NFC South: Cliff Matthews

Around the NFC South

August, 8, 2013
8/08/13
12:15
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Time for a run through some news and notes from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Jay Adams writes that Cliff Matthews, who spent last year at defensive end, also has been getting some work at defensive tackle so far in camp. That versatility should lead to increased playing time for Matthews because I think we’re going to see the Falcons rotate defensive linemen more than they have in the past.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Kudos to the Panthers and the Make-A-Wish Foundation for making it possible for 8-year-old Jack Bolton to serve as honorary coach for a day.

Joseph Person writes that defensive end Charles Johnson has bulked up in an effort to play better against the run. Johnson already is a prolific pass-rusher. Making his game more well-rounded could help the unheralded Johnson get more national recognition.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

With Joe Morgan out for the season, Jeff Duncan writes that Steve Breaston, who joined the team this week, has a shot to become the No. 3 receiver. Breaston is a possibility, but I’d also keep an eye on second-year receiver Nick Toon as a candidate to fill that role.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Rick Stroud writes that the Bucs need to determine if rookie quarterback Mike Glennon will be merely a backup to Josh Freeman or if he can be an alternative as a starter if Freeman struggles. That’s why you’ll see a lot of Glennon in Thursday’s preseason opener.
The Atlanta Falcons have put out their first unofficial depth chart of the preseason and it contains no major surprises.

Perhaps the most notable thing on there is that rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant is listed with the first team. Trufant, the team’s first-round draft pick, is listed ahead of fellow rookie Robert Alford and veteran Robert McClain.

The other notable item on defense is that Kroy Biermann is listed as a starting defensive end. But Biermann has spent a large part of camp working at outside linebacker. Cliff Matthews and Jonathan Massaquoi are listed as the top two backups at defensive end.

On offense, right tackle might be the position where things are the most competitive. Mike Johnson is listed with the first team and Lamar Holmes is No. 2 on the depth chart.

NFC South afternoon update

August, 2, 2013
8/02/13
2:49
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Time for an afternoon run through some news and notes from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Defensive end Cliff Matthews added about 10 pounds in the offseason at the team’s request. The Falcons want to move Matthews inside on some of their packages. I think you’re going to see the Falcons rotate their defensive linemen even more than they have in the past.

Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said rookies Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford are competing for the starting right cornerback spot. Although Trufant was the first-round pick, Alford might have an early advantage because he was able to take part in all of the offseason program while Trufant had to sit out some of it due to NCAA and NFL rules.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Frank Kearse both left practice with sore backs and receiver Domenik Hixon left with a hamstring injury. Coach Ron Rivera has talked about various ways he’s tried to prevent camp injuries. But this is the point of camp where fatigue sets in and injuries are bound to follow.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

A fan was arrested after trying to get on the field during Friday morning’s practice.

Reserve quarterback Seneca Wallace (groin injury) is among eight players that won’t take part in Saturday’s scrimmage.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Undrafted cornerback Rashaan Melvin has been one of the pleasant surprises of camp. He faces an uphill battle to make the roster. But he has a chance if he continues to perform like he has and shows he can contribute on special teams.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- When he purchased the Atlanta Falcons in 2002, Arthur Blank wasn’t looking primarily to make money.

“It’s a solid business, and the NFL is king of the sports world and all that," said Blank, who made his fortune as co-founder of Home Depot. “But I got in this business to win. You want to win for your franchise, you want to win for the fans, and you want to win for the city and the state and you want to win for your players and the people in this building. All of that is what’s important to me. I’m a super competitive guy, and I want to win."

After some up-and-down early years in Blank's tenure, the Falcons finally have become consistent winners. The team has had five consecutive winning seasons since the arrival of coach Mike Smith, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and quarterback Matt Ryan. That’s remarkable progress for a franchise that had never had back-to-back winning seasons before the trio came along. And last year’s trip to the NFC Championship Game certainly was another step -- the Falcons came up 10 yards short of the Super Bowl.

