NFC South: Atlanta Falcons

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ATLANTA -- Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan had quite an impressive night himself in a 56-14 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, setting franchise single-game records for completion percentage (87.5 percent) and passer rating (155.9). However, he was more excited to talk about wide receiver Julio Jones than his own marks.

Jones, showing no ill effects of an injured ankle he suffered last week in Cincinnati, caught nine passes for 161 yards and two touchdowns, including a falling, over-the-shoulder 40-yard touchdown grab good enough to be a "SportsCenter" Top 10 play for the next week.

"It was a hell of a catch," Ryan said. "Just his ability to adjust as the ball goes over his shoulder, as good as it gets. He had a great release on the route. It's something that we feel like we can give him a chance because he's one of those guys that has the ability to make those kind of plays. He showcased that tonight."

Jones, who missed most of last season following right foot surgery, now has 23 catches for 365 yards with three touchdowns. He did not speak to the media following Thursday's game.

But Ryan had plenty to say about his top target. Jones is expected to have a major impact on a weekly basis, but his role was even more emphasized Thursday with Roddy White (hamstring) sidelined.

The Buccaneers had no answer for Jones and didn't really alter their defensive strategy to slow him down.

"Julio is as good as he's ever been, if not better," Ryan said. "He's only going to continue to get better because he's got a better understanding of defenses that he's going against. He's got a better understanding of our offense. I think he's playing the best he's ever played."

So that would make Jones virtually unstoppable, correct?

"Yeah," Ryan said. "Defenses are going to have certain ways that they're going to try and stop him. But we feel like anytime he gets in that one-on-one situation, that's a win for us."
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan typically is brutally honest. Such was the case Wednesday when he was asked to single out a defense player who has performed at a high level through two games.

"We don't have anybody on defense, to this point, that's playing at a high level," Nolan said. "I think they all would say that they want to play better than they've played. Some have played better than others, don't get me wrong. But I think, to a man, I think they would think, 'Hey, I want to play a little bit better than that, at least.'"

The Falcons enter Thursday night's NFC South game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ranked last in the league in four defensive categories: yards per game (472), yards per play (6.79), passing yards per play (9.62), and sacks per pass attempt (0.0). They ranked 29th out of 32 teams in third-down percentage defense, allowing opponents to convert 51.85 percent of the time. And the Falcons rank 26th against the run, allowing 154.5 rushing yards per game.

Trufant
 Although Nolan didn't mention him specifically, cornerback Desmond Trufant certainly appears to be performing at a high level. One opposing coach said this about Trufant: "He knows how to play, and he knows how to irritate receivers. He really stands out to me. The other guy [Robert Alford] is a pretty good player, too. But No. 21 is the guy I look at because he has pretty good technique."

Two players who haven't played up to standard have been outside linebackers Jonathan Massaquoi and Kroy Biermann. Massaquoi hasn't taken that next step as a pass-rusher just yet, and neither Massaquoi nor Biermann has been effective against the run. Most of the big runs surrendered have come from opposing running backs bouncing outside rather than up the middle against big nose tackle Paul Soliai and defensive end Tyson Jackson.

"Well, their job -- some of the time but not all of the time -- is to set the edges," Nolan said of Massaquoi and Biermann. "We gave up the edge in the game the other day far too many times. It's not just their jobs. Sometimes, it's the safety's and the corner's job, as well. But, that would be one of their jobs as far as the run goes.

"Outside of that, sometimes they have an interior responsibility; maybe not all the way inside, but the next gap inside to the exterior. That's where the outside 'backer would be. For example, if there's a safety outside of them or a corner, they would be inside of them there."

The defense, as a whole, has to put together a strong run-stopping effort Thursday night against Tampa Bay's Bobby Rainey, who rushed for 163 yards and had three touchdowns (two rushing, one receiving) against the Falcons last season. Rainey had 144 rushing yards against St. Louis last week.

As far as the pass rush goes, no sacks and one quarterback hit through two games tells the story for the Falcons. Nolan expected his outside linebackers to contribute more with the rush by now. Osi Umenyiora hasn't fared well as the designated pass-rusher, either.

"Obviously the pass rush is an area where those players, whether it's [Massaquoi] or [Stansly] Maponga or anyone that plays the end pass-rusher, we need to get more production out of that," Nolan said.

