NFL Nation: Garrett Reynolds

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
11/21/13
11:33
PM ET

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.
It has to be a bittersweet time for the Atlanta Falcons with center Todd McClure saying he’s going to retire.

McClure
A formal announcement is expected after owner Arthur Blank returns from next week's NFL meetings. Let’s start this off by sending some kudos McClure’s way. Drafted by Atlanta in 1999, McClure has been a fixture on the offensive line through some very good times and some bad times. He’s been a class act all the way and still was playing at a high level last season.

But McClure said it’s time to move on.

That means it also is time for the Falcons to move on. Replacing McClure’s leadership and experience won’t be easy. But the Falcons do have some other options at center and they’ve prepared for this moment by drafting Peter Konz and Joe Hawley in recent years.

The most likely scenario is Konz, who started at guard the second half of last season, shifting to center. That’s the position Konz played in college. If Konz makes the move, it could clear the way for Garrett Reynolds to move back in as a starting guard.

Reynolds began last season as a starter. But he suffered an injury and was replaced by Konz.
I just got a look at the official numbers of the contract safety William Moore recently signed with the Atlanta Falcons.

Moore
The five-year deal averages $5.913 million per season and $14 million of the deal is guaranteed. Moore received an $8.25 million signing bonus.

Moore’s cap figure for this year is $3.9 million, including $2.25 million in guaranteed base salary. His $3.5 million base salary in 2014 also is guaranteed. Moore’s base salary stays at $3.5 million in 2015. Moore’s base salary is scheduled to jump to $4.5 million in 2016 and $6.25 million in 2017, but there also are escalator clauses in the final two years that could increase his base salaries.

Also, the two-year extension signed by offensive lineman Garrett Reynolds is worth an average of $1.294 million per season. Reynolds got a $500,000 signing bonus and his base salary for this season is $715,000. Reynolds’ base salary for $2014 is $1.285 million, but the contract includes an escalator that can raise that number.

With the Moore and Reynolds contracts factored in, the Falcons have about $15.4 million in available salary-cap room. But don’t expect a free-agent frenzy. The Falcons are working on a contract to bring tight end Tony Gonzalez back for another season. They also are trying to re-sign left tackle Sam Baker and cornerback Brent Grimes.
The Atlanta Falcons continue to follow through on their pledge to retain most of their own free agents.

The team just announced guard Garrett Reynolds has agreed to terms on a two-year contract. Reynolds could have become an unrestricted free agent.

Keeping Reynolds gives the Falcons flexibility on the offensive line. Reynolds started the first six games of last season at right guard before being placed on injured reserve. Rookie Peter Konz stepped in and played well. But Konz’s long-term future could be at center.

That means Reynolds has a chance to end up as a starting guard again. Reynolds also has the ability to play tackle. The Falcons still are trying to re-sign left tackle Sam Baker, who can become an unrestricted free agent Tuesday.

Reviewing NFC South free agents

March, 7, 2013
3/07/13
10:42
AM ET
We’ve shown you the lists of potential NFC South free agents before. But let’s do it again because there have been some minor moves and the free-agency period is getting ready to start Tuesday.

Here’s the list of potential free agents for all four NFC South teams:

Atlanta Falcons. Tony Gonzalez, Brent Grimes, Sam Baker, William Moore, Will Svitek, Mike Cox, Todd McClure, Luke McCown, Christopher Owens, Mike Peterson, Garrett Reynolds, Lawrence Sidbury and Vance Walker all can become unrestricted free agents. Michael Palmer can become a restricted free agent.

Carolina Panthers. The potential unrestricted free agents are Derek Anderson, Antwan Applewhite, Gary Barnidge, Dwan Edwards, Ben Hartsock, Sherrod Martin, Captain Munnerlyn, Louis Murphy and Mike Pollak. Richie Brockel can become an exclusive-rights free agent. Andre Neblett, Nate Ness and Jason Phillips are scheduled to become restricted free agents.

New Orleans Saints. Jermon Bushrod, Jonathan Casillas, Chase Daniel, Sedrick Ellis, Devery Henderson, Ramon Humber, Elbert Mack, Turk McBride, Will Robinson, Courtney Roby and Scott Shanle can become unrestricted free agents. Brian De La Puente, Justin Drescher, Junior Galette and Chris Ivory are scheduled to become restricted free agents. Eric Olsen and Michael Higgins can become exclusive-rights free agents.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Ronde Barber, Dallas Clark, Michael Bennett, E.J. Biggers, Andrew Economos, Geno Hayes, Roy Miller, Roscoe Parrish, Sammie Stroughter and Jeremy Trueblood can become unrestricted free agents. LeGarrette Blount, Jacob Cutrera, Corvey Irvin and Daniel Te’o-Nesheim are scheduled to become restricted free agents.