But Blank’s not the type of guy to dance around. He wants more. He wants a Super Bowl championship. Wait, make that championships, plural.

At the news conference to announce Ryan’s contract extension Thursday evening, Blank strongly said he and the Falcons can’t really relax until they have Super Bowl rings.

“I think when you have five consecutive winning seasons and go to the playoffs four out of five years, you’re very much in the game," Blank said. “I feel good about what we’ve built, but I also feel like it’s time to take the next step."

He’s not alone. Smith had a strong message for his team on the first day of camp.

“I wanted everybody to understand we’re not 10 yards from the Super Bowl," Smith said. “We’re 193 days from the Super Bowl, which is where we want to be at the end of the season."

The Falcons didn’t go into panic mode and make desperate moves in the offseason. But it’s easy to detect the sense of urgency around Atlanta’s camp. The Falcons won’t quite say it’s Super Bowl or bust, but they believe it’s their time to continue moving in that direction.

[+] EnlargeSteven Jackson
AP Photo/John BazemoreAtlanta's pass-oriented offense should have better balance in 2013 with RB Steven Jackson in the mix.
“When an organization comes close to a goal you want to attain and you don’t get there, I think the first thing that you’ve got to do is make sure everybody doesn’t live in the past," Smith said. “I tell my guys there are three time frames you can live in. You can live in the past. You can live in the future. You can live in the now. As human beings and athletes, we live in all three at different times, but the majority of the time has got to be spent in the now and we have some goals that we want to attain now."

Three hot issues

1. The running game has to work. The Falcons clearly have made the transition to a pass-first team, and that’s not going to change. But they need some semblance of a running game. That’s something they lacked last year as Michael Turner aged and fizzled out.

The Falcons have added Steven Jackson, and that should provide a significant upgrade. Jackson doesn’t need to be the workhorse runner he was earlier in his career, and the Falcons still want to get Jacquizz Rodgers some playing time.

A combination of Jackson and Rodgers should be more than enough to give the Falcons a running game. That should complement the passing game by clearing the way for play-action passes. It also should come in handy when the Falcons are in control of games and trying to eat up some clock.

2. The defense needs a star and an identity. Although Smith comes from a defensive background, the Falcons never have had a really strong defense during his tenure. That needs to change if this team really is going to challenge for a Super Bowl.

It should help that defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is entering his second season and most of the players know his defense. But it’s time for this defense to build a real identity, and I look for Nolan to try to put a more aggressive product on the field.

It also would help Nolan if he can find a true star on his side of the ball. Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon could be that guy. Weatherspoon has been very good so far, but he needs to take the next step and become a prolific playmaker.

3. The pass rush has to produce. For virtually all of Smith’s tenure, the pass rush has consisted of John Abraham and not much else. But Abraham, 35, was released in the offseason because of his age. The Falcons replaced him by bringing in Osi Umenyiora.

On the surface, it appears as if Umenyiora should be able to give the Falcons what Abraham used to. But this defense needs more than Umenyiora to get after opposing quarterbacks. The team is hoping one of its young defensive ends, particularly Jonathan Massaquoi, can step up and complement Umenyiora.

But I’m expecting Nolan to get more creative in his second season and get his linebackers and defensive backs more involved as blitzers.

Reason for optimism

Despite the loss to San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game, the Falcons took a big stride last year by winning a playoff game against Seattle. It was the first playoff victory of Smith’s tenure, and it was significant because it showed the Falcons they can win in January.

This now is a veteran team without many holes. On paper, it’s as good as any team in the NFC. This team knows its window for winning a Super Bowl is wide open at the moment but isn’t going to stay that way forever.

[+] Enlargeatt Ryan
AP Photo/David GoldmanWith a hefty new contract and premium weapons around him, Atlanta QB Matt Ryan will be playing under heavy scrutiny all season.
Reason for pessimism

There always are going to be doubts about the Falcons until they win a Super Bowl. Is Smith too nice of a guy? Does Ryan have what it takes to win the big one?

