NFC South: Lamar Holmes

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.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Lamar Holmes has made some strides since the start of the season, but Sunday’s game marked a noticeable step back for the Atlanta Falcons left tackle.

Offensive line coach Pat Hill warned Holmes he was in for quite a challenge against Redskins relentless pass-rusher Brian Orakpo. Well, Orakpo finished with 1.5 sacks, two quarterback hits, and countless pressures on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.

[+] EnlargeLamar Holmes
AP Photo/Joe RobbinsTackle Lamar Holmes has been learning on the job this season.
"Orakpo, he’s a good player. I can’t take anything away from him," Holmes said. "He came off and did some good things. I did some good things. But I could have held up a little bit better.

"I really won’t know exactly what happened until we get back and watch the film. I’ll just assess myself and see what I could have done better, see the areas that I need to work on."

Holmes was whistled for holding on Orakpo’s second-quarter sack of Ryan, but the penalty was declined. Holmes also was penalized 15 yards for clipping Orakpo on Ryan’s short pass to Jason Snelling late in the third quarter.

"Actually, I didn’t think it was a clip," Holmes said. "I thought my head was going toward my goal line. I tried to cut my guy. They saw it as a clip. It’s their choice to make that call, and they made the call. So there’s nothing I can really say about it."

The Falcons still say Holmes has a bright future, which is why they continue to express faith in the former third-round pick from Southern Mississippi. He began the season as a first-year starter at right tackle who was trying to work his way into playing shape. After the Falcons lost starting left tackle Sam Baker to a season-ending knee injury, Holmes became Ryan’s primary blindside protector.

Holmes has two more games remaining to impress the organization and possibly earn consideration to become the left tackle of the future. Head coach Mike Smith said there are no immediate plans to move Baker to right tackle, but such a move might be determined by how Baker’s knee responds after rehab.

The Falcons currently hold the No. 5 overall pick the NFL draft, and it's fair to wonder if they might consider drafting Texas A&M left tackle Jake Matthews, considering how much Ryan has been hit this season.

As for Holmes, he still has to contend with at least one elite pass-rusher in San Francisco’s Aldon Smith next Monday night.

"Really, I just have to continue to grow," Holmes said. "This year, I’ve really learned a lot; a lot of different things on how to play this game and how to go about being a pro. I just have to continue to build on it. And hopefully, I can have [a] successful and great career at the end of it."
Roddy White and Sam ShieldsAP PhotoCan Sam Shields and the Packers snap their slump against Roddy White and Atlanta on Sunday?
Last season, the Atlanta Falcons were one quarter away from reaching the Super Bowl, and the Green Bay Packers reached the divisional round of the playoffs.

Eleven months later, the teams have a combined record of 8-15-1.

That’s why the NFL moved the game, which was originally scheduled for prime time on Sunday, to a 1 p.m. ET start.

ESPN Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and ESPN Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure break down the matchup:

Rob Demovsky: Vaughn, it’s hard to believe the Falcons are in playing-out-the-string mode with all of the talent they have on offense. Obviously, injuries have been an issue, especially losing a talented receiver like Julio Jones. But unlike the Packers, they didn’t lose their quarterback. How come Matt Ryan hasn’t been able to be a difference-maker?

Vaughn McClure: Well, it’s been hard for Matt Ryan to be himself, playing under duress most of the season. The Falcons have ranked in the top 10 in sacks allowed per pass attempt, but that’s only because Ryan has taken shorter drops and delivered the ball quicker. He has still been sacked a career-high 30 times and has been hit countless other times. In the past two games alone -- against the Saints and Bills -- Ryan was sacked 11 times. True, being without Jones hasn’t helped Ryan’s cause. But also, Roddy White hasn’t been at full strength all season. Without Harry Douglas or Tony Gonzalez, Ryan would really be in trouble.

Speaking of quarterbacks, can you explain the different scenarios for the Packers at the position come Sunday, based on Aaron Rodgers’ injury status?

