NFC South: Jonathan Massaquoi

Mike NolanScott Cunningham/Getty ImagesFalcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan won't be lacking depth up front in 2014.
The Atlanta Falcons aren't panicking -- at least not yet -- over their inability to secure a top pass-rusher this offseason.

Sure, it would have been a nice luxury to land a proven talent such as Brian Orakpo or even a promising rookie such as Jadeveon Clowney, Khalil Mack or Dee Ford. But the Falcons have a game plan, regardless of what outside perception might say.

The coaches and players fully understand the urgency. They know how pathetic the pass rush was last season, when the Falcons sacked or put quarterbacks under duress on just 22.4 percent of dropbacks, second-worst in the NFL. Not to mention the Falcons allowed opponents to convert 45.93 percent on third down, resulting in the league's worst third-down defense.

You know you're in trouble when you make Geno Smith look like an All-Pro.

So how are things supposed to improve? There is plenty of reason to be skeptical, including the absence of a speed-rusher. But I believe a collective effort will help the Falcons take significant strides with their defensive pressure and compensate for the lack of an elite pass-rusher.

[+] EnlargeRa'Shede Hageman
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsAthletic rookie Ra'Shede Hageman could give a boost to the Falcons' pass rush in 2014.
Really. I do.

Altering the defensive approach is the first step. Although coach Mike Smith continues to preach defensive multiplicity without revealing much detail, the Falcons will have more of a 3-4 look in 2014. Believe that. It was obvious when players started talking about it immediately after last season. Then the Falcons added bulky nose tackle Paul Soliai and defensive end Tyson Jackson up front. Drafting defensive end Ra'Shede Hageman was further confirmation.

Think of it more as the Falcons building toward a 5-2 alignment, with three linemen and two outside linebackers getting pressure. As long as the Falcons can do so with consistency, they'll be fine.

The Falcons hope that having heavy hitters up front will create more stress on opposing offensive linemen and open lanes for the linebackers to make plays. And if he develops quickly, Hageman has the potential to be an outstanding inside rusher and a J.J. Watt-type pass-deflector. He is the wild card in this whole equation. He'll be motivated by fiery defensive line coach Bryan Cox.

In regard to the true pass-rushers, the Falcons have plenty of faith in third-year player Jonathan Massaquoi, who had four sacks last season and has played defensive end. His athleticism should be on display more often from the outside linebacker spot in 2014. Massaquoi told me this offseason that he feels the need to atone for not taking advantage of his opportunities last year.

Stansly Maponga and rookie Prince Shembo are the other two young players that intrigue me. Both have pass-rush ability, although Maponga was used sporadically last season. Folks who watched every game Shembo played at Notre Dame believe he is a much better pass-rusher than run defender or coverage guy.

And don't forget about veteran Osi Umenyiora. He led the team with 7.5 sacks but wore down as the season went along. Yes, he's 32 years old and his best days are behind him. But the Falcons could get a lot out of him as a strictly designated pass-rusher, the same role he played at the end of last season. Umenyiora has spent a significant amount of time trying to improve his technique and speed this offseason. To me, that sounds like a veteran determined not to go out with a thud.

When guys like Massaquoi, Maponga and even Umenyiora don't have to bang against offensive tackles regularly, like they did most of the time in a typical 4-3 alignment, they'll be fresher and able to sustain a consistent pass rush. The defensive linemen also should benefit from a strong rotation, considering the Falcons brought back Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and Peria Jerry while adding Soliai, Jackson and Hageman.

There will be an adjustment period all around, particularly for those players getting accustomed to standing up rather than playing with their hands in the ground. The guy who shouldn't flinch is Kroy Biermann, who has experience in both roles. But Biermann -- who played just two games in 2013 because of an Achilles injury -- will be counted upon more against the run than the pass.

Of course, let's not forget the key figure in this whole equation: defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. Last year wasn't indicative of what type of defensive mind he is. He's had success in the past out of a 3-4 base. He couldn't be too "multiple" last season, based on personnel. Nolan knows how to disguise coverages and dial up blitzes, when needed. And he'll have more to work with this season, including more capable bodies to sub in and out to keep the pressure consistent.

