NFC South: Kroy Biermann

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.

Power Rankings: No. 6 Atlanta Falcons

September, 17, 2013
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A weekly examination of the Falcons’ ESPN.com Power Ranking:

Preseason: 4 | Last Week: 4 | ESPN.com Power Ranking since 2002

The Atlanta Falcons somehow managed to win a game, but dropped two spots in the rankings. I guess the voters weren’t all that impressed with the victory over the St. Louis Rams.

But a win is a win, and the Falcons got the job done on a day when a bunch of guys were banged up. That’s a sign of a team that belongs in the top 10.

But there may be trouble on the horizon after season-ending injuries to defensive end/linebacker Kroy Biermann and fullback Bradie Ewing. Those guys aren’t superstars, but they’re important role players, and the Falcons could have problems replacing them.

NFC South afternoon update

August, 12, 2013
8/12/13
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Let's take this opportunity to run through some odds and ends from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

The Falcons showed elements of the 3-4 and 4-3 defenses in the preseason opener. Get used to it and get used to seeing Kroy Biermann bounce between defensive end and linebacker. Coach Mike Smith said he wants his defense to be more flexible this year.

The Falcons released their second depth chart, but it doesn’t include any major changes.

Offensive tackles Lamar Holmes and Ryan Schraeder were among the leaders in snaps in the preseason opener. Look for that trend to continue throughout the preseason. After losing Mike Johnson to a season-ending injury, the Falcons have to find out what they’ve got in their young tackles.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Pete Prisco, whose opinion I value and respect as much as anyone’s in the business, said he believes quarterback Cam Newton has matured.

Undrafted free-agent fullback Michael Zordich, who was doing some good things in camp, will be placed on injured reserve after suffering a torn ACL in the preseason opener.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Linebacker Curtis Lofton had to leave Monday morning’s practice early. But coach Sean Payton said Lofton was dealing with dehydration.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Guard Carl Nicks, who missed much of last season with a foot injury, said he expects to make his return to action in Friday’s preseason game at New England. Nicks said he likely will have to play through pain the rest of his career. That’s a bit of a concern when you’re talking about a foot that has to support about 350 pounds.

In this Insider piece, Gary Horton takes a look at key players that are coming back from injuries. Tampa Bay’s Darrelle Revis and Davin Joseph are on the list.
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.

Around the NFC South

August, 4, 2013
8/04/13
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Time for a Sunday morning run through some news and notes from around the division:

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Coach Greg Schiano said bringing in offensive tackle Gabe Carimi came with low risk and could bring a high reward. Carimi worked with Tampa Bay offensive line coach Bob Bostad in college at Wisconsin. Carimi was a first-round pick by Chicago, but that didn’t work out. He has a chance to get his career back on track as a backup to right tackle Demar Dotson.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Running back Travaris Cadet and receiver Joe Morgan each sustained injuries in Saturday’s scrimmage. Coach Sean Payton didn’t have any specifics on the injuries.

Bradley Handwerger writes that outside linebacker Junior Galette looked like a force as a pass rusher in the scrimmage. If Galette can do that in the regular season, Rob Ryan’s defense will have a chance to succeed.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Scott Fowler has a lengthy profile on offensive coordinator Mike Shula. He’s one of the keys to Carolina’s season I think this is the year Shula shows the world he is a good coach. He was in difficult situations when he was Tampa Bay’s offensive coordinator and the University of Alabama’s head coach. I think he’ll succeed because he finally has a lot of talent to work with.

ATLANTA FALCONS

John Manasso writes that it became obvious at Friday night’s scrimmage that Kroy Biermann is competing with Stephen Nicholas at outside linebacker. Biermann has been a defensive end, but the Falcons have been using him mostly at linebacker in camp. Nicholas has been a starter in recent years, but that could be in jeopardy.

Around the NFC South

August, 1, 2013
8/01/13
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Let's take a run through the top morning headlines from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

D. Orlando Ledbetter writes that defensive end Kroy Biermann has been spending a lot of time with the linebackers, and defensive end Osi Umenyiora has said he’s learning to play standing up. Are the Falcons switching to a 3-4 defense? I don’t know that they’re ready to give up on the 4-3 as their base, but I think we could see a fair amount of 3-4 fronts.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Although the Panthers drafted Edmund Kugbila and have looked at some veterans, Geoff Hangartner still appears to be the front-runner for the starting job at right guard. Kugbila has been dealing with injuries and it seems unlikely he’ll be able to beat out Hangartner anytime soon.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Mike Triplett writes that undrafted rookie cornerback Rod Sweeting has been making a positive impression so far in camp. With Patrick Robinson dealing with an injury, Sweeting has gotten increased reps. He’s been making the most of them and could have a chance at a roster spot.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Wide receiver Vincent Jackson is known as a deep threat after averaging 19.2 yards per catch last season. But Jackson wants to be known as more. He wants to be known as a complete receiver, who also can go over the middle and catch balls in traffic. Jackson also did some of that last year and has shown he’s versatile. But Jackson still is one of the best deep threats in the league and the Bucs aren’t going to stop trying to take advantage of that.

