NFL Nation: Kroy Biermann

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.
HOUSTON -- After a perplexing loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in which he gained only one yard on just seven carries, running back Ben Tate was asked if anyone knows why his Houston Texans season has gone as it has.

"Maybe God?" Tate said.

Certainly not anybody in the Texans' locker room. He was asked if "embarrassing" was the right word for where the Texans are right now and he agreed.

Perhaps there's solace for the Texans in the fact they aren't alone in their dramatic tumble.

On Nov. 25, 2012 the leaders of the AFC and NFC were the Texans and the Falcons, both at 10-1. Today is Nov. 25, 2013 and they are both at the bottom of their conferences, both at 2-9.

The Texans are on a nine-game losing streak and the Falcons are on a five-game losing streak. The Texans had to come from behind to win their first two games of the season against the San Diego Chargers and Tennessee Titans. Then the luck ran out. The return of Ed Reed, who missed those games recovering from hip surgery, coincided with the beginning of the longest losing streak in franchise history.

Their quarterback, Matt Schaub, faltered, setting an NFL record for consecutive games with a pick-six with four, and Case Keenum, his successor hasn't been able to play well enough to change things. And while dealing with that, a significant injury avalanche began. One after another, tight end Owen Daniels, strong safety Danieal Manning, inside linebacker Brian Cushing and running back Arian Foster are all on injured reserve. Daniels could come back next week, but in his absence this season was lost.

What happened to the Falcons? I checked in with our Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure:

"I believe injuries are the main reason -- but not the only reason -- for the Falcons' decline this season. Losing top offensive threat Julio Jones (foot surgery) sucked the life out of the offense and allowed opposing defenses to play more honest. And with No. 2 receiver Roddy White battling ankle and hamstring injuries for most of the season, the high-powered Falcons lost that much more steam. Left tackle Sam Baker wasn’t the same player before going on injured reserve with a knee injury, while linebacker Sean Weatherspoon's presence was missed as the defensive leader when he was sidelined seven games due to a Lisfranc foot sprain.

"Throw in losing defensive end/linebacker Kroy Biermann (Achilles) for the season after Week 2 and the Falcons really never had a chance to get going on either side of the ball. Struggles by the offensive line to keep pressure off Matt Ryan and open holes in the running game have hurt, too. So has the inability for the defensive line to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, which has contributed to the 18 plays of 40-plus yards surrendered by the Falcons."

Now they're two of three teams with a league-worst 2-9 records, all jockeying for draft position. It's possible that adding a high draft pick to their already-talented rosters puts them in strong positions going forward. But that turnaround will require making the right decisions in the draft and filling the holes this season exposed properly.
Ryan Tannehill and Julio JonesUSA TODAY SportsRyan Tannehill and the undefeated Dolphins will try to upset Julio Jones and the Atlanta Falcons.
The Miami Dolphins are basking in the light of a 2-0 start while the Atlanta Falcons are just trying to find some healthy bodies.

The two teams play each other Sunday in a game that has big implications in the AFC East and NFC South races.

ESPN Dolphins reporter James Walker and ESPN Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas examine this matchup:

Yasinskas: James, like many, I thought the Dolphins would be an improved team. But it's looking like they might be even better than I thought. They've gone out and started their season with two big wins on the road. What's going right for the Dolphins and, more importantly, how good are they?

Walker: It's early, Pat, but Miami is already exceeding my expectations. I pegged the Dolphins to be an 8-8 team this year. That still could happen if the team loses focus, but Miami is on pace to do better. I credit two things: improved playmaking ability and the growth of second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Miami committed more than $200 million in free-agent contracts to players like receiver Mike Wallace, cornerback Brent Grimes and linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler. All of those players came up big in last Sunday's win over the Indianapolis Colts. When you add in the fact Tannehill has improved in his second year, it's easy to see why the Dolphins are also taking the next step. Atlanta is a team many believe is a Super Bowl contender, but the group is banged up. Pat, how much will injuries impact the Falcons in this game?

Yasinskas: Atlanta has some major injury problems. The Falcons had to put defensive end/linebacker Kroy Biermann and fullback Bradie Ewing on injured reserve this week and there are reports that running back Steven Jackson will miss a few weeks. The loss of Biermann means the Falcons will have to play rookies Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow at linebacker and second-year pro Jonathan Massaquoi at defensive end. If Jackson is out, the Falcons will have to go with Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling as their running backs, and that's a sharp drop-off. That probably means the Falcons will pass even more than usual and rely on Roddy White and Julio Jones. Is Miami's secondary ready for that tandem?

Walker: I had a good conversation with Miami's top cornerback, Grimes, on Tuesday. He was complimentary of both White and Jones -- and Grimes would know. The former Falcon watched both receivers grow in Atlanta and practiced against them. It will be fun to see who has the advantage between Grimes and White/Jones, depending on the play. Grimes told me they all know each other so well that it's probably a push. The bigger concern for Miami's secondary is the other cornerback spot. Veteran starter Dimitri Patterson didn't play in Week 2 due to a groin injury. He's working his way back and could play Sunday. Rookie corners Will Davis and Jamar Taylor also returned to practice this week, which could provide depth. Similar to the game against Indianapolis, Miami must do a lot of things schematically to cover up its issues opposite Grimes. That includes using the safeties over the top and getting a good pass rush. Speaking of pass rush, the Dolphins have nine sacks in the first two games. Can they exploit the Falcons in this area?

Yasinskas: Miami's pass rush has to be a major concern for the Falcons. Atlanta revamped its offensive line in the offseason and it's taking some time to come together. The right side of the line is of particular concern with guard Garrett Reynolds and Lamar Holmes as the starters. Reynolds is average at best and Holmes, a second-year pro, was thrown into the starting lineup when Mike Johnson went down with an injury in the preseason. Holmes is very much a work in progress, so the Falcons will have to try to give him some help by getting their tight ends and running backs involved as pass-blockers. Still, Atlanta should be able to move the ball through the air because it has Matt Ryan, Jones, White and tight end Tony Gonzalez. Has Tannehill developed enough to win a shootout?

Walker: That's an interesting question, Pat. I'm not sure anyone -- even Miami's coaching staff -- has the answer. I did notice the Dolphins' game plan in Week 1 against Cleveland was fairly conservative compared to Week 2 against Indianapolis. Those are two different teams, and perhaps the Dolphins realized they needed to be more aggressive throwing and take more vertical shots deep to match Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. This is a similar type of challenge, because Atlanta's offense is built around scoring points in the passing game. Tannehill is getting better at taking over parts of a game in Year 2. His play in the second half the past two weeks has been terrific. The Dolphins are outscoring opponents 24-6 in the third and fourth quarters, in part because Tannehill is moving the chains, putting points on the board and keeping Miami's defense fresh. I don't expect this game to be all on Tannehill's shoulders. The defense remains the strength of the Dolphins. Keeping Atlanta's scoring around 23 points or fewer, as opposed to having Tannehill throw for 400 yards, is probably Miami's best shot to win.

Power Rankings: No. 6 Atlanta Falcons

September, 17, 2013
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A weekly examination of the Falcons’ ESPN.com Power Ranking:

Preseason: 4 | Last Week: 4 | ESPN.com Power Ranking since 2002

The Atlanta Falcons somehow managed to win a game, but dropped two spots in the rankings. I guess the voters weren’t all that impressed with the victory over the St. Louis Rams.

But a win is a win, and the Falcons got the job done on a day when a bunch of guys were banged up. That’s a sign of a team that belongs in the top 10.

But there may be trouble on the horizon after season-ending injuries to defensive end/linebacker Kroy Biermann and fullback Bradie Ewing. Those guys aren’t superstars, but they’re important role players, and the Falcons could have problems replacing them.

Rams-Falcons: Matchups breakdown

September, 14, 2013
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ATLANTA – Sunday’s game between the St. Louis Rams and Atlanta Falcons contains plenty of intriguing matchups, making it difficult to boil it down to just a few. Here are three to keep an eye on when the teams kick it off at 1 p.m. ET at the Georgia Dome.

Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins vs. Atlanta receiver Julio Jones

Jones
Jenkins
It’s a matchup that fans of the Southeastern Conference have seen before and one that Jenkins undoubtedly is anticipating.

Jenkins was at Florida at the same time Jones was at Alabama. The final two times their teams met, in 2009 and 2010, Jenkins won their battles by unanimous decision -- helping to limit Jones to a combined six catches for 47 yards.

Although the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Jones has a clear size advantage against the 5-10, 198-pounder, Jenkins found ways to slow Jones in their college meetings by forcing him to work other routes than the basic deep ones that are Jones’ calling card.

“He’s a vertical threat, the deep guy, the home run guy,” Jenkins said. “He basically bangs 8s [routes] and digs. I have just got to play cornerback on him. I know he can’t get out of his breaks as fast as I can, but they love going deep so I have got to be prepared to go deep and just study his film.”

The Rams generally prefer not to shadow any one receiver, and they didn’t do so last week against Larry Fitzgerald. Still, should Jones play through a knee injury (he's listed as questionable), he and Jenkins should see plenty of each other Sunday afternoon.

Rams middle linebacker James Laurinaitis vs. Atlanta running back Steven Jackson

Jackson
Laurinaitis
Earlier this week, Rams cornerback Cortland Finnegan joked that Jackson’s top target when he gets the ball will be Laurinaitis. Really, matching up with Jackson figures to be a total team effort, but Jackson has always enjoyed measuring himself against opposing middle linebackers.

Laurinaitis and the Rams never had to tackle Jackson in live game action during his nine years with the team, and they've all made it clear they are expecting Jackson to bring a little something extra Sunday.

“Jack is going to be trying to truck-stick whoever he can on this defense,” Laurinaitis said. “That’s the nature of playing him. He’s a competitor anyway, but players seem to play their hardest against teams they were just on. Steven is a competitor in his very nature anyway. That’s the way he is. He’s playing against the team that he used to play for; he’s going to play extremely hard. It’s a huge challenge.”

Jackson had just 11 carries last week against New Orleans, but the Falcons will probably look to get him more involved this week.

The Rams' offensive line vs. Atlanta DL Kroy Biermann

Biermann
In watching the Falcons' defense, it’s hard not to notice the constant movement and various places Biermann lines up. The veteran lineman makes appearances as an edge rusher, a linebacker, inside, outside, just about anywhere one could imagine.

