NFL Nation: Garrett Reynolds

INDIANAPOLIS – General manager Martin Mayhew met with the media on Wednesday at the NFL combine. Here’s what we learned about the Detroit Lions.

1. Mayhew is optimistic on Ndamukong Suh. This has been a consistent message from Mayhew since last year’s NFL combine, when he said he felt the team would get something done with the defensive tackle prior to last season’s free agency period. He said he is still confident in the team retaining Suh and that he believes the franchise has all the essential elements Suh is looking for in a franchise. He reiterated the team has not made a decision on the franchise tag with Suh yet and that they will continue negotiating with Suh’s agent, Jimmy Sexton. This, obviously, is one of the biggest deals of Mayhew’s tenure with the Lions.

Fairley
2. No decision on Nick Fairley: Any decision on Fairley – or other pending Lions free agents – will be tied to what happens with Suh negotiations. Mayhew said he is meeting with Fairley’s agent, Brian Overstreet, this week to discuss Fairley’s future with the club, but it would not be surprising to see no decision made until close to free agency. Mayhew did say he could envision a scenario where the team retained both Suh and Fairley, but that he also could see a scenario where Detroit could be without both of its first-round defensive tackles in 2015.

3. The Lions have interest in Matt Prater: After two seasons where the kicking game has been erratic, the Lions found a consistent kicker in Prater over the last two-thirds of the 2014 season. Mayhew said the franchise has been in talks with Prater’s agent about a contract and that those discussions will continue this week in Indianapolis. Detroit made 65.8 percent of its field goals last season, the worst percentage in the league, after going through three kickers: Nate Freese, Alex Henery and then Prater.

4. Reggie Bush’s status might be in question: The 29-year-old – he turns 30 next month – has been a popular candidate as a possible cap casualty for the Lions prior to 2015, especially if the team needs money to retain Suh. Mayhew was noncommittal about Bush’s future with Detroit, although he couched that by saying nobody’s future with the franchise is locked in. While that is true, that he mentioned the value a player can bring to the organization might be somewhat telling when it comes to Bush, who battled through injuries last season and gained only 334 yards on 84 carries.

5. Versatility will be key for the Lions' offensive line: Both in the draft and free agency, the Lions sound like they will prioritize versatility on the offensive line – especially after injuries suffered at the position last season. Mayhew specifically cited Travis Swanson’s ability to play guard and center – he started games at both spots last season – and Garrett Reynolds playing both tackle and guard in 2014. From the way Mayhew talked Wednesday, this is going to be a big draft priority and that the franchise is planning on building the line from there. That could impact whether Detroit really looks at free agents to help fill in on the line or the team will commit to drafting a lineman in the first or second round.
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A closer look at the areas the Detroit Lions could address in the draft. We'll get started Monday with a look at the offensive linemen, who are scheduled to work out Thursday and Friday in Indianapolis.

Position of need: The Lions need to draft linemen as part of reshaping an offensive line that allowed 45 sacks of Matthew Stafford in 2014. The team already moved on from Dominic Raiola and has decisions to make on left guard Rob Sims and reserves Corey Hilliard and Garrett Reynolds. Detroit could have as many as three new starters by 2015's season opener.

Three players the Lions could target in the draft:

Ereck Flowers (OT), Miami (Fla.): It would be somewhat surprising if he fell to Detroit at No. 23, but if he were there, the Lions should grab him immediately. He has great size for a tackle at 6-foot-6, 325 pounds and has started at left and right tackle in his career. His ESPN/Scouts Inc. profile rates him above average in pass protection and run blocking along with having exceptional toughness. He is ranked as the No. 3 tackle in the draft and the No. 15 player overall.

La'El Collins (OT/OG), LSU: He has played both tackle and guard during his time with the Tigers, giving Detroit versatility in where he could play if needed in a pinch. Named the top offensive lineman in the SEC as a senior, the 6-5, 315-pound Collins is rated as the top guard in the draft according to ESPN/Scouts Inc. He projects better as a tackle, though, and was a second-team All-American as a senior.

Laken Tomlinson (OG), Duke: This is not a first-round selection, but the Lions have done well finding quality linemen in the second and third rounds the past two years -- Travis Swanson in 2014 and Larry Warford in 2013. If Tomlinson, who was an AP All-American as a senior, is around in the second or third round, he might be a wise pick for Detroit. He is 6-3, 325 pounds and is ranked the No. 3 guard in the draft class according to ESPN/Scouts Inc.

The Film Don't Lie: Lions

November, 11, 2014
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A weekly look at what the Detroit Lions must fix:

The Lions have dealt with injuries all season long, but now the team is in a bit of a jam because those injuries are starting to pile up on an already fragile offensive line. Considering Detroit faces an Arizona run defense that is third in yards per game allowed (78.56) and fourth in yards per rush (3.35) in the NFL, that is going to be a problem Sunday.

