NFC South: Osi Umenyiora

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Another session of organized team activities this week meant another day of Osi Umenyiora essentially being a spectator.

The veteran defensive end still works hard in drills and still encourages his teammates. If he’s the least bit frustrated with not getting many reps, he seems to mask his feelings behind an infectious smile.

The team’s transition to a 3-4 base defense and the awkwardness of playing outside linebacker has limited Umenyiora to the same role he assumed at the end of the 2013 campaign.

[+] EnlargeDoug Martin
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIOsi Umenyiora said he's hoping that trimming down his weight will help his effectiveness this season.
"We’re looking at him as the DPR, where we were playing him at the end of the season," Falcons coach Mike Smith said, referring to designated pass-rusher. "That’s what his role is going to be.

"I hope [his regular-season reps] are a lot. That means they’re throwing a lot and that means we’re in the lead. In a 60-play game, you’re looking somewhere in between 25 and 35 [snaps]. He’ll be fresh. I think it will be a very good thing. And I think at the end of last season, when we put him in as a defensive pass-rusher and that’s all he was doing and his number of snaps went down, I thought he was much more productive.’’

Umenyiora, who turns 33 in November, isn’t trying to fool himself. He understands he’s not the same dominant player he was during his All-Pro years with the New York Giants. At the same time, the prideful side of him wants to remain an every-down player.

"I’m going to do whatever they tell me to do," Umenyiora said. "Obviously, I feel like it’s difficult to make an impact just coming in on third down. I think that’s pretty hard to do. But if that’s what they ask me to do, that’s exactly what I’m going to do."

Big bodies such as nose tackle Paul Soliai and defensive end Tyson Jackson were brought in to stop the run. Umenyiora understood the logic, but he firmly believes he is capable of contributing as a run-defender.

"I hold my own against the run," he said. "I’ve never been great at it, but I’ve never been bad like some think, either. To say I’m a better pass-rusher than run player has always been an honest assessment, though."

Such pass-rush ability is the reason the Falcons made a financial commitment to Umenyiora and opted not to cut his pay in this, the final year of his contract. He is due to make $3.5 million and will count $4.75 million against the salary cap.

Some would argue that's a hefty price for a third-down or situational pass-rusher. In fact, Smith’s thought of Umenyiora playing up to 35 reps seems rather optimistic. In last year’s season opener against Drew Brees and pass-happy New Orleans, for example, the Saints had just 11 third-down passing situations.

Regardless, Umenyiora is intent on making the most of his opportunities coming off a year in which he led the Falcons with 7.5 sacks. The Falcons plan to be multiple, and he’ll sub in as a pass-rusher as needed. Obvious passing situations are likely to result in a 4-3 look, with Umenyiora and Jonathan Massaquoi rushing from the edges and a combination of Malliciah Goodman, Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and rookie Ra’Shede Hageman pushing from inside.

Umenyiora has slimmed down from 260 pounds to 250 with a focus on improving his speed for such situations.

"I feel like I’m coming off the ball really good," Umenyiora said. "I’m a little lighter than I was before. I wanted to increase my speed that way. So I think my speed is where I need it to be."

Umenyiora also wanted to add a new wrinkle to his arsenal. He started practicing a spin move after watching tapes of Dwight Freeney’s success with it. His plan, however, was altered.

"I think I have the same type of speed and get-off as [Freeney], and it’s a nice little changeup, but when I went out there and tried it in practice, they blocked the hell out of me," Umenyiora said with a laugh. "Sam [Baker] rejected that spin move."

There is a more important element to Umenyiora sharpening his pass-rush skills. In practice, he typically works with the defensive ends and defensive tackles during individual drills rather than the outside linebackers. It makes sense, considering it allows him to spend more time with new defensive line coach Bryan Cox.

"He’s a very good coach," Umenyiora said of Cox. "Even though he was a linebacker, he went out there and rushed. A lot of the things that he talks about are things that he not only did, but things he knows worked. It’s a lot of hand work, a lot of leverage. He tells me things every day that I need to work on.