Demovsky: Well, it sure looks like Rodgers will be out for at least another week. This was the game he was really targeting to come back for, thinking he could lead them to the playoffs if he got back for the last four games. But his collarbone did not check out well enough Tuesday to be cleared. Even though he plans to practice this week, it doesn’t look good for him to play. I was a little surprised that coach Mike McCarthy appears to be going with Matt Flynn again. Flynn was completely ineffective in the Thanksgiving debacle at Detroit, and quite frankly, his arm strength does not look good. He didn’t have a lot of zip on the ball indoors against the Lions, and it sure won’t get any easier to throw in the cold, wintry conditions at Lambeau Field. I wondered if he might go back to Scott Tolzien, who looked good in a couple of his appearances but threw too many interceptions.

You mentioned pass protection -- the Packers had issues of their own against the Lions. Flynn was sacked seven times, but on at least a couple of those, he held onto the ball too long. What has been the Falcons’ biggest problem in pass protection?

McClure: The biggest problem has been the offensive line, simply. The guys up front haven’t held up their end of the bargain. They’ve been physically dominated at times, particularly in the loss to the Seahawks. The Falcons lost left tackle Sam Baker to season-ending knee surgery, and Baker wasn’t the same player he was last season before being placed on injured reserve. Left tackle Lamar Holmes, the guy trusted to protect Ryan’s blind side, admitted being out of shape at the beginning of the season and is still experiencing growing pains. Center Peter Konz, right guard Garrett Reynolds, right tackle Jeremy Trueblood and Holmes have all been benched at point during the season. Such turnover hasn’t helped the group develop any cohesion. And now, it has to face a capable Packers defense.

I know Clay Matthews was injured this season, but is he back to the dominant player he was when I covered the NFC North?

Demovsky: He’s starting to look like the player you remember, Vaughn. In his first game back from his broken thumb, he wasn’t a factor,because he had to wear that giant club cast. But the next week against the Giants, he was able to play with a much smaller cast. Ever since then, he’s been a playmaker again. In the past three games, he has three sacks and a forced fumble. The problem is he’s not getting a ton of help. And even when they make big plays like they did against the Lions last week, when they forced four turnovers, the offense can’t take advantage of them. Even with Matthews back on the field, the defense has been in a free fall over the past month.

About the only thing the Packers have been able to count on has been their running game, and even that has been a little up and down. But rookie Eddie Lacy looks like a force with 806 yards rushing in basically 10 games. I’m sure the Falcons will load up the box to stop him like most teams have tried to do since Rodgers got hurt. Do you think they can stop him?

McClure: No. Not at all. They struggled to contain speedy backs like Buffalo’s C.J. Spiller (149 rushing yards) just like they’ve struggled against powerful backs like Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch (145 yards). Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan counted 28 missed tackles for his defense over the past two games, which is unacceptable, particularly when they occur in the second level and lead to explosive plays. Although rookie linebacker Paul Worrilow has been a tackling machine, he can’t do it alone. Like the offensive line, the defense has been dominated physically at times. Lacy’s bruising style is the last thing the Falcons want to see. The Falcons are tied for 29th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game.

Rapid Reaction: Atlanta Falcons

November, 21, 2013
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ATLANTA -- A few thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons' 17-13 loss to New Orleans Saints on Thursday night at the Georgia Dome:

Showing fight: Tight end Tony Gonzalez promised the Falcons would come out with some fight despite entering the game with a 2-8 record. He was right. The Falcons definitely put together a spirited effort against their NFC South rival. It showed from the start when the defense forced Drew Brees and the Saints into a three-and-out to begin the game, including two run-stuffing plays. And the offense played with just as much enthusiasm, as evident with Steven Jackson’s 1-yard touchdown flip -- his first rushing TD with the team. Despite some hiccups in defensive coverage and pass protection, the Falcons competed for almost the entire game, though the defense seemed to just wear down at the very end. It wasn’t truly over until Matt Bryant missed a 52-yard field-goal try in the final minutes. The Falcons needed to play with the same type of fire the previous four weeks. They’ve now lost five in a row.

Stock watch: Undrafted rookie receiver Darius Johnson’s stock skyrocketed and plummeted all in the same game. He played like a veteran in the first half, catching a team-high five passes for 65 yards. He almost had a touchdown, but a replay review showed he was down at the 1-yard line. As good as Johnson looked, though, he still made some rookie mistakes. He had a key drop across the middle while wide open on a third-and-2 play in the third quarter. Then in the fourth, Johnson fumbled the ball away after a catch, killing a Falcons drive into the red zone.

