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5 Keys if the Falcons Want to Improve in 2012

September 7th, 2012 Comments off
Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE

Matt Ryan

Often when people look to see if a team has improved, they will measure it with wins and losses. And while that is not a bad way to do so, it is not a true measure of a team’s ability. Because you’re not playing the same schedule year to year, and even the teams that you do play annually aren’t always the same quality as they were in previous years. Every NFL season brings a new and different set of challenges, and to simply measure them by how many games you’ve won or lost doesn’t accurately gauge whether you rose to meet those challenges.

Here are five areas that I think the Falcons need to improve in if they want to be able to say they have improved as a team from 2011 and previous years. These are five areas that you could set apart as mini-goals for this team. And if they were to accomplish all five by the end of the year, I believe this will result in more regular season wins for the Falcons as well as a greater chance of winning in the postseason. And not just winning one game in January, but potentially many multiple so that they could possibly be winning come February.

1. Matt Ryan Needs to Take the Next Step as a Passer

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Camp Battles 2012: Offensive Line

July 16th, 2012 Comments off
Fernando Medina-US PRESSWIRE

Sam Baker

The offensive line is likely to be the most contested offensive position group in camp. Unlike the other offensive positions, the Falcons aren’t currently set on their starting lineup. The brunt of the competition will come at the two weakest spots from a year ago: left tackle and right guard. Sam Baker is the incumbent at left tackle, although he remains a question mark because he was effectively benched last year after a very poor start to the season. Will Svitek replaced him and proved to be an upgrade. But the team remains optimistic about Baker’s abilities, excusing much of his struggles due to injuries. The team drafted rookie Lamar Holmes as well in the third round, and he’ll push for time as well. But by missing rookie mini-camps with a foot injury likely will have Holmes climbing an uphill battle in camp to gain the starting spot. More than likely the spot will come down to Baker or Svitek, with Baker having the advantage going into camp because he worked the majority of first team snaps in the off-season.

At right guard, the team could have a new face as two of their off-season additions will be competing there. Free agent pickup Vince Manuwai and top pick Peter Konz will be pushing for playing time behind Garrett Reynolds, who is considered the incumbent. Reynolds got the majority of first team snaps during OTAs, a small surprise given that Reynolds, like Baker, lost his job in 2011. He was replaced after a sluggish start by Joe Hawley, who was an improvement but only slightly over the second half of the season. Reynolds has struggled with extensive reps at the guard position largely due to his height, which is disadvantageous inside at guard. Manuwai worked mostly with the second unit during minicamps, and is the strongest candidate among the two to push for time. Konz played exclusively as a center during his days at Wisconsin, and split time between both spots this off-season. He still has a small learning curve at guard, and while he will be given a legitimate opportunity to win the starting spot, he’ll likely be on the outside looking in.

The other three roster spots are pretty much locked up as the team brought back center Todd McClure along with left guard Justin Blalock and right tackle Tyson Clabo. Blalock and Clabo won’t face any competition for their jobs, while McClure will be pushed by Hawley. McClure has never lost his starting spot in his 13-year career, so it doesn’t seem likely that he will do so this summer. But the Falcons will give Hawley a chance to emerge as the team wants to get more physical up front. Hawley was miscast as a guard last year, but his skillset is much more suited to playing the pivot where he is fiesty and physical. That sort of mentality will be welcomed at the center position. But he’s not nearly as polished as McClure and certainly lacks McClure’s extensive experience and knowledge calling out blocking assignments.

But even if players like Hawley, Konz, and Holmes don’t win starting positions, they are virtual locks to be among the final nine or ten blockers that could make the 53-man roster. Between Manuwai and Reynolds as well as Baker and Svitek, it doesn’t seem like a sure bet that all will make the roster if they don’t win the starting spot. Svitek is probably the most valuable as a reserve given his versatility to serve as swing tackle and potential blocking tight end.

Also vying for positions include former draftees Andrew Jackson and Mike Johnson. Johnson was a third round pick, but injuries have limited his development over the past two summers. He had the potential to win the starting gig from Reynolds last summer, but an untimely concussion forced him out of the lineup, allowing Reynolds the time to solidify the spot. Jackson will likely get a boost because the Falcons new position coach is his former head coach Pat Hill from Fresno State. The team has been working to cross-train both players for multiple positions to give them some potential added value. Both players have gotten reps at tackle this off-season. But both are fighting an uphill battle to make the roster certainly due to the more experienced players ahead of them. It is noteworthy that both players still remain eligible for the team’s practice squad, although it doesn’t seem likely at this point that either would clear waivers if released by the team.

