NFL Nation: Julio Jones

Falcons vs. Saints preview

December, 19, 2014
When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday. Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans. TV: Fox.

Their records aren't pretty. Their defenses have been downright disastrous at times. But the stakes remain as high as ever as the New Orleans Saints (6-8) and Atlanta Falcons (5-9) head toward Sunday's showdown with the NFC South title hanging in the balance.

Both teams still control their own playoff fates with two weeks remaining in the season. Win out, and they'll be hosting a playoff game. Lose Sunday, and they'll need a lot of help to get in.

Their first matchup in Week 1 was a high-scoring thriller, with the Falcons rallying to beat the Saints 37-34 in overtime in Atlanta. A repeat is certainly possible since they feature two of the NFL's top-five passing offenses and the league's two lowest-ranked defenses.

ESPN NFL Nation reporters Mike Triplett, who covers the Saints, and Vaughn McClure, who covers the Falcons, discuss Sunday's matchup:

Triplett: The Falcons have won only one of their past four games. But it looks like they've been putting up a good fight against good teams. Do you think they have a realistic shot at winning their last two games of the season, against the Saints and Panthers?

McClure: I think it all depends on one person: Julio Jones. If Jones is well enough to play through a hip injury that sidelined him last week, the Falcons have a legitimate chance. Personally, I anticipate Jones will be ready for the Saints, based on everything I'm hearing. The offense doesn't flow as smoothly without him in the lineup, of course. Quarterback Matt Ryan and Jones really started to develop a rhythm with the deep ball prior to Jones' injury. If Jones indeed plays Sunday, I will be curious to see if his speed and ability to get down the field is hampered at all by the injury. Not to mention the Falcons need him as a red-zone threat after missing out on two such critical red-zone opportunities against the Steelers. The Falcons can't go to the Superdome expecting to win this game with a slew of field goals.

I see Sean Payton shook up the secondary a bit Monday night against the Chicago Bears. How did the defense hold up after the change, and do you anticipate any other tweaks this week?

Triplett: Honestly, I still don't have any idea how the Saints' secondary will hold up against a functioning NFL passing offense, because the Bears and Jay Cutler were awful. But the Saints had to like what they saw from the overall energy and aggressiveness -- from both the two new starters (CB Terrence Frederick and S Jamarca Sanford) and the veterans who were demoted to lesser roles (S Kenny Vaccaro and CB Patrick Robinson). They snagged a season-high three interceptions and sacked Cutler seven times. However, everyone was disappointed how quickly they let the Bears score twice in garbage time toward the end. So it remains a work in progress.

As for any changes, I expect to see the same players, but the Saints may tweak their plan since the Falcons have the depth to spread the Saints' secondary thin -- as we saw in Week 1 when Matt Ryan threw for 448 yards. I'm curious to see how the Saints handle Jones if he's healthy. New Orleans has one outstanding cornerback in Keenan Lewis, who often shadows No. 1 receivers. But against deeper teams such as Atlanta and Pittsburgh, the Saints put Lewis on the No. 2 receiver and double-teamed Jones and Antonio Brown (a tactic that worked better against Pittsburgh than Atlanta).

I know a lot depends on Jones' health. But is Atlanta's passing game still as dangerous as it was in Week 1?

McClure: I look back at the numbers from last week and the Falcons were able to put up 407 total yards against the Pittsburgh Steelers even without Jones in the lineup. Ryan has enough weapons to spread the ball around. I mean, Harry Douglas stepped up with 10 catches for 131 yards last week while both Roddy White and Devin Hester had touchdown catches. I think the underrated aspect related to the passing game is how the offensive line has held up despite going through so many changes. That's a credit to offensive line coach Mike Tice, who lost five linemen to season-ending injuries. Ryan has been sacked only twice the past three games. And although the Falcons are a "passing" team, it only helps when they have some semblance of a running game. Such was the case in a season-opening win over the Saints, when Ryan threw for that career-high 448 yards as his running backs combined for 108 yards on the ground. The Falcons are 17-3 under coach Mike Smith when they have a 100-yard rusher.

I've grown accustomed to Drew Brees being synonymous with a high-powered offense and it looks like the Saints enter this game second in the league in total offense. But this hasn't been a typical Brees-like year. Could you tell me where things have gone wrong for him and how he's handled rumors about the team pondering his replacement?

Triplett: Brees' season has been funny because he's still on pace for nearly 5,000 yards, 35 touchdowns and a league-high completion percentage of 70.0 (sixth in NFL history). But you're right -- it has been a little shakier and less consistent than usual. The biggest problem is he has turned the ball over too many times in big situations (12 interceptions, two lost fumbles). I think he has pressed too much, feeling like he needs to do it all with the defense struggling. It has been an exact repeat of 2012 in that sense. The Saints' downfield passing game has also been spotty, with Brees settling for more check-down passes than usual.

All of that being said, Brees is still awfully sharp. He put on a clinic last week at Chicago, completing 18 of 20 passes in the first half. Three weeks ago, he threw five touchdown passes at Pittsburgh. He's still one of the NFL's elite -- and both he and the Saints know that. So while they may start looking for an eventual future replacement soon, there's no way that they're looking to move on in the short term.

These two teams are in a tight battle for the NFL's worst defense this year. Are the Falcons even worse off than they were in Week 1, and what are their biggest issues?

