Team Notes week 21 2016
NEWS, NOTES, RUMORS AND OTHER GOOD STUFFDirectly from the desk of FlashUpdate Editor Bob Harris. The good; the bad; and yes. ... Even the Bears. There is no better way to jump start your weekend than browsing these always educational -- often irreverent -- team-by-team, Fantasy-specific offerings. ...
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Atlanta FalconsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 31 January 2017
As the Associated Press sports writer Paul Newberry suggested last week, "Dan Quinn certainly knows who the Atlanta Falcons are playing in the Super Bowl.
"It seems as if Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots are there every year. ..."
One day after reaching the big game for only the second time in franchise history, Quinn and his players were back at their training complex in Atlanta's northern suburbs, rehashing the blowout of Green Bay before turning their attention to the team they'll play next.
"Going to the Super Bowl is not a reward," Quinn said Monday. "Playing really well and winning, that's the reward. It's going to be a hell of a battle."
Immediately after the Patriots routed Pittsburgh for the AFC title, Belichick said he didn't even know the Falcons had won the NFC championship game.
No such ignorance from his coaching counterpart in Atlanta.
"Yes, I know," Quinn said.
Of course, Newberry went on to point out, the Patriots know a thing or two about championships. They are the first team to reach the Super Bowl nine times, and the coach-quarterback tandem of Belichick and Brady will be going for its fifth Lombardi Trophy. Quite a contrast with the Falcons, who have never won an NFL title in their 51-year history. It's been 18 years since their initial Super Bowl appearance, when a team known as the "Dirty Birds" was beaten handily by the Broncos in John Elway's final game.
Newberry reminded readers that Atlanta endured plenty of distractions in the buildup to that game, from coach Dan Reeves reliving an ugly breakup with the Broncos to a dispute over the how the players departed their chartered jet in Miami to, most notably, team leader Eugene Robinson being arrested the night before the game for attempting to solicit a prostitute.
After all that, it wasn't surprising that Denver cruised to a 34-19 victory.
Quinn expects no such problems from his team. A bigger concern might be the huge gap in Super Bowl experience.
As Profootballtalk.com pointed out last week, the Falcons' entire active roster has just five Super Bowls of experience under its belts: Defensive end Dwight Freeney has played in two, and linebacker Philip Wheeler, safety Dashon Goldson and defensive tackle Courtney Upshaw have played in one each.
Whether experience really makes a difference on Super Bowl Sunday remains to be seen. But as PFT's Mike Florio suggested, "there's no doubt where the experience advantage lies."
That's where Quinn might be of help.
He was Seattle's defensive coordinator during back-to-back Super Bowl appearances - one a rout of the Broncos, the other a heartbreaking loss to the Patriots.
"I've gone when things have gone well, I've been a part of it when it hasn't," Quinn said. "I want to outline some of the keys to playing well in the game and managing some of the things on the outside. That's a part of the process where I can help, and I'll share that with the guys."
Quinn's advice will certainly come in handy for players such as Taylor Gabriel. The speedy receiver was cut by the lowly Cleveland Browns during the preseason and now he's got a shot at a championship, a turn of events that still seems a bit surreal.
"It hasn't hit me yet that I'm going to the Super Bowl," he said after the team's NFC Championship win over the Packers.
Gabriel, who is from the Dallas suburbs, expects to get a plethora of ticket requests from family and friends who can easily make the drive to Houston. That's one of those things that every player must deal with to some degree during a Super Bowl week, and some manage it better than others.
Another possible distraction for the Falcons is the impending departure of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who is expected to be named coach of the San Francisco 49ers as soon as the season is over. The Falcons had a normal week of practice through last Friday and then Shanahan had a second meeting with 49ers officials on Saturday to hammer out any lingering details about his first head coaching job). ...
Meanwhile, Quinn knows what type of special talent he has in wide receiver Julio Jones. As ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure pointed out, the film from the NFC Championship Game just reinforced it.