Third downer: When the Saints converted 5 of 5 third-down tries on their second drive of the game, you figured it would be a bad night for the Falcons' defense. It was. Atlanta gave up way too much room on third down, allowing the Saints to march at will. Third-down defense and surrendering explosive plays have been a problem for the Falcons all season. They also gave up a 44-yard touchdown from Brees to tight end Jimmy Graham.

Line change: Once again, the Falcons' offensive line experienced a change. Garrett Reynolds, who regained his starting spot at right guard after being benched last week, was benched again in favor of center/guard Peter Konz. There might be some more changes next time out after the Falcons allowed Matt Ryan to be sacked a season-high five times. Left tackle Lamar Holmes didn’t have a good day going up against right defensive end Cameron Jordan (2.5 sacks), and Saints left defensive end Akiem Hicks had a field day against the Falcons' linemen, too.

Bad call? Speaking of Hicks, he wrapped Ryan up high and twisted the quarterback to the ground in the second quarter on a play that appeared to be a roughing penalty. Falcons coach Mike Smith was livid that no call was made. And the sack essentially cost the Falcons a touchdown as they settled for Bryant’s 39-yard field goal. A touchdown there might have changed the complexion of the game. Smith and the Falcons are sure to reach out to the league about the officiating.

What's next: The Falcons have a few extra days to prepare for their trip to Toronto to face the Buffalo Bills. Buffalo beat the New York Jets 37-14 in Week 11 and has a bye this week. In other words, nothing gets any easier for the Falcons moving forward.

Upon Further Review: Falcons Week 9

November, 4, 2013
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A review of five hot issues from the Atlanta Falcons' 34-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers:

Matty iced: It's unusual to see Matt Ryan put together consecutive poor performances like he did against Arizona and Carolina. Ryan had three interceptions Sunday after throwing four in a loss to the Cardinals the week before. Some might blame unproven receiver Drew Davis' route running for Ryan's pick-six on Sunday, but Ryan probably shouldn't have thrown it. On the other two, Ryan tried to squeeze the ball in with multiple defenders covering his target. It looks like Ryan is trying to overcompensate without Julio Jones and Roddy White in the lineup. "Really, all three of the interceptions, I think, are a case of being aggressive and trying to get the ball in spots," Ryan said. "But I don't see it as pressing. I think that, [I'm] trying to give our guys opportunities. I didn't put the first one in a very good spot. And the second one, the ball kind of just bounced around. ... I've just got to be more efficient with what I'm doing and know that, at the quarterback position when you're playing in tight games, if you turned the football over, it's going to be tough to overcome."

[+] EnlargeAtlanta's Tony Gonzalez
AP Photo/Mike McCarnTony Gonzalez had five catches for 77 yards and this touchdown in the first half.
Future on the line: The Falcons made a statement by sliding Lamar Holmes back over to right tackle upon left tackle Sam Baker's return to the lineup. Holmes had started on the left side in place of Baker the previous three games but supplanted veteran Jeremy Trueblood on Sunday. It was Trueblood who took Holmes' starting job at right tackle in Week 4. The Falcons firmly believe Holmes has Pro Bowl potential despite his noticeable mistakes, which included being flagged for illegal formation against the Panthers. The line actually did a solid job pass protecting Sunday while allowing just one sack. But the Falcons' running blocking still needs much work. Holmes, who needs work in both areas, talked about being back on the right side. "I welcome any opportunity they give me to play," he said. "I played decent, for the most part. But I really won't know until we get in there and watch the film."

Foul play: Speaking of Holmes' illegal formation penalty, the Falcons finished with seven penalties for 59 yards on Sunday. The most costly were a holding call on guard Garrett Reynolds that wiped out a Steven Jackson touchdown run and a 12 men on the field penalty whistled against the defense on a third-and-1 play during the drive that ended with Cam Newton's 8-yard touchdown run. "The penalties were critical," coach Mike Smith said. "Those things are unacceptable."

Third downer: Once again, the Falcons failed themselves on third down. Defensively, they allowed the Panthers to convert 8 of 14 third downs (57 percent). The Falcons let Newton be "Superman" on a third-and-12 play when Newton avoided pressure from Osi Umenyiora, Paul Worrilow and Asante Samuel and completed a pass to Steve Smith for 23 yards. On a third-and-8, Desmond Trufant was whistled for pass interference to keep a drive alive. And on a third-and-6, the Panthers picked up 30 yards on that strange play in which Samuel gave up a big gain to receiver Brandon LaFell then caused a fumble that fell into Lafell's hands after Robert Alford couldn't corral it. Offensively, the Falcons were 4-of-10 on third down.

