NFL Nation: Jonathan Babineaux

Mike NolanScott Cunningham/Getty ImagesFalcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan won't be lacking depth up front in 2014.
The Atlanta Falcons aren't panicking -- at least not yet -- over their inability to secure a top pass-rusher this offseason.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pressure is on.
It was clear from the outset how the Atlanta Falcons wanted to approach free agency: Get stronger up front.

The offensive and defensive lines struggled miserably last season. So if money was going to be spent on free agents, it was bound to be spent on offensive and defensive linemen, not safeties or tight ends.

Such was the case when the Falcons agreed to terms with defensive linemen Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson, and offensive guard Jon Asamoah.

Starting with Soliai, the Falcons rewarded the big nose tackle with a five-year contract with a max value of $33 million with $14 million guaranteed, according to a source familiar with the negotiations. The 6-foot-4, 340-pound Soliai immediately becomes the Falcons' most intimidating defensive lineman. And he'll be counted upon to take on double teams and pave the way for the linebackers to make plays with the Falcons expected to move toward more of a 3-4-based scheme.

Jackson (6-4, 296) will be a key figure up front, too. The former third-overall pick in 2009 was drafted by Falcons assistant general manager Scott Pioli when Pioli was the Chiefs' general manager. Jackson reportedly received a five-year deal worth a max of $25 million.

And Asamoah, who also agreed to a five-year deal (financial terms were not immediately available), might be the guy with the biggest burden to carry. The offensive line has been horrendous, allowing Matt Ryan to be the league's most pressured quarterback last season. The Falcons hope Asamoah steps in at right guard and develops into a stabilizing force. He is known for his pass protection and should be able to provide support as a run-blocker.

"Jon is a physical, experienced offensive lineman that will add a veteran presence to our offensive line," Falcons coach Mike Smith said about Asamoah.

The Falcons got it right. They addressed the most pressing needs from the outside and also re-signed two other key figures in center Joe Hawley and defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux. Hawley should start in the middle with Asamoah and left guard Justin Blalock next to him. Babineaux should add depth to the defensive line rotation.

It all could equal a climb back to the top for the Falcons, although other aspects still need to take shape. The release of former Pro Bowl free safety Thomas DeCoud means the Falcons have to find a capable replacement next to strong safety William Moore. There is still a void at tight end with Tony Gonzalez retiring, although Levine Toilolo will be counted upon to elevate his game.

More importantly, the Falcons need to look at adding an offensive tackle and pass-rusher, maybe through the draft. The names that immediately come to mind are Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson, Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews, Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan and Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack. Right now, the Falcons hold the sixth-overall pick in the draft.

It will make for some interesting decisions to come. But for now, the Falcons made the right choice.

"We were focused on adding pieces along our offensive and defensive lines, and I feel we were able to accomplish that today," general manager Thomas Dimitroff said.

Certainly the Falcons have much more to accomplish.
Sometimes value can't be determined simply by a dollar amount.

Such is the case with Atlanta Falcons veteran defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, who agreed to a three-year extension with the team Tuesday hours before the official start of free agency. He is on track to finish his productive career in the place it started, with no stops in between.

The deal is reportedly worth $4 million guaranteed in 2014 and $9 million over three years, according to's Ian Rapoport. But Babineaux's worth to the Falcons is immeasurable. He is a locker-room leader, the consummate professional who continually sets an example for the younger players around him. Babineaux has been a Falcon since 2005, when he was drafted in the second round out of Iowa.

Some would say Babineaux, who turns 33 in October, won't have much impact on a defense in need of dramatic improvement going into 2014. But it's not about sacks or snaps for him next season. It's about chemistry and leadership.

The Falcons have plans to use more of a 3-4-based defensive scheme next season, which doesn't exactly cater to Babineaux's strengths. But he'll get ample opportunity to help stop the run and pressure quarterbacks even if he's not the featured guy. The Falcons already made one veteran defender a situational player when defensive end Osi Umenyiora was asked to be a designated pass-rusher toward the end of last season.

How about a designated run-stuffer?

However things unfold, Babineaux is sure to leave his mark next season and after he finally steps away from the game.

