NFC South: Atlanta Falcons

If you based Ra'Shede Hageman's progress on some of the scenes in HBO's "Hard Knocks," you might think the Atlanta Falcons' rookie was on the roster bubble.

In reality, defensive line coach Bryan Cox sees the potential in the second-round pick from Minnesota, which is why Cox continues to ride Hageman about his conditioning and motivation.

Some of the results of Cox's tough love were evident during last Saturday's preseason game against Tennessee. Hageman showed flashes of his unique ability with his first sack and a nice stuff on a run play from his defensive line spot. He played 45 defensive snaps, second on the team among defensive players behind Javier Arenas (46).

"I think he experienced something that he never experienced in terms of the strain on his body," coach Mike Smith said of Hageman. "He had a lot of plays, and plays in the NFL are different than plays in college football. The strain on your body is completely different.

"Like the way that Ra'Shede has come along all through training camp. You see his strength. He's a big, strong man. And he's going to be a guy that's help us in the rotation of our defensive line."

Hageman (6-6, 318) assessed his performance in the 24-17 loss.

"Really, it was the fatigue that got me, man," he said. "But I had to keep on pushing for it. I made a sack for my team and there was a little celebration. But at the end of the day, it's all about winning."

It's been well-documented how frustrated Hageman tends to get with himself. Such was caught on camera during "Hard Knocks" when Hageman pulled his shirt over his head as Cox criticized his play in the film room.

"I've just got to keep on moving forward," Hageman said. "Can't really get mad at the play I don't make. I've obviously got to learn from them. I have to watch and critique the film to get better. But overall, I'm progressing."
The second-to-last episode of HBO's "Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Atlanta Falcons" featured a coach going on a classic, profanity-laced tirade in the meeting room.

And guess what? It wasn't defensive line coach Bryan Cox this time.

Special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong displayed his true character as the show began with him going off on his units. Remember, the Falcons had both a punt and kicked blocked in the second preseason game at Houston.

Armstrong directed his fury toward three players in particular: Malliciah Goodman, Jacques Smith, and Ra'Shede Hageman.

"Some of you guys think you're better than it; you think you're above it," Armstrong said to the group about special teams. "Who do you think you are? The game don't mean enough to you. And that's very f---ing apparent. You better wake up and get your pride in the game.

"Come in here and you're going to go out there and play like s---. Now, the s--- was coached the right way. I don't want to hear any excuses. Selfish ass." sent a text to one of the players in the room who appeared to be shook up by Armstrong's words. The players responded, "I was."

Here's a few more highlights from the show:
  • Cox continues to ride Hageman hard and doesn't think the rookie is in good enough shape at this point. That's why Cox had Hageman out running sprints -- or at least trying to run -- after a practice. Hagemen didn't take too kindly to the criticism, but he responded with inspired play in the third preseason game against the Tennessee Titans.
  • After rookie outside linebacker Smith got ejected for throwing a shot at Tennessee Titans offensive lineman Taylor Lewan, Cox was the first to tell Smith what his fate could be. "You might have just cost yourself a spot on the roster," Cox said as Smith exited the field.
  • Center Joe Hawley is being called Joe "Brawley" after getting into a fight in three consecutive weeks, starting with the rookie Smith, then the rookie Hageman, and then during a joint practice with the Titans during which he was ejected. So, it's easy understand why Hawley uses pottery as a calming mechanism.
  • Receivers coach Terry Robiskie genuinely wasn't happy with the way star receiver Julio Jones and Roddy White played in the second exhibition against Houston. He thought they were trying to be too cute.
  • Speaking of receivers, Devin Hester's handed out one of his Chicago Bears jerseys to fellow receiver Harry Douglas. That might be worth quite a bit of money if Hester, arguably the greatest return man of all time, makes the Hall of Fame.
  • During one day of practice, coach Mike Smith moved the session indoors due to inclement weather. As the storm continued, the power went out inside the indoor practice field, forcing practice to end prematurely.
  • During the first roster cutdown, everyone seemed to take the news well except rookie quarterback Jeff Mathews from Cornell, who obviously struggled picking up the verbiage of the offense. On the flipside, veteran safety Tyrell Johnson handled his release with such class, complimenting the Falcons for being a family-type atmosphere where people actually care about the players. "It's not like that at other places. ... You're just a body somewhere else."
  • Rookie running back Devonta Freeman got a pedicure, and actually liked it.
  • The other coaches admire how defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is able to stay in shape at age 55 by sweating it out on an exercise bike. Nolan actually was spotted doing some serious stretching before Tuesday's practice.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- All three of the Atlanta Falcons' candidates for the nickelback role were on the field for special teams at the start of Tuesday's practice.