Jones, who wasn't at 100 percent after aggravating a toe sprain the week before, responded with 9 catches for 180 yards and 2 touchdowns in the 44-21 win over the Packers. Jones is the only player in NFL history to have two postseason games with at least 180 receiving yards and two touchdown catches. He had 11 catches for 182 yards and 2 touchdowns in a 28-24 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the 2012 NFC Championship Game.
Certainly, Jones sent a message to the New England Patriots that he's ready to be dominant in the Super Bowl. Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler said a few years back he wanted a chance to cover Jones.
It looks like the Patriots cornerback will finally get his wish.
Jones has made it clear in the past he believes drawing single coverage is "disrespectful" to him and it's not clear the Patriots will let him use that for motivation.
"[W]e saw him a couple of years ago and studied him," Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia told reporters last week. "He's probably just one of the most dynamic players in the league. I usually don't wind up comparing him to other people; I wind up comparing other people to him just because of his skill set and his ability."
Specifically, the Patriots saw the Falcons in September 2013, for a game in Atlanta.
Jones caught six passes for 108 yards; the Patriots, however, won the game, 30-23. Of course, that was before the Falcons underwent an offensive explosion with Shanahan drawing up the attack.
"The things that he does for them and what he can do is he does a great job of moving around into different positions," Patricia said. "Coach Shanahan puts him in different spots. He'll try to get him working different positions to get a matchup that he likes, or a particular formation that gives the defense problems, and then they'll really use him in a variety of ways. He can run underneath routes, he has great speed, he has great hands, he has great body control, and he's very, very strong. A bigger corner, smaller corner, whatever it is, he can push on the [defensive backs], lean and be able to play physical at the line of scrimmage, plus physical downfield with them, and still come up with the ball. He does a great job of tracking the ball in the air, can go up and high point it and get it."
In other words, Jones can be "covered," and he can still make the catch.
So, according to Florio, keeping Jones in check is going to be a challenge unlike any the Patriots have encountered in a Super Bowl since they somehow outscored the Greatest Show on Turf in early 2002. ...
By the way. ... Add this to the growing list of evidence that Jones is really super good: Jones topped the 100 yards per game mark for the fourth consecutive season in 2016. According to ProFootballReference.com, he’s not just the first player to average 100 yards a game for four consecutive seasons, but the first to do it in any four seasons of his career.
Calvin Johnson is the only other player who ever averaged 100 yards a season in three different seasons, doing it for the Lions each year from 2011 to 2013.
Jones has averaged 96.3 yards a game over the course of his career. Odell Beckham is the only player in NFL history who’s even close to that mark, at 95.9. Johnson is third in NFL history at 86.1 receiving yards per game.
As hinted at above, Jones’s production is even better in the playoffs; he has 552 receiving yards in his five career playoff games, an average of 110.4 yards a game. ...
For the record, Jones and center Alex Mack were held out of practice all last week in hopes they'll be available fully this week when they get to Houston, but neither was listed as "questionable" on last Friday's final Super Bowl Bye Week injury report.
Jones aggravated an old toe sprain which has been bothering him since early December, and he missed two regular season games. Mack injured his left ankle in last week's win over the Packers, came out for a play, but returned to the game.
The Falcons practiced Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at their facility before leaving for Super Bowl LI on Sunday. ...
Other notes of interest. ... The Falcons have set an NFL record by scoring a touchdown on eight straight opening drives. That figures to be tougher against a Patriots team that was second best in the league this year, allowing just 16 points on opening drives with the only TD coming for Buffalo on Oct. 2. The Patriots have allowed an average of just 19 yards on those drives with half of their opponents failing to generate even a single first down.
This marks the sixth Super Bowl matching the NFL's highest-scoring team (Atlanta) against the team that allowed the fewest points (New England) during the regular season. The top defense won four of those previous five matchups, including Seattle over Denver three years ago.
The only time the top offense came out on top was in the 1989 season when San Francisco topped Denver.
Matt Ryan has been nearly unstoppable when targeting the middle of the field in the regular season and playoffs, according to Sportradar. He has completed 86 of 117 passes between the hashes for 1,230 yards, nine TDs and no interceptions and a 132.8 passer rating. Ryan is 13 for 14 for 138 yards throwing down the middle in the playoffs.
