NFC South: Chris Owens
Most significant move: In yet the latest sign that they’re going to become more of a passing team, the Falcons are going with Lousaka Polite as the only true fullback on their roster. They released Mike Cox, who became the starter last season after Ovie Mughelli suffered a major injury. Throughout Mike Mularkey’s tenure as offensive coordinator, the Falcons used Mughelli extensively as a lead blocker for Michael Turner. Polite’s a solid veteran, but I think the fact the Falcons are going without a true backup fullback says a lot. Tailback Jason Snelling can play fullback if needed, but I think this is an indication that new coordinator Dirk Koetter doesn’t plan on using fullbacks as much as this team did in recent years.
Onward and upward: More than any other franchise in the NFC South, the Falcons pride themselves on keeping their team together. That’s why I’m fairly surprised that third-year cornerback Dominique Franks was waived. He seemed to be in the lead for the job as the punt returner and he also made several nice plays as a cornerback in the preseason. Take this as a sign that the Falcons think more highly of fourth-year corner Chris Owens, who they also drafted and have developed. Owens will be the fourth corner after Brent Grimes, Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel. There is some mileage on the guys ahead of him, so Owens could end up in a bigger role as the season goes on. Also, this pretty much means the Falcons plan to use wide receiver Harry Douglas as their main punt returner. Franks shouldn’t have a problem landing on another roster.
What’s next: Quarterback Matt Ryan is “the franchise’’ in Atlanta. I know fans aren’t sold on left tackle Sam Baker. But I’m a little more concerned that all the Falcons have behind Baker, who has had injury problems in the past, is rookie Lamar Holmes, who missed a chunk of the preseason with an injury. I think the Falcons need to find a bit of insurance with a left tackle that’s had a little experience in the NFL. Until Holmes has a little more time to get coached up, this team is one Baker injury away from disaster.
There is potentially good news for the Atlanta Falcons' offensive line. Center Todd McClure, who missed the first two games with a knee injury, returned to practice on a limited basis Wednesday. If McClure is ready to go Sunday, he’ll step right back into the lineup ahead of Joe Hawley. The Falcons also placed quarterback Matt Ryan on the injured list and said he had a knee injury. But Ryan was able to practice on a limited basis. Defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux (knee) did not practice and is expected to be out several more weeks. Cornerback Kelvin Hayden, who moved ahead of Chris Owens at nickel back last week, sat out practice with a hamstring injury.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Quincy Black sat out practice with an ankle injury. If Black isn’t ready to play against the Falcons on Sunday, Dekoda Watson is expected to start in his place on the strong side.
The New Orleans Saints practiced without several defensive starters. Linebackers Jonathan Vilma (knee) and Jonathan Casillas (foot), cornerback Tracy Porter (calf) and safety Roman Harper (ankle) did not practice. Coach Sean Payton said he hopes Vilma and Casillas can practice Thursday, but did not elaborate on the status of Porter and Harper.
Carolina Panthers safety Charles Godfrey (head) was the only member of the Panthers not to practice. If Godfrey isn’t able to play Sunday, the Panthers likely would turn to Jordan Pugh. Rookie quarterback Cam Newton was listed on the injury report with an ankle injury, but he participated fully in practice. Right tackle Jeff Otah (concussion) returned to practice after missing Sunday’s game. Otah was not listed on the injury report.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas
Nice move by Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff on Tuesday morning as he traded for cornerback Tye Hill.
We don’t know exactly what kind of draft-pick compensation the Falcons had to give to the Rams yet, but credit Dimitroff with seeing a need for help in the secondary and addressing it. Also give him credit for not panicking and going after some aging player.
Hill is a guy who still has some upside. In fact, Hill is the kind of first-round talent the Falcons haven’t had on their roster since ... well, DeAngelo Hall, but that’s a bad example. Atlanta went through last season kind of patching things together at cornerback and they seemed destined to do the same thing this year.
They didn’t have any blue-chip corners and appeared ready to go into the season with Chris Houston and Brent Grimes as the starters and rookie Chris Owens and second-year pro Chevis Jackson as the backups. Houston’s been good at times, but not so good at other times. He came into the league as a second-round draft pick and Grimes came in as an undrafted free agent. Owens and Jackson were third-round choices.
There’s a belief in the NFL that top-flight cornerbacks come only in the first round. Hill was a first-round pick by the Rams in 2006. He had a very good rookie season, but has been limited the last two seasons by injuries.
