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Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Preview 2014: Linebacker

July 22nd, 2014 No comments

Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Joplo Bartu

There are a lot of questions surrounding the Atlanta Falcons linebacker position, with a number of unproven players being asked to contribute larger roles in 2014.

For the Falcons, things took a turn for the worse when linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, the unit’s leader and best player, was injured in June with a torn Achilles. Weatherspoon’s loss has forced the team to look in the others’ directions to compensate.

Much of the void left by Weatherspoon is expected to be filled by middle linebacker Paul Worrilow. Among the three projected starters, Worrilow is the most solidified in his role. As a second-year player, he will have to take on a much larger mantle, becoming the unit’s top playmaker and leader on defense.

While Worrilow possesses the necessary traits for leadership, it remains to be seen if he can perform up to them. Worrilow came out strong last summer as an undrafted free agent to make the team, and this summer will need a similar emergence to lead the team.

Strong-side outside linebacker Kroy Biermann is expected to return from his own Achilles injury to flank Worrilow on the edge. After using Biermann as a bit of a “joker” player in his first season under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan in 2012, the team moved him fully to linebacker last summer. But Biermann was injured too early in the season to know if that transition was successful. Thus, he’ll have to prove himself again this summer.

Beside Worrilow at the other inside position that is expected to replace Weatherspoon is Joplo Bartu. Bartu, a 2013 undrafted free agent like Worrilow, also quickly impressed the coaching staff last summer with his range and athleticism. He quickly carved out a role in the sub-packages due to his coverage potential, and relative to his undrafted status as a rookie, played well in 2013. But there have been recent concerns over whether the coaching staff is ready to place the same amount of trust in him this year.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 27 Joplo Bartu

July 17th, 2014 No comments

Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Joplo Bartu

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 27th-ranked player: linebacker Joplo Bartu.

To read the methodology I devised to rank the Falcons players, click here.

Total Score: 50/100

Last year’s rank: N/A
Player Grade: 52/100
Teams he is starter: 12 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 0 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 21 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +4
Positional Bonus: +3

Bartu essentially came from nowhere last season as an undrafted rookie who carved out a quick role in the team’s linebacker rotation, almost immediately stealing snaps in nickel situations from linebacker Stephen Nicholas.

And he wound up having a pretty solid rookie season in 2013 given his humble origins. But now, he will be asked to do a lot more given that Sean Weatherspoon is out for the season. Bartu is the main candidate currently on the roster expected to replace Weatherspoon and if he isn’t up to the task, the Falcons lack viable alternatives.

But there should be a great deal of confidence that Bartu will be ready. While Bartu lacks Weatherspoon’s natural gifts and experience, he is no slouch as the team’s second best athlete at linebacker. With capable hips and very good short-area closing speed, Bartu has what it takes to be an effective two-way linebacker versus both the run and pass. And given his history as a defensive end in college, there’s little doubt he can be an effective blitzer (3.5 sacks in 2013).

Bartu had some early growing pains last year, notably a breakdown in coverage against the Miami Dolphins that was arguably the back-breaking play for the Falcons in the final minutes. But as the season wore on, his play improved to the point that over the final few games when Weatherspoon was officially out for the season, Bartu was arguably the team’s best linebacker.

Bartu will carry a heavy burden in 2014, but it will be his opportunity to show that he has the potential to be a long-term fixture in the Falcons starting lineup.

It’s not to say that he’s expected to take his rightful place among the league’s best linebackers in 2014, but if he can build off a solid rookie year while showing improvement and eliminating some mistakes, then there’s a lot of promise that Bartu will become a familiar name to Falcons fans for years to come.

Categories: Features Tags: , ,

Atlanta Falcons Takeaways from Last Week – June 16, 2014

June 16th, 2014 Comments off
Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Sean Weatherspoon

Once again, the Atlanta Falcons have lost linebacker Sean Weatherspoon to a major injury. This time it is for the rest of 2014 due to a torn Achilles heel which he suffered last Tuesday during practice.

There seems to be three presiding theories on what Weatherspoon’s impending absence will mean to the Falcons.

There’s the conservative theory that losing Spoon is not a huge loss. The presences of second-year linebackers in Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu will allow the Falcons defense to navigate the loss of its leader to a competent level.

This theory makes sense given Worrilow and Bartu had to perform the same task a year ago as undrafted rookies. They certainly will be better prepared to fill Spoon’s shoes with a full year under their belts.