When you talk about facing the likes of Drew Brees and Cam Newton twice a year and having to contend with a pair of 6-foot-5 receivers in Tampa Bay's Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans, it only emphasizes the importance of pressure for a Falcons team trying to return to playoff contention. It won't be about a guy such as Massaquoi suddenly exploding with double-digit sacks, though the Falcons would take it. It will be more about consistency, getting contributions from a number of different players, and keeping bodies fresh over the duration of 60 minutes.

A more balanced offensive attack with a little more emphasis on the run surely wouldn't hurt in terms of keeping the defense off the field. But when it comes down to it, the Falcons' defenders have to pin their ears back and have the desire to get after it.

The pressure is on.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said veteran defensive end Osi Umenyiora met with coach Mike Smith about Umenyiora’s new reserve role. Nolan implied Umenyiora was content with the move.

"As I’m sure Mike told you, he had a conversation with Mike and it went very well, was my understanding," Nolan said. "And Osi expressed the same thing, that it went real well."

Umenyiora
Umenyiora, 32, started the first 13 games this season. But in last Sunday’s 27-26 win over the Washington Redskins, he played just 27 snaps in a reserve role as a designated pass-rusher. Second-year player Jonathan Massaquoi started at Umenyiora’s usual spot at right defensive end. Smith said he wanted to keep Umenyiora on a "pitch count" to keep him fresh as a pass-rusher, a strategy similar to the one the team used with veteran John Abraham before Abraham moved on to Arizona.

Despite his limited playing time, Umenyiora still managed a sack and a forced fumble against the Redskins.

"I thought he did an outstanding job in the game when he did go in," Nolan said of Umenyiora. "He was fresher. He was better prepared for the third down because of that. You know, when you play every down, it can wear on you.

"Whatever’s best for them to perform at the highest level is what you want to do, and I think that did help him perform at a high level. I mean, he got the only sack we had in the game. It was a sack-fumble as a matter of fact, and we a got a touchdown out of it … the offense did."

Umenyiora signed a two-year, $8.5 million deal in the offseason, and his cap figure for next season is $4.75 million. He obviously wants to be a starter, but the Falcons seem to be looking to get younger along the defensive line. The coaches could, however, change up the lineup once again when the Falcons travel to San Francisco for a "Monday Night Football" matchup with the 49ers.

Although Umenyiora leads the team with 7.5 sacks and three forced fumbles, his value extends beyond statistics.

"I think he’s been a real asset," Nolan said. "What I like about Osi is he’s done a good job on the field, but he’s also done an outstanding job off the field. And that’s been very helpful for our football team.

"A lot of guys have benefited from his presence. I wouldn't say he’s Mister Go-Around Vocal, tell guys what to do at all. But I think when a young guy wants to know or wants to watch somebody who’s a pro and who shows respect and gets a lot of respect, Osi would be the guy to look at."
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith was somewhat subtle about the demotion of Osi Umenyiora, saying he wanted to keep Umenyiora on a "pitch count" and use the veteran defensive end more as a situational pass-rusher against the Washington Redskins.

Umenyiora
But Smith expounded on the matter a little more Monday when he talked about starting Jonathan Massaquoi at Umenyiora's usual right defensive end spot.

"Yesterday we wanted to see -- even though he's a second-year player -- we wanted to see how Jonathan Massaquoi could handle playing 85 percent of the snaps in the ball game," Smith said. "And if you look at the play count, that's about where he was."

Massaquoi played 58 of 67 defensive snaps while Umenyiora played just 27 in his new reserve role. Prior to Sunday's game, Umenyiora's lowest percentage of snaps in a game was 60 percent in a blowout loss at Tampa Bay. Umenyiora played 68 percent of the snaps two games ago at Green Bay.

The 32-year-old Umenyiora hasn't been dominant this season, but he has been productive. He still leads the team with 7.5 sacks and has an interception return for a touchdown. Umenyiora managed a sack and forced fumble despite his limited duty against the Redskins.

The Falcons signed Umenyiora to a two-year contract in the offseason. He has a $4.75 million cap number next season.

How the Falcons plan to proceed into the future at defensive end remains unknown. The team obviously wants to get a closer look at Massaquoi along with rookies Malliciah Goodman and Stansly Maponga. Plenty of fans would like to see the Falcons draft massive South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, but the Falcons currently stand fifth in the draft order.

