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Examining The Falcons’ First-Round Options

The 2015 NFL Draft is less than a week away. Rest assured, the Atlanta Falcons have left no stone unturned in their preparation for the first draft selection of the Dan Quinn era. The Falcons enter this draft with a bevy of holes to fill, and luckily, there are many viable ways to go about filling them, but the Falcons must come away with an impact player with their first pick. Let’s take a look at the Falcons’ options come April 30th.

Trading Up

The Falcons’ most obvious need is for a young, impact edge-rusher that they can build their front seven of the future around. The top edge-rushers in this class include Florida’s Dante Fowler Jr., Clemson’s Vic Beasley, Kentucky’s Alvin “Bud” Dupree, Missouri’s Shane Ray, and Nebraska’s Randy Gregory.

Fowler and Beasley might be the only players worth trading up for. Beasley’s a fan favorite, and he’s stated himself that it’d be a dream come true to be a Falcon. In the end, I think the Falcons will opt to go with Fowler because of his direct connection to Quinn, along with his elite size, length, and versatility.

Florida’s Dante Fowler Jr.

General Manager Thomas Dimitroff has proven in the past that he’s not afraid to move up and get the guy he covets. WR Julio Jones and CB Desmond Trufant are two of the best players in the NFL at their positions, and both are guys that the Falcons traded up for.

Trade Scenario: The Falcons trade their first and third-round picks to the Washington Redskins for the fifth-overall selection, select Dante Fowler Jr., OLB/DE, Florida. The Redskins select OT/G Brandon Scherff, Iowa.

The Redskins should be more than happy to move back three spots, grab an immediate-impact starter at guard, and pick up an extra top-75 pick to continue the rebuild of their team.

The Falcons land a guy that’s tailor-made for Quinn’s system and becomes a linchpin of the defense from the day he steps in. Fowler’s tenacity and relentlessness are missing components of what the Falcons want to embody on defense going forward. Fowler may not ever be a 15+ sack guy, but his ability to disrupt quarterbacks from anywhere on the line in addition to providing stout run defense makes him invaluable for the Falcons.

Staying Put

Many fans are against trading any picks away to move up for a player, and rightfully so, considering the negative side effects trading up often comes with. Staying put means Atlanta can potentially let the player they wanted all along fall right in their lap – as Jake Matthews did last year – while keeping all of their picks. In this scenario, the Falcons stay put and contemplate their options at number eight.

More than likely, this pick will come down to a group of talented-but-risky players: Gregory, Ray, Dupree, Beasley, and Georgia RB Todd Gurley, with an outside chance of Scherff. This could be an extremely tough decision for the Falcons.

Drafting Gregory means landing a pass rusher who might have the highest ceiling in the draft, but he also comes with baggage and a lot of question marks.

Ray would bring production and swagger to a defense in sore need of both, but his limited athleticism and injury concerns could make him a bust in Atlanta.

Dupree has the size, strength, and speed Quinn covets in an edge rusher, but his lack of production and technique could mean he never develops into an impact player.

Gurley is going to be very tempting at this spot. Medically cleared from his ACL tear, Gurley could be the next Adrian Peterson and would make the Falcons’ offense extremely hard to defend. However, drafting a running back in the top-10 isn’t typically a good idea. Additionally, new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has had plenty of success with ‘backs drafted very late or not at all.

Beasley would make a lot of sense for the Falcons here, as he’d likely be an impact pass rusher on third downs right out of the gate. Beasley isn’t an exceptional run defender as of today, and scouts’ opinions of him vary wildly.

Scherff is an intriguing option, as the Falcons could immediately plug him into left guard, leaving no reason to have the expensive and unreliable Sam Baker on the roster. As a rookie, Atlanta could unleash Scherff to smash opponents in the run game while developing his pass protection skills next to Matthews. Though Scherff isn’t a bad option, there might be better value at this spot than at left guard.

Assuming he’s still on the board, I think the Falcons will play it safe and jubilantly select Vic Beasley. Beasley proved many doubters wrong when he obliterated the combine with his newly-added weight, showing that he could still turn the corner blazingly fast with all that extra muscle packed on. Many scouts believe that Beasley is the most pro-ready pass rusher in the entire draft, and the Falcons selection of him should yield early results. Beasley will likely become an every-down player in year two, but for now, he can just pin his ears back and get after the quarterback while he develops the rest of his game.

