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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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Joe Mays to have surgery on injured wrist

Chiefs Training Camp AP

The Kansas City Chiefs will have to get by without the services of linebacker Joe Mays for the immediate future.

According to Dave Skretta of the Associated Press, Mays is set to have surgery on a wrist injury suffered last week against the Carolina Panthers.

Mays was penciled in as the second starting inside linebacker for Kansas City alongside Derrick Johnson. He is expected to have surgery later this week. Though no timetable is given for Mays’ expected return, the Chiefs will have to move forward without Mays for the time being.

Mays appeared in 14 games, making 13 starts, for the Houston Texans last season. He compiled 67 tackles, a sack and three passes defended on the season. The injury likely means linebackers James Michael-Johnson and Josh Mauga will be called upon to fill the void in the meantime.

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49ers replacing turf at Levi’s Stadium

Denver Broncos v San Francisco 49ers Getty Images

After being forced to move practice out of Levi’s Stadium due to poor turf conditions on Wednesday, the San Francisco 49ers have decided to replace the playing surface altogether ahead of Sunday’s preseason game with the San Diego Chargers.

The 49ers cut short a public practice open to fans at their brand new stadium on Wednesday after several players continued to slip on the loose surface.

According to Janie McCauley of the Associated Press, the 49ers are working to re-sod the surface ahead of Sunday’s game.

“The 49ers organization would like to apologize to any fans who were inconvenienced by today’s practice ending early,” the team said Wednesday. “We have determined the appropriate measures necessary to have the field ready for Sunday and look forward to hosting the San Diego Chargers.”

It’s not unusual for stadiums with grass fields to need their field replaced during a season. It is unusual for it to happen after one game in the middle of August.

It appears as those some of the grass at the stadium just didn’t take hold to the ground strongly enough to provide a stable surface. After Sunday’s game against San Diego, the 49ers do not play at home again until Sept. 14. It could give the stadium a couple extra weeks for the new sod to take hold and provide a safe surface for the players.

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Le’Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount play into fourth quarter vs. Eagles

Pittsburgh Steelers v Philadelphia Eagles Getty Images

On the same day they were cited for marijuana possession, Steelers tailbacks Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount both played into the fourth quarter of Pittsburgh’s 31-21 preseason loss at Philadelphia.

Bell (nine rushes, 23 yards) and Blount (seven rushes, 32 yards) were the only Steelers tailbacks to carry the ball against the Eagles.

Afterwards, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin shed some light on why Bell and Blount played.

“From my perspective, in terms of their participation tonight, I didn’t view it as punishment to send them home to be quite honest with you, to not play in this preseason game. I would rather them play more than anticipated than to remove them from the game,” Tomlin said, according to a transcript of his remarks from the club. “That’s why we took the stance that we took tonight.”

Tomlin called the Bell and Blount incident “conduct  . . . detrimental to our efforts. They’ll be dealt with appropriately.”

However, Tomlin said the club’s lackluster play Thursday night wasn’t related to the backs’ legal issues.

“We are not going to make any excuse for that performance. We are going to own that. What happened yesterday had nothing to do with how we performed tonight,” Tomlin said.

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Justin Britt looks set to win Seahawks starting right tackle job

San Diego Chargers v Seattle Seahawks Getty Images

The Seattle Seahawks hoped Justin Britt would develop into their starting right tackle when they selected him in the second round of the draft out of the University of Missouri in May.

Turns out he may ascend to the starting role even earlier than anticipated.

Britt appears set to win the job over veteran tackle Eric Winston to replace departed starter Breno Giacomini. After an up and down preseason debut against the Denver Broncos, Britt fared much better against the San Diego Chargers last week. Seattle’s coaching staff has been pleased with Britt’s progress throughout the preseason and signs are pointing toward him starting the season opener against the Green Bay Packers on Sept. 4.

“His progress has been really solid,” head coach Pete Carroll said Thursday. “He’s making great strides to be a legitimate starter. I’ve said before it’s all in his makeup that really kind of substantiates that he’s able to do this and handle this so it’s gone great so far”

The right tackle job has been one of few truly open competitions for starting roles on the Seahawks this offseason.

Britt was initially expected to be in competition for the job with second-year player Michael Bowie.

Bowie stated eight games as a rookie for Seattle with seven starts coming at right tackle. However, Bowie showed up to training camp 20 pounds overweight, according to Carroll. He then suffered a shoulder injury that would require surgery and was waived/injured by Seattle before being claimed by the Cleveland Browns.

Once Bowie injured his shoulder, the Seahawks signed Winston to a one-year deal to compete with Britt for the job. Up until this point, Britt has predominantly worked with the first-team offense for the entirety of training camp. If he’s able to put together another strong performance against the Chicago Bears on Friday night, the starting job will certainly be his for the taking.

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Steelers’ starters struggle in tune-up at Philadelphia

Pittsburgh Steelers v Philadelphia Eagles Getty Images

Last season, the Steelers were compromised by an 0-4 start.

