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Preseason Power Rankings No. 14: Atlanta Falcons

Mike Smith AP

It looked like the Falcons had finally broken through.

But then last season when a few players were broken, some deeper cracks were revealed.

After turning consistent regular season success (56 wins from 2008-12) into their first playoff win under coach Mike Smith, the Falcons fell apart dramatically last year.

The injuries to star wideouts Julio Jones and Roddy White were the most evident, but the Falcons were also deeply flawed along both lines, and it began to show.

But this offseason, they have aggressively (how else) pursued a fix to the problems that doctors couldn’t work on.

They used the first hours of free agency to add heft to both lines, setting the stage for a shift to more of a 3-4 defense and the possibility of more of a run game.

Strengths.

Even with the retirement of tight end Tony Gonzalez, the Falcons ought to be able to score points with anyone.

Once Jones and White are back (they’re crossing their fingers on Jones being ready soon), Ryan should again be able to play pitch-and-catch with anyone in the league.

Fixing the offensive line will help, since it was the biggest problem last year other than injuries. They averaged a measly 77.9 rushing yards per game (last in the league) while allowing 44 sacks.

So the early spend on free agent guard Jon Asamoah and using their first-rounder on tackle Jake Matthews was an immediate upgrade for a line that needed toughness as much as bodies. They’ve installed those two on the right side, and hope that left tackle Sam Baker comes back a different player after knee surgery.

If nothing else, it should give running back Stephen Jackson a chance to look like himself again. The longtime Rams star saw his streak of eight straight 1,000-yard seasons snapped, and they brought in Devonta Freeman in the draft to add some between-the-tackles running depth (which they’ve lacked).

Weaknesses.

The Falcons haven’t completely escaped the injury bug, and suffered a huge blow when linebacker Sean Weatherspoon suffered a torn Achilles tendon in an offseason workout. That will push last year’s replacements and some rookies into more prominent roles.

Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu did yeoman’s work last year, and they’ll be pushed for playing time by a few rookies.

Fourth-rounder Prince Shembo looks like a player they can build around as well, but this is a group still in need of help, which might keep coming once cuts happen elsewhere.

Changes.

The problems with the linebacking corps could be helped by the fact some of their linemen might be standing up more often.

While the Falcons have been reluctant to talk about it, this offseason’s additions made it clear they’re looking at more of a 3-4 look.

Early free agency pickups Paul Soliai (a traditional nose tackle) and Tyson Jackson (a five-technique defensive end), are traditional 3-4 fits, and the price tags don’t indicate they were brought in to be role players.

They also drafted Ra’Shede Hageman in the second round with designs on using him at end, though they have a versatile group.

They brought back defensive tackles Corey Peters, Peria Jerry and Jonathan Babineaux this offseason, giving them some versatile options as coordinator Mike Nolan gets to play mix-and-match.

They needed to shake it up, as they couldn’t stop the run last year, next to last in the league at 135.8 yards per game allowed.

The changes will also be interesting as they pertain to veteran pass-rusher Osi Umenyiora, who had 7.5 sacks last year. They’ll give him a chance to do that again, but are casting a wide net for anyone to create pressure.

Camp Battles.

They’re still sorting out the center position, with Joe Hawley and Peter Konz competing there through the offseason.

Konz was given the first crack at replacing the retired Todd McClure a year ago, but it didn’t last the year, with Hawley taking over before the end of the year.

They appear inclined to give Konz, a former second-rounder, one more chance, though Hawley might have the edge.

The retirement of Gonzalez will change the way they line up, as there’s not a like-for-like replacement at the move tight end spot.

They’ll use veteran Bear Pascoe as a blocker, though they have hopes for second-year man Levine Toilolo as a red zone receving threat. But the reality is they’ll replace Gonalez’s production by committee.

Prospects.

The Falcons made the sort of moves teams make when they’re a bit desperate.

The free agency splash lasted about a day, and then they were forced to fine-tune with spare parts such as their trade for backup quarterback T.J. Yates (though return man Devin Hester may still have something left).

The Falcons are talented enough in the passing game to always have a chance, and the additions to both lines should help.

But with Weatherspoon’s injury and a revolving door in the middle of their defense and a division that only got better this offseason, it might be tough for them to reclaim their spot near the top of the NFC South.

It will be curious to see what that means for the future, as coach Mike Smith is entering his seventh season, with one playoff win to show for it.

