NFC South: Atlanta Falcons

Rapid Reaction: Atlanta Falcons

November, 23, 2014
Nov 23
ATLANTA -- A few thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons' 26-24 loss to the Cleveland Browns at the Georgia Dome.

What it means: The Falcons dropped to 4-7 and lost their hold on the top spot in the NFC South, although they could get it right back with a loss by the New Orleans Saints on Monday night. The Falcons had won two in a row and looked poised to make it three following a 53-yard field goal by Matt Bryant. But the Falcons' defense gave up too much cushion in the end, and Billy Cundiff nailed the 37-yard game winner for Cleveland.

Stock watch: The Falcons' run defense took a tumble Sunday. Had the Falcons been a little stouter against the run, the Browns wouldn't have had a chance. Instead, there were plenty of missed tackles as the rookie tandem of Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West rushed for 150 yards. The Falcons gave up 475 total yards.

Matty iced: Matt Ryan was cold for much of the day. He almost threw an interception early that would have easily been returned for a touchdown, and eventually did get picked off once. He also walked into a sack and just didn't appear to have the right chemistry with Julio Jones. Ryan finished 27-of-43 for 273 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.

Game ball: Desmond Trufant made an incredible interception in the end zone late in the fourth quarter that gave the Falcons a chance. He leaped in front of star receiver Josh Gordon, who didn't make much of an effort. Yes, it was a terrible throw by Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer, but that doesn't take away how magnificent a play it was by Trufant, who was shadowing Gordon most of the day. Gordon still finished with eight catches for 120 yards.

What's next: The Falcons have another home game upcoming with one of the league's best as the Arizona Cardinals come to the Georgia Dome next Sunday. The Cardinals won nine of their first 10 games but lost starting quarterback Carson Palmer to a season-ending ACL tear.
The Atlanta Falcons made an expected roster move Friday by activating wide receiver Drew Davis from the physically unable to perform list following offseason foot surgery.

To make room for Davis, the Falcons waived wide receiver Freddie Martino.

Davis was a key contributor last season when Julio Jones went down with a season-ending foot fracture and Roddy White missed some action because of injury. Davis had 12 catches for 216 yards and two touchdowns in 2013.

Because the Falcons lost a key special-teamer in Antone Smith to a season-ending broken leg, Davis is expected to step into Smith's spot as a primary gunner. Davis has excelled on special teams in the past.

Davis has had plenty of practice time leading up to Sunday's game against Cleveland and should be ready to contribute.

This is the second roster move for the Falcons in as many days. On Thursday, the team added veteran linebacker James Anderson to fill the roster spot left when Smith was placed on injured reserve. Anderson is not expected to be active Sunday.

The Falcons also await the official return of strong safety William Moore off short-term injured reserve. Moore returned to practice this week and is eligible to play against Arizona next week.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones, who missed the previous two days of practice with an illness, was back on the field Friday.

Coach Mike Smith promised Jones would be back on the field without going into specifics about the illness.

Running back Steven Jackson and fullback Patrick DiMarco also returned to practice Friday after being out ill Thursday.

The only players not on the practice field with helmets Friday were cornerback Robert Alford, who is out the next three weeks with a broken wrist, and offensive tackle Jonathan Scott, who has been sidelined with a hamstring injury.

Falcons vs. Browns preview

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
When: 1 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta TV: CBS

The Atlanta Falcons play at home for the first time since Oct. 12 and bring with them a two-game winning streak. But they've dropped their only two games against AFC North teams: road losses at Cincinnati and Baltimore. Now they'll face the Cleveland Browns, who were good enough to beat the Bengals on the road but also lost to lowly Jacksonville.

The 4-6 Falcons are tied for first place in the NFC South; the 6-4 Browns are tied for last place in the competitive AFC North. ESPN Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure and ESPN Browns reporter Pat McManamon break down the matchup:

McClure: There's been so much talk about Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon coming off suspension. Over here, Falcons coach Mike Smith said he expects a "full dose" of Gordon on Sunday. Do you expect the same?