Clemson’s Vic Beasley

Trading Down

For a team with as many holes as the Falcons have, a new head coach, and a roster in dire need of a talent influx, trading down might make the most sense. For the Falcons to trade down, they’ll need to find a trade partner. At pick number eleven overall, the Minnesota Vikings make a lot of sense. The Vikings have a serious need for a number-one wide receiver to pair with Teddy Bridgewater on offense. If West Virginia’s Kevin White is available at eight, the Vikings would be smart to leapfrog the St. Louis Rams and grab arguably the best receiver in the draft.

Trade Scenario: Falcons trade #8 overall to the Vikings for #11 and #76 overall. Minnesota selects WVU WR Kevin White. The Atlanta Falcons select Nebraska OLB/DE Randy Gregory.

This is a trade that makes a lot of sense for both teams. The Vikings get a dynamic playmaker to grow with Bridgewater for the next ten years, and the Falcons land a premier talent at a position of need while securing value and an extra third-round pick.

Nebraska’s Randy Gregory

Gregory is the biggest boom-or-bust player in the entire draft. He idiotically failed a drug test at the combine. He’s having trouble keeping on weight. He’s not impressing teams in his interviews. All of these concerns scream immaturity, which isn’t all that surprising for a 22-year old kid, but it could be much worse – he’s not going around abusing women and throwing them onto a couch covered in loaded guns.

Why should the Falcons draft someone like Gregory? When you turn on his tape, you’ll see a rare specimen on the field with unreal speed and limitless potential. What Gregory needs to succeed is the Bryan Cox treatment. It seemingly is working for a guy that was in a similar situation as Gregory, Ra’Shede Hageman, who appears to be in the best shape of his life after being taken under Cox’s wing. With Cox and Quinn keeping a watchful eye on Gregory and his development, there’s no reason at all why he can’t become a perennial pro-bowler for Atlanta. Plus, Gregory thinks New Orleans is boring, so he’s already got the dirty bird mindset.

What do you think the Falcons should do on draft day?

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Announcing A Partnership With The Ryktr App

Rise Up Reader and Ryktr have partnered together to bring you the best every week in determining the win probability of every NFL and NCAA football game — all in real time on your iPhone. Ryktr answers the most fundamental question in sports, “Who’s winning?” Whether it’s Julio Jones’ diving touchdown catch or Desmond Trufant’s momentum-changing interception, Ryktr instantly brings you updated win probability percentages in the form of an informative graph, like this one:

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In real-time, Ryktr’s proprietary formula calculates each team’s probability of winning the game. Watch probabilities change as the plays unfold. Now you know what was truly the “play of the game”.

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Let the games begin!

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Falcons’ Pro Football Focus Report: Week 7

The seventh week of the 2014 NFL season matched the beat up Atlanta Falcons against a ferocious Baltimore Ravens team. The end results were not all that surprising, as the depleted Falcons were beaten handily in a 29-7 domination. Struggles on the road continued for Atlanta, who’ve now lost four games in a row and seem to have their season slipping away. When looking at the individual performances for the Falcons, not all was as bad as it seemed — there were some positives to take away from this game. Let’s take a closer look at who played well and who struggled this week.

Best Three Overall:

Jonathan Massaquoi

Massaquoi had easily his best game as a pro, wreaking havoc all day long against the Ravens. Even though he finished the game without a sack, Massaquoi’s presence was felt throughout the game, tallying 3 QB hits, 2 hurries, 5 tackles, 1 assist, and 3 stops in just 20 pass-rushing attempts. Massaquoi had the type of game that many had been waiting for after a promising close to the 2013 season. We all got a glimpse of what he could do with increased snaps, and it couldn’t be more painfully obvious that the coaches need to get Massaquoi on the field more than they have been. Thankfully, Massaquoi’s snap count has been steadily increasing over the past three weeks (30, 44, 52), and his play on the field has certainly earned him even more playing time. Massaquoi grades out for the season as by far the best pass rusher on the Falcons’ roster, and he certainly played like it on Sunday. Despite his limited snaps, Massaquoi is still the 13th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in the league out of 49 qualifiers (Kroy Biermann is dead last).