The Falcons have benefited from his presence all this time. There's no reason to believe they won't reap the same benefits for the next three seasons.
The top two free agents (Jimmy Graham and Greg Hardy) in the NFC South have been hit with the franchise tag. But plenty of division talent is on the market -- and that doesn't even include Darren Sproles, who will be either traded or released by the Saints. The four writers who cover the NFC South (Pat Yasinskas in Tampa Bay, Mike Triplett in New Orleans, David Newton in Carolina and Vaughn McClure in Atlanta) got together and picked the top 15 free agents in the division.

1. Jimmy Graham, Saints TE: Whether he's a tight end or receiver, he has been one of the most dynamic playmakers in the NFL, leading the league with 36 TD catches over the past three years.

2. Greg Hardy, Panthers DE: The Panthers had no choice but to place the franchise tag on Hardy. He played both defensive end spots, tackle and dropped into coverage. He led the team in sacks and quarterback hurries.

3. Jonathan Babineaux, Falcons DT: Aging veteran Babineaux still has a knack for getting in the backfield, although he would admit his sack numbers need to be better.

[+] EnlargeZach Strief
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsZach Strief, a seventh-round pick in 2006, has spent his entire eight-year career in New Orleans.
4. Mike Mitchell, Panthers S: He brought an attitude to the league's second-ranked defense with his aggressiveness.

5. Zach Strief, Saints OT: Strief is a solid veteran starter coming off his best season to date. He's not a dominator, but versatile and experienced enough to start for just about any NFL team.

6. Brian de la Puente, Saints C: He has been another solid starter over the past three years and finished strong in 2013 after a slow start.

7. Lance Moore, Saints WR: Moore's role diminished in the Saints' offense last year, but the sure-handed slot receiver is one year removed from a 1,000-yard season and can still be an asset at age 30.

8. Malcolm Jenkins, Saints S: He is a full-time starter who shows flashes of big-play potential every year, but the former first-round pick has never consistently met lofty expectations.

9. Captain Munnerlyn, Panthers CB: He may be undersized at 5-foot-9, but he proved he could be an every-down corner for the first time in his career.

10. Ted Ginn Jr., Panthers WR: Not only did he give quarterback Cam Newton the deep threat that he needed, he led the team in kickoff and punt returns.

11. Jabari Greer, Saints CB: Greer was one of the most underrated corners in the NFL over the past five years, but now he’s 32 and recovering from a major knee injury.

12. Peria Jerry, Falcons DT: The former first-round pick hasn't lived up to expectations in part due to injury, but he has shown a few flashes.

13. Erik Lorig, Buccaneers FB: Lorig is a versatile fullback who can make an impact as a lead blocker in the running game and also has some ability as a receiver out of the backfield.

14. Bruce Campbell, Panthers OT: With the retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross there's at least an opportunity for Campbell to be in the mix for a starting position.

15. Adam Hayward, Buccaneers LB: Hayward is one of the league’s better players on special teams. He also has value as a backup because he can play inside and outside linebacker.

Franchise/transition tags: Falcons

February, 17, 2014
Feb 17
The franchise tag might have entered into play for the Atlanta Falcons this season had Matt Ryan's contract been an issue.

It isn't.

The quarterback was locked up prior to last season with a five-year, $103.75 million contract extension that included $59 million guaranteed. It kept 2013 from being the final year of his original six-year, $72 million rookie contract ($34.74 million guaranteed).

In others words, it won't be a concern for the Falcons once the first day for designating the franchise tag on a player comes Monday. The last time the Falcons used the franchise tag was on cornerback Brett Grimes in 2012 -- at a one-year price of $10.28 million -- as the two sides were unable to reach a long-term deal. Grimes, who suffered a season-ending Achilles' injury that year, now faces the possibility of being tagged again as the member of the Miami Dolphins.

As for the Falcons, they have no reason to designate a franchise player this year among a group of impending unrestricted free agents that includes defensive tackles Jonathan Babineaux, Peria Jerry and Corey Peters. Some of the others bound for free agency include center Joe Hawley, tight end Chase Coffman and offensive tackle Mike Johnson. Free agency officially begins at 4 p.m. on March 11, although teams are allowed to negotiating with agents of players on other teams on March 9.

Maybe the franchise tag comes into play for the Falcons again if for some reason they can't get top receiver Julio Jones signed to a long-term deal before the 2015 season.

The deadline for designating franchise or transition players is 4 p.m. March 3. Eight players were slapped with the franchise tag last season.