Also competing in camp are undrafted rookies Bryce Harris, Tyler Horn, and Phillip Manley. All three are longshots to make the roster, but can certainly impress enough to make bids for the practice squad. Harris also followed Hill from Fresno State, but is facing long odds given the added depth at the tackle position. A bit undersized, Harris is an ideal candidate to be placed on the practice squad for a year or two to add some bulk. Horn is stuck behind a relatively deep center group in Atlanta, as he is fourth on the depth chart. And the fact that Hawley and Konz add the versatility of also playing guard, it will make it that much harder for Horn to stand out. Manley offers good size for a guard, but he too is stuck behind a bunch of bodies.

Mike Smith has stressed trying to bolster competition in camp, and very few positions embody that mentality than the offensive line. Its struggles a year ago precipitate that renewed focus on getting the best players on the field. And while the majority of the team’s starting positions are likely settled, there will be a maelstrom brewing as players compete for second unit spots and their football-playing lives. Predicting who the final nine or ten will be on the roster is the most tenuous of any position group. Three of the starters (Blalock, Clabo, and McClure) and three reserves (Hawley, Holmes, and Konz) are fairly safe bets. But beyond that, the last handful of spots will be completely up for grabs.

2012 Key Players: Offensive Line

May 29th, 2012 Comments off
US PRESSWIRE

The Falcons Front Line

I’ve already discussed how Michael Turner’s play this year will be a key to success for the Falcons in 2012. Tied to that is the play of the offensive line. It’s clear that the Falcons are a team that pride themselves on being an effective to good running team. And that notion isn’t likely to change under new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. The Jaguars under Jack Del Rio styled themselves in a similar manner, being a team that could run the ball well and play good defense, i.e. often the core elements of what is called being “physical.” That’s the exact sort of mentality and identity that Mike Smith has tried to instill here in Atlanta over the past four seasons. And it’s probably one of the main reasons why Smith was attracted to Koetter to take over for Mike Mularkey.

But joining Koetter on his quest to reinvigorate the Falcons offense on the ground will be new offensive line coach Pat Hill. Hill comes to the Falcons after years as the head coach at Fresno State. The Falcons hope Hill’s brand of high energy and toughness will also prove a boost up front.

It was clear last year that the biggest weakness on the offense was the offensive line. They struggled to create holes for Turner to run through, and struggled protecting Matt Ryan when they faced quality pass rushes. While the team may be very vocal about not regretting the decision to trade for Julio Jones, they certainly should be regretful over how they took the offensive line for granted last off-season.

Too often the line got manhandled in 2011 and it often occurred in instances where they could not establish the run early in games. If they got behind the offense would become one-dimensional and lose its balance. And several opposing teams were able to take advantage by pinning their ears back and be effective at getting to Matt Ryan.

Ryan is not a quarterback that likes to get hit. That isn’t questioning his toughness, but there is plenty of evidence over the past four years that if teams can get to him early and often, it can affect his play the rest of the game. That could also describe Tom Brady rather easily. So it’s prohibitive of Ryan becoming a top quarterback, it’s just an obstacle to overcome. You can live with a subpar O-line in Pittsburgh with Ben Roethlisberger behind center because he seems to thrive at times with pressure in his face. But that won’t be the case here in Atlanta, and thus emphasizing better play up front will remain important as long as Ryan is the starter.

Thus the Falcons off-season decisions to bolster the competition up front were good moves. The team needed to improve their blocking, and they did so by adding veteran guard Vince Manuwai and drafting rookies Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes in the draft.

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Falcons add beef in the trenches

April 28th, 2012 Comments off

Two of the more memorable moments of the Falcons 2011 season were their futile attempts in short-yardage during their Week 10 overtime loss against the New Orleans Saints and against the New York Giants in the opening round of the playoffs. Well it appears the Falcons have taken steps in the 2012 draft to correct those issues, by using their two picks on the second day of the draft on a pair of beefy offensive linemen. Wisconsin center Peter Konz was the Falcons second round pick (55th overall) and Southern Miss tackle Lamar Holmes was taken in the third (91st overall).