Former first-round pick Peria Jerry has had his moments as an edge rusher, but Jerry is coming off a rough game against the Redskins. And the Falcons will get hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker Kroy Biermann back from an Achilles injury next season. Not to mention the Falcons could make a major move in free agency to shore up the pass rush.

It will be interesting to see how the Falcons utilize Umenyiora over the final two games. He seems destined to be under the same "pitch count" based on the team's desire to evaluate the young players.

"We're going to get a good evaluation of a lot of guys in the last quarter of the season," Smith said. "And I think it's going to pay dividends for us moving forward. We're going to be able to determine who can play. And they're going to be put in a lot of different situations."
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- With all the talk surrounding Atlanta Falcons rookies such as cornerback Desmond Trufant and linebacker Paul Worrilow, it's easy to forget Jonathan Massaquoi is a young player on the rise, too.

The second-year defensive end from Troy had his best game as a pro Sunday when he recorded two sacks and two tackles for loss against the Green Bay Packers.

Two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Osi Umenyiora, another Troy product, certainly noticed.

"He's coming along, man," Umenyiora said of his fellow defensive lineman. "He's another good, young player. He's got a great work ethic. He wants to keep getting better. That's pretty much all you can ask for in a young player."

In critiquing his own play, Massaquoi was far from satisfied.

"My expectations are high," he said. "Just like everybody, you never want to be good; you want to be great. And if you're great, you want to be elite. So, I've got a long way to go.

"I'm going to keep fighting. I'm going to keep making plays. I'm going to keep doing my job."

The Falcons' pass rush has been inconsistent throughout the season, with Umenyiora leading the team with 6.5 sacks. Massaquoi stands fifth on the team with three sacks. But, as a group, the Falcons are tied for 25th in the league with 27 sacks. By comparison, league leader Buffalo has 44.

As the Falcons prepare for their final three games of 2013, the coaching staff is sure to take a closer look at its pass-rushers. Fans already have started to lobby for South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney in the NFL draft, based on the Falcons currently holding the No. 3 pick.

Even if Clowney becomes a Falcon, the organization has to consider which combination of defensive linemen will work best moving forward. Massaquoi, who is capable of rushing from right or left end, should have a role for years to come.

"Well, I think he's adept and doing it from both sides," Falcons coach Mike Smith said of Massaquoi. "I think a lot of guys that become really elite pass-rushers have the ability to rush off of both sides. And they like to look for those matchups that are favorable for them."

Massaquoi has a three-step plan for making himself more favorable in the coaches' eyes: no mental errors, executing the game plan and having fun on the field.

"Those three things, if you combine them together week in and week out, you should be able to go out there and have success," he said.

"As far as the future goes, I'll finish up strong this season. And it's up to the coaches whether they want to continue to allow me to play a bigger role on the Atlanta Falcons defense."

Another game similar to Sunday's would go a long way toward solidifying Massaquoi's standing.

Upon Further Review: Falcons Week 8

October, 28, 2013
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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- A review of five hot issues from the Atlanta Falcons' 27-13 loss to the Arizona Cardinals:

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Matt Kartozian/USA TODAY SportsFalcons QB Matt Ryan spent much of Sunday's game trying to avoid being hit by Cardinals defenders.
Big problem: The Falcons' defense continues to give up big plays, surrendering a backbreaking, 80-yard touchdown run to speedy Cardinals rookie running back Andre Ellington. Defensive tackle Corey Peters and linebacker Paul Worrilow missed the initial opportunity to bring Ellington down up the middle. Then Ellington bounced outside and sprinted by linebacker Joplo Bartu and safety Thomas DeCoud. Safety William Moore, who was on the other side of the play, tried to explain what happened. "Leverage is the name of the game," Moore said. "One person misses their leverage and some more people have to come put their hats on the ball. He got outside the defense, and that's going to happen nine times out of 10 when he gets outside. ... That's one of those plays where everybody could have gotten to the ball a little better." The Falcons have surrendered 11 plays of 40-plus yards this season.