Ryan also was the most efficient deep thrower in the NFL in the regular season and playoffs, going 30 for 63 for 1,122 yards, 10 TDs, no interceptions and a league-best 133.4 rating on throws at least 21 yards downfield. The Patriots were the second-best defense against the deep pass, allowing just 28.2 percent to be completed with only three TDs, five interceptions and a 47.5 rating that was the second lowest.
No team ran play-action as much as Atlanta this season, doing it on 26 percent of offensive plays in the regular season, according to game-charting data from Football Outsiders. The Falcons averaged 10.4 yards per play on play-action, compared to 7.8 on other plays. New England faced the second-lowest percentage of play-action plays at 13 percent, allowing 8 yards per play, compared to 6.1 yards on other plays.
Teams blitzing the Falcons have had little success this season with Ryan ranking second in the NFL in passer rating against the blitz at 122.0.
With Ryan heading towards what seems likely to be an MVP season, Matt Franciscovich reminded numberFire.com readers last week that it's easy to overlook how valuable the Falcons' backfield duo has been for their prolific offense.
They averaged a league-best 168.9 combined scrimmage yards per game for a total of 2,482 yards for the year, and the twosome teamed up for 24 total touchdowns -- 13 for Freeman and 11 for Coleman -- in the regular season. Add in the one touchdown from fullback Patrick DiMarco, and the 25 total scores tied them with the Buffalo Bills for first among all running back groups in the NFL.
Freeman and Coleman both averaged well over four yards per carry while also contributing to the passing game. In addition to his 1,079 yards rushing, Freeman added 54 catches while Coleman averaged an astonishing 13.6 yard per catch on his 31 receptions.
As Franciscovich noted, most running back duos these days are dissimilar in skill set and have more specialized roles (think: Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard or LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis). But both Coleman and Freeman can do it all.
When opposing defenses also have Jones to worry about and a bevy of other talented downfield weapons (Mohamed Sanu, Gabriel and Austin Hooper, to name a few), you can see why Freeman and Coleman have fared so well this year.
The Patriots like to take away a team's most dangerous threat. Doing that against Atlanta clearly doesn't limit them as much as it does other teams. ...
For what it's worth. ... Freeman’s goal is to win the Super Bowl. But right after that, he wants to get paid.
Freeman told Mike Silver of the NFL Network that he’s hoping for a lucrative contract extension this offseason, in what will be interpreted by some as the first rocking of the boat within Atlanta’s high-powered offense.
“Patience and timing are everything,” Freeman said. “I’ve got a family to feed, and I don’t want to struggle anymore. Now, I can see it, feel it, taste it. But I’ve got to finish strong and not think about the money this week -- we’ve got too much to play for.
“After that, well, I feel like I’ve done my part. Now, hopefully, I’ll get rewarded.”
In the third year of a four-year rookie deal which will pay him $2.7 million total, the former fourth-round pick set to make $690,000 next year. And for a guy with 27 touchdowns the last two seasons in a job-sharing role, he's eager to cash in.
Remember, because he's sharing with Coleman, Freeman got fewer touches this year than last year. That could create some potential for drama.
And finally. ... According to Jarrett Bell of the USA Today, Shanahan’s backpack was accidentally grabbed by Art Spander of the San Francisco Examiner as Shanahan was being interviewed during Monday night’s opening media sessions in Houston. Spander had left his own backpack in the area where Shanahan was speaking with reporters.
Upon realizing his bag had gone missing, Shanahan remained behind for a half hour following the Falcons’ media session Monday night as he frantically tried to find his lost bag.
“That would have been bad,” Shanahan said in a text, via Bell.
Ultimately, Spander was notified that he had grabbed the wrong backpack and returned it to Shanahan.
QBs: Matt Ryan, Matt Schaub, Matt Simms
RBs: Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, Terron Ward
WRs: Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Justin Hardy, Nick Williams, Andre Roberts
TEs: Austