My latest piece..... http://profootballspot.com/_/nfl/nfc-so ... anta-r3561
After a demoralizing 4-12 season, the Falcons enter this season without much exposure. Besides Hard Knocks cameras following them around, you aren’t hearing much clamoring about them being contenders from analysts or journalists. They were humbled as a team and organization last year. That led to an emphasis towards rebuilding both lines.
Many people believe that the stigma of being soft bothers the organization. In the end, an organization’s job is to recognize flaws rather than worry about stigmas. There were obvious flaws and they’ve been addressed for the most part. The defense is being repaired and re-branded in a 3-4 scheme. Although it may be considered as a 3-4 scheme, all defenses will be playing in the nickel for more than half of their snaps.
Despite the main objective of being more tougher, there is still plenty of uncertainty surrounding Atlanta. The defense is filled with youth through their linebacker core and secondary. Veterans such as Sean Weatherspoon, Asante Samuel, and Thomas DeCoud are no longer leading the way. Young players need to step up, along with starting positions needing to be definitively won.
There are currently three battles going on to determine who will be starting on September 7th against New Orleans. These next three weeks should be a good barometer in determining who will be worthy of being a starter.
Inside Linebacker: Jopolo Bartu vs. Prince Shembo vs. Pat Angerer
There will certainly be other inside linebackers receiving a considerable amount of snaps in the pre-season. That being said, Marquis Spruill and Yawin Smallwood are projects for the most part. I’m not expecting them to be in starting contention, along with Tim Dobbins. He should make the roster, but it will most likely be for special team purposes. The battle will most likely come down to three players to play alongside Paul Worrilow.
The battle could go down to two choices because of Angerer ‘s issues in dealing with a concussion. For him to miss even one pre-season game could prove to be detrimental towards his chances. If you add on the fact that he’s injury prone and struggles in coverage, his chances aren’t looking very good. I went into some detail about him coming to Atlanta a few weeks ago.
Bartu is listed as a starter now, due to his athleticism and showing flashes of excellence in the latter part of 2013. I’m not convinced that he will become great in coverage, but there were glimpses of optimism. It’s hard to be critical of him because of him being undrafted last year and being forced into action. I’m waiting to see more, along with the coaching staff.
His main competition will come from Shembo, who’s converting from a pass-rusher to an inside linebacker. I’ve been surprised to hear that the conversion has gone smoothly so far. Shembo is a physical specimen, who Mike Nolan has been thrilled to work with. His ability to cover could very well make or break his chances. Of course he’ll need to be efficient in run support and tracking down his assignments. Still I’m expecting this battle to come down to cover skills, since Worrilow was far more productive in run support last year. This is the battle I’m most intrigued by going into the pre-season. Sean Weatherspoon was a massive loss for this young inside linebacker core, which means that someone has big shoes to fill.
Nickel Cornerback: Josh Wilson vs. Robert McClain vs. Javier Arenas
Arenas is certainly a long shot, but I’ll consider him for being discussed as a candidate. Mike Smith said that he’d have an opportunity to play in the nickel in the pre-season to prove his worth. The battle will most likely come down to Wilson and McClain, although McClain could be pressed into action at free safety. For now this is a competition and it’s one of the most intriguing ones.
McClain was outstanding in 2012 covering slot receivers, after being pressed into action due to Brent Grimes tearing his Achilles. He regressed considerably in 2013, which led to him being benched in favor of Robert Alford at one point. His tendency to struggle against speedy receivers was evident. If he can’t play physical at the line, his lack of speed and height cost him in many one on one battles.
The signing of Wilson led to many groans from fans. That is a justifiable reaction, if you watched Wilson play for the past two years. The reason why I’m slightly more optimistic is that he won’t be pressed into a starting position barring injury. Wilson was solid as a nickel-back playing for Baltimore in 2010. He’s faster and utilizes his hips better than McClain has.
It would be premature to discount McClain in this battle. It was only two years ago that he was efficient as a nickel corner. His ability to be a sure-fire tackler is also extremely valuable. Wilson tends to miss tackles, due to poor technique. This battle was primed to start on Friday, but the status of Dwight Lowery is concerning. If McClain is pressed into playing free safety, then this is Wilson’s job to lose.
Free Safety (if Dwight Lowery is seriously injured): Dezmen Southward vs. Kemal Ishamel vs. Tyrell Johnson vs. Sean Baker
I’m not going to include McClain or Ricardo Allen because I’ve yet to hear an official ruling that they would play safety. Therefore I’ll stick to the natural free safeties. Now if Lowery ends up passing the concussion protocol, this battle ends immediately. Lowery has been impressive through mini and training camp. His ability to cover and play in a center field role has earned the coaches trust for now.
Still he received his third concussion last week, which is very concerning. This puts the coaching staff in a precarious position in testing many unproven players. Southward seemed to be the likely candidate being a third round pick, but he’s dealt with injuries and adapting to the position. His lack of experience in covering slot receivers and man coverage in general makes him a major question mark, if he were pressed to action.
Ishamel has impressed in training camp so far. His utilization of angles to help in run support has stood out to many Falcon beat writers. You can expect him to play majority of the snaps on Friday. He may have to play strong safety a bit, since other safeties need opportunities to play free safety. Still Ishamel is the dark horse in his battle.
Baker and Johnson will be given an opportunity, but there aren’t any expectations for them to play. Baker is still relatively a project and has taken Zeke Motta’s spot on the active roster. Johnson hasn’t started for an NFL team since 2010 with the Vikings. He was infamous for being a part of their bad secondary in allowing big plays on a consistent basis. If Lowery is going to miss time in the regular season, the battle will come down to Southward and Ishamel most likely. McClain could be a dark horse if given a chance. He has proven to be an excellent tackler and having a high football IQ.