Last week against the Saints, Biermann was all over the place in posting five tackles, including one for loss, and a pair of quarterback hits.

The Rams' offensive line did not allow a sack last week against the Cardinals, the third game in a row they've accomplished that feat dating to last season. Arizona threw a variety of stunts and blitzes, but the Rams picked them up well as the Cardinals hit quarterback Sam Bradford just six times.

“Kroy, for most of his career, was an edge rusher and a very good one,” Fisher said. “He’s a high-motor guy. He’s lining up all over the place. He’ll match up outside on a back and end up playing the corner spot in their zone concept. So he’s obviously very intelligent and a high-motor guy. He’s a big-play guy.”
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- When he purchased the Atlanta Falcons in 2002, Arthur Blank wasn’t looking primarily to make money.

“It’s a solid business, and the NFL is king of the sports world and all that," said Blank, who made his fortune as co-founder of Home Depot. “But I got in this business to win. You want to win for your franchise, you want to win for the fans, and you want to win for the city and the state and you want to win for your players and the people in this building. All of that is what’s important to me. I’m a super competitive guy, and I want to win."

After some up-and-down early years in Blank's tenure, the Falcons finally have become consistent winners. The team has had five consecutive winning seasons since the arrival of coach Mike Smith, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and quarterback Matt Ryan. That’s remarkable progress for a franchise that had never had back-to-back winning seasons before the trio came along. And last year’s trip to the NFC Championship Game certainly was another step -- the Falcons came up 10 yards short of the Super Bowl.

But Blank’s not the type of guy to dance around. He wants more. He wants a Super Bowl championship. Wait, make that championships, plural.

At the news conference to announce Ryan’s contract extension Thursday evening, Blank strongly said he and the Falcons can’t really relax until they have Super Bowl rings.

“I think when you have five consecutive winning seasons and go to the playoffs four out of five years, you’re very much in the game," Blank said. “I feel good about what we’ve built, but I also feel like it’s time to take the next step."

He’s not alone. Smith had a strong message for his team on the first day of camp.

“I wanted everybody to understand we’re not 10 yards from the Super Bowl," Smith said. “We’re 193 days from the Super Bowl, which is where we want to be at the end of the season."

The Falcons didn’t go into panic mode and make desperate moves in the offseason. But it’s easy to detect the sense of urgency around Atlanta’s camp. The Falcons won’t quite say it’s Super Bowl or bust, but they believe it’s their time to continue moving in that direction.

[+] EnlargeSteven Jackson
AP Photo/John BazemoreAtlanta's pass-oriented offense should have better balance in 2013 with RB Steven Jackson in the mix.
“When an organization comes close to a goal you want to attain and you don’t get there, I think the first thing that you’ve got to do is make sure everybody doesn’t live in the past," Smith said. “I tell my guys there are three time frames you can live in. You can live in the past. You can live in the future. You can live in the now. As human beings and athletes, we live in all three at different times, but the majority of the time has got to be spent in the now and we have some goals that we want to attain now."

Three hot issues

1. The running game has to work. The Falcons clearly have made the transition to a pass-first team, and that’s not going to change. But they need some semblance of a running game. That’s something they lacked last year as Michael Turner aged and fizzled out.

The Falcons have added Steven Jackson, and that should provide a significant upgrade. Jackson doesn’t need to be the workhorse runner he was earlier in his career, and the Falcons still want to get Jacquizz Rodgers some playing time.

A combination of Jackson and Rodgers should be more than enough to give the Falcons a running game. That should complement the passing game by clearing the way for play-action passes. It also should come in handy when the Falcons are in control of games and trying to eat up some clock.

2. The defense needs a star and an identity. Although Smith comes from a defensive background, the Falcons never have had a really strong defense during his tenure. That needs to change if this team really is going to challenge for a Super Bowl.

It should help that defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is entering his second season and most of the players know his defense. But it’s time for this defense to build a real identity, and I look for Nolan to try to put a more aggressive product on the field.

It also would help Nolan if he can find a true star on his side of the ball. Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon could be that guy. Weatherspoon has been very good so far, but he needs to take the next step and become a prolific playmaker.

3. The pass rush has to produce. For virtually all of Smith’s tenure, the pass rush has consisted of John Abraham and not much else. But Abraham, 35, was released in the offseason because of his age. The Falcons replaced him by bringing in Osi Umenyiora.

On the surface, it appears as if Umenyiora should be able to give the Falcons what Abraham used to. But this defense needs more than Umenyiora to get after opposing quarterbacks. The team is hoping one of its young defensive ends, particularly Jonathan Massaquoi, can step up and complement Umenyiora.

But I’m expecting Nolan to get more creative in his second season and get his linebackers and defensive backs more involved as blitzers.

Reason for optimism

Despite the loss to San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game, the Falcons took a big stride last year by winning a playoff game against Seattle. It was the first playoff victory of Smith’s tenure, and it was significant because it showed the Falcons they can win in January.

This now is a veteran team without many holes. On paper, it’s as good as any team in the NFC. This team knows its window for winning a Super Bowl is wide open at the moment but isn’t going to stay that way forever.

[+] Enlargeatt Ryan
AP Photo/David GoldmanWith a hefty new contract and premium weapons around him, Atlanta QB Matt Ryan will be playing under heavy scrutiny all season.
Reason for pessimism

There always are going to be doubts about the Falcons until they win a Super Bowl. Is Smith too nice of a guy? Does Ryan have what it takes to win the big one?

Those questions still linger. And, with those questions, there is a lot of pressure. It remains to be seen whether this team can handle that kind of pressure.

Observation deck

One of the first things that struck me on the practice field was the size of rookie tight end Levine Toilolo. He’s 6-foot-8, which makes him the tallest tight end in the NFL and a potential matchup problem for linebackers and defensive backs. The best thing about veteran Tony Gonzalez's taking part only on a limited basis is that Toilolo will get plenty of reps and a chance to develop quickly. But I’m not sure Toilolo will immediately beat out Chase Coffman, who had a very strong offseason, for the No. 2 tight end spot.

If you’re looking for an unsung player who is going to make an impact this season, start with Bradie Ewing. The Falcons drafted him last year and planned to use him as the lead blocker for Turner. But Ewing got hurt in the preseason and missed his entire rookie year. Turner had his problems last year, but I think the lack of good blocking from the fullbacks was a factor. Ewing has nice size and should be able to open holes for Jackson.

Don’t read too much into the fact that Mike Johnson has received all the first-team reps at right tackle so far in camp. Johnson might have a slight edge thanks to experience, but the team still has high hopes for second-year pro Lamar Holmes, and he’s likely to be given some reps with the first team.

The speculation that defensive end Kroy Biermann could be used more as a linebacker is more than speculation. Biermann was spending a lot of time at linebacker in the first two days of camp. He’s athletic enough to play in pass coverage and should be able to generate a pass rush from a linebacker position.

The Falcons seem a little thin at defensive tackle, but they might have some quiet plans to get second-year pro Travian Robertson more involved in the rotation. He played a little as a rookie, and I expect his playing time to increase. Also, defensive end Cliff Matthews appears to have bulked up and could slide inside at times.

Second-round pick Robert Alford is going to have a shot at playing time at cornerback. But I think there’s another reason the Falcons drafted Alford. He has return ability, and the Falcons need to improve their return game. Third receiver Harry Douglas also could be an option in the return game. The Falcons would like to get Douglas more touches because they believe he’s an explosive player. But it’s tough to get Douglas touches in the passing game with Roddy White, Julio Jones and Gonzalez around. Letting Douglas handle punt returns could give him four or five more touches a game.

I had been thinking the Falcons would bring in a veteran backup for Ryan at some point. But, after watching second-year pro Dominique Davis the past few days, I’m not so sure the Falcons are still looking. Davis looked sharp and decisive. He’ll get a lot of playing time in the preseason games. If he performs well, the Falcons will stick with him as their backup.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

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

ATLANTA FALCONS

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

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

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

CAROLINA PANTHERS

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

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

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

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

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

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

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

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

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

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

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

The major question facing each team in the NFC South as summer break looms.

Atlanta Falcons. Is the pass rush good enough? The Falcons replaced John Abraham with Osi Umenyiora. That might end up being something close to an even trade. But, just like when the Falcons had Abraham, you have to wonder who else might be able to generate a pass rush. Kroy Biermann is versatile and could bring some pressure from either defensive end or outside linebacker. But the Falcons really need one of their young defensive ends to step up. Second-year pro Jonathan Massaquoi appears to be the leading candidate for that.

Carolina Panthers. Who will be the starters in the defensive backfield? Aside from Charles Godfrey at one safety spot, that question remains wide open. The Panthers don’t have a clear starter at the other safety spot or at either cornerback spot. Veteran Mike Mitchell is one option at safety, but the team has been very impressed by rookie Robert Lester. The cornerback situation is even less clear. Captain Munnerlyn is a lock to be among the top three corners, but Drayton Florence, Josh Thomas, Josh Norman and D.J. Campbell appear to be competing for the other spots. The winners will have to distinguish themselves in training camp and the preseason.

New Orleans Saints. Where’s the pass rush going to come from? Just when it seemed like we were getting some clarity on this, it’s become a bigger question than ever before. Outside linebacker Victor Butler, who had a strong minicamp and played for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan in Dallas, went down with a torn ACL this week. The Saints firmly believed Butler was going to be a force. Now, they have to look at alternatives. Martez Wilson, Junior Galette and rookie Rufus Johnson all have some potential. But none of them are a sure thing. The Saints could end up bringing in a veteran that’s released somewhere else in the preseason if they don’t like what they’re seeing from the young linebackers.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Are they really set at tight end? All indications are the Bucs are planning on going with Luke Stocker and Tom Crabtree as their top two tight ends. That sounds a little dicey because Stocker hasn’t distinguished himself to this point of his career and Crabtree was used sparingly in Green Bay. But the Bucs appear to believe Stocker might be ready to elevate his game and they seem to think Crabtree has upside as a pass-catcher. It still is possible the Bucs could bring in a tight end, but that position doesn’t appear to be all that important in their passing game.
Throughout the offseason, there’s been speculation that the role of Atlanta defensive end Kroy Biermann could expand to include some playing time at linebacker.

It sounds like that speculation will become reality.

“[Defensive coordinator Mike] Nolan’s playbook has some depth to it,’’ Biermann told the media after Wednesday’s workout. “I don’t even think that I’ve seen half of it. But he’s going to start opening it up, I think. Wherever they put me, I’ll play and I’m going to play to the best of my ability.”

I don’t think the Falcons are planning on a straight move of Biermann from defensive end to linebacker. I think they’re looking at more of a hybrid role. Biermann will play defensive end in some situations. But at 255 pounds, he might not be ideally suited to be an every-down defensive end. There could be some situations where the Falcons want to use Jonathan Massaquoi or one of their other young players at defensive end and take advantage of Biermann’s versatility by moving him to linebacker, where he could bring another dimension to the pass rush.

The Falcons have been creative with Biermann in the past, even dropping him into coverage at times. But I expect that creativity to become even more prevalent this year.

“Multiplicity on the defensive side of the ball is what we are looking for,’’ coach Mike Smith said. “We want to be as multiple as we possibly can. Kroy, last year, was a guy that lined up with his hand on the ground, standing up, he did some things in pass defense and he’s been very multiple. He’ll continue to have that role.’’
Football Outsiders is doing a league-wide series of posts called "Red Flags," which take a look at the biggest remaining issue facing each team. Today’s Insider postInsider is on the NFC South and I’ll break it up into four smaller posts to explore the red flags for each team.

We’ll start it off with the Atlanta Falcons. Football Outsiders chose defensive end as Atlanta’s red flag and here’s the crux of their rationale:

“The Falcons addressed this by releasing John Abraham and signing Osi Umenyiora in free agency, but it's hard to call that an upgrade. Since missing all of 2008 with a knee injury, Umenyiora has 33.5 sacks. In the same four seasons, Abraham has 38.0 sacks, and he has had more sacks than Umenyiora in each of the past three years. Umenyiora is three years younger than Abraham, which is significant, but this still looks like a lateral move at best.’’

Maybe so, but the Falcons are simply counting on Umenyiora to be what Abraham was last year. They’re counting on generating more of a pass rush from elsewhere. Kroy Biermann is the other starter and he only has been average as a pass-rusher.

But I think those that think the Falcons are going to bring in another pass-rusher from outside are mistaken. They drafted Stansly Maponga and Malliciah Goodman this year. They have two other young ends in Jonathan Massaquoi and Cliff Matthews.

The Falcons don’t have the cap room to add high-priced veterans. They’re going to throw their young defensive ends out there and see if someone steps up.
Matt RyanAP Photo/Dave MartinMatt Ryan quieted his critics after winning a playoff game, but there's still more left to accomplish.
It’s time for the Atlanta Falcons' Class of 2008 to move on past graduate school and get the most advanced of degrees.

Almost a year ago, I wrote a column about how the members of that draft class were headed for a crucial season that could define them individually and collectively. They passed the test with flying colors, winning a playoff game for the first time and coming within 10 yards of a Super Bowl appearance.

This draft class now seems destined to be one of the best in NFC South history. Let’s check in on Atlanta’s Class of 2008 to see where its members are and where they might be going.

Quarterback Matt Ryan is the face of this class. He was selected with the third pick overall, and he was good right from the start. Ryan was calm and poised as a rookie and did lots of nice things in the following years.

But entering last season, Ryan’s career had hit a bit of a lull. The critics who said that Ryan couldn’t win the big one were getting louder. That theory was supported by the fact Ryan never had won a playoff game, despite leading the Falcons to winning records in each of his first four seasons.

So Ryan went out and set career highs in passing yards (4,719), completion percentage (68.6) and touchdown passes (32) as the Falcons cruised to a 13-3 season in 2012. Then he got the biggest win of his career, leading the Falcons to a playoff victory against Seattle.

If you didn’t think Ryan was paying attention to the talk about his previous playoff frustrations, his uncharacteristic emotional reaction at the end of the Seattle game told you something about the quarterback’s intensity.

I was stunned as I stood in the tunnel near the Falcons’ locker room that day and saw and heard Ryan running off the field repeatedly pumping his fist. I was even more stunned as Ryan, who normally is very soft-spoken, got closer and I could hear him repeatedly yelling in happiness.

The joy ended a week later with a close loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. That brought back some of the critics, but I see nothing but a bright future for Ryan. The victory against Seattle took a lot of weight off his shoulders. He’s likely to get a contract extension later this offseason, and I expect his next five years to be even better than his first five.

“It takes so much more than just Matt Ryan to finish plays, especially down the stretch," Atlanta receiver Roddy White said in a "First Take" interview Wednesday. "You can’t just put it on the quarterback and say, 'You have to make this one play to get over the hump.' It has to be me. It has to be Julio [Jones]. It has to be Tony [Gonzalez]. We have to go out there and make those plays to make it easier on Matt Ryan."

White’s right. But it’s not just White, Jones and Gonzalez who have to help Ryan take the next step. He needs help from the guys from his own draft class, and they all seem to be on the upswing.

[+] EnlargeThomas DeCoud
AP Photo/John BazemoreThomas DeCoud, a '12 Pro Bowler, has solidified Atlanta's secondary as a much-improved group.
Take left tackle Sam Baker, who also was chosen in the first round in 2008. Through much of his first four years, Baker dealt with injuries and was maligned by fans for his inconsistent play. In 2011, he lost his starting job.

But the Falcons stood by Baker. He got healthy and turned in a stellar 2012 season that earned him a new contract. Some people might say it was a one-season wonder, but I think Baker can play like that every year if he stays healthy.

Then there’s wide receiver Harry Douglas, a third-round pick in 2008. He’s carved a nice niche as Atlanta’s slot receiver and could deliver even more big plays in the future with defenses focused on White, Gonzalez and Jones. But Douglas wasn’t even the gem of the third round for the Falcons.

That turned out to be safety Thomas DeCoud. He made the Pro Bowl last season, and he and William Moore are starting to get recognition as one of the league’s best safety tandems.

And let’s not forget defensive end Kroy Biermann, a fifth-round pick in 2008. Biermann once was best known for being married to one of the stars of "The Real Housewives of Atlanta." But he made his presence felt on the field last season.

Biermann beat out free-agent bust Ray Edwards, produced four sacks, showed the ability to drop into zone coverage and had a big impact on special teams.

We also have to mention linebacker Curtis Lofton, a second-round pick in 2008. He gave the Falcons four very nice years before bolting to New Orleans as a free agent last offseason.

The Class of 2008 validated itself last season. But there’s still a little more this class can do.

The unquestioned best draft class in NFC South history came in 1995, when Tampa Bay landed Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks. They helped turn around a downtrodden franchise and led the Bucs to a Super Bowl championship in the 2002 season.

Sapp will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer, and Brooks almost certainly will follow him next year. In hindsight, that was a magical draft for Tampa Bay.

But maybe Atlanta’s Class of 2008 will be viewed in a similar manner someday. When Ryan and company arrived in Atlanta, the Falcons were coming off the Bobby Petrino and Michael Vick fiascos. The class quickly helped turn a franchise around.

The next step is to win a Super Bowl, maybe even more than one. If the Falcons can do that, their Class of 2008 has a chance to enter the argument with Sapp and Brooks as the best in NFC South history.
Kroy Biermann might not be the most famous athlete ever to come out of Montana’s Hardin High. But the defensive end for the Atlanta Falcons is the most successful athlete to come out of a high school that is legendary in another sport.

Hardin’s basketball program, particularly legendary Crow Indian Jonathan Takes Enemy, was featured in this 1991 story by Sports Illustrated’s Gary Smith, which may be one of best pieces of sports writing I’ve ever read.

At a high school where basketball was king, Biermann left the sport after his freshman year and focused on football and wrestling.

“Yeah, basketball was huge,’’ Biermann said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “But football and wrestling were pretty big deals, too. There wasn’t much else to do out there. If you didn’t play sports, you were going to have to work on the farm.’’

In high school, Biermann played linebacker, fullback, tailback, wide receiver and returned kickoffs and punts, which might help explain his current role as one of the NFL’s most versatile defensive ends.

Biermann, who beat out Ray Edwards for a starting job early in the season, is used in a variety of ways in coordinator Mike Nolan’s scheme.

At 6-foot-3 and 255 pounds, Biermann can play the run (he had 52 tackles in the regular season) and rush the passer (he had four sacks). But Biermann, who moves as well as some linebackers and also plays on special teams, is part of the reason the Falcons have had good success with their blitz packages.

Frequently, the Falcons drop Biermann into coverage and blitz a linebacker or defensive back.

“It’s a fun defense to play in,’’ Biermann said. “Coach Nolan’s playbook is a lot deeper than we’ve even shown. It’s fun, it’s exciting and it’s a fast-paced defense. He does a great job of putting us in position to make big plays.’’
Ryan-ShermanUSA TODAY SportsIf Matt Ryan and the Falcons come out throwing, Seattle CB Richard Sherman stands ready.
Northwest meets Southeast when the Seattle Seahawks visit the Atlanta Falcons in an NFC divisional playoff game Sunday.

Seattle is fresh off its first road playoff victory since 1983, having won 24-14 at Washington in the wild-card round. The Seahawks are now 2-1 in postseason play during Pete Carroll's first three seasons as head coach.

As for the Falcons, well, you know the story. They're the No. 1 seed in the NFC and they'll be playing at home. But as NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas can attest, they haven't accomplished anything yet.

That's where we pick up the conversation.

Yasinskas: The world knows the Falcons have yet to win a playoff game in the Mike Smith-Matt Ryan era. That places enormous pressure on the Falcons, and the Seahawks look a little reminiscent of Atlanta's past two playoff opponents -- the Packers and Giants, who each went on to win the Super Bowl. The Seahawks won their last five regular-season games and seven of their past eight. Throw in their playoff victory against Washington on Sunday and you've got a team that's red hot. Atlanta has the better record and home-field advantage, but the playoff drought brings tremendous pressure. If the Falcons don't win this time around, the patience of owner Arthur Blank will become very thin.

Sando: The Falcons' past struggles in playoff games have invited skepticism from a lot of us. I've taken heat from some Falcons fans this season for allegedly underrating Atlanta in the power rankings. How good is this team right now and how much confidence should Falcons fans have in this team against Seattle?

Yasinskas: Yes, Atlanta fans have shared their opinions with me about where you ranked the Falcons on your ballot. But you might not have been that far off. The Falcons were a bit of an enigma much of the season. They were winning a lot of games, but weren't winning them impressively. They did come on late in the season, aside from a meaningless loss to Tampa Bay in the season finale. This is a team with a tremendous amount of individual talent, and the Falcons are very good at home. But they can't afford to revert back to their early-season ways of playing just well enough to win, because that might get them beat.

Sando: The Seahawks are playing without the burden of expectations. They are very good at quarterback, running back and in the secondary. The read option has added an unconventional element to their offense. Still, winning a 10 a.m. PT game on the road against a very good offensive team will be tough. The Seahawks have started slowly in their past two games. I think they'll have a harder time if that happens again. Along those lines, have the Falcons been able to jump on teams early at home and finish them off? One memory I have is watching Arizona pick off Ryan five times.

Yasinskas: The Arizona game was the only time in Ryan's life (including college, high school and youth league) that he's thrown five interceptions in a game. That was a fluke. Some of those balls were tipped. Ryan generally is very efficient. And starting fast is one of the trademarks of Ryan and the Falcons. Since Ryan entered the league in 2008, the Falcons have scored more points on their first offensive drives than any team in the NFL. They pride themselves on starting fast, and they're particularly good at that in the Georgia Dome.

Sando: The Seahawks fell behind St. Louis and Washington early. They have shown an ability to come back. They were down by 13 to New England and won. They trailed Washington by 14 points and won. They're not slow starters by rule. Seattle was tied with Atlanta for seventh in first-quarter touchdown drives (11) during the regular season. It has been in only the past couple weeks that teams have thrown off the Seahawks early with their blitzes. Seattle came out passing against the Redskins. We'll see heavier early doses of Marshawn Lynch on Sunday.

Yasinskas: I'm certain we will see heavier doses of Lynch. Stopping the run is not Atlanta's strength. The Falcons ranked 21st against the run in the regular season and they've been known to have problems with power runners. That's why it's crucial for the Falcons to get an early lead and force the Seahawks to pass. The other thing I think you'll see is a lot of middle linebacker Akeem Dent. The Falcons used a lot of the nickel package in the regular season, and that kept Dent on the sidelines. But against the Seahawks, I think it's more important for the Falcons to focus on stopping the run, and they'll want Dent on the field for that.

Sando: Interesting. Seattle could counter by shifting into its three-receiver offense and then going with its read-option package. Lynch scored the winning 27-yard touchdown against the Redskins on an option run from three-receiver personnel against Washington's nickel defense. The option has become a reliable tactic for Seattle. Opponents have a tough time determining whether Lynch or Russell Wilson is going to run with the ball. They also must respect the play-action passing game. The Seahawks had 11 rushes for 110 yards on option runs Sunday. They had 224 yards rushing overall. I noticed Cam Newton had 202 yards rushing in two games against the Falcons this season. What was the nature of those rushes and do you see anything Seattle can cull from that?

Yasinskas: Newton did have success against Atlanta, but the Falcons still were able to split with the Panthers. They also held Robert Griffin III to one carry for 7 yards in an early victory at Washington. They won against another mobile quarterback in Michael Vick. So the Falcons have some experience in facing mobile quarterbacks and the read option. I'm sure they used the bye week to prepare to see it again because they knew there was a good chance they'd be facing Wilson or Griffin. Outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is the key player against the read option. He's the leader of the defense and probably the best player on the unit.

Sando: The Panthers had 21 carries for 120 yards and a touchdown using the option against Atlanta in Week 4. There will be other keys to this game. Wilson's ability to deal with the Falcons' blitzes could be one of them. Wilson had seven touchdowns, no picks, three sacks and the NFL's third-best Total QBR score (87.2) against five-plus pass-rushers from Week 8 through Week 16. That included going 6-of-6 for 91 yards and a score with a perfect 100.0 QBR against the 49ers' blitzes during a 42-13 victory in Week 16. Wilson wasn't quite as good in this regard against the Rams in Week 17, taking three sacks against their pressure. The Redskins held Wilson to a season-low 9.7 QBR against the blitz. Wilson has taken eight sacks against the blitz over the past two games after taking eight total over the previous 15 games.

Yasinskas: Wilson is incredibly poised. But he still is a rookie coming into a tough venue in a playoff game, so I'm pretty sure defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will try every way possible to pressure him. Drew Brees and Matthew Stafford were the only quarterbacks all season to have much success against Atlanta's blitzes. Nolan likes to mix things up. The Atlanta pass rush starts with defensive end John Abraham, but Nolan has found ways to complement him. Nolan's not afraid to drop defensive end Kroy Biermann into pass coverage and let a linebacker or a defensive back blitz. The Falcons often talk about "disguising" their pass rush, and I'm sure they'll try to do lots of that against a rookie quarterback.

Sando: Wilson has generally improved as the season has progressed, but he has been hit-and-miss all season against DB pressure. Wilson has three touchdowns, two picks, four sacks and a 17.9 QBR score when opponents rush a member of the secondary. He did make Minnesota, Miami and San Francisco (twice) pay for the tactic, however.

There's so much to consider in this matchup, Pat, that we haven't even gotten to one of the most crucial ones. Seattle's 6-foot-4 Brandon Browner and 6-3 Richard Sherman can be dominant cornerbacks. They disrupt receivers' timing and generally get under their skin. You might recall Carolina's Steve Smith just about losing it against Sherman earlier this season. Even the Redskins' left tackle went after him Sunday. If the Falcons win this game, Ryan is going to be the reason, I think. Should the Falcons' receivers like their chances? Or could we see Ryan becoming a bit tentative against big, physical, ball-hawking corners?

Yasinskas: I think the Falcons have to come out and be very aggressive with their passing game. It's the strength of their offense. This is a different team than in the past. Michael Turner is at the end of his career and this is not a running team any longer. Roddy White and Julio Jones are big, physical receivers, so I say let's see strength on strength with Seattle's corners. I think White and Jones can get open against anyone, so the Falcons need to take their chances. Plus, this passing game is about more than just Jones and White. They command so much attention that tight end Tony Gonzalez and slot receiver Harry Douglas could be forgotten about. I think Douglas and/or Gonzalez could end up being key players in this game.

Sando: Seattle has been very good against tight ends for the most part. I'd be surprised if Gonzalez factored in a big way. Seattle has allowed three touchdown passes to tight ends this season, tied for second fewest in the NFL. The Seahawks have allowed 10 scoring passes to wide receivers, the fifth fewest in the league. Sherman had eight picks and three forced fumbles this season, joining Ed Reed, Charles Woodson and Walt Harris as the only players to reach those totals in a season over the past decade. The Seahawks are not as strong at nickel corner, however. And with leading sacker Chris Clemons likely out with a knee injury, life could get tougher for Seattle in the secondary.

Yasinskas: Mike, like just about everyone in the media, I'm skeptical of the Falcons because of their recent playoff losses. But I think this is the year they finally get a victory in the postseason. This is a different team than past years. I think the Falcons will put the game in Ryan's hands and I think they'll win 28-20.

Sando: I think the Falcons are finally ready to break through and win in the postseason. I'm just not sure they've drawn the right opponent to make that happen. Seattle is the more physical team. The Seahawks have beaten seven teams that finished the regular season with a winning record (the number is two for Atlanta). While Seattle was posting the NFL's best strength-of-victory percentage, the Falcons were fattening up on the NFL's easiest schedule. Atlanta is at once the No. 1 seed and the team stepping up in class. Ryan's going to need a great game to prove wrong my 27-20 prediction for another Seahawks victory.

Rapid Reaction: Falcons 23, Saints 13

November, 29, 2012
11/29/12
11:43
PM ET

ATLANTA -- Thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons’ 23-13 victory against the New Orleans Saints at the Georgia Dome on Thursday night:

What it means: For a change, the Falcons beat their biggest nemesis. For just the third time in the era of coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan, Atlanta came away with a victory against the Saints. That puts the Falcons at 11-1 and keeps them in the lead for the No. 1 seed in the NFC. The loss drops the Saints to 5-7 and pretty much ends their chances of making it to the playoffs.

The streak is over: Drew Brees' streak of consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass came to an end at 54 games. Brees had a first-half touchdown to Darren Sproles called back by an offensive pass-interference penalty and Lance Moore also was unable to haul in what looked like a catchable pass in the end zone.

Not the night for QBs: Brees and Ryan are two of the best quarterbacks in the league, but they didn’t play like it in this one. Brees was intercepted five times and Ryan was unusually out of rhythm on a night when the Falcons didn't convert a first down until the fourth quarter.

Show of faith: I didn’t like Smith’s decision to attempt a 55-yard field goal, especially since kicker Matt Bryant had been a bit shaky in recent weeks. But Smith showed faith in his kicker and Bryant made the field goal to give the Falcons a 23-13 lead with 4:25 remaining.

Play of the night: Bryant’s kick might not have been possible if it hadn’t been for a huge play by John Abraham. With the Saints driving, Abraham sacked Brees with 10:30 left in the game to take the Saints out of field-goal position and force a punt.

Almost play of the night: Kroy Biermann hit Brees’ arm to force an interception by Jonathan Babineaux with 3:29 remaining to seal the win.

What’s next: The Saints travel to play the New York Giants on Dec. 9. The Saints play at Carolina on that same day.

Falcons getting Pro Bowl attention

November, 29, 2012
11/29/12
2:55
PM ET
ATLANTA -- All throughout a 10-1 start, I’ve constantly heard from Atlanta fans about how the Falcons aren’t getting enough respect on a national level.

Well, maybe that’s starting to change.

I’ve got some updated numbers on Pro Bowl balloting, and the Falcons are pretty well represented. Fan voting continues until mid-December, and coaches and players will vote later in December. Fans, players and coaches each count as one third of the vote.

At the moment, Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez and guard Justin Blalock would be Pro Bowl starters, based only on the current fan vote. Tampa Bay safety Ronde Barber and New Orleans punter Thomas Morstead also would be NFC starters.

But the Falcons have a slew of players that are in the top five at their positions. Let’s take a look at which NFC South players rank in the top five in fan voting:

Quarterback
Running back
Fullback
Wide receiver
Tight end
  • Tony Gonzalez, Falcons, No. 1
Tackle
Guard
  • Justin Blalock, Falcons, No. 2
Center
Defensive end
Defensive tackle
Outside linebacker
  • None in top five
Inside linebacker
  • None in top five
Cornerbacks
  • None in top five
Strong safety
Free safety
  • Ronde Barber, Buccaneers, No. 1
Kicker
Punter
  • Thomas Morstead, Saints, No. 1
Returner
  • None in top five
Special teamer

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