McClure: This question seems to come up every week. Yes, the Falcons surrender the most total yards in the league at 409.9 yards per game and the most passing yards at 292.5 yards per game. To put it simply, the lack of a consistent pass rush and the lack of legitimate playmakers on that side of the ball make the Falcons extremely vulnerable. There have been splashes of solid play, like the way the Falcons shut down Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell in the running game last week and the way they pressured Drew Stanton and the Cardinals a few weeks back. But consistency is non-existent.

Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has developed a reputation over the years for being creative with his schemes, but he doesn't have much to work with now. I think the Falcons made a mistake by spending their free-agent money on beefing up the defensive line with space-eaters Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson, and both players would admit they set high standards for themselves. Desmond Trufant will be a cornerstone for the franchise for years to come as a shutdown cornerback, but Trufant can't beat Brees and the Saints by himself -- unless he comes up with a pick or two.

I see quite a challenge for the Falcons in trying to slow down running back Mark Ingram. Is it correct to say Ingram is starting to live up to his potential?

Triplett: Absolutely. He's on pace for his first 1,000-yard season even after missing three games with a hand injury. And he has been running with authority and confidence all year. However, a lot of his success has to do with the Saints finally improving their run game overall, dating to last season (Ingram had 97 yards in a playoff win at Philadelphia). And a lot of it has to do with opportunity.

First of all, trading Darren Sproles freed up Ingram to play more of an every-down role, and he has thrived by running out of passing sets, etc., instead of just heavy run packages. Secondly, he finally got the opportunity to be a featured back with 20-plus carries per week when Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas got hurt midseason, and he delivered in a huge way with four 100-yard games in a six-week span.

METAIRIE, La. -- The revamped New Orleans Saints secondary did a decent job in the dress rehearsal.

But now comes the real thing.

The Saints will face much stiffer competition Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons than they did in this past Monday night's 31-15 victory over the hapless Chicago Bears.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesFalcons QB Matt Ryan (2) shredded the Saints' D for 448 yards in Week 1.
Atlanta has the NFL's fifth-ranked passing offense, and quarterback Matt Ryan previously carved up the Saints for a Falcons-franchise-record 448 yards in Atlanta's 37-34 overtime victory in Week 1.

The Saints and their 31st-ranked defense have been trying to fix the problem ever since.

"They're probably the best receiving corps in the league. I'm not gonna say probably -- they are," said Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis, who said he's preparing as though Atlanta will be at full strength despite receivers Julio Jones, Roddy White and Harry Douglas all missing practice Wednesday.

"So we definitely gotta get it together," Lewis continued. "They definitely embarrassed us the first week. And when you've got pride, you know you just can't come out there and let that happen again."

Jones' hip injury is the ultimate X factor this week. He didn't play last week and remains questionable. But Lewis said he expects Jones to play because the Falcons' season is on the line in this showdown that could wind up determining the NFC South champion.

Jones ranks second in the NFL with 1,428 receiving yards this year.

In that first game, the Saints' approach to covering Jones worked OK. They primarily put their best corner, Lewis, on White while mostly double-teaming Jones with corner Patrick Robinson and free safety Jairus Byrd. Jones caught seven passes for 116 yards, but most of it was underneath stuff, and he didn't score a touchdown.

The Saints used a similar approach that worked great three weeks ago against dangerous Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown.

The problem in Week 1, however, was that New Orleans got carved up by Atlanta's depth -- including a huge game from fourth receiver Devin Hester, strong performances by White and Douglas and two big touchdown plays by backup running backs Antone Smith and Jacquizz Rodgers.

Lewis admitted that Hester's usage (five catches, 99 yards) came as a "shock."

"In Chicago they really didn't use him like that," Lewis said of Hester's former team. "But he came out and he definitely exploited us last time. I'm pretty sure probably none of the guys expected it. The whole week they were saying how they were gonna use him as a returner and not as a receiver. But he showed that he's elite in this league and we've gotta keep aware of him."

The Falcons feature a lot of three-receiver sets (sometimes four) that will stretch New Orleans' new-look secondary to the limit.

Young cornerback Terrence Frederick and veteran strong safety Jamarca Sanford were new additions to the starting lineup this past Monday. And undrafted rookie Pierre Warren made just his fourth start since being re-signed off of the Minnesota Vikings' practice squad. Meanwhile, safety Kenny Vaccaro was demoted back into the nickel role in which he had thrived as a rookie last year. Robinson was bumped to dime back, and former starter Corey White was inactive.

The switches worked for the most part, with the Saints intercepting a season-high three passes (two by Warren, one by Robinson) and taking a 21-0 lead before some late breakdowns made the game temporarily uncomfortable.

"I thought overall, like anything else, you watch it, and you play well, and yet you put the tape on and there are things you can look at," coach Sean Payton said. "I didn't like particularly how we finished. Our red zone defense needs work. But I thought there were some positives you take away from the game.

"This'll be an entirely different type of game and an entirely different type of team we're playing. So we'll be smart about our personnel packages and how we want to use them."

Payton wouldn't specify whether he plans to stick with the same lineup. But he said the plan won't be altered much by the Falcons' injury report -- especially because the Saints have so much respect for Atlanta's depth at receiver.

"Their depth at that position is pretty impressive," Payton said. "Obviously the way Julio's been playing, it's important to know where he's at on the field. But I'm sure they'll be capable if he's not able to, so we have to prepare like he's playing."

Ryan also has traditionally frustrated the Saints' pass rush by getting rid of the ball quickly. A repeat of New Orleans' seven-sack performance against the Bears seems extremely unlikely.