Desmond Trufant

Somewhat quietly, Trufant is ascending into the top tier of NFL cornerbacks, if he’s not already there. Teams have clearly been avoiding his side of the field, as he was only targeted three times against the Ravens (only twice against the Bears), yielding two catches for a mere 18 yards while collecting a pass deflection and finishing with his highest PFF grade of the season. Trufant has played nearly 100 percent of the team’s defensive snaps and ranks in the top-six of the entire NFL in total times targeted (for players who’ve played 75% or more of their team’s snaps), tying with top-tier corner Darrelle Revis. For the year, Trufant is currently ranked as the sixth best cornerback in the league, far ahead of guys like Revis, Aqib Talib, Joe Haden, and Brent Grimes.

Matt Ryan

What else is there to say about Matt Ryan? Despite playing behind an offensive line held together by wet paper towels, Ryan continues to deliver the goods and is currently the second-highest graded quarterback in the league, tying with Philip Rivers. Against Baltimore, Ryan had one of his better games of the season, and it would’ve looked even better if not for the three dropped passes, which are now totaled at 18(!) for the season. Ryan was sacked a season-high 5 times and finished with an 86.2 passer rating with one touchdown and no interceptions. Ryan was most effective when throwing 10 or more yards down the field, but struggled when targeting the short-range middle of the field between 0-9 yards — a sign that he may be missing Harry Douglas more than fans originally thought. One telling stat: Ryan is dead last in the league with only an average of 2.78 seconds in the pocket before a sack. Get this man some protection!

Worst Three Overall:

Jake Matthews

Matthews has really been struggling as of late. Against Baltimore, Matthews had his second-worst game of the season, yielding a sack, four QB hurries, and two penalties. Over the past three weeks, Matthews’ play has essentially fallen off a cliff. Granted, going up against pass-rush extraordinaires like Jason Pierre-Paul, Jared Allen, Terrell Suggs, and Elvis Dumervil will be extremely challenging for any rookie, even one as highly regarded as Matthews is. Matthews recently admitted to have been playing through a high ankle sprain, and it’s clearly affecting his play right now. Atlanta could let Matthews rest on the bench for a couple of weeks, but 70 percent of Matthews might still be better than 100 percent of anyone currently on the roster. My guess: when Matthews heals up, he’ll be right back to his dependable self.

Levine Toilolo

Toilolo continued his awful start to the season, grading out poorly as both a receiver and a blocker. Toilolo was targeted four times, catching two passes for 20 yards and no drops — a big improvement over his three-drop performance last week, but still nothing to get excited about. Toilolo hasn’t offered much as a receiver, owning the worst receiving grade for any tight end in the NFL, but he may be even worse as a blocker. Toilolo gave up two hurries in just nine pass-block attempts, and continued to struggle getting movement in the run game. Toilolo has only graded out positively in one game this season, and his -16.9 overall grade for the year is the worst in the entire NFL.

Tyson Jackson and Paul Worrilow

Jackson and Worrilow both finished with the same negative grade, so we’ll take a look at them both.

Jackson played his worst-graded game of the season against Baltimore and didn’t offer much assistance to the Falcons’ defense in either run support or pass rush, including a penalty he was called for. Jackson only played 37 snaps but did collect two stops and a QB hurry. Previously known as a rock-solid run defender, the $25 million dollar man has yet to earn a dollar of his lucrative contract, making little difference on the field.

Worrilow continues to rack up the stops with five more against the Ravens and 33 for the season, good for third in the NFL at his position. The problem is that he is still grading out very poorly in nearly every aspect. In coverage against the Ravens, Worrilow was targeted seven times, yielding six completions for 54 yards, one touchdown, and a 138.4 passer rating. For the year, Worrilow is ranked 57th out of 63 qualifying linebackers, and is in the bottom 10 in both pass coverage and run defense.

Game Notes: Where was Robert McClain in this game? McClain was active on Sunday, but didn’t see a single snap, giving way to veteran Josh Wilson who played 19 snaps and graded out poorly in coverage. Defensive changes were certainly coming, but I didn’t foresee McClain hitting the bench.

– Joplo Bartu continues to receive the bulk of snaps at inside linebacker while Prince Shembo recovers from a knee injury. Bartu played 59 of 68 snaps and graded out poorly overall, specifically struggling in pass coverage.

