NFC South: Jared Allen

Free-agency primer: Buccaneers

March, 7, 2014
3/07/14
11:00
AM ET
» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Key free agents: LB Adam Hayward, FB Erik Lorig, LB Jonathan Casillas and WR Tiquan Underwood.

Where they stand: The Buccaneers don't have any huge names among their own free agents, but they'd like to keep some of them as role players. Hayward is a key special-teams player and Lorig is important as the lead blocker for Doug Martin in the running game. If Casillas returns, he's a candidate to start at strongside linebacker. The major need on defense is for a pass-rusher. On offense, the team may look to overhaul its offensive line. Tight end and depth at wide receiver also are big needs.

What to expect: The Bucs were 4-12 last season and they have a new coaching staff and general manager. That means there will be significant changes. The Bucs have $18 million in cap room, so they’re going to be active in free agency, even though they've stated their goal is to build through the draft. Look for connections to the new regime to play into free-agent signings. Return man Devin Hester and cornerback Charles Tillman played for coach Lovie Smith in Chicago and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier worked with defensive end Jared Allen in Minnesota. All of those players could be prime targets. A veteran quarterback also could be added to the mix, with Josh McCown and Michael Vick as possibilities.

Around the NFC South

October, 26, 2012
10/26/12
10:55
AM ET
Time for a look at the top headlines from around the NFC South:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Cornerback Asante Samuel has been helping the Falcons in pass coverage. But, as Daniel Cox points out, Samuel can do even more this week against Philadelphia. He spent the past four seasons with the Eagles, and the Falcons are tapping into him for insight into the Philadelphia offense and defense.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Linebacker Thomas Davis said the current Panthers have way more talent than the 2010 team that finished 2-14. He’s right. The 2010 team was in a set of unique circumstances as the team shed payroll in anticipation of the lockout, was starting rookie Jimmy Clausen and had an unhappy lame-duck coach in John Fox. That’s why this season has been far more disappointing, because the Panthers have plenty of individual talent and expectations were very high entering the season.

Ron Green Jr. writes that rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly has been a rare bright spot in a dismal season. That’s true. Kuechly started off making a few rookie mistakes, but has come on strong. He’ll need to continue to improve now that he’s taken over at middle linebacker with Jon Beason lost to injury for the season.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Mike Triplett points out a statistic that summarizes the Saints’ season so far. They’re the only team in the NFL to score at least 24 points in every game. They’re also the only team in the NFL to allow 24 points in every game.

Michael Smith shows some stats and says the Saints can make it to the Super Bowl, despite their 2-4 start. But let’s keep in mind that Smith is a New Orleans native and an optimist.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

The war of words between Tampa Bay left tackle Donald Penn and Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen didn’t end at the final whistle Thursday night. After the game, Penn said Allen got lucky when he recorded a sack on the first play after the two got into an altercation near the end of the third quarter.

Wrap-up: Buccaneers 36, Vikings 17

October, 25, 2012
10/25/12
11:46
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Thoughts on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 36-17 victory against the Minnesota Vikings at Mall of America Field on Thursday night:

What it means: This was a big step for the Bucs as they continue to build around a lot of young players with a first-year coaching staff. It showed the Bucs can go on the road and beat a team with a winning record. It showed that the Bucs are capable of protecting a lead, something they've had trouble with this year. The Bucs are 3-4 and -- for the moment -- are in sole possession of second place in the NFC South. They’re not going to catch the Atlanta Falcons, but I’ve got a hunch we’re going to see continued improvement from the Bucs in the second half of the season.

Martin’s big night: Early on, a lot of critics were pointing to the fact that rookie running back Doug Martin wasn’t making any big plays. That no longer can be said. Martin had a breakout game. He carried 29 times for 135 yards (including a 41-yard run) and a touchdown. Martin also caught three passes for 79 yards, including a 64-yard touchdown. Remember back on draft night, when coach Greg Schiano repeatedly called Martin an all-purpose back and compared him to Ray Rice? Martin certainly served all purposes against the Vikings. We’ll hold off a bit on getting too carried away with the Rice comparisons, but it’s starting to look like Schiano knew what he was talking about.

Stat of the night: Josh Freeman threw three touchdown passes against the Vikings. He now has thrown three touchdowns in three consecutive games. No other quarterback in franchise history has ever done that. Come to think of it, the Bucs never have had a guy that’s gotten firmly established as a franchise quarterback. A few more games like this and I think it will be safe to assume the Bucs will give Freeman a big contract extension in the offseason and lock him up for the long term.

Age really is just a number: Safety Ronde Barber is 37, but he still is making huge plays. He forced two fumbles against the Vikings by stripping the ball and also put some pressure on Christian Ponder with some blitzes. Barber made it sound like this would be his last season when he re-signed with the Bucs on a one-year deal in the offseason. But I’m starting to think the Bucs would be very interested in bringing Barber back for one more year -- at least.