Detroit gained 3.3 yards per carry against Miami, and if they are without both right guard Larry Warford (likely) and right tackle LaAdrian Waddle (unknown), it is going to be a major issue for the offense. The Lions will likely slide rookie Travis Swanson in to replace Warford as they did against Miami.

Right tackle is another issue and becomes a little trickier if Waddle is out. When he had been injured in the past, the Lions used a rotation of rookie Cornelius Lucas and veteran Garrett Reynolds at right tackle and could do so because of the talent and experience of Warford. Without him, the Lions are going to have to stick to one player -- likely Lucas -- if they are going to have any success.

Don't be surprised if Detroit ends up looking more to quick passes into the flat or running over the center or left side of the line. According to Pro Football Focus, Detroit has already been doing that somewhat, as they have 35 rushes over center, 25 in the gap between center and left guard and 23 between left guard and left tackle. The problem is they haven't averaged more than 3.3 yards a carry in any of those gaps, so this has to improve. In the passing game, this could also mean more quick reads and short passes for Matthew Stafford instead of longer-developing routes to mask potential problems on the line's right side.

The Film Don't Lie: Lions

September, 30, 2014
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A weekly look at what the Detroit Lions must fix:

Matthew Stafford is once again playing well at the start of the season, but for the Lions to have success against the Buffalo Bills and the rest of the year, he must receive better protection from his offensive line.

Stafford has been sacked 11 times, hit seven other times and hurried 31 times in four games, according to Pro Football Focus. Those numbers are all on pace to be far worse than last season, when the Lions were one of the best teams in the league at protecting their quarterback, allowing only 23 sacks.

Pro Football Focus gave three of Detroit’s linemen -- left guard Rob Sims and the right tackle combination of Garrett Reynolds and Cornelius Lucas -- negative grades. PFF has Sims charged with surrendering eight of those quarterback hurries while Dominic Raiola and Riley Reiff have six each.

The stats bear out the issues at right tackle, as Lucas and Reynolds allowed five sacks in three weeks. If the Lions felt truly comfortable with either player, they wouldn’t rotate between the two.

While it may not be an absolute fix, Detroit appears to be on track to have starting right tackle LaAdrian Waddle returning this week against the Bills. This should help in many ways. It would restore continuity to the offensive line and have the Lions starting their best five pass protectors. It also brings the return of a player who has yet to allow a sack in his career.

Considering Buffalo is sacking quarterbacks on 6.3 percent of dropbacks (12th in the league) Waddle might be returning at the perfect time for Detroit.

The Film Don't Lie: Lions

September, 23, 2014
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A weekly look at what the Detroit Lions must fix:

The New York Jets have one of the top rushing defenses in the NFL and have proven to be able to rush the quarterback well out of its 3-4 defense. When the Detroit Lions head to suburban New York City on Sunday, they’ll have to fix their lingering issue at right tackle if they are going to have a shot this week.

According to Pro Football Focus, the combination of Garrett Reynolds and Cornelius Lucas gave up a quarterback sack, a quarterback hit and two hurries on Matthew Stafford against Green Bay and Julius Peppers last week. That’s an issue the Lions are going to have to fix with defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson and outside linebackers Quinton Coples and Calvin Pace lined up against the right tackle. PFF also said both graded in the bottom 20 percent of pass blocking efficiency last week.

The Lions can solve this in one of three ways. The easiest would be hoping starting right tackle LaAdrian Waddle -- who plans on practicing Wednesday -- improves enough from his calf strain to rejoin the lineup Sunday.

If he can’t go, the Lions can either commit tight end Brandon Pettigrew to the right side of the line next to Reynolds or Lucas to provide extra help, although that could hinder some of Joe Lombardi scheming with the rest of Detroit’s offensive pieces.

The other option is to either stick with Lucas or Reynolds to let him build chemistry with right guard Larry Warford throughout the game instead of playing both players, turning the position into a potential turnstile for the Lions' offense and Jets' defense.

Safety James Ihedigbo inactive again

September, 21, 2014
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DETROIT -- James Ihedigbo must continue to wait for his first game as a Detroit Lion.

Ihedigbo, who was signed in the offseason as a replacement for the oft-injured Louis Delmas, will miss his third straight game at safety with a neck injury. Ihedigbo, who came over from Baltimore as the team's biggest defensive free-agent signing, has been doubtful the past two weeks.

In his place, Isa Abdul-Quddus will start.

As expected, Garrett Reynolds is picking up his second straight start at right tackle in place of the injured LaAdrian Waddle.

In a bit of good news for Detroit, Ezekiel Ansah, George Johnson and Nick Fairley are all active -- and rookie Larry Webster is active at defensive end for the first time, likely because of the injuries during the week to the aforementioned three defensive linemen.

