NFC South: Sam Baker

 Matt RyanKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThe Falcons want to be a balanced offense, but are at their best when Matt Ryan is throwing deep.
There seems to be quite a bit of optimism about the Atlanta Falcons boasting a more balanced offensive attack this season. One skill-position player even told me he expects it to be "50-50" in terms of run and pass plays.

Sounds nice, but I'm not buying it.

Even if the Falcons come out running in the preseason, I won't believe in such balance until I see it during a meaningful game. I won't subscribe to it until I see a conscious effort to run the ball in the first quarter or on first down.

Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has acknowledged a renewed emphasis on the run game. But a crafty playcaller such as Koetter knows protecting quarterback Matt Ryan and allowing him to sling the ball to the likes of Julio Jones and Roddy White is what helped the Falcons get one step from the Super Bowl two years ago. It's the same type of aggressive attack I expect will allow the Falcons to rebound from last year's 4-12 implosion and get back into playoff contention -- if the defense can at least contain opposing offenses.

New offensive line coach Mike Tice put it best when I spoke with him during organized team activities.

"We're not going to be a run-first football team, by any means, with those two great receivers and that great quarterback," Tice said bluntly. "But when that man -- my buddy Dirk Koetter -- dials up the run, we better be able to run it for four yards."

I'm by no means suggesting this will be a repeat of last season, when Ryan attempted a career-high 651 passes and the Falcons averaged a mere 3.9 yards per carry on a league-low 321 rushing attempts. The Falcons played their share of games from behind, forcing Ryan into even more throwing situations, and the ground game was barely existent to begin with, particularly after Steven Jackson was slowed by a hamstring injury.

I expect Ryan to be among the top five quarterbacks in passing yards for a third consecutive season. I just think he will put up those numbers under better circumstances. I expect we'll see more of the Ryan we saw in San Francisco last season, when he carved up the 49ers, completing 37 of 48 passes for 348 yards and two scores. I also expect the Falcons to be among the league's top 10 in scoring, like they were in 2010, 2011 and 2012 (fifth, seventh and seventh, respectively). Last season, they dipped to 20th with an average of 22.1 points per game.

Of course, Ryan and the offense have to be smart and take what opposing defenses give them. It's just hard to imagine them running the ball down a team’s throat the entire game.

A lot depends on the new-look offensive line. We should get a better feel for the unit during training camp, particularly when the Falcons have their joint practices with the Tennessee Titans and the Houston Texans. But the Falcons didn't sign Jon Asamoah and draft Jake Matthews with the intent of becoming a grind-it-out team. It's about protecting Ryan and giving him adequate time to find his receivers and go deep. And his deep ball has been on point this offseason. Just ask undrafted rookie receiver Bernard Reedy, the recipient of many of those sharp throws.

Ryan was pressured on a league-high 204 of his dropbacks last season. That can't happen again. The line has to hold its own, even with the intense pressure it will face in the NFC South from the Saints, Panthers and Buccaneers.

There are other variables to consider. Will Jones return to full form after a second surgery on his right foot? Will White avoid the nagging injuries that plagued him last season? Will tight end Levine Toilolo's contribution in the red zone make Tony Gonzalez a distant memory? Will left tackle Sam Baker's left knee hold up an entire season?

If the answer to at least the first two of those questions is "yes," then I see no reason why the Falcons shouldn't have success through the air.

I'm not disregarding the contribution of the running backs in the grand scheme. Tice brought in some new running concepts from his years of expertise. I believe Jackson has one more solid year left in him. I believe rookie Devonta Freeman can have an immediate impact. And I believe Jacquizz Rodgers has great value in the screen game, which is essentially an extension of the run.

But when it comes to the Falcons' offensive success this season, I'll simply take a pass.
Although the Atlanta Falcons still believe in Sam Baker, there is no guarantee he will remain at left tackle moving forward.

