NFC South: Justin Blalock

It was clear from the outset how the Atlanta Falcons wanted to approach free agency: Get stronger up front.

The offensive and defensive lines struggled miserably last season. So if money was going to be spent on free agents, it was bound to be spent on offensive and defensive linemen, not safeties or tight ends.

Such was the case when the Falcons agreed to terms with defensive linemen Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson, and offensive guard Jon Asamoah.

Soliai
Asamoah
Starting with Soliai, the Falcons rewarded the big nose tackle with a five-year contract with a max value of $33 million with $14 million guaranteed, according to a source familiar with the negotiations. The 6-foot-4, 340-pound Soliai immediately becomes the Falcons' most intimidating defensive lineman. And he'll be counted upon to take on double teams and pave the way for the linebackers to make plays with the Falcons expected to move toward more of a 3-4-based scheme.

Jackson (6-4, 296) will be a key figure up front, too. The former third-overall pick in 2009 was drafted by Falcons assistant general manager Scott Pioli when Pioli was the Chiefs' general manager. Jackson reportedly received a five-year deal worth a max of $25 million.

And Asamoah, who also agreed to a five-year deal (financial terms were not immediately available), might be the guy with the biggest burden to carry. The offensive line has been horrendous, allowing Matt Ryan to be the league's most pressured quarterback last season. The Falcons hope Asamoah steps in at right guard and develops into a stabilizing force. He is known for his pass protection and should be able to provide support as a run-blocker.

"Jon is a physical, experienced offensive lineman that will add a veteran presence to our offensive line," Falcons coach Mike Smith said about Asamoah.

The Falcons got it right. They addressed the most pressing needs from the outside and also re-signed two other key figures in center Joe Hawley and defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux. Hawley should start in the middle with Asamoah and left guard Justin Blalock next to him. Babineaux should add depth to the defensive line rotation.

It all could equal a climb back to the top for the Falcons, although other aspects still need to take shape. The release of former Pro Bowl free safety Thomas DeCoud means the Falcons have to find a capable replacement next to strong safety William Moore. There is still a void at tight end with Tony Gonzalez retiring, although Levine Toilolo will be counted upon to elevate his game.

More importantly, the Falcons need to look at adding an offensive tackle and pass-rusher, maybe through the draft. The names that immediately come to mind are Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson, Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews, Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan and Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack. Right now, the Falcons hold the sixth-overall pick in the draft.

It will make for some interesting decisions to come. But for now, the Falcons made the right choice.

"We were focused on adding pieces along our offensive and defensive lines, and I feel we were able to accomplish that today," general manager Thomas Dimitroff said.

Certainly the Falcons have much more to accomplish.
It was rather obvious how much Matt Ryan was banged around during the 2013 season.

The physical beating the $100 million Atlanta Falcons quarterback absorbed didn't go unnoticed by Arthur Blank. The team owner explained the situation from his perspective.

"It wasn’t easy," Blank said of watching Ryan get pummeled. "I think it wasn't easy for his teammates, I know that. I saw the stress that it put on them. They were trying to protect him. They weren't always able to do it consistently. That's not to say they didn’t do it at all. They just weren’t able to do it at the level that they would like to do it."

[+] EnlargeGreg Hardy
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesFinding players to help keep QB Matt Ryan out of harm's way is an offseason priority for Atlanta.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Ryan led the league with 204 dropbacks while pressured -- sacked, forced to scramble, hit while throwing, or put under duress -- with the next closest quarterback being Seattle's Russell Wilson with 184. The league average was 122.

Ryan also led the league with 702 dropbacks, so he obviously had more opportunities to get hit. Blank talked Monday about the team's goal to return to a more physical, power style of football featuring the running game, and that is no doubt a product of wanting to establish more offensive balance so Ryan doesn't get abused.

Ryan was sacked a career-high 44 times, and tied Wilson as the third-most sacked quarterback in the league behind Miami's Ryan Tannehill (58) and Baltimore's Joe Flacco (48).

"I think Matt is a tough kid from Philadelphia," Blank said. "He's a great face of our franchise. He's a great franchise quarterback; a tremendous talent. But he's mentally tough and physically tough. So, I was impressed with how he used those two attributes really throughout the year to get himself up, emotionally and physically, to continue to play at the levels that he did play at this year."

Sure, Ryan might have avoided a major injury, but that didn't make it any easier for the team to watch.