And with the regular season a little more than two weeks away, it’s clear the 2014 Steelers have some things to clean up before the gates open.

In Thursday night’s 31-21 loss at Philadelphia, the Steelers surrendered 482 yards. Eagles star tailback LeSean McCoy riddled the Steelers for 50 yards on six touches in the first quarter, and Philadelphia quarterbacks combined to complete 31-of-43 attempts for 309 yards for the game.

The Steelers’ first-team offense didn’t manage a single point until about four minutes left in the third quarter, when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw a 27-yard TD pass to tight end Heath Miller. By then, though, the Eagles’ defense was playing backups.

With Roethlisberger still a blue-chip quarterback, the Steelers’ offense should be a strength this season. And on their best, the Steelers are quite capable of garnering their first playoff spot since 2011.

But Thursday’s loss had to be an uncomfortable one for Pittsburgh. Yes, the game didn’t count, but here was an elite offense making Pittsburgh look . . . well, pedestrian. Maybe it’s nothing. But even if it’s nothing, it was a cringeworthy nothing.

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Jason Worilds leaves with knee injury

Jason Worilds AP

Steelers outside linebacker Jason Worilds has been ruled out for the remainder of Thursday’s preseason game at Philadelphia with a right knee injury, the club said.

Worilds was credited with a sack of Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez early in the third quarter, but the play was nullified by a penalty. On the next play, Worilds appeared to be no longer in the game, and the Eagles scored a touchdown. The Steelers then ruled him out the rest of the way.

The 26-year-old Worilds had a breakout 2013 season, recording a career-high eight sacks. He’s playing under the one-year transition tender.

The Steelers have not played well in their third exhibition game of the summer, and starters have played well into the third quarer on both sides of the ball.

UPDATE 9:56 p.m. ET: Ken Laird of TribLive Radio in Pittsburgh reports Worilds was icing his knee.

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X-rays negative on LeSean McCoy’s thumb

McCoy AP

A sprain, not a break.

That’s the word on tailback LeSean McCoy’s right thumb.

According to the Eagles, X-rays on McCoy’s thumb came back negative, and he has been ruled out of the rest of Thursday’s exhibition against Pittsburgh.

Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer reports the injury is a sprain.

McCoy racked up 24 yards rushing on just four carries and caught a 22-yard TD pass in the first quarter before departing to get his thumb examined. He does not figure to play much, if at all, in the team’s final preseason game next Thursday.

The Eagles begin the regular season on Sunday, September 7 vs. Jacksonville.

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After scary moment, Jeremy Maclin returns to game

Jeremy Maclin AP

In what looks to be a good turn of luck for a player who’s coming back from a right knee injury that sidelined him last season, Eagles wide receiver Jeremy Maclin stayed in Thursday’s exhibition vs. Pittsburgh after momentarily looking to have injured the leg again.

With about 10 minutes left in the second quarter, Maclin went down trying to make a sharp cut, and he grabbed his knee as he lay on the ground. However, Maclin reportedly was able to get up and walk off the field, and he was then seen walking on the sideline.

Then — happily — Maclin was back on the field on the Eagles’ next series. And he even started the drive with a nine-yard catch. In the end, it appeared to be just a brief scare for Maclin, one of the club’s key passing game players.

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Adrian Peterson misses a pair of practices

Peterson AP

The Vikings don’t plan to use running back Adrian Peterson much, if at all, during the preseason.  For the past two days, they haven’t used him at all during practice.

According to Matt Vensel of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Peterson has missed practice the last two days due to an undisclosed personal matter.  He is expected to travel to Kansas City with the Vikings for the team’s third preseason game of 2014.

Peterson hasn’t touched the football during the preseason since 2011, when he had 14 carries for 81 yards during the third preseason game, against the Cowboys.

This year, the Vikings have their first new offense since 2011.  It could take some time for Peterson to get comfortable in the attack, given the absence of preseason reps.

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LeSean McCoy returns to sideline after having right thumb X-rayed

LeSean McCoy AP

Eagles tailback LeSean McCoy left the club’s sideline in the first quarter of Thursday’s exhibition vs. Pittsburgh to get X-rays on his right thumb, the club’s official Twitter feed said.

The club said McCoy’s return was “unknown.” He was not on the field when the Eagles got the ball back late in the first quarter.

Before going inside to get checked out, McCoy showed no ill-effects from a toe injury that’s bothered him, racking up 50 yards on six touches. On his final play before departing, McCoy turned a short reception into a 22-yard TD.

Now, the focus turns to whether he’s suffered a hand injury. Perhaps of note: he was able to palm the ball with his right hand as he celebrated in the endzone right after the touchdown.

UPDATE 8:25 p.m. ET: Here’s some promising news for Eagles fans: Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer reports McCoy is having his hand taped on the Eagles’ sideline. And according to Jeff Darlington of NFL Media, McCoy still is wearing his pads.

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Le’Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount both see action early for Steelers

Pittsburgh Steelers v Philadelphia Eagles Getty Images

As expected, the Steelers didn’t bench Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount for Thursday’s exhibition at Philadelphia after both were cited for marijuana possession.