But it still does not adequately encompass the loss of Spoon on the field. Which creates the second theory: that Spoon’s absence will have a dramatic negative effect on the team’s defense in 2014.

That is also somewhat fair given the simple fact that neither Worrilow and Bartu are Sean Weatherspoon.

Falcons Have a Leadership Void That Needs to be Filled

Weatherspoon was the defensive leader for a reason. That being that he is one of the team’s best players on the field and has a natural outgoing personality that makes him capable of adopting a leadership role. Neither Worrilow nor Bartu are of Spoon’s talent level on the field, and while Worrilow especially, has shown solid leadership traits, he is not the defensive leader.

Leadership in the National Football League often comes simply from the fact that you’re the best player on the field. Leaders are supposed to rally the troops and when the team needs it and have to be the guys to step up in the face of adversity. Simply put, you can’t lead from the bench.

That being said, it would be more advantageous for the Falcons if Desmond Trufant was the second-year player that stepped up and took on a leadership role in Spoon’s absence versus either Worrilow or Bartu. Trufant was the team’s best defender a year ago and he’ll need to have possibly an even better second season to follow up. Other players like William Moore, Jonathan Babineaux, Osi Umenyiora, Kroy Biermann and Jonathan Massaquoi will also have to step up in the locker room as well as produce on the field.

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Weatherspoon Ruptures Achilles, Out for 2014 Season

June 10th, 2014 Comments off
Icon Sports Media, Inc.

Sean Weatherspoon

Today the Atlanta Falcons announced that linebacker Sean Weatherspoon ruptured his Achilles tendon and is expected to miss the entire 2014 season. Weatherspoon suffered the injury while running with the team’s training staff earlier today. Weatherspoon was in the process of rehabbing a knee injury that ended his 2013 season, having opted against offseason knee surgery to repair the injury. Weatherspoon also missed time in 2013 with a foot injury, which landed him on the teams’ short-term injured reserve for half the season.

Weatherspoon, nicknamed “Spoon,” is the team’s most vocal leader on defense and with the departure of Stephen Nicholas, was on the verge of becoming the “old man” of the linebacker group at the age 26. Spoon’s absence is a substantial blow to the position group as well as the defense as a whole.

In his absence, Joplo Bartu is likely to fill in as the team’s weak-side linebacker in their 4-3 sets, as well as inside when the team employs 3-4 looks. During Spoon’s early-season absence in 2013, Paul Worrilow filled in at that position but will be expected to start at middle linebacker in both sets this year. Spoon’s injury will open up opportunities for rookies like Marquis Spruill, Yawin Smallwood, and Prince Shembo, who is getting more looks at inside linebacker than outside. The injury also increases the chances that Akeem Dent, a bubble player, could stick on the team given the lack of experienced depth. The Falcons may seek to add veteran help to bolster the position given the relative youth and inexperience of the current players on the roster.

While the team is currently ruling out Spoon to play in 2014, it may be possible that he could return late in the season. San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree suffered an Achilles tear last season in late May and returned to the 49ers at the start of December, roughly missing six full months. In 2012, Baltimore Ravens pass-rusher Terrell Suggs tore his Achilles in early May and returned to the field in late October, again roughly a six-month absence. Such a prognosis would indicate that the earliest Spoon could return is mid-December, but given the fact that he was already not fully recovered from a knee injury likely throws such optimism out the window. Both Crabtree and Suggs were completely healthy at the time of their injuries.

Categories: News Tags: , , ,

FalcFans Podcast – Ep. 66 “Tear Down Your Hopes and Dreams”

May 13th, 2014 Comments off

Allen and I are joined by The Falcoholic contributor, Murf Baldwin, to discuss our thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons 2014 draft class. Murf gives a less than glowing assessment of the Falcons picks, including whether or not Ra’Shede Hageman and Dezmen Southward offered good value in the second and third rounds. We wonder whether or not the Falcons pass rush has been significantly improved and break down whether Devonta Freeman and their late-round picks add anything to the roster that wasn’t already there. Allen and I finish with a brief discussion of our hopes for the NBA playoffs, our usual around the league segment, as well as Allen’s explanation on why he could not make a triumphant return to Radio City Music Hall to witness the draft.

Episode 66 – Tear Down Your Hopes and Dreams [Download]

Duration: 1 hour, 26 minutes

Allen covers the Falcons for Pro Football Spot. His twitter handle is: @Allen_Strk.

Murf writes for The Falcoholic, Roll Bama Roll and can be found on twitter: @MurfBaldwin.