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Four Trades That Could Save The Falcons Season

by Michael Aprile

The Atlanta Falcons need a spark. You know it, I know it, and even your neighbor who is more interested in the World Series knows it. After starting 2-1, the Falcons have excruciatingly lost three games in a row, looking like a team that is completely lost and in need of a late infusion of talent.

The New York Jets shocked everyone by acquiring playmaking wide receiver Percy Harvin from the Seattle Seahawks for only a conditional draft pick. That move got a lot of fans thinking, “why can’t my team make a move for an impact player?” With the trade deadline fast approaching (4 p.m. on October 28th), the Falcons have have an opportunity to acquire talent at positions of need in order to help turn things around and potentially save the season.

Here are four players that Atlanta should make a move for before the trade deadline passes.

Inside Linebacker, Arthur Brown – Baltimore Ravens

Arthur Brown was Baltimore’s second round pick just last season, and after playing over 200 snaps as a rookie, he’s yet to play a single snap for the Ravens this season. Brown is completely healthy, but he’s buried on the depth chart behind veteran Daryl Smith and rookie-sensation C.J. Mosley. It’s possible Brown has fallen out of favor with the Ravens’ coaching staff, but with the lack of talent Atlanta currently has at linebacker, Brown would be a welcome addition and could see significant playing time right away. At Kansas State University, Brown was an animal in both run defense and pass coverage — both areas in which the Falcons need all the help they can get. Brown is a strong, secure tackler, possesses good instincts when diagnosing plays and has the speed and athleticism to run with backs and tight ends in coverage. With rumors of Brown being on the trade block since the offseason, Atlanta could be able to swing a deal with Baltimore for a fifth-round draft pick.

An alternate option would be to give up a player at a position of strength to fill a position of need. Although player-for-player trades are rare in today’s NFL, swapping a player like JacQuizz Rodgers for Brown would make a lot of sense and be beneficial for both teams. Rodgers is buried in a deep Falcons’ backfield, and Baltimore hasn’t been able to find an adequate replacement for Ray Rice since releasing him. Rodgers is a poor man’s Rice, and his departure would lead to more carries for Antone Smith and Devonta Freeman in Atlanta.

OLB/DE, Brandon Graham – Philadelphia Eagles

Brandon Graham would be an excellent fit in Atlanta and an instant boost the Falcons’ porous run defense and severely-lacking push rush. Graham can play with his hand in the dirt or standing up, and he excels at both. The Eagles currently have two studs playing ahead of Graham, Connor Barwin and Trent Cole, so the talented Graham has been relegated to backup duty, while he’d be a clear-cut starter for the Falcons. In Atlanta, Graham could line up anywhere on the outside, but he’d likely replace Kroy Biermann (massive applause) at left-outside linebacker and form a solid duo with Jonathan Massaquoi on the edges. The Eagles drafted what could be their pass rusher of the future this May in Marcus Smith, so letting go of Graham for a mid-round pick could make sense.

Tight End, Antonio Gates – San Diego Chargers

Landing a tight end of Gates’ caliber would be huge for Atlanta. Although Gates is past his prime, he’s still light years better than any other tight end the Falcons currently have and is on pace for 16 touchdown catches this season. Unfortunately, it became obvious last week that Levine Toilolo is not ready to be a starter in the NFL, and he may never be. Bringing in Gates to give Matt Ryan his security blanket back would be an excellent move for the offense. Gates is four years younger than Tony Gonzalez, and the Falcons would be trying to replicate the success of that trade here. The Chargers could let Gates go for a mid-round pick and let the Ladarius Green era begin, while giving Atlanta a reliable receiving option in the middle of the field and in the red zone.

Outside Linebacker, Justin Houston – Kansas City Chiefs

Justin Houston and the Falcons are a match made in heaven. Houston would instantly fill arguably the biggest need the Falcons have, and Kansas City could then unleash the younger, cheaper Dee Ford in their defense. After starring as a Georgia Bulldog, Houston is currently the fourth-best OLB in the entire NFL according to Pro Football Focus, and he alone already has as many sacks as the Falcons have as an entire team (six). Houston is no slouch in coverage either, allowing an impressive 42.4 passer rating on passes thrown in his coverage; he’d be a perfect fit in Atlanta’s hybrid scheme. A free agent next offseason, Houston is currently disgruntled while he waits for a lucrative contract extension from Kansas City. The Falcons would be more than happy to get the explosive pass rusher in red and black and under contract for a long time. A first-round pick would likely be required to land an elite player such as Houston, but the instant impact and long term benefits would be more than worth it for the Falcons, and it may just turn their season around.