"It was hard for me," Blank said. "It certainly was hard, I'm sure, for his wife and family as well. Very hard for his teammates, I'm sure. … When players see other players get hurt or stressed or put under extreme punishment, if you will, then they feel some responsibility. They feel badly about it. I can tell by body language and words, comments after the game, where his teammates felt they let him down; or, for that matter, when he let them down.

"It's not just one way. Matt had a fair number of turnovers this year. He would be the first to say in some games, he probably pressed more than he probably would have liked feeling the weight of this team on his own back which, in a sense, is to his credit. But in a sense, it's not a good thing, because you end up making some decisions that are not always the best decisions. So it was a difficult year, I think, for all of us, including Matt, and certainly the folks that tried to protect him."

It will be interesting to see how the Falcons address those protection issues. Left guard Justin Blalock was the only consistent performer on the offensive line, and even he had noticeable troubles, at times. Blank said the Falcons are likely to address offensive or defensive line issues with their first-round pick --- currently No. 6 overall -- and getting a tough offensive tackle to protect Ryan’s blind side would appear to be the priority.

Although Blank said the team will spend to upgrade the roster, he also balked at the idea of making a splash by adding a high-priced free agent. However, the Falcons might have to spend if they want to keep Ryan healthy. Relying on a rookie offensive lineman just might not cut it.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Atlanta Falcons' coaching staff got an early Christmas gift Monday night: improved play on the offensive line.

No, it was not a strong enough performance to wipe out every bad memory from this season. But it was an encouraging sign from a unit that was expected to be dominated by a San Francisco 49ers front seven touted as arguably the best in the NFL.

Falcons coach Mike Smith hasn’t singled out the play of an offensive lineman too often this season. Tuesday afternoon, he singled out three.

Although quarterback Matt Ryan did a masterful job improvising at times, his pocket was clean for the most part, which helped him complete a career-high 37 passes. He was sacked just once and was able to go deep more than he had all season.

"The interior of the pocket was a little more stout," Smith said. "I thought that we did a very good job with scheming, with chipping, helping and having backs chip out, tight ends chip out before they went into their routes.

"The two tackles [Lamar Holmes and Ryan Schraeder], they had tough draws. I thought they handled it well. I thought Matt [had a] very good pocket as well. And I really feel, after watching the tape on the ride back and watching it this morning, that Joe Hawley did a nice job cleaning the pocket up."

Hawley has been solid at center since taking the starting job away from Peter Konz, so his performance wasn’t that shocking. But Holmes held his own at left tackle against pass-rush demon Aldon Smith, while right tackle Schraeder did the same against Ahmad Brooks. Schrader fared well against Smith, too.

Holmes had a couple of false starts in the first half, but he settled down in the second half and competed with Smith. Bad technique seemed to cause Schraeder to fall on his back during one play, but he quickly shook it off.

"I thought Ryan Schraeder continued to show improvement, as an undrafted rookie getting his second start on 'Monday Night Football,'" Smith said. "I thought he did a nice job. He battled. He battled against a very good front seven."

The Falcons need to find five players capable of battling each and every week. Hawley looks like a keeper at center, while left guard Justin Blalock has been the only offensive lineman to keep his starting job throughout the season. Schraeder continues to show promise as the right tackle of the future, while the Falcons hope to get left tackle Sam Baker back healthy next season after knee surgery.

The coaches still believe Holmes has a bright future despite his obvious struggles. And the fact that Harland Gunn played 45 snaps at left guard against the 49ers, compared with 27 for Konz, is telling in terms of Konz’s status after losing his job at center.

If the line manages to string together back-to-back strong performances, the coaches truly would have something to build upon. And the Falcons finish the season against another one of league’s top defensive fronts in the Carolina Panthers.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers lead the Atlanta Falcons, 14-10.

Here are some notes at halftime:

" Matt Ryan threw yet another interception when he tried to force a ball to tight end Tony Gonzalez with three defenders around. Ryan now has five interceptions in his last two games. He had three interceptions through the first six games.

" Speaking of Gonzalez, he caught a pass in his 203rd consecutive game in the first half, the longest active streak in the NFL. He scored a 17-yard touchdown near the end of the first half, his team-leading fourth touchdown reception of the season. Gonzalez has no problem getting behind the coverage of Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.