The battle between Robert McClain, Javier Arenas, and Josh Wilson remains unsettled, according to coach Mike Smith. But McClain, also a standout on special teams, would appear to have a decisive advantage.

Whatever the case, the trio will get one more chance to compete in Thursday night's final preseason game at Jacksonville.

Smith refused to reveal which of the three would be up first in the nickel spot.

"I don't really want to talk about who's going to get the first look, but all three are going to play," Smith said. "I don't think you can read into who gets the first snaps. It's going to be a matter of guys getting an opportunity to go out there and compete. We will put them in much quicker in the ball game then we have in the previous weeks. They won't take a whole half. It will be rotations by series."
  • Right guard Jon Asamoah, who sat out Monday's practice with a slight limp, was back on the field with a helmet for Tuesday's session. It's unclear how much work Asamoah did because media is now only allowed to view the start of practice. He held the heavy bag for his fellow offensive linemen at the start of individual drills as they worked on their hands. Smith said Asamoah's apparent leg injury wasn't serious, so it was good news to see him back on the field immediately.
  • Speaking of offensive lineman, Gabe Carimi had his second day of practice coming off an ankle injury and is poised to make a final push for the starting right tackle spot. "Gabe will play in the game," Smith said of the final exhibition. "He's had an opportunity to practice. We need to get an evaluation. Gabe, unfortunately, was injured in the scrimmage against the Tennessee Titans and missed basically all of the preseason. And we need to get a good evaluation. He'll get a look at multiple positions, if we can."
  • Extra points: Rookie safety Dez Southward remained sidelined at practice as he continued to go through the concussion protocol. ... Running back Steven Jackson, who returned from a left hamstring injury, practiced for the second consecutive day. ... Rookie linebacker Prince Shembo was not on the field for the start of practice, but he emerged just before the start of individual drills. ... Former Falcons backup quarterback Dominique Davis signed with the Tennessee Titans.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons offensive line coach Mike Tice didn't expect rookie first-round pick Jake Matthews to be perfect in his first NFL game at left tackle.

He wasn't.

Matthews got whistled for a false start and a hold in the first quarter of Saturday’s 24-17 exhibition loss to Tennessee. Then in the second quarter, he was beat on an inside move that led to Matt Ryan getting sacked.

"He jumped the guy, and he brought his feet together," Tice said of Matthews. "He got out of balance. He rushed it."

The line, as a whole, protected Matt Ryan well, which pleased Tice. But the run blocking wasn't up to par, and Matthews contributed to those woes.

"He had a couple of brain farts out there thinking," Tice said. "He had some growing pains, some learning things. He had a couple mistakes. He had a mental and, obviously, he gave up a sack.

"He didn't struggle, but he had more bad plays than he had on the right side. And he’s in there for three practices. We figured that it wasn't going to be smooth sailing, especially against a couple of good players."

Tice sees no reason to panic, however.

"He'll be better [today]," Tice said. "And he'll be better in the game this week, if we play him. And we'll go from there."

Everything seemed so simple for Matthews as he dominated at right tackle throughout training camp. Seeing him stonewall guys in practice became a regular occurrence. He even performed well against Houston pass-rush demon J.J. Watt in joint practices against the Texans.

"I thought the first time through, J.J. got him," Tice said. "I thought the second time through, it was a tie. And I thought in the team stuff, I thought Jake fared very well. So that’s a good thing. You want to go against the best players."

Then starting left tackle Sam Baker goes down with a season-ending knee injury in the game against the Texans, immediately forcing Matthews to the left side. Although he played left tackle last year at Texas A&M, even Matthews admitted it would take some time to readjust.

The biggest thing Tice rode Matthews about at right tackle was improving his right hand. That's no longer the case.

"His right hand got fixed when he moved to the left side," Tice said. "I told him, 'If I knew that was going to be fixed when I moved you to the left side, I would have moved you sooner.’ He said, `I would never do that to Sam Baker.'"

"His hands are better on the left side, much better than on the right side. He probably has more confidence."

Now, it'’s just a matter of Matthews getting into a left tackle routine.