Be sure to follow Michael on Twitter (@RiseUpReader) for more Falcons analysis!

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Falcons vs. Vikings: Three Key Matchups and Players to Watch

The Atlanta Falcons (2-1) face off against the Minnesota Vikings (1-2) today at 4:25 ET at TCF Bank Stadium. Coming off an absolute beat down of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Falcons look to continue their winning ways against a Vikings team that will be without all-world running back Adrian Peterson. Rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater will be making his first career NFL start, and the Falcons will need to show that they’re “ready for Teddy”. Here are three key match ups to watch this week, and three players to keep a close eye on in each one of them.

Matt Ryan vs. Vikings’ Secondary

Matt Ryan is off to a tremendous start in 2014 and should be licking his chops heading into this game. At the helm of the league’s top-ranked passing attack, Ryan faces a Vikings’ secondary giving up over 225 passing yards per game. Featuring young players like Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes, the Vikings’ defensive backs could have their hands full with the Falcons’ experienced wide receivers and Ryan’s ability to nearly always find the open man. Ryan is completing an impressive 68.5 percent of his passes, which is almost identical to 2012 when the Falcons finished 13-3.

Player to watch: Xavier Rhodes. Rhodes was the Vikings’ 2013 first-round pick and is still a work in progress. The big, athletic cornerback could see himself frequently lined up against Julio Jones, the NFL’s leading receiver. Rhodes is giving up nearly 14 yards per catch and a 61.5 percent completion rate on passes thrown his way this season.

Falcons’ Pass Rush vs. Vikings’ Offensive Line

Until last week, the Falcons were the only team in the NFL without a sack. Three sacks later and I’m still not sure anyone is comfortable with the Falcons’ situation at pass rusher. Luckily for Atlanta, Minnesota’s offensive line has been just that – offensive. The Vikings’ recently lost reliable pass-protector Brandon Fusco for the season to injury, and former first-round pick Matt Kalil seems to be in a steep regression, surrendering three sacks and nine QB hurries in just three games so far.

Player to watch: Jonathan Massaquoi. 2014 was projected by many to be a breakout year for the third-year pass rusher, but up to this point, Massaquoi simply isn’t getting on the field enough to make a major impact. Oddly playing behind ineffective-starter Kroy Beirmann, Massaquoi has been productive when on the field, registering a sack and two hurries in just 35 snaps in which he rushed the passer. If he can get on the field more often this week, Massaquoi will have a chance to exploit a glaring Minnesota weakness.

Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford vs. Cordarrelle Patterson

In a clash of 2013 top-draft picks, this matchup will feature speed, speed, and more speed. While Trufant and Alford have enjoyed early success in coverage this season, they haven’t yet faced a wide receiver this year with the size and speed combination that Patterson possesses. Patterson is still a raw route runner, but is nonetheless very dangerous with the ball in space. Minnesota will likely try to get Patterson the ball through manufactured screens and reverses, and the young cornerbacks will have to stay with him step for step if they want to avoid giving up a big play.

Player to watch: Teddy Bridgewater. With Bridgewater making his first NFL start, he’s going to need a safety blanket. That man likely would’ve been tight end Kyle Rudolph, but he won’t play this week with an injury. Bridgewater could turn to veteran wide receiver Greg Jennings, but he’s nothing more than a complementary piece at this point in his career. If the Vikings’ offense begins to stall, Bridgewater will likely look to Patterson to spark the offense and steal a few big plays from the Falcons’ defense.

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Dissecting 5 Key Falcons vs. Saints Match-ups with SportingATL.com

The 2014 NFL regular season is right around the corner, and is there honestly any better way to start off a fresh, new year than against a most hated rival? No. The answer is no. The Falcons begin their quest for redemption against a team they’ve had trouble putting down as of late: the New Orleans Saints. T. from the fast-growing SportingATL.com and I took a closer look at the five most crucial aspects to a Falcons’ victory on Sunday, and why they may or may not be able to come out on the winning side of these vital match-ups.