Once a team designates a franchise player, it has until July 15 to work out a long-term extension with that player.

And once again, that shouldn't apply to the Falcons this year.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- It's hard to imagine where the Atlanta Falcons' defense would be without Jonathan Babineaux.

In a dismal season where yielding big plays has been the norm for the unit, Babineaux has maintained a high level of consistency, despite the team's 4-10 record.

The defensive tackle's steady play hasn't gone unnoticed.

"Well, Jonathan Babineaux, I think, has really had a very good season,'' Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "He's been very disruptive. You know, Jonathan makes those plays in the defensive backfield – many times he's led the league since we've been here in minus-yardage plays.

"He had the two fumble recoveries [against Washington]. Jonathan has the ability to basically play in three of the four spots on our defensive front. And he's a very good leader of that group; has been since we've been here. He's probably the one constant that we've had now since Day 1. Jonathan is a tough, hard-nosed, smart football player.''

Smith's high praise makes it even harder to fathom the Falcons taking the field without Babineaux next year. He is set to become a free agent at season's end, and there has been no progress just yet toward signing him to a new deal.

Babineaux believes his play warrants another contract, but it's not his call.

"That's just part of the business,'' he said. "I'm just going to go out there and continue to work; do what I do. And we'll see at the end of the season what's going to happen.''

Babineaux is one of three Falcons defensive linemen set to become unrestricted free agents along with Peria Jerry and Corey Peters. Although the Falcons are trying to incorporate more young players into the lineup down the stretch in order to get a glimpse of the future, the bulk of inexperienced players along the defensive line are defensive ends, not tackles such as Babineaux.

At the same time, the Falcons could decide to go younger at defensive tackle, too. Babineaux understands the reality and the possibility of having to test the free-agent market for the first time.

"I definitely want to finish my career here in Atlanta,'' he said. "I started here. I've been through the good times, the bad times. And I definitely want to finish here. So, we'll have a lot of time for that in the offseason – for them and me to decide on something. Hopefully, I'll be able to continue my career here.''

Smith refused to discuss any details related to Babineaux's contract situation. Babineaux has a base salary of $4.7 million this season.

"Jonathan's been an integral part of our success here,'' Smith said, "and I can hope that he continues to be an Atlanta Falcon. We all do.''

Babineaux was a second-round draft pick of the Falcons in 2005. Entering this season, he led all defensive tackles since '05 with 49.5 tackles for loss. He currently leads the Falcons with seven tackles for a loss this season to go with one sack.

Babineaux's teammates look up to him for his play on the field and community service away from football.

"Babs is one of the most consistent lineman in the NFL,'' receiver Harry Douglas said. "He's a tough player and comes up big when we need him to.

"I'm close to him. I watch him work every day. And he's a true professional. It's always great to have a guy like that.''
ATLANTA -- A few halftime notes with the Atlanta Falcons trailing the Washington Redskins, 20-17:

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

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

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

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

Redskins Game day: Ten Thoughts

December, 15, 2013
Kirk CousinsRob Carr/Getty ImagesKirk Cousins gets his chance to start Sunday for the Washington Redskins.
1. If I’m Robert Griffin III, I’m wondering why the Redskins became worried about my health before a game against a bad defense that doesn’t apply much pressure – yet left me in to face a good defense in bad field conditions the previous week. When there are so many other aspects to this story, and when so many leaks come out, it’s hard not to wonder about every potential motive. Maybe it’s as simple as being about his health. Maybe it’s performance related. Maybe spite. Because of the distrust on either side this still doesn’t feel all that simple.

2. Griffin was laughing and joking with a couple teammates in the locker room after practice, so it’s not as if he’s walking around defeated all the time. His practice demeanor, in the portions open to the media, did not seem any different. But there is little doubt that he remains bothered by this mess and can’t wait to reach the offseason. This is just my opinion, but in reading the situation and being around Griffin, it’s tough to see it ever working with him and coach Mike Shanahan. That’ s not to blame one side or the other, but that’s just the way it is.