"He's been in a right-hand stance since April or whenever the hell I got him -- May," Tice said. "He's done everything at right tackle since the first week. He didn't miss a snap with the ones. He’s probably got the most plays of any lineman on our team in the offseason and in training camp. And then all of sudden, poof, you’re a left tackle. It’s going take a little bit of time.

"He'll get all that cleaned up. It's just going to take a little time. It’s not going to happen by Jacksonville, either. We don’t expect it to."

How Matthews progresses as a run blocker might be the aspect worth monitoring the most moving forward.

"Like many young players [who] are coming into this league from a passing program, he's got a long way to go with his run blocking," Tice said. "When he played for Mike Sherman, he was in a pro-style offense. So he’s done it all before. Then [Texas A&M] came in with the new staff and went to the passing stuff and the two-point stance. He's just got to continue to work on it and feel comfortable in his stance."
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- While most of the attention remains on rookie Jake Matthews' switch to left tackle, the competition continues to determine which player will be the Atlanta Falcons' starting right tackle for the Sept. 7 season opener against New Orleans.

"It's wide open, man," offensive line coach Mike Tice said.

Lamar Holmes, Gabe Carimi, and Ryan Schraeder all have a shot, although Holmes was the guy called upon first when starting left tackle Sam Baker suffered a season-ending knee injury and Matthews switched from right to left. But Carimi, who just returned to practice Monday off an ankle injury, didn't play in the first three preseason games.

Tice assessed all three players, starting with Holmes.

"Lamar's a big, good-looking athlete," Tice said. "I like that kind of player. He's played (in the past). He's really worked hard to get better at his technique. He's really worked hard to eliminate mental mistakes. I like where he is right now. He's coming off two good games."

Tice had Carimi in Chicago, when the Bears made the former Wisconsin Badger their first-round draft pick.

"Gabe was having a great camp before he got hurt -- as good as anybody in the room," Tice said. "I felt like his best value for us was going to be as a swing guy. Now that we've had the injury to Sam, that opens up a chance for Gabe to compete with Lamar and Ryan for the right-tackle spot."

Both Holmes and Carimi have 15 or more career starts. Schraeder has four, all at right tackle last season.

"Ryan is very intelligent," Tice said. "He can play both sides, which is important. He's athletic. He's tough. But he's got a long way to go with his technique. It's inconsistent."

Carimi, considered a draft bust in Chicago, might have been the favorite had it not been for the ankle injury suffered during a joint practice with the Tennessee Titans. And the Falcons' brass no doubt wants to see Holmes emerge, being that he was a third-round draft pick in 2012.

"It's going to be a hell of a battle," Tice said. "Ultimately it's, of course, coach (Mike) Smith's decision. And we'll make sure that all three of them have enough plays this week to make a fair evaluation."

Tice believes Holmes took a step forward against the Titans Saturday night.

"Lamar has a high ceiling," Tice said. "He's using his hands better. The main thing with him, as a young player, is the consistency with his technique. We need to continue to strive to be consistent.

"But I'm a fan. I'm a fan of all three of the guys, of course. We're going make sure that all three have enough reps this week for (Smith) and I and whoever else is involved in the decision to make the decision."
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- As the Atlanta Falcons returned to practice Monday, one significant starter watched from the sideline.

Right guard Jon Asamoah, one of the team's top acquisitions this offseason, was held out of practice with an unspecified injury. Asamoah exited Saturday's preseason game against the Tennessee Titans earlier than the rest of the starting offensive line. He was replaced by Harland Gunn.

Coach Mike Smith was asked about Asamoah's status.

"Jon Asamoah was held out for precautionary reasons for practice today, and we don't anticipate that it will be any issues at all for him moving forward," Smith said.

Smith declined to comment about the injury.