That’s nearing the point when people start grumbling (he can ask his new division neighbor Lovie Smith about that), so it will be interesting to see if Smith’s seat ever gets warm over the course of the year.

They’ve done nothing but win games under his watch, but the lack of a big postseason payoff could make him less secure than he might initially appear.

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Broncos release John Boyett following arrest

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When safety John Boyett was a member of the Colts organization, the team didn’t wait long to release him after he was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct, public intoxication and resisting law enforcement.

Just as they once adopted Peyton Manning as their own, the Broncos have no adopted a page from the Colts’ playbook when it comes to dealing with Boyett in the wake of an arrest. The team announced Thursday that they have dropped Boyett from their practice squad after he was arrested early Wednesday morning.

The Denver Post reports that police say Boyett “drunkenly head-butted and punched a cab driver, stole a shovel from a construction site then tried to hide from officers by covering himself in mulch” before being arrested. Once arrested Boyett allegedly repeatedly slammed his head into a police car window while yelling and spitting and told officers to contact his boss John Elway.

That move appears to have backfired for Boyett as Elway and the rest of the team’s decision makers have opted to wipe their hands of a player who may not get a chance at a third strike in the NFL.

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A.J. Green sits out practice on Thursday

Andy Dalton, A.J. Green AP

The Bengals’ top receiver sat out yet another practice Thursday as he tries to come back from a toe injury.

Pro Bowler A.J. Green, who hasn’t played since the Bengals’ Oct. 5 loss at New England, did not participate in his second straight workout of the week. He has not practiced in 15 days, sitting out seven practices in a row for Cincinnati, which has lost twice and tied once after a 3-0 start. The Bengals host the Ravens on Sunday.

The 6-foot-4, 207-pound Green has caught 17 passes for 314 yards and two touchdowns this season. Were he to miss another game, Mohamed Sanu would be the Bengals’ top receiver, with Brandon Tate the other starter.

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Panthers hope DeAngelo Williams can return in Week Nine

Carolina Panthers v Baltimore Ravens Getty Images

It will be another week without running back DeAngelo Williams for the Panthers.

Coach Ron Rivera said Thursday that Williams is not sufficiently healed from his ankle injury to play against the Seahawks this Sunday. That will make four straight games on the sideline for Williams, who also missed two games earlier in the season.

Rivera also said that the team hoped Williams would be able to return for their Week Nine game against the Saints and intimated that the decision to hold him back was so that the team was sure he’s ready to return.

“We could put him out there and say, ‘Well, we were 95 percent close,’ and all a sudden something bad happens and now you’re back to 65 percent. DeAngelo is the same way. We’re being very smart with this, very calculated,” Rivera said, via ESPN.com.

On the banged-up offensive line, the Panthers expect left tackle Byron Bell and right tackle Nate Chandler to play but the outlook is less rosy for guards Trai Turner and Amini Silatolu.

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Vincent Jackson hears trade talk, but wants to stay in Tampa

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Because the trade deadline is coming up, and because the Buccaneers are in flux, and because Vincent Jackson is 31, it’s reasonable to think he’ll make phones ring.

But the veteran wide receiver said Thursday he wants to stay put, and fix things with the Bucs.

“In this business, those kind of things get talked about quite often. Each and every year, there’s going to be guys moved around to different teams,” Jackson said, via Greg Auman of the Tampa Bay Times. “I’m not surprised by it. Obviously I appreciate teams’ interest, but I’m happy here in Tampa. I’ve heard nothing here that would suggest I’m going anywhere. I’m going to let that pass on and keep doing my job.”

Jackson leads the team in receptions, and has value despite his contract (two years at $10 million each). But he said he wants to stay and continue to the building project coach Lovie Smith has begun.

“That’s exactly what I want to do here,” Jackson said. “Bringing Lovie (Smith) in and the staff that he’s brought, his mentality and his goals are aligned with mine and a lot of guys in this locker room. I hope for us to start the tradition here of winning football in Tampa Bay and to stay in this uniform and this jersey and help bring that here.”

Now the only question is whether the Bucs think Jackson could be a bigger part of that than whatever pick they’d get in return.

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Russell Wilson: Percy Harvin and I had no differences, media blew it up

Russell Wilson, Percy Harvin AP

Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson denies that he and Percy Harvin had a rift.