For more than a decade, center Todd McClure has been a fixture as the anchor of the Falcons offensive line. McClure, undersized by NFL standards at 6’1? 296 pounds, could potentially give way to the 6’5? 314-pound Konz in the future. Holmes standing at 6’5? 323, also is considerably larger than either of the men he could potentially replace in the future at left tackle: Sam Baker (6’5? 301) and Will Svitek (6’6? 308). Earlier this off-season, the team also signed free agent guard Vince Manuwai, who sports a 6’2″ 333-pound frame, the bulkiest on the team.

Konz is expected to immediately compete with Manuwai for the vacant right guard spot. Both McClure and Manuwai’s contract expire after the season, and it’s possible Konz could kick inside to center. Or he could potentially remain at right guard if Joe Hawley continues to improve. Holmes should be in the potential three-way competition at left tackle, but likely will be expected to fill in as the team’s swing tackle. With Tyson Clabo entrenched on the right side, that could mean that Baker and Svitek could be competing for a single roster spot this summer.

If the Falcons don’t manage to get push this upcoming season, it won’t be because they lack the beef to do so. It appears that the Falcons are planning on recommitting themselves to running the football this year, and in the future. But the added bodies via the draft, certainly will shake up competition and presumably at this point in time only McClure, Justin Blalock, and Clabo are assured roster spots among the incumbents. The rest of the lineup could be in a state of flux.

McClure returns for one more year

March 27th, 2012 Comments off

D. Orlando Ledbetter of the AJC reports that free agent center Todd McClure has re-signed with the Falcons on a one-year agreement. McClure has been with the Falcons since 1999, being the longest tenured player. He was originally drafted in the seventh round out of LSU in that year, but missed the entire season due to an injury. He returned in 2000 to start 7 games. In 2002, he began a streak of starting every game for the team that would last 9 seasons until he was forced to sit out the season opener this past year. McClure managed to finished the year with 13 starts. His career total is 179 starts. His 182 career appearances is the fourth most in Falcons history, trailling only Mike Kenn (251), Jeff Van Note (245), and Jessie Tuggle (209).

Had McClure not been re-signed, it was expected that Joe Hawley would take over for him at center. Hawley replaced McClure for 3 starts last year, but also started 9 other games at right guard. The team added Vince Manuwai in free agency to take over that position.

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Free Agent Focus: Offensive Line (Part 1)

January 30th, 2012 Comments off
AP Photo

Jared Gaither

Arguably the biggest priority for the Falcons this off-season is improving up front. This team got pushed around too much last year, and if they intend to make a championship run in the coming years that has to change. Their offensive line is going to have to go from a glaring weakness to an obvious strength.

The Falcons will first need to make decisions on whether to bring certain players back. Todd McClure is a free agent, and it appears he intends to keep playing. But McClure turns 35 in two weeks, and with the intense focus on improving in the trenches, the time seems ripe to move on and try to get younger here. The Falcons have Joe Hawley waiting in the wings. Hawley did not particularly shine at center early in the season, but the experience he added later in the year playing guard should help him improve there.

The Falcons will also need to make a decision on whether to bring back Sam Baker. Many are speculating that the Falcons will part ways with Baker due to his salary and the disappointing 2011 he had. Baker showed promise early in his career, playing well in his first two seasons, but has showed almost no improvement, if not regression over the past two seasons. The team tried him at right guard and as a blocking tight end late in the season, and neither position switch really worked. So it’s likely that the team will part ways, saving money and moving on.

If the team shows trust in Hawley to man the pivot spot, that will mean more than likely the team will focus on upgrading the left tackle position and right guard spot this off-season.

Will Svitek was a decent replacement for Baker at left tackle, but as he got more experience there he was exposed a bit more. The team should be on the lookout for a long-term solution at this position. But without a first round pick in the draft, it will be hard to find a good left tackle ready to start right away in the draft. That could mean the Falcons scour the free agent market looking for quality left tackle candidates.

A few players such as Jared Gaither (San Diego) and Demetrius Bell (Buffalo) rise to the top of the list. Although there is some talk that the Chargers could dump Marcus McNeill due to his high salary and his neck and back injuries, Gaither is probably not likely to return to San Diego. Back injuries also forced Gaither to miss all of the 2010 season and some of 2009. But prior to those injuries, he was considered one of the top young left tackles in the league. He signed with the Chiefs this past off-season to try and resurrect that reputation, but he did little besides serving as a third tackle and tight end. But when he was picked up by the CHargers in Week 13, he started to play well down the stretch.

Gaither’s past injury issues probably means that whatever team, Falcons included, should not break the bank for him. But he’s a big, physical player that if his strength is back is capable of going up against the better pass rushers in the league and a clear upgrade over what the Falcons have at the position.