"We're getting too close to the first game to be talking about injuries," Smith said. "We're out of camp. Hope you guys respect us for that."
  • Wide receiver Julio Jones, who scored a 52-yard catch-and-run touchdown in Saturday's 24-17 loss to the Titans, said he's still getting up to speed. Jones practiced Monday as he continues to be back on a normal schedule. "I can get up to speed good, I can't hold it as long as I want to hold it, like, over the course of a game," said Jones, who returned from last year's season-ending foot surgery. "The way I play, even in the running game and everything, I want to be able to do that the whole game full speed. I don't feel like I'm there yet." Based on his touchdown, it sure looked like Jones is the same player of old.
  • Besides running back Steven Jackson making his return from a left hamstring injury Monday, the Falcons also got back offensive lineman Gabe Carimi from an ankle injury and tight end Mickey Shuler back from a concussion. Carimi is in the mix at the right tackle spot along with current starter Lamar Holmes and Ryan Schraeder. "There's still a lot of evaluating to do, not only at the right tackle position, but at all of the positions," Smith said. Specifically, Smith said no one has won the backup quarterback spot or nickel back job just yet. Sean Renfree, who stayed late following Monday's practice, seems to have the edge over T.J. Yates. At nickel, incumbent Robert McClain seems to be in good position ahead of Javier Arenas and Josh Wilson.
  • Extra points: Smith on Desmond Trufant absorbing blame for the 63-yard touchdown against the Titans: "I know he stood up and said, 'Hey, it's on me.' That's being a great teammate. I think it's good for all of us for guys to step up and say that. But it's a team game. It's not a one-person game." ... Smith wouldn't say which players would be held out of Thursday's final preseason game, but one can expect the primary starters to sit. He didn't rule out rookie Prince Shembo playing alongside Joplo Bartu at inside linebacker ... Rookie safety Dez Southward, who suffered a head injury against Tennessee and appears to be going through the concussion protocol, did not practice Monday. ... Outside linebacker Jacques Smith and Tyler Starr stayed late after practice working on their pass-rush moves.
There are obvious concerns about how Lamar Holmes will perform if he maintains a starting role this season.

At least Holmes' first appearance as a starter in 2014 wasn't too shabby.

The Atlanta Falcons right tackle had a solid performance in Saturday's 24-17 preseason loss to the Tennessee Titans. He played 47 snaps and didn't allow a sack or pick up a penalty. Not to mention he shoved a guy aside after quarterback Matt Ryan took a finger to the face mask from Titans linebacker Zach Brown.

"It's a mindset, just like coach (Mike) Smith always says: We're going to play right there on the line, but not over the line," Holmes said of showing some toughness. "We've got to keep playing aggressive and keep doing what we've got to do to protect our quarterback."

Ryan was sacked once against the Titans as he played six series and 47 snaps. No one on the first-unit offensive line, save for maybe right guard Jon Asamoah, performed above standard in the run game, so Holmes wasn't flawless. Still, it was interesting to see him hold his own while rookie Jake Matthews had a few hiccups over at left tackle.

Matthews moved from right tackle to left after Sam Baker suffered a season-ending knee injury. It forced Holmes to take over for Matthews on the right side.

"I had ups and downs," Holmes said of Saturday's game. "But it's something I can learn and keeping building off of."

Holmes needs to build confidence if he hopes to maintain a starting role. He is battling both Ryan Schraeder and Gabe Carimi at the position, with Carimi expected back from an ankle injury this week.
Most significant move: The most eye-opening move had nothing to do with a player getting released. It was offensive lineman Mike Johnson being placed on injured reserve after suffering a foot injury during Saturday night's preseason loss to Tennessee. Johnson was on IR last season and made his way back. He was used as the extra tackle against the Titans, then suffered the foot injury. Maybe he had a chance to make the 53-man for depth following Sam Baker's season-ending knee injury, but Johnson was on the bubble and struggling in practice.

Wild card: Again, there were no real surprises, but you thought maybe undrafted quarterback Jeff Mathews would get a longer look in the final preseason game Thursday night. Instead, he was let go. The Falcons liked his size (6-foot-4) and his intelligence coming out of Cornell. Mathews seemed to be at least a top practice-squad candidate, but maybe not anymore. The Falcons are likely to keep two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster, so maybe they want to get one more look at the Sean Renfree-T.J. Yates battle, although Renfree seems to have the backup job behind Matt Ryan.

What’s next: The Falcons have some interesting decisions to make after facing the Jacksonville Jaguars in the final preseason game. They have to determine how many receivers they want to keep with undrafted rookies Geraldo Boldewijn and Bernard Reedy trying to make a final push. They have to decide how many defensive backs they want to keep. And they have to keep in mind depth concerns at linebacker and along the offensive line. Some other players to keep an eye on in terms of fighting for jobs include safety Sean Baker, outside linebacker Tyler Starr and defensive tackle Travian Robertson.

Falcons moves: IR: OL Mike Johnson (foot), LB Marquis Spruill (ACL); PUP: WR Drew Davis (foot), S Zeke Motta (neck); Released: S Tyrell Johnson; Waived: DE Theo Agnew, LB Brenden Daley, LB Darin Drakeford, S Devonta Glover-Wright, WR Julian Jones, QB Jeff Mathews, LB Walker May, RB Jerome Smith, WR Tramaine Thompson, TE Brian Wozniak.
ATLANTA -- Give Desmond Trufant credit.

Even if the Atlanta Falcons second-year cornerback wasn't fully responsible for a 63-yard touchdown given up to Tennessee receiver Nate Washington on Saturday night, Trufant certainly took ownership for the blunder.

``I'm definitely going to take the blame,'' Trufant said. `It's my responsibility. I've got to be over the top. And I can't get beat by width, either. I've just got to play better.''

 It's fair to wonder if a safety should have rotated back to the middle of the field on the play. Strong safety William Moore jumped down to cover the tight end on Trufant's side, and free safety Dwight Lowery appeared to hesitate for a moment unsure whether to help underneath or drop back deep.

Not to mention the Falcons didn't generate enough pressure up front on Tennessee quarterback Jake Locker, who had ample time to find Washington. Jonathan Babineaux got to Locker a tad late.

Whatever the case, Trufant took the big play to heart.

``I've been working so hard this offseason and in camp and I've been dominating, but there's always like one or two plays in the last two games that I could have done better,'' Trufant said. ``I'm going to learn from it. It's still preseason. I've still got two more weeks to get ready for when it really count. Just know I'm going to be ready.''

Falcons coach Mike Smith said Trufant was ``part of the issue'' on the play.

``I thought we played a good first half except for the long play,'' Smith said. ``Again, what you see out there and when you don't know what the call is, don't try to put a culprit on it. There's 11 guys out there, not just one giving up a big play.''

The Falcons surrendered six touchdowns of 40-plus yards last season. It's an issue that needs to be resolved immediately, particular with the big-play ability Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints will bring to town in Week 1.
ATLANTA -- Saturday was just a taste of how explosive the Atlanta Falcons' offense can be this season.

Catch-and-run touchdowns of 30-plus yards by both Julio Jones and Devin Hester were the highlights in the Falcons' 24-17 loss to the Tennessee Titans.

Hester started the scoring with a 31-yard touchdown off a short pass from Matt Ryan. It was his second touchdown of the preseason, and both included plenty of yards after the catch.

"He did an unbelievable job for us tonight," Ryan said of Hester. "That's something that we've seen during OTAs and during training camp. When you get him out onto the practice field, everybody has been impressed. He showed what he is capable of doing with the ball in his hands tonight."

Jones, who looks back to his normal self coming off foot surgery, exploded for a 52-yard touchdown in the second quarter. Jones caught the pass at the Titans' 45-yard line, shook off a tackle, did a spin move, then used a tremendous block by Harry Douglas at the 28-yard line to take it in for the score.

"Again, you're excited about the weapons that we have on offense," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "We've got guys that can make some plays when we get the ball in their hands; they showed that again tonight."

It certainly helped that Ryan was protected extremely well. He was sacked just once when rookie left tackle Jake Matthews got beat on an inside move. Ryan had ample time to take a few deep shots. The clean pocket helped him complete 18 of 23 passes for 224 yards and those two scores to go with a quarterback rating of 136.2.

"I felt very good," Ryan said of the line play. "Our pass protection of the ball was really good. We've got some things to clean up, some protection stuff and some scheme stuff. We've got the same stuff that we want to clean up on the outside. All in all, across the board, it was a really good effort."

Lamar Holmes was solid at right tackle, while Matthews held his own on the left side. All the starters played into the second half except for right guard Jon Asamoah, with Harland Gunn stepping into Asamoah's spot.

Observation Deck: Atlanta Falcons

August, 23, 2014
Aug 23

ATLANTA -- There should be no doubt about Julio Jones' right foot now.

The Atlanta Falcons star receiver, back in action following last year's season-ending foot surgery, scored on a 52-yard catch-and-run during Saturday's 24-17 preseason loss to the Tennessee Titans. Jones took the pass, made a quick spin, then utilized a tremendous block from Harry Douglas and exploded all the way to the end zone.

Jones' practice workload just increased recently following a cautious start to training camp. The plan all along was to have him at his best for the Sept. 7 season opener against the New Orleans Saints. If Saturday was any indication, the rest of the league better watch out.