" Steven Jackson looks a lot better running the ball for the Falcons. He has a modest 34 yards on nine carries, but Jackson continues to run hard. He even pushed teammate Justin Blalock out of the way on one play. Jackson’s longest run is eight yards. He also did a masterful job picking up the blitz on one play.

" Cornerback Asante Samuel left the game twice after getting banged up with injuries. The last came near the end of the half when Samuel was pushed out of bounds. He walked off the field under his own power, and Robert McClain entered the game as the extra defensive backs along with rookies Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford.

" It has been an up-and-down half for Trufant. He recorded his first-career interception while picking off a deep ball by Cam Newton. But Trufant also was whistled for two pass-interference penalties. On the second one, Falcons coach Mike Smith tried to tell the officials that the ball was tipped. Fellow rookie Alford had an amazing interception at the end of the half, tip-toeing before going out of bounds.
Jacquizz RodgersScott Cunningham/Getty ImagesThe Falcons couldn't get Jacquizz Rodgers into the end zone on the final play of the first half.
ATLANTA -- One yard.

That's all that stood between the Atlanta Falcons and rebounding from a dismal 2013 start.

One yard might have given them much-needed momentum going into the bye week. One yard might have given fans hope the team would sneak right back into the playoff picture.

Instead, Monday night ended with one resounding thud.

There were a variety of reasons why the Falcons suffered their third straight defeat, falling to 1-4 with a 30-28 loss to the New York Jets, who kicked the game-winning field goal as time expired. Some folks will put the blame on head coach Mike Smith, particularly after he decided against going for a field goal with a second left before halftime.

Smith admitted, in hindsight, maybe settling for three would have been the best option. But he believed his team could get the one yard necessary for a touchdown. He expressed faith in his offense, faith in his quarterback, faith in his offensive line.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan, Quinton Coples
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesMatt Ryan was only sacked twice, but he felt the pressure from the Jets.
Those out there not upset with Smith are certainly pointing fingers at each and every offensive lineman for not helping Jacquizz Rodgers pick up that yard on fourth-and-goal. Truth be told, there's no reason to call out the linemen on this one. They pointed fingers at themselves.

"Probably would have been better if we had gotten a better push," right guard Garrett Reynolds said. "I don't know exactly what happened. I haven't watched it. But we didn't get in there."

Based on the replay, it appeared at least two front-line Falcons got beat on the play. Joe Hawley, the backup center who lined up as an extra lineman in the tight end spot, seemed to miss his block and allow penetration to Jets defender Quinton Coples. Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood appeared to get overpowered by Jets defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, who was credited with dropping Rodgers for no gain.

"What did I see? I was just trying to block my guy," Trueblood said. "I wish I would have done a better job. If I would [have gotten] my man, [Rodgers] would have scored."

Owning up to the mistakes is the first step. Correcting those errors is the next phase for the much-maligned offensive line.

The front five have been the object of much criticism since an ugly showing in the preseason. This line underwent a major facelift from last season with center Todd McClure retiring and right tackle Tyson Clabo being released, then signing with the Miami Dolphins. The Falcons were prepared to start Mike Johnson in place of Clabo until Johnson went down for the remainder of the season with a broken leg and dislocated ankle.

Then left tackle Sam Baker, who was stellar last season, went down with an injury in Week 4 against the New England Patriots, which forced demoted right tackle Lamar Holmes to take over at left tackle alongside left guard Justin Blalock, center Peter Konz, Reynolds and Trueblood.

The makeshift line has had its struggles. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter compensated by orchestrating plays to help quarterback Matt Ryan release the ball quicker to avoid pressure.

Still, Ryan has been sacked at key times this season, including against the Patriots when Holmes allowed Ryan to get sacked in the red zone. On Monday night, Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson beat Trueblood and Reynolds, swooping in for a sack-fumble play on Ryan. The turnover led to a Nick Folk field goal.

The line must have gotten a pep talk from offensive line coach Pat Hill at halftime Monday night. The performance in the second half was much better, particularly in terms of clearing holes in the running game. Rodgers had two red-zone touchdown runs in the second half. And Ryan didn't get sacked in the fourth quarter, when he completed 12 of 18 passes for 122 yards and a touchdown.

Regardless, that one yard the Falcons couldn't pick up before halftime might stick with them the entire season. Still, Ryan refused to blame the line.