Around the NFC South

July, 28, 2013
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SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Before I head out to watch the Carolina Panthers in their first padded practice, let’s take a run through the headlines from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Kroy Biermann isn’t the only Atlanta defensive end getting some work at linebacker. Osi Umenyiora has been spending some time standing up. Biermann might be used in that capacity a lot, but I think the Falcons are probably just experimenting a bit with Umenyiora.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Jonathan Jones takes an in-depth look at how the Panthers do extensive background checks on players before they draft them. The Panthers always have looked at character, but owner Jerry Richardson made sure the team put more emphasis on it after the Rae Carruth saga.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Running back Mark Ingram said he wants to be more productive in his third season. I think there’s a good chance of that happening. Coach Sean Payton has said the Saints want to be more efficient at running the ball, and I think the Saints want to make sure Ingram, a first-round pick in 2011, gets more carries.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Co-chairman Bryan Glazer said ticket sales are going well and he’s confident the Bucs won’t have as many home games blacked out locally as they have in recent years. Tampa Bay had 19 home games blacked out in recent years.

Although he’s been very limited so far in camp because of a toe injury, guard Carl Nicks said he has no doubt he’ll be ready for the regular-season opener.
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, 16, 2013
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Before we get to our afternoon roundup, I’d just like to offer my condolences to the family of Jon Richardson, formerly a president for the Carolina Panthers, who passed away Tuesday. Richardson fought his illness for a long time and he did it with courage and dignity. He’ll be missed.
  • NFL.com ranks the Atlanta receiving corps (including tight ends) No. 1 in the NFL. Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez are among the best at what they do. The only knock you can put on Atlanta’s receivers is that Harry Douglas hasn’t produced more out of the slot.
  • For those still trying to figure out how Darrelle Revis will impact Tampa Bay’s defensive backfield, ESPN Stats & Information has a look at how the New York Jets fared with Revis and without him after he was injured.
  • In this Insider postInsider, Gary Horton lists the 10 most versatile players in the NFC. Atlanta defensive end Kroy Biermann and New Orleans running back Darren Sproles are among them. Sproles’ versatility has been well documented. I think we’re going to see the Falcons try to make even more use out of Biermann’s unique skill set this season.

NFC South afternoon update

July, 11, 2013
7/11/13
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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.’’
Football Outsiders is doing a league-wide series of posts called "Red Flags," which take a look at the biggest remaining issue facing each team. Today’s Insider postInsider is on the NFC South and I’ll break it up into four smaller posts to explore the red flags for each team.

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

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

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

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

The Falcons don’t have the cap room to add high-priced veterans. They’re going to throw their young defensive ends out there and see if someone steps up.

NFC South evening update

May, 8, 2013
5/08/13
7:17
PM ET
Let's take a look at some odds and ends from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

John Manasso throws out the possibility of defensive end Kroy Biermann getting some playing time at outside linebacker, particularly when the Falcons use a 3-4 set. The coaching staff hasn’t mentioned anything about this yet. But it makes plenty of sense. Biermann is very versatile and could bring the threat of a pass rush from an outside linebacker spot.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Cam Newton said he’s not envious that Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick took the spotlight off him. Instead, Newton said the success of the other young quarterbacks helps to motivate him. Newton is as talented as any of those guys. If the Panthers can figure out the right way to use him, Newton will be back in the spotlight in a hurry.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

In this lengthy feature on rookie John Jenkins, Larry Holder points out that the defensive tackle’s weight has fluctuated to as high as 360 pounds. Coach Sean Payton already has said he wants Jenkins to play at about 340 pounds. That could provide a very nice anchor to the middle of the Saints’ new 3-4 scheme.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

The big news here, of course, is that defensive back Ronde Barber has decided to retire. But, in other news, Mark Cook reports that the Bucs are not interested in veteran defensive ends Dwight Freeney or John Abraham. I think there was a lot of wishful thinking about those two from fans. But bringing in veterans doesn’t fit the Bucs’ profile, especially at defensive end where they have high draft picks invested in Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers.

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