3. If Kirk Cousins lights up the Falcons, there will definitely be some who will take that and use it as more criticism toward Griffin. Make no mistake, the second-year quarterback hasn’t looked sharp at all in three of the past four games. He is a young quarterback enduring growing pains and definitely not always getting the help he needs from others. In the past four games he’s faced two defenses currently ranked in the top 10 (New York and San Francisco) and two who are 20th or below (Philadelphia, Kansas City). If you’re going to rip him, you need to be fair and point out everything. Griffin holds the ball too long and does miss open targets and does need to work on his pocket presence, learning to keep his eyes downfield and not stare down targets (Derrick Johnson nearly picked off two passes because of this last week). But if Cousins plays well Sunday, it doesn’t mean that Griffin wouldn’t have done the same against the NFL’s 26th-ranked defense (20th against the pass, but opposing quarterbacks have an NFL best 104.3 passer rating against the Falcons; only one other team is close. Yes, the Redskins at 101.2).

4. I am curious to see Cousins play, just like everyone else. It certainly adds intrigue to the on-field performance in the next three games and will serve as a couple-hour diversion from the other mess surrounding the franchise. I have heard so many mixed opinions from NFL types who have studied or watched Cousins. Some love him; some consider him just a backup. The Redskins coaches, obviously, are in the former category. They really do believe Cousins can be a quality starter in the NFL. They also thought Pat White would be on someone’s roster this season.

5. Cousins’ understanding of the offense, helped by being in his second season and getting so many offseason reps, should help Sunday. Cousins said he felt better prepared for this game than he did a year ago at Cleveland, when he subbed for an injured Griffin. “I’m comfortable, I can be more decisive,” Cousins said.

6. Atlanta’s defense does have some talent, especially up front with tackle Jonathan Babineaux, who had a strong game against Washington last season. The Falcons will send the occasional blitz and they will also try to move around at times and disguise fronts and coverages. The problem is, that often gets them out of position and leaves gaps in the coverage. Looks like they try to make you work your way downfield, but if you’re patient you will.

7. Another player to watch: running back Alfred Morris. The Falcons tend to flow hard to the play side, which means there could be good cutback lanes available. Morris did a terrific job setting up some runs against the Falcons last year, stringing out linebacker Sean Weatherspoon on one run before cutting inside. This isn't related, but watch out for tight end Tony Gonzalez near the goal line; the vet sells the run fakes well on play-action passes and the Redskins have been stung by that in the past.

8. For better or worse, way too much of this season has been about Griffin: When will he return? How does he look in camp? Is he ready? Do the coach and quarterback really not get along? Is he still hurt? Why is he struggling? Is he back to his old self? Is he a leader? Is he too tight with the owner? Every week a new line of questions. It’ll finish up with questions about how he’s handling his situation? Some of this Griffin brought on himself; the initial leaks in this whole story came from his side. But certainly not all of them. Now you have both sides leaking stories. It’s just not healthy. If I were Griffin, I’d lay low. He can ultimately regain his standing just by going out and playing well next year. All would then be forgotten.

9. Will London Fletcher return next season? We still don’t know, though I’d be surprised. Here’s what defensive coordinator Jim Haslett had to say about Fletcher: “He’s effective. He’s not doing as much as he’s done before in the past, coverage-wise, on third down but I think he’s playing pretty well. ... Let me say this – how many linebackers do you know that are 38 years old that playing in the game? There’s not many. ... Age catches up with everybody, and he’s played a long, long time. He’s had a great career and whether he plays another year or not, obviously that’s up to him, but I think as you get older you can’t do the things that you did when you were 28, 29, 25, 26. That’s just life. That’s how it works.”

10. What happens if the Redskins get blown out and Cousins plays poorly? I can’t say that I’ve heard a lot about that scenario. But if this really is becoming a standoff about money, then I don’t know if something like that occurs that anything would change regarding Shanahan’s status, unless one side buckles. It still would be a surprise to see him return for 2014. The same questions asked since the spring would return. Who wants that?
ATLANTA -- Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez and defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux are active for Thursday night's game against the New Orleans Saints despite being listed as questionable for the contest.

Gonzalez has been dealing with a toe injury for the last two weeks, while Babineaux suffered a triceps injury in last week's loss to Tampa Bay.

Also active for the Falcons despite being listed as questionable are quarterback Dominique Davis (knee) and safety Zeke Motta (broken finger). Motta is set to play with a cast on his right hand.

Defensive tackle Peria Jerry (shoulder), running back Jacquizz Rodgers (ankle), linebacker Paul Worrilow (shoulder) and tackle Jeremy Trueblood (knee/hip) are all active coming off injuries. Trueblood is expected to start at right tackle.