Bowers makes debut: The Bucs activated defensive end Da'Quan Bowers off the physically unable to perform list a few hours before the game. Bowers, who suffered a torn Achilles tendon in May, was used as a situational pass-rusher. But he did record a sack on a play in which Ponder had to fall on a bad snap out of the shotgun formation.

The streak is over: The Bucs had lost nine consecutive road games dating back to last year. That streak is officially over. Coincidentally, the last road game the Bucs won was in Minnesota early last season.

What I liked: The Bucs have continued to get fullback Erik Lorig involved in the passing game. That’s a good thing because it brings diversity to the offense. Lorig got his first career touchdown catch in the first quarter. Lorig now has eight catches for 51 yards so far this season, after having only seven catches for 63 yards in the previous two seasons combined.

What I didn’t like: Left tackle Donald Penn got into an encounter that involved pushing, shoving and jawing with Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen late in the third quarter. Not sure that it’s a great idea to fire up Allen.

What’s next: The Buccaneers play at Oakland on Nov. 4.

NFC South evening update

October, 24, 2012
10/24/12
5:55
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Time for a look at the day's top headlines from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

There was a time when the matchup between Philadelphia quarterback Michael Vick and his former team would have been a huge story. But, as Michael Cunningham writes, it’s more like a footnote now. Vick hasn’t played for the Falcons since 2006. Matt Ryan’s been Atlanta’s quarterback since 2008. The NFL is a league where time moves quickly. Vick never will be forgotten in Atlanta, but Vick, the Falcons and fans have moved on.

A lot of critics have been saying the Falcons haven’t beaten a good team. That’s about to change. It’s not like the Falcons are about to face the four best teams in the league, but Mark Bradley points out that Philadelphia, Dallas, New Orleans and Arizona are better than what the Falcons already have faced.

Coach Mike Smith said defensive tackle Corey Peters is progressing as he works to return from a foot injury. But Smith said Peters isn't in football shape. If he's not in football shape on Wednesday, I don't know that he'll be there Sunday. It might be another week before Peters plays.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

As we told you earlier, it looked like linebacker Jon Beason was headed for injured reserve. That now is official, according to coach Ron Rivera. Rookie Luke Kuechly has played middle linebacker as Beason was banged up in recent weeks and will continue in that role.

Scott Fowler writes that quarterback Cam Newton was more open than usual when meeting with the media Wednesday. Among the topics of conversation, Newton explained why he’s not a fan of Twitter and also said he wished he had done more on the field to keep general manager Marty Hurney from getting fired.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Although the NFL Players Association is asking former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue to recuse himself as the hearing officer for next week’s appeals in the player suspensions in the bounty saga, Andrew Brandt writes that Tagliabue might be the best option for the players. Although Goodell and Tagliabue are close, Brandt points out that they are different in some ways. He also points out that Tagliabue no longer is an NFL employee, which basically is another way of saying the former commissioner is his own man and isn’t going to be a puppet.

Sunday will mark Joe Vitt’s first game as the interim coach. It also will be a family reunion. Denver quarterback Adam Case is married to Vitt’s daughter.

There was some good news on the injury front. Tight end Jimmy Graham, who missed Sunday’s game at Tampa Bay, practiced on a limited basis. Vitt said Graham fared well in practice. Fantasy football players: Keep monitoring Graham as the week goes on, but I think there’s a pretty good chance you might want to put him back in your lineup.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Cornerback Brandon McDonald (ankle) is the only player listed as anything worse than probable on the injury report for Thursday night’s game against Minnesota

Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen presents a challenge for any left tackle. But Dory LeBlanc points out that Tampa Bay’s Donald Penn has fared pretty well against Allen in the past.