Those questions still linger. And, with those questions, there is a lot of pressure. It remains to be seen whether this team can handle that kind of pressure.

Observation deck

One of the first things that struck me on the practice field was the size of rookie tight end Levine Toilolo. He’s 6-foot-8, which makes him the tallest tight end in the NFL and a potential matchup problem for linebackers and defensive backs. The best thing about veteran Tony Gonzalez's taking part only on a limited basis is that Toilolo will get plenty of reps and a chance to develop quickly. But I’m not sure Toilolo will immediately beat out Chase Coffman, who had a very strong offseason, for the No. 2 tight end spot.

If you’re looking for an unsung player who is going to make an impact this season, start with Bradie Ewing. The Falcons drafted him last year and planned to use him as the lead blocker for Turner. But Ewing got hurt in the preseason and missed his entire rookie year. Turner had his problems last year, but I think the lack of good blocking from the fullbacks was a factor. Ewing has nice size and should be able to open holes for Jackson.

Don’t read too much into the fact that Mike Johnson has received all the first-team reps at right tackle so far in camp. Johnson might have a slight edge thanks to experience, but the team still has high hopes for second-year pro Lamar Holmes, and he’s likely to be given some reps with the first team.

The speculation that defensive end Kroy Biermann could be used more as a linebacker is more than speculation. Biermann was spending a lot of time at linebacker in the first two days of camp. He’s athletic enough to play in pass coverage and should be able to generate a pass rush from a linebacker position.

The Falcons seem a little thin at defensive tackle, but they might have some quiet plans to get second-year pro Travian Robertson more involved in the rotation. He played a little as a rookie, and I expect his playing time to increase. Also, defensive end Cliff Matthews appears to have bulked up and could slide inside at times.

Second-round pick Robert Alford is going to have a shot at playing time at cornerback. But I think there’s another reason the Falcons drafted Alford. He has return ability, and the Falcons need to improve their return game. Third receiver Harry Douglas also could be an option in the return game. The Falcons would like to get Douglas more touches because they believe he’s an explosive player. But it’s tough to get Douglas touches in the passing game with Roddy White, Julio Jones and Gonzalez around. Letting Douglas handle punt returns could give him four or five more touches a game.

I had been thinking the Falcons would bring in a veteran backup for Ryan at some point. But, after watching second-year pro Dominique Davis the past few days, I’m not so sure the Falcons are still looking. Davis looked sharp and decisive. He’ll get a lot of playing time in the preseason games. If he performs well, the Falcons will stick with him as their backup.

NFC South evening update

June, 12, 2013
6/12/13
6:06
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Time for an evening run through some news and notes from around the division:
  • Atlanta coach Mike Smith had some praise for third-year defensive end Cliff Matthews, who worked to bulk up during the offseason. Matthews has put on about 10 pounds and also has been getting some work at defensive tackle.
  • Carolina coach Ron Rivera reportedly didn’t meet new general manager Dave Gettleman until after he was hired. That’s further proof that owner Jerry Richardson still is very much running this franchise.
  • Former Tampa Bay tight end Kellen Winslow is taking part in the New York Jets’ minicamp on a tryout basis and reportedly will be signed if his knees hold up.
Football Outsiders is doing a league-wide series of posts called "Red Flags," which take a look at the biggest remaining issue facing each team. Today’s Insider postInsider is on the NFC South and I’ll break it up into four smaller posts to explore the red flags for each team.

We’ll start it off with the Atlanta Falcons. Football Outsiders chose defensive end as Atlanta’s red flag and here’s the crux of their rationale:

“The Falcons addressed this by releasing John Abraham and signing Osi Umenyiora in free agency, but it's hard to call that an upgrade. Since missing all of 2008 with a knee injury, Umenyiora has 33.5 sacks. In the same four seasons, Abraham has 38.0 sacks, and he has had more sacks than Umenyiora in each of the past three years. Umenyiora is three years younger than Abraham, which is significant, but this still looks like a lateral move at best.’’