Is he a true shutdown corner? You can’t call him that at the moment. But he was viewed as a first-round talent at one point and he has the potential to develop into a shutdown corner. Even if he’s just a decent corner, he’s probably an upgrade.
Although the Falcons love Grimes’ athletic ability, they’re concerned about other teams trying to exploit his size. Grimes is listed as 5-foot-9, which may be generous. Hill’s listed as 5-foot-10. He’s not known for being the most physical corner.
But Hill can cover receivers and that’s something the Falcons really needed.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
I'll be back in a bit with some analysis of what this means for the Falcons, but wanted to make sure you heard the news quickly. Here's a copy of the story I sent over to our news folks:
The Atlanta Falcons, apparently concerned after their secondary struggled in preseason games, have traded for cornerback Tye Hill.
The Falcons sent an undisclosed draft pick to the Rams for Hill, who was a first-round pick by St. Louis in 2006. Hill started 10 games and had three interceptions as a rookie, but his playing time has been limited to 12 games over the past two seasons because of injuries.
The Falcons have been starting Chris Houston and Brent Grimes at cornerback throughout the preseason and also have rookie Chris Owens and second-year pro Chevis Jackson.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Time for a quick trip through the NFC South headlines and we'll leave the Bucs out of this one since I was at their practice Wednesday and will be there again this afternoon.
- New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees has re-joined the Saints for Thursday morning's practice with the Texans after attending the memorial service for his mother.
- AFC South colleague Paul Kuharsky is in Houston for the joint workouts and he had this report from the late practice Wednesday.
- Folks in Charlotte are getting excited about rookie quarterback Hunter Cantwell. That's understandable because he did some nice things in the preseason opener. But don't get too carried away. The Panthers are pretty well set with Jake Delhomme, Josh McCown and Matt Moore as their top three quarterbacks and all three have experience in the system. If anything, Cantwell probably will end up on the practice squad, unless some other team grabs him for a regular roster spot.
- With starting cornerback Chris Houston expected to sit out Friday night's preseason game with St. Louis because of injury, rookie corner Chris Owens has been getting the work with the first team.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Time for a quick look at some of the day's top stories in the NFC South:
- The Saints have said since the draft that Malcolm Jenkins would be used at cornerback. He got some work at safety Sunday. Jenkins also got some work at corner in the nickel package. Sounds like the Saints are just exploring all the possibilities they have with the versatile rookie.
- Quarterback Drew Brees has left the Saints to attend memorial services for his mother. Brees is expected to re-join the team Wednesday when the Saints have a joint practice with the Texans in Houston.
- Atlanta rookie cornerback Chris Owens is showing signs he has one of the traits of some of the greats at his position. He's already talking about himself in the third person.
- A thief reportedly stole an autographed Steve Smith jersey from a South Carolina restaurant.
- Although Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman threw an interception in his first preseason game, coach Raheem Morris raved about the rookie's savvy for calling his own play when he couldn't hear the call on the radio in his helmet.
- Morris said center Jeff Faine, receiver Michael Clayton and linebacker Angelo Crowell, who've been sidelined with injuries, are expected to return to practice this week.
|Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images|
|Tony Gonzalez needed to be on a contending team and the Falcons needed another weapon for Matt Ryan. Atlanta is counting on the partnership to lead to a title.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
"I don't know why people always talk about 'it,'" Gonzalez said. "I think you can break it down and actually put your finger on it. First of all, he's got great talent and he's willing to work hard. Harder than anybody else. On our first day off of camp last week, he was in here working out at 3:30 on a Sunday. He's always watching film.
"I feel like I'm the same way. That's what makes great players. There's no substitute for it. That is the 'it' factor, you're willing to not just do what everybody else is doing. You're willing to go above and beyond.''
Ten minutes earlier and 30 yards away, Ryan sat in a chair and said basically the same thing about Gonzalez.
"There's no mystery why that kind of stuff happens,'' Ryan said. "It's not just a fluke or anything like that. He works so hard. He puts in the time, works hard in the weight room and on the practice field and takes care of his body. It's been impressive for me to see what it takes to be at that level at your position in this league and being one of the best players in the league.''