Here are some other thoughts on the Falcons' third and most important preseason game, the dress rehearsal for the regular season:
  • Speaking of big-play receivers, veteran Devin Hester once again showed how valuable he can be on offense with his second touchdown of the preseason. He caught a short pass from Matt Ryan and made a few quick moves on the way to a 31-yard touchdown. It capped a 11-play, 79-yard drive. Hester finished with four catches for 56 yards. He looked very sharp running his routes.
  • Oh, by the way, Hester also showed why he was brought to Atlanta. He had a 47-yard kickoff return that helped set up Ryan's touchdown connection with Jones.
  • Ryan, who was replaced by T.J. Yates in third quarter, got solid protection from his starting offensive line. The pocket was clean, for the most part, as new left tackle Jake Matthews won most of his battles. Even new right tackle Lamar Holmes held his own. Ryan finished 18-of-23 for 224 yards and two touchdowns and was sacked once. Through three preseason games, his numbers: 28-of-37 for 314 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a QB rating of 118.5
  • There were some moments of solid pressure, but the Falcons just couldn't finish with the sacks early in the game. Linebacker Paul Worrilow notched the defense's first sacks late in the first quarter, while cornerback Robert Alford notched a sack off a blitz. Outside linebacker Stansly Maponga, who worked hard on his pass rush during pregame warmups, was active throughout the night and played well. In fact, general manager Thomas Dimitroff said during a radio interview that Maponga's play has been on the rise. Rookie Ra'Shede Hageman notched a sack off an explosive move in the third quarter.
  • Although the Falcons' defense had some moments, surrendering big plays -- a big issue from last season -- surfaced once again. Titans receiver Nate Washington got behind Desmond Trufant and the Falcons defense on a 63-yard touchdown connection with quarterback Jake Locker. It appeared as if Trufant expected safety help. Those are missteps the Falcons can't afford against Drew Brees and the Saints in Week 1.
  • Penalties again surfaced as a problem for the Falcons. During their second drive of the game, they were whistled for four penalties, including two pass inference calls on Roddy White. The rookie Matthews had two penalties in the first 10 minutes of the game. And in the fourth quarter, a slew of defensive penalties for the Falcons allowed the Titans to go ahead with a touchdown. Then rookie outside linebacker Jacques Smith got ejected for unnecessary roughness on the same scoring drive. To top it off, the Falcons had two fouls on their final possession on fourth-and-goal. Atlanta finished with 10 penalties for 97 yards. The Falcons had been whistled for 25 penalties in their first two preseason games.
  • Rookie inside linebacker Prince Shembo truly has a chance to earn a starting spot. Shembo rotated with starter Joplo Bartu in the first half. Then, Shembo started the second half with the first-team defense. One couldn't help but be impressed with Shembo's speed to the ball. He might not be the starter for Week 1 against the New Orleans Saints, but his time is coming.
  • Veteran Eric Weems, who signed a one-year deal to return to Atlanta on Friday, was active on special teams. He played on the coverage units and even spelled Devin Hester as a return man. Weems went 28 yards on his first kickoff return. Since Dimitroff said in a radio interview he anticipated big special teams contributions from Weems and Courtney Roby, one would expect both to be on the 53-man roster.
  • A couple of injuries surfaced. Rookie safety Dez Southward left the game with a head injury and was getting checked for a concussion. Southward already got off to a slow start due to a knee injury. The Falcons need safety depth with Dwight Lowery coming off concussion and Zeke Motta (neck surgery) not expected to play this season. Also, offensive lineman Mike Johnson, used as the extra tackle at the start of the game, left with a foot injury and didn't return. Steven Jackson (hamstring), Gabe Carimi (ankle) and Mickey Shuler (concussion) all were in street clothes.
  • Sean Renfree looks to be the backup quarterback after a nice drive at the end of the game, although he couldn't punch it into the end zone. He completed 5 of 7 passes for 59 yards. Yates might be the odd man out.
Some guys bond while out fishing. Others connect over beers at a sports bar.

For Atlanta Falcons tight end Levine Toilolo, such bonding occurred on the basketball court.

Shooting hoops with retired former teammate Tony Gonzalez is how the 6-foot-8 Toilolo spent one of his days back home in Southern California this summer. The duo stopped by the University of California-Irvine in June after Toilolo returned from organized team activities.

"We were on the same team,’’ Toilolo said of the pickup games. "Did we dominate? Tony did. He’s still got it.’’

Of course, Gonzalez was a two-sport standout at Cal who elected to play football instead of basketball and became the most accomplished tight end in NFL history. The Falcons aren’t asking Toilolo to duplicate Gonzalez’s football success, but it certainly doesn’t hurt for Toilolo to pattern his daily approach after one of the greatest.