Inactive for the Falcons are the following players: RB Josh Vaughn, DB Kemal Ishmael, LB Omar Gaither, G Harland Gunn, OT Sean Locklear, WR Brian Robiskie and DE Malliciah Goodman.

Upon Further Review: Falcons Week 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

Locker Room Buzz: Atlanta Falcons

October, 27, 2013
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Observed in the locker room after the Atlanta Falcons' 27-13 loss to the Arizona Cardinals at the University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday:

No rush: Steven Jackson, in a burgundy sport coat, was dressed to impress following Sunday’s game. But during the action, he was all dressed up with nowhere to go after rushing for just 6 yards on 11 carries in his return from a hamstring injury suffered in Week 2. "It was tough sledding today," Jackson said. "The Arizona defense came out there, did a really good job against the run. Definitely not the production that I wanted to see out of myself."

Big-play problem: There were a lot of long faces in the locker room, and the defensive players seemed to be sulking a little more after surrendering an 80-yard touchdown run to Cardinals running back Andre Ellington. "Leverage is the name of the game," safety William Moore said. "You’ve got to hold leverage. He got outside the defense, and that’s it." Ellington finished with 154 rushing yards on 15 carries. The Falcons also surrendered a 51-yard pass play.

In the rotation: Starting defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux was not on the field for Ellington’s touchdown run. Neither was fellow veteran Osi Umenyiora, the starter at right defensive end. True, the Falcons have been using a rotation along the defensive line while working in young players, but the move seemed a little curious at the time. "You know, we have our rotation on the D-line. I just wasn’t in that series," Babineaux said.

Protection issues: Being behind forced Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan to attempt a career-high 61 passes. The high number of dropbacks meant more opportunities for Ryan to get hit, of course. He was sacked four times, and the Cardinals were credited with 11 quarterback hits. Asked if the offensive line took those stats personally, left tackle Lamar Holmes responded, "You’ve got to. Once we go back and watch the film, we need to see just exactly what happened. We just have to come to practice and work on things that seem to break down."
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Another player might have taken offense to the subtle criticism. Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux took it as sound advice.

Babineaux realizes he needs to step up his production in terms of sacks. Some words from defensive coordinator Mike Nolan reinforced the fact. Nolan said Tuesday he wished Babineaux made more plays in the backfield.

"He gets in the backfield as much as anybody I’ve ever been around," the coach said. "But damn, it’s only about half the time that he’s getting them down."

Babineaux agreed.

"That’s my daily motivation: I don’t have any sacks right now," Babineaux said. "I know I can get back there and get pressure. It’s all good. But it’s better when you have sacks."

Babineaux recorded 22.5 sacks in his first eight seasons and 49.5 tackles for loss, the most tackles for loss by a defensive tackle since 2005. He had 3.5 sacks last season and a career-high and team-leading six in 2009.

Through six games this season, he has no sacks and one tackle for a loss in 341 defensive snaps. Babineaux has played 83 percent of the snaps or more in five of six games.

Although the Falcons are starting to rotate more bodies along the defensive line, Babineaux doesn't need to look over his shoulder. He simply has to produce.

"It’s all about production," Babineaux said. "I’ve been doing this for years. Ain’t nothing better than getting the guy down in the backfield. I’ve been hitting the quarterback a lot lately, but [I've] just got to get him when he’s got the ball in his hands.’’

Nolan, of course, wants more consistent pressure from his front four as a whole. The Falcons have 14 sacks, led by defensive end Osi Umenyiora with four. But six of those sacks have come from linebackers and defensive backs.

Currently, the Falcons stand 25th in the league in sacks per pass play. On Sunday, they’ll face an Arizona Cardinals team that has allowed quarterback Carson Palmer to be sacked 20 times so far this season.
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

A look at the one move each team in the NFC South needed to make but didn't.

Atlanta Falcons: There still is time to sign a veteran like Richard Seymour, but I’m surprised the Falcons didn’t do more at defensive tackle during the offseason. The team invested two draft picks in defensive ends but didn’t touch the middle of a defensive line that isn’t exactly a strength. Jonathan Babineaux is aging and heading into the final year of his contract. Corey Peters and Peria Jerry also are headed into the last year of their contracts. The Falcons stayed away from quick fixes this offseason, but they might get to training camp and realize they need another defensive tackle.