"I thought they did a good job," he said. "I thought they fought the entire night. It's a good defense that we went against, specifically a very good front seven. And I thought our guys stepped up to the challenge.

"We ran the ball really effectively in the red zone. We just didn't run it effectively on that one play."

The Falcons don't have much of a choice but to ride with the offensive linemen they have now. Getting Baker back healthy might help, but he struggled when he was in the lineup. There aren't too many quality linemen sitting on the streets, and the Falcons have no current interest in recently released tackle Max Starks. Plus the organization still has high hopes for Holmes developing into a Pro Bowl-caliber tackle down the road.

Building toward the future is great, but the Falcons have to be more concerned about the present. If they have any thoughts of rebounding from this dismal 1-4 start, the line has to hold up its end. If it doesn't, the critics will continue to feast on the entire group.

"We always say we're all we got; we're all we need," Reynolds said. "All these people out here saying stuff about us. That's OK. That's their opinion. They don't know what we do. They don't know how hard we work. We have to take it on ourselves to continue to get better. We're a team. We're going to stick together."
Atlanta Falcons left guard Justin Blalock was brutally honest when asked to assess Miami Dolphins pass rush demon Cameron Wake.

"He's pretty damn good, obviously," Blalock said of Wake. "He's one of the elite pass-rushers in this league. And I'm glad I don't have to play tackle out there."

Blalock said the latter while holding in his laughter, but containing Wake will be no joke. The task of slowing down Wake is likely to fall on veteran newcomer Jeremy Trueblood, who is slated to start at right tackle for the depleted Falcons on Sunday after signing with the team Sept. 3.

[+] EnlargeCameron Wake
Joe Rimkus Jr./Miami Herald/MCTContaining Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake will be a high priority for the Falcons on Sunday.
Starting left tackle Sam Baker is out with knee/foot issues, meaning Lamar Holmes will switch to left tackle after starting the first two games at right tackle.

Holmes became a starter after Mike Johnson suffered a season-ending broken left leg and dislocated left ankle. And had it not been for salary-cap concerns, Tyson Clabo might have been the starting right tackle for the Falconson Sunday rather than the starting right tackle for the opposing Dolphins.

Confused yet? That's exactly how Wake might make the Falcons' offensive line feel Sunday. He has 2.5 of his team's nine sacks through two games to go with a handful of quarterback hits. Wake earned his sack total in a Week 1 win over the Browns. He had 15 sacks last season and has 45.5 in 64 career games.

"All in all, you just have to be ready for whatever he throws at you," Holmes said about Wake. "His overall ability just to play the game just makes him such a good player."

Statistics would indicate Wake might have his way. The much-maligned Falcons offensive line has struggled to keep pressure off quarterback Matt Ryan, who was sacked three times in a season-opening loss to the Saints and twice during last week's win over the Rams. According to numbers compiled by Pro Football Focus, the Falcons rank second-to-last in the NFL in cumulative pass-blocking (minus-12.4). Baker had the lowest grade among 68 offensive tackles (minus-12) while Holmes stood 62nd (minus-3.9), according to PFF rankings.

Holmes might not be matched up on Wake much Sunday -- Wake typically lines up on the side of the right tackle -- but Holmes contends he has learned from his early-season struggles.

"You take some of it personal, but you also have to take some of it with a grain of salt," Holmes said. "We've got to keep Matt clean, keep him upright, keep the pocket wide so he can make the throws that he needs to make to get down the field."

Come Sunday, the Falcons won't expect Trueblood, Holmes or anybody else to neutralize Wake one-on-one. Anticipate double-teaming and chipping, when applicable. Ryan has to get the ball out quick, which he has shown the ability to do consistently. And the screen game to players such as receiver Julio Jones and running back Jacquizz Rodgers has to be effective, especially against a Dolphins team that likes to blitz.

Rodgers, set to get more touches with Steven Jackson (hamstring) out, actually hasn't allowed a single pressure in 14 pass-blocking snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. That's a great complement against a blitzing team. But much of the burden in contending with constant pressure falls on the offensive line.

"I don't think we could be any more focused on keeping Matt clean," Blalock said. "It's not a perfect world. It's not going to always happen. But that's at the forefront of our thoughts going into any game, regardless of how many people we have injured."
The latest installment of #NFLRank is out, and it includes Nos. 41-50 for offense and defense. This segment is filled with NFC South players. Let’s take a look.