[+] EnlargeTony Gonzalez and Levine Toilolo
Marc Serota/Getty ImagesLevine Toilolo (80) has leaned on former teammate Tony Gonzalez for advice.
"I went by Tony’s house that same day and just got to talk to him,’’ Toilolo said. "He just asked me if I’m getting in my routine with some of the drills he showed me last year as far as getting in and out of my break, focusing on catching the ball. And then, he just talked to me about how something that was big to him was how big the mental part was. He even recommended a book for me to read: Malcolm Gladwell’s 'Outliers.'"

Toilolo hopes to write his own story of success in 2014. His size should be an asset for quarterback Matt Ryan, particularly in the red zone. Last season, as Gonzalez finished tied for fifth in the league with seven red zone touchdowns, two of Toilolo’s 11 catches went for red zone scores. And the red zone already has been an area of emphasis for the Falcons after a rough start there this preseason.

"I don’t know if I’m the answer,’’ Toilolo said with a laugh. "The coaches, that’s their area. Once we really start actually game-planning, we’ll kind of have more things called up.

"I think that’s definitely somewhere -- as an offense, period -- the red zone is somewhere where you want to be really efficient. That’s somewhere we really want to improve, especially with the weapons we have. We can find some mismatches down there. And I’m sure Matt will find the mismatches.’’

Part of the maturation process for Toilolo in his second season is becoming a more reliable target and improving his blocking. It’s been interesting to watch him remain after practice regularly to put in extra work on the Jugs machine.

"As far as for me, my hands have kind of been up and down,’’ Toilolo admitted. "I want to be able to make all the plays. It’s just a matter of focusing each and every play. I want to be automatic, whether it’s in practice or in games.

"And I think that’s something where you build that trust with your quarterback, with the offense, with the coaches in practice by showing them if they come your way, you’re going to make that play. It starts in practice.’’

Ryan appreciates Toilolo’s desire to improve and his willingness to learn from Gonzalez.

"I think it’s a really positive thing for Levine,’’ Ryan said. "Both of those guys developed a good relationship last year working together. And they’re friends. And Tony’s got a wealth of knowledge for Levine to pick at. Levine’s smart. He’s taking advantage of that.

"The other really good thing about it, too, is as a mentor, Tony knows the guys that Levine’s working with, too. He understands how to communicate with me. We’ve done it for a long time. He knows how to get Levine to tap into the best with me because I think Tony did a good job with that. And I’m thankful to Tony that he’s continued to do it.’’
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Matt Ryan understands what it takes to be considered among the elite.

The Atlanta Falcons quarterback doesn't get caught up in individual statistics, although he owns almost every significant passing record in franchise history.

One thing he doesn't possess is a Super Bowl ring -- he's just 1-4 in the postseason -- which is why folks continue to say he is just shy of joining Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers in the elite category.

"Everybody wants to be the best, there's no doubt about it," Ryan said. "One thing that I understand at this position is you're judged on what's done in the playoffs. And we've got to get back to it. We've got to get back to being in there and being a contender at the end of the year.

"At the end of the day, I don't worry too much about [rankings]. Certainly I feel like I'm talented enough and experienced enough to be as good as anybody. And now you just have to go out there and do it and play that way."

Ryan comes in at No. 55 on this year's#NFLRank list. He comes off a disappointing 4-12 record last season, yet he still put up solid numbers despite the lack of protection in front of him. In fact, a couple of more completions per game would have put him above a 70 percent completion rate during a season when he was sacked a career-high 44 times.

If the offensive line truly performs better with the additions of Jon Asamoah at right guard and rookie Jake Matthews at left tackle, Ryan could have a career season, particularly with top receivers Julio Jones (foot) and Roddy White (ankle/hamstring) fully healthy again. Sure, he'll miss safety net Tony Gonzalez, who is now retired. But Ryan will have other weapons such as Harry Douglas and Devin Hester to spread the ball around to.

Ryan led the NFL with a 68.6 percent completion rate during a 13-3 campaign in 2012. Completing at least 70 percent of his passes is a personal goal he'd like to surpass this season. But something else is much more important.

"First and foremost, I think it's about winning games," he said. "In our quarterback room, we talk a lot about 'What are the factors that help win games?' And completion percentage is certainly one of them.

"At the beginning of this year, I said something along the lines of wanting to get toward that 70 percent. And I don't think it's unrealistic. We were 67, 68 the last two years. We talk about there being three or four plays a game we feel we could do better. If we do that, we can easily get about that 70 percent range."