Falcons’ Tackles vs. Saints’ Pass Rush

T: In 2012, Matt Ryan had his best statistical season to-date, eclipsing the 30 touchdown mark for the first time in his career while throwing for over 4700 yards.  Sam Baker was healthy for an entire season, and Tyson Clabo manned the right tackle position admirably. Ryan attempted over 600 passes that year while only being sacked 28 times. What a difference a year makes! A large amount of blame for last season’s woes can be attributed to poor pass protection led by Lamar Holmes and a revolving door of other warm bodies, leading to the Falcons’ 6th overall selection of Jake Matthews. Jake will be a stalwart left tackle for Atlanta for years to come, but I don’t expect early success for the young rookie. He’ll be opposed by the likes of Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette in Week 1, a duo that combined for 24.5 sacks a season ago. Additionally, the aforementioned Holmes has played much better at right tackle than on Ryan’s blind side, but I’m not a believer just yet. Rob Ryan will undoubtedly dial up the pressure on #2 on Sunday, and I expect the Falcons to struggle to keep Matt upright.

RUR: Those are all great points, T. Sam Baker going down could be a bad omen for this team, as the Falcons typically struggle in years that Baker isn’t healthy. That being said, let me tell you why I think 2014 will put an end to that trend, starting with Week 1. Sliding Matthews over to the left side did two things: it upgraded the pure talent level at left tackle, and it also put Matthews and Holmes in their best positions to succeed. Matthews is a prototype left tackle, and Holmes plays much more comfortably on the right side. Yes, Holmes was an utter failure last season, but he’s quietly put together a respectable preseason (zero combined sacks and pressures allowed in 116 pass-blocking snaps according to Pro Football Focus) and looks much more technically sound than a year ago. Everyone knows about the sheer potential Matthews possesses; it’s just a matter of time before he gets comfortable and blocks more people than Dikembe Mutumbo. Having said that, Jordan, Galette, and Akiem Hicks will be a tough first test. I fully expect the Falcons to counter the Saints’ pass rush with designed screens, draws, and chip blocks, but don’t be surprised to see Holmes and especially Mathews hold their own on an island. If they can limit the amount of sacks and QB hits to around two or less, Ryan should have more than enough time to find his open man. In my book, that would be considered a big win for the two young tackles.

Falcons’ Rushing Attack vs. Saints’ Front Seven

RUR: All indications are that Steven Jackson will be back on the field for the season opener, but that shouldn’t get anyone too excited. Jackson didn’t play a single down in the preseason due to a hamstring strain, so he’s likely rustier than the Tin Man without a can of oil. In 2013, Jackson said himself that it took a few games to shake off the rust and get into a rhythm after yet another hamstring injury. The Falcons simply can’t afford to let that happen again, especially not with the rival Saints in town. This is somewhat of a must-win game for Atlanta, as a win or a loss will set the tone for the rest of the season. The Falcons should give ‘Quizz Rodgers, Devonta Freeman, and Antone Smith — who have each had very good pre-seasons — plenty of carries to wear out the defense, then let Jackson pound it in on goal-line and short-yardage situations — I just don’t think Atlanta will do that. If the staff tries to force Jackson back into action, I think you’ll see a lot of carries for no gain, and they’ll be making it way too easy for the Saints’ front seven.

T: While Steven Jackson may be a shell of his former self, he’s got enough left in the tank to be an effective back behind Tice’s remodeled offensive line. The theme of the off-season has been toughness, and I fully expect Dirk Koetter to display this new mentality through an early commitment to the running game. As you stated, Koetter has a talented stable of backs at his disposal, and I expect him to ride the hot hand if Jackson sputters out of the gate. Joe Hawley and the newly acquired Jon Asamoah should be able to open holes on the inside, and Falcons backs will be able to get to the second level quickly against New Orleans’ weak run defense. The key to this attack is sticking with the plan if early ground attempts don’t yield explosive gains. After all, the best defense against Drew Brees and his artillery of receivers is keeping him on the sidelines through a balanced, ball control-focused offense. As we all know, however, the Falcons’ game plan tends to go out the door when the team comes out of the tunnel after halftime. If Koetter abandons the ground game in the third quarter, I don’t expect much second half success if it turns into a shootout.