"As was obvious our first two games, we've had low production. We've got to get our production up. We've got to come up with plays. We can't have people on the screen jumping over the top of us, or a guy catching the ball right over the middle and us not making the tackle."
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- It was a devastating moment for Devin Hester, one that nearly caused him to run away from football.

Back in December 2012, the day Lovie Smith was fired as the head coach in Chicago, an emotional Hester addressed reporters in the Bears' locker room and contemplated retirement. He never imagined playing for another coach after establishing an everlasting bond with Smith.

[+] EnlargeDevin Hester
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesDevin Hester is excited to play against former coach and friend Lovie Smith when the Falcons take on the Bucs in Week 3.
"That situation goes so deep because he was the first coach who took a chance on me coming out of college in Miami," Hester said. "From that point, I just had so much respect for him. I'm a loyal guy, man. He'll always be one of my favorite coaches.

"The situation I was in back in Chicago, he was the only one that was going to bat for me. He was the only one who had the power to do it. I knew right then when he was gone, my career there was going to be pretty short."

Hester decided to gut out one more disappointing season in Chicago before signing with the Atlanta Falcons this offseason. Now, he'll face his former coach for the first time Thursday night as Smith's Tampa Bay Buccaneers come to the Georgia Dome.

"I just have so much respect for him not only as a person, but as a coach," Hester said. "He was fun to be around."

Smith is just as anxious about the reunion.

"Everyone who knows me knows that Devin's one of my favorites," Smith said. "He's one of my favorite players, talking just football. My first head job and I got to coach the greatest returner of all time. That was special, the things I was able to see him do with his hands on the ball.

"But when I talk about favorite, Devin Hester is family. This is a lifetime relationship we have here. Devin Hester is one of the best people you'll ever get a chance to meet."

Smith wanted to sign Hester in Tampa, particularly since the return game is something the Buccaneers are lacking. Hester also has a close tie with Buccaneers receivers coach Andrew Hayes-Stoker and would have been utilized on offense. In the end, the Falcons' three-year, $9 million deal to Hester that included $4 million guaranteed was something the Buccaneers couldn't match.

"I wanted Devin to get as much money as he possibly could," Smith said.

Hester also respects Smith for believing in him as a receiver. Hester actually came to the Bears as a return man/defensive back. In 2009, he had a career-high 57 catches for 757 yards and three touchdowns in then-offensive coordinator Ron Turner's scheme.

Critics often questioned Hester's ability to absorb the offensive playbook. Such talk annoyed Smith.

"It's a shame when you get labeled a little bit for something," Smith said. "I remember when Brandon Marshall first got there in Chicago and talked about how special Devin was as a receiver. If you're special with the ball, you're special with the ball. It's a shame what happened with him as a receiver in Chicago."

A big part of the problem was the lack of chemistry between Hester and quarterback Jay Cutler. It's no secret Cutler scolded Hester, at times. It led to Hester asking not to play offense his final season with the Bears.

"I don't know all the dynamics on that, but you've got to really search hard not to like Devin Hester," Smith said.

In Atlanta, Hester has opened eyes at receiver. He gives the Falcons another dynamic weapon alongside Julio Jones, Roddy White, and Harry Douglas. Hester has six catches for 101 yards with a long play of 35 yards. He had two touchdown receptions in preseason games.

"That's the great part about what Mike (Smith) has done along with Terry Robiskie and Dirk Koetter, to see that Devin can do more than just return kicks," Smith said.

In the return game, Hester sits one touchdown away from setting the NFL record for all-return touchdowns. He is currently tied with mentor Deion Sanders at 19.

Wouldn't it be something if No. 20 came against his old coach?

"He's a lifetime friend; I feel like he'll be a part of my family forever," Smith said. "And he's the greatest returner of all time. So when you're on the opposing sideline, you're not real happy about that."

Peters active for Falcons vs. Bengals

September, 14, 2014
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CINCINNATI -- Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Corey Peters, who hasn't played in a game since suffering an Achilles tear last December, is active for Sunday's game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Peters is expected to be a key contributor in the defensive line rotation this season, specifically in terms of bringing pressure up the middle.

Rookie left tackle Jake Matthews is inactive, as expected, after injuring his left ankle. Gabe Carimi is expected to start at left tackle.