Maybe so, but the Falcons are simply counting on Umenyiora to be what Abraham was last year. They’re counting on generating more of a pass rush from elsewhere. Kroy Biermann is the other starter and he only has been average as a pass-rusher.

But I think those that think the Falcons are going to bring in another pass-rusher from outside are mistaken. They drafted Stansly Maponga and Malliciah Goodman this year. They have two other young ends in Jonathan Massaquoi and Cliff Matthews.

The Falcons don’t have the cap room to add high-priced veterans. They’re going to throw their young defensive ends out there and see if someone steps up.
The Atlanta Falcons let go of John Abraham before the start of free agency. It might be time for their fans to finally let Abraham go.

Abraham
The veteran defensive end remains an unsigned free agent. Recent tweets suggesting he was retiring were quickly deleted and a source said Abraham wants to continue playing. But that latest twist shouldn’t fuel the group of fans that think Abraham should re-sign with the Falcons.

That probably isn’t going to happen. The Falcons didn’t release Abraham with the intention of bringing back. When you release a player of Abraham’s magnitude, it’s not something you do lightly. The Falcons looked at Abraham’s age and salary and decided it was time to part ways. If they wanted to keep Abraham at a reduced salary, they probably would have asked him to take a cut in pay before releasing him.

Instead, the Falcons have moved forward. They signed Osi Umenyiora to replace Abraham as their main pass rusher. Then, they went out and drafted Malliciah Goodman and Stansly Maponga. They already had two other young defensive ends in Jonathan Massaquoi and Cliff Matthews.

General manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith believe in having a mixture of experience and youth on their roster. They want to start getting some of those young defensive ends on the field. Bringing back Abraham wouldn’t help that process.

The Falcons are looking to take a step forward. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to take a step back.
Let’s have a little fun and look back at the latter stages of the NFL draft.

I’m going to pick one player from each team who was drafted after the third round that might end up getting significant playing time as a rookie.

ATLANTA FALCONS

Defensive end Malliciah Goodman was drafted in the fourth round out of Clemson. Goodman has a shot at working his way into the rotation with Osi Umenyiora and Kroy Biermann. Jonathan Massaquoi and Cliff Matthews also could be in the mix for that spot, but the Falcons wouldn’t have drafted Goodman if they were completely sold on Massaquoi and Matthews. Goodman has decent quickness and the Falcons are looking for additional help in the pass rush.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Iowa State linebacker A.J. Klein was drafted in the fifth round. Klein played inside linebacker in college, but the Panthers are set at that spot with Luke Kuechly as the starter and Chase Blackburn as the backup. It seems likely Klein will move to the outside. The Panthers have quality starters there in Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, but both have a history of injuries. Klein could be a nice backup on the outside and the Panthers want him to be a core special-teams player.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

The Saints drafted Oklahoma receiver Kenny Stills in the fifth round and I think he has a chance at immediate playing time. Marques Colston and Lance Moore are the only sure things in the receiving corps and we all know the Saints like to use a lot of multi-receiver sets. Stills is a smooth route-runner with decent speed and he’ll compete for playing time with Nick Toon and Joe Morgan.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Defensive end William Gholston was drafted in the fourth round out of Michigan State. Gholston wasn’t all that productive in college, but he has all the measurables and lots of potential. The Bucs have Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers as their starters, but Gholston will have a shot at earning a spot in the rotation.

NFC South Stock Watch

April, 30, 2013
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RISING

Matt Ryan. With Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers signing a huge contract extension, Ryan and his agent have stepped out of the on-deck circle and are walking toward the plate. Ryan’s going to get money similar to what Rodgers and Joe Flacco got. I wouldn’t look for a drawn-out negotiating period. The market value has been set and the Falcons and Ryan know they want to be together for the long haul.