Free-agent fun by the numbers

March, 13, 2012
3/13/12
9:45
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As we get ready for the start of free agency, let’s have some fun with numbers. Let’s turn to ESPN Stats & Information for some interesting nuggets on players that could be joining or leaving the NFC South.
  • Houston defensive end Mario Williams is a player many are speculating could be a target of the Atlanta Falcons. Over the past five seasons, Williams has averaged 0.73 sacks per game. Only Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware (1.0) and Minnesota’s Jared Allen (0.99) have had better averages. Williams, who missed 11 games with an injury last season, has 13.5 sacks over the past two seasons. Ten of those have come when the Texans used four or fewer pass rushers.
  • Williams’ ability to make things happen when a defense isn’t blitzing could fill a big hole in Atlanta. The Falcons likely will let veteran defensive end John Abraham depart as a free agent. Abraham’s been Atlanta’s only consistent pass rusher in recent years. Over the last two seasons, all 22.5 of Abraham’s sacks have come when the Falcons have sent four or fewer pass rushers. Only Allen (26 sacks) and Jason Babin (23.5) are ahead of Abraham in that category.
  • New Orleans receiver Marques Colston can become a free agent. The Saints would like him back, but might not be able to afford him because they have limited salary-cap room. If Colston leaves, the Saints will be losing a lot. Last season, Colston came up with receptions on a league-high 76.9 percent of his targets. Since entering the NFL in 2006, Colston ranks ninth in receptions (449), eighth in receiving yards (6,240) and seventh in touchdowns (48). Colston has had five 1,000 yard seasons in his six years. Only Randy Moss has had 1,000 yards in each of his first six seasons.
  • Tennessee cornerback Cortland Finnegan, who has been mentioned as a possible target for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, played all 1,142 defensive snaps the Titans had last year. Finnegan has started 42 consecutive games, the fourth-longest active streak by a cornerback. His 13 interceptions since 2008 tie him for No. 15 in the league.
  • Oakland running back Michael Bush, who also has brought speculation he could be pursued by the Buccaneers, had career highs in rushes (256) and rushing yards (977) last season. But Bush’s 3.82 yard-per-carry average was the lowest in the NFL among running backs with at least 200 carries. Bush, however, was effective in short-yardage situations. When needing three or fewer yards for a first down, Bush rushed for 34 first downs. Only LeSean McCoy (47) had more.
The Atlanta Falcons appear to be on the verge of letting their top pass-rusher walk into free agency. That might be their wisest move.

Abraham
Defensive end John Abraham reportedly wants a deal that will pay him more than $12 million a year. His agent said he plans to meet with the Falcons at the scouting combine this weekend for a final attempt at getting a deal done, but said the two sides remain far apart.

I wouldn’t expect any resolution unless Abraham suddenly drops his price tag. Abraham is a very good player, but his price tag is in the range of Julius Peppers ($14 million per year), Charles Johnson ($12.7 million) and Jared Allen ($12.2 million).

If Abraham was 27, I’d say go ahead and pay him, but Abraham is about to turn 34. Twelve million is too high a figure for a player at this stage of his career. Abraham was used as a situational player last season and led the team with 9.5 sacks, but it should be noted that 3.5 of those sacks were against a hapless Jacksonville team.

Abraham has been dealing with injuries the past few years and it’s not likely his body suddenly will turn young again. I think the smart thing for the Falcons is to let Abraham go ahead and test the market. That strategy could lead him back to Atlanta.

I’m thinking other teams also will have concerns about paying so much for a player near the end of his career. The Falcons should make it clear to Abraham’s agent how high they will go and I’m thinking the number may be somewhere around the $8 million Abraham made last year. Leave that offer on the table and let Abraham go out and see what he can get. He might not get any higher offers and he could return at a more reasonable rate.

If Abraham does get a better offer, let him go. The Falcons aren’t loaded with pass-rushers. Ray Edwards was their big signing last season. He played the run well, but didn’t generate a lot of pressure. Lawrence Sidbury is still around and the Falcons likely will re-sign Kroy Biermann if Abraham leaves. But the Falcons likely would have to go out and get a defensive end in free agency or the draft.

There are no guarantees out there, but the Falcons could come out ahead in the long term. At his age, Abraham doesn’t come with any guarantees, either.
Carolina’s Greg Hardy and Tampa Bay rookie Adrian Clayborn weren’t among the NFL’s sack leaders in 2011, but you can make the argument they’re among the best all-around defensive ends in the game.

Clayborn
Clayborn
Hardy
Hardy
Hardy and Clayborn showed some pass-rush skills, but they also played the run very well. That combination of skills was why they were on the field more than the rest of the NFC South defensive ends last season.

Hardy led division ends by participating in 891 of Carolina’s 1,023 defensive plays. That 87.1 percentage ranked Hardy No. 6 among defensive ends. Minnesota’s Jared Allen led the league at 94.3 percent.

Clayborn wasn’t far behind Hardy. Clayborn came in at 80.9 percent, which put him No. 15 in the NFL. Carolina’s Charles Johnson and New Orleans’ Will Smith also ranked in the top 20.

Johnson was on the field for 77.5 percent (No. 16 in the NFL) of Carolina’s defensive plays and Smith took part in 75.8 of New Orleans’ defensive plays (19th in the league).

Ray Edwards led Atlanta’s defensive ends by taking part in 69 percent of the plays. Although he was on a play count and used mostly in pass-rushing situations, veteran John Abraham took part in 61.8 percent of Atlanta’s defensive plays.

Here’s a look at playing-time percentages for most of the rest of the NFC South defensive ends:

Around the NFC South

December, 15, 2011
12/15/11
11:28
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Let's take a look at the top headlines from around the NFC South.