Yes, greatness realized and greatness on the verge are colliding in Atlanta this summer. It's no accident. Matchmakers Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff have put Ryan and Gonzalez together in an attempt to give each of them perhaps the only thing they were lacking. Quite simply, Ryan and Gonzalez needed one another.
Ryan needed a tight end to go with running back Michael Turner and receivers Roddy White and Michael Jenkins as he attempts to follow up on an astounding rookie season. In the post-Michael Vick reconstruction of Atlanta, the Falcons give Ryan whatever he wants and needs.
That's why they went out and got the most productive tight end ever. Not thrilled with the prospect of another rebuilding year in Kansas City, Gonzalez said he was contemplating retirement. That all changed when Dimitroff and Smith started talking to the Chiefs about a trade. Atlanta sent its second-round pick in 2010 to Kansas City in exchange for Gonzalez because the future is now for the Falcons, who stunned the world by going 11-5 and making the playoffs last season.
Gonzalez needed a reason to keep playing and, most importantly, he needed a quarterback. You can see the chemistry coming together on the field. You can see it off the field, as the quarterback and tight end have been training-camp roommates and fast friends.
"We have the potential to be the best football team I've ever played on,'' Gonzalez said. "Offensively, we can be better than any team I've played on and that's saying a lot with the teams I played on with Dick Vermeil, Priest Holmes and Eddie Kennison. I loved (quarterback) Trent Green, but Matt's one of those Peyton Manning, Troy Aikman kind of guys. He's got the potential to be one of the best players ever.''
Now, Ryan is throwing to one of the best players ever.
1. Can Atlanta's defense, with five new starters, be as good as the offense?
Yes. Smith got his defense to overachieve in his first season as a head coach and that came without him truly having time to stock his roster with his type of personnel. The Falcons made the playoffs with linebacker Keith Brooking, safety Lawyer Milloy and defensive tackle Grady Jackson serving as stopgaps near the end of their careers.
Those three are gone and so are linebacker Michael Boley and cornerback Domonique Foxworth, who was the only one of the five the Falcons had any interest in keeping. The Falcons drafted defensive tackle Peria Jerry and believe they had some replacements that fit their scheme in linebacker Stephen Nicholas, safety Th
omas DeCoud and cornerback Brent Grimes.
They also signed free-agent linebacker Mike Peterson to take Brooking's place. Peterson, 33, doesn't make the defense any younger, but he spent the best years of his career in Jacksonville, where Smith was his defensive coordinator. Smith likes to talk about the "process'' and the defensive overhaul is the next step. The Falcons put last year's emphasis on building the offense. This year, they're trying to assemble a defense to match it.
|AP Photo/John Bazemore|
|The Falcons need Matt Ryan to continue to improve in his second year.|
2. Are the cornerbacks good enough to stop the top passing games?
A lot of fans seem concerned about a cornerback group that has Chris Houston and Grimes as the starters with rookie Chris Owens and second year pro Chevis Jackson as the top backups.
None of them fit the profile of a true shut-down corner, but Smith and Dimitroff seem to have a lot more faith in this group than their fans do. Houston's not the most physical cornerback around and Grimes' size (5-foot-9, which might be generous) could cause some matchup problems. But the Falcons didn't seem worried enough about either of those things to go out and splurge for a free agent.
That's because Smith and his staff believe they can coach Houston to be more aggressive and they believe Grimes is so athletic that he would have been a first-round pick instead of an undrafted free agent if he were a couple inches taller. The belief is that Grimes can make up for his lack of height with his rare leaping ability (he has a 42-inch vertical jump). Of course, it would only help the corners if John Abraham can produce another year of double-digit sacks and Jamaal Anderson can start showing why he was a top 10 pick in 2007.
3. Will there be a sophomore slump for Ryan?
That's usually a legitimate question when a guy has a remarkable rookie season. But this guy is different than any quarterback to come along in recent years.
Ryan's got an offensive line that showed it could protect him last year. He's got a top-notch runner in Turner, a Pro Bowl receiver in White and a solid possession guy in Jenkins. Add Gonzalez to that and Ryan's only going to get better.
Quietly, the coaching staff is raving about what Nicholas has shown in camp so far. They say he's a completely different player and person than he was last year when he was flying back and forth to Boston to be with his infant son, who was awaiting a heart transplant. Stephen Nicholas Jr. got a new heart in mid-October and is completely healthy now. His father is able to focus completely on football now and the coaches firmly believe he's ready for a breakout season.