If you have any questions and comments, you can hit us up on Twitter, post in the forums in the podcast thread, or drop an e-mail at: pudge@falcfans.com.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, and be sure to rate us there! You can also subscribe directly to our feed at the following URL: http://feeds.feedburner.com/falcfans/LXSt

Draft Needs: Falcons Looking to Replace Weatherspoon at Linebacker?

May 1st, 2014 Comments off

When you separate their need for a pass-rusher, the Atlanta Falcons appear relatively secure at linebacker. The unit is anchored by Sean Weatherspoon and the team got production from undrafted free agents Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu in 2013, with only room to get better in 2014.

But there may not be as much security as it initially seems. Weatherspoon is coming off an injury-filled season and is entering his contract year where he’ll be set to hit free agency in 2015. Worrilow and Bartu fared well for rookies, but are far from proven at the position.

The team also has Akeem Dent in the mix, adding depth and helping out on special team. But Dent has struggled the past two years when asked to start. And it’s telling in how quickly the Falcons pulled the plug on him as the starting middle linebacker last year in favor of Worrilow, given Dent’s much higher draft status. At this point, the team should only see Dent as an experienced backup in the event of another injury at the position.

The key is Weatherspoon, who is slowly recovering from a knee injury suffered late last year. Spoon also missed a significant portion of 2013 with a foot injury and whether or not he can stay healthy is an unanswered question. He has missed a total of 17 games due to injuries over four seasons with the Falcons. If Spoon comes back in 2014 and has a strong year and avoids injury, it’s likely the Falcons will look to re-sign him to a long-term contract to continue anchoring the defense. But if not, then the team may need to be prepared to move on.

Bartu flashed some things late in the year as a replacement for Spoon but he’s far from a proven commodity. Bartu has good athleticism, but needs to improve in his instincts and awareness for the position. He spent his rookie season primarily playing strong-side linebacker as an injury fill-in for Kroy Biermann, but could move to the weak side if the team is successful in adding an edge pass-rusher in the draft. But at this point Bartu remains a developmental option as opposed to someone that can be penciled in right now as a future starter.

Worrilow had a strong rookie year and showed excellent instincts and awareness given his youth and lack of experience. He will need to continue to get better as a tackler and in coverage to truly take that next step to becoming a trusted starter. But the presence of Dent behind him and the fact that he handled starting duties for an extended period last year should have the Falcons more confident in his future than that of Bartu.

Outside the current four, there are no other true linebackers on the roster. The Falcons will be in the market to add another insurance policy at the position, someone that not only adds depth but also is a potential candidate to be a starter in the near future.

The Falcons need another athletic linebacker that can play on passing downs, since that deficiency led to Dent’s benching as well as the eventual dismissals of Curtis Lofton and Stephen Nicholas.

Given that Spoon is a former first-round pick, any player taken in the middle rounds of the 2014 draft won’t be on the same plane athletically. But the higher said prospect is selected, the better an athlete he’s likely to be.

Any draft pick selected may be relegated mainly to special teams as a rookie, but in the event of Spoon’s departure in 2015, he should offer some potential to compete with Bartu for the vacated starting position. Ideally, Weatherspoon will have a great 2014 and any draft pick selected this year will be used as a capable backup in the event of another injury down the road.

Ultimately the Falcons can’t really control what happens in 2014 in terms of whether Spoon stays healthy, or whether Bartu and Worrilow take those next steps in their NFL development. The goal of adding a linebacker in the middle rounds of the 2014 draft is about giving themselves an insurance policy in case some or none of those things happen.

Team Needs: Falcons Need More Athletes at Linebacker

February 6th, 2014 1 comment

Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Joplo Bartu

The adversity the Atlanta Falcons faced at linebacker in 2013 should benefit the team in 2014.

The team was without stalwarts Stephen Nicholas and Sean Weatherspoon for much of last season. Nicholas dealt with injuries in training camp, and ultimately lost his job as the team looked at younger, more athletic options in Joplo Bartu at strong-side linebacker position. Weatherspoon missed most of the regular season with an injury, and it thrust Paul Worrilow into the limelight after a promising summer.

Both undrafted rookies, Bartu and Worrilow, got a wealth of experience playing significant roles with the team in 2013. So much so that it is very likely that both will open up this offseason in starting roles with Bartu manning the strong side and Worrilow starting in the middle as Weatherspoon resumes his duties at weak-side linebacker.