Baker
General manager Thomas Dimitroff didn’t come out and say Baker would be moved, but he did imply the Falcons have the option of switching the former first-round pick to right tackle, if needed.

"I think having a tackle that you can bring in who is versatile enough to play both left and right is very important for the National Football League in today’s game," Dimitroff said when asked if the team might consider moving Baker, depending on the health of his surgically repaired knee.

In the same breath, Dimitroff seemed optimistic about Baker being the left tackle he was a few seasons ago, despite coming off season-ending knee surgery. Baker has played left tackle since his rookie season. He became a left tackle in college at USC after starting his college career as a guard.

"We’re confident that Sam is going to be ready to go," Dimitroff said. "And we expect him to return to the form that he was in 2012."

Baker was hampered by a left knee issue throughout last season. He had platelet rich plasma treatment (PRP) with his knee, apparently specific to his patellar tendon. But his knee didn’t respond well enough to keep him from avoiding surgery.

Although Baker, who will count $6.05 million against the cap in 2014, is expected to be back healthy again, the Falcons still have to plan ahead. Drafting a player such as Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson or Texas A&M tackle Jake Matthews could be a part of the equation if the team prioritizes improving protection and run blocking over getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Falcons won’t target a high-caliber offensive tackle in free agency, although they are expected to pursue either a guard or center on the open market.

Both Matthews and Robinson expressed a willingness to play either side of the offensive line as rookies when they were interviewed at the NFL combine.
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.
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.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Being totally out of playoff contention should have the Atlanta Falcons thinking ahead to next season.

Even if such is the case, head coach Mike Smith wouldn't reveal his thoughts to the media.

Specifically, Smith was asked Monday about any consideration of moving left tackle Sam Baker to right tackle next season. Baker underwent season-ending knee surgery, performed by celebrated orthopedist Dr. James Andrews.

Baker
"No, that hasn't been a discussion point,'' Smith said of moving Baker. "Sam had the procedure done. There will be no long-term effects. We know that he's recovering now and going through the recuperation process and the rehabilitation. So, he should be ready to go. It's not long term. He'll be ready to go when we start our offseason program in April.''

It doesn't necessarily mean Baker will remain at left tackle. The offensive line is one of the many issues the Falcons are sure to tackle this offseason, particularly after quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked a season-high five times in last week's 17-13 loss to the Saints. Baker struggled in his four starts before being placed on injured reserve on Nov. 12.

Of course, the Falcons made a financial commitment to Baker when he signed a six-year deal worth $41.1 million -- including a $10 million signing bonus -- back in March. His base salary was $1 million last season and jumps to $3.25 million next season.

All that being said, it still doesn't mean Baker is assured to be the team's left tackle next season. It remains unclear how he'll perform coming off the injury. Not to mention the team continues to get a long look at Lamar Holmes at left tackle, and the organization firmly believes Holmes had Pro Bowl potential despite his own struggles this season.

And since the 2-9 Falcons appear destined to land a top-5 draft pick, they might have to seriously consider selecting Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews if they are not in position to draft South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

Any draft talk is contingent on how the Falcons finish the season. Fans might hope for the worst over the last five games in order to assure a higher draft pick.

"I know that people have a different approach and a look to a season at different points in time, but I can assure you this: We're not concerned about our draft status,'' Smith said Monday. "We're concerned about winning the next game and putting a string together here at the end of the season.''

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.

Baker
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.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Roddy White and running back Steven Jackson remained sidelined during Friday's practice, the last day of preparation for Sunday's game against Tampa Bay.

White
White
While Jackson seems more than likely to miss his fourth-straight game with a hamstring injury, White's status remains unclear. He apparently has missed all week of practice in the past yet still played in a game. Right now, White is nursing a hamstring injury as well as a high-ankle sprain.

White has played in 133 consecutive games, so his streak could be in jeopardy. Coach Mike Smith could address the injuries following Friday's practice.

Also sidelined during Friday's session were left tackle Sam Baker (knee) and tight end Chase Coffman (knee).