Bell has also dealt with his share of injuries, missing a big chunk of this past year with a broken collarbone, before a knee injury put him on IR before the final game of the season. He also missed half of the 2009 season with knee problems. Bell looked like a player that was finally emerging into a capable left tackle this year before injuries sapped him. But he struggled in both previous seasons as the Bills left tackle. It appears the Bills want to keep him, but he may decide to move on because they intend to have him compete with second-year Chris Hairston for the starting job. Bell may opt to go to a team where he is more appreciated. Bell has always been noted for his athleticism, being the son of former NBA super star Karl Malone. The question the Falcons must ask is whether or not his issues with injuries are going to be a problem going forward, and whether he’s a one-year wonder that will pick up where he left off before getting hurt this season.

Another option to the Falcons may be to go after a player like Philadelphia’s King Dunlap. Dunlap has performed admirably in a handful of replacement starts for Jason Peters over the past few years. He’s a massive blocker that could be looking to emerge from the shadows as a legit starter. Because of his limited experience, he probably would be a much cheaper option for the Falcons to pursue.

Pittsburgh’s Max Starks might be worth a look, but he’ll likely miss most if not all of the spring due to suffered a torn ACL at the end of the year. Starks could be a cheap insurance policy if that injury drives his price down, that the Falcons could stash on the PUP until he’s healthy.

The Falcons could also try and go after a veteran like Jeff Backus who could be a decent stopgap for a year. The Lions appear to want Backus to return. But he too is coming off a biceps injury that may limit his ability to come in right away and man the starting spot.

Signing injured players is not really in the best interest of the Falcons because they’ll need their new linemen to be able to come in the spring and summer and begin to gel as a unit. So that would make it doubtful that the team would look hard at guys like Backus and Starks, although Bell should not be out too long.

That likely means the Falcons will have to make a serious play for Gaither, who could be a fairly hot commodity on the open market for all the left tackle-needy teams that won’t be picking at the top of the draft. Teams like Arizona, Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, and Minnesota all might be making strong plays for a player such as Gaither. Which is thus why the Falcons may find themselves priced out of that sweepstakes, and a player like Dunlap more attractive to bring in to compete directly with Svitek.

In the next part, we’ll look at what the Falcons can do to upgrade their interior offensive line.

Categories: Features Tags: , , , ,

Moneyball 2011 – Week 17 Review

January 3rd, 2012 Comments off

A dominant performance from the Falcons, reminiscent of the Jaguars game two weeks ago. But one wonders after the Saints game, whether this is because the Falcons are really that good or whether the Jaguars and Bucs are really that bad. And personally, I think it might be more of the latter.

But a solid game on the ground. Matt Ryan really did not have to do a lot in this game. His receivers made plays when he threw it and he just had to hand the ball off largely for 2 quarters before he made way for Redman. Turner had an outstanding game, as the Bucs defenders in their back seven seemed to have no interest in trying to tackle him. The offensive line gets a lot of credit in this game for some good blocking. Clabo, and McClure probably had the standout performances, with a solid outing from Blalock and Hawley as well. Snelling and Cox also made some nice blocks, as well as Roddy getting two key blocks downfield. Reggie Kelly decided to show up for the first time this year, with 3 key blocks.

Jones had a very good game showing his big play potential for another week. Despite two drops, Roddy had a strong game.

Quizz and Snelling also had good games, although Quizz’s fumble at the goalline was a blemish. But considering how good he and others were the rest of the game, it’s not that huge a deal.

PLAYER
PASS
RUSH
REC
BLOCK
SPEC
PEN
TOTALS
Michael Turner$0$18$0$0$0$0$18.00
Julio Jones$0$2$7$0$0$0$9.00
Matt Ryan$8$0$0$0$0$0$8.00
Jason Snelling$0$6$0$2$0$0$8.00
Roddy White$0$0$3$2$0$0$5.00
Jacquizz Rodgers$0$6$0$0$0-$2$4.00
Justin Blalock$0$0$0$3$0$0$3.00
Todd McClure$0$0$0$3$0$0$3.00
Tyson Clabo$0$0$0$2$0$0$2.00
Joe Hawley$0$0$0$2$0$0$2.00
Reggie Kelly$0$0$0$2$0$0$2.00
Mike Cox$0$0$0$1$0$0$1.00
Tony Gonzalez$0$0$1$0$0$0$1.00
Chris Redman$1$0$0$0$0$0$1.00
Will Svitek$0$0$0$1$0$0$1.00
Eric Weems$0$0$1$0$0$0$1.00
Antone Smith$0$0$0$0$1$0$1.00
Sam Baker$0$0$0-$1$0$0-$1.00

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Grimes out ‘a couple’ of weeks

November 30th, 2011 Comments off
Icon Sports Media, Inc.