"I don’t think he’s going to ask people to do things that he knows aren’t possible -- I think they call it 'coachspeak,' where a coach is just telling you to do something that the players know is going to be almost impossible to do, but because the guy never played before, he think it’s possible. With Brian, he tells you things that he knows that can be done."

After registering just 32 sacks last season and having the league’s worst third-down defense, the Falcons and Umenyiora simply need to find a way to get it done with their pass rush.
Mike NolanScott Cunningham/Getty ImagesFalcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan won't be lacking depth up front in 2014.
The Atlanta Falcons aren't panicking -- at least not yet -- over their inability to secure a top pass-rusher this offseason.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pressure is on.
There was going to be talk about Osi Umenyiora's status with the Atlanta Falcons regardless if he had to take a pay cut or not.

The veteran turns 33 in November. He counts $4.75 million against the salary cap in 2014, with a base salary of $2.5 million and a $1 million roster bonus. And he became a designated pass-rusher at the end of last season, although he was the one who made the suggestion to the coaches.

[+] EnlargeDoug Martin
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIOsi Umenyiora said he's hoping that trimming down his weight will help his effectiveness this season.
And now the Falcons are set to move toward a 3-4-based defensive scheme, which makes you wonder how comfortable Umenyiora would be standing up as an outside linebacker rather than in his comfort zone at defensive end.

Whatever concerns surround Umenyiora, the Falcons did their best to diffuse them by saying he would be part of the plans in '14 without having to take a pay cut. The team must figure his value extends well beyond production on the field, with the leadership he provides in the locker room.

Umeyiora told ESPN.com in February he had hoped to be with the Falcons, with one year left on his contract. He also realized that business decisions had to be made as the front office aimed to improve the defense coming off last year's dismal showing.

"I know they are going to do whatever is necessary to better their team," Umenyiora said. "That's just part of it. It's never personal. I'll always have a tremendous amount of respect and love for Mr. Dimitroff. He gave me a great opportunity."

Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff seems willing to give Umenyiora even more of an opportunity to prove his worth. Last season, Umenyiora led the Falcons with six sacks. But even he would say that number meant little based on what little pressure the Falcons got on opposing quarterbacks.

Now, the Falcons added two run-stuffers up front in nose tackle Paul Soliai and defensive end Tyson Jackson. Corey Peters is on track to recover from a season-ending Achilles tear and could join Soliai and Jackson up front. Jonathan Babineaux and Peria Jerry were re-signed for depth, while Malliciah Goodman put on some extra pounds to make an impact up front.

In terms of Umenyiora, he still could be a designated pass-rusher from one outside linebacker position. The Falcons are sure to count on Kroy Biermann and Jonathan Massaquoi to fill the same type of role, with possibly a rookie being the other pass-rusher in the equation.

However it all comes together, Umenyiora should have a chance to make an impact.

Some wondered if Umenyiora might consider retirement after last season. Although that's fair to wonder, it doesn't seem likely based on what he said back in February.

"After this one, two more," Umenyiora said of how many more years he intends to play. "So, basically three more. That might be a pipe dream. We'll see what happens with that, but that's what I wish. I want to do a couple more things: I want to win another Super Bowl and I want to go to another Pro Bowl. I'll give myself another few years to do that."
INDIANAPOLIS – Last season, the Atlanta Falcons came out of free agency with two aging veterans in Steven Jackson and Osi Umenyiora.

Umenyiora
Jackson
Almost a year later, there seems to be some doubt about their futures with the Falcons.

Both Jackson and Umenyiora were topics of conversation when Falcons head coach Mike Smith addressed the media at the NFL combine on Thursday. While Smith didn’t come out and declare Jackson his starting running back for next season, the coach did appear to give Jackson a subtle vote of confidence while nudging the offensive line.

"Steven Jackson, unfortunately, was injured in the second game of the season (hamstring). I don’t think we really got a chance to see what Steven is capable of doing until the last three or four games," Smith said. "I think he scored all six of his touchdowns in those last four ball games.