Holding on: Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, who caught a pass in his 203rd consecutive game, torched the Panthers for five receptions for 77 yards and a touchdown in the first half. Gonzalez had just one catch for 4 yards in the second. The Panthers threw every look they could at Gonzalez, but nothing compared to the way middle linebacker Luke Kuechly scored a takedown of Gonzalez in the end zone early in the game. Gonzalez, who later beat Kuechly for a touchdown, had no complaints about the initial play. "I was pushing off a little bit, too," Gonzalez admitted. "Just two pros going at it. And they're going to get physical, too. And the way I feel about it, yeah, they better get physical. Otherwise, I'm going to eat you up." Gonzalez was more concerned about how the offense performed as a whole. "Well, I think I had optimism for good reason because I thought we came out and played pretty well up until the fourth quarter," he said. "The fourth quarter for us was not the way we play football. It was a disaster."
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."
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.
Steven Jackson, Mark IngramGetty ImagesSteven Jackson and Mark Ingram will try to bring more balance to two pass-heavy offenses.
Sean Payton is back to right the wrongs of last season, when his New Orleans Saints went off the rails in his absence. The first test of the season is a fitting one: The Saints open against their hated NFC South rivals, the Atlanta Falcons, who ran away with the division last season even though they split with New Orleans.

Have Payton and new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan fixed that horrid defense of a year ago? Will the Saints have much of a running game? Can the Falcons protect their franchise quarterback and give him time to find his myriad weapons?

ESPN.com NFL columnist Ashley Fox and NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas discuss what Saints and Falcons fans can expect from the latest installment of this heated rivalry.

Fox: He’s back. It is redemption time for Payton after missing a year because of the bounty scandal. I’m sure, given how beloved Payton is in New Orleans, that the Mercedes-Benz Superdome will be so loud it might lift off. I’ve seen different estimates for Payton’s worth. How many wins do you think he’s worth to the Saints?

Yasinskas: I think Payton's presence instantly takes the Saints from a nonplayoff team to a playoff team. His skills as an offensive guru are well known, and that certainly will help. But I think the more subtle benefit to having Payton back is his skill as a motivator. He's a master in that area, and he'll have his team ready for big games. Speaking of changes that came in the offseason, what do you think was the biggest move for the Falcons?

Fox: To me, the biggest change was the addition of Steven Jackson. As you well know, the Falcons struggled to run the ball late last season, when Michael Turner clearly had nothing left in the tank. I know Jackson has hit the age when running backs typically decline, but the Falcons don't need him to carry the load. They're going to pass to get a lead and run to win the game. As long as he can stay healthy, Jackson should be able to do that. How effective do you think the Saints' running game will be?

Yasinskas: That's a very timely question. Several times this offseason, Payton has said he wants more out of his running game. The Saints always are going to be a pass-first team. But if you look back at their Super Bowl year, their running game ranked in the top 10. Payton wants to get back to that, and I believe he has the tools to do that with Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram. I think you'll see more of Ingram this year. He's a guy who needs 10 to 15 carries to get going, and he can bring more balance to the offense. Speaking of balance, the Falcons seem to have plenty of that. How potent is their offense going to be?

Fox: I think they have a chance to be as potent, if not more so, than last season. The newly signed Matt Ryan has all of his toys back -- Roddy White, Julio Jones, Harry Douglas and Tony Gonzalez. He threw for more than 4,700 yards last season and set career highs for completion percentage, attempts and completions. He could break those again this season. It will be interesting to see if the preseason, when the Falcons were flagged for countless penalties, was an aberration. They were the least penalized team in NFL history last season. As far as setting NFL records, the Saints' defense did last season and not in a good way. Do you think it is going to be any better this season under Ryan?

Yasinskas: It's hard to imagine the New Orleans defense being any worse than it was a year ago. Things just never worked for former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. I think there will be improvement with Ryan, but I'm not sure how significant it will be. The Saints are switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme, and I'm not sure they have all the personnel they need to be successful. Time will tell, but it's more than fair to say the defense is the biggest question mark for the Saints. Speaking of question marks, do the Falcons have any glaring weaknesses?