McManamon: I think anyone would be crazy not to. Who in the world doesn't give a full dose of Gordon if he's ready to play? The guy has superstar ability and superstar talent. He opens up the field, draws double-teams, has excellent hands and runs like a gazelle. To think you hold a guy back who brings that to the field is borderline lunacy. The only thing Gordon might lack is being in game shape, but last season he stepped in after a two-game suspension and had a huge game. The Browns are tempering expectations, and they might be wise to do so. I believe nothing will hold Gordon back. The Falcons are wise to plan for him to be full-go.

I don't think I've heard any apologies from Atlanta, but last I looked a 4-6 team is in first place. How do the Falcons feel about that?

McClure: Relieved, considering they nearly blew a double-digit lead and a chance to move into first place before squeaking out a 19-17 victory at Carolina on Sunday. I will say this: Despite the doom and gloom from the outside, the Falcons remained optimistic, even after a five-game losing streak. You didn't see players hanging their heads or talking about not having much hope, as I believe Brandon Marshall said about the Bears' season recently. Now, the Falcons return home for three of the next four games, so they have a chance to really start building confidence with hopes of securing the NFC South title. As bad as the division has been, the Falcons have a realistic shot at the postseason.

The Browns lost starting linebackers Karlos Dansby and Jabaal Sheard to injury for a significant amount of time. How does that affect the defense, and how will the Browns compensate for those losses?

McManamon: It's tough. Those injuries are in addition to losing defensive end Phil Taylor for the rest of the season a week ago, which cut into the line depth. That's three significant starters on defense, including the captain and leader, Dansby.

This has been an ongoing problem for the Browns in the past 15 seasons. They retool with new coaches and new systems, which means roster turnover, which means little depth. In past years, they've not been able to survive attrition. Whether they can this season remains to be seen. With Dansby out, Chris Kirksey and Craig Robertson will play inside. The talent drops there are significant. Last week, with Dansby out more than half the game, Houston ran for 213 yards. Sheard had played his best football recently, and, with him out, Barkevious Mingo will see his playing time increase. Mingo is playing with a shoulder issue that requires him to wear a harness that doesn't allow him to raise his arm over his shoulder. Compensating for these losses will not be easy.

It's been awhile, but the Browns don't have a lot to show for the trade that gave Atlanta the pick that turned out to be Julio Jones. Do the Falcons look back on that trade as a worthwhile deal?

McClure: That was a no-brainer a few years back, when Jones put up 1,198 receiving yards and scored 10 touchdowns in the Falcons' 13-3 season. General manager Thomas Dimitroff had every reason to pat himself on the back, based on the way Jones performed. But now, some might question the move just because Jones' 2013 season ended prematurely with a foot injury and because he has dropped a few passes this season.

Yes, the Falcons voided themselves of some depth by trading away five draft picks. No one knows for certain which players the Falcons would have selected had they kept those picks. But consider this: Only one player the Browns got in the Jones trade -- Taylor -- remains on the roster. And Taylor is on injured reserve, as you mentioned. I think the Falcons did just fine in landing a game-changing receiver such as Jones. Now they have to just get him the ball more, particularly on deep throws.

I know Brian Hoyer has done some good things this season and has kept the conversation away from Johnny Manziel, but is there any other player who has surprised you by stepping up his game, someone the Falcons should be aware of come Sunday?

McManamon: I'd have to go with the wide receiver group other than Gordon. Without Gordon, I thought that the offense would be a lost cause, that the players' lack of playmaking ability and experience would affect the success. The opposite happened. They played better than anyone expected and were significant contributors to a 6-4 start. Andrew Hawkins stepped into Gordon's spot, Miles Austin was solid and undrafted rookie Taylor Gabriel proved to be a real find. Add Gordon and the group gets that much better. And, to their credit, Austin and Hawkins said they expect Gordon to step right in and help. They are eager to have him back -- "We'll make sure he fits in," Hawkins said -- even though their playing time will be cut with Gordon on the field.