Offense

43. Tampa Bay guard Carl Nicks

Stats & Info: Nicks missed nine games last season, his first with the Buccaneers after signing a five-year, $47.5 million deal as a free agent last offseason. Nicks earned more than $24 million last season, which ranked fourth in the NFL behind only Drew Brees, Vincent Jackson and Mario Williams, according to the Roster Management System.

Yasinskas comment: There is obvious concern about his health, because he has a staph infection and is coming off a major foot injury. But, when he’s healthy, Nicks might be the best guard in the league.

44. New Orleans guard Jahri Evans

Stats & Info: Evans has played 5,242 offensive snaps since 2008, ranking second in the NFL behind only Justin Blalock. A first-team All-Pro each of the past four seasons, Evans has started every game for the Saints in the Drew Brees era (since 2006).

Yasinskas comment: Evans is the anchor of an offensive line that has been good for a long time. Other players have come and gone, but Evans has been the constant.

45. Tampa Bay receiver Vincent Jackson

Stats & Info: Jackson was Tampa Bay's safety valve on third down last season, ranking fourth in the NFL in third-down targets behind only Brandon Marshall, Wes Welker and Calvin Johnson. On third down, Jackson had 20 catches resulting in a first down, ranking behind only Roddy White.

Yasinskas comment: He joined Tampa Bay last season and instantly became quarterback Josh Freeman’s favorite target. He and Freeman should be even more comfortable after a year together.

Defense

41. Tampa Bay safety Dashon Goldson

Stats & Info: Goldson defended the most passes (10) when lined up as a safety in 2012. Eight of them were thrown less than 20 yards downfield, which also led all safeties.

Yasinskas comment: The Bucs knew they were getting a talented player when they signed Goldson away from San Francisco. They also have discovered Goldson brings even more to the table. He already has emerged as a defensive leader.

NFC South to date:

Offense

43. Nicks

44. Evans

45. Jackson

51. Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin

65. New Orleans wide receiver Marques Colston

70. Carolina center Ryan Kalil

71. Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith

86. New Orleans guard Ben Grubbs

87. Atlanta running back Steven Jackson

98. Carolina offensive tackle Jordan Gross

100. Carolina quarterback Cam Newton

Defense

41. Goldson

51. Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy

55. Carolina defensive end Charles Johnson

80. Atlanta cornerback Asante Samuel

86. Atlanta linebacker Sean Weatherspoon

93. Atlanta safety William Moore

96. Atlanta defensive end Osi Umenyiora

97. Tampa Bay safety Mark Barron

98. Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David

Links: Darrelle Revis stars in Bucs' video

June, 28, 2013
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Three of the NFC South's head coaches were ranked in the top 20 by the Houston Chronicle's Lance Zierlein, who he believes are "the best coaches headed into 2013."

Atlanta Falcons

Falcons offensive tackle Justin Blalock made a special appearance at the Atlanta Symphony Thursday night. The Atlanta Symphony tweeted a photo: "A perfect end to a perfect night. Justin Blalock conducts the last piece of the night." And Blalock put the experience into his own words, "Just conducted and played with the Atlanta symphony orchestra. Anything is possible!!"

No player from Atlanta’s defense will show up on this year’s Top 100 list, but the Falcons’ four selections who did make it demonstrate a high level of respect for the offense.

Carolina Panthers

Defensive end Charles Johnson "has the potential to put together a season that screams Pro Bowl," writes Bryan Strickland of the team's website.

Deidra Gray, the woman convicted of murdering former Panther Fred Lane, is running a summer camp in Raleigh, N.C.

New Orleans Saints

Quarterback Drew Brees talks about the offseason, training camps and more with SiriusXM NFL Radio. "The thing that I am most upset about last year was that our record was not indicative of the effort by our coaching staff in Sean’s (Payton) absence," Brees said.

The Times-Picayune continues its series on the Saints’ top 25 players, with No. 16: Malcolm Jenkins.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The New York market has not easily forgotten about Darrelle Revis. The Star-Ledger reports on the Bucs' new star and his promotional video that begs the question if Jets fans have finally let go of Revis?

Tampa Bay Buccaneer players, cheerleaders and mascot Captain Fear appeared Thursday at a field near Kimbell Elementary School in Tampa to present a $15,000 check to a local youth football team whose locker room and storage unit had been burglarized and vandalized.