Now Nicholas has since been released, and the team is searching to upgrade their depth at linebacker. Particularly in Bartu, the Falcons finally got another “plus” athlete on the roster besides Weatherspoon, and needs to continue that trend into 2014. Nicholas could once be described that, but time and age really started to catch up to him in 2012 where he was continually abused by opposing tight ends. Despite the upgrade in terms of athleticism from Bartu, the Falcons still struggled to check opposing tight ends in 2013. But one hope is that with a year’s worth of experience under his belt, there will be improvement from Bartu moving forward.

Worrilow was so good as Weatherspoon’s replacement at weak-side linebacker that he eventually replaced Akeem Dent as the team’s starting middle linebacker roughly a third of the way through the season. While Dent did show improvement after a lackluster 2012 season, his limited speed, range, and coverage ability just proved to be too much of a liability. While not the world’s greatest athlete himself, Worrilow proved an upgrade in those areas. But more importantly, he was a far more instinctual defender in his first season in Atlanta than Dent had showed in three years. But Dent is expected to return and help out on special teams, an area where he’s excelled at in the past, and add depth in the middle.

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2013 Year-End Superlatives: Rookie of the Year

January 16th, 2014 Comments off
Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Desmond Trufant

After earning defensive most valuable player, cornerback Desmond Trufant is an obvious choice for Atlanta Falcons rookie of the year.

Not only did Trufant’s season far exceed any and all expectations for a rookie, but it also was a stellar season by veteran standards. He was constantly around the ball and finished the year with an official tally of 19 pass deflections, matching the production of Asante Samuel from last year, and the most by a Falcons cornerback since Brent Grimes had 23 in 2010.

Trufant showed top-shelf ball skills and was able to match wits with some of the league’s premier wide receivers like Vincent Jackson and Steve Smith, even earning the latter’s respect.

Other potential contenders would have been linebackers Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu. Frankly, Worrilow had the sort of season that would be universally considered rookie of the year material (127 tackles, 2 sacks) if not for exceptional play of Trufant.

Categories: Features Tags: , , ,

FalcFans Podcast – Ep. 55 “2013 Awards Extravaganza!”

January 14th, 2014 1 comment

Allen and I get together once again to discuss our choices for various awards stemming from the Atlanta Falcons 2013 season. Included are our choices for the team’s most valuable player, offensive and defensive players of the year, most improved player, biggest disappointment, and most underrated and overrated players among several other individual honors. During the course of our discussion, I explain my hatred for Harry Douglas for the umpteenth time, and also where I rank Matt Ryan among the league’s top quarterbacks following his play in 2013. After divvying out our awards, we get into a discussion about the winners and losers from the second round of the playoffs, as well as our expectations for the upcoming conference championship games.

FalcFans Podcast – Ep. 55 2013 Awards Extravaganza! [Download]

Duration: 1 hour, 18 minutes

Allen writes for TJRSports.com as well as the Pro Football Spot. His twitter handle is: @Allen_Strk.

If you have any questions and comments, you can hit us up on Twitter, post in the forums in the podcast thread, or drop an e-mail at: pudge@falcfans.com.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, and be sure to rate us there! You can also subscribe directly to our feed at the following URL: http://feeds.feedburner.com/falcfans/LXSt

Moneyball 2013 – Week 17 Review

January 2nd, 2014 Comments off

This was a hard loss for the Atlanta Falcons to review.

And that was mainly because of how poor the offensive line performed. Throughout the year, I have been adamant in the belief that the Falcons haven’t been aggressive enough in terms of their offensive game-planning to try and generate big plays. And I have consistently heard that the Falcons can’t throw down the field because their offensive line is too porous. Well, this was in fact the first game where I saw that belief was a reality. You may recall both of my reviews from Panthers games last year, where I made note of how the Falcons front got whooped. It was the same again this year, but even worse.

I had to check the notes I’ve been keeping since Week 9, but the 23-yard pass to Tony Gonzalez was only the third time since then where the Falcons attempted a deep pass on their opening drive. And the Falcons then tried to go down the field on the second play of their next series, but Roddy White was doubled on a deep in and Matt Ryan settled for a five-yard checkdown to Steven Jackson. Two designed deep plays in the first quarter? That hasn’t happened once since Week 9.

But going back to the protection issues, that latter play was an instance where the Falcons used max protect, with eight blockers to help Ryan. But pressure still got to him on that play, as Greg Hardy was able to beat Lamar Holmes and deliver a hit on Ryan from behind. That wasn’t the only instance where the Falcons used max protect and the Panthers pass rush still managed to beat it.

