Nick Barnett but only signed Tim Dobbins, a guy better known for special teams. It wouldn't be a surprise to see the Falcons add another linebacker before camp or search the open market for linebacker depth once cuts are made. The issues at linebacker put more of the onus on the rebuilt defensive line, led by Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson, to create havoc up front.
The Atlanta Falcons sent London-born Osi Umenyiora to England this week to help promote the team's international matchup against the Detroit Lions in October. But there is another Falcon already looking forward to the game at Wembley Stadium -- for a different reason.

Newcomer Dwight Lowery, a veteran poised to start at free safety, might have a few choice words for one particular Detroit receiver: Golden Tate. Last year, when Lowery played for Jacksonville and Tate for Seattle, Lowery suffered what turned out to be a season-ending concussion after absorbing a vicious block from Tate.

Lowery still feels bitter about the play despite Tate being fined $21,000 for an illegal hit.

[+] EnlargeDwight Lowery
AP Photo/Stephen BrashearDwight Lowery is met by a Jaguars team official as he comes off the field following a block issued by Seattle's Golden Tate.
"To me, that was more of a cheap shot," Lowery explained. "I guess he has a reputation for that. But I know this: Football has a weird way of things happening. I'll just put it that way. I don't feel like I have to exact my revenge or anything like that. I know that we play them.

"Don't get me wrong: I'm not going to go out of control if I see him on the field and he has the ball. Then I'd mess around and miss a tackle. And I'm also not going to do anything where the ball is running the other way and I see him and I go after him. But if I have an opportunity and he's trying to crack me and the ball is coming my way, we'll just see what happens."

The hit occurred during Week 3 of last season on the game's initial drive. The Seahawks faced second-and-6 and were in the I-formation when quarterback Russell Wilson signaled for receiver Sidney Rice to go in motion. Lowery dropped down to cover Rice in the slot.

Rice ran a quick route into the flat. As Lowery kept his eyes focused on Rice, Tate, split out wide left, took a sharp angle toward Lowery and blasted Lowery off his feet with a two-hand shove. The end result of the play was a 2-yard run up the middle by Marshawn Lynch. Lowery viewed Tate's block as senseless based on the direction of the run.

"To me, that was more of a cheap shot because of my responsibility on the play," Lowery said. "I didn't see what Seattle did inside because I was focused on my man. I was shuffling with (Rice), staying square so it case he turned up, I could cut him off. The run play was on the other side of the field.

"Literally the flow of the play was going to the other side of the field. And for whatever reason, Tate decided to crack me. I didn't get crack called probably because the play was on the other side of the field. And, like I said, it was another one of those where I didn't see it coming."

Lowery fell on his back and his head snapped back and hit the ground. He flailed his left leg trying to regain his footing, but hitting the ground obviously left him incoherent.

"I don't think the actual hit that gave me the concussion," Lowery said. "It was the impact on the ground. Dude got me. I know they say in football to keep your head on a swivel, I'm guarding somebody. And that's what I was coached to do. I didn't have any run responsibility in that certain defense, that certain route combination."

When asked this offseason about the block on Lowery, Tate initial thoughts were, "What team did he play for? Oh, was he out for the season? For what? What was the injury?''

Tate was asked if he remembered the play.

"Well, for one, I was just doing my job," he said. "The safety's down, I'm supposed to, I think at that moment, cut block. It was a run play and the ball was in here and he was moving this way (the opposite way) looking at the ball. In this league you've got to have your head on a swivel.

"I never have intentions of hurting any player. I want every player to do well in this league, so it's news to me that I ended his season. I hope he comes back stronger than ever. It's football here."

As for Lowery saying the play won't be forgotten when the Falcons and Lions meet, Tate seemed more than up for the challenge.

"Yeah, that's fine," Tate said. "We'll see when that time comes. I'm excited to play ball so we'll play ball (and) we'll see what happens.

"I have no problem with him being competitive and wanting to have revenge. Just keep it within the rulebook. Hopefully it's not a cheap shot that's at my knees or my ankles or is after the whistle, but, hey, I'm all for it. Bring it on. Let's go."