Dome teams usually have a large advantage in these kind of games. Is that true of Atlanta? Do the Browns have to worry about a dome-field advantage?

McClure: The Falcons are 2-1 at the Georgia Dome this season and had their highest-scoring outputs there, against Tampa Bay (56 points) and New Orleans (37). Two of the three times this season Matt Ryan has recorded a 100-plus passer rating have been at home. Devin Hester scored his only return touchdown against the Buccaneers at home, and most figured he would be rejuvenated playing inside a dome. And since Mike Smith took over in 2008, the Falcons are 38-14 (.731) at the Georgia Dome, which is the fifth-best home winning percentage over that span behind the Patriots (.887), Ravens (.811), Packers (.783) and Saints (.755).

But the Browns did win the last time they played at the Georgia Dome, 17-13 in 2006, thanks in large part to three Michael Vick turnovers. As long as Ryan and the Falcons avoid miscues, they should feel pretty comfortable at home come Sunday.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan admitted the offense has missed on opportunities to throw the ball down the field, an aspect Ryan hopes changes when his team faces the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.

"I think it's a couple things: We've got to hit them when they're there," Ryan said. "We've had opportunities to take some shots down the field. We just haven't hit as many as we would like. And then from a schematic standpoint, we've got to figure out ways to maybe take another shot here or there. And that's something that we've talked about in our rooms.

"But from a player's perspective, I think when it's there, we've got to be opportunistic. That's something that, I think we've talked about the last couple of weeks. We've done a decent job of it, but we still need to do a better job."

[+] EnlargeJulio Jones
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesJulio Jones hasn't scored a touchdown in seven games, the longest drought of his career.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Ryan's passes have traveled an average of 7.8 yards downfield, which ranks 20th in the league among quarterbacks with six or more games played. Cleveland's Brian Hoyer leads all regular starters with a 10.35-yard average.

Ryan has thrown six of his eight interceptions on passes traveling at least 15 yards downfield. Sunday, he'll be up against a Browns defense that is tied for third in the league with 14 interceptions, led by league-leader Tashaun Gipson with six.

The Falcons' top deep threat, Julio Jones, leads the team with 67 catches for 912 yards and three touchdowns. But Jones has just two catches of 30-plus yards through 10 games. Last year he had three catches of 45-plus yards in just five games before breaking his foot. And Jones hasn't scored a touchdown in his last seven games, which is the longest drought of his career.

Jones draws his share of added defenders, of course, which affects the downfield shots. You also have to factor in the offensive line changes when talking about Ryan's ability to connect deep with Jones or anyone else. The Falcons have lost five linemen to season-ending injuries, including three players that started games this season. Rookie left tackle Jake Matthews has struggled through a high-ankle sprain suffered in Week 1, which has allowed added pressure on Ryan.

Despite being under duress at times, Ryan said the deep ball has been there.

"There's been some chances, I think so," he said. "There's been some chances and just a little bit off across the board on making those plays. When they present themselves, we've got to make them."

The Falcons often have opted for so many wide receiver screen plays rather than attempting to go downfield. Such was the case in last Sunday's win over Carolina, as the Panthers appeared to sniff out the wide receiver screens.

Ryan was asked why those screens haven't been so effective.

"They've been successful for us," Ryan said. "We've made a lot of big plays on those, even this year. We've had a lot of success on those this year. Last week [vs. Carolina], you've got to give those guys some credit. I mean, Carolina did a good job of defending them. And so, they're hit or miss. Those kind of plays are hit or miss, and we know that going into it. We're going stick with it. That's part of who we are. And we're going to find ways to get the ball to our playmakers -- both running backs and wide receivers -- in space."

Ryan has had four screen passes gain 20-plus yards this season. Only Washington's Kirk Cousins has more such passes, with five.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith said star receiver Julio Jones was sent home Wednesday with an illness.

Jones was one of four Falcons to miss practice, along with receiver Harry Douglas (foot), cornerback Robert Alford (wrist), and offensive tackle Jonathan Scott.

Smith was optimistic when asked if Jones would return to practice Thursday.

"We certainly hope so," Smith said. "We hope it's a 24-hour bug and not a 48-hour. He was not feeling well, so we sent him home."

Jones leads the Falcons with 912 receiving yards on 67 receptions with three touchdowns. He hasn't scored a touchdown in the last seven games, which is the longest drought of his career.

Starting right guard Jon Asamoah (shoulder) was limited Wednesday, while defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux (knee) and receiver Devin Hester (wrist) had full participation.

Outside linebacker/defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi, who had been dealing with a foot injury, did not show up on the injury report.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith expects to see plenty of Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon on Sunday with Gordon reinstated following a 10-game suspension.

Smith was asked if he expects Gordon to be up to speed immediately.

"Absolutely I do," Smith said. "They've stated that they want to get him out on the field as quickly as possible. And he's a game-changer. He's a guy that with the ball in his hands, he can make plays. So we're anticipating that we're going to get a full dose of him this week."

The Browns are trying to downplay Gordon's return after he failed a drug test. There are several factors to consider while weighing what type of impact he will have upon returning to the field. But in terms of the Falcons' preparation for Gordon, his football track record speak for itself.

The 6-foot-3-inch, 225-pound Gordon had 87 catches for a league-leading 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns in 14 games last season. Gordon had 637 yards after the catch, which was fifth-best in the league.

Desmond Trufant is the Falcons' best cornerback, and Smith said he wouldn't be afraid to use Trufant in a shadow role. The Falcons moved Trufant around in Sunday's 19-17 win against Carolina as he covered Panthers rookie Kelvin Benjamin.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Atlanta Falcons' 19-17 win over the Carolina Panthers at Bank of American Stadium.
  • Falcons owner Arthur Blank obviously was in a much better mood Sunday than he was after his team blew a 21-point lead against Detroit in London earlier this season. "Yes, I am happy, definitely," Blank said. "First place in our division; I'm happy." The Falcons are 4-6 and tied atop the NFC South with the Saints, but they beat New Orleans in the season opener.
  • Smith
    Atlanta running back Antone Smith, who suffered a knee injury, was spotted on crutches as he exited the locker room. Cornerback Robert Alford had what appeared to be a soft cast protection on his left wrist. Receiver Devin Hester didn't have any protection on his left wrist, but it could be sprained and he's set to undergo further testing on Monday. Defensive lineman Jonathan Babineaux said the knee he banged up during the game is fine.
  • Before exiting the locker room, Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant admitted he mistakenly celebrated what he thought was a pass breakup in the fourth quarter but ended up being a 22-yard touchdown catch by Panthers rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. "I turned and looked at the crowd like, 'What? What?' And then I looked back and I saw him celebrating," Trufant said. "I was like, 'Aww, man.' I thought I broke it up. He just made a better play. I tip my hat to him on that one."
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons rookie left tackle Jake Matthews was missing from the open locker room for quite a while and was obviously preoccupied with getting treatment on his ailing left ankle.

 The bye week at the start of the month gave Matthews a little more time to recover. One can tell the sense of relief in his tone.

``I'm ready to get that behind me,'' Matthews said during a locker room appearance on Thursday. ``They told me, right when the sprain happened, it was going to be something that I'd have to deal with the whole year. It's been getting a lot better. It's a lot more manageable now. I'm going to keep building on it and keep getting that treatment and getting it right.''

Matthews refused to use the injury as a crutch despite the severity. He suffered a high-ankle sprain -- typically a 4-to-6 week injury -- in the season opener against New Orleans and missed just the Cincinnati game.

``Man, it sucks, but that's the nature of the game,'' Matthews said of playing through the pain. ``Everyone's got something that's bothering them. Unfortunately, I had to learn that Week 1.''

That's not the only lesson Matthews learned. The transition from college to the pros figured to be an easy one for the sixth-overall pick and son of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews. A switch from right to left tackle threw off the timing of his development. Then came the injury. Then Matthews was asked to contend with the likes of Terrell Suggs and Jason Pierre-Paul while playing basically on one leg.

``Every week, I've feel like I've learned something from who I've played against,'' Matthews said. ``[Pierre-Paul] was definitely a good player, and I felt like I learned a lot from him. Like I keep saying, every week, you're going up against a good player. It's one of the biggest things I've picked up from since I got here.''

At least Matthews won't have to contend with suspended Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy or injured defensive tackle Star Lotulelei this week. Carolina still poses quite a challenge, however, led by Charles Johnson (four sacks, six quarterback hits).

``They're still a real good group up front,'' Matthews said of the Panthers. ``They really roll in a lot of players. They're deep ... especially at end. And their two interiors guys, too, who are real good. I think we've got a really good game plan for them. And I'm excited for building on what we did last week and getting some wins going.''
FLOWERY BRANCH -- The Atlanta Falcons broke from tradition in naming permanent captains for the remainder of the season, with wide receiver Roddy White being one of the six given the honor.

For White, it was the first time he's been named a team captain in 10 seasons with the Falcons.

 ``I means a lot,'' White said. ``But I feel like I've been a captain; just wasn't voted one until this year. But I like the `C' on my jersey. It's a level of respect that your teammates have for you.''

Coach Mike Smith typically named captains at season's end, but he switched it up this time around. Matt Ryan joined White in representing the offense, Paul Worrilow and Jonathan Babineaux were named the defensive captains, while Eric Weems and Antone Smith were tabbed for special teams.

Smith explained the reason behind the new format.

``Well, it was a decision that we discussed over the bye week as a coaching staff, and we wanted to give some guys the opportunity to lead us in the second half of the season,'' Smith said. ``Usually we vote at the end of the year, but we felt that it was appropriate, with the type of season that we were going through through the first half, that we wanted to make some changes. And we did.

``Thought that there's a lot of guys [who] were deserving of being a captain, but the six guys [who] were chosen, they've been outstanding leaders for us.''

Ryan talked about receiving the designation.

``It’s a big honor and a big responsibility,'' Ryan said. ``I feel like I owe it to the guys to always give my best, day in and day out. I’m going to try and lead the best way I can, the same way I have up until this point.''

Worrilow, at age 24, is the youngest of the captains; Babineaux, at 33, the oldest by a month ahead of White.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons receivers Devin Hester and Harry Douglas were held out of Wednesday's practice due to lingering ankle and foot injuries.

Both players initially suffered the injuries in a Week 3 win against Tampa Bay. Hester hasn't missed any game action while Douglas returned two games ago after missing four consecutive games with a deep bruise in his left foot.

"We anticipate that Devin will be out on the practice field in a limited basis tomorrow," Falcons coach Mike Smith said.

Limited Wednesday were outside linebacker/defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi and left guard Justin Blalock, both with foot injuries. Massaquoi played just six snaps in last Sunday's 27-17 win against Tampa Bay due to the injury.

Veteran offensive tackle Jonathan Scott, who joined the team a few weeks ago, but has not played in a game, continued to be sidelined with a hamstring injury.

In other news, Smith said receiver Drew Davis has a full load at practice as he continues his comeback from offseason foot surgery. Davis remains on the physically unable to perform list and could be activated at any time.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The season looked all but lost for the Atlanta Falcons after they dropped their fifth straight game by blowing a 21-point lead while losing to Detroit.

Quarterback Matt Ryan, however, refused to hang his head despite a 2-6 start. Now, he finds his 3-6 Falcons right back in the NFC South hunt behind New Orleans (4-5) and Carolina (3-6-1) going into Sunday's game against the Panthers.

"It's kind of different how this season has shaken out, specifically within our division," Ryan said. "I think at this point, it's exciting. We're in November. We're right in the mix. Obviously, we would have liked to have played better up to this point, but it is what it is. We're right in the mix. We've got everything we want right in front of us. And now, we've got to play the football that we're capable of playing moving forward. And I think everybody is excited about that."

Carolina is the defending NFC South champion, but the division has never had a repeat champ since it was formed in 2002. The Falcons last won in 2012 and have three NFC South titles.

"That's probably one of the more strange phenomenons," Ryan said. "We'd like to be on the right end of that here at some point. ... We're excited about competing and trying to knock one off at a time and hopefully have a chance to keep playing in January."

Running back Steven Jackson said he feels the sense of urgency in Ryan's tone now more than ever, which is the type of leadership the Falcons expect from their quarterback.

Ryan -- named a permanent captain for the rest of the season along with Roddy White, Jonathan Babineaux, Paul Worrilow, Antone Smith, and Eric Weems -- downplayed any change in his demeanor.

"I think it changes with the people that are around," Ryan said. "Each team, each locker room is different from year to year. And I think leadership needs to be flexible. And you need to be able to adapt to the guys that are in your locker room. ... I've needed to be different at different times.

"I think at the right opportunity, sometimes you have to speak up. And sometimes, at the right opportunity, you need to keep your mouth shut."

Although Carolina is 25th in the league in total defense (376.8 yards per game), 29th in scoring defense (28.1 points per game), and is playing without defensive standouts Greg Hardy (suspension) and Star Lotulelei (ankle), Ryan still sees a pretty potent defense.

"I still think it's a really, really talented defense," Ryan said. "I think there are some difference in personnel -- obviously two new safeties for them; two guys we're really familiar with in Roman Harper and (ex-Falcon) Thomas DeCoud. They've got some different personnel in the front four but, again, I think two of the better linebackers in league in Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly.

"Sometimes stats can kind of tell any story that you want to make them tell. To me, when you turn on the tape, I think it's still a very good, physical defense."
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The way Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton hobbled around in Monday night's loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, one would think the Atlanta Falcons might be able to take advantage of the situation come Sunday.

Not so fast.

Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan knows what to expect from Newton even if he's not at full speed come Sunday.

"Cam's pretty elite," Nolan said. "I don't know how elite half of Cam is. I would say it's still elite."

Newton, who underwent offseason ankle surgery, apparently is fine, according to Panthers coach Ron Rivera. But there's no real reason for Rivera to reveal any details regarding Newton's health at this point.

"I don't know how hobbled he is or not," Nolan said. "We have to take him at his full strength. He's a big, strong, competitive athlete. That's all we can go off of. I can't go off of where he might be, physically. If it helps us out, great. If you go into it thinking your opponent is going to be lesser than he is, a lot of times, you don't play very well."

Last season in two wins against the Falcons, Newton completed 38 of 64 passes for 398 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions while being sacked twice. He also ran the ball 17 times for 94 yards and a touchdown.

Newton has a pair of capable running backs in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, who have a combined 456 rushing yards. Newton actually tops the pair with 4.5 yards per carry, and his elusiveness is something the Falcons have to be aware of regardless of his health status. Atlanta allowed Tampa Bay's Josh McCown to escape a few times last Sunday.

Newton's top targets are tight end Greg Olsen and rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who have a combined 12 touchdown receptions.

"Very big; very strong," Nolan said of Benjamin. "He's got good hands. He's a big target (6-5, 240). He and Olsen both are go-to guys. You can see Cam eyeing both, so he's trying to feed them the ball."

The Film Don't Lie: Falcons

November, 11, 2014
Nov 11
A weekly look at what the Atlanta Falcons must fix:

Receiver Roddy White made his point clear after the Falcons beat the Buccaneers when he said, "We've got to execute better and get down in the red zone and score [touchdowns], not field goals." It's a theme the Falcons need to carry with them into Sunday's game at Carolina.

That sounds like nitpicking for a team that ranks third in the NFL in red zone percentage (71.4). But the margin for error is so slim this season for the 3-6 Falcons as they attempt to make a second-half push and compete for the NFC South title.

Looking back against the Buccaneers, the Falcons should have been at least 3-of-4 in the red zone, if not 4-of-4. Remember, an uncovered Devin Hester dropped a sure touchdown in the end zone. At the same time, the Falcons shouldn't have put themselves in a third-and-19 situation after having a first down on the Bucs' 10-yard line. A false start on Ryan Schraeder and a sack of Matt Ryan pushed the Falcons back 12 yards during that red zone opportunity.

The other failed red zone trip was a little more understandable, considering rookie running back Devonta Freeman picked up 9 yards on third-and-10 that left the Falcons with a fourth-and-1 at the Buccaneers' 15. Coach Mike Smith wisely went with the fourth-quarter field goal to give his team the 10-point cushion that made for the final margin.

Now as the Falcons look ahead to Sunday, they'll be up against the Panthers defense ranked second to last in the league in red zone defense, allowing opponents to convert almost 70 percent of those opportunities. Philadelphia was 4-of-4 in the red zone against Carolina on Monday night.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Kroy Biermann picked the right time to find his pass-rush game.

The Atlanta Falcons outside linebacker/defensive end hadn't generated much pressure up until Sunday's 27-17 win at Tampa Bay. In the game, Biermann had a game-ball worthy performance with 1.5 sacks and three quarterback hits. He also had three quarterback hurries, according to Pro Football Focus.

[+] EnlargeKroy Biermann
David Manning/USA TODAY SportsFalcons linebacker Kroy Biermann notches his first sack of the 2014 season, a takedown of Buccaneers quarterback Josh McCown in Week 10.
Through the first eight games of the season, Biermann had no sacks and two quarterback hits. In fact, he had gone 12 games without a sack dating back to December 2012.

"Kroy probably had his most productive game of the season," Falcons coach Mike Smith said of Biermann. "Of course any time when we win, we have players that are recognized. And he was one of the players that was recognized with his performance not only against the run -- he set the edge a couple times and didn't allow the ball to get outside -- he put some pressure on the quarterback.

"He had a nice sack there in the fourth quarter. It's very important: If you're going to get sacks, you want to get them in the fourth quarter of games. You don't remember about the sacks that happen in the first quarter of games. When you get them in the fourth quarter, especially in the last three or four minutes, the clock's going to continue to run. There's a lot of positive from getting the sacks in the fourth quarter."

Now it's up to Biermann and designated pass-rusher Osi Umenyiora to sustain their momentum going into a crucial NFC South game at Carolina. Umenyiora was extremely active against the Buccaneers and also had 1.5 sacks and three quarterback hits. The uncertainty surrounding the injury status of pass-rusher Jonathan Massaquoi (foot) could result in even more playing time for Umenyiora, who is coming off a season-high 34 snaps (out of 72 for 47 percent).

Anyone who watched the Panthers get pummeled by the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday night, 45-21, saw quarterback Cam Newton get sacked nine times and hit 10 times behind an abysmal offensive line. Left tackle Byron Bell and right tackle Nate Chandler looked like crash dummies the way they kept getting thrown around.

"I'm disappointed," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of his team allowing Newton to get sacked and pressured so much. "But I'm going to watch the tape. I'm not going to indict anybody."

No one is expecting the Falcons to be as fierce as the Eagles when it comes to getting after Newton, who appears to be ailing from a previous ankle injury. The Falcons are second-to-last in the league in both total sacks (11) and sacks per pass attempt. However, the Panthers are 26th in the league in sacks allowed, with Newton sacked 30 times so far this season.

Another solid effort from Biermann, Umenyiora and the rest of the defensive line could go along way in helping the 3-6 Falcons move closer to the top of the weak NFC South standings. A win against Carolina and a loss by New Orleans against Cincinnati would put Atlanta in first place in the division.