It's obvious this is a make-or-break year for Anderson at defensive end. He's got to show something and show it quickly because the Falcons aren't going to be patient much longer. They've got Chauncey Davis, who's ready to play immediately, and rookie Lawrence Sidbury, who has lots of potential, waiting to take over.
The Falcons must be very confident that left tackle Sam Baker is fully recovered from the back surgery that interrupted his rookie season. Atlanta didn't go out and get any other strong alternative and that's significant because Baker is the guy responsible for protecting Ryan's blind side.
It's early yet, but the Falcons believe they might have hit on something when they signed veteran Robert Ferguson after Harry Douglas went down with a season-ending injury early in camp. Ferguson looks like a guy intent on redeeming a career that seemed to be stalled. There's no doubt the Falcons will miss Douglas because they wanted him to stretch the field. But Ferguson and veteran Brian Finneran might give them some quality depth.
The Falcons had planned to let Owens focus solely on playing cornerback as a rookie. But the injury to Douglas leaves the team with a big question mark at punt returner. Owens has return abilities and the Falcons are going to use the preseason to take a look at him in that role.
The Falcons went with Chris Redman as Ryan's backup last season and had D.J. Shockley as their third quarterback. But there's a chance Shockley and Redman could flip roles. Shockley's had a strong camp and has lots of upside. ... The annual speculation that running back Jerious Norwood should get more carries is rolling again. There might be some truth to that because the Falcons don't want Turner handling 376 carries again. But Norwood's still going to be a situational player and his carries aren't going to increase dramatically. ... White's contract holdout didn't seem to set him back. He looks like he's in the best shape of his career. ... Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton was a force as a rookie last year, but the Falcons are going to ask even more from him this year. They want him to be an every-down linebacker. ... A lot of people like to bash the right side of Atlanta's offensive line. It's true that guard Harvey Dahl and tackle Tyson Clabo might not be the most talented guys. But offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and line coach Paul Boudreau do a good job of playing to their strengths. Dahl and Claybo are aggressive as run blockers and Mularkey and Boudreau do a good job of covering up their deficiencies as pass blockers by giving them help and not having Ryan take many deep drops.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Here's a look at some of the headlines around the NFC South.• Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart shed some light on the injury that's kept him sidelined this offseason. It's an Achilles tendon problem and he's supposed to rest it until training camp. Stewart says he'll be ready for camp.
• Linebacker Jon Beason may be the only member of the Panthers' organization to talk directly to disgruntled defensive end Julius Peppers anytime in recent months. According to Beason, Peppers indicated he'll be ready for training camp, but didn't necessarily rule out a holdout. As always, stay tuned on this one.
• Atlanta tackle Sam Baker is healthy and looking forward to bouncing back from an injury-filled rookie season.
• The Falcons continue to be the division's most active team in getting their rookies signed. They took care of defensive back Chris Owens (third round) and offensive lineman Garrett Reynolds (fifth round) on Monday. They previously signed William Middleton and Vance Walker.
• Wide receiver Plaxico Burress has told former Giants teammate Derrick Ward he would like to play for Tampa Bay. But it doesn't sound like the Bucs are very interested in Burress -- at least right now.
• With guard Arron Sears still away from the team as he deals with a personal matter, the Bucs are moving forward and getting Jeremy Zuttah ready to start in his place.
• Former Tampa Bay receiver Keenan McCardell, who left the team in an ugly contract spat in 2004, viewed practice Monday as a guest of coach Raheem Morris. McCardell said he has put that messy split behind him. He's also thinking about a future in coaching.
• Running back Cadillac Williams continues to say he'll be ready for the start of training camp as he recovers from his second major knee injury.
Time for a quick trip through the mailbag.
Matt in Athens, GA writes: Pat, I gotta know, depending on how well the Falcons do this year (I'm saying 10 to 11 wins against that schedule), how much longer can this team hold together their superstar coaching staff? You've got Musgrave and Mularkey, and any Dawg fan worth their salt knows Coach Van Gorder is a superstar waiting to to explode on to the scene, possibly at a FBS school (and not, say, Georgia Southern). While the Falcons have a great core of players and front office people, I really believe it's this coaching staff that's their true ace in the hole. Losing Mularkey would mean an upgrade for Musgrave, but losing both could be catastrophic for Ryan's further development. And we saw last year what BVG did with all of those old wheels on the Falcons defense. Losing his smarts and emotional fire from that side of the ball would leave a gaping hole not easily patched. How do you see this playing out after this year?