That Oct. 26 date in London just became a little more interesting.
The NFL deadline for signing a franchise player to a long-term extension is Tuesday, and New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham already cashed in.

For the Atlanta Falcons, such is not applicable, considering no one on the team received the franchise tag. But there is a player who should be tagged with an extension based on his value to the franchise.

No, we’re not talking about Julio Jones right now. Jones will be paid handsomely. There is no doubt about that, considering the Falcons expect their top receiver to be back to his dynamic self following foot surgery. And the team obviously wants the 25-year-old Jones to be a Falcon for life.

[+] EnlargeRoddy White
AP Photo/Reinhold MatayRoddy White is in line to receive a contract extension from the Atlanta Falcons.
But this is a reference to the team’s other top pass-catcher: Roddy White. The 32-year-old veteran is entering the last year of his contract and he expected to receive an extension at some point after this year's draft.

It hasn't happened yet.

Getting White signed before training camp starts July 25 probably would be a smart move. The last thing the team needs coming off a 4-12 season is one of its top players to be disgruntled. And everyone knows White isn't afraid to speak his mind. It might make for a good storyline for HBO's "Hard Knocks," but the Falcons and White don't need the drama.

If any type of negotiations started -- which there is no guarantee such is the case -- any business was put on hold as White grieved the recent murder of his younger brother back home in South Carolina. White rejoined the team for the end of organized team activities, then was held out of minicamp as a precaution.

Maybe the Falcons are proceeding with caution in regard to the extension because of White's age and because he battled numerous injuries last season. However, White proved he has plenty left in him when he caught 38 passes for 449 yards and two touchdowns over the final four games of 2013.

White wants to play three or four more years and retire a Falcon. He knows he won't break the bank on the way out. Another $8-10 million guaranteed doesn't seem too outrageous for a player who posted six consecutive seasons of 1,000-plus receiving yards between 2007-2012. Plus, he has 12 games of eight-plus catches and 12 games of 100-plus receiving yards since turning 30.

No to mention an extension could help free up some cap space and lower White's cap number for 2014. He currently has the team's third-highest cap figure at $6.35 million, behind quarterback Matt Ryan ($17.5 million) and left guard Justin Blalock ($7.66 million). The Falcons currently are about $9 million under the cap, and you never know when a few extra dollars might come in handy.

White is destined to be relied upon heavily this season. Jones, if fully healthy, is sure to attract the most attention from opposing defenses, leaving more opportunities for White. And with tight end Tony Gonzalez now retired, it makes White that much more valuable as one of Ryan’s top targets.

So if White receives an extension -- which he should -- he’ll surely get plenty of opportunities to prove his worth.
The Atlanta Falcons' offensive line is sure to face its share of scrutiny in 2014 despite noticeable upgrades made throughout the offseason.

Six-time Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday, an Atlanta native and now an analyst for ESPN, wasn't much of a fan of the Falcons' line prior to free agency and the draft. But Saturday applauded the additions of free-agent right guard Jon Asamoah and especially rookie first-round pick Jake Matthews, now the starting right tackle.

"I think two really good pickups,'' Saturday said. "I think Matthews, just the longevity you're looking at there. When I was looking at film toward the draft, Matthews is a very polished player. He's already ahead of the game.

[+] EnlargeJake Matthews
AP Photo/David GoldmanJake Matthews has helped upgrade Atlanta's offensive line.
"When you look at the NFL today, one of the toughest adjustments for players coming from the college level to the pros, because they run so many spread offenses, is that pass protection and being able to sit on that island by yourself. I think [Matthews] has done that and I think he has worked on his craft. Obviously, the bloodlines he's coming from speak to his work ethic. But at the end of the day, he is ready to go in and help contribute.''

Saturday reiterated how impressed he was with Matthews being able to adjust to the spread offense he played under while at Texas A&M alongside Johnny Manziel and how he didn't allow that to hinder his progress.

"When you're talking about a spread offense, it's difficult because you've got running backs running around and you really don't know what your launch point for the quarterback is going to be,'' Saturday explained. "Where your hips are aligned, which way they're facing, all those things are very important. I thought he did a really good job of coming out of his set, keeping his set natural, understanding he was going to set up for Johnny to be in the pocket every time and however it adjusted from there, he would make it happen.''