Mike Smith vs. Sean Payton

T: Do you ever truly approach a match-up with the Saints with any real confidence? If you held a gun to my head, I’m picking New Orleans on most occasions, and the headset-wearing weasle patrolling the Saints’ sidelines is the reason why. The man simply has our number, as evidenced by his 9-3 record against Smitty’s Falcons. His on-the-field relationship with Drew Brees can only be described as telepathic, as the two are always on the same page. Each time Atlanta dials up a blitz, they hit us with a screen to the blitzing side. When we sit back in coverage, the Saints’ otherwise mediocre ground game gains confidence and lulls us to sleep. If Nolan dares to stack the box, Jimmy Graham and the New Orleans WRs have field days. As someone who still has full confidence in Mike Smith even after last year’s disappointment, it pains me to say this, but Sean Payton is the far superior coach in this matchup. He’s an offensive mastermind, and if Brees and friends are clicking on Sunday, it will be difficult for the Falcons to match their firepower.

RUR: You’re absolutely right; Sean Payton has had the Falcons’ number for years, and it’s about time Mike Smith does something about it. I think Smith is very cognizant of the Falcons’ abysmal record against the Saints, and with his seat getting much toastier after a disastrous 2013, Smith will do everything in his power to reverse his team’s fortunes in this heated rivalry. He’s had all offseason to prepare for this game, and I believe he’ll have something up his sleeve on gameday. There are a couple of unknowns that could really benefit Smith and the Falcons in this one. Week 1 will be the first time that anyone sees what the new Falcons’ defense truly looks like; the Saints don’t have any 2014 tape to study of Atlanta’s hybrid 3-4 and 4-3 defensive looks, and that should heavily favor the Falcons when the teams hit the field. Additionally, the Falcons have a secret weapon on offense: Devin Hester. How Smith utilizes his wealth of offensive weapons could be the difference between a win and a loss. It’s easy to forget, but the Falcons were a dropped pass away from winning last season’s opener in New Orleans and fought valiantly in a four-point November loss when seemingly everyone but Matt Ryan was injured. These rivalry games are almost always close contests, and the Falcons are certainly due for a win. Since 2008, the Falcons are an impressive 36-12 at home under Smith, and I believe win number 37 will come Sunday afternoon.

Slowing Down Jimmy Graham

RUR: Jimmy Graham has always been a gigantic thorn in the Falcons’ side, scoring seven touchdowns in his past seven games against the Dirty Birds; I honestly don’t expect much to change this week. Somehow, Graham is still an ascending player, and the Falcons still don’t employ anyone on their roster that can match up with him. The Falcons will likely try some sort of double coverage with a linebacker and safety over the top, but that just hasn’t worked in the past. William Moore was abused in coverage by Graham last year, and the Falcons don’t have a linebacker capable of handling Graham’s combination of size and speed. Atlanta’s best option would be to try and limit Graham’s opportunities as much as possible and hope he doesn’t break any more records or goal posts in the Dome. Simply put, start Graham in your fantasy league this week.

T: If there’s anything Mike Nolan has been preparing for during the seemingly endless off-season, it’s stopping Jimmy Graham. He’ll allow Desmond Trufant to mirror Colston in man-to-man for most of the game, allowing a rotating assortment of other DBs and linebackers to key on Graham. I expect William Moore to double Graham early and often with linebacker help, and Kroy Biermann will drop in coverage on #80 at times as well. I think you’ll see some inside pressure from Worrilow and Shembo on blitzes, especially with the lack of experience at the Saints’ center position. Hopefully this forces Brees to rush a throw or two to his tight end, resulting in a game-changing pick.

Hell, Mike, who am I kidding—the only way to stop Jimmy Graham is to tie him up at Hartsfield before he’s got a chance to get on the team bus.

Falcons’ Defensive Front vs. Saints’ Offensive Line

T: Thomas Dimitroff was aggressive in free agency to bolster a defensive line that was terrible last season in both stopping the run and putting pressure on the quarterback. Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson are gigantic run-stoppers who will occupy space in the middle, and Ra’Shede Hageman is an enigmatic force who can provide inside pressure, but expect Brees to have a relatively clean pocket on Sunday. The Saints have one of the league’s best aerial attacks, and Brees will surgically carve any defense that gives him time. Dimitroff’s efforts to solidify the interior defensive line won’t likely pay huge dividends in 2013, and next off-season’s primary objective will be to find impact edge rushers. I understand that Rome wasn’t built in a day and that the Falcons had many needs to address this summer, but I would’ve liked to see more attention to this need area. I’m not yet on the Massaquoi bandwagon, and Osi and Kroy will not put fear into the hearts of the Saints’ talented tackles. Second year LT Terron Armstead was excellent down the stretch last season. In fact, Pro Football Focus gave him a perfect 100.0 pass blocking efficiency rating against the Seahawks in the NFC Divisional Playoffs. Zach Strief, one of the NFL’s most consistent right tackles, was PFF’s second best RT in all of football in 2013. If the Falcons plan on generating any pressure on Brees this Sunday, I’d expect Nolan to call a few inside blitzes for Shembo and Worrilow. If not, the Falcons’ secondary could have their hands full.