Pat Yasinskas: Worrying about losing assistant coaches to other jobs is a nice problem to have. There's no question the Falcons have some rising stars on their staff. In fact, I think Mike Smith has one of the best coaching staffs in the league. But the good news is that staff is in place for this season. Another successful year could change that, but that's the nature of the business.
Sam in Oympia Wa writes: What will the Saints do to replace Deuce? Is Thomas the future and what will Bush's role be this year? Also are there any palyers at the position who could make an impact this year who didn't last year?Pat Yasinskas: I think it's pretty obvious the Saints are planning to go with Pierre Thomas as the main guy in their running game. He did a nice job last year and Reggie Bush will mix in to take some carries, but I think you'll see Bush more involved in the passing game. The Saints still aren't sure who their short-yardage runner will be, but don't count out Mike Bell.
Bobby in Charlotte writes: Hey Pat, I am a big panthers fan and I recently noticed a post that Aaron Kampman was not very happy playing his new position playing linebacker in the new 3-4 defensive scheme that the packers are installing and well I had a brilliant idea for a trade and wanted to know what your thoughts are on the possibility of the chances of this trade taking place. I am think that because Peppers would like to play that position and Kampman had made a name for himself as a DE that maybe there could be a trade between Green Bay and Carolina.
Pat Yasinskas: To be clear, I've not heard any talk about this possible trade, but it does make some sense. But trades aren't all that common in the NFL and I'm not sure the Packers would have that much interest in Peppers and the prospect of paying him a fortune.
sensiblefan in Detroit writes: Pat, Not sure if you've gotten a chance to look at Scott Reynolds' Fab 5 on Pewter Report but Fab #2 is VERY enlightening concerning the DT position in Jim Bates' scheme. It seems that the technique required to play the position has been truly downgraded from the Warren Sapp-like talent level necessary to play the Tampa 2. The requisite skills to play the position appear to be: be 300 lbs...and that's it; there's no thinking or even penetration required. I'd venture to say that the DT position is not really an issue anymore and passing on Peria Jerry and Ziggy Hood was not as egregious as most Buc fans (including myself) thought.
Pat Yasinskas: As always, Scott Reynolds makes a good point. Jim Bates is looking for guys to eat up space. The Bucs don't need a superstar defensive tackle, but I'd like to see them get one more guy with experience because Roy Miller has none, Chris Hovan is aging and Ryan Sims is ordinary.
Craig in Atlanta writes: hey Pat, i have been a falcons fan my whole life, good times and bad. i have, along with the rest of atlanta, fallen in love with mat ryan, but there is this concern in the back of my head that he could just be a rookie mistake. part of me thinks he could be the next Tom Brady, or Payton Manning, but another part of me thinks he could be the next cris wienkee, or joey harrington. what are your thoughts and do you have my same concern?
Pat Yasinskas: I understand your concern, but think about this: Chris Weinke and Joey Harrington never even came close to playing like Matt Ryan did last year. Ryan is the real deal and he's got a good offense around him. It's even better than last year with Tony Gonzalez on board.
GFalcons in Miami FL writes: Hey Pat how you doing? I'm concern everybody's talking about the corners the Falcons have but nobody is talking about Chris Houston are starting corner from last year.
Pat Yasinskas: In this case, it's a good thing nobody's talking about Chris Houston. It means he's set at one starting spot while Brent Grimes, Chevis Jackson, Chris Owens and Von Hutchins compete for the other one.
The Atlanta Falcons are the final stop in our series of team-by-team mailbags.
LR in Warner Robins, Ga., writes: Who you think will be the Atlanta Falcons starting Strong Safety, DeCoud or Moore?
Pat Yasinskas: Too early to tell right now. This is going to be one of the more interesting battles in training camp. In the recent minicamp, Thomas DeCoud worked with the first team and William Moore with the second. But it's common to open minicamp with the guy who's been around ahead of the rookie. The Falcons used a second-round pick on Moore and that means they think he can probably start. But that's not a given. DeCoud can win this job if he has the better preseason.