Saturday also commended the Falcons for starting Matthews at right tackle and not forcing him immediately in at left tackle, with Sam Baker set to resume his left tackle duties coming off a significant knee surgery.

"I think it's a good move,'' Saturday said. "I think you let them play and see how Jake comes along and how Sam plays. I don't think you make any immediate, rash movement. You say it all the time: The best five need to be on the field. If Sam Baker is in your best five, he needs to be in the position he's best at. Then you make Matthews go where he is and have the other guys do the same. That's how you build continuity on the offense line. You build strength and you build confidence in guys. Then it goes to when one guy goes down, they know other guys can jump in. But you start with your best five on the field.''

Right now, the best five are Baker and Matthews at the tackles, Asamoah and Justin Blalock at the guards and Joe Hawley at center. Based on the offseason, it looks like Mike Johnson, Ryan Schraeder and Gabe Carimi are the most capable backups.
Morten AndersenCraig Lassig/AFP/Getty Images 
Score: Falcons 30, Vikings 27 (OT)
Date: Jan. 17, 1999. Site: Metrodome

The fans got it right in selecting Morten Andersen's game-winning, 38-yard field goal in overtime of the 1998 NFC Championship Game as the top play in Atlanta Falcons history.

The play, better known as "The Kick," gathered 49 percent of the vote, edging out Michael Vick's overtime run against the Vikings (43 percent).

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Which is the most memorable play in Falcons' history?

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    49%
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    8%
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    43%

Discuss (Total votes: 28,413)

Andersen's kick symbolized the most historic moment for the franchise -- earning the right to play for the Vince Lombardi Trophy. And although the Falcons lost to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII, the way they got there will be embedded in the minds of Falcons die-hards forever.

The fact that the Falcons were such a heavy underdog against an offensive juggernaut in the Vikings made the NFC title win and Andersen's kick that much more exhilarating. And a touch of irony was involved as well, as sure-footed Vikings kicker Gary Anderson missed for the first time all season late in regulation, allowing for overtime and the dramatic finish.

The Falcons savored the moment in every fashion, from Andersen throwing his hands up in celebration immediately after putting the ball in the air, to coach Dan Reeves doing the "Dirty Bird" dance with running back Jamal Anderson and a host of other players afterward.

Sure, there were other great moments in Falcons history, such as the "Big Ben Right" Hail Mary touchdown from Steve Bartkowski to Alfred Jackson by way of Wallace Francis; Deion Sanders' 68-yard punt return for a touchdown in his first NFL game (1989); and Matt Bryant's game-winning 49-yard field goal in the 2012 playoffs, which put the Falcons in the NFC title game.

But Andersen and the "The Kick" allowed Falcons fans to boast about their team being Super Bowl participants -- status the Falcons hope to attain again soon.
The Atlanta Falcons plan to be back in Super Bowl contention this season. But it's not just about rebounding from last year's 4-12 campaign. It's about maintaining the success they've had since Mike Smith took over as coach; Smith has posted a 60-36 record since arriving in 2008.

Ryan
Ryan
Over the next three years, maintaining an emphasis on offense will be the biggest key to success. Nothing is more important than keeping franchise quarterback Matt Ryan upright and healthy. The team firmly believes Ryan is an elite quarterback when given ample opportunity to deliver the ball. The hope is a rebuilt offensive line, featuring veteran offensive guard Jon Asamoah and first-round draft pick Jake Matthews, that will be solid for years to come. But the Falcons have to continue to develop depth, particularly at tackle, just in case a player like Sam Baker (knee) doesn't hold up for an entire season.

Of course, giving Ryan all the protection in the world means nothing without playmakers catching the ball. That's why the Falcons have to lock up top receiver Julio Jones with a lucrative, long-term contract. Picking up the fifth-year option on Jones allowed the team to assure he'd be around through at least 2015. Although Jones is coming off a significant foot injury, the Falcons are certain he'll return to his old explosive self. At his best, Jones is probably one of the top two receivers in the league, along with Calvin Johnson. Johnson makes $16 million per year; Jones will make $10,176,000 in 2015 as part of the option year.