This game was essentially the Greg Hardy Show. Hardy was a pass deflection away from hitting for the “pass-rushing cycle,” a distinction that Cameron Jordan achieved in Week 12. Hardy finished with four sacks, two pressures, two hits, and a hurry. Almost no blocker was immune from the Wrath of the Kraken, with Justin Blalock being the only member of the starting five that did not get beat by Hardy. Lamar Holmes and Tony Gonzalez were routinely beaten with Holmes getting beat for a sack, hit, pressure, and hurry and Gonzalez giving up 1.5 sacks and half a hit. Gonzalez’s issues signaled poor protections by the Falcons in which there were too many instances where he was asked (along with a chipping running back) to try and block Hardy, and I don’t think it worked once. It was a rough way for Gonzalez to finish his career, being overused as a blocker and performing poorly at it.

I’m ready to give up on Peter Konz. It’s not the fact that Konz was exceptionally bad in this game (he fared worse a year ago). But the skills and tools simply aren’t there with Konz. He’s stiff with poor footwork and hand usage and he just appears to be moving in molasses. It was a complaint I once had for Lamar Holmes last summer when he was coming off injury and a rookie. Konz just doesn’t have an excuse to be as slow as he is. Harland Gunn is by no means a good guard, but he’s much better than Konz because he isn’t slow and makes up for his lack of size and strength with aggression.

Joe Hawley is the goat for this game for his botched snap at the end, although he didn’t have too bad a performance relative to the other blockers. But that probably is because he was the only one not to give up a sack. Ultimately for this game it’s degrees of crappiness, with Hawley and Blalock’s crap doesn’t smell as bad as the other starters.

Offensively, I thought the Falcons did a good job using screen passes to supplement their running game. None of the plays went for more than seven yards, but they were often utilized on first downs instead of running it into the teeth of a good Panthers defensive line. And given our blocking issues, I think that was a smart call on Dirk Koetter’s part.

Roddy White got credited with three drops, which matched his season total up until now. The critical one came in the fourth quarter with the Falcons driving. It happened on a 3rd-and-10, forcing the Falcons to settle for a 37-yard field goal that put them down 21-20. White was running a slant, and the safety was in position to make the tackle before he reached the first down. It was possible he could have broken the tackle and gotten the first, but my bet is that he would have been stopped a yard or two shy. But it begs the question, would Mike Smith had gone for it on 4th-and-1 down four points with 7:14 on the clock? The outcome of that potential decision changes the narrative for this game somewhat, especially if Smitty had opted to kick. The right decision in that situation (at Carolina’s 19-yard line) would have been to go for it. But given all the questionable decisions Smith has made this year, I’m not confident at all that he would have made the right call.

As for the pick-six, I’ll blame both Ryan and Harry Douglas. But that play really signaled exactly what I was referring to a few weeks ago when I discussed the poor rapport of Ryan and Douglas. Ryan stared down the throw from the jump, allowing Melvin White to read it easily. But Douglas clearly was not expecting the ball to come out quickly with White in off-coverage. By the time he turned around to wait for the pass, the ball was already behind him and White made an easy play. I’m sure we’ll continue to hear a lot of things out of Flowery Branch about how Matt Ryan is really comfortable with Harry Douglas but the proof is in the pudding. After two months of him being a primary target and six years of working together, their rapport is worth no more than the pile of crap that the offensive line was. Tom Brady had a great rapport with Wes Welker, but then Julian Edelman emerged this year. That is something that the Falcons should consider when they are making the decision about whether Douglas is worth keeping in 2014.

PLAYER
PASS
RUSH
REC
BLK
SPEC
PEN
TOTALS
Matt Ryan$11$0$0$0$0$0$11.00
Steven Jackson$0$5$5-$0.5$0$0$9.50
Jason Snelling$0$5$2$0$0$0$7.00
Harry Douglas$0$0$5$0$0$0$5.00
Roddy White$0$0$2$1$0-$1$2.00
Patrick DiMarco$0$0$0$1$0$0$1.00
Justin Blalock$0$0$0$0$0$0$0.00
Harland Gunn$0$0$0$0$0$0$0.00
Peter Konz$0$0$0$0$0$0$0.00
Joe Hawley$0$0$0$1$0-$2-$1.00
Lamar Holmes$0$0$0-$1$0$0-$1.00
TEAM$0$0$0$0$0-$1-$1.00
Tony Gonzalez$0$0$1-$2.5$0$0-$1.50
Ryan Schraeder$0$0$0-$2$0$0-$2.00

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