Steve in New Haven, Conn., writes: hey Pat, love the blog, while you were at camp, did you take a look at the CB's? It seems Houston is going to be our RCB, but at LCB we have an open competition. Who do you think will be the other starter? Grimes, Hutchins, Jackson, Owens? I'd like to see Jackson starting, Owens in the nickel, and Grimes or Hutchins fightin for the 4th CB spot. Anyways, how do you think it'll play out??? Thnks
Pat Yasinskas: I think the Falcons definitely view the cornerback spot opposite Chris Houston as an open competition. In this case, I think that's a healthy thing. They're going to throw Brent Grimes, Von Hutchins, Chevis Jackson and Chris Owens out there and see who rises up. They're high on Jackson after what he flashed as a rookie and they see Owens as a guy who can be a starter at some point. If Jackson and Owens have solid preseasons, they could join Houston in the trio of top cornerbacks.
Niklas in Aarhus, Denmark, writes: Hey Pat! Who do you see as next year's breakout candidates on the Falcons squad, and why?
Pat Yasinskas: I'll go with linebacker Stephen Nicholas. I think his skills fit what coach Mike Smith wants from the strong side and Nicholas has had time to develop. I know the Falcons lost Keith Brooking and Michael Boley after last season, but I think the linebacker corps can be better than it was a year ago.
Ben in Macon, Ga., writes: How long do you give the rest of the NFC South fans before they start REALLY hating the Falcons? All this national media attention, combined with media darling Matt Ryan, has to be grating on them. Am I right?
Pat Yasinskas: Wow, I'll leave that one up to the NFC South fans to decide. But there's no question the Falcons are becoming somewhat of the media darling of the division and Ryan is at the center of it all. Kind of amazing how much more respect the Falcons are getting than they did this time a year ago. They earned that respect with last season. But now they've got to keep that respect by playing well.
Dash in Nashville writes: Do you think there's any chance the Falcons can get any team to trade for Mike Vick? Even if it's a 7th rounder for next year?
Pat Yasinskas: Doubt it. I just don't see teams willing to give up a pick for a guy who's going to be cut anyway. If Thomas Dimitroff somehow gets anything for Vick, he's even more of a genius than I already think he is.
DBell in Rome, Ga., Writes: With Tony Gonzales giving the Falcons a serious TE threat, how will Ovie Mughelli's role at FB be affected? The Falcons paid him more than any other FB ever, and I feel he's been under-used. Do you think he'll now see less time with the Falcons likely to use more two-TE sets?
Pat Yasinskas: Don't sell Mughelli short. The guy played a huge role as a blocker for Michael Turner last season. Yeah, he doesn't get to catch or run the ball very often, but his role as a blocker is an important part of Atlanta's offense. Yes, you'll see some sets where the Falcons use two tight ends and have Mughelli on the sidelines. But I think he'll be on the field for a lot of running plays and to help protect Ryan on passing downs.
|Dale Zanine/US PRESSWIRE, Paul Abell/Getty Images, David Stluka/Getty Images|
|Peria Jerry, William Moore and Stephen Nicholas are among the young defenders Atlanta coach Mike Smith will be counting on this season.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Take just about any team that was in the playoffs last season and remove five starters from the defense. In theory, that team's probably not going back to the playoffs.
Now, take the Atlanta Falcons.
They got rid of almost half their defensive starters and expect to be better on defense. Wishful thinking? Not really.
Think about all the wonderful things that went right for the Falcons in a stunning 11-5 season. The defense wasn't really one of them. This fact kind of got lost in the hysteria of quarterback Matt Ryan having a great rookie season and Michael Turner running wild.
The simple reality is that Atlanta's defense wasn't very good. The Falcons ranked 25th in rush defense, allowing 2,046 yards on the ground. Against the pass, the Falcons allowed 3,526 yards. That's only 21 yards less than New Orleans allowed and the Saints were widely considered one of the league's worst defenses.
|Greg Trott/Getty Images|
|John Abraham collected 16.5 sacks and forced four fumbles last season.|
Sure, Atlanta's defense played well enough to help the Falcons win 11 games, but it was done with smoke, mirrors, John Abraham and a whole lot of luck.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith were painfully aware the defense wasn't going to get any better by standing still and that's why they didn't. Linebacker Keith Brooking, defensive tackle Grady Jackson, cornerback Domonique Foxworth and linebacker Michael Boley were allowed to walk in free agency and safety Lawyer Milloy was released.