Also inactive for the Falcons are quarterback Sean Renfree, wide receiver Courtney Roby, cornerback Javier Arenas, linebacker Tyler Starr, center James Stone and defensive end Cliff Matthews.

Linebacker Nate Stupar is active after being inactive last week. He could be a key contributor on special teams.

Tackle Ryan Schraeder also is active after being inactive last week. He'll be the swing tackle behind Carimi and right tackle Lamar Holmes with Jake Matthews out.

W2W4: Falcons vs. Bengals

September, 13, 2014
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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan hasn't lost a game in Week 2 since his rookie season. His opponent this week, the Cincinnati Bengals, didn't lose a game at home all of last season.

One of those streaks will end Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium as the Falcons and Bengals try to improve to 2-0.

Here are three things to look for in the game:

Matchup to watch: There has been plenty of talk about how the Falcons plan to defend elite Bengals receiver A.J. Green. The Baltimore Ravens zoned him in with three players, at times, last week. Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant would love to get a shot at going one-on-one against Green. "He's a very good all-around receiver,” Trufant said. "He can run. He' s shifty. He's quick. He can stretch the field; has intermediate routes. You've got to get in his face and put your hands on him. I think that's the best thing to slow him down; just being physical and being confident." Would the Falcons consider shadowing Green with Trufant? Probably not just yet. If they do decide to double-team Green, it won't be with Trufant. That's not an ideal strategy to use with your best corner, considering Trufant would be better suited taking on a one-on-one battle with one of the other capable receivers.

On the run: There's been so much talk about the Falcons' lack of a pass rush. Yes, that's something that needs to be corrected immediately. At the same time, safety William Moore always stresses the importance of stopping the run first. It shouldn't be any different this week against two capable running backs in Giovani Bernard and rookie Jeremy Hill. Some fantasy experts predicted Bernard and Hill to put up big numbers this week. Remember last season, the Falcons allowed both Arizona's Andre Ellington and Tampa Bay's Bobby Rainey -- two unproven running backs -- to have career games. The Falcons signed defensive linemen Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai this offseason with the expectation of helping to shut down the run. Let's see if it pays off in this game.

Happy returns: I can't help but revisit one of the hot topics from this week, with Adam Jones of the Bengals saying he's a better return man than record-holder Devin Hester of the Falcons. It made plenty of folks laugh, and Hester even emphasized to me that he's almost had as many touchdown returns called back (four) as Jones has returned for scores (five). I expect Hester to break free for at least one long return, being that he should get more opportunities, playing outdoors. When Hester signed with the Falcons this offseason, folks talked about him being able to affect the outcome of at least a couple of games with his dynamic return ability. I suspect this will be one of those games as he sits one touchdown shy of setting the NFL's all-time record for return scores. He is tied with mentor Deion Sanders at 19.

Roddy White (knee) ready to go

September, 11, 2014
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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons receiver Roddy White, who was on the practice field Thursday, reiterated he'll be ready to go against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday despite dealing with a knee injury.

 White was limited during Wednesday's practice after banging his left knee in his team's 37-34 overtime win against the New Orleans Saints. He fell on the knee near the end of the first half but was back in the lineup after halftime and finished the game.

White told ESPN.com he had the same knee drained this offseason, which led to him being excused from minicamp. Falling on the knee again caused him a little panic.

``I'm feeling really good,'' White said Thursday. ``It did kind of scare me. But after that, my adrenaline started pumping, got back in there and caught some passes. Got back on Monday and felt a little sore but now, I'm ready to go.''

Although White is not going to be overly cautious just because he returned too quickly from a high ankle sprain last season, he did indicate a scaled back practice plan might be in play, at times.

``Me and [Coach Mike Smith], we're on a good program,'' White said. ``He wants me to do certain things on Wednesdays and go out there and run around and get a little bit done and then Thursday, practice as hard as I can. And Friday, be as fast as I can because we have to do timing things. We have things in the game plan that we have to get done. And me and Matt [Ryan] have to be on the same page.''

Also Thursday, rookie offensive tackle Jake Matthews was not on the field for the start of practice after missing Wednesday's practice with a left ankle injury. Matthews is not expected to play Sunday.

Falcons in a rush to get to Dalton

September, 11, 2014
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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Mike Nolan didn't make any excuses, but the Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator was realistic in discussing why his defense didn't record a sack against New Orleans last week.