The team's website examines the shape of the Bucs' 90-man roster.
The Atlanta Falcons have been fairly active this offseason and are likely to have several new starters next season. At the moment, here’s how I see Atlanta’s starting lineup:

OFFENSE

WR Roddy White

LT Sam Baker

LG Justin Blalock

C Peter Konz

RG Garrett Reynolds

RT Lamar Holmes

TE Tony Gonzalez

WR Julio Jones

QB Matt Ryan

RB Steven Jackson

FB Bradie Ewing

DEFENSE

DE Osi Umenyiora

DT Corey Peters

DT Jonathan Babineaux

DE Kroy Biermann

OLB Stephen Nicholas

MLB Akeem Dent

OLB Sean Weatherspoon

CB Asante Samuel

CB Robert McClain

SS William Moore

FS Thomas DeCoud

Notes: I think it is almost a certainty that the Falcons will be bringing in another cornerback late in free agency or in the draft. McClain might be best suited as a third corner. There’s flexibility on the offensive line. There’s an outside chance Joe Hawley could factor in at center, allowing Konz to start at right guard. If that happens, Reynolds could slide out to compete with Holmes at right tackle. The Falcons also could invest an early-round pick on an offensive lineman.
No NFC South player will take up a larger share of his team’s salary cap in 2013 than New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees.

He’s counting $17.4 million, which easily places him well above anyone else in the division. Let’s take a look at which NFC South players are counting more than $5 million against the cap in 2013.
  • Brees $17.4 million
  • Matt Ryan, quarterback, Falcons, $12 million

Falcons' top cap figures

February, 25, 2013
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As we approach the start of the league year (March 12), let’s take a look at the highest scheduled salary-cap figures for each team for the 2013 season.

We’ll list the players with cap figures (not actual base salaries) of $5 million or more. We’ll start with the Atlanta Falcons.

They are just slightly under the projected salary cap, so the Falcons are likely to release some players and restructure some contracts in order to keep some of their own free agents and pursue players from outside. Here are the top cap figures for the Falcons:

Looking at Falcons' offensive snaps

February, 12, 2013
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Considering injuries played such a big part in holding him back the first four years of his career, Atlanta tackle Sam Baker reached a remarkable milestone in the 2012 season. The left tackle did not miss a single snap.

Baker participated in all of Atlanta’s 1,060 offensive plays. So did guard Justin Blalock.

Let’s take a look at the rest of the playing time percentages for the rest of Atlanta’s offense.

Saluting NFC South's ironmen

February, 11, 2013
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Atlanta safety Thomas DeCoud was one snap short of being one of only a handful of defensive players to participate in 100 percent of their team’s snaps last season.

DeCoud was on the field for 1,021 of Atlanta’s 1,022 defensive snaps. Green Bay safety Morgan Burnett and St. Louis linebacker James Laurinaitis were the only players in the NFL to take part in 100 percent of their team’s defensive plays, according to snap counts used to calculate playing-time incentives.

Tampa Bay safety Mark Barron was the next most active player in the NFC South, sitting out only four snaps and taking part in 99.63 percent of his team’s defensive snaps, and teammate Ronde Barber was right behind him at 99.35 percent.

Other defensive ironmen in the NFC South included New Orleans linebacker Curtis Lofton (98.59 percent), Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David (98.24 percent), New Orleans safety Roman Harper (96.48 percent), New Orleans cornerback Patrick Robinson (96.13 percent), Carolina safety Charles Godfrey (93.72 percent), New Orleans defensive end Cameron Jordan (91.29 percent) and Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson (91.1 percent).

It’s far more common for offensive players to take part in 100 percent of their team’s snaps. Thirty-six offensive players (34 linemen and two quarterbacks) accomplished that last season. Atlanta tackle Sam Baker, Atlanta guard Justin Blalock, New Orleans guard Ben Grubbs and New Orleans center Brian De La Puente each participated in 100 percent of their team’s offensive snaps.

Tampa Bay’s Erik Lorig led all NFC South players in special-teams snaps, taking part in 80.71 percent.

Over the next few days, I’ll bring you complete playing-time breakdowns for all four NFC South teams.

Atlanta's offensive playing time

January, 8, 2013
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We already showed you the playing-time breakdown for the Atlanta Falcons defense.