The truth is Foxworth was the only one of the bunch the Falcons wanted to keep, but only if they could do it at a reasonable price and that didn't happen. Brooking, Jackson and Milloy were great players -- a few years ago. But last season, they were old guys and liabilities. Boley fell out of favor with the coaching staff and wasn't even starting at the end of last year.
The names of the guys who are going to replace those five aren't going to excite anyone, but maybe they should. Atlanta's defense is going to be better in the long run because of the housecleaning. But it also might be better right away.
"I came into the meeting (on the first day of last week's minicamp) and I saw Abe and a couple old guys," safety Erik Coleman said. "But for the most part, it was first- and second-year guys. I think it's a good thing. We've got a lot of youth on our team and a lot of guys that are hungry to show they can play."
|Falcons head coach Mike Smith talks about sustaining the success of last year's team.|
We won't know for sure if all the young guys can play for a few more months. But they might have a better chance than last year's defense. They at least fit the profile.
When Smith and Dimitroff came in last year, they focused most of their efforts on offense, signing Turner to a big free-agent contract and using the third overall draft pick on Ryan. Smith, who came with a defensive background, didn't truly have the kind of players he wanted on defense, so he had to make do.
But that's no longer an issue. Atlanta's offseason was all about defense and players who fit Smith's scheme. The Falcons are younger and the upgraded speed of the defense was obvious in minicamp.
They used their first-round pick on defensive tackle Peria Jerry and their second-round choice on safety William Moore. They're the likely replacements for Jackson and Milloy. They firmly believe that third-year pro Stephen Nicholas is ready to blossom and take over Boley's old spot on the strong side. They're not sure exactly who will start in Foxworth's spot, but they're going to throw Brent Grimes, Von Hutchins, Chevis Jackson and Chris Owens out there and see who rises up.
The Falcons didn't necessarily get younger at weakside linebacker where free-agent Mike Peterson is only a year younger than Brooking. But Peterson spent much of his career under Smith in Jacksonville and he wouldn't have been brought in if he didn't fit the system.
|Sam Greenwood/Getty Images|
|Mike Peterson could provide some of the veteran leadership that the Falcons lost this offseason.|
The one potential downside to the yout
h movement is that the Falcons lost a lot of experience and leadership in Brooking, Milloy and Jackson and nobody is denying that's a concern.
Smith doesn't believe in randomly anointing leaders and he's given a lot of thought to where his defensive leadership will come from.
"When you're a good player and you have success on the field, it leads to leadership," Smith said. "They become leaders."
At the moment, the Falcons don't have as many defensive leaders as a year ago. But Smith thinks that will change quickly.
Abraham's already a leader. Coleman was close to being one last year and should have room to spread his wings with Milloy gone. Peterson's a natural leader and already is getting comfortable with his new team. Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton was thrust into a leadership role as a rookie by the nature of his position and Smith expects his development in that role will accelerate this year.
"Instead of having one or two leaders, you've got to have eight or nine leaders throughout the entire team," Smith said. "There has to be a balance there."
Balance really is what the Falcons are aiming for on defense. They've got veterans in Abraham, Coleman and Peterson, young guys in the rookies and second-year players and some guys in between like defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux and cornerback Chris Houston.
"We've got enough veteran leadership that can work out with the younger players to be a great blend," defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said. "With young players, it's always a process. Right now, it's crucial that we work hard to allow them to get comfortable so they can attach themselves to the leadership and let it shine through."
The Atlanta Falcons are the final stop on our tour of team-by-team mailbags.
Brett in Atlanta writes: Hey Pat, i read this blog alot but this is my first time sending a question. Anyways, i want to know how good do you think the falcons young defense can be?
Pat Yasinskas: I think Atlanta's defense now has the potential to be very good. Young guys like Peria Jerry, William Moore, Chris Owens, Stephen Nicholas and Chevis Jackson have lots of potential. Sure, the Falcons lost veteran leadership when they let Keith Brooking, Lawyer Milloy and Grady Jackson go. But they got fresh legs and I think this year's defense can be better than last year's in time. There might be some early bumps, but as Mike Smith likes to say, "It's a process''.
Mark in Houston: Hey Pat, did Jerious Norwood get any extra carries or extra attention during the mini-camp you attended? I remember you saying you'd post something on it, but I probably missed it. So will he get more than just the occasional catch and kick returns? Also, I've heard that Middleton will be the kick and punt returner this season. Any truth or backing to that? I thought Norwood and Douglas did a good job last season, but with Douglas getting a bigger role and hopefully Norwood getting a bigger role also, we might need someone to return. So is Middleton that guy? Thanks Pat.