Carolina Panthers: This one is almost too easy. The Panthers went into the offseason with a glaring need at cornerback. They signed some midlevel players and have hopes for some of their young corners. But this team doesn’t have anything close to a No. 1 cornerback. In a division in which you’re going up against the likes of Roddy White, Julio Jones, Vincent Jackson and Marques Colston, that’s a scary proposition. The Panthers did put a lot of emphasis on their defensive line, which better generate a tremendous pass rush to compensate for the lack of elite talent at cornerback.

New Orleans Saints: General manager Mickey Loomis worked some minor miracles to get out of a nightmare salary-cap situation in the offseason. But the Saints, who are converting to a 3-4 defensive scheme, didn’t bring in any elite pass-rushers. They thought free agent pickup Victor Butler could blossom into something, but Butler will miss the season after suffering a knee injury during an offseason workout. That leaves the Saints looking to Will Smith, Junior Galette and Martez Wilson as their outside linebackers. Smith is aging and converting from defensive end to linebacker. Wilson and Galette have shown some potential, but neither is a proven pass-rusher.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Sources have told me the Buccaneers would have given strong consideration to drafting tight end Tyler Eifert with their first-round pick if they hadn’t traded it away in the deal for cornerback Darrelle Revis. That tells me the Bucs realized they had a significant need at tight end. The shocking thing is they didn’t make some other dramatic move to improve the situation at the position. Instead, they’re going with Luke Stocker and Tom Crabtree. There are indications that the Bucs think Crabtree can be a productive pass-catcher. But I wouldn’t count on the tight ends being a big part of Tampa Bay’s passing game this season.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player entering a contract year on each NFC South team who must deliver in 2013:

Atlanta Falcons: Let’s skip the easy way out and not go with quarterback Matt Ryan, because he would be only a temporary answer. You know as well as I do that Ryan is going to get signed to a huge contract extension before the season ever gets here. The Falcons don’t have a lot of other players not under contract through at least 2014, but one position group jumped out at me when I looked at guys heading into contract years. That’s defensive tackle, where Corey Peters, Jonathan Babineaux and Peria Jerry all are headed into the final year of their deals. I think Peters is the most significant one. If he can produce a solid season, I think the Falcons will want to keep him around to anchor the interior of their defensive line. Babineaux is aging, and some scouts will tell you he’s in decline. The Falcons don’t hold onto aging players too long (see John Abraham and Michael Turner), so this could be the last year for Babineaux with the Falcons. Same for Jerry, but for a different reason. A major injury as a rookie has kept him from reaching his potential, and it’s unlikely he’ll get a second contract with the Falcons. Peters is the one guy in his prime with starter ability, and a strong season could secure his future.

Carolina Panthers: Defensive end Greg Hardy isn’t fighting for a job as much as he’s competing to earn a fortune. Hardy hit double-digit sacks last season, and he and Charles Johnson arguably are one of the league’s best defensive end tandems. If Hardy can hit double digits or close again, he’s going to earn a huge payday with the Panthers or someone else. Although Carolina has salary-cap issues well into the future, I think the Panthers will find a way to pay Hardy if he delivers another big season.

New Orleans Saints: Safety Malcolm Jenkins’ rookie contract was initially scheduled to run through 2014, but it was structured in a way that allowed the final year to void. That means this is a contract year for Jenkins, and the pressure is on the former first-round pick. He seems to have all the physical and intellectual skills, but he has yet to put it all together and become the player the Saints had hoped for. There is at least some reason to believe it all might come together for Jenkins. But the use of this year’s first-round draft pick on safety Kenny Vaccaro means the Saints are prepared to move on if Jenkins doesn’t step up.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: No player fits this category more firmly than quarterback Josh Freeman. When the Bucs were 6-4 and Freeman was playing well last season, it seemed certain that Tampa Bay would lock up Freeman for the long term this offseason. But Freeman stumbled down the stretch, raising concerns about whether he really is a franchise quarterback. The Bucs decided to hold off on the extension and let Freeman go into this season needing to prove he’s worth a long-term commitment. I don’t see third-round draft pick Mike Glennon as an immediate threat to beat out Freeman for the starting job. But the Bucs have started the process of trying to find an answer in case Freeman isn’t it.