Lions inactives: QB Kellen Moore, CB Cassius Vaughn S James Ihedigbo, FB Montell Owens, LB Travis Lewis, OT LaAdrian Waddle, WR Ryan Broyles
CHARLOTTE -- Garrett Reynolds began his week at home. He'll end it starting again in the NFL.

The Detroit Lions picked up the offensive lineman after Corey Hilliard was lost for the season with a Lisfranc injury and LaAdrian Waddle suffered a calf injury. He had been one of the Lions' final cuts in August and when Detroit decided to keep eight offensive linemen, Reynolds was out of a job.

But injuries brought him back to Detroit and then a week-long competition left him with a starting job, beating out undrafted free agent Cornelius Lucas at right tackle.

Reynolds started at right guard for Atlanta last season at Carolina and according to Pro Football Focus, allowed quarterback Matt Ryan to be hurried twice and had a minus-1.3 rating in run blocking. In 2012 he started for the Falcons at right guard against Carolina and had a plus-1.9 overall rating, according to PFF.

He hasn't played right tackle, though, since his rookie season after coming out of North Carolina.

Also, Isa Abdul-Quddus will make his second straight start at safety in place of James Ihedigbo, who is inactive.

Lions inactives: WR Kevin Ogletree; QB Kellen Moore; S Don Carey; S James Ihedigbo; RT LaAdrian Waddle; DE Larry Webster; WR Ryan Broyles.

Observation Deck: Detroit Lions

August, 28, 2014
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If Kellen Moore were trying to make a case to Detroit Lions general manager Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Caldwell for inclusion on the team’s 53-man roster, he certainly did it Thursday night.

Moore, who played the majority of the Lions’ 23-0 victory over Buffalo in the preseason finale, managed the game well and moved the ball down the field with relative ease. Yes, Moore continued to play with and against extreme backups, many of whom will not be on the Bills roster in 48 hours, but he did what he could with what he was given.

That included going 17-of-28 for 172 yards and two touchdowns. One of his touchdown passes, a 25-yarder to Corey Fuller, was threaded perfectly between defenders.

His status will be one of many calls for Lions coaches and Mayhew.

Here are some other thoughts from the Lions' preseason finale:
  • Left guard Garrett Reynolds blocked impressively on the first drive, sealing a pocket well for Dan Orlovsky. His candidacy hasn’t been discussed much as winning a job on the 53-man roster, but that he earned the start in the final preseason game over Rodney Austin, a young player who could use the reps, could be significant. On his second series, he got upfield blocking fairly well.
  • Wide receiver Ryan Broyles ended up as the punt returner after Jeremy Ross. Beyond the fact that Broyles' Achilles injury opened the door for Ross to return punts last season, that is a sign the team is trying to see what Broyles can give Detroit on special teams as it figures out whether to keep him on the roster. It was really interesting to see Broyles, who is in a tight receiver competition with Kevin Ogletree, Kris Durham and Fuller, on the field late in the fourth quarter with a bunch of players who won’t be on rosters by Monday.
  • Nate Freese was tabbed the team’s kicker earlier in the week. He responded by nailing a 53-yarder right down the middle in the first half and another 53-yarder in the second half Thursday night. He has rebounded well from his struggles early in camp and appears to have become a good option for Detroit.
  • Isa Abdul-Quddus probably locked up a roster spot Thursday night. He was around the ball consistently, intercepted another pass and was active on special teams. Add in both James Ihedigbo and Don Carey not traveling to Buffalo -- Carey’s been hurt -- and Abdul-Quddus should be safe this weekend. Jerome Couplin, who lined up with Abdul-Quddus a lot Thursday night, is on the bubble and could be one of two undrafted free agents with a legitimate chance to be on the 53-man roster along with tackle Cornelius Lucas. Lucas is in a fight with Michael Williams for the fourth tackle spot.
  • The Lions should be pretty happy. Unless something comes out about Ihedigbo and an injury, Detroit got out of the preseason with only injuries to Kyle Van Noy and Carey among potential major contributors. The Lions should be pleased to be so healthy.
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.
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?

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Atlanta Falcons will hold their first practice of training camp this afternoon. Here are five things I’ll be keeping a close eye on:

Steven Jackson. The Falcons signed Jackson to spice up their running game after Michael Turner ran out of gas last season. But Jackson’s not exactly young either. He turned 30 earlier this week, which isn’t always a good age for running backs. But I’m expecting to see Jackson show his legs are a good bit fresher than Turner’s.

How much Tony Gonzalez practices. Part of the reason the Falcons were able to coax Gonzalez out of retiring was because they made a deal that he could go lightly in training camp. I’m guessing Gonzalez’s participation will be extremely limited. But that’s good news because the Falcons know what they have in Gonzalez and they’ll be able to take an extended look at rookie tight end Levine Toilolo.