Fox: It is the offensive line. If Ryan is worth his salt as a defensive coordinator, he will strike the right side of the Falcons' line. That’s where the potential problems are. After 13 seasons and 194 starts, center Todd McClure retired after last season. Peter Konz, who started nine games as a rookie at right guard, slides back to his natural position at center. Left guard Justin Blaylock and left tackle Sam Baker are veteran rocks. That’s not the problem. The Falcons let right tackle Tyson Clabo walk in free agency. His replacement, Mike Johnson, broke his leg during training camp. Johnson's replacement, Lamar Holmes, was bad enough in the preseason that the Falcons signed Jeremy Trueblood earlier this week. Right guard Garrett Reynolds missed the second half of last season with an injury. How do you think Ryan will try to exploit the weakness?

Yasinskas: I agree with what you said about Atlanta's offensive line. It potentially could be a huge problem, and I'm sure Ryan is well aware of that. I'd look for him to try to exploit the right side of the line as much as possible. But the Saints have had their share of injuries on defense, and it still isn't clear how they'll apply pressure. Defensive end Cameron Jordan really is the only proven commodity as a pass-rusher. The Saints have big hopes for outside linebackers Junior Galette and Martez Wilson, and those guys need to become forces in a hurry. Atlanta has so many offensive weapons that the Saints need to get some pressure on the quarterback. Speaking of Atlanta's offensive weapons, is White completely healthy?

Fox: The Falcons better hope so. And they say he is, more or less. White sprained an ankle in the second preseason game but finally returned to practice this week. He is Mr. Reliable, having started 128 straight games, and had only two drops last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Only Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald had fewer among receivers who were targeted at least 100 times. So the Falcons need White to be healthy and productive. What’s up with the Saints’ third receiver situation?

Yasinskas: The Saints just brought back Robert Meachem, who didn't work out as a free agent in San Diego. I think Meachem can get back to being an impact player as a third or fourth receiver in time. But I think the Saints will open the season with rookie Kenny Stills as their third receiver. He has big-time speed, and the Saints need a downfield weapon to go along with Marques Colston and Lance Moore. Stills is an under-the-radar player who could have a big impact on this game. Do you see any Falcons who fall into that same category?

Fox: There are two undrafted rookie free agents on defense who won’t start but should see plenty of action. One is Joplo Bartu, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound linebacker out of Texas State. The other is Paul Worrilow, a 6-foot, 230-pound linebacker out of Delaware. Both are unheralded guys who are big and strong and really caught the coaches a little by surprise. Remember those two. OK, so give me a prediction. Who wins?

Falcons shore up O-line depth

September, 3, 2013
9/03/13
5:03
PM ET
The Atlanta Falcons now have another option at right tackle besides Lamar Holmes.

Coach Mike Smith said Tuesday afternoon that the Falcons have signed veteran Jeremy Trueblood. He previously was a starter in Tampa Bay before losing his job last season and spending this preseason with Washington.

Holmes, a second-year player, has struggled since taking over at right tackle when Mike Johnson went down with a season-ending injury. Holmes is likely to start the season opener, but Trueblood could challenge him as soon as he learns the offense.

To make room for Trueblood, the Falcons released offensive lineman Terren Jones. The Falcons also reached an injury settlement with Phillipkeith Manley.

Atlanta Falcons cut-down analysis

August, 31, 2013
8/31/13
6:27
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Most significant move: The Falcons were 13-3 last year and kept most of their team together. That’s why it’s more than a little surprising that four undrafted free agents made the roster. That’s a tribute to the scouting staff. OT Terren Jones, LB Paul Worrilow, LB Joplo Bartu and OT Ryan Schraeder made the team. Worrilow and Bartu should contribute immediately on special teams. Schraeder has shown the ability to play both right and left tackle.

Fan favorite: He was a long shot all the way, but Banks was being followed closely by fans. That’s because he had a unique history. Banks spent five years in prison and later was exonerated. Banks’ attempt to make the team was a great story while it lasted. But it may not be completely over. The Falcons reportedly may offer Banks a position working with the team.