The Falcons are built to be an offensive team, and that won't change any time soon. They'll likely have to invest in another receiver unless they can get another solid three years out of Roddy White. They'll have to look into a pass-catching tight end if promising Levine Toilolo doesn't make the necessary strides. And the running game doesn't have to be dynamic, just solid. Devonta Freeman could be the every-down back they count on over the next three years.

Defensively, the Falcons won't be in the top five in the league. They probably won't even be in the top 10. They just need to be good enough to keep opposing teams from scoring in the high 20s and breaking off explosive play after explosive play. The future looks bright with Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford at the corners. The Falcons will have to invest in a pass-rusher at some point while also addressing needs at linebacker. But the defense doesn't have to be great for the team to have success.

The offense, however, certainly needs to be dynamic.
Steve BartkowskiManny Rubio/USA TODAY Sports 
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This is the last of three nominations for the most memorable play in Atlanta Falcons' history. The previous two days featured Morten Anderson's game-winning overtime field goal in the 1998 NFC Championship Game that sent the Falcons to the Super Bowl and Michael Vick's 46-yard touchdown run in overtime against the Vikings in 2002. Please vote for your choice as the Falcons' most memorable play.

Score: Falcons 20, Saints 17
Date: Nov. 12, 1978 Site: Louisiana Superdome

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Which is the most memorable play in Falcons' history?

  •  
    49%
  •  
    8%
  •  
    43%

Discuss (Total votes: 28,413)

They referred to the play as Big Ben Right.

With 19 seconds left in regulation and the Falcons trailing the Saints 17-13, quarterback Steve Bartkowski rallied his troops for the last-ditch effort. It ended up being a Hail Mary with a twist as the Falcons broke the huddle from their own 43-yard line.

Bartkowski sailed a ball deep down the right sideline where receiver Wallace Francis batted it in the air, as planned. The tipped ball was corralled by Alfred Jackson, who sprinted the final 10 yards for the 57-yard score.

"My job was to tip the ball up and keep it alive," Francis told the media afterward. "I was never the intended receiver."

"When he tipped it, I was right behind it," Jackson added. "I followed right behind the crowd to get it when somebody tipped it."

The miraculous 57-yard touchdown play helped Bartkowski best Saints quarterback Archie Manning on that day. The Falcons went on to finish 9-7 and made the playoffs for the first time in team history, defeating Philadelphia (14-13) in the NFC wild-card game before losing to Dallas (27-20) in the divisional playoff.

Not often do you see a game won in such a dramatic fashion. That's why Big Ben Right qualifies as one of the best plays in Falcons history.

The Falcons trailed 17-6 with 2 minutes, 23 seconds left in the game. Big Ben Right was preceded by an 80-yard touchdown drive engineered by Bartkowski, ending in a 1-yard touchdown run by Haskel Stanback.

That long drive was a gem in itself. But the game-winning play left a lasting memory.
Morten AndersenCraig Lassig/AFP/Getty Images 
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This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in Atlanta Falcons' history. On Wednesday, we'll feature the last: Alfred Jackson's tip ball catch of a pass from Steve Bartkowski for a touchdown in November 1978. Please vote for your choice as the Falcons' most memorable play.

Score: Falcons 30, Vikings 27
Date: Jan. 17, 1999 Site: Metrodome

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Which is the most memorable play in Falcons' history?

  •  
    49%
  •  
    8%
  •  
    43%

Discuss (Total votes: 28,413)

It was the kick heard 'round Georgia. And it sucked the wind out of the Metrodome.

The Falcons, despite finishing 14-2 and winning the NFC West, were given little chance to beat the high-powered Vikings in the NFC Championship Game after the Vikings went 15-1 during the regular season. But if it had to come down to a field goal, Morten Andersen was the right man to have on your side.

Minnesota's Gary Anderson, another great kicker, could have sealed it with two minutes remaining in regulation, but he missed his only field goal of the season -- his first in 45 attempts -- to give the Falcons life. It allowed the Falcons to tie the game with a Chris Chandler touchdown toss to Terance Mathis with 49 seconds left in regulation.