"They're an explosive team offensively -- and not just in the passing game," Payton said. "Their numbers in the last six weeks with regards to big plays … they're a team that starts fast, they've got great tempo, obviously a veteran quarterback that gets them in to some advantage looks. It's not just a challenge for the secondary, it's a challenge for the whole defense. It's a challenge for our guys up front and understanding the splits, understanding what we're trying to do within each snap."
ATLANTA -- The Pittsburgh Steelers won’t have to worry about Julio Jones, the NFL’s leading receiver, but they do have some injury concerns of their own Sunday when they play the Atlanta Falcons.

The Steelers, who are trying to improve to 9-5, will be without right tackle Marcus Gilbert, outside linebacker James Harrison and cornerback Ike Taylor.

Gilbert will miss his third consecutive game because of ankle and knee injuries, and the fourth-year veteran is a surprise scratch for the 1 p.m. ET game at the Georgia Dome.

Gilbert practiced last week and had been listed as probable on the Steelers’ final injury report of the week. Mike Adams will start in his place at right tackle.

Harrison had been listed as questionable after he was only able to practice on a limited basis last week. He will miss his second consecutive game because of a knee injury.

Taylor is also out as expected after the 12th-year veteran did not practice last week because of shoulder and forearm injuries.

The Steelers’ four healthy scratches Sunday are rookie running back Dri Archer, wide receiver Justin Brown, quarterback Landry Jones and defensive end Clifton Geathers.

The Falcons' Jones, who leads the NFL with 1,428 receiving yards, had been listed as questionable on the Falcons’ final injury report of the week because of a hip injury. The Falcons will also be without starting safety William Moore, who hurt his ankle last Monday night in Green Bay.
PITTSBURGH – Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones did not participate in a walk through Wednesday but coach Mike Smith sounds optimistic that Jones will play Sunday against the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers.

Jones caught 11 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown on Monday night in a 43-37 loss at Green Bay. The fourth-year receiver did not finish the game after hurting his hip in the fourth quarter.

“He’s made a good turnaround [and] we’re not even 48 hours from the end of the game,” Smith said during on a conference call with Pittsburgh reporters. “We anticipate that he’ll continue to progress as the week goes on. We all know when you have your best players you have a better opportunity to go out and compete, and we’re certainly hoping that the turnaround continues and that we will have [Jones] on Sunday. Julio is one of the most competitive guys that I’ve ever been around.”

Jones supplanted the Steelers' Antonio Brown as the NFL leader in receiving yards despite missing the end of the Packers game.

The 6-3, 220-pound Jones has 1,428 receiving yards – Brown is second in the league with 1,375 yards – and to say that Steelers could be a favorable matchup for Jones is an understatement.

The Steelers gave given up four passing plays that have covered at least 67 yards in their last four games and they are allowing 248 passing yards per game.

The Steelers allowed 224 receiving yards to Cincinnati’s A.J. Green last Sunday and Jones is as much of a matchup problem as Green.

“He’s got the physical skill set that you want to see,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said of his top target. “He’s as big as anybody, he’s explosive, he’s got great top-end speed, he comes in and out of his cuts really well and he’s really versatile. We can move him all over. He can play outside. We can move him into the slot and he excels there.”
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- If you were in search of a detailed explanation for why the Green Bay Packers' defense unraveled in Monday night's 43-37 win over the Atlanta Falcons, then coach Mike McCarthy's news conference on Tuesday was the wrong place to look.

"I'll tell you what, I'm not going to sit here and talk about defense all day," McCarthy said Tuesday. "We're on to Buffalo. That's where we are. We'll have time to correct our things tomorrow with our players, and we'll learn from it. And, obviously, you always want to make corrections after a win."

[+] EnlargeJulio Jones
AP Photo/Tom LynnThe Packers' Sam Shields mostly struggled in trying to cover Atlanta's Julio Jones on Monday night.
That's not to say McCarthy is burying his head instead of taking a long, critical look at the film after Atlanta's Julio Jones had the best game ever by a receiver against a Packers defense with 259 yards and a touchdown on 11 catches.

He just had no interest in rehashing it.

And because of the short turnaround following the Monday night game, the man in charge of the defense, Dom Capers, and the other Packers coordinators did not hold their usual day-after-game sessions with reporters. That will have to wait until Thursday.

The only detail McCarthy provided was that he believes they did change coverages in response to a question about why they did not commit more defenders to stopping Jones.

"It isn't like we played one coverage," McCarthy said. "Hey, they had a big day. Julio had a huge night. They got hot in the second half. I think you first have to give the Falcons credit. They're a very good offense. Winning in December is important, and winning in December is difficult."

And for that, McCarthy saw no need to apologize.

But in their film sessions and game-planning meetings in advance of this Sunday's game at the Buffalo Bills, the coaches will have to find answers for where things went wrong.

Things went downhill for Capers' unit from the outset of the second half, when Jones caught a 79-yard pass on the Falcons' first play from scrimmage of the third quarter.

Cornerback Sam Shields, who practiced only one day last week after sustaining a concussion against the New England Patriots, spent most of his time trying to cover Jones until the Packers finally pulled him after 45 snaps in favor of Davon House, who fared much better while playing the final 22 snaps.

McCarthy said Shields did not have another injury and that the change was part of a predetermined rotation, but Shields never played another snap after he gave way to House, who was credited with two pass breakups against Jones (who couldn't finish the game because of a hip injury).