What’s next: The Falcons could be combing the waiver wire for offensive line help. Second-year pro Lamar Holmes is unproven at right tackle and the Falcons, who lost projected starter Mike Johnson to injury, might want to bring in an alternative. Even if Holmes plays well, the line still could use more depth. It also is possible the Falcons could bring in a veteran quarterback because backup Dominique Davis never has taken a snap in the regular season.

Players cut: Waived LB Brian Banks, G Theo Goins, DT Neal Huynh, CB Terrence Johnson, S Charles Mitchell, DT Micanor Regis, T Alec Savoie, LB Pat Schiller, K Jeremy Shelley, CB Peyton Thompson, RB Ronnie Wingo, FB Patrick DiMarco, LB Robert James, WR Darius Johnson, CB Jordan Mabin, G Phillipkeith Manley, G Jacques McClendon, WR Martel Moore, DT Adam Replogle and WR James Rodgers. The Falcons also placed QB Sean Renfree and TE Andrew Szczerba on injured reserve.

Around the NFC South

August, 29, 2013
8/29/13
8:13
AM ET
Time for a quick run through the morning headlines:

ATLANTA FALCONS

D. Orlando Ledbetter writes that the Falcons will be watching the waiver wire for help on the offensive line. They should be, because the offensive line hasn’t looked good in the preseason. And it remains to be seen if Lamar Holmes is ready to be the starter at right tackle.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Larry Holder tops off his list of five players to watch in the final preseason game with receiver Preston Parker. He appears to be in competition with Andy Tanner for the final roster spot. But Parker could have the advantage because he also has ability in the return game.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Defensive end Da’Quan Bowers said fans shouldn’t be concerned about the team’s lackluster showing in the preseason. Bowers said the Bucs intentionally have kept things bland and will unveil a lot more flash in the regular season. I think what Bowers said is very true. The Bucs have been very cautious and not shown much in the preseason. They’re saving it up for the regular season.

Around the NFC South

August, 23, 2013
8/23/13
9:17
AM ET
Time for a Friday morning run through some news and notes from around the NFC South:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Coach Mike Smith said Lamar Holmes has done a nice job so far as he tries to win the right tackle position. But Holmes will face another big test Saturday when he’ll have to block Tennessee defensive end Derrick Morgan.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Jon Beason, who is coming off knee surgery, made his preseason debut Thursday night. If Beason can get back to being anything close to what he was before injuries ruined his past two seasons, the Panthers could have one of the league’s top linebacker groups.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Wide receiver Preston Parker puts his chances of making the final roster at 50 percent. I think Parker has a better chance than that. He’s had a productive preseason, and his chances of sticking grew recently when the Saints released veterans Steve Breaston and Patrick Crayton.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

If guard Carl Nicks (staph infection) is out for an extended period, Jeremy Zuttah hopes to stay at center. Zuttah moved to guard when Nicks was injured last season. But center is Zuttah’s natural position. The Bucs also could turn to Ted Larsen, or move backup tackle Gabe Carimi to guard. Carimi was working at guard with the first team in the portion of practice that was open to the media Thursday.

Observation deck: Falcons-Ravens

August, 15, 2013
8/15/13
10:45
PM ET

For the first time in more than a year, the Atlanta Falcons have a real running game.

That became obvious in Thursday night’s 27-23 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

Running back Steven Jackson looked like he might provide more than a little upgrade over Michael Turner. Jackson carried eight times for 42 yards while playing less than a half.

The most telling drive of the night featured a couple of nice runs by Jackson and two nice passes from Matt Ryan to Julio Jones, including one for a touchdown.

The Falcons still are going to be a pass-first team, but one of their goals this offseason was to improve the running game. That’s why the Falcons let Turner go and brought in Jackson. He doesn’t have to get 25 carries a game, but Jackson at least gives the Falcons the threat of a running game and that means some balance for the offense -- and less time on the field for the defense.