Then came the dramatic finish that made this one of the top plays in team history. The Falcons twice kept the Vikings from scoring in overtime, allowing for Andersen's heroics.

With 3:11 left in overtime, Andersen lined up for chance to pull off the stunner. As the ball was snapped, he launched his powerful left leg and almost immediately threw up his hands in celebration while watching the 38-yard kick. The ball sailed right down the middle, and the Falcons soared into their first and only Super Bowl.

Andersen got swarmed by about 10 teammates, and coach Dan Reeves broke out the "Dirty Bird" alongside running back Jamal Anderson and a host of other players.

It was a moment that will never be forgotten in Falcons' history.
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This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in Atlanta Falcons history. In the next two days, we'll feature Alfred Jackson's tipped-ball catch of a pass from Steve Bartkowski for a touchdown and Morten Anderson's 38-yard field goal to beat the Minnesota Vikings and send the Falcons to Super Bowl XXXIII.

Score: Falcons 30, Vikings 24
Date: Dec. 1, 2002 Site: Metrodome

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Which is the most memorable play in Falcons' history?

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    43%

Discuss (Total votes: 28,413)

Although Michael Vick's time with Atlanta ended in controversy and a messy divorce, Vick still left behind plenty of lasting memories through six seasons.

One of those most memorable incorporated his most dangerous weapon: his legs. He made a statement with his running through four quarters of this Week 13 matchup in 2002, but Vick had one last point to prove as the Falcons faced second-and-8 from the Vikings' 46-yard line in overtime.

The crafty left-handed quarterback made a play-action fake, then sprinted left with the ball while loosely holding it in his left hand. As he turned the corner and blew by two linebackers, Vick cut back inside, tucked the ball and squeezed through another pair of defenders as they collided. He outraced two defensive backs down the middle for the game-winning score.

As his teammates surrounded him in celebration, Vick fired the ball in the air to punctuate the game-winning moment. He kept running, straight to the locker room. Then-Vikings head coach Mike Tice, now the Falcons offensive line coach, walked to midfield obviously distraught over what just hit him. It was a play Falcons fans won't soon forget, which is why it's on the list of top plays in team history.

Vick finished with 173 rushing yards on just 10 carries. His yardage, at the time, was the most by a quarterback since the 1970 merger. The previous mark was 127 yards by Bobby Douglas of the Chicago Bears. In the overtime win, Vick accounted for 346 of the Falcons' 379 total yards.
The Atlanta Falcons have signed free-agent wide receiver Courtney Roby, the team announced on Friday.

Roby (6-0, 189) did not play last season after being cut by New Orleans in training camp. Prior to that, he did little as a receiver, recording 21 of his 25 career catches in 2005 during his rookie season at Tennessee, where he was a third-round pick out of Indiana.

Roby was most valuable as a kick returner, averaging 24.9 yards on 121 returns during his career. He was a special teams captain each of his past two season with the Saints.
 Matt RyanKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThe Falcons want to be a balanced offense, but are at their best when Matt Ryan is throwing deep.
There seems to be quite a bit of optimism about the Atlanta Falcons boasting a more balanced offensive attack this season. One skill-position player even told me he expects it to be "50-50" in terms of run and pass plays.

Sounds nice, but I'm not buying it.

Even if the Falcons come out running in the preseason, I won't believe in such balance until I see it during a meaningful game. I won't subscribe to it until I see a conscious effort to run the ball in the first quarter or on first down.

Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has acknowledged a renewed emphasis on the run game. But a crafty playcaller such as Koetter knows protecting quarterback Matt Ryan and allowing him to sling the ball to the likes of Julio Jones and Roddy White is what helped the Falcons get one step from the Super Bowl two years ago. It's the same type of aggressive attack I expect will allow the Falcons to rebound from last year's 4-12 implosion and get back into playoff contention -- if the defense can at least contain opposing offenses.

New offensive line coach Mike Tice put it best when I spoke with him during organized team activities.

"We're not going to be a run-first football team, by any means, with those two great receivers and that great quarterback," Tice said bluntly. "But when that man -- my buddy Dirk Koetter -- dials up the run, we better be able to run it for four yards."