No pointing fingers: Although quarterback Matt Ryan could have used much better protection -- he was sacked four times and hit 11 times -- no one in the locker room said the offensive line needed to do a better job protecting. Wide receiver Harry Douglas even seemed to take offense when it was implied that the offensive line didn't do its job. "I'm not singling anybody out," Douglas said. "We win as a team. We lose as a team. We glorify each other as a team. And we're going to fix it as a team. I think everybody across the board -- offense, defense and special teams -- we all could have did something better to win this football game and step up."

Top target: Speaking of Douglas, he finished with another stellar effort in the loss, catching 12 passes for 121 yards. He was targeted a team-high 18 times. The effort came a week after Douglas posted a career-high 149 receiving yards against Tampa Bay. With Julio Jones out for the season following foot surgery and Roddy White missing his second straight game due to hamstring and ankle injuries, Ryan looked to Douglas often. The Falcons need Douglas to continue that production when White returns to the lineup. Drew Davis, who had a career day versus the Cardinals with five catches for 77 yards and a touchdown, also could be a key part of the equation when White returns.

Tight spot: Tony Gonzalez caught three passes for 26 yards to extend his streak of consecutive games with a catch to 202. But all the talk over the next two days will likely relate to whether the Falcons might consider trading Gonzalez to a contender so he can have the chance to retire with a Super Bowl ring. Gonzalez maintains he wants to finish things out in Atlanta, but he's obviously frustrated by the team's 2-5 mark. Ryan was asked if he talked to Gonzalez following Sunday's game. "Talked to him briefly and same as after we lost in the past," Ryan said. "I think everybody takes it personal. He certainly does, and I do. I think the message across the board is that we just have to get back to work."

Rotating line: When defensive coordinator Mike Nolan addresses the media on Tuesday, he's sure to be asked about his defensive line rotation. Against the Cardinals, veteran starters Osi Umenyiora and Jonathan Babineaux were pulled from the lineup on a few series, including when Ellington broke loose on that 80-yard touchdown run. Cliff Matthews and Peria Jerry were on the field with Peters and Jonathan Massaquoi. Babineaux said it was just the rotation that was decided upon. We'll see how that rotation pans out for the remainder of the season.
Ryan Tannehill and Julio JonesUSA TODAY SportsRyan Tannehill and the undefeated Dolphins will try to upset Julio Jones and the Atlanta Falcons.
The Miami Dolphins are basking in the light of a 2-0 start while the Atlanta Falcons are just trying to find some healthy bodies.

The two teams play each other Sunday in a game that has big implications in the AFC East and NFC South races.

ESPN Dolphins reporter James Walker and ESPN Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas examine this matchup:

Yasinskas: James, like many, I thought the Dolphins would be an improved team. But it's looking like they might be even better than I thought. They've gone out and started their season with two big wins on the road. What's going right for the Dolphins and, more importantly, how good are they?

Walker: It's early, Pat, but Miami is already exceeding my expectations. I pegged the Dolphins to be an 8-8 team this year. That still could happen if the team loses focus, but Miami is on pace to do better. I credit two things: improved playmaking ability and the growth of second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Miami committed more than $200 million in free-agent contracts to players like receiver Mike Wallace, cornerback Brent Grimes and linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler. All of those players came up big in last Sunday's win over the Indianapolis Colts. When you add in the fact Tannehill has improved in his second year, it's easy to see why the Dolphins are also taking the next step. Atlanta is a team many believe is a Super Bowl contender, but the group is banged up. Pat, how much will injuries impact the Falcons in this game?

Yasinskas: Atlanta has some major injury problems. The Falcons had to put defensive end/linebacker Kroy Biermann and fullback Bradie Ewing on injured reserve this week and there are reports that running back Steven Jackson will miss a few weeks. The loss of Biermann means the Falcons will have to play rookies Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow at linebacker and second-year pro Jonathan Massaquoi at defensive end. If Jackson is out, the Falcons will have to go with Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling as their running backs, and that's a sharp drop-off. That probably means the Falcons will pass even more than usual and rely on Roddy White and Julio Jones. Is Miami's secondary ready for that tandem?