"We eliminated a lot of the potential pressures we were going to use because the things that Drew [Brees] was doing took us a little bit out of our game," Nolan said. "I've got to give the guy credit: The frustrations that we had were really created by him. He did an outstanding job. He's a great quarterback, no question."

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsGenerating a better pass rush against Andy Dalton is a goal for the Falcons on Sunday.
Indeed it was hard for the Falcons to rush four, blitz, or be effective with their twists because of Brees' footwork and ability to get the ball out quickly and the protection in front of him.

Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton is no Brees, so the Falcons could have more success with their pressure this Sunday in Cincinnati.

"It doesn't matter who it is; I think the pass-rush plan every week should be to attack the quarterback," said Falcons outside linebacker Jonathan Massaquoi. "So regardless if you're an MVP or Pro Bowl quarterback, at the end of the day, the mentality is the same: that's to get the quarterback on the ground.

"We, as a front seven, have to try harder to continue to bring pressure on any quarterback that we play week in and week out."

Defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux provided the most consistent pressure in the opener, but he had a sack negated by a defensive penalty. The first time the Falcons attempted to blitz Brees, inside linebacker Paul Worrilow admitted he didn't time it correctly.

"We have some good [blitzes], and I think we can get some good ones this weekend," Worrilow said. "I think we can definitely do a better job, pressure-wise, this week than we did last week."

The Falcons will face another quarterback capable of getting the ball out quickly in Dalton. Last week against the Baltimore Ravens, Dalton did not get sacked as he attempted 38 passes in a 23-16 victory. Dalton averaged 5.7 yards per attempt in passes to players other than top receiver A.J. Green, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

The Falcons have to be aware of the quick screens Dalton likes to throw. They have to be alert of running back Giovani Bernard as a threat out of the backfield; he caught six passes last Sunday and was targeted 10 times. They have to prepared for Dalton running the no-huddle. And they even have to be cautious of a few read-option plays Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson likes to sprinkle in.

But when Dalton takes his five-step drops or sits back and scans the field out of shotgun, the pressure has to be there. If not, Dalton might have repeated success throwing the deep ball to Green, an elite receiver.

"Andy Dalton is a very physical and competitive quarterback," Massaquoi said. "We've got to be great in our disguises and even better with our pass rush to try and get him on the ground."

The offensive line the Falcons will have to contend with isn't too shabby, either, with Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith at the tackles, although Smith is battling a shoulder injury. Massaquoi said familiarity with the Bengals' line might help the defense's cause.

"Their tackles are not bad," he said. "We actually went against them in training camp last year. They've pretty much got the same offense, the same tackles.

"I pretty much have a game plan in line about what I want to do, starting with speed, ending with power, and just trying to get Dalton on the ground."
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons rookie left tackle Jake Matthews, who injured his left ankle in the season opener, did not practice Wednesday.

Matthews
Matthews underwent an MRI on Monday, and such examinations involving the ankle typically indicate a high sprain. Such an injury usually takes about four to six weeks to completely heal, so it would be a shock to see Matthews play at Cincinnati this Sunday. The Falcons then have a Thursday night game against Tampa Bay Sept. 18, which might be a too quick a turnaround as well for Matthews.

Not to mention the Falcons are likely to be a little more cautious with their No. 6 overall draft pick after watching receiver Roddy White struggle through a high ankle sprain last season. White eventually admitted he should have rested the ankle rather than return to action so quickly.

Without Matthews, Lamar Holmes and Gabe Carimi would make up the starting tackle combination, with Ryan Schraeder the swing tackle. Holmes ended Sunday's 37-34 overtime win over New Orleans at right tackle, while Carimi finished at left. The two entered the game with a set rotation at right tackle as Holmes got the start.

Carimi said Wednesday he hadn't played left tackle since 2011. He will get plenty of snaps at left tackle this week, coach Mike Smith said following Wednesday's practice.

"It's definitely a different position and (I) haven't had that many snaps on it," Carimi said. "But it's everybody's job to be the next man in. That was my job. Went in there, did it."

Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter referred to Carimi as the John Havlicek of the offensive line. Havlicek revolutionized the sixth man position as a member of the Boston Celtics.

The 26-year-old Carimi is unfamiliar with Havlicek.

"Basketball, right? You're talking about sixth man, NBA?" Carimi joked.

Koetter said Carimi did an admirable job stepping in at left tackle, while Smith also was pleased with Carimi's effort.

"Gabe had to step in to a role that he really wasn't fully prepared for, but I thought he did an outstanding job," Smith said. "Gabe was our John Havlicek going into the game last week. ... He'll get a lot more snaps this week at the left tackle position, and he'll be prepared to even play better. And I thought he played good last week. We protected our quarterback well."

Also at practice, White was limited after banging his knee against the Saints. White and Matthews were the only two Falcons on the injury report.
Note: Some of the snap count figures from Sunday's Atlanta Falcons-New Orleans Saints game in terms of which players participated were inaccurate. The following figures take into account how the snap counts were calculated in the final game book as it was posted.

Falcons nickelback Robert McClain wasn't overly concerned about Josh Wilson being listed ahead of him on the depth chart, and for good reason.

McClain figured he'd get plenty of opportunities regardless. In fact, he was the first and only nickel to take the field during Sunday's 37-34 overtime win over the Saints. And he made quite an impact, intercepting a Drew Brees pass in the end zone during the third quarter, setting up Antone Smith's 54-yard catch-and-run touchdown that gave the Falcons their first lead at 24-20.

McClain played 51 of 75 defensive snaps, while Wilson only saw time on special teams.

Here are some other snap count figures:
  • Safety Kemal Ishmael played 14 snaps as the Falcons opted for a three-safety look, at times, with William Moore, Dwight Lowery and Ishmael all on the field. "I love it," Moore said of the look. "Kemal's a heck of an athlete, and I told him before the season ... I told you guys he showed up in training camp and he's been playing lights out. It's just showing a comfort with the coaches that we've got to get this guy on the field. And that's what we did."
  • Julio Jones played 67 of 72 offensive snaps in his return from foot surgery. He had a team-high seven catches for 116 yards while being targeted nine times. Fellow receiver Devin Hester played 20 offensive snaps and responded with five catches for 99 yards while being targeted six times.
  • The running back foursome broke down like this: Steven Jackson (32 of 72 offensive snaps), Jacquizz Rodgers (28), Antone Smith (seven) and Devonta Freeman (five). They accounted for 181 total yards (rushing and receiving) and two touchdowns.
  • Rookie Prince Shembo played 10 snaps at inside linebacker alongside Paul Worrilow, who played every snap and had a team-high 15 tackles. Shembo spelled Joplo Bartu (53 snaps).
  • Osi Umenyiora played 32 defensive snaps as the designated pass rusher but was unable to record a sack. He had two tackles.
  • Starting defensive tackles Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson played 43 and 34 snaps, respectively. Soliai's total accounted for 57 percent of the defensive snaps, while Jackson's was 45 percent. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will be able to decipher Tuesday what type of impact they made in those limited snaps.
  • Speaking of defensive tackles, rookie Ra'Shede Hageman played 15 snaps.
  • Along the offensive line, Gabe Carimi played 59 of 72 offensive snaps at both right and left tackle, while Lamar Holmes played 55 snaps at right tackle. The two knew they would have to rotate at right tackle going into the game. But Carimi ended the game at left tackle after Jake Matthews suffered a left ankle injury. Matthews played 30 snaps before exiting.
videoATLANTA -- Left guard Justin Blalock was one of a handful of players in the Atlanta Falcons locker room amused by how effective quarterback Matt Ryan was with his feet Sunday afternoon.

Yes, his feet.

"It's not his forte," Blalock said after the Falcons' 37-34 overtime victory against the rival New Orleans Saints. "But after that performance today, we might have some Wildcat plays for him or something."

"I didn't know he was such an athlete, man," center Joe Hawley said of Ryan. "He did a great job. You can tell he did whatever it took to get the win. He was putting his body on the line. When you see that, it's contagious."

Ryan
Ryan
Ryan completed 31 of 43 passes for a franchise-record 448 yards with three touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 128.8. Ryan set a new team record for career passing touchdowns with 156, after he surpassed Steve Bartkowski (154). What's more, Ryan engineered an offense that generated a team-record 568 total yards.

Not to mention, Ryan extended plays with nifty footwork and averaged five yards per carry on his three rushing attempts, including a 9-yard scramble in the third quarter that nearly resulted in third-down conversion and a second-quarter run that resulted in a first down on third-and-1.

"I've been hiding, I guess," Ryan said when told his teammates didn't know he was that nimble. "Sometimes, you've got to make some plays. And I've always felt like I could do that a little bit. I prefer to throw it from inside the pocket, but sometimes you have to [scramble]. And those were big for us today."

Ryan extended a play with 14 seconds left before halftime and found Roddy White for a 39-yard pickup. It helped set up a 40-yard field goal by Matt Bryant and gave the Falcons much-needed momentum going into the second half.

"Being able to get outside the pocket [and] still throw the ball down the field, that was huge," Ryan said. "I think that play was really big."

Ryan had his flow throughout. He completed six of his first seven passes to start the game, then really got into a rhythm once the Falcons turned to their hurry-up offense. It helped that Ryan had top receiver Julio Jones back in the lineup. He caught seven passes for 116 yards in his first regular-season game since foot surgery.

Ryan spread the ball around to nine different receivers and threw touchdown passes to White, tight end Levine Toilolo and running back Antone Smith, who took a reception 54 yards for a score. Ryan only got sacked once, thanks to his mobility and an offensive line that held up against a rather formidable Saints' defensive front.

"Oh my God. ... Matt's not the most athletic quarterback out there, but he did a great job today," said Jones, who lost a fumble while trying to get to the end zone. "He scrambled around, got a first down or so for us. That's big. Once he scrambles for a first down, that's big for us."

Ryan continuing to play at such a high level will be crucial for the team's success this season. The Falcons invested in the offensive line this offseason with the focus on keeping Ryan upright and allowing him to play like the elite quarterback he's capable of being. He guided the Falcons to a shootout win over a Saints team touted as one of the league's best. Surely, Ryan can do the same against teams not as explosive on offense as New Orleans.

"He played great," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "Almost 75 percent completion, over 400 yards, and he took care of the football. It can't get any better than that."

New number meaningful to Freeman

September, 5, 2014
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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons rookie running back Devonta Freeman was supposed to switch from jersey No. 33 to No. 24 the other day, but he appeared at practice earlier this week in the same No. 33 jersey.

Freeman
Then on Friday, Freeman made the switch to No. 24, as expected. He wanted to do it a while ago, but cornerback Jordan Mabin wore it until he was cut last Friday.

So what's the significance? There's actually a great story behind it. Freeman desired the jersey No. 24 to honor his late aunt, Tamekia N. Brown, who died of a heart attack at the age of 24 back in Freeman's hometown of Miami. Freeman was 14 years old at the time.

He has her name tattooed on his left arm.

"She meant so much to me," Freeman said. ``She was like the world to me. She was one of the younger aunties that I had, so we used to relate the most. We were real close. And she did my dreads before she passed away. She's just my favorite."

Freeman, who wore the No. 8 jersey in high school and in college at Florida State, wanted to wear the No. 24 jersey with the Seminoles. However, it was unavailable as teammate Terrance Smith, a linebacker from Atlanta, wore No. 24 in honor of his late father, former Clemson star "Touchdown Terry" Smith.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- When Ra'Shede Hageman was shown gasping for air during an episode of "Hard Knocks," the world knew the Atlanta Falcons rookie defensive lineman's conditioning wasn't where it needed to be.

Hageman might have been upset with defensive line coach Bryan Cox riding him about it at the time, but he has since come to the realization that he needed to lose weight. He said he has dropped 10 pounds since first coming to the Falcons, with at least five more pounds to shed.

Hageman
"You can never be all the way there because there's always room for improvement," Hageman said. "As of right now, I'm still doing extra conditioning by myself to get better. It was mutual between me and coach [Cox]. I feel like playing at this level, you have to have a healthier condition. It's just like me lifting after practice or studying film: It's just a way to get better. After practice, you're going to see me running because I'm trying to get ahead of the competition."

Hageman isn't expected to play a high number of snaps initially as the Falcons work him into the defensive line rotation. Regardless of playing time, his conditioning needs to be adequate, even for spurts.

"I came in at 320 [pounds] and I really wasn't moving as well as I wanted to," Hageman admitted. "Now, I'm at 310. And I probably want to be at 305. Then, I'm able to move a lot easier. That's the main reason they had me running when I came in here -- to get that weight off. Ultimately, in order to run faster and make plays, I have to play at a comfortable weight for myself."

Falcons coach Mike Smith lauded Hageman for showing some maturity.

"I think he's grown leaps and bounds since he got here," Smith said. "He's grown leaps and bounds since we first got an opportunity to work with him at the Senior Bowl. He's one of the strongest defensive linemen that I've been around, and I've said that before. He reminds me of Marcus Stroud and John Henderson. They could win the line of scrimmage and not only win the line of scrimmage, but shed and make plays. Ra'Shede is going to be a guy who helps us win a lot of games.

"He's going to have a much better understanding that preseason games are different than regular-season games. Everybody thinks they're ready for that first game, and their body's going to get stunned like it's never been stunned before. And that's just a learning process that everybody is going to go through. It doesn't matter if you're a rookie or 10-year vet; that Monday after the first Sunday game is always a tough one."

It will be interesting to see how the Falcons use the 6-foot-7-inch Hageman against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. Part of the key in the game could be what type of push the Falcons get up the middle in Drew Brees' face. When Hageman is at his best, he can provide such push while getting his hands up to obstruct the quarterback's view.

"Ra'Shede is a guy who in college, he blocked a lot of passes and field goals as well," Smith said. "And, yes, you want to push the pocket on any quarterback and get him uncomfortable. But you don't want to give Drew Brees any time. Their blocking schemes, sometimes when they want to take shots, they commit a lot of guys to the protection. And we've got to win when we get some one-one-one opportunities."
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Atlanta Falcons released their initial injury report of the season with just two names on the list: defensive tackle Corey Peters and safety Dez Southward.

Both had full participation coming off their respective injuries. Peters suffered an Achilles tear last December and didn't play this preseason, while Southward suffered a concussion during the preseason.

Coach Mike Smith said Peters' status for Sunday remains under consideration. Smith wanted to evaluate Peters' performance in Wednesday's padded practice first.

"I think Corey, just from my live eye, I thought that he did some good things," Smith said. "I want to get in there and really watch the tape this afternoon and really get an opportunity to speak with Corey. Corey took a number of snaps today. It was his first really true practice. So it will be interesting to see how he feels. But to the live eye, he looked good."

Running back Steven Jackson (hamstring), starting right guard Jon Asamoah (groin) and backup offensive lineman Gabe Carimi (ankle) did not appear on the injury report.

For the Saints, safety Marcus Bell (hamstring) and running back Erik Long (ankle) did not participate in practice. Wide receiver Kenny Stills (quad) was limited.
Former New Orleans Saints cornerback Jabari Greer is still keeping close tabs on the team, and he has agreed to join me on occasion this season to share his thoughts. I broke down Greer's first installment into two parts this week. Click here for his thoughts on the Saints' secondary.

Here are Greer's thoughts on Sunday's familiar opponent, the Atlanta Falcons, and their potent passing game:

[+] EnlargeJones & White
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesThe healthy tandem of Julio Jones and Roddy White is a test for any secondary.
On the Falcons: "Atlanta has a lot to prove. They have promise, and they're gonna be hungry after last year. And it's always a tough, tough game when you play the Atlanta Falcons. It usually comes down to the last possession. So I think emotionally it's going to be one of the toughest games the Saints play, because the Falcons aren't afraid of the Saints, and the Saints are definitely not afraid of the Falcons. With Atlanta's weapons coming back, Julio Jones and Roddy White being healthy, the Saints are gonna see a different receiver corps than they saw last year. This team is a pass-first team. They want to be able to create those open lanes to get Matt Ryan going. And then, when the opportunity comes, they want to be able to throw it over your head."

On White, a 10-year veteran: "He is growing as a NFL receiver, understanding that his speed is not what it was coming out of the University of Alabama-Birmingham. He's slowed just a step, but he has gotten much, much smarter with his zone recognition and with his route-running. He reminds me a lot of [former Saints receiver] Lance Moore, where every route he runs looks exactly the same. As a corner, if you don't have a good guess of the route he's going to run, every route on the route tree is an option. So with Roddy White, you have to be able to press, put your hands on him, disrupt his route. Then keep your eyes on his hips, being ready to break down on those intermediate routes, those 15-yard digs, the 20-yard comebacks, the 10-yard hitches. If you play off and play Roddy White's eyes, you are basically playing basketball on his court. That's exactly what he wants you to do. So you have to get into Roddy White's face and get your eyes on his hips. Then basically he becomes a less productive receiver."

On Jones: "This guy is the definition of explosive. Early in his career, he has relied a lot on his physical ability, and he has the physical tools to be dominant. It starts on the line, just like it does with Roddy. As strong and as powerful as he is, he has the ability to be disrupted at the line. Then as long as you can play on top and outside of Julio Jones, pinning him to the sideline on those deep balls, deep fades, you have a better chance of defending him than you would if you were playing off and trying to cushion him. I think what a lot of players try to do, they try to respect Julio Jones so much -- which he's due -- that they play off of him. And then once you play off of him, you're basically in a footrace with one of the fastest guys in the league. You don't want to do that. The best route-runner on the team is Roddy White, but if you give Julio Jones any space, he's gonna separate from you."

On whether Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis would likely be used to shadow Jones, rather than stay on one side of the field: "Oh, yeah, he would shadow Julio. Keenan, impressively, is one of the best-deep ball defenders in the league. That's one thing that really impressed me about Keenan Lewis. He defends the deep ball incredibly. So he would be the best option for Julio Jones."
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons veteran pass-rusher Osi Umenyiora has dropped his share of games against New Orleans Saints gunslinger Drew Brees.

Umenyiora
When Umenyiora first encountered Brees in 2005, his New York Giants lost to Brees' San Diego Chargers, 45-23. Then the next season, when Brees left San Diego for New Orleans, he guided the Saints to a 30-7 win against Umenyiora and the Giants.

In fact, Umenyiora lost his first four games against Brees and is 1-6 all-time against him, including 0-2 upon joining the Falcons last season.

"Basically every time I played him while I was with the Giants, they beat us pretty good," Umenyiora said. "You knew right away, this guy is serious. He ran the offenses tremendously.

"One time I beat him, in 2012 (52-27). I think we got up on them and really kicked their ass on offense and on special teams. You get him down, and it becomes difficult. But if they are able to be in the game and they have the option to run and pass, he's going to deal with you, man."

Brees is 13-3 against the Falcons since joining the Saints, and five of his 26-game winning drives with New Orleans have come against Atlanta. In those 16 previous games versus the Falcons as a Saint, Brees completed 412 of 615 passes for 4,913 yards with 33 touchdowns, 18 interceptions, and a passer rating of 96.9.

Brees
"Excellent quarterback; very accurate," Umenyiora said. "He knows what he wants to do before the snap of the ball. He's just a great player."

Umenyiora, now the team's designated pass-rusher, hopes to be part of the formula that knocks Brees off his game Sunday. If the Falcons can recreate what happened in 2012, when they forced Brees into five interceptions in a 23-13 win, then they'll be much better off. They only had one sack in that game, but it was a game-changing one by John Abraham late in the contest.

Maybe the sack numbers won't be there Sunday, but the Falcons have to generate pressure somehow. Umenyiora believes getting a push up the middle and getting pressure in Brees' face, because he's a shorter quarterback, will be a key factor.

"Obviously, they've got a very good scheme," Umenyiora said. "All you can do, pretty much, is see how much push you can get up the middle and have good consistent pressure. And that's the key to trying to disrupt some of the timing and some of the things they do."

Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan realizes how difficult it will be to pressure Brees. He was the league's top quarterback against the blitz last season while completing 66.5 percent of his passes against such pressure, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"Drew's a great quarterback; he's a Hall of Fame quarterback," Nolan said. "He's very good at recognizing the blitz. He's good at getting rid of the ball. He's good at avoiding the sack in the pocket. He's does a lot of things good that the great ones do. So we have our work cut out for us more than a typical week.

"He does have a knack for finding the lanes. I think that any good quarterback will tell you, they really do see through the lanes. They're not going to see over the top of a 6-5 guy. ...It does help to be a little taller to get the vision, but it hasn't seemed to affect Drew very much. He finds them. I think part of that is just knowing how every play is going to develop. He knows where a guy is going to be. He doesn't have to kind of look the field over to find the open guy."

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