I'm by no means suggesting this will be a repeat of last season, when Ryan attempted a career-high 651 passes and the Falcons averaged a mere 3.9 yards per carry on a league-low 321 rushing attempts. The Falcons played their share of games from behind, forcing Ryan into even more throwing situations, and the ground game was barely existent to begin with, particularly after Steven Jackson was slowed by a hamstring injury.

I expect Ryan to be among the top five quarterbacks in passing yards for a third consecutive season. I just think he will put up those numbers under better circumstances. I expect we'll see more of the Ryan we saw in San Francisco last season, when he carved up the 49ers, completing 37 of 48 passes for 348 yards and two scores. I also expect the Falcons to be among the league's top 10 in scoring, like they were in 2010, 2011 and 2012 (fifth, seventh and seventh, respectively). Last season, they dipped to 20th with an average of 22.1 points per game.

Of course, Ryan and the offense have to be smart and take what opposing defenses give them. It's just hard to imagine them running the ball down a team’s throat the entire game.

A lot depends on the new-look offensive line. We should get a better feel for the unit during training camp, particularly when the Falcons have their joint practices with the Tennessee Titans and the Houston Texans. But the Falcons didn't sign Jon Asamoah and draft Jake Matthews with the intent of becoming a grind-it-out team. It's about protecting Ryan and giving him adequate time to find his receivers and go deep. And his deep ball has been on point this offseason. Just ask undrafted rookie receiver Bernard Reedy, the recipient of many of those sharp throws.

Ryan was pressured on a league-high 204 of his dropbacks last season. That can't happen again. The line has to hold its own, even with the intense pressure it will face in the NFC South from the Saints, Panthers and Buccaneers.

There are other variables to consider. Will Jones return to full form after a second surgery on his right foot? Will White avoid the nagging injuries that plagued him last season? Will tight end Levine Toilolo's contribution in the red zone make Tony Gonzalez a distant memory? Will left tackle Sam Baker's left knee hold up an entire season?

If the answer to at least the first two of those questions is "yes," then I see no reason why the Falcons shouldn't have success through the air.

I'm not disregarding the contribution of the running backs in the grand scheme. Tice brought in some new running concepts from his years of expertise. I believe Jackson has one more solid year left in him. I believe rookie Devonta Freeman can have an immediate impact. And I believe Jacquizz Rodgers has great value in the screen game, which is essentially an extension of the run.

But when it comes to the Falcons' offensive success this season, I'll simply take a pass.

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC South

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The NFC South too shall pass.

Three of the division's first-round picks in May were wide receivers: Mike Evans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (at No. 7), Brandin Cooks of the New Orleans Saints (No. 20) and Kelvin Benjamin of the Carolina Panthers (No. 28). And offensive tackle Jake Matthews, drafted sixth overall by the Atlanta Falcons, should give quarterback Matt Ryan more time to throw to his star wideouts.

 The Bucs had a void opposite Pro Bowl veteran Vincent Jackson and filled it with Evans, giving the team a pair of 6-foot-5 receivers. The Saints parted with Lance Moore and Darren Sproles, two key components in their pass-happy offense. In steps versatile Cooks, who hauled in 128 receptions for 1,730 yards last season at Oregon State. The Panthers released their No. 1 receiver -- diminutive, 35-year-old Steve Smith -- and replaced him with 6-5 Benjamin.

First-round picks aren't the only NFC South rookies with a chance to make some noise. Keep an eye on Bucs tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Falcons running back Devonta Freeman and Saints cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste.

The four writers who cover the division -- Vaughn McClure in Atlanta, David Newton for Carolina, Mike Triplett in New Orleans and Pat Yasinskas for Tampa Bay -- offered their insights on the division's rookies, among other topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out whether they saw the issues differently.

First Down

Which NFC South rookie will make the biggest impact this season?