Linebacker Akeem Dent was in practice gear with a helmet for the second consecutive day coming off an ankle injury. Running back Jason Snelling has had full participation in practice this week coming off a concussion.
FLOWERY BRANCH, GA. -- Atlanta Falcons running back Steven Jackson again took the practice field as a spectator on Wednesday while he continues to recover from a Week 2 hamstring injury.

Jackson's return remains a question mark. He previously stated he wouldn't return until 100 percent healthy, although Jackson expressed hope about returning shortly after this past weekend's bye.

Also not dressed for practice were left tackle Sam Baker (knee), tight end Chase Coffman and linebacker Akeem Dent (ankle).

Receiver Roddy White, who was spotted with his left hamstring wrapped during open locker room, was not on the field for the viewing portion of practice.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White were dressed for practice Thursday as the team continued preparation for the New York Jets.

Jones, who has battled some knee and leg issues, did not participate in Tuesday's practice. White continues to recover from a high-ankle sprain.

Running back Steven Jackson, who has been sidelined with a hamstring injury, was on the field in shorts observing his teammates but did not have a helmet. Linebacker Paul Worrilow did the same as he recovers from a knee injury suffered last Sunday.

Not present on the field were cornerback Asante Samuel (thigh), left tackle Sam Baker (knee), and linebacker Akeem Dent (ankle). Dent was spotted wearing a walking boot on his right foot while inside the locker room.

The Falcons will release their initial injury report of the week later.

Falcons' Baker exits game with injury

September, 29, 2013
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ATLANTA -- Atlanta Falcons left tackle Sam Baker exited Sunday night's game in the second quarter with what appeared to be a left knee injury.

Baker
Baker fell to the ground while trying to block, then was helped off the field by the training staff. After a few minutes in the bench area, Baker was taken to the locker room.

Baker started the game despite being questionable coming off knee and foot injuries. He missed last week's game against Miami.

Lamar Holmes, who was benched because of Baker's return to the starting lineup, replaced Baker at left tackle. Jeremy Trueblood started at right tackle, although Holmes started the season as the starting right tackle.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- If he had to do it all over again, Roddy White would have proceeded with more caution.

White
White
Instead, the Atlanta Falcons receiver opted to endure the pain after suffering a high-ankle sprain during an Aug. 15 exhibition against the Ravens. Now, more than a month later, White continues to be slowed by the injury. It won't, however, keep him from facing the New England Patriots come Sunday night.

"Yeah, I'm going to push through it," White said.

White, who missed a day of practice this week, was asked if the injury was more serious than he initially thought.

"Yeah, maybe now that I look back at it," he said. "But, you know, it is what it is. I can't go back and change it. I've already come this far. Every week, like I said, I've got to get better. And hopefully I'm not injured or hurt in the game or I don't re-injure it, I'll be better the next week."

White hasn't been his typical self and enters Week 4 as the Falcons' fifth-leading receiver with seven catches for 56 yards and no touchdowns. He has been targeted just nine times through three games. Julio Jones, the team's leading receiver with 27 catches (373 yards) has been targeted 35 times.

In terms of treating the ankle, the best option might be rest. White said he won't truly get to do so until the bye week, Oct. 12. For now, he simply has to continue getting treatment, including the hyperbaric chamber he has used for weeks.

"We've done everything medically you can do for an ankle sprain," White said. "Everything. There’s no stone unturned. These injuries just take time."

White noted how new teammate Osi Umenyiora once suffered a high-ankle sprain and couldn't do anything for five weeks. White won't have the luxury of resting for the same period of time unless the pain becomes unbearable.

"We're figuring out ways to get better, week in and week out," White said. "We're doing everything that we can, all the treatment and stuff, to get better. That’s all you can do."

UPDATE: White is listed as questionable on the official injury report.