In fact, Bell started and Blount played on the Steelers’ first drive. And it was an especially eventful drive for Bell, who rushed three times for 11 yards while dishing out and taking a good deal of punishment. While he showed excellent power finishing out a seven-yard run, he later took a hit to the head/neck area from Eagles linebacker DeMeco Ryans on a passing play.

Ryans was penalized on the play, and Bell left for one snap, giving way to Blount, who rushed for five yards on his first carry. However, Bell then re-entered the contest. The Steelers’ drive would end in a punt.

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Griffin stands by his “doubters” tweet

Griffin AP

Some folks conjure imaginary friends.  Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III has crafted some imaginary enemies.  On Wednesday, he chastised his unidentified — and possibly non-existent — “doubters” via Twitter.  On Thursday, Griffin dug in even deeper.

“As far as I’m concerned, I said what I needed to say,” Griffin said Thursday, via the Associated Press.  “It is what I believe, and what our household deems necessary to go out every day and be successful.”

Griffin added that he’ll continue to periodically communicate through Twitter, reasoning that his followers follow him for a reason.

“There are 1.1 million people on Twitter that want to hear what [I] have to say,” Griffin said, going scoreboard on his seven-figure collection of Twitter users who receive any and all of his tweets and retweets.  “And it’s not that we tweet all the time, but anytime we tweet something it gets blown up, but it is what it is.”

If Griffin has concocted a narrative that many doubt him in order to provide extra motivation for himself and his teammates, that’s fine.  The perception that he’s thin-skinned, however, will serve as chum in the Internet shark tank, inviting plenty of real doubt, hate, and vitriol to replace the exaggerated and/or fabricated collection of criticism that prompted his tweet.

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Chris Polk out for Eagles on Thursday night; Lance Moore expected to sit for Steelers

Chris Polk AP

The Eagles and Steelers will be several players short on Thursday night in Philadelphia.

Eagles cornerback Brandon Boykin (hamstring), wide receiver Josh Huff (shoulder), linebacker Jake Knott (hamstring), tailback Chris Polk (hamstring), wide receiver Brad Smith (hamstring) and center Julian Vandervelde (back) will not play, the club’s website reported.

Polk, a second-year pro from Washington, is in a competition for a roster spot in a crowded RB corps.

The Steelers have announced the following players are not expected to play: wide receiver Lance Moore (undisclosed), tight end Eric Waters (concussion), center/offensive guard Cody Wallace (finger), long-snapper Greg Warren (knee), safety Will Allen (hamstring), running back Tauren Poole (hamstring), fullback Will Johnson (hamstring), wide receiver Shaquille Richardson (knee), linebacker Jordan Zumwalt (undisclosed).

UPDATE 6:51 p.m. ET: According to Zach Berman of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Eagles cornerback Cary Williams will also miss tonight’s game.

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Marrone mad after Bills brawl at practice for second straight day

Marrone Getty Images

Bills coach Doug Marrone said after fights broke out at Wednesday’s that he didn’t want to see that anymore. Apparently his players weren’t listening.

More fights broke out at today’s practice, and Marrone was not pleased. Marrone yelled at players for getting into it, and when defensive end Jerry Hughes said something back to his coach, Marrone went off, spewing profanity at Hughes and asking, “Do you want to play on this team?

Marrone also told Hughes, “If you’ve got a problem with me, you need to come and tell me.” The two talked after practice, and Marrone later said Hughes wasn’t the only one he was disappointed with.

“That’s directed at anyone who doesn’t want to be part of the team,” Marrone said. “I told Jerry that I love the way he practices and I love the way he plays special teams and how he goes about it. And we’ve got to get some other guys who are starters to do that.”

Some coaches believe that fights at training camp can be a good sign of a tough team, but Marrone doesn’t see it that way.

“I’m going to say it again, and I’m not going to answer another question on it: We’re responsible for the integrity of the game,” Marrone said, via ESPN. “Can you figure it out? Figure it out. We’re responsible for the integrity of the game. There is no use for fighting in the game of football. Period. End of discussion. Move on.”

Marrone sounds ready to move on from a fight-filled training camp, which concluded with today’s practice.

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Derek Carr won’t play this week

Derek Carr, George Johnson, Andre Fluellen AP

Raiders quarterback Derek Carr made a quick return to practice after suffering a concussion and rib injury during last weekend’s game against the Lions, but he hasn’t recovered enough for the team to play him against the Packers.

Steve Wyche of NFL Media reports that coach Dennis Allen said that Carr won’t play on Friday night because his bruised ribs are still sore. Allen added that Carr has been cleared after his concussion.

The injury likely eliminates what little chance Carr had of starting for the Raiders when they face the Jets in Week One. Barring an injury of his own, you can put Matt Schaub’s name into the lineup for that game.

His performance there and in the following weeks will determine how long it is before Carr gets his chance to lead the Raiders offense. If Schaub looks anything like he did with the Texans last season, it probably won’t be long.

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