"We have to improve our running game, and it starts with winning the line of scrimmage. That is an area that will be an emphasis point for us; not only to be able to run the football but to protect our quarterback."

The Falcons seem willing to see how Jackson will perform when healthy and running behind a better offensive line. He averaged a career-low 3.5 yards per carry on 157 attempts in 2013 as the Falcons finished last in the league in rushing. Jackson, who turns 31 in July, is signed through 2015 and is scheduled to count $4,166,666 against the cap in '14.

As for Umenyiora, Smith seemed somewhat reluctant to commit to the 32-year-old pass-rusher when the subject of possibly releasing a veteran such as Umenyiora came up.

"Osi did a very good job for us this past season," Smith said. "Led the team in sacks, had 7.5 sacks. Did a good job in the leadership role as well. He was a great mentor to some of our defensive ends.

"I’m never going to say never. This is the time of the year that you are recalibrating your roster. But Osi did an outstanding job for us in 2013, and looking forward to continuing to work with him."

Umenyiora is set to count $4.75 million against the cap this season. His future seems to depend on whether the Falcons add a veteran pass-rusher and rookie defensive end to the mix, which is possible given the team’s pass-rush woes.
Atlanta Falcons veteran defensive end Osi Umenyiora already stated his desire to remain with the team. At the same time, Umenyiora realizes the Falcons could add a rookie pass-rusher to the mix.

Umenyiora already has an appreciation for two edge-rushers who are set to display their ability at this year’s NFL combine in Indianapolis.

Naturally, one of them is South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

"This is a tremendous athlete; a tremendous football player,’’ Umenyiora said of Clowney. "And there’s a guy out of Auburn, Dee Ford, who I think is a hell of a defensive end. He’s a phenomenal pass-rusher. So I definitely think there are a couple of guys who could really upgrade our team.’’

But Umenyiora, a former second-round pick of the New York Giants out of Troy, has been around the league enough to know that some touted pass-rushers don’t always live up to expectations – not to say that will be the case with Clowney and Ford.

"I’ve seen a lot of rookies who were supposed to be good players come in and not do nothing,’’ Umenyiora said. "Or you have a bunch rookies that come in and are supposed to do this and that, and they find out the NFL is a different game.

"You can’t always put all your hopes in someone coming in out of college, especially a team like Atlanta that is built to win now. Then again, I’m just employee No. 50 and I do what I’m told. And I definitely understand all the talk about these young pass-rushers.’’

Umenyiora, who has one more year left on his contract and is set to count $4.75 million against the cap, would be the ideal mentor for any young pass-rusher. The Falcons likely would have to trade up to get Clowney. Ford, who impressed at the Senior Bowl, isn’t likely to be picked in the top 10, and the Falcons currently hold the sixth overall pick.

Two other pass-rushers linked to the Falcons in terms of draft projections are UCLA’s Anthony Barr and Buffalo’s Khalil Mack. Although most see them as better fits as outside linebackers in 3-4 schemes, even Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said both Barr and Mack are capable of being successful pass-rushers in 4-3 defenses.

Combine workouts for defensive linemen and linebackers are on Monday.
There is no doubt where veteran defensive end Osi Umenyiora wants to be next season.

He owns a home in the Atlanta area. He feels an allegiance to his Falcons teammates. He has tremendous respect for general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith.

"I would love to stay, and I think I am," Umenyiora told ESPN.com. "But you really never know what's going to happen."

Umenyiora knows all about business decisions in the NFL -- and he understood them well before the Falcons released four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Asante Samuel.

[+] EnlargeAtlanta's Osi Umenyiora
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsOsi Umenyiora would like to play three more NFL seasons.
Remember, Umenyiora was a game-changing player on two Super Bowl championship teams with the New York Giants, yet he and the Giants couldn't agree on financial terms -- or his desired role -- before parting ways after the 2012 season. He made two Pro Bowls in 10 seasons with the Giants, recording 75 sacks and forcing 32 fumbles over that span.