Lamar Holmes. The fact the Falcons didn’t draft a single offensive lineman is a good indication of how they feel about Holmes, a third-round pick last year. It now is looking like Holmes is the heir apparent to right tackle Tyson Clabo, who was released.

Eric Washington. He’s the defensive line coach for the Carolina Panthers and already was a rising star after Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy each produced double-digit sacks last year. Now, Washington will get a chance to really bolster his reputation (and perhaps eventually become a defensive coordinator after the Panthers used their top two picks on defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. On paper at least, Washington has enough talent to whip up one of the league’s best defensive lines.

FALLING

Ronde Barber. The Buccaneers say they still want the veteran defensive back to return for another year. But in what capacity? He’s not going to start at free safety because the Bucs signed Dashon Goldson. A return to cornerback is possible, but Barber likely would be behind Darrelle Revis, Eric Wright and rookie Johnthan Banks. Backup safeties and fourth cornerbacks almost always have to play special teams. Do you honestly see Barber doing that at this point in his career? If he wants to keep playing, there might be a place or two where he can still be a starter and that could mean he won’t play his entire career with the Bucs.

Charles Brown and Jason Smith. The New Orleans Saints used a third-round draft pick on offensive tackle Terron Armstead. That means they aren’t sold on Brown or Smith as their left tackle. Armstead won’t be handed the job, but he’ll compete with Brown and Smith in training camp.

John Abraham. There has been a lot of talk from Atlanta fans about the Falcons perhaps re-signing the veteran defensive end. I’ve said all along that’s a long shot. After the draft, I think it’s an even longer shot. The Falcons drafted defensive ends Malliciah Goodman (fourth round) and Stansly Maponga (fifth round). They also have a couple of other young defensive ends on the roster in Jonathan Massaquoi and Cliff Matthews. It doesn’t look like there’s room on the roster to bring back an aging player who already was released.
There are lots of reports out there that the Atlanta Falcons are close to signing defensive end Osi Umenyiora.

But nothing official has come yet. Even if it does, the Falcons might be wise to continue looking for help for the pass rush.

In theory, Umenyiora would take the place of John Abraham as the team’s pass-rusher. Umenyiora, 31, is a slightly younger version of Abraham. Umenyiora had just six sacks for the New York Giants last season, but he’s had several seasons of double-digit sacks scattered throughout his career.

The Falcons apparently think Umenyiora still can produce double-digit sacks. But even if he signs with Atlanta and puts up more than 10 sacks, the Falcons still need more of a pass rush. Kroy Biermann, the other starter, is a versatile defensive end, but not the kind of guy who's going to put up 10 sacks. Backups Jonathan Massaquoi and Cliff Matthews are projects.

Assuming the Falcons sign Umenyiora, they still need to get pressure from somewhere else and it wouldn’t hurt to get a guy who can be a long-term answer. The way to do that is the draft.

Even if the Falcons sign Umenyiora, they still should consider taking a defensive end in the first round. Defensive ends like Bjoern Werner, Sam Montgomery and Margus Hunt could be available when Atlanta picks at No. 30 and the Falcons might be wise to get one of them.

Looking at Falcons' defensive snaps

February, 12, 2013
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I’ve got complete playing-time numbers for the Atlanta Falcons defense (we’ll have numbers on their offense and the offenses and defenses for the rest of the NFC South teams later).

The Falcons had 1,022 defensive plays and safety Thomas DeCoud was on the field for 1,021 of them, which put him at a team-high 99.9 percent.

Let’s take a look at the playing time percentages for the rest of Atlanta’s defenders:
  • Cornerback Christopher Owens 16.63

Checking on Falcons' injuries

January, 17, 2013
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The Atlanta Falcons appear to be about as healthy as possible as they get ready for Sunday’s NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers.

Defensive end John Abraham practiced on a limited basis for the second straight day. Abraham aggravated an ankle injury in the win against Seattle in the divisional playoffs. The Falcons continue to express optimism that he’ll be able to play Sunday and I doubt you’ll see Abraham sit this one out. The Falcons need their top pass-rusher and backups Cliff Matthews and Jonathan Massaquoi aren’t nearly on Abraham’s level.

Defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux (shoulder) and cornerback Christopher Owens (hamstring) also participated in practice on a limited basis.

Safety William Moore (hand) and linebacker Stephen Nicholas (foot) are listed on the injury report but both of them participated fully in practice for the second straight day.
Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith had some encouraging words on the injury front when he met with the media Monday afternoon.

Smith made it sound like John Abraham’s ankle injury is nothing serious.

“We anticipate John will be back out practicing with us before the end of the week,” Smith said.

Abraham first injured his ankle in the final regular-season game and aggravated it in Sunday’s playoff victory against the Seattle Seahawks. Abraham left in the second quarter after playing only 15 snaps against the Seahawks.

The Falcons had to get by with Cliff Matthews playing 46 snaps and rookie Jonathan Massaquoi taking part in 14 plays. Matthews and Massaquoi both have potential, but neither has anything close to Abraham’s experience.

Having Abraham ready for the NFC Championship Game against San Francisco is crucial. Abraham has the athleticism to at least help the Falcons have a chance to slow quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the running game.

Abraham also is Atlanta’s only real pass-rushing threat. If he isn’t healthy, the Falcons likely would have to alter their defensive philosophy and make heavy use of the blitz to have any chance of putting pressure on Kaepernick.

Abraham expects to play against 49ers

January, 14, 2013
1/14/13
12:02
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ATLANTA -- The most troubling thing to come out of the Falcons’ 30-28 victory over Seattle on Sunday might have been the ankle injury to John Abraham.

Abraham
The veteran defensive end tweaked an already-injured ankle in the second quarter, left the game and did not return. I don’t think it’s any big coincidence that the Seahawks scored zero points while Abraham was in the game and 28 after he left.

Abraham is, by far, Atlanta’s best pass-rusher and a player that any offense has to account for on every play. Backups Cliff Matthews and Jonathan Massaquoi have some potential, but they’re not Abraham.

The Falcons need Abraham on the field for Sunday’s NFC Championship Game with San Francisco. Immediately after the Seattle game, coach Mike Smith said it was too early to give any projection on Abraham’s status.

We’ll find out more as the week goes on. But I’m expecting to see Abraham play against the 49ers. He’s a competitive guy and, at 34, he knows you don’t get too many chances to play in the NFC Championship Game. That’s why Abraham is expecting to be ready to go against the 49ers.

“Oh, yeah, you know me, you can’t keep me out of that game,” Abraham said. “We’re going to treat the [heck] out of it.”

Atlanta's defensive playing time

January, 8, 2013
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One thing I always like to do after the season is look back at playing time for all the players in the NFC South.

We’ll get to the Buccaneers, Panthers and Saints at some point in the coming days or weeks. But we’re going to take a look at the Atlanta Falcons now since they’re in the playoffs.

Let’s start with Atlanta’s defense. The Falcons had 1,041 defensive snaps. Here’s a list of how man plays each player was on the field for, followed by my thoughts on things that stand out: My thoughts: Having the 34-year-old Abraham on the field for almost 72 percent of the plays seems excessive. But, after Edwards flamed out and was released, the Falcons really didn’t have much depth at defensive end. … Babineaux was on the field for 82 percent of the plays. That’s a huge number for a defensive tackle and it makes you wonder if he might be a little worn down. … Technically, Dent is Atlanta’s starting middle linebacker. But he only took part in 48 percent of the plays and some of that came while he was filling in for an injured Weatherspoon. The Falcons used their nickel defense more often than their 4-3 base. But I think you might see a fair amount of Dent on Sunday against Seattle because the Falcons need to slow Marshawn Lynch and the running game. … That’s not a misprint that Jones, a Pro Bowl wide receiver, was on the field for one defensive play. The Falcons threw him out there as a safety, the same way they used to do with Brian Finneran, at the end of one game.

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