Now, let’s switch over to the offensive side, where the Falcons had 1,073 plays. Here’s the complete breakdown of how many snaps each offensive player got, followed by my thoughts: My thoughts: In the final analysis, the Falcons had Rodgers on the field about as much as Turner. Limiting Turner’s playing time was a goal at the start of the season and Rodgers seemed to gain more trust from the coaching staff as time went on. … Konz was the only member of the rookie class to get much playing time. Although some fans thought Holmes had a chance to start, the team viewed him as a project. … Baker played every snap and stayed healthy for an entire season. He turned in a solid year and that probably means the Falcons will make a fairly strong effort to keep him from leaving as a free agent.

NFC South wrap: Year of the Falcons

December, 27, 2012
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NFC Season Wraps: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five things to know and my all-division team.

Division MVP: Matt Ryan, Falcons. You can make a case for him as the MVP of the entire league. With one game remaining in his fifth season, Ryan already has career highs in completions (394), passing yards (4,481) and touchdown passes (31). His 69.0 completion percentage also is far above his career average.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Josh D. Weiss/US PresswireFalcons QB Matt Ryan has made a case to be the league's MVP.
But the most impressive thing about Ryan’s season might be the 13 wins he already has led the Falcons to. It all has come in a season in which the Falcons have overhauled their offense to make the passing game a priority. With the running game posing almost no threat, Ryan has carried this offense.

Biggest disappointment: The Carolina Panthers. Back in the preseason, the Panthers were a trendy pick as a team on the rise. The media, myself included, thought quarterback Cam Newton would only build on a fantastic rookie season and that Carolina had fixed its defense. Fans got giddy, and even center Ryan Kalil joined the fray, taking out a full-page ad in The Charlotte Observer that promised a Super Bowl victory.

Instead, the Panthers didn’t even come close to making the playoffs. They started so poorly that general manager Marty Hurney was fired in October and coach Ron Rivera clearly is on the hot seat. The current three-game winning streak might get Rivera another year. But you have to wonder why a team with this much talent didn’t open the season playing the way it is now.

The story that never stopped: The New Orleans Saints dominated the offseason headlines for the entire league (maybe the entire sports world) when the NFL exposed their three-year bounty program. Coach Sean Payton drew a season-long suspension, general manager Mickey Loomis got eight games, and assistant head coach Joe Vitt was suspended for the first six games. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma was given a season-long suspension and defensive end Will Smith was hit with a four-game suspension.

While all that was going on, fans also started sweating as contract negotiations between quarterback Drew Brees and the team dragged on far too long. Brees finally signed, and Vilma and Smith tied things up in the appeals process before eventually having their suspensions vacated. All the drama took a toll as the Saints started 0-4 before getting on a bit of a roll and briefly entering the playoff picture. But the soap opera isn’t over. During the season, it was revealed that the NFL had voided the contract extension Payton signed last year. He could end up being a free agent when he is reinstated.

Has the window closed? Even if Payton does return to the Saints, they might not automatically be the winning team they were the previous three seasons. This team will face major salary-cap issues in the offseason, and veterans such as Vilma, Smith and Roman Harper could be gone.

The defense needs lots of work up front and more help in the secondary. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod is eligible to be a free agent, and the wide receivers are getting older. No matter who is coaching the Saints, they’re going to need some major work in the offseason.

The turnaround that wasn’t: Right from the start of the season, it appeared that new Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano was having a huge positive impact. At first, the Bucs were piling up moral victories by playing close against good teams. Then they started winning and got to 6-4; the playoffs looked like a possibility and Josh Freeman was looking like a franchise quarterback.

But things have gone horribly wrong the past five games. Freeman suddenly reverted to his 2011 form, the pass defense has been ridiculously bad, and the Bucs are having a second straight miserable December. That makes you wonder whether the team is buying into Schiano’s hard-line style. It works for guys such as Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin because they win. But when a coach like that is losing, you have to wonder if he’s another Nick Saban or Ray Perkins.

All-Division Team

You will quickly notice that the Falcons dominate the All-NFC South team. That’s largely because they ran away with the division, and winning counts for a lot in my eyes. That’s why I took Julio Jones as the second receiver over Vincent Jackson, Steve Smith and Marques Colston. Those three had stats as good or better than Jones, but his play has helped the Falcons win 13 games so far. I also used that logic in choosing both of Atlanta’s starting cornerbacks, although it certainly helped that the other three teams had major problems at cornerback.


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