"My eyes have been opened: I understand the business pretty much as well as anybody in football right now because of a lot of the things that have happened," Umenyiora said. "And I know it's nothing personal."

That's the approach Umenyiora has taken into this offseason as some wonder if he’ll remain in the Falcons' plans. He signed a two-year, $8.5 million contract last offseason, a deal with a max value of $12 million. Umenyiora, who turns 33 in November, is due to count $4.75 million against the salary cap in 2014.

The Falcons could opt to draft a pass-rusher or add a younger defensive end via free agency, such as Brian Orakpo or Michael Johnson, to revive a listless pass rush. Umenyiora, who became a situational pass-rusher at the end of 2013, is prepared for any scenario.

"I know they are going to do whatever is necessary to better their team," he said. "That's just part of it. It's never personal. I'll always have a tremendous amount of respect and love for Mr. Dimitroff. He gave me a great opportunity. It's pretty much whatever at this point."

Umenyiora would be the first to admit he's not the force he once was, but he's still productive. People tend to forget how he made an immediate impact as a Falcon with a 68-yard interception return for a touchdown in a Week 2 win over St. Louis. Umenyiora finished the season with a team-leading 7.5 sacks, although he was far from satisfied with his overall performance.

Umenyiora's value to the Falcons, however, extends beyond game day. He is a consummate pro and his daily approach is a positive influence on young pass-rushers Jonathan Massaquoi, Malliciah Goodman and Stansly Maponga.

"This knowledge I have, I have to give it to somebody," Umenyiora said with a laugh. "I'm not going to play forever. I've done a lot in this league. I can't be greedy and keep this all to myself when there are young, hungry guys that I can give this knowledge to and make our team better."

Umenyiora’s selfless attitude was evident at season's end. While much was made of the Falcons taking him out of the starting lineup while the struggling team opted for a youth movement, Umenyiora said he voluntary approached Smith about being used more as a situational pass-rusher. As a result, it helped give the young defensive ends valuable reps.

"I didn't think I was using my ability the way I wanted to," Umenyiora said of approaching Smith. "He was completely fine with that. I guess that might have been something they were looking at, but he didn't say that. I don't know. We discussed it and it was something that was done."

One could argue Umenyiora would be an ideal mentor for a player such as South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, a guy the Falcons might have a chance to draft if they trade up from the sixth-overall spot. The question will be whether or not the Falcons view Umenyiora's $4.5 million cap number as too high based on his projected production, particularly if they add a pass-rusher or two. He is due a $1 million roster bonus in mid-March.

Releasing Umenyiora would save the Falcons $3.5 million against the cap.

"To say that money is not a lot would be crazy because that's a lot of money, period," Umenyiora said of his cap number. "But if you look at it strictly in football terms and what the top-tier defensive ends are getting paid. … Mario Williams, who is making like, what, $16 million per year? It's tough for me to answer that [money] question because it all depends on what my perceived value to the team is.''

Asked if he would be willing to take a pay cut, Umenyiora said he would let his agent, Tom Condon, handle those matters.

Umenyiora firmly believes he can continue on as an every-down player, and he is dedicating this offseason to fine-tuning aspects such as speed and hand work.

"Is being a situational pass-rusher something I want to do this upcoming season? I really don’t know," he said. "This coming season might be a totally different season. We might start off on fire. We might be leading teams by two touchdowns every game and then I just really get a chance to pin my ears back and do what I do best. I don't know how it’s going to play out.

"But do I want to see myself as just as situational pass-rusher? I would rather not. But whatever they tell me they want me to do, that's what I'll do."

No matter what happens in the immediate future, Umenyiora hasn't strayed from his goal of how many more years he wants to play.

"After this one, two more," Umenyiora said. "So basically three more. That might be a pipe dream. We'll see what happens with that, but that's what I wish. I want to do a couple more things: I want to win another Super Bowl and I want to go to another Pro Bowl. I'll give myself another few years to do that."