Vaughn McClure: Tampa Bay receiver Mike Evans should get plenty of chances to show he was worthy of a top-10 selection. His size (6-5, 230 pounds) is enough to give opponents fits. Having a proven big receiver such as Vincent Jackson on the other side should help Evans make a smooth transition. Josh McCown is a smart quarterback who won't put Evans in bad situations. And Lovie Smith is the right head coach in terms of helping a rookie adjust to new surroundings. Evans has to overcome some of the knocks on him, including that he's too stiff and doesn't have great speed. It still will be hard to match up against him one-on-one, though, because the former basketball player will win the jump balls. And he has already impressed coaches with his range.

David Newton: This is a tough one because I really like the first-round picks for all four division teams. Each will make his team significantly better. But for me, it comes down to New Orleans' Brandin Cooks and Carolina's Kelvin Benjamin because both receivers will get plenty of opportunities. I'm going with Cooks because he has quarterback Drew Brees and a veteran unit around him. Rookie receivers often struggle. Cooks will break that trend with 60-plus catches.

Mike Triplett: I'll go with Saints receiver Brandin Cooks because I think he'll have the flashiest season. You could make a great case for all four first-round picks, and Jake Matthews will probably play the most vital role because of the Falcons' need at offensive tackle. But I think Cooks will make the biggest splash -- and even be a strong contender for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Even though New Orleans spreads the ball around so much, I expect Cooks to catch a high volume of passes and hit some home runs with deep balls and a punt return or two.

Pat Yasinskas: That's an easy one. I'm going with Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Evans. He's going to be an instant starter, and he's going to be active in the passing game. Vincent Jackson remains the top receiver, but Evans will be a nice No. 2 to start his career. Evans someday will be a No. 1 receiver, but for now he'll be a complement to Jackson. Evans and Jackson, both 6-5, will form one of the league's largest starting receiver tandems, and that's going to cause problems for opposing defenses.


Second Down

What is your team's top position battle to monitor in training camp?



McClure: Although there will be plenty of competition among Falcons linebackers, I'm turning my attention to the running backs. Steven Jackson is the starter. He turns 31 next month and probably has one good season left in him -- but if he is slowed by nagging injuries, the Falcons will turn to someone else. They drafted Devonta Freeman in the fourth round with thoughts of grooming him as the three-down back of the future. If he looks as good in pads as he did in shorts, Jackson might have a battle on his hands. Even the battle for the third running back will be interesting with Jacquizz Rodgers and Antone Smith in the mix. The running backs, as a whole, have an improved offensive line to run behind. Let's see whether that helps them.

Newton: Most might say the left tackle battle between Byron Bell and Nate Chandler. And although finding a replacement for retired Jordan Gross is key, the Carolina competition that intrigues me the most will be between Charles Godfrey and Melvin White at cornerback. Godfrey is making the transition from safety to corner after missing most of last season with an Achilles injury. It's a homecoming of sorts, since Godfrey played cornerback for most of his college career at Iowa before the former Panthers coaching staff moved him to safety in 2008. Although White was adequate last season, Godfrey is a more physical player with the potential to be a shutdown corner. If he can win that battle, it's a huge upgrade for the league's No. 2 defense.

Triplett: The battle at cornerback is by far the most compelling on the Saints' roster. For one thing, it's a vital position in today's NFL. For another thing, the Saints are loaded with fascinating candidates behind No. 1 cornerback Keenan Lewis. Does surefire Hall of Famer Champ Bailey have enough left in the tank? Can former first-round pick Patrick Robinson bounce back from injury? Can third-year pro Corey White take that next step? Can rookie Stanley Jean-Baptiste make an instant impact? Can second-year pro Rod Sweeting or someone else emerge as a dark horse? And did I mention this is an important position?

Yasinskas: The best competition will be at tight end. The fact Austin Seferian-Jenkins was drafted in the second round probably means he'll get the first shot at the starting position, but don't overlook his competition -- theoretically, the Bucs have four guys who could end up as the starter. Free-agent pickup Brandon Myers can catch and block. Tim Wright had 54 catches last season and has worked to improve his blocking. Veteran Luke Stocker is returning from injury; he isn't a huge threat as a receiver, but he could play a big role as a blocker.


Third Down

Which veteran on your team is poised for a breakout season?