Looking at Atlanta's free agents

February, 11, 2013
2/11/13
9:16
AM ET
We still have a little more than a month left before the start of free agency, but let’s start taking a look at who the potential free agents are for each NFC South team. Let’s start with the Atlanta Falcons.

Their potential unrestricted free agents are tight end Tony Gonzalez, cornerback Brent Grimes, tackle Sam Baker, safety William Moore, tackle Will Svitek, fullback Mike Cox, center Todd McClure, quarterback Luke McCown, cornerback Christopher Owens, linebacker Mike Peterson, tackle Garrett Reynolds, defensive end Lawrence Sidbury and defensive tackle Vance Walker. Running back Antone Smith and tight end Michael Palmer are potential restricted free agents.

This is a group that’s heavy at the top. Gonzalez, Moore, Baker and Grimes all are starters and potentially expensive. McClure might be near the end of the line, but he started last season and brings valuable leadership.

The Falcons are pleading heavily with Gonzalez to return for one more season. If he decides to retire, they’ll have to make major changes to their offensive scheme because you just don’t find another tight end with the same skill set.

The Falcons have limited salary-cap space, but, much like last offseason, they’ll make a strong effort to keep their team together.

Moore has turned into a Pro Bowler and Baker had a very solid 2012 season. The beauty of Moore is that he’s a safety and the market price shouldn’t be that high at that position. Left tackles are more expensive, but the Falcons have built a level of trust with Baker and they might be able to keep him at a reasonable rate. Besides, it would be difficult and expensive to go out and find a new left tackle in free agency or the draft.

Grimes is likely to be the biggest challenge in this free-agency class. Although he is undersized and coming off a major injury, Grimes is likely to command big money on the open market. The Falcons also have decent money tied up in Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel, and Robert McClain showed strong signs he can be a solid No. 3 or No. 2 corner. The Falcons are likely to treat Grimes the same way they did linebacker Curtis Lofton last year. They’ll draw a line in the sand as far as what they’re willing to pay and won’t go over it if he gets a bigger offer elsewhere.

The Falcons have invested a fair amount of draft picks on the interior of the offensive line in recent years, so I can’t see them paying more than the minimum to bring McClure back. They also should be able to retain McCown and Cox for the minimum or close to it. Sidbury, Reynolds and Owens have had plenty of chances, but haven’t developed into impact players. If they get decent offers elsewhere, I don’t see the Falcons making a big effort to keep them. Peterson is a veteran who could come back for one more year at the minimum to provide some linebacker depth.

Walker is a solid role player on the defensive line. But he could get more money elsewhere and I don’t see the Falcons going out of their way to keep him.
The Seattle Seahawks added defensive end Chris Clemons and kicker Steven Hauschka to their injured reserve lists this week.

Rookie Bruce Irvin, the 15th overall choice in the draft, will start in Clemons' place. Recently signed veteran Ryan Longwell will handle kicking duties for Hauschka.

Those moves led me to compile IR lists for remaining NFC playoff teams. I used the reserve lists at Ourlads.com, which updates its rosters daily.

Time to check in on the most significant injuries for Sunday’s game involving NFC South teams.

New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham (ankle) will be a game-time decision, according to assistant head coach Joe Vitt. But Graham seemed to progress as the week went on and I think there’s a decent chance he’ll play Sunday at Denver. Vitt also said linebacker David Hawthorne (hamstring) will be a game-time decision. Hawthorne missed a lot more practice time than Graham, so it might be another week before we see him.

Carolina defensive end Charles Johnson (hip) is listed as probable. He’s going to have to play a lot because backup Antwan Applewhite (knee) is out and Thomas Keiser (elbow) is doubtful.

The Falcons declared receiver Harry Douglas (ankle/knee) will be out for Sunday’s game at Philadelphia. That means the Falcons will have to turn to either Drew Davis or Kevin Cone as their third receiver. Right guard Garrett Reynolds (back) is listed as questionable. That could clear the way for rookie Peter Konz to get his first start.

Falcons' faith in Sam Baker paying off

September, 27, 2012
9/27/12
1:00
PM ET
Sam BakerAP Photo/Paul Abell Sam Baker's improved play at left tackle is one reason the Atlanta Falcons are 3-0.
You need to go back to what seemed like the winter of Sam Baker's NFL career to fully understand why everything is in full bloom these days.

The left tackle is playing the best he ever has and it’s no coincidence the Atlanta Falcons are off to a 3-0 start.

It wasn’t always like this. In fact, it’s never even been close to this for Baker, whose first four seasons were filled with injuries and criticism. It got so bad in a 2011 season in which Baker lost his starting job that he was pretty sure his days in Atlanta were over.

But two intertwined events happened last winter that changed Baker’s perspective on life and maybe -- just maybe -- will go a long way toward changing the fortunes of a franchise.

The first came on Christmas. That’s the day Baker and wife Antoinette had their first child. That’s the day Gunnar Harvey Baker was born.