Rapid Reaction: Atlanta Falcons

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
11:49
PM ET

A few thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons34-24 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night:

What it means: Although the Falcons showed a lot of fight and might have spoiled the night -- had NaVorro Bowman not picked off a ball deflected from Falcons receiver Harry Douglas’ hands and returned 89 yards for the game-clinching touchdown -- the loss might have helped Atlanta in the end. Now, at 4-11, the Falcons are sixth in the draft order with a chance to move up, depending on the outcome of the final weekend of games. Some fans continue to lobby for South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, but the Falcons would likely need a top-five pick to even have a chance at Clowney. Whatever the case, the draft will be intriguing for a team trying to recover from an unexpected fall down the NFL standings.

Stock watch: Drew Davis’ stock grew on one play. The unheralded receiver not only helped with a block at the line of scrimmage, he then found an opening down the field, caught a pass from Matt Ryan, did a spin and picked up 45 yards after the catch en route to a career-long 59-yard reception. It helped set up Steven Jackson’s 2-yard touchdown run. Davis has made some plays this season and probably deserved more opportunities. Matt Bosher's stock also rose after the punter/kicker executed a perfect onside kick that was recovered by Jason Snelling, although it all went for naught after Bowman's pick-six.

Crucial calls: Two defensive penalties on the Falcons will be talked about the next few days, and only one of them should have been called. Veteran defensive end Osi Umenyiora made a rookie mistake when he lined up in the neutral zone with the 49ers facing third-and-10 from their own 17. It gave the 49ers a more manageable third down, which they converted, and the drive ended with Colin Kaepernick’s touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin. Then, on the very next 49ers drive, Falcons rookie linebacker Paul Worrilow was whistled for a phantom pass-interference penalty on third down. The questionable call helped set up a San Francisco field goal.

Wounded warriors: The Falcons were already down one defensive starter when linebacker Sean Weatherspoon was declared inactive with a knee injury. Then, early in the game, starting defensive tackle Corey Peters went down with an Achilles injury. That’s bad news for Peters, who is set to become a free agent. Running back Jacquizz Rodgers and receiver Douglas also got banged up during the game, but Douglas returned in time to surpass 1,000 receiving yards for the season.

What’s next: Sunday’s season finale against the Carolina Panthers should be all about Tony Gonzalez. The Hall of Fame-bound tight end will play his final NFL game in front of the home crowd at the Georgia Dome. The organization is likely to honor Gonzalez with a video tribute. He won’t go out with a Super Bowl ring, but Gonzalez will still walk off a true champion.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- It will be worth keeping an eye on Osi Umenyiora Monday night.

The veteran defensive end is expected to remain in his new role as a designated pass-rusher as the Atlanta Falcons face the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park.

Apparently, Umenyiora made a noble gesture and approached the coaching staff to suggest the move, knowing the coaches needed to get a closer look at younger players such as Jonathan Massaquoi. The Falcons lauded him for being a team player throughout the process.

Umenyiora
The 32-year-old Umenyiora declined to discuss the details behind his conversation with head coach Mike Smith, but he did talk about whether his new role would rollover into next season.

"I don't know,'' Umenyiora said. "Whatever they want to do.''

As Smith explained, the Falcons had former rush specialist John Abraham on a similar type of "pitch count'' before he moved on to Arizona this season. At age 34, Abraham had a team-leading 10 sacks for the Falcons in 2012.

Umenyiora currently leads the Falcons with 7.5 sacks, including one last week as a reserve designated pass-rusher. He had started the first 13 games prior to last week.

Although he no doubt relishes being a starter, Umenyiora understands the benefit of being called upon simply to rush the passer. One of his close friends, Mark Anderson, did the same for the New England Patriots in 2011 and compiled 10 sacks while starting just one game. Anderson turned that into an $8 million payday from Buffalo in '12, although injury cut Anderson's stay with the Bills short.

"Mark definitely did it,'' Umenyiora said of being a situational pass-rusher. "It has turned into that, anyway. It's not a bad thing to be able to come into the game and do that. So, we'll see how it goes.''