Pat Yasinskas: Yes, I definitely noticed Norwood getting some first-team working as the Falcons rested Michael Turner some. It was only a minicamp, but I think that's a sign of things to come. I had one high-ranking person with the Falcons tell me, "The last thing we want is Michael having to carry 375 times again." Turner's still going to get a bunch of carries, but there's going to be a conscious effort to get Norwood a bit more involved. As for the return game, it's too early to say. All those guys you mentioned got work there in minicamp, but a lot is going to depend on if Norwood and Harry Douglas are taking on bigger roles with the offense. That will sort out in the preseason.
Dash in Nashville writes: Pat...love the blog. There was a rumor floating that 3rd round pick Chris Owens might have an opportunity to start for the Falcons...has he gotten any first team reps from what you've seen?
Pat Yasinskas: The Falcons would love it if Owens steps up and claims the job from Day One. That would mean he beat out Chevis Jackson, Von Hutchins and Brent Grimes. That's a lot to ask from a third-round pick, but it could happen and hopes are high. The Falcons aren't wed to Jackson, Hutchins or Grimes as starters. They're going to throw the four of them out there in training camp and see who steps up. One thing I noticed in minicamp was that Owens was getting a lot of attention from the assistant coaches. I usually take that as a sign a team wants a guy to catch on quickly. They also were doing the same thing with rookie safety William Moore.
Nathan in Cary, N.C., writes: Pat, Read your article on Jamaal Anderson of the Falcons. Kind of makes you feel for the guy. However, the title of him hoping for a breakout year is a little obvious. My question is, what happens to Anderson if this breakout year does not come to pass? How many more poor seasons are the Falcons willing to wait for this breakout?
Pat Yasinskas: This year could be it for Anderson if he doesn't step up. The Falcons re-signed Chauncey Davis as an insurance policy and drafted Lawrence Sidbury as a potential replacement. Anderson has to start producing now.
Mark in Chicago writes: Ryan best Rookie QB ever? No way - look at roethlisberger 2004 .13-0 as starter, Team was 15-1 overall after 6-10 season in 2003. Compare stats as well. Ryan very, very good but not best ever.
Pat Yasinskas: With all due respect to Ben Roethlisberger, who had a fine rookie season and has developed into one of the best quarterbacks in the league, I still give the nod to Matt Ryan. Roethlisberger joined a team that already had most of the other ingredients in place to be very good in 2004. He did a nice job managing games, but the team around him was the reason the Steelers were good that year. Think back to when Ryan first joined the Falcons. People said they might not even win a game because they were the worst team in the league and it would take years to recover from Michael Vick. The Falcons, who also were going through a coaching change, went out and won 11 games and Ryan won some of those games almost by himself.
Sokha in Richmond writes: Hey Pat, I was wondering why hasn't the Falcons signed Roddy White to a long term deal yet? He could be Matt Ryan's favorite target for years to come.
Pat Yasinskas: There have been some talks about an extension for White, but nothing's close to happening. The Falcons want to keep him and you may see them lock him up before the season. But there's not the usual urgency on this one because the free-agent system is a little different than usual right now without an extension of the collective bargaining agreement. Players now need to be vested for six years before they become unrestricted free agents. That means, although White's contract is up after 2009, he can only become a restricted free agent in 2010.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Who's going to be rookie of the year in the NFC South?
Well, we'll find out for sure next season, but I know a lot of us don't want to wait that long for an entire season to play out.
So why wait? The folks at WhatIfSports.com have played out the 2009 season already -- 10,000 times.
It's pretty interesting stuff, but the bad news is they don't see any NFC South rookie being dominant. The top-rated NFC South rookie is New Orleans cornerback Malcolm Jenkins and he comes in at No. 34 (San Francisco's Michael Crabtree is No. 1).
Other NFC South rookies in the top 100 include Carolina's Everette Brown (No. 38), Atlanta's Lawrence Sidbury (No. 42), Carolina's Sherrod Martin (No. 48), Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman (No. 72), Carolina's Duke Robinson (No. 76), Atlanta's Chris Owens (No. 85) and Atlanta safety William Moore (No. 100).
Thanks to reader Dale from Georgia for passing this along.