Walker: I had a good conversation with Miami's top cornerback, Grimes, on Tuesday. He was complimentary of both White and Jones -- and Grimes would know. The former Falcon watched both receivers grow in Atlanta and practiced against them. It will be fun to see who has the advantage between Grimes and White/Jones, depending on the play. Grimes told me they all know each other so well that it's probably a push. The bigger concern for Miami's secondary is the other cornerback spot. Veteran starter Dimitri Patterson didn't play in Week 2 due to a groin injury. He's working his way back and could play Sunday. Rookie corners Will Davis and Jamar Taylor also returned to practice this week, which could provide depth. Similar to the game against Indianapolis, Miami must do a lot of things schematically to cover up its issues opposite Grimes. That includes using the safeties over the top and getting a good pass rush. Speaking of pass rush, the Dolphins have nine sacks in the first two games. Can they exploit the Falcons in this area?

Yasinskas: Miami's pass rush has to be a major concern for the Falcons. Atlanta revamped its offensive line in the offseason and it's taking some time to come together. The right side of the line is of particular concern with guard Garrett Reynolds and Lamar Holmes as the starters. Reynolds is average at best and Holmes, a second-year pro, was thrown into the starting lineup when Mike Johnson went down with an injury in the preseason. Holmes is very much a work in progress, so the Falcons will have to try to give him some help by getting their tight ends and running backs involved as pass-blockers. Still, Atlanta should be able to move the ball through the air because it has Matt Ryan, Jones, White and tight end Tony Gonzalez. Has Tannehill developed enough to win a shootout?

Walker: That's an interesting question, Pat. I'm not sure anyone -- even Miami's coaching staff -- has the answer. I did notice the Dolphins' game plan in Week 1 against Cleveland was fairly conservative compared to Week 2 against Indianapolis. Those are two different teams, and perhaps the Dolphins realized they needed to be more aggressive throwing and take more vertical shots deep to match Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. This is a similar type of challenge, because Atlanta's offense is built around scoring points in the passing game. Tannehill is getting better at taking over parts of a game in Year 2. His play in the second half the past two weeks has been terrific. The Dolphins are outscoring opponents 24-6 in the third and fourth quarters, in part because Tannehill is moving the chains, putting points on the board and keeping Miami's defense fresh. I don't expect this game to be all on Tannehill's shoulders. The defense remains the strength of the Dolphins. Keeping Atlanta's scoring around 23 points or fewer, as opposed to having Tannehill throw for 400 yards, is probably Miami's best shot to win.

Observations on the Falcons

August, 8, 2013
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If they don’t cut them down, the “empty calories’’ Atlanta coach Mike Smith talks so much about are going to end up costing the Atlanta Falcons.

One drive in a 34-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals exposed a lingering problem. Early in the second quarter Cincinnati backup quarterback Josh Johnson had two runs for 57 yards on a lengthy drive. The Falcons were able to hold the Bengals to a field goal, which was nice. But the point is the Falcons have to get better when they’re facing mobile quarterbacks.

They have a schedule that includes dates with Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton (twice). Newton gave the Falcons headaches twice last season and Kaepernick and Wilson had success against Atlanta in the playoffs.

The Falcons spent part of the offseason consulting with college coaches to get ideas on how to stop the read option. If the Falcons don’t get better at dealing with mobile quarterbacks, they’re going to run into some big problems in the regular season.

Some other observations on the Falcons:
  • Second-year pro Jonathan Massaquoi showed several flashes, including a second-quarter sack. The Falcons are looking for one of their young defensive ends to complement Osi Umenyiora. So far, Massaquoi seems to be the leading candidate for that role.
  • I was impressed with rookie cornerback Robert Alford. He made some physical tackles and made some plays in coverage. Alford, a second-round pick, might be ahead of first-round pick Desmond Trufant.
  • Drew Davis had a 31-yard catch in the first quarter. He seems to be in the lead for the fourth receiver spot.
  • I’ve been skeptical about Atlanta’s decision not to bring in a veteran backup for quarterback Matt Ryan. After watching Dominique Davis on Thursday night, I’m even more skeptical. Davis struggled with accuracy as he completed 8 of 19 passes for 78 yards with one touchdown and an interception. I still think Davis has tremendous upside, but I think the Falcons should bring in a veteran for insurance.
  • It instantly was obvious that running back Steven Jackson is a big upgrade over Michael Turner. But I don’t think backup Jacquizz Rodgers is going to disappear. Rodgers has home-run potential and the Falcons need to make sure he continues to have a role in the offense.
  • Although the Falcons pulled most of their starters late in the first quarter, they let right tackle Lamar Holmes play into the third quarter. The Falcons gave Holmes an extended audition because they lost starter Mike Johnson to an injury earlier this week.
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.
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 Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What are the three key camp issues facing each NFC South team?