Coach Smith was asked if Umenyiora's designated pass-rusher role would lead into next season.

"I can't say it will carryover into next season,'' Smith said. "I do know that we had a conversation and we talked about it. And he was excited about going there and just having an opportunity to rush the passer.''

Umenyiora signed a two-year, $8.5 million deal in the offseason, and his cap figure for next season is $4.75 million. His value extends beyond his play on the field as Umenyiora has earned the respect of his teammates with his professionalism and work ethic.

"A lot of guys have benefited from his presence,'' defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. "I wouldn't say he's Mister Go-Around Vocal, tell guys what to do at all. But I think when a young guy wants to know or wants to watch somebody who's a pro and who shows respect and gets a lot of respect, Osi would be the guy to look at.''

In the immediate future, Umenyiora has to help the Falcons generate a pass rush against Colin Kaepernick and the potent 49ers offensive. Getting to Kaepernick would be the way to assure speedy tight end Vernon Davis doesn't break free all evening, as he was able to do in last season's NFC Championship Game.

"Whoever you've got trying to defend Vernon Davis, it's a mismatch,'' Smith said.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said veteran defensive end Osi Umenyiora met with coach Mike Smith about Umenyiora’s new reserve role. Nolan implied Umenyiora was content with the move.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"We're going to get a good evaluation of a lot of guys in the last quarter of the season," Smith said. "And I think it's going to pay dividends for us moving forward. We're going to be able to determine who can play. And they're going to be put in a lot of different situations."
ATLANTA -- A few halftime notes with the Atlanta Falcons trailing the Washington Redskins, 20-17:

• The youth movement isn't working so well today: Rookie cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford have had their issues in coverage. Rookie safety Zeke Motta took a bad angle on one play and got blocked off another. And rookie right tackle Ryan Schraeder has had issues against Redskins pass-rusher Ryan Kerrigan, just like second-year left tackle Lamar Holmes has had issues stopping Brian Orakpo. True, this is valuable experience for the inexperienced Falcons. But they should be enjoying better success against an equally bad Redskins team. At least one of the young Falcons -- guard Harland Gunn -- made the most of his opportunities.

Osi Umenyiora is no longer a starter: The veteran defensive end did not start Sunday's game despite being a regular starter all season. At least Umenyiora didn't pout on the sideline. He came into the game off the bench and immediately forced a fumble, recovered by teammate Jonathan Babineaux. The Falcons started Jonathan Massaquoi and Peria Jerry at the defensive end spots. Umenyiora primarily played the role of situational, third-down pass-rusher in the first half. So what about his future with the team? Besides, the Falcons already made a statement by benching veteran cornerback Asante Samuel for Alford.

• The Falcons are trying to send Tony Gonzalez out in style: Quarterback Matt Ryan seems to be making Gonzalez a priority today. He hit the soon-to-be-retired tight end for a 13-yard touchdown in the first quarter. And the aging Gonzalez didn't dunk it over the goal posts. Gonzalez extended his consecutive games with a reception streak to 209.

• Although the Falcons have been terrible on defense, Babineaux has been extremely disrupted. He's set to become a free agent an obviously wants to prove his value.

On the line: Ray Hamilton grades unit

November, 8, 2013
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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- In assessing his group's performance over the first half of the season, Atlanta Falcons defensive line coach Ray Hamilton’s response was lukewarm.

"We’re doing OK," Hamilton said. "We have a lot of work to do, and a long way to go to get better in all phases. But we’re doing OK. I think we’re from a C to a low B."

The Falcons enter Sunday’s game against the Seattle Seahawks ranked 22nd sacks per pass play. Of the team’s 18 sacks, 12 have come from defensive linemen, led by defensive end Osi Umenyiora with a team-leading 4.5 sacks.

[+] EnlargeAtlanta's Osi Umenyiora
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsOsi Umenyiora and the Falcons' defensive linemen are focused on a big second half of the season.
"As defensive linemen, you always want to get more sacks," Hamilton said. "That’s what guys get paid to do, besides winning games. We’ve had some opportunities and we’ve had some chances. They’ve learned the techniques now and they’re getting better each week at it.