Maybe the Packers should have yanked Shields earlier, when it became evident he was not on top of his game.

"I thought he obviously wanted to be out there Monday night [and] appreciate him being there," McCarthy said of Shields. "He's a young player, and he's our guy."

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It was supposed to be a building block, that defensive stand the Green Bay Packers made at Lambeau Field only eight days earlier against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots to preserve their best win of the season. Surely, it was going to be what helped defensive coordinator Dom Capers' unit flourish down the stretch.

"And now, it's doomsday," linebacker Clay Matthews said, anticipating the line of questions that was coming after the Packers' 43-37 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Monday night. "Write it. Put it in there so we have something to talk about, so that way we can overcome it and be like, 'I told you so.' Write it."

This story wrote itself.

Just when the Packers thought -- or at least hoped -- their defense had moved past the kind of slapdash performances that have come back to bite them in postseasons past, in walked Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and star receiver Julio Jones.

Yes, the Packers got another stellar performance from quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who threw three touchdowns without an interception in his 100th career start, and a strong, two-headed rushing attack from Eddie Lacy and James Starks, who combined to help the Packers to a season-best 179 yards rushing. And at 10-3, they kept their lead in the NFC North and remained tied for the best record in the NFC.

But it was no thanks to a defense that allowed Ryan to throw for 375 yards, most of them to Jones, who caught 11 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown despite being unable to finish the game because of a hip injury.

Never before had the Packers allowed a receiver to pile up that many yards against them. Jones bettered Calvin Johnson's 244-yard performance against the Packers in the regular-season finale of 2011. Guess who comes back to Green Bay in three weeks for another Week 17 game? Johnson and the Detroit Lions.

Between now and then, the Packers' defense best figure out what went wrong against the Falcons.

"Coming off the field, I think that it's definitely a bitter taste," said Packers safety Micah Hyde, who allowed one of Ryan's four touchdown passes. "We definitely don't want to finish like that, but at the same time, those good teams win ugly games. You get a win in the NFL, especially the 10th one, you've got to be happy about that."

Capers relied heavily on zone coverages, and Jones easily found the soft spots. Of his 259 yards, 212 came on throws that traveled more than 10 yards downfield, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"I just think we did everything on the back end wrong," Hyde said. "We're going to have to watch film to know exactly what they were doing, but they were scheming our zones, scheming our man calls. They were just getting him the ball, and I don't think that we did anything right in the second half."

Jones opened the second half with a 79-yard catch on the first play from scrimmage, wiping out all the positive vibes the Packers had from their 31-7 halftime lead. The Packers knew then this was not going to be another one of those Lambeau Field blowouts.

"We've got to play the whole game," Packers linebacker Julius Peppers said. "We can't play one half or three quarters or anything like that. We have to play the whole game out regardless of how big of a lead we have. We've got to finish games."

The defense did just that against the Patriots one game ago, when it sacked Brady on his final third-down play and handed the game over to Rodgers, who secured a victory that made the Packers the popular Super Bowl pick.

And yet now, there are once again questions about whether the Packers have a championship defense to go along with their MVP-caliber quarterback and his array of offensive playmakers.

"We made Matt Ryan look like Matty Ice again out there," Matthews said. "He was fantastic tonight. More power to him, but a lot of that was our doing. We've got to get better, and we will."

A lot has changed for the Atlanta Falcons since their 56-14 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in September.

In that Thursday night game, they looked like Super Bowl contenders. But the Falcons haven't won since. They've lost five straight and look like a team that's falling apart.

Not much has changed for the Bucs. They're 1-7 and in sole possession of last place in the NFC South. ESPN Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas and ESPN Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure examine the matchup of two of the league's most disappointing teams:

Yasinskas: Vaughn, I'm sure you could write a book on what's gone wrong with the Falcons. We don't have the space for all of that here. In a quick synopsis, what happened to the Falcons?

McClure: The problems have been across the board, Pat. The coaching hasn't been adequate, as was evident with clock-management issues in the game against Detroit in London, when the Falcons blew a 21-0 lead. The offense hasn't been nearly as explosive as anticipated, with Matt Ryan uncharacteristically more off target than usual and his receivers dropping passes.

The defense can't generate pressure up front, which has allowed opposing quarterbacks to extend plays and come up with big gains, particularly on third down. And a telling stat to me is that the Falcons have been outscored 84-24 in the fourth quarter. They need improvement across the board, and I just don't see much reason for optimism in the second half, save for this game against the Buccaneers.

The Falcons destroyed the Bucs in Week 3. Could we see another blowout or have the Buccaneers made enough strides since then?

Yasinskas: I wouldn't rule out another rout -- though I think the Bucs will at least play Atlanta closer this time. That hunch has more to do with the Falcons' struggles than it does with anything the Bucs have done.

The Bucs seemed to be making strides a few weeks ago. Then they lost big to Baltimore at home. That game was even uglier than the loss to Atlanta. Coach Lovie Smith keeps saying his team is making strides and I tend to agree with him, but Tampa Bay hasn't done enough to win.

I know Atlanta owner Arthur Blank had high expectations and he's not the most patient guy in the world. How hot is coach Mike Smith's seat right now?

McClure: It's scorching hot right now, which is somewhat hard to believe considering the Falcons were 13-3 two years ago and in the NFC Championship Game. But as Blank moves forward with his plans to open a new stadium in 2017, he wants a consistent winner to occupy the building. And the Falcons have been consistently bad the last two seasons.

Smith is known for being a nice guy, and fans would tell you that they're fed up with that approach. And Blank is trying to appeal to the fan base. So it's going to take a dramatic turnaround for Smith to save his job. I don't even think just making the playoffs in a bad NFC South would be enough for him. But I'm sure Smith will continue to approach the job in a professional manner. And I don't see Blank making a move until after the season, unless the Falcons lose big in Tampa.

The Falcons will have to contend with Josh McCown on Sunday, and he struggled in the first matchup between the teams. What is the benefit in going with McCown over Mike Glennon at this stage?

Yasinskas: I don't know that McCown is any better than Glennon. In fact, I think Glennon has done good things and has shown poise behind a bad offensive line. McCown didn't look too good in the first three games of the season. But he was Lovie Smith's hand-picked quarterback and they were together in Chicago. More than anything, though, I think the hope is that going with McCown will provide a spark for an offense that hasn't gotten into rhythm at all this season.

Speaking of quarterbacks, I have always been impressed by how efficient Ryan is -- but that's not the case this year. What has gone wrong?

McClure: First and foremost, you have to look at what has happened along the offensive line. The Falcons lost left tackle Sam Baker to a season-ending injury in the preseason, tackle Lamar Holmes to a season-ending foot injury and starting centers Joe Hawley and Peter Konz to season-ending ACL injuries. So Ryan is playing behind a patchwork offensive line.

Ryan has seen a number of his receivers, including top target Julio Jones, drop catchable passes. But Ryan has made his share of poor throws, including arguably the worst interception of his career, a momentum-changing play against the Lions. After the way he sliced up New Orleans in the season opener, Ryan looked well on his way to a Pro Bowl-type season. But he got humbled along the way, particularly on the road. And Ryan hasn't been able to throw consistently down the field.

Remember, Ryan did find Jones for a long touchdown in the first game between these teams. Will the Bucs' defense be able to put the clamps on Jones, Roddy White and Devin Hester or are there too many defensive holes?

Yasinskas: Tampa Bay's defense ranks No. 31 overall, which is shocking and disappointing when you're talking about a team coached by Lovie Smith. The Falcons certainly have enough talent and speed to cause problems in the passing game. The Tampa 2 defense has taken a lot of criticism with people saying it's outdated. But Smith believes in the scheme and refuses to change.

LONDON -- The Detroit Lions face the Atlanta Falcons at Wembley Stadium Sunday as part of the NFL’s International Series. How do the Lions come away with a win and a 6-2 first-half record? Here are four keys.

1. Calvin Johnson: The star wide receiver practiced for the first time this week and said Thursday he could take his decision of whether or not to play all the way to Sunday. Unlike the past two weeks, though, this game might mean a bit more to him. As a huge international soccer fan, playing this game in Wembley Stadium would truly be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Johnson. And doing it while facing his hometown team, the Atlanta Falcons? That might be too good for him to pass up. If he bases it solely on his health, however, he truly becomes a coin-flip decision. Detroit could use him back in the lineup because the offense has been somewhat stagnant due to his and other injuries to skill-position players.

2. Who plays tight end? The Lions have been down three tight ends for most of the week, and the two who have practiced -- Kellen Davis and Jordan Thompson -- have been with the Lions’ 53-man roster for all of a week. Davis has never even played for Detroit before. If Brandon Pettigrew, Eric Ebron and Joseph Fauria all don’t play, that’s a big spot for a free agent off the street and a practice squad player. Depending on Johnson’s status, this could severely limit Matthew Stafford’s options.

3. Get to Matt Ryan: The veteran Atlanta quarterback has been good at avoiding pressure and sacks this season, even as his offensive line has crumbled around him due to injuries and ineffectiveness. But Ryan hasn’t faced this type of defensive front this season, and while Drew Brees had time on some plays last week, he was pressured enough to force bad decisions, including 10 incompletions and a turnover during the Lions’ rally late in the fourth quarter. If Detroit can do similar things to Ryan, this could be a big game for the Lions’ defensive line.

4. Defend Roddy White and Julio Jones: It’s unlikely the Lions will be able to take away both players, as they have combined for four 100-yard games this season (Jones with three, White with one). White and Jones represent one of the toughest receiving tandems the Lions have faced all season, and covering both while pressuring Ryan will be the key for defensive success. It would not be a surprising strategy to see the Lions not blitz much and have the front four try to create pass pressure and stop the run game, leaving seven players to drop into coverage. This might be a game where Detroit would want to allow more on the run in order to shut down the pass.

Falcons vs. Giants preview

October, 2, 2014

The New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons, a pair of 2013 disappointments with identical 2-2 records and hopes of factoring into their respective division races, play at MetLife Stadium at 1 p.m. ET Sunday. ESPN Giants reporter Dan Graziano and ESPN Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure present their preview:

Graziano: Vaughn, I'm going to get to the Falcons' defense in a minute, because I have a ton of questions about that. But I'd be remiss if I didn't start by asking: What was tight end Levine Toilolo doing at right tackle in the loss to Minnesota, and are they going to have five real offensive linemen to suit up for them Sunday?

McClure: The Falcons really had no other choice at the end of the Vikings game after three starting offensive linemen -- center Joe Hawley (ACL), left guard Justin Blalock (back) and right tackle Lamar Holmes (foot) -- exited with injuries. Two other linemen were inactive for the game. So, yes, depth is an issue with Hawley and Holmes on season-ending injured reserve. The good thing for the Falcons is that linemen Gabe Carimi, Peter Konz, Ryan Schraeder and rookie James Stone are capable of playing multiple positions. The Falcons also promoted guard Harland Gunn from the practice squad and signed tackle Cameron Bradfield. Konz's performance will be key as he steps in for Hawley, and the Falcons better hope Blalock's back responds well in preparation for Sunday.

I watched the Giants-Redskins game and was impressed with what the Giants were able to accomplish offensively. Can they sustain such momentum, particularly coming off a couple of extra days of rest?

Graziano: They're hoping so. What the Giants are saying is that the way the offense has looked the past two games represents progress in the new system, and that's why they think it has a chance to be more "real" than what they showed in the first two games. We will see.

What has surprised me is the way the offensive line has held up in pass protection the past two games after looking like a liability in preseason and once the regular season started. If that continues, then Eli Manning -- who's releasing the ball about a half-second faster on average this season due to the shorter drops and quicker reads on which the new system is built -- should be in a strong position to succeed. But since they're not a quick-strike downfield offense right now, I wonder what happens if they fall behind in a game and have to get into a shootout with a high-powered offensive team. The Texans aren't that, and Washington didn't put up a fight. Atlanta has all the weapons, but is the passing game where it needs to be right now in order to take advantage of the talent?

McClure: I think that goes back to our first question, Dan. If quarterback Matt Ryan gets adequate protection, he's one of the elite quarterbacks in this league. But it's hard to get that type of protection when you're using tight ends at right tackle.

Ryan actually has done a marvelous job extending plays with his feet, partly due to increased protection up front in the form of veteran right guard Jon Asamoah and rookie left tackle Jake Matthews. If Ryan can overcome whatever changes are made up front for the Giants, then maybe he’ll get the offense back in high gear. That’s something the Falcons haven’t been able to do on the road, where they’ve dropped four straight. Ryan needs time to find a playmaker such as Julio Jones down the field.

I saw a few unheralded Giants make some plays in the last game. It seems like the Falcons' defense lets no-name players have career games every time out. What do you expect out of some of the Giants' role players?

Graziano: My guess is that you're referring to tight end Larry Donnell, who caught three touchdown passes in Washington. The Giants always believe they can find productivity at tight end on the cheap, so they didn't flinch when everybody was getting on them all offseason for not having one. Donnell runs good routes and can jump high to catch the ball (he's a 6-foot-6 former basketball player), and it's to the coaching staff's credit that that's exactly what they're using him to do. He's not much of a blocker and can't do anything after the catch, but the thing he's good at, he's very good at, and as long as other teams aren't defending it well, they Gians will keep going back to it.

Fundamentally, this offense is built to operate through the run game, and it will continue to do so with an emphasis on Rashad Jennings as the lead back. He and rookie Andre Williams split carries Thursday because Jennings had 34 carries in the game just four days earlier, and they got a big lead and could ease off the gas. But it'll be Jennings to run the ball and set up play-action, and then it'll be Donnell, Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle or whoever's open when they throw it. Short stuff, timing-based stuff, and stuff designed to minimize mistakes and put the unimpressive names they have in the best possible positions to succeed.

Which brings me to this: The Falcons' defense seems to be quite good at putting opposing offenses in position to succeed. Any hope of things getting any better, or is this a defense that's going to struggle all year?

McClure: It's going to be a struggle unless they magically come up with some way to trade for J.J. Watt. There are not enough playmakers on the Falcons' defense, with no elite pass-rusher and no ball hawking defensive back who will create a lot of turnovers. Throw in their defensive leader, strong safety William Moore, being placed on short-term IR with a shoulder injury, and you have the recipe for disaster.

The defense actually looked respectable against Tampa Bay, but that was because the offense got off to a hot start and the Buccaneers were in desperation mode early. There is no excuse for giving up 558 yards to a Vikings team playing without Adrian Peterson and with a rookie quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater. The Falcons continue to struggle with their third-down defense and continue to give up explosive plays. Manning and Jennings, among others, should be itching to put up big numbers against this pathetic defense that gives up a league-worst 8.37 yards passing per play and yields 429.8 yards per game, which is second-to-last in the league.

Defensively, how do you expect the Giants to contend with Jones, Devin Hester and Antone Smith?

Graziano: The Giants made a change at free safety last week, benching Stevie Brown for Quintin Demps, who was signed as a kick returner and has good speed on the back end. That change was made because Brown was struggling, but also with an eye toward the speed matchups they had coming up on the schedule -- DeSean Jackson last week, the guys you mention this week, and Jeremy Maclin and the Eagles next week.

Demps will play in the post while Antrel Rolle can move up in the box, and they'll likely plaster cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on Jones and use Prince Amukamara on whoever the second receiver is. Trumaine McBride, who was a starter last season, has replaced the injured Walter Thurmond as the nickel. McBride is a high-effort guy, but you can win physical matchups against him. The Giants rely on Rodgers-Cromartie's and Amukamara's ability to hold up in man coverage, but they believe they have enough speed with Demps and weakside linebacker Jacquian Williams to help supplement that as needed. If Rodgers-Cromartie is limited this week with his thigh injury, that could affect things. But as of now, that's the plan.

Good stuff, Vaughn, thanks. Travel safe, and I'll see you Sunday.

The Film Don't Lie: Buccaneers

September, 23, 2014
A weekly look at what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers must fix:

Back in the Buccaneers’ glory days, the Tampa Two defense was the root of success.