McClure: I like safety William Moore taking on more of a leadership role and sparking the Falcons' defense, and I like receiver Roddy White rebounding from last year's injury-plagued campaign. But the guy I'm going to single out is return man Devin Hester. After his role diminished in Chicago, people forgot he was the greatest return man of all time. All Hester needed was a change of scenery: In watching him during organized team activities, it was evident he still has his quickness. With special-teams mastermind Keith Armstrong drawing up the blocking scheme, Hester could be the X factor in the Falcons' quest to return to playoff contention. Whatever Hester accomplishes on offense would be a bonus.

Newton: It feels strange calling wide receiver Tiquan Underwood a veteran since this is his first season with the Panthers, but the sixth-year player out of Rutgers was the first to come to mind with this question. Underwood was brought in to replace Ted Ginn Jr. as the speed receiver. Ginn went from two catches with San Francisco in 2012 to 36 for five touchdowns with the Panthers last season before moving on to Arizona. Underwood had 24 catches for four touchdowns in Tampa Bay last season. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula was high on him when they worked together in Jacksonville. Throw in what wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl will teach Underwood, I could see him doubling his production in 2014.

Triplett: I've been touting Saints defensive end/tackle Akiem Hicks all offseason. He's a third-year guy who's big and really powerful at 6-5, 324 pounds, but athletic for his size. A former third-round pick out of the University of Regina in Canada, he had 4.5 sacks last year in his first stint as a full-time starter. I'm not sure Hicks will post 10-plus sacks as an interior guy, which means he might not crack the Pro Bowl. But that's the level of impact he can have as someone who can both push the pocket and stuff the run. Opposing offensive linemen in the NFC South certainly know who he is.

Yasinskas: Middle linebacker Mason Foster is set up for a big season. Foster has had a decent career to this point, but he's about to get a lot better. Hardy Nickerson and Brian Urlacher excelled as middle linebackers in coach Lovie Smith's defense, and now it might be Foster's turn. Weakside linebacker Lavonte David is the star of this unit, but Foster has a chance to be a nice complementary player. Smith likes to have his middle linebackers call the defensive plays, and that means Foster will be putting on the radio helmet this year.


Fourth Down

What is your predicted order of finish in the NFC South standings?



McClure: That's a tough one. I see a lot of parity within the division, and the Buccaneers really have a chance to close the gap based on their offseason moves, including the hiring of Smith as coach. But I'm going to go with New Orleans, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Carolina. As long as the Saints have Drew Brees in the lineup, they have a chance to be contenders. The Falcons bulked up on both sides of the line, which should bode well for them in terms of putting up points on offense and preventing big plays on defense. The Bucs' defense could be devastating. Carolina will sorely miss Jordan Gross and Steve Smith -- and it will show.

Newton: Since nobody has repeated as NFC South champion since the division was formed in 2002, it would seem a bit crazy to pick the Panthers, who edged New Orleans for the title last season. The Saints are considered the favorites by most, and it's hard to argue otherwise with Brees and tight end Jimmy Graham on offense. But I'm a believer that defense wins, and even with changes to the secondary, there's not a better defense in the division than Carolina's. I like what Atlanta has done in free agency and the draft, so I look for the Falcons to finish second with the Saints third and Tampa Bay fourth. Having said that, I could see the division winner going 9-7 or 10-6. It's going to be tight.

Triplett: I'm confident the Saints will finish first with at least 11 wins. Although their offense lost some key pieces, it's still one of the NFL's elite, and their defense is legit. After that it's a virtual three-way tie. I wouldn't be surprised to see any of the others flirt with a playoff run or finish last. I'll go with the Buccaneers second because they're on the rise. They have a great defense and run game and now seem to have a solid coach and quarterback. I'll pick Carolina third because it lost so much in the receiving corps and secondary. As much as I like the Falcons' passing attack, there are questions everywhere else.

Yasinskas: Saints, Falcons, Buccaneers and Panthers. This was a tough call because all four teams have a chance to be good. I gave the nod to the Saints because they have Brees, the best quarterback in the division. I think Atlanta will have a dramatic turnaround after last season's debacle. Tampa Bay is going to be much more competitive than last year. Carolina might have taken a step back with some of its offseason moves, but I still wouldn't count the Panthers out.

 

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