Wilson said that Harvin, who was traded from the Seahawks to the Jets last week, is a lot like him. And Wilson said he thinks reporters were trying to make a big deal out of Harvin supposedly clashing with teammates.

“Percy and I never had differences,” Wilson said. “He’s a guy that, you know, we had a lot of similarities, probably, if anything. You know, guys that want to compete at the highest level, want to win every single time you step on the field. Want the ball in our hands, to make the big play and everything. So I’m not sure why the media tries to blow everything out of proportion, it’s part of it, I guess. You have to deal with it. But you also ignore it, too. Like I always tell you guys, ignore the noise. You know, Percy’s a Virginia guy and I wish nothing but the best for him.”

Wilson may claim this is a media creation, but that’s awfully hard to believe, given all the stories that have come out of Seattle in the six days since Harvin was traded. There’s just too much smoke to believe there isn’t any fire.

But Wilson has a well-crafted image as a good guy, and he’s saying all the right things to preserve that image.

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Whisenhunt says he’s going with Mettenberger and sticking with him

whisenhuntmettenberger AP

Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt says Zach Mettenberger is his starting quarterback, and that’s not about to change.

“We’re going with Zach and we’re going to stay with Zach,” Whisenhunt said today.

The injury-prone Jake Locker, who has missed three of the last four games, is expected to be healthy enough to play on Sunday against the Texans but has been demoted to second string. Charlie Whitehurst, who has started the games Locker missed, is now No. 3 on the depth chart.

For the Titans, it really only makes sense to go with Mettenberger. This team is 2-5 and going nowhere with either Locker or Whitehurst. They might find out that Mettenberger is the quarterback of the future. Or they might find out that Mettenberger simply isn’t good enough — which they’d rather find out now so they can find another quarterback in the offseason.

Whisenhunt has a history of struggling to make the right decision at the quarterback position, most notably during his tenure as head coach of the Cardinals when he took far too long to realize that Kurt Warner was a better player than Matt Leinart. But this feels like the right decision for the Titans. Mettenberger might turn out not be the answer, but Locker and Whitehurst definitely aren’t.

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Norv Turner: Teddy Bridgewater “a work in progress”

Minnesota Vikings v Buffalo Bills Getty Images

It’s just a few starts into his NFL career, but Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater already reminds offensive coordinator Norv Turner of one of the most accomplished quarterbacks he’s every coached.

Unfortunately for Bridgewater, he reminded Turner of Troy Aikman on an interception. Turner said that Bridgewater’s second interception against Buffalo last week reminded him of one Aikman threw to Cris Dishman of the Oilers during his rookie season with the Cowboys. The story helped underscore Turner’s point that Bridgewater is “a work in progress” that will do things that make you smile and make you scream over the course of a game.

One thing that Turner has liked is the way that Bridgewater dealt with the Buffalo pass rush.

“He’s had a lot of pressure, and I think he’s been unbelievable,” Turner said, via the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “I get nervous in terms of the hits outside the pocket. Those are the ones where you get thrown to the ground and banged around pretty good. He’s got good sense in the pocket. He’s getting better at getting the ball out, and he threw the ball away a couple of times on Sunday when there was nowhere to throw it; whereas against Detroit on those plays, he took sacks.”

Given the play of the Vikings line this season, that’s a good skill for Bridgewater to have. The Vikings will have to hope that buys him enough time to work on a few of the other ones he’ll need to succeed in the NFL.

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Cowboys keep talking about giving DeMarco Murray fewer touches

Murray AP

Before this season, the Cowboys talked a lot about running the ball more.  But they never really did.

This year, the Cowboys finally are running the ball more.  So much more than running back DeMarco Murray is on pace to run the ball more times than anyone ever has in a single season.

As a result, the Cowboys are now talking about giving the ball to Murray less.  But they’re not doing it.

“Well there’s no doubt we look at it and there’s no doubt we’d like to get that cut back,” COO Stephen Jones told Adam Schein of SiriusXM Mad Dog Radio on Thursday.  “We’ve got to get our hands around having the ball 30 minutes versus having the ball 33, 34, 35, in some cases 36 minutes, even though you are giving Joe Randle and [Lance] Dunbar some carries when you keep the ball that long.  We need to even do it a little more.

“But we’re certainly aware of it.  We certainly know that when you touch the ball that many times you are exposing DeMarco to a difficult hit or something like that.  So we’re aware of it.  We want to do better in terms of reducing his touches.  Not by a ton but you’d like to see him get it less than 30 times a game.  Between his receiving and running I think he’s in the 35-36 range.  So we would like to get that down.”