These days, it’s not nearly the same. As the Bucs get ready to play at Pittsburgh on Sunday, they can be secure in the knowledge that the Steelers have analyzed the tape of Tampa Bay’s Thursday night loss to Atlanta. It's safe to assume Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is excited about facing the Bucs.

You can bet the Steelers noticed you can throw deep on the Buccaneers. The Falcons were playing without injured receiver Roddy White, yet they still managed to shred Tampa Bay’s secondary. Julio Jones caught five passes for 120 yards on balls that were thrown at least 15 yards downfield. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan completed six of eight passes for 139 yards and a touchdown on throws of at least 15 yards.

Atlanta showed Tampa Bay’s secondary is vulnerable. Cornerback Alterraun Verner is the only member of the starting secondary who has played well.

But the problems with the deep ball stem from more than just the secondary. More help from the pass rush would be a big boost for the defensive backs. But the Bucs, who had just one sack against Atlanta, haven’t shown many signs they can rush the passer with any consistency.

Until the Bucs can pressure the quarterback, this defense is going to have problems stopping the deep ball.
CINCINNATI -- You're probably going to hear, read and see a lot the next few days comparing A.J. Green and Julio Jones.

The irony is, you've probably already heard, read and seen much of what will surface.

 The two Pro Bowl receivers have been linked since they were in high school, when they were All-America standouts in their respective native states South Carolina and Alabama. In college, a sort of rivalry formed when they competed in the SEC. Green played at Georgia. Jones was at Alabama.

When the 2011 draft rolled around, the question wasn't if either would be top-10 draft picks. It was who was going to go first.

At No. 4, the Cincinnati Bengals were the first team on the draft board that year with a dire need for a receiver. The Atlanta Falcons, at No. 27, had enough of a need for another pass-catcher that they ended up jumping all the way to No. 6 when they pulled off a draft-night trade with the Browns.

Green was chosen by Cincinnati. Jones was the Falcons' choice with the sixth pick. The rest, as they say, is history.

One look at both their careers, and it's clear the moves worked out well for both teams. Upon examination of last season, it's clear Jones gave his team slightly better overall production than Green. This Thursday factoid delves into this number: 116.0.

That's the number of yards per game since last season that Jones has averaged. That figure is only outpaced by Josh Gordon, who averaged 117.6 yards per game for the Browns in 2013. Unlike Jones, Gordon hasn't played yet this season as he awaits a possible reversal of his yearlong suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

Green isn't trailing Jones by much in the average yards per game since last season's statistic. The Bengals' star receiver has averaged 91.6 yards per game in that span. That includes his six-catch, 131-yard performance in Sunday's 23-16 win over the Ravens. Only Gordon, Jones, Calvin Johnson and Antonio Brown have higher per-game-averages in that time.

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis didn't need to see those numbers nor those rankings to know how good both Green and Jones were.

"They were in the top four players we felt that year," Lewis said, referring to the draft. "We knew we were going to get a good player when we stayed at No. 4 and picked."

A case could be made that Green has had the more overall impact in his career. Injuries have been an issue at times for Jones, and they're the reason he's only appeared in 35 games as compared to Green's 48. Green has only missed one Bengals game in his career. He's trying to avoid making it two this week as he tries to recover from a foot injury that has slowed him so far this week. He was limited Wednesday because of it, and didn't practice at all Thursday.

How much more productive has Green been over Jones?

Green has caught 266 passes compared to Jones' 181. Green has 3,964 yards receiving, compared to Jones' 2,853. Green's 30 touchdowns overshadow Jones' 20. It would be interesting to see how much closer that gap would be if both had the same number of games played.

It also will be interesting to see how their stats compare Sunday when they square off in their first regular-season meeting.

Know the enemy: Saints on Julio Jones

September, 6, 2014
METAIRIE, La. -- The Atlanta Falcons' offense took on another dimension when they traded up 21 spots to draft receiver Julio Jones with the sixth overall pick in 2011. It's one of the main reasons why the Falcons won 23 games over the next two seasons.

Julio Jones, Bernard Pollard
John Bazemore/Associated PressThe Saints will aim to stop a healthy Julio Jones in their season opener against the Falcons.
And when they lost Jones to a foot injury over the final 11 games last year, it was perhaps the main reason why Atlanta fell to 4-12.

Now Jones is back healthy, and he'll be the main focus of the New Orleans Saints' defense when they open the season Sunday at Atlanta. The 6-foot-3, 220-pounder has a rare combination of size, physicality and dynamic speed. He's had an 80-yard touchdown in every one of his three NFL seasons so far.

The Saints have actually had success keeping Jones quiet during their five meetings. But he did manage seven catches for 79 yards and a touchdown in Week 1 at New Orleans last year. And he did burn them for 128 yards and a score once as a rookie.

Here's what the Saints had to say about Jones this week:

Coach Sean Payton: "He's someone that you have to be aware of where he's at on the field every play. He has great size, great athleticism, he can run, he has fabulous hands. He's the type of player that on draft day, [when] you see Atlanta moving up, he's the type of player that merits that. It can appear from the outside as, 'Man, they are giving up a lot' but I think everyone who was involved in the process of scouting him, you recognize what kind of player he was."

S Kenny Vaccaro: "Great hands, explosive, good route runner. I mean, he just has everything you want in a receiver. I think if you're gonna build a receiver, you'd build Julio Jones. Kind of like Megatron [Calvin Johnson]."