“All of the sudden, you realize it’s not all about you,’’ Baker said. “All of the sudden, I realized it doesn’t matter if everybody in the world hates me and says I can’t play because he was there to love me and he didn’t care one bit about football. He needed me and was going to love me no matter what.’’

It’s ironic because within the next couple of weeks, Baker would get a similar message from someone else. Even with Gunnar around, nothing else was guaranteed for Baker.

Atlanta’s season, one in which the Falcons seemingly had gone all-in for the Super Bowl with the draft-day trade to get Julio Jones, ended long before anyone expected. It ended with an ugly 24-2 loss to the New York Giants in the first round of the playoffs.

“I had struggled and hadn’t played well at all,’’ Baker said. “I really wasn’t sure what was going to happen. I thought I might be gone.’’

A lot of people just assumed Baker would be gone. Before the team buses even departed the Meadowlands that day, fans already were talking about how the Falcons needed to go find a new left tackle to protect quarterback Matt Ryan's blind side. The Falcons didn’t have a first-round draft pick, but maybe they could trade for one. Or maybe they could go out and find one in free agency.

[+] EnlargeAtlanta's Sam Baker
Fernando Medina/US PRESSWIRE"I really wasn't sure what was going to happen," Sam Baker said of his status following last season. "I thought I might be gone."
As the brain trust got settled back into the team’s Flowery Branch facility and brought in new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and offensive line coach Pat Hill, there were some high-level meetings about Baker’s future.

That’s when public opinion and reality went in different directions. That’s when coach Mike Smith, who often comes across as a father figure to his players, called in Baker and talked to him like a son.

“I told Sam we were sticking with him, but that he needed to get away from football for a bit,’’ Smith said. “I told him to go get his body rested up and healthy. The guy has always been tough and resilient, but the fact of the matter is Sam rarely was truly healthy from the day he first got here.’’

Baker walked out of the meeting as surprised as fans would be as time went on and they realized they weren’t getting a new left tackle.

“To be totally honest, I went in there with a ton of uncertainty on my part,’’ Baker said. “I felt honored that they still had faith in me. You don’t get a lot of loyalty in the NFL. I decided right then that I needed to listen to him, put my head down and go all out.’’

Baker went to his offseason home in California. He spent time with Gunnar and the rest of his family.

“I unplugged mentally,’’ Baker said. “My wife had been telling me for years that I needed to unplug once in a while; that I wore it all on my sleeve and took it too hard when things weren’t going well.’’

There was time for Baker’s soul to heal. Same for his body, especially the back and elbow problems that bothered him so much last season. Within a few weeks, Baker began working with some personal trainers.

It wasn’t the heavy weightlifting he usually did in the offseason and there wasn’t anything focused specifically on football.

“The emphasis was on movement and just getting my body loose,’’ Baker said.

The funny thing here is that even though he’s 6-foot-5 and 301 pounds, the ability to move fairly well was the one bright spot early in Baker’s career. Scouts and coaches said he had remarkably quick feet for a guy his size.

But, as the injuries piled up, Baker couldn’t even move well anymore. That’s why the Falcons gave his starting job to journeyman Will Svitek and briefly -- and unsuccessfully -- tried Baker at guard.

When the Falcons started their offseason program in the spring and Baker returned to Atlanta, he continued working with director of athletic performance Jeff Fish on his movement. When training camp rolled around, Smith noticed a huge difference in Baker. It’s carried over into the regular season and Smith said Baker is playing better than ever.

“Absolutely,’’ Smith said. “Sam’s healthy and that makes a big difference. “You can see that he’s moving much more fluidly. He’s playing very well and so is our entire offensive line. They’re doing a great job protecting Matt and when Matt is able to stay on his feet, he’s able to distribute the ball and make a lot of good things happen.’’

The way the offensive line is playing brings us back to another story about Gunnar. The Bakers chose his middle name as a way to honor Harvey Dahl. He was a guard for the Falcons when Baker first came into the league and the two built a strong friendship. Dahl left Atlanta as a free agent last season and those that weren’t blaming Baker for all the offensive line’s problems last season were pointing to Dahl’s departure as the reason for the downfall.

Dahl, Baker, center Todd McClure, guard Justin Blalock and tackle Tyson Clabo had been together since 2008. Garrett Reynolds, who ended up in Dahl’s spot last year and remains there, joined the Falcons in 2009.

“When Harvey left and we had some injuries early last year, I think there were some issues with continuity on the line,’’ Baker said. “But this is a great group and most of us have been together for five years. We all love each other and you can really see the continuity coming through now.’’

Maybe that continuity is shining because the Falcons gave Baker some emotional nurturing and allowed him to grow as a person. And, perhaps most of all, they gave him time to heal and become the player they always thought he could be.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider

NFL SCOREBOARD