Some other quick observation on the Falcons:
  • Don't be fooled by the final score. The Falcons dominated the game while the starters were in. Atlanta led 20-7 at halftime, which is all that really matters in a preseason game.
  • Atlanta’s first-team defense played very well, except for one play. The Ravens finished the first half with 131 yards of total offense, but 77 of those yards came on a touchdown pass from Joe Flacco to Torrey Smith, who got past cornerback Asante Samuel. But Samuel made up for that by coming up with an interception later in the first half.
  • Defensive end Osi Umenyiora got off to a fast start, pressuring Flacco twice on Baltimore’s first offensive drive, which was a three and out.
  • Wide receiver Roddy White left the game with an apparent foot injury early in the game and did not return. There was no immediate word on the severity of the injury.
  • The offensive line was far from perfect and Lamar Holmes still needs plenty of coaching at right tackle. But the line did a very nice job protecting Ryan for a long time as he found Jones on the touchdown pass.
  • After a rocky performance in the preseason opener last week, backup quarterback Dominique Davis had an outstanding performance in relief of Ryan. Davis completed eight of 10 passes for 98 yards. That showing might be enough to convince the Falcons they don’t need to search for a veteran backup.
  • Cornerback Dominique Franks, who is competing for a roster spot, might have helped his chances with an interception late in the third quarter.

NFC South quick hits

August, 15, 2013
8/15/13
4:02
PM ET
As we get ready for Thursday night’s preseason games involving the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons (I’ll be back with observations on both games soon after they end), let’s take a look at some news and notes from around the division:
  • With Mike Johnson out for the season with an injury, the Falcons are giving Lamar Holmes the first shot at the right tackle job. Holmes faces a big challenge Thursday night when he goes against Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, a pair of strong pass-rushers. If Holmes holds up well against the Ravens, he’s likely to get the nod as the starter.
  • Jonathan Jones tops his list of five players to watch in Carolina’s game with Philadelphia with wide receiver David Gettis, who appears to be competing with Joe Adams and Kealoha Pilares for the final receiver spot. Gettis, who has been plagued by injuries the past two years, showed a little burst in the preseason opener. He’ll need to continue that to secure a roster spot.
  • In this Insider piece , Matt Williamson ranks Carolina’s linebacker corps among the best in the league. Can’t argue with that, but I think you have to attach the caveat that Jon Beason and Thomas Davis need to stay healthy for this group to truly be elite.
  • With linebacker Jonathan Vilma having another knee surgery, Bradley Handwerger writes that this is an opportunity for David Hawthorne to step up. Hawthorne was signed to a decent contract last year but hasn’t done a lot for the Saints. Vilma’s age and history of knee problems leave questions about his durability. Hawthorne could put himself in line for a lot of playing time with a good performance over the next few weeks.
  • Ross Tucker writes that the comments by Carl Nicks, in which the Tampa Bay guard said he’ll have to play through pain for the rest of his career, didn’t draw as much attention as they should have. Tucker, a former player, says that toe injuries can’t be taken lightly. But Nicks and the Bucs think he still can play at a high level.

Checking in on position battles

August, 15, 2013
8/15/13
12:05
PM ET
As we approach the midway point of the preseason, let’s do a status check on some of the top position competitions from around the division.

Left tackle in New Orleans. Coach Sean Payton said Wednesday that Charles Brown has pulled away from the competition. That could be a sign that Brown finally is playing up to his potential. It also could be a sign that Jason Smith and Terron Armstead aren’t very good. Either way, it looks like Brown will be protecting the blind side of Drew Brees. But that might not be a bad thing. Keep in mind, Jermon Bushrod wasn’t a stud when he first took over the position. New Orleans’ offensive line is built around guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs and they have a way of making everyone else on the line look good.

Strongside linebacker in Tampa Bay. Dekoda Watson has been given the first crack at the job and he hasn’t disappointed. Newcomer Jonathan Casillas also has performed well, but Watson remains in the lead at this position. Barring a dramatic change as the preseason winds down, Watson will be the starter and Casillas will be a backup and special teams player.

Right tackle in Atlanta. The Falcons still are trying to figure out what to do after losing Mike Johnson to a season-ending injury. The team is hoping second-year pro Lamar Holmes can claim the position, but he needs to use the rest of the preseason to show he’s ready. Undrafted rookie Ryan Schraeder has been a pleasant surprise. But the Falcons still could look to bring in a veteran from elsewhere if Holmes doesn’t distinguish himself.

Cornerbacks in Carolina. Veterans Drayton Florence and Captain Munnerlyn got most of the first-team work in training camp. But second-year pro Josh Norman helped his case a lot by intercepting two passes in the preseason opener. The Panthers would like for Norman to continue to emerge so they can start him and move Munnerlyn to nickel back, where he’s suited to match up with slot receivers.

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