CB Corey White: "An all-around just great receiver. Anything you can ask for in a receiver, you've got it. Speed, size, everything. He can run good routes, beat you over the top, he can do it all. We get a scouting report every week, and you've got colored dots on people, and a blue dot is the highest you can be. And he's like dark black. ... He's rare. He's up there top three [in the NFL] in my opinion, hands down."

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan: "He really is a fantastic football player. I think he caught seven balls on us on the first game last year, and we had him doubled every time. He's a terrific football player. He looks like he's at full speed on the four minutes I saw on 'Hard Knocks.' He looked really good on it."

CB Keenan Lewis: "That's a guy you don't want to get in a tussling match with, you just keep your distance and play your game."

S Jairus Byrd: "He's really cool to watch on film. Obviously you're studying for him, but there's definitely a level of respect for what he's able to bring to the game, just with his speed, his size, the plays that he makes."

Texans Camp Report: Day 19

August, 13, 2014
HOUSTON -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Houston Texans training camp.
  • Wednesday marked the first of two joint practices between the Texans' and Atlanta Falcons. The teams decided not to go live with tackling, but limited contact to "thuds." They did periods of work on separate fields, then joined for some team drills before a group of fans there for the open practice. Oh, and, "Hard Knocks" was there, too, though careful not to get too close to the Texans. Asked if he'd be open to his team being featured on Hark Knocks, Texans' coach Bill O'Brien replied: "I’m always open to anything that helps our team get better."
  • Young cornerback A.J. Bouye, an undrafted rookie last season, got a great test on Wednesday, facing Falcons receiver Roddy White quite a bit. During one drill, Bouye and White went against each other three times. Once White won. Once Bouye won. The third time, Bouye had his hand in White's face and White dropped the ball. Other reporters watching the play with me thought it was a straight drop by White. I thought Bouye made an impact on the play. But even if it was merely a draw with White, that's pretty good from Bouye. Later, during a seven-on-seven drill, Bouye knocked the ball away from White again.
  • Speaking of White, that Atlanta tandem of White and Julio Jones is one that Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins really looked up to before coming into the NFL. We asked Hopkins if he had a chance to say hello. He said he did have the chance, but didn't do it. Why? He wanted to play it cool, instead of seeming like a fan.
  • Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan got a stiff challenge from the Texans' defense. During one set of team drills, he had his first pass batted away, he had J.J. Watt in his face on the next (completed it, but Watt wasn't allowed to tackle him), and on the third pass, he threw one incomplete while facing excellent pressure form the Texans' front.
  • Atlanta's offensive line was a problem last season. It's part of why they drafted tackle Jake Matthews out of Texas A&M. Matthews' roots go deep in Houston as the son of former Oilers Hall of Fame lineman Bruce Matthews (who attended Wednesday's practice). The younger Matthews got tested against Watt. The offensive and defensive line one-on-one drills happen on the end of the field that the media can't see, so I can't speak to what happened there. But I did see a play early in practice during a team drill when the two faced each other. Watt rushed Matthews and the rookie held up against him.
  • Offensive guard Xavier Su'a-Filo got some first-team reps today. O'Brien has liked the way he's progressed. He had a lot of catching up to do after missing the spring workouts due to an NFL rule.
 Matt RyanKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThe Falcons want to be a balanced offense, but are at their best when Matt Ryan is throwing deep.
There seems to be quite a bit of optimism about the Atlanta Falcons boasting a more balanced offensive attack this season. One skill-position player even told me he expects it to be "50-50" in terms of run and pass plays.

Sounds nice, but I'm not buying it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But when it comes to the Falcons' offensive success this season, I'll simply take a pass.
ATLANTA -- Coach Mike Smith said Julio Jones will be an Atlanta Falcon for a long, long time. Falcons owner Arthur Blank agreed.

When asked about the team's intentions of signing Jones and fellow receiver Roddy White to extensions, Blank didn't hesitate to back both players.

"We'd love to have them both," Blank said. "Obviously, they are at different points in their careers with us. Roddy's 32, if I'm not mistaken. And Julio's a much younger man (25). We want to see them both have a long career and a 100-percent career with the Atlanta Falcons."

White, who wants to play three or four more years and is entering the final year of his contract, previously expressed a desire to finish his career with the Falcons. He has a base salary of $5 million this coming season and a cap figure of $6.35 million.

White is likely to seek $8 million or more guaranteed in a three-year deal, somewhat similar to the contract Indianapolis receiver Reggie Wayne received at the age of 33 two years ago. Awarding White an extension would help the Falcons lower his cap number for '14.

As for Jones, the Falcons picked up his fifth-year option for 2015 which will pay him $10.716 million (same as cap hit). That doesn't preclude them from signing him to a long-term deal. With Jones coming off season-ending foot surgery and not expected to take the field again until training camp, it's fair to wonder if the team will attempt to get the long-term deal resolved sooner rather than wait to see if he has a dynamic '14 season and, thus, command more money. Jones' cap hit is $5,149,375 this coming season.

Right now, White averages $8.54 million per year and Jones, $4.045 million.

"We love Roddy, and Julio as well," Blank said, "so we'll continue to work with them and their agents closely."

When healthy, Jones and White compose arguably the most dangerous receiver tandem in the league. During the 2012 season, they had a combined 171 catches for 2,549 yards and 17 touchdowns as the Falcons went 13-3 and finished one step away from the Super Bowl.