Samuel
In other injury news, cornerback Asante Samuel was added to the injury report Friday as he continues to deal with a thigh issue. He is questionable to face his former team Sunday night. Samuel was inactive for the season opener against the Saints due to his thigh.

Also listed as questionable for the Falcons are wide receiver Julio Jones (knee) and tackle Sam Baker (foot/knee).

As previously reported, running back Steven Jackson (hamstring) won’t play against the Patriots and is expected to be sidelined another two to three weeks.

Center Peter Konz (knee), cornerback Robert McClain (knee), guard Garrett Reynolds (knee), and running back/special teamer Josh Vaughan (ankle) are all probable despite dealing with minor injuries.

In New England, the status of tight end Rob Gronkowski (forearm/back) and receiver Danny Amendola (groin) remains unclear. Both are questionable. Offensive lineman Sebastian Vollmer (foot) also is questionable, although he returned to practice Friday. Linebacker Jerod Mayo (ankle) was added to the injury report, but is probable.
FLOWERY BRANCH, GA. -- Wide receiver Roddy White, still recovering from a high-ankle sprain, and tackle Sam Baker, who missed the last game with a knee/foot injury, both returned to practice Thursday but were limited.

White
White
White and Baker were held out of Wednesday's practice as the Atlanta Falcons began preparation for Sunday night's showdown with the Patriots. White hasn't missed any game action despite dealing with the nagging injury.

Running back Steven Jackson was the only player held out of Thursday's practice. Jackson continues to recover from a hamstring injury and will miss Sunday's game.

Also limited in Thursday's practice were wide receiver Julio Jones (knee), center Peter Konz (knee) and guard Garrett Reynolds (knee). Cornerback Robert McClain (knee) and running back/special-teamer Josh Vaughan (ankle) had full participation.

In New England, offensive lineman Sebastian Vollmer (foot) and wide receiver/special-teamer Matthew Slater (wrist) were held out of practice. Tight end Rob Gronkowski (back/forearm) and wide receiver Danny Amendola (groin) both practiced but were limited.
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?

Around the NFC South

August, 14, 2013
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Time for a look at the top morning headlines from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Guard Phillipkeith Manley has been getting some work at left tackle. He’s not a threat to challenge Sam Baker, but becoming more versatile would only help Manley’s chances of sticking on the roster.

The folks at Pro Football Focus gave cornerback Desmond Trufant a low grade for his performance in the preseason opener.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Receiver Domenik Hixon said he’s about a week away from returning from a hamstring injury. Hixon needs to get back on the field as soon as possible. He had been ticketed for the No. 3 receiver spot. But Armanti Edwards and Ted Ginn Jr. have performed well in his absence.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Bradley Handwerger writes that defensive end Jay Richardson, who has bounced in and out of the league in recent years, is keeping an eye from a distance on his insurance firm as he tries to make the roster. Richardson, who also can play linebacker, might have a shot after Kenyon Coleman and Victor Butler suffered season-ending injuries.

Linebacker Martez Wilson, who has been dealing with an arm injury, said he has no doubt he’ll be ready for the regular-season opener.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

It’s no surprise that the Bucs have eight players from Rutgers on their roster, because that’s where Greg Schiano coached previously. But the surprising thing is that New England has nine former Rutgers players on its roster.
As they report to training camp, the Atlanta Falcons have all their draft picks signed.

First-round pick Desmond Trufant, who is expected to immediately compete for a starting cornerback job, came to an agreement with the team Wednesday. Quarterback Sean Renfree, a seventh-round pick, signed earlier in the day.

This continues an impressive streak by general manager Thomas Dimitroff and director of football operations Nick Polk for avoiding holdouts.

Since Dimitroff’s arrival in 2008, the team hasn’t had a true rookie holdout. There was one close call.

In 2008, offensive tackle Sam Baker signed his contract and headed to the practice field for the first session of camp. But Baker was pulled out of practice because his contract hadn’t yet been approved by the NFL. He was back on the field for the second session.

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