Technically, Murray’s workload currently is under 30 touches per games; he’s a 29.8.  Still, he had only 17 per game for his career before 2014, and he never stayed healthy with that more limited workload.

So maybe the goal should be to get Murray under 25 touches per game.  If they don’t, it’s just a matter of time before Murray won’t be able to manage one touch for one or more consecutive games.

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Gerald McCoy: Bucs defense is “soft,” makes too many excuses

Baltimore Ravens v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Getty Images

Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy looks at the Buccaneers defense from a different vantage point from outside observers but he’s reached the same conclusion.

It’s not a good unit. The Bucs are allowing more yards per game than any team in the league and McCoy has diagnosed them as being too soft to stop opposing offenses.

“Yeah. I mean if you look out there on tape and you see a bunch of guys sitting on blocks, are you not earning the title of being soft?” McCoy said, via ESPN.com. “I mean, guys get so sensitive around the league, but we have to be men. This is a man’s league. This is a man’s league and we’re professionals. Guys have issues with criticism. I’ve been getting criticized since I’ve been in the NFL, and I don’t even feel it anymore. It is what it is.”

According to McCoy, part of the softness extends to the team making too many excuses for their shortcomings rather than just saying that they got beat and that they’ll win the next one. McCoy also acknowledged that talking about the issues hurting the team isn’t going to make a difference on the field because that talking has been going on since he got to Tampa.

“But it’s enough talking. We have to start playing, simple as that. The talking is not going to get it anymore,” McCoy said. “I’ve been hearing talking and speeches for five years. It’s time to start seeing action, simple as that.”

The words are strong, but McCoy’s probably right about the limitations of its impact. The limitations of the players and the scheme are likely to keep winning out until there are fewer of them holding the Buccaneers back.

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Talk persists of an NFL team moving to London

Osborne Getty Images

If one or two NFL teams move to Los Angeles, the NFL will need a new potential destination to which an owner can threaten to move his franchise if/when efforts to finance a new stadium with public money fail.

Playing the role of Los Angeles once the NFL returns there could be London.

Despite many logistical issues that would seem to make it ultimately impractical, talk persists of a team moving to London.  According to the London Evening Standard, Chancellor George Osborne says he has pledged full backing of the British government to a potential franchise move.

“This is primarily a decision for the owners of the clubs and the NFL organisation but I’ve said to the NFL that anything the Government can do to make this happen we will do, because I think it would be a huge boost to London,” Osborne said.  “We could have not just the Star Spangled Banner at the beginning of NFL games but also God Save The Queen.”

So when could it happen?

“I think that there’s a chance in the next few years to get an NFL team for London,” Osborne said.  “There are 32 teams in America — and one of them could be a London team.  That’s a serious prospect.”

“We warmly welcome the Chancellor’s strong support for the possibility of an NFL team in London and look forward to welcoming him to a game at Wembley over the next few weeks,” the league said in response to Osborne’s remarks.  “Our key priority is to continue to build our fan base in the UK so that there is strong demand for any future plans in London.  We will do this by ensuring that we are able to offer top class action on the field and brilliant events — which include the fan rally at Trafalgar Square on Saturday — off it.  We are looking forward to two exciting upcoming games in London and are committed to further strengthening the links between the NFL and our UK fans.”

The NFL began its London series in 2007, with one game per year.  Last year, the NFL increased to two.  This year, the total inventory has increased to three.

An alternative to moving a team to London continues to be playing up to eight games per year there, each involving different teams.  The primary challenge to that approach comes from persuading enough teams to give up periodic home games.  Recently, the NFL moved a step in that direction by requiring all Super Bowl host teams to give up a home game to London.

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Buccaneers sign linebacker Orie Lemon away from Chiefs

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The Bucs filled an unexpected roster spot Thursday, finding another defensive player to take the spot created by Da’Quan Bowers‘ two-week PED suspension.

The team announced they had signed linebacker Orie Lemon off the Chiefs practice squad.

Lemon has bounced around, doing two stints each with the Cowboys and Chiefs, along with going to camp with the Cardinals last summer.

The former Oklahoma State standout was waived/injured by the Cowboys this year, prior to hooking up with the Chiefs again.