— After allowing 13 sacks in the first three games, the Falcons have allowed 12 in the last 10 games. They still are working on continuity on the offensive line, but they seem to be making progresss.

— Carolina rookie quarterback Cam Newton has been on the field for all 839 offensive plays this season. Not bad for a guy who some doubted would be able to play in the NFL.

— Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen apologized for comments he made about New Orleans on a radio show.

— Despite reports to the contrary, Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris said he was on common ground with ownership and general manager Mark Dominik when deciding to keep Aqib Talib after the cornerback was involved in an offseason, off-field incident in Texas in March.

— The Times-Picayune has its weekly graphic on Drew Brees’ passing in Sunday’s game at Tennessee. Looks like Brees was at his best going down the middle of the field.

— ESPN’s John Clayton reports that the Buccaneers considered firing Morris on Monday, but decided not to make a move because the team does not believe it has a suitable interim coach on staff.

Bucs' Donald Penn playing, talking big

November, 3, 2011
11/03/11
12:15
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TAMPA, Fla. -- As you read this, keep in mind that Donald Penn talks big.

“My thing is, at the end of my career, I want to play 15 years and be a Hall of Famer and be one of the greats,’’ the left tackle for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers said.

[+] EnlargeDonald Penn
Cliff Welch/Icon SMI Donald Penn is making a name for himself in Tampa as the Bucs' starting left tackle.
That might sound like an extreme ambition for a guy who has been to precisely one Pro Bowl (last season).

“He loves to talk and talks about nothing all the time,’’ said New Orleans defensive end Will Smith, who will line up against Penn on Sunday in the Mercedez-Benz Superdome. “He’s a nice guy. I know him off the field. But on the field, he just loves to talk about anything. He loves to self-promote himself.’’

In an interview with Sirius NFL Radio several weeks ago, Smith said Penn “talks as much as wide receivers,’’ who are commonly known as big talkers. Smith said Penn can be anywhere from funny to entertaining to annoying on the field. The topics can change, but the talk never stops, said Smith, who has been playing against Penn for five seasons.

“He’s made big strides as a player,’’ Smith said. “But he’s always been a talker.’’

Penn doesn’t deny any of that. He said he feeds off talking to opponents throughout a game.

“One of the things is, if you’re going to talk you’ve got to back it up,’’ Penn said. “I’ve been lucky enough to back it up.’’

That may sound a little like the self-promotion Smith talked about. But the thing is Penn doesn’t have to do all the promoting on his own these days.

"You can make an argument that Donald Penn is the best left tackle in football right now,'' former Pro Bowl tackle and current Westwood One Radio analyst Tony Boselli recently told The Tampa Tribune. "He's athletic, he's powerful, he's a good run blocker and an even better pass blocker.''

“A very solid left tackle,’’ said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. “They don’t give him a lot of help and he doesn’t really need it. People like to say you have to find a left tackle in the top 10 in the draft. But Penn is proof that you can get a good one outside of the top 10. Heck, the Bucs got him for nothing and that almost never happens with left tackles.’’

It wouldn’t be far off to say that Penn came out of nowhere. But the fact is he came out of Utah State. He had a shot at being drafted, but tore up his knee on the first play of the Hula Bowl in his final season. He showed up at the scouting combine, but was unable to work out.

“After that, I just fell off the map,’’ Penn said.

He went through the 2006 draft without being chosen. He later signed with the Minnesota Vikings and landed on their practice squad. The Bucs signed Penn off Minnesota’s practice squad later that season, thinking they were getting a guy who could be a career backup.

But it wasn’t long before Penn talked – and worked – his way into a starting role. He began the 2007 season projected as a backup for veteran Luke Petitgout, who the Bucs had brought in from the New York Giants.

“I was always telling Petitgout I was going to take his job,’’ Penn said.

Pretty soon, that’s exactly what Penn did. Petitgout started four games in 2007 before getting injured. Penn started 12 games that season and hasn’t missed a start since.

“Once I got that opportunity, I tried to do my best to not let it get taken away from me,’’ Penn said. “You don’t know when you’re going to get an opportunity like that again.’’

The talk of Penn as one of the league’s best tackles didn’t start right away. It’s really just started to heat up in the last year or so. That coincides roughly with the timeline of when the Bucs made a big commitment to a guy who wasn’t even drafted. At the start of training camp in 2010, the Bucs gave Penn a six-year, $48 million contract.

They paid him like a big-time left tackle. The contract might have changed the perception of Penn around the league, but he said he never viewed himself as anything less.

“I’ve always thought of myself in those terms,’’ Penn said. “You need to think of yourself in those terms to be a great player. You have to have confidence. Thinking of yourself as the best, that’s the most confidence you can have. I always knew I was good. I just needed a shot.’’