ATLANTA FALCONS

Offense: Reshuffled offensive line
Center Todd McClure retired and right tackle Tyson Clabo was released. The Falcons elected to go with youth and stick with guys already on their roster. Second-year pro Peter Konz should be fine at center after spending much of his rookie season at guard. But the right side is a question mark with Garrett Reynolds ticketed for guard and either Mike Johnson or Lamar Holmes at tackle. If the new starters don’t step up, this offensive line could have problems.

Defense: Pass rush
It seems reasonable to expect defensive end Osi Umenyiora to fill the shoes of John Abraham. But the Falcons need the pass rush to come from other areas, as well. Kroy Biermann likely will be used as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker, and he has some pass-rushing skills. Second-year defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi also has some potential. But defensive coordinator Mike Nolan might need to get more creative and blitz his linebackers and defensive backs more often.

Wild card: Kids have to be ready
The Falcons used their first two draft picks on cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. The Falcons need one of them to start right away, and the other likely will get a fair amount of playing time. Opponents are likely to test the rookies, so safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore might have to provide a lot of help early on.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Offense: Establishing an identity
The Panthers opened last season using a lot of read-option with quarterback Cam Newton. After a 2-8 start, they switched back to a more conventional running game and had much more success. I expect that trend to continue under new coordinator Mike Shula. Newton has the skills to be a very productive passer if this offense is executed the right way.

Defense: Secondary questions
Aside from free safety Charles Godfrey, no one has a clear-cut starting position in the defensive backfield. There are lots of candidates, such as Drayton Florence, Josh Norman, Josh Thomas and Captain Munnerlyn, at cornerback. But some of those guys will have to elevate their games for the Panthers to have success in defending the pass.

Wild card: Missing links?
With defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy and linebackers Luke Kuechly, Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, Carolina has the potential to have one of the league’s best front sevens. But that is largely contingent upon rookie defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. If they live up to the hype right off the bat, this front seven could be special.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Offense: Left tackle an open competition
After letting Jermon Bushrod go in free agency, the Saints have a glaring hole at left tackle. Charles Brown and Jason Smith haven’t done much in their careers, and rookie Terron Armstead is also in the mix. The Saints are hoping one of those three can step up. If not, the Saints might have to scramble to find a left tackle elsewhere.

Defense: Unit a question mark
After finishing last in the league in overall defense last season, the Saints brought in coordinator Rob Ryan and switched to a 3-4 scheme. The changes are probably a good thing, mainly because things can’t get much worse than they were last season. But it remains to be seen whether Ryan has the type of personnel to make his defense work.

Wild card: Payton’s return
If nothing else, Sean Payton’s suspension last year illustrated the true value of a head coach. He’s back now, and that should be a major positive. Payton is great with X's and O's, but he also is an excellent motivator. I expect Payton and the Saints to use what happened last year as fuel for this season.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Offense: Franchise quarterback?
It clearly is a make-or-break year for quarterback Josh Freeman as he heads into the last year of his contract. Freeman has done some very good things, but he has struggled to deliver the kind of consistency coach Greg Schiano wants. The Bucs have a strong running game with Doug Martin and two good receivers in Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. There will be no one else to blame but Freeman if this offense doesn’t prosper.

Defense: Pass rush
The Bucs let last year’s leading sacker, Michael Bennett, walk in free agency. It was a calculated gamble because the Bucs have a lot invested in Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers and believe they can be a strong duo at defensive end. They'd better be right. If they’re not, the revamped secondary might not be as good as it looks on paper.