How the offensive line lines up. Center Todd McClure retired and right tackle Tyson Clabo was released. The Falcons are moving second-year pro Peter Konz from guard to center. Garrett Reynolds appears to be the favorite to take Konz’s spot at guard. Mike Johnson and Lamar Holmes are expected to compete at right tackle.

Stephen Nicholas. The veteran linebacker took a lot of heat from fans after opposing tight ends shredded the Falcons in the playoffs. But I’m not sure Nicholas was completely healthy. The Falcons still must have confidence in him because they didn’t make any dramatic moves at linebacker.

The defensive tackles. The Falcons had some talks with free agent Richard Seymour, but he has not been signed. That means the Falcons seem likely to head into the season with Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and Peria Jerry as their top three defensive tackles. All three are heading into the final year of their contracts and I’m curious to see who steps up.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What are the three key camp issues facing each NFC South team?

ATLANTA FALCONS

Offense: Reshuffled offensive line
Center Todd McClure retired and right tackle Tyson Clabo was released. The Falcons elected to go with youth and stick with guys already on their roster. Second-year pro Peter Konz should be fine at center after spending much of his rookie season at guard. But the right side is a question mark with Garrett Reynolds ticketed for guard and either Mike Johnson or Lamar Holmes at tackle. If the new starters don’t step up, this offensive line could have problems.

Defense: Pass rush
It seems reasonable to expect defensive end Osi Umenyiora to fill the shoes of John Abraham. But the Falcons need the pass rush to come from other areas, as well. Kroy Biermann likely will be used as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker, and he has some pass-rushing skills. Second-year defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi also has some potential. But defensive coordinator Mike Nolan might need to get more creative and blitz his linebackers and defensive backs more often.

Wild card: Kids have to be ready
The Falcons used their first two draft picks on cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. The Falcons need one of them to start right away, and the other likely will get a fair amount of playing time. Opponents are likely to test the rookies, so safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore might have to provide a lot of help early on.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Offense: Establishing an identity
The Panthers opened last season using a lot of read-option with quarterback Cam Newton. After a 2-8 start, they switched back to a more conventional running game and had much more success. I expect that trend to continue under new coordinator Mike Shula. Newton has the skills to be a very productive passer if this offense is executed the right way.

Defense: Secondary questions
Aside from free safety Charles Godfrey, no one has a clear-cut starting position in the defensive backfield. There are lots of candidates, such as Drayton Florence, Josh Norman, Josh Thomas and Captain Munnerlyn, at cornerback. But some of those guys will have to elevate their games for the Panthers to have success in defending the pass.

Wild card: Missing links?
With defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy and linebackers Luke Kuechly, Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, Carolina has the potential to have one of the league’s best front sevens. But that is largely contingent upon rookie defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. If they live up to the hype right off the bat, this front seven could be special.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Offense: Left tackle an open competition
After letting Jermon Bushrod go in free agency, the Saints have a glaring hole at left tackle. Charles Brown and Jason Smith haven’t done much in their careers, and rookie Terron Armstead is also in the mix. The Saints are hoping one of those three can step up. If not, the Saints might have to scramble to find a left tackle elsewhere.

Defense: Unit a question mark
After finishing last in the league in overall defense last season, the Saints brought in coordinator Rob Ryan and switched to a 3-4 scheme. The changes are probably a good thing, mainly because things can’t get much worse than they were last season. But it remains to be seen whether Ryan has the type of personnel to make his defense work.

Wild card: Payton’s return
If nothing else, Sean Payton’s suspension last year illustrated the true value of a head coach. He’s back now, and that should be a major positive. Payton is great with X's and O's, but he also is an excellent motivator. I expect Payton and the Saints to use what happened last year as fuel for this season.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Offense: Franchise quarterback?
It clearly is a make-or-break year for quarterback Josh Freeman as he heads into the last year of his contract. Freeman has done some very good things, but he has struggled to deliver the kind of consistency coach Greg Schiano wants. The Bucs have a strong running game with Doug Martin and two good receivers in Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. There will be no one else to blame but Freeman if this offense doesn’t prosper.

Defense: Pass rush
The Bucs let last year’s leading sacker, Michael Bennett, walk in free agency. It was a calculated gamble because the Bucs have a lot invested in Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers and believe they can be a strong duo at defensive end. They'd better be right. If they’re not, the revamped secondary might not be as good as it looks on paper.

Wild card: Leadership void
Aside from recently retired Ronde Barber, this team hasn’t had a lot of obvious leadership in recent years. Even Barber was more of a leader-by-example type than a vocal leader. The Bucs need some other players to step up. Newcomers such as cornerback Darrelle Revis and safety Dashon Goldson seem to be the most likely candidates to fill the leadership void.

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