Penn’s become the most steady force on Tampa Bay’s offensive line. In a season in which the 4-3 Bucs have been up and down, Penn has been perhaps the team’s most consistent player.

In one three-game stretch, Penn had the task of blocking Atlanta’s John Abraham, Minnesota’s Jared Allen and Indianapolis’ Dwight Freeney. He gave up only one sack (to Allen) and Penn’s been getting a lot of praise from around the league.

“I’m going up against the best every week and I don’t get nearly as much help as most tackles do,’’ Penn said. “I appreciate finally getting the notoriety. Tampa is not a big media center, so you don’t get as much attention. But I’ve been doing it for five years now and I’ve been doing it well. It feels good to finally get some recognition for it.’’

But one Pro Bowl and a few nice comments don’t add up to the Hall of Fame career Penn talks about and he knows that.

“That’s my goal,’’ Penn said. “I’m a long way away from it, but that’s what I’m trying to reach. That’s why I’m working so hard and playing so good because I want to get there. I want to be known as the best left tackle in the game when it’s all said and done.’’

Yeah, that’s all down the road. But it no longer seems as impossible as it did when Penn was a practice-squad player. Maybe if he keeps talking big and playing the way he has recently, he just might meet his goal.

Previewing and predicting the Falcons

September, 1, 2011
9/01/11
2:20
PM ET
We’re up to second place (we're going in reverse order) in our NFC South predictions and I’m going with the Atlanta Falcons.

Here’s the link to their complete preview page.

This was the toughest call of all. A big part of me wanted to go with the Falcons to win the NFC South. They were 13-3 last season and, on paper, they’ve gotten better. I think the Falcons will make the playoffs, but I think New Orleans will win the NFC South.

Here’s what I wrote about Atlanta.

Five things you need to know about the Falcons:

1. Julio Jones is going to be the real deal: The Falcons paid a hefty price to trade up for the rights to draft the receiver from Alabama. But this was a very well-researched decision. Last season's playoff loss to Green Bay showed the Falcons needed a receiver who could stretch the field and take some of the defensive attention away from Roddy White. Former starter Michael Jenkins was not a downfield threat and defenses knew that. Jones' speed means defenses have to account for him on every play. That's going to help White enormously, and Jones' presence is also going to have a trickle-down effect that will help quarterback Matt Ryan, tight end Tony Gonzalez and running back Michael Turner.

2. Harry Douglas will have a big year: The undersized wide receiver finally will get to enjoy a full season playing the position where he's best. That's slot receiver and Douglas can thank Jones for allowing that to happen. The Falcons wanted to use Douglas exclusively in the slot last season, but Jenkins was hurt early in the season. That forced Atlanta to play Douglas outside, where he's not nearly as effective. With White and Jones on the outside, Douglas should be able to get some favorable matchups against third corners, safeties or linebackers.

3. The gloves are coming off Ryan: His first three seasons have been very nice, but Ryan has yet to win a playoff game. That's something the Falcons are painfully aware of and all of their offensive moves this season were designed to help make him more dangerous. The lockout also might have been a blessing in disguise. It gave the coaching staff more time to evaluate its decisions and one of the realizations was it's time to allow Ryan to do more. The Falcons have openly admitted they're going to look to throw downfield more often, and you also might see more of the no-huddle offense.

4. It all starts up front: The Falcons repeatedly used the word "explosive'' when they added Jones, but they also wanted to add an explosive player on defense. In their eyes, they did with the signing of defensive end Ray Edwards. They first made a run at Carolina's Charles Johnson, but backed off because the price was too high. Edwards has never been a dominant pass-rusher. His career high in sacks was 8.5 and that came while he was playing on a defensive line with Jared Allen, Pat Williams and Kevin Williams. Can he suddenly become a double-digit sack guy? Maybe, but that's not absolutely necessary. The Falcons simply want a decent pass-rusher to line up opposite John Abraham. If Edwards can take a little blocking off Abraham, the Falcons would be happy if he produces somewhere around 8.5 sacks.

5. This finally might be Mike Smith's defense: It's a bit ironic that Smith is a coach with a defensive background, but he's never been able to fully play the aggressive style of defense he wants. In 2008, the team was focused on building an offense first. In 2009 and '10, some parts were added, but injuries got in the way of big results. Defensive tackle Peria Jerry, a first-round pick in 2009, and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, last year's top pick, are healthy now and cornerback Dunta Robinson should have more passes thrown his way now that Brent Grimes is established as a solid starter. Smith might have the pieces now to truly play his style of defense.

DIVISION FINISH: 2 Drafting Jones and signing Edwards show the Falcons believe they were only a few players away from contending for a Super Bowl title. They might be right, but I'm not picking the Falcons ahead of the Saints until they win a playoff game.

