Strategy And Personnel

The Sports Xchange

September 05, 2018 at 1:08 am.

GAME PLAN: The Atlanta offense will have all its pieces in place and must hit the ground running. They need to establish the running game with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman and allow quarterback Matt Ryan to get in synch with his receivers. The first-team offense looked great when it played against Kansas City, but struggled against Jacksonville (albeit both times without Freeman and Jones).

The defense will repeat the same aggressive nature it took in the playoffs when it held the Eagles to 15 points. However, the defense must find a way to get Philly off the field faster. They allowed the Eagles to convert 6 of 13 third-down opportunities and allowed them to have three possessions of 5:42 or longer and three drives that lasted 12 or more plays.

–Falcons RB Devonta Freeman vs. Eagles DT Fletcher Cox. Freeman was stuffed by the Eagles’ defense last time. He carried 10 times for 7 yards, with a long gain of 3 yards. The biggest obstacle was the 310-pound Cox, an All-Pro who was able to shed blockers and bring down Freeman on four of the runs. Cox was a thorn for the Falcons all day; he had seven tackles, two tackles for loss and two hurries.

–Falcons LB Takk McKinley vs. Eagles QB Nick Foles. McKinley was the only player to sack Foles in the NFC playoff game last season. The Falcons had only four hurries that game, too. Atlanta must find a way to get to Foles and knock him out of rhythm. Otherwise he will pick them apart and keep the chains moving like he did a year ago.

–Falcons WR Julio Jones vs. Eagles CB Ronald Darby (plus a helper). Jones didn’t play a snap during the preseason so he enters the first game in showroom condition. Jones had nine catches on 16 targets against the Eagles in the NFC playoff game, but most of them were short throws and he failed to get in the end zone.


QUARTERBACKS: Starter — Matt Ryan. Backup — Matt Schaub.

Ryan, entering his 11th season, remains one of the elite players at his position. But his numbers last year (4,095 yards, 20 touchdowns) were a big drop from his 2016 MVP season (4,944 yards, 38 TDs) and his interceptions almost doubled, from seven to 12. He remains sturdy, dependable and unflappable.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter — Devonta Freeman, FB Ricky Ortiz. Backups — Tevin Coleman, Ito Smith.

Freeman, a two-time Pro Bowl pick, missed two games in 2017 and failed to rush for 1,000 yards (865) after doing it in consecutive seasons. Freeman is also a dangerous receiver, although that category was also down in 2017. Coleman ran for a career-high 628 yards last season and improved as a receiver. Keep an eye on how the team uses fourth-round draft choice Ito Smith, who struggled at times during camp. Ortiz fought off a handful of contenders to earn the starting fullback spot by his tenacity in defending Ryan.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Austin Hooper. Backups — Logan Paulsen, Eric Saubert.

Hooper had a great camp and proved he can be Ryan’s dependable alternative target. He had 49 receptions in 2017, more than doubling his rookie total of 19. Saubert has excellent speed for a big guy and took big strides in camp, and Paulsen remains a solid blocker.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu. Backups — Calvin Ridley, Russell Gage, Justin Hardy, Marvin Hall.

Jones made news when camp opened because he decided to hold out for more money. The two sides reconfigured the deal and Jones showed up on time. He just didn’t play. The team contends he doesn’t need preseason snaps because he practices with great intensity. The five-time Pro Bowl pick caught 88 passes for 1,444 yards in 2017, but Jones scored only three touchdowns. Sanu is a solid, dependable receiver who caught a career-best 67 passes in 2017. Ridley gives the offense an additional burner who could benefit from the double-coverage that Jones will receive.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LT Jake Matthews, LG Andy Levitre, C Alex Mack, RG Brandon Fusco, RT Ryan Schraeder. Backups — T Ty Sambrailo, G Ben Garland, G Wes Schweitzer, G Matt Gono.

The only competition of the preseason was at right guard, where Fusco won the battle against incumbent Schweitzer. Fusco signed a three-year deal with Atlanta, but Schweitzer (a sixth-round pick in 2016) put up quite a fight. The result: more depth in an area that always needs it. Mack remains the most important part of the unit and has stabilized the line since he signed as a free agent in 2016.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — DE Vic Beasley Jr., DT Terrell McClain, DT Grady Jarrett, DE Takk McKinley. Backups — DE Derrick Shelby, DE Brooks Reid, DT Deadrin Senat, DT Jack Crawford, DT Justin Zimmer.

This group needs to do a better job getting after the quarterback and slowing the run. They had only 39 sacks in 2017 (No. 14 in the league) and gave up 1,665 rushing yards (24th most). Adrian Clayborn (now with the Patriots) led the team with 9.5 sacks, leaving McKinley (six sacks) as the top sacker returning from 2017. The team is hoping for a return to form by Beasley, who dropped from 15.5 sacks in 2016 to five last season. Jarrett is extremely quick for a big man and looks to build on his disruptive 2017 season (four sacks, 15 tackles for loss). Jarrett is the team’s one big unsigned player who is waiting to get paid.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — OLB Duke Riley, MLB Deion Jones, OLB De’Vondre Campbell. Backups – Foyesade Oluokun, Kemal Ishmael, Dewey Jarvis.

Jones was limited because of a muscle strain during camp and the team definitely missed his presence. Jones plays with great effort all the time, covers a lot of ground and is a good tackler. Campbell continues to be more than adequate, and Riley took positive steps in camp after an unsteady rookie season. Oluokun, a sixth-round pick out of Yale, has been a pleasant surprise with his speed and aggressive play.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — CB Robert Alford, CB Desmond Trufant, SS Ricardo Allen, FS Keanu Neal. Backups — CB Isaiah Oliver, CB Brian Poole, CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson, CB Justin Bethel, S Damontae Kazee, S Jordan Richards, CB Deante Burton.

This may be the strength of the defense, with veterans at all positions. Neal, perhaps the team’s hardest hitter, was second in tackles last year and leads the aggressive group of defenders. Allen signed an extension for big money, and Trufant is the team’s lock-down corner. Alford has improved incrementally, although he is prone to draw penalties as he is normally the guy who gets tested. Kazee was the surprise of the preseason; the second-year player studied hard with Allen and showed the ability make plays.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Matt Bryant, P Matt Bosher, KR/PR Justin Hardy, LS Josh Harris.

Bryant, 43, missed some time in camp with an undisclosed injury, but was back for the third preseason game and showed no ill effects. He made 34 of 39 field goals in 2017 and was 8 of 9 on kicks of 50 yards or more. Bryant is beginning his 10th season with Atlanta. Bosher remains very consistent; he averaged 44.9 yards in 2017, right at his career average of 45.0.

PRACTICE SQUAD: QB Kurt Benkert, T Daniel Brunskill, TE Jaeden Graham, TE Alex Gray (international exemption), WR Devin Gray, C J.C. Hassenauer, RB Brian Hill, S Ryan Neal, LS Jeff Overbaugh, DT Jacob Tuioti-Mariner.