Brent Grimes

Falcons head coach Mike Smith indicated that cornerback Brent Grimes will miss ‘a couple of weeks’ due to minor surgery on his injured right knee that is scheduled to occur tomorrow. Grimes is expected to miss at least two weeks according to Charles Odum of the Associated Press. He left last Sunday’s game early in the first quarter due to the injury, that he suffered reportedly aginst the Lions in late October and has been sore since.

The Falcons are already thin at cornerback with Kelvin Hayden missing today’s practice due to a toe injury and likely to miss this Sunday’s upcoming game against the Houston Texans. Hayden missed last week’s game. In his absence, Chris Owens filled in at the nickel. But due to Grimes injury, Owens is expected to replace him at left cornerback, and Dominique Franks will likely slide into the nickel role.

Also held out of Wednesday’s practice were linebacker Stephen Nicholas (quad), wide receiver Julio Jones (hamstring), running back Michael Turner (groin), and defensive tackle Vance Walker (groin). The team also sat defensive end John Abraham, center Todd McClure, and tight end Tony Gonzalez, but not for injury-related reasons. McClure had what was deemed a minor procedure on his knee in late August, and missed a total of three games and was limited in two others due to the injury.

Offensive tackle Sam Baker (back) was limited in Wednesday’s practice. Baker returned for last week’s game, after missing four games. Cornerback Dunta Robinson (neck) was able to fully participate in practice, after suffering a stinger early against the Vikings.

Baker could return this week, Jones might not

November 18th, 2011 Comments off

The Falcons released their injury report this week, and Sam Baker was listed as questionable after limited participation in all three days of practice. Baker missed the past three games with a back injury. Two weeks ago he was reportedly expected to miss 3-4 weeks. He has been replaced by Will Svitek in the team’s past three outings.

Wide receiver Julio Jones was also listed as questionable, despite not practicing all week due to re-aggravating a hamstring injury in last week’s loss to the Saints. Jones suffered the original injury in a Week 5 loss against the Packers, missed two games, but then returned two weeks ago to have a big game against the Colts. If Jones is unable to go on Sunday, he will be replaced by Harry Douglas who is coming off a career high performance against New Orleans.

Expected to miss a second consecutive game is William Moore (quadricep), as he also did not practice this week. James Sanders will start in place of him at strong safety.

Several other players were listed as probable for this weekend’s game against the Tennessee Titans. Harry Douglas (thigh), Ray Edwards (knee), and Antone Smith (knee) all were able to participate fully in the past two days of practice and were probable. Brent Grimes (knee) and Jason Snelling (hamstring) were both limited on Wednesday and Thursday, but participated fully in Friday’s practice. Curtis Lofton (ankle) was added to the injury report after Thursday, but also went full bore on Friday. John Abraham and Todd McClure were also included on the injury report, but only because both were held out of Wednesday’s practice for non-injury related rest. They had full participation in both Thursday and Friday’s practices.

The Titans linebacker corps is shaken up with starters Gerald McRath (hamstring) and Barrett Ruud (groin) both listed as questionable on their injury report. Both were able to practice fully on Friday. Backup linebacker Colin McCarthy (knee) is also questionable after missing the last two days of practice. Defensive end Dave Ball will miss the game with a concussion.

Jones to return against the Colts

November 4th, 2011 Comments off

This week’s injury report was released today and indicated that wide receiver Julio Jones is expected to play this weekend against the Indianapolis Colts, as he was listed as probable. Jones injured his hamstring during the Falcons Week 5 loss to the Green Bay Packers, missing the ensuing pair of games.

Along with Jones, defensive end John Abraham, tight end Tony Gonzalez, center Todd McClure, and cornerback Chris Owens were listed as probable. Abraham and McClure were held out of Wednesday’s practices for non-injured related rest, but both participated fully in Thursday and Friday’s practices. Gonzalez (back) was able to go fully on Friday, after missing all of Wednesday’s practice. Owens (concussion) practiced fully in all three days of practice.

Sam Baker was listed as out on the injury report, after the team announced earlier this week he would miss at least 3 weeks due to a back injury.

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