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Calvin Johnson ramping up his practice work in London

Britain Lions Football AP

The Lions might not have Reggie Bush available Sunday morning in London, but it’s looking like there’s at least a chance that Calvin Johnson will be back on the field.

According to Tim Twentyman of the team’s official website, Johnson did more in practice Thursday than he has recently, planting and cutting on his high right ankle sprain.

Lions coach Jim Caldwell still sounded cautious, but the trend is good after he was limited Wednesday.

“The big thing is, typically when they ramp up their activity that way, the most important thing is what they feel like the following day,” Caldwell said.

“And today he came back feeling good, so that’s encouraging. We knew he was coming along and to have him have an opportunity to take part in a little bit of practice [Wednesday] was good. As they see it, they’ll ramp him up a little bit more today and see how he looks tomorrow. We’ll go from there.”
Johnson said things were “moving in a positive direction,” but he’ll probably still be a game-time decision Sunday.

“Like I said, it gets better and better, like right now it’s getting better on a daily basis,” Johnson said. “As long as we can keep up with that progression, we’ll see.

“We haven’t pushed it too much, we don’t want to get to that point where we get a setback. Like I said, it’s getting better and better. I want to push it, but we are just trying to be smart about it. I’m trying to take good advice from our training staff that they’re giving me and go with that.”

Caution is wise with guys coming off injury, and the temptation to give him another week is reasonable, given this week’s opponent.

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Ultimately, De Smith may decide to question Goodell

Executive director of the NFL Players Association Smith and NFL Commissioner Goodell speak outside the NFL Players Association Headquarters in Washington Reuters

We know that Commissioner Roger Goodell will testify in the Ray Rice appeal hearing.  We still don’t know with certainty who will ask the questions.

One source with knowledge of the situation says it will be NFLPA outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler.  Another source says Rice’s lawyer, Peter Ginsberg, also will pose questions to Goodell.

And now comes the curve ball.  Yet another source tells PFT that NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith has not yet ruled out handling the questioning himself.

Smith, a practicing lawyer before becoming the NFLPA executive director, routinely adds his own name to the roster of lawyers handling a given case.  It allows Smith to directly participate as an advocate, if he so chooses.

Given the broader relationship between Smith and Goodell, it probably makes sense for Smith to defer to Kessler or Ginsberg.  Either would be capable of asking the right questions without undermining the ability of Smith and Goodell to work productively and cooperatively in the future.

If Smith decides to question Goodell, it would represent a belated turning of the tables, sort of.  In 1981, Paul Tagliabue cross examined NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw in the Raiders’ lawsuit against the NFL, nine years before Tagliabue became the NFL’s Commissioner.

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Taylor Lewan not set for trial after all

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Titans offensive tackle Taylor Lewan will not have to spend his bye week on trial after all.

Lewan, the Titans’ first-round draft pick this year, had a trial on an assault charge scheduled for next week. But Lewan’s lawyer said today that the trial is off. Lewan apparently reached some type of settlement with the two people who accused him of assault, and they no longer wish to pursue criminal charges.

“We asked the judge to cancel next week’s trial with anticipation of putting that resolution on the record a week from today. That’s where things stand as of today,” attorney John Shea said, via the Tennessean. “Still some final steps being taken, but the parties anticipate the case will officially and on the record be resolved a week from today.”

Lewan has played in all seven games this season and started the last two. The alleged assault took place last year, before Lewan was an NFL player, and is not expected to result in a suspension.

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Reggie Wayne misses practice for second straight day

Reggie Wayne AP

When the Colts held wide receiver Reggie Wayne out of practice on Wednesday, it was difficult to know how much of a role his injured elbow played in their decision.

Wayne typically gets a veteran’s rest day on Wednesday and both he and coach Chuck Pagano downplayed the significance of the injury after he sat out the session. Still, the team was concerned enough to send Wayne for an MRI early on the week and even a relatively insignificant injury can be enough to keep a player out for one week.

The possibility of that outcome seems a bit likelier now that Wayne has missed practice on Thursday as well. Tom James of the Terre Haute Tribune-Star reports that Wayne watched his teammates go through practice from the field and that he didn’t have a wrap or anything other than a compression sleeve on the injured elbow.

If Wayne doesn’t play, it could mean an expanded role for Hakeem Nicks. Nicks signed as a free agent in the offseason after a disappointing year with the Giants in 2013 and has 17 catches for 141 yards and two touchdowns so far this season.

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