Achieving that might put Ryan a cut above the rest.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan isn't ashamed to admit his curiosity regarding other offenses around the league.

Naturally, Ryan studies all of the elite quarterbacks and what makes them successful. But at least one offense, as a whole, caught his eye from last season. It was the up-tempo, hybrid West Coast style coach Chip Kelly brought to Philadelphia that allowed the Eagles to finish first in the league in passing yards per play, second in total offense and fourth in scoring offense. The same offense was on display during the Eagles' 31-21 preseason win Thursday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"In the past, I've watched a lot of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers -- I mean, you have to watch them," Ryan said. "But this past year, it wasn't even so much quarterbacks. It was just looking at some different offenses and taking a look at what Philadelphia did. Nick Foles had such a good year last year. But taking a look at some of [Philadelphia's] scheme and how some of their stuff is used, they were really, really good on offense last year.

"And obviously, you look at what Denver did on offense last year and you watch Peyton again and the year he had. You have to take a look at what some other people are doing and also see how that might fit in with the scheme that we have and the guys that we have."

Of course, Ryan has complete faith in offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter's sharp offensive mind. But no doubt it would be fun to see the Falcons incorporate some of those elements used in the Eagles' offense. That quick pace, with an average of 24 seconds between plays last season, wears defenses down and keeps them from making the proper personnel adjustments.

It helps when Philadelphia boasts one of the league's top running backs in LeSean McCoy, along with a solid offense line anchored by Jason Peters.

The Falcons don't have a running back of McCoy's caliber just yet, and the offense line doesn't compare to what Philadelphia has right now. But having receivers capable of making plays after the catch also is a key element for the Eagles, and the Falcons certainly have that in playmakers Julio Jones and Roddy White.

Regardless of the style or tempo the Falcons utilize this season, it will mean nothing if they can't produce in the red zone.

"It’s about scoring touchdowns," Ryan said. "When we get down there, we’ve got a goal of being above 55 percent scoring touchdowns every time that we get into the red area. That’s an area where we weren’t as good as we’ve been in the past last year.

"If we want to be the team that we want to be, we have to get back to a high level of scoring touchdowns in the red zone. That’s the main emphasis: You’ve got to be consistent up front, you’ve got to be consistent on the outside and you’ve got to make the plays when they present themselves."

Falcons bring back Eric Weems

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
The Atlanta Falcons brought back a familiar face Thursday by signing wide receiver/special-teamer Eric Weems to a one-year contract.

Weems (5-9, 195) entered the NFL with the Falcons back in 2007 as an undrafted free agent from Bethune-Cookman. He spent five seasons with the team before signing with Chicago Bears in 2012.

Weems was waived by the Bears last week in favor of Santonio Holmes, allowing Weems to test the free-agent market. Weems apparently took a physical with the Tennessee Titans this week and was poised to sign, but negotiations hit a last-minute snag.

Weems' deal with the Falcons materialized late Wednesday night, according to a source familiar with the talks. Star receiver Roddy White actually went to bat for Weems with the coaching staff.

The Falcons apparently view the 29-year-old Weems as a rugged, physical player capable providing a boost on special teams, particularly in coverage and as a blocker. Last week's preseason loss to the Houston Texans magnified some of the special-teams issues. Special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong groomed Weems to begin with, so obviously Armstrong feels confident in what the veteran brings to the unit.

Weems still holds the Falcons' franchise record with a 102-yard kickoff return for a touchdown at Tampa Bay in 2010. But the Falcons added ex-Bear and arguably the best return man of all time in record-setter Devin Hester to handle the return duties. Weems simply provides added insurance in the return game, if called upon for those duties.

At the top of Weems' wish list after parting ways with the Bears was rejoining the Falcons. He owns a house in the Atlanta suburbs and has stayed connected with players on the team. Weems was at an Atlanta Hawks game this offseason alongside Harry Douglas.

The addition of Weems brings an interesting dilemma in terms of the receiver situation. White, Douglas, Hester and Julio Jones are the main pieces of the group, while Courtney Roby is expected to stick as a special-teamer. With Drew Davis set to start the season on the physically unable to perform list, there will be an extra spot for a receiver. Coach Mike Smith said an undrafted rookie receiver such as Bernard Reedy had a better chance to make the 53-man roster based on Davis' status, but Smith said that before Weems signed a one-year deal worth $730,000.

To make room for Weems, the Falcons waived receiver Jabin Sambrano.