Wild card: Leadership void
Aside from recently retired Ronde Barber, this team hasn’t had a lot of obvious leadership in recent years. Even Barber was more of a leader-by-example type than a vocal leader. The Bucs need some other players to step up. Newcomers such as cornerback Darrelle Revis and safety Dashon Goldson seem to be the most likely candidates to fill the leadership void.

NFC South afternoon update

July, 15, 2013
7/15/13
4:28
PM ET
Time for an afternoon drive through some odds and ends around the division:

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Gary Shelton writes that quarterback Josh Freeman just isn’t as good as the Buccaneers need him to be, but is better than a lot of his detractors believe. I think that’s a fairly concise and accurate summary of the situation. I think the talent is there for Freeman to be a very good quarterback. But, as he enters the final season of his contract, it’s time for Freeman to put it all together. If not, he’ll be looking for a new place to play next season.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Bradley Handwerger reveals the No. 1 selection on his list of the 10 most impressive wins in the Sean Payton era. It’s not the Super Bowl victory, which came in at No. 2. It’s the 2006 victory against the Falcons in New Orleans. I can’t argue with this choice even though it’s hard to trump a Super Bowl victory. This was the first game back in the Superdome for the Saints after Hurricane Katrina and that was a tremendous emotional lift. Of course, it also helped that Steve Gleason’s punt block became the stuff of legend and that the Saints won.

Larry Holder has the Oct. 6 game against Chicago at No. 5 on the list of most compelling games for the Saints. By that point in the season we should find out if Chicago left tackle Jermon Bushrod really is good or if he was just a product of the system when he was a Pro Bowler in New Orleans.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Max Henson has his overview of the defensive tackle situation. Justifiably, there has been a lot of talk about Carolina’s first two draft picks – Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. But, for the first time in a long time, the Panthers should have some quality depth at defensive tackle. Dwan Edwards could remain a starter in the short term. Sione Fua and Frank Kearse aren’t bad and Colin Cole could be a sleeper if he can stay healthy.

ATLANTA FALCONS

Daniel Cox writes that Atlanta’s Jonathan Massaquoi hopes he’s ready to contribute more as a defensive end after being limited mostly to special teams as a rookie. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the Falcons have a bunch of young defensive ends and Massaquoi is the one the coaching staff is most optimistic about.

The Falcons are holding a contest to name a new sandwich that will be sold at their training camp. It looks good, but I think I’ll pass on it when I visit Flowery Branch because I’m trying to maintain my playing weight.

NFC South afternoon update

July, 11, 2013
7/11/13
4:43
PM ET
Time for an afternoon trip through some odds and ends from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Jay Adams has an overview of the defensive line. The big question is who will provide a pass rush besides defensive end Osi Umenyiora. The Falcons hope some of it will come from Kroy Biermann, who appears likely to play a hybrid role that will have him lining up as a defensive end and a linebacker. But I think Jonathan Massaquoi is the guy to keep an eye on here. Atlanta’s coaching staff likes Massaquoi’s potential and there’s hope he can earn a lot of playing time.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Coach Ron Rivera confirmed a report that the Panthers are interested in veteran safety Quintin Mikell. The Panthers don’t have a clear-cut starter at strong safety and Mikell, who has some history with Rivera, could solve a big problem.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

WWLTV.com continues its countdown of the most impressive wins in the Sean Payton era. Somewhat surprisingly, the only Super Bowl championship in franchise history came in at No. 2. What tops a Super Bowl victory? I think I’ve got a pretty good idea, but we’ll find out when the next installment comes out.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Stephen Holder has his projected starting lineup for the Bucs. He has Akeem Spence starting at nose tackle and Dekoda Watson starting at strongside linebacker. Spence and Watson seem to be the early favorites at those positions, but those jobs still will be open to competition during camp.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

The major question facing each team in the NFC South as summer break looms.

Atlanta Falcons. Is the pass rush good enough? The Falcons replaced John Abraham with Osi Umenyiora. That might end up being something close to an even trade. But, just like when the Falcons had Abraham, you have to wonder who else might be able to generate a pass rush. Kroy Biermann is versatile and could bring some pressure from either defensive end or outside linebacker. But the Falcons really need one of their young defensive ends to step up. Second-year pro Jonathan Massaquoi appears to be the leading candidate for that.