RUR: As we saw throughout the preseason, I don’t think many teams will be able to run on the Falcons this year. The problem will be getting consistent pressure on dangerous QBs like Drew Brees. The Falcons don’t yet have their crown jewel of a pass rusher, but this season’s deep-rotational approach could still bear fruit for Atlanta. The Falcons’ defensive line rotation is so deep, they practically have two separate defensive lines. In 3-4 sets, the Falcons have Tyson Jackson, Paul Soliai, and Jonathan Babineaux up front. In 4-3 looks, Jonathan Massaquoi, Corey Peters, Malliciah Goodman, and Kroy Biermann will likely be the down lineman — not to mention up-and-comers Ra’Shede Hageman and Stansly Maponga, in addition to designated pass rusher Osi Umenyiora. As you can see, the Falcons defensive line is much, much deeper and more talented than a season ago. Atlanta will be able to rotate fresh bodies in at will throughout the game and theoretically tire out the Saints’ offensive line. The newly-acquired big bodies up front should open up plenty of gaps for linebackers to shoot through, as Paul Worrilow’s four combined preseason sacks and pressures can attest to. If youngsters like Massaquoi and Goodman can continue to ascend and develop into bona fide pass rushers in their own right, Atlanta’s front seven — and defense as a whole — should have no problem handling the Saints’ offensive line.

Score Predictions:

Mike (RUR): Atlanta wins 24-21
T: Atlanta wins 30-24

A huge thanks goes out to T. for his excellent work in this collaboration piece. I look forward to continuing to work together in the future! Be sure to check out SportingATL.com and follow T. on Twitter (@SportingATL) for complete coverage of Georgia sports.

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What To Watch For: Titans vs. Falcons

The Falcons enter tonight’s matchup with the Tennessee Titans following a blowout loss to Houston in which Atlanta was outplayed in nearly every phase of the game. The Falcons will be looking to drastically improve across the board as they continue to prepare for the fast-approaching regular season opener. Atlanta’s starters should see plenty of action in this game, as the third preseason contest is typically a dress rehearsal for the games that count. Here are some of the most important things to watch as the Falcons battle the Titans.

New Beginnings, Second Chances

All eyes will be on the Falcons’ two new starting offensive tackles: Jake Matthews and Lamar Holmes. Matthews’ future begins now as he slides over to left tackle following the season-ending knee injury of incumbent starter Sam Baker. Lamar Holmes makes his return to the starting offensive line after an abysmal 2013 display and will try to build upon his promising preseason. The young duo should see plenty of snaps against the Titans’ stout defensive line, a group featuring studs such as Jurrell Casey, Derrick Morgan, and Kamerion Wimbley. How Matthews and Holmes fare could be indicative of their success for the upcoming season.

The Start of Something Great?

The Falcons’ starters will likely see their most extensive playing time of the preseason on Saturday night, and it should be Atlanta’s best chance to rid themselves of the bad taste left in everyone’s mouth after an ugly loss to the Texans. The offense will look to establish a rhythm and put points on the board with what is likely to be a balanced attack, while the defense could show some of the complexity that’s been long awaited for by fans, but without giving too much away. The Falcons could suppress concerns about the lack of a pass rush with a solid showing against a talented Titans’ offensive line.

Cuts Are Coming

The Falcons will trim their roster to 75 players on August 26th, meaning this game could be the last opportunity for certain players on the bubble to impress the coaching staff. After the starters exit, fringe players will be giving everything they’ve got to make it past the first wave of cuts. It’s a time that could potentially make or break careers for players like Kimario McFadden, Jerome Smith, Geraldo Boldewijn, and Jeff Mathews.