Camp Confidential: Falcons

August, 7, 2011
8/07/11
1:00
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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Every morning since training camp started, Matt Ryan has walked into the quarterbacks room and seen the same two messages on the board.

They were written by quarterbacks coach Bob Bratkowski, who was not with the Falcons last year. But maybe an outsider’s point of view is what the Falcons need to take the next step in a process that’s seen them post winning records the past three regular seasons but fall flat when January rolls around and the playoffs start.

“It’s kind of those two things that, more so than anything else, are important to us,’’ Ryan said. “The one is 'The most important thing you bring to work every day is your attitude.' Great. The second thing is 'It’s not so much what happens to you, but how you respond to what happens to you that defines who you are.'"

What happened to the Falcons last year was that they cruised through the regular season. They went 13-3 and claimed the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

“And, then, bam, we just got shell-shocked in the playoffs," cornerback Dunta Robinson said.

The 48-21 loss to Green Bay in the Georgia Dome still weighs heavily on the Falcons. They’re not dwelling on it but are trying to use it for motivation and growth.

That’s why Bratkowski’s message about responding hits Ryan so hard. The Falcons have made big personnel moves, drafting receiver Julio Jones and signing free-agent defensive end Ray Edwards. They fit the profile of the “explosive’’ players coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff talked so much about in the offseason.

The physical pieces might be in place. But for the Falcons to take the next step -- winning some playoff games and maybe a Super Bowl -- they know they have to deal mentally with the lingering aftermath of the Green Bay loss.

“Sometimes, you have to make mistakes to kind of push you forward,’’ Ryan said. “We need to take what we learned from that game and apply it to this season so we can hopefully go deeper than we have before.’’

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeJulio Jones
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireThe addition of Julio Jones should open up opportunities for Atlanta's other playmakers.
1. How is the offense going to get more explosive? It’s not as though Smith and coordinator Mike Mularkey have torn up the playbook and drawn up a whole new one. They’ve done some things really well in the past, but they’ve made some personnel changes and some tweaks in philosophy in an effort to get more plays of 20 yards or more.

Ryan has the arm to throw downfield, but other than Roddy White, he didn’t have a deep threat last year. Jones’ presence should change that, and we’re not talking just about the explosive plays he will make. Having him should open things up for White and may allow the Falcons to sneak tight end Tony Gonzalez down the field more often. It also allows Harry Douglas to concentrate solely on playing the slot, a position where he can have the most impact.

With all that passing going on, defenses might not be as focused on the running game, which may allow Michael Turner and rookie Jacquizz Rodgers to break off some longer runs.

2. How much will Edwards help the defense? There’s a bit of a misconception out there that the Falcons expect Edwards to come in and suddenly put up 15 or 16 sacks. That’s not realistic for a guy who never put up more than 8.5 sacks while playing opposite Jared Allen in Minnesota. Edwards will be playing opposite veteran John Abraham, and it’s possible Edwards could get to double-digit sacks.

But the Falcons will be happy if Edwards simply can provide some balance in the pass rush. They’ve got a good interior pass-rusher in tackle Jonathan Babineaux and are hoping 2009 first-round pick Peria Jerry is finally healthy and can generate some push from the other tackle position. For too long, Atlanta’s been relying almost exclusively on Abraham for a pass rush.

Now, the Falcons think they’ve got four guys who can pressure quarterbacks. If that’s the case, you’re going to see more mistakes by offenses, and that’s going to mean more big plays for guys such as linebackers Sean Weatherspoon and Curtis Lofton and cornerbacks Brent Grimes and Robinson. Edwards doesn’t have to come in and be a one-man show. He just needs to play a role, and that will make the entire defense better.

3. Does Ryan really have what it takes to win some playoff games and firmly establish himself as an elite quarterback? Absolutely. Ryan’s been very solid in each of his first three seasons. But the supporting cast always has been lacking in one way or another.

Now, all the tools are there, and the Falcons may turn Ryan loose more than ever. White’s made some comments about how the Falcons could be like the old St. Louis Rams when they were known as the “Greatest Show on Turf." That might be a bit of a stretch because the Falcons don’t have a running back quite like Marshall Faulk. But then again, they’ve got tons of talent, and that should allow Ryan to really shine.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