Carolina Panthers. Who will be the starters in the defensive backfield? Aside from Charles Godfrey at one safety spot, that question remains wide open. The Panthers don’t have a clear starter at the other safety spot or at either cornerback spot. Veteran Mike Mitchell is one option at safety, but the team has been very impressed by rookie Robert Lester. The cornerback situation is even less clear. Captain Munnerlyn is a lock to be among the top three corners, but Drayton Florence, Josh Thomas, Josh Norman and D.J. Campbell appear to be competing for the other spots. The winners will have to distinguish themselves in training camp and the preseason.

New Orleans Saints. Where’s the pass rush going to come from? Just when it seemed like we were getting some clarity on this, it’s become a bigger question than ever before. Outside linebacker Victor Butler, who had a strong minicamp and played for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan in Dallas, went down with a torn ACL this week. The Saints firmly believed Butler was going to be a force. Now, they have to look at alternatives. Martez Wilson, Junior Galette and rookie Rufus Johnson all have some potential. But none of them are a sure thing. The Saints could end up bringing in a veteran that’s released somewhere else in the preseason if they don’t like what they’re seeing from the young linebackers.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Are they really set at tight end? All indications are the Bucs are planning on going with Luke Stocker and Tom Crabtree as their top two tight ends. That sounds a little dicey because Stocker hasn’t distinguished himself to this point of his career and Crabtree was used sparingly in Green Bay. But the Bucs appear to believe Stocker might be ready to elevate his game and they seem to think Crabtree has upside as a pass-catcher. It still is possible the Bucs could bring in a tight end, but that position doesn’t appear to be all that important in their passing game.
Throughout the offseason, there’s been speculation that the role of Atlanta defensive end Kroy Biermann could expand to include some playing time at linebacker.

It sounds like that speculation will become reality.

“[Defensive coordinator Mike] Nolan’s playbook has some depth to it,’’ Biermann told the media after Wednesday’s workout. “I don’t even think that I’ve seen half of it. But he’s going to start opening it up, I think. Wherever they put me, I’ll play and I’m going to play to the best of my ability.”

I don’t think the Falcons are planning on a straight move of Biermann from defensive end to linebacker. I think they’re looking at more of a hybrid role. Biermann will play defensive end in some situations. But at 255 pounds, he might not be ideally suited to be an every-down defensive end. There could be some situations where the Falcons want to use Jonathan Massaquoi or one of their other young players at defensive end and take advantage of Biermann’s versatility by moving him to linebacker, where he could bring another dimension to the pass rush.

The Falcons have been creative with Biermann in the past, even dropping him into coverage at times. But I expect that creativity to become even more prevalent this year.

“Multiplicity on the defensive side of the ball is what we are looking for,’’ coach Mike Smith said. “We want to be as multiple as we possibly can. Kroy, last year, was a guy that lined up with his hand on the ground, standing up, he did some things in pass defense and he’s been very multiple. He’ll continue to have that role.’’

NFC South afternoon update

May, 29, 2013
5/29/13
5:32
PM ET
A few quick items worth noting from around the division:
  • The Tampa Bay Buccaneers announced this afternoon that wide receiver Steve Smith, who signed with the team in April, is retiring. Smith had some history with offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan from their days together with the New York Giants. But I don’t think Smith’s decision is catastrophic for the Bucs. At best, Smith might have been the third wide receiver. But the Bucs seem to think that Tiquan Underwood or Kevin Ogletree can be solid in that role.
  • Jeff Duncan writes that the arrest of Joe Morgan for allegedly driving under the influence is coming at a bad time. Morgan is one of several candidates the Saints view as their potential third receiver. This type of incident isn’t going to score points with any coaching staff. It could end up costing Morgan what could have been a great opportunity.
  • Atlanta defensive line coach Ray Hamilton said defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi seems more comfortable as he gets ready for his second season. The Falcons have a lot of young defensive ends, but I think Massaquoi is the one the coaching staff is hoping can step forward to give the pass rush a boost.
  • Let’s close this one out with a little levity. Carolina offensive tackle Jordan Gross, who is one of the most humorous players I’ve ever covered, had a little fun with quarterback Cam Newton after Wednesday’s workout. Check out this video.

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