"We’ve done a lot better job, I think, of putting pressure on quarterbacks. We’ve been affecting quarterbacks pretty decently lately. You just don’t always see the results of it, because guys like Cam Newton can run. But we’ve been much better at affecting the quarterback."

The line will have to have an effect on Sunday against a dangerous quarterback in Russell Wilson. The Seahawks' rebuilt offensive line, playing without injured starting tackles Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini, have allowed Wilson to be sacked 27 times. But Wilson is still capable of making big plays.

"I know all about him. We played him last year in the playoffs," Hamilton said with a laugh. "He’s a guy that you have to affect; try to get him to make some bad throws by putting pressure on him with the defensive line. And you’ve got to try and keep him in the pocket so you have a chance to sack him.

"They have given up some sacks this year. They have some injuries on the front line. But still, you’ve got to go out and play. And you’ve got to catch Wilson. He’s a tough guy to catch, so we’ll have our work cut out for us."

Not to mention the Falcons' defensive line also has to be stout against the run while facing the explosive Marshawn Lynch, the NFL’s fourth-leading rusher with 726 rushing yards.

Hamilton called defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux by far his most consistent player through the first eight games. He also likes the continued development of the defensive end foursome he calls the M&M boys: second-year players Jonathan Massaquoi and Cliff Matthews, along with rookies Malliciah Goodman and Stansly Maponga.

Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan talked about the young players sometimes being hungrier than the veterans when a season doesn’t go as planned. Hamilton doesn’t see that being a problem with his group.

"You still have to play," Hamilton said. "You know what Herman Edwards said. You have to play every game to win whether you’re in the hunt or not. And I still think we have a chance. You never know what’s going to happen in this league. If you play hard all the time, you have a chance to win."

Baker back in the lineup for Falcons

November, 3, 2013
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CHARLOTTE -- Atlanta Falcons left tackle Sam Baker, who missed the last three games with a knee injury, is active for Sunday's game against the Carolina Panthers.

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Head coach Mike Smith said Baker would be in the starting lineup, if healthy. That means Lamar Holmes is likely headed to the bench, unless the Falcons decided to start Holmes at right tackle ahead of Jeremy Trueblood.

Also inactive for the Falcons are wide receiver Roddy White and linebacker Stephen Nicholas. White has not yet recovered from hamstring and ankle injuries, while Nicholas has been sidelined by a quad injury.

The other inactives are safety Kemal Ishmael, guard Harland Gunn, tackle Ryan Schraeder, wide receiver Brian Robiskie, and defensive tackle Travian Robertson.

Safety William Moore (hip) and defensive end Osi Umenyiora (knee) are active despite being listed as questionable coming into the game.
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Atlanta Falcons defensive end Osi Umenyiora has been fined $15,750 for a hit on Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer last Sunday, according to a league source.

Umenyiora was penalized in the first quarter for roughing the passer. An intentional grounding call on Palmer created offsetting penalties, wiping out the play.

It's unclear whether Umenyiora plans to appeal the penalty, but he appeared to clap his hands in disgust with himself after the hit.

Also from last Sunday's game, rookie Desmond Trufant was not fined for a facemask penalty. Such fouls typically result in a $7,875 fine, but Trufant's obviously was deemed unintentional.

Upon Further Review: Falcons Week 8

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

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

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

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

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

Rotating line: When defensive coordinator Mike Nolan addresses the media on Tuesday, he's sure to be asked about his defensive line rotation. Against the Cardinals, veteran starters Osi Umenyiora and Jonathan Babineaux were pulled from the lineup on a few series, including when Ellington broke loose on that 80-yard touchdown run. Cliff Matthews and Peria Jerry were on the field with Peters and Jonathan Massaquoi. Babineaux said it was just the rotation that was decided upon. We'll see how that rotation pans out for the remainder of the season.

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