[+] EnlargePeria Jerry
AP Photo/Dave MartinPeria Jerry, a 2009 first-round pick, has looked sharp in camp so far.
After returning last season and playing a limited role as a backup, Jerry has been flying around the field in the early part of camp. The defensive tackle has shed the knee brace he wore all last year and appears to be playing with confidence. Rookie Corey Peters did well in a starting job last season, but he was simply a role player. If fully healthy, Jerry has the potential to be a dominant defensive tackle. The Falcons drafted him because he could get penetration against the run and also put pressure on the passer. If he really is healthy, Jerry can create negative plays by an offense and help produce turnovers.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Although the Falcons were happy when running back Jason Snelling agreed to a one-year deal Sunday morning, they're not happy he missed so much time from training camp. Snelling has been the top backup to Turner and the Falcons view him as an important part of their offense. They're making some tweaks to their system and Snelling will be well behind the rest of the running backs in terms of knowing the new parts of the offense. Snelling's absence also allowed Rodgers to get lots of work early in camp and the rookie has made a good impression. Snelling is a power runner like Turner and will remain the top backup in running situations. But Snelling used to be the top receiving threat out of the backfield. Rodgers could take that role away from him.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The biggest camp battle is at right guard, where former starter Harvey Dahl left for St. Louis in free agency. Garrett Reynolds has been getting most of the first-team work so far and appears to be the leading candidate to start. Second-year pro Mike Johnson also is in the mix. But one of the most pleasant surprises of camp so far has been seventh-round pick Andrew Jackson. He might not be quite ready to start, but he’s likely to make the team and could emerge as a key backup at guard and tackle in the short term and potentially could be a starter down the road.
  • The other key battle is for the nickelback position. The Falcons aren’t going to take the safe route and add a veteran later in the preseason. They’re set on letting Christopher Owens and Dominique Franks battle it out in camp and the preseason. The Falcons like both young players and are hoping the competition forces one of them to really step forward.
  • The most impressive of the undrafted rookie free agents so far has been cornerback Kamaal McIlwain. He’s small (5-foot-10 and 175 pounds) and comes from Newberry College. But he’s shown great athleticism and is displaying a knack for being around the ball. Those traits have worked out pretty well for the Falcons in the past (see Grimes).
  • A lot of people seem surprised that the Falcons didn’t do anything at tight end because Gonzalez is nearing the end of his career. But maybe the team knew what it was doing. Second-year pro Michael Palmer is having a very nice camp and is showing more pass-catching skills than he did as a rookie. His role could increase.
  • The Falcons are very pleased with what they’re seeing out of second-year wide receiver Kerry Meier, who missed his rookie year with an injury. The Falcons aren’t going slowly with Meier because he’s fully recovered. He’s taken part in every practice and he brings a lot of versatility. Meier is the reason the Falcons didn’t bring back Brian Finneran. They believe Meier can do all the things Finneran did as a big receiver -- mainly being a reliable blocker and a dependable possession receiver. But they also think Meier can do some other things, like line up as an H-back or even as a fullback or tight end at times. Heck, you could even see him throw some passes because he’s a former college quarterback.
BUFORD, Ga. -- Last week, the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers engaged in the first big game of the NFC South season. They battled over free-agent defensive end Charles Johnson.

In the end, Johnson decided to stay with the Panthers. The Falcons ended up with Ray Edwards, which isn’t a bad consolation prize. But did the Panthers really win?

I’ll let you argue that out in the comments section below. But, before you do, let’s review the two players. Johnson’s only 24, but he’s also had only one really good NFL season. That was last season, when he posted 11.5 sacks. Edwards had a pretty steady run in Minnesota, but never did accumulate more than 8.5 sacks and he was playing opposite Jared Allen.

Before you give your argument, there’s one other thing you should consider. That’s money, which many believe is what the NFL really is all about.

I’ve got full contract figures on the deals Johnson and Edwards agreed to and there is a very substantial difference. Johnson’s six-year deal could be worth up to $76 million and it also included a $30 million signing bonus. That means expectations will be high and Johnson better put up double-digit sacks on a yearly basis to justify a contract that averages almost $12.7 million a season.

We don’t know exactly what the Falcons were offering Johnson. But they ended up paying a lot less for Edwards. His five-year deal is worth $27.5 million. That’s an average of $5.5 million per season. Edwards’ signing bonus was $4 million.

For comparison sake, let’s also take a look at the deal Jason Babin took with the Philadelphia Eagles. Babin already is in his 30s and was considered by many to be the third-best defensive end on the market after Johnson and Edwards.

But Babin actually got a slightly bigger contract than Edwards. Babin’s five-year deal is worth $27.725 million, an average of $5.545 million per year.

Go ahead and argue it out over whether the Falcons or Panthers got the better deal. But don’t forget to at least weigh how money plays into this one.

Mailbag: New Orleans Saints edition

September, 11, 2010
9/11/10
4:45
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Matt in Miami writes: Hey Pat, what do you think about the Saints using a 3-4 a lot against the Vikings?

Pat Yasinskas: I thought it was interesting. We saw that at times last season, but it seemed more prevalent Thursday night. Not sure if that was just part of Gregg Williams’ game plan to throw the Vikings off or if it’s something we’ll see more of this season. I think it’s a nice thing to do in certain situations, but I don’t think the Saints have the personnel (particularly at linebacker) to really use the 3-4 on a regular basis.


Michael in Honolulu writes: Pat, how would you grade the job the New Orleans offensive line did against Minnesota? I know Bushrod got some help, but Jared Allen (one of the best DEs in the league) was basically a nonfactor. It also looked to me like Evans and Nicks were pushing the Williams Wall around, especially on the drive to start the third quarter and the clock-killing drive at the end.

Pat Yasinskas: I don’t think I could assign any other grade but an 'A' to the offensive line. That group did all the things you just mentioned and more. Jermon Bushrod had help at times, but I also saw several plays where he handled Allen one on one, and that’s a very good sign. Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks are the best guard tandem in the league. Evans already has been recognized as one of the game’s best linemen. But people are starting to realize Nicks isn’t far behind him. One personnel guy I talk to regularly claims that Nicks is a better run blocker than Evans.


Andy in Charleston, S.C., writes: I wanted to point out something that wasn't really mentioned about the Saints-Vikings game Thursday. Malcolm Jenkins made a couple of REALLY good plays. First he had a big hit (on Peterson, I think) that reminded me immediately of Darren Sharper's hit on Kevin Faulk last year, then later made an acrobatic near-interception that most receivers would have had trouble catching. He really is making a good case for taking Sharper's spot.

Pat Yasinskas: Yes, I thought Jenkins had a very nice game in his first start as a free safety. We all knew he was athletic, but it looks like he’s already made a smooth transition to a new position. As far as making a case for taking Sharper’s spot, I think the case already was made. The Saints told Jenkins soon after the Super Bowl that he was moving to safety. They let Sharper test the free-agent waters and signed him back at a low price after he didn’t draw much interest elsewhere. Sharper’s out for at last the first six games as he recovers from a knee injury. If Sharper comes back – and that’s not a given – I think it will just be as insurance. If Jenkins keeps playing like he did in the opener, the job is his.

Brees a finalist for 'Madden' cover

February, 18, 2010
2/18/10
9:32
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You can vote for Drew Brees to be on the cover of “Madden NFL 11’’, but, if you believe in curses, you might want to think twice.

Brees, along with Jared Allen and Reggie Wayne are the finalists to grace the cover of the video game. For the first time ever, fans are voting to decide who gets the honor. You can vote here.

It would be a nice honor for Brees, who some fans think gets short-changed because he plays in a small market. But it also could be dangerous. There are a lot of previous cover boys who have suffered from the "Madden Curse" -- getting hurt or having a bad season after appearing on the front of the box.

Final Word: Vikings at Saints

January, 22, 2010
1/22/10
4:00
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AFC Championship: Graham | Kuharsky NFC Championship: Seifert | Yasinskas

Five nuggets of knowledge about Sunday’s NFC Championship Game between the Minnesota Vikings (13-4) and the New Orleans Saints (14-3).


Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesA victory in the NFC Championship Game would be a signature win for quarterback Drew Brees.
1. This is Drew Brees' game. Yes, all the hype has been about Brett Favre. When a 40-year-old legend gets his team this far, that's expected. But I think this game is more about the legacy of Brees. For the past few years, he has put up numbers that put him in the conversation with Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Favre as the league’s best quarterback. But the one thing Brees doesn’t have that they all do is a signature win. It might be time for Brees to sign his autograph.

2. Reggie Bush will be a huge factor. I wrote in this space a week ago that Bush would be a huge factor against the Cardinals -- and he was. My logic was simple. When you throw a bunch of good athletes on the field, the best athlete out there will rise up and make plays. Once again, I think Bush is the best athlete stepping onto the Superdome floor Sunday.

3. Matchup of the week? It seems like the ultimate mismatch with New Orleans left tackle Jermon Bushrod going against Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen. On paper, it probably is. But let’s face it, the Saints aren’t going to leave Bushrod on an island by himself. They’ve been covering him up with help all season as he’s filled in for an injured Jammal Brown. Bushrod hasn’t really been exploited because the Saints help him and their offense is designed for Brees to get rid of the ball quickly. This matchup might not be as big a deal as many people think.

4. Payton’s big chance. We already mentioned how important this game is for Brees’ status. It’s kind of the same deal for his coach, Sean Payton. This will be two NFC Championship Games in four seasons. Win this one and Payton will go from being just a great offensive mind to being a great head coach.

5. Sharper image. We’ve heard all week about New Orleans safety Darren Sharper's familiarity with Favre. A lot of people have said that could work to the Saints’ advantage. But Payton has done his best to downplay that aspect and frequently said players going against former teams is overrated. I disagree. I think Sharper’s knowledge of Favre is important, and I’m guessing that the Saints have been tapping into it all week. But I think the real issue here isn’t so much what Sharper can tell his teammates. I think it’s whether Sharper can take all his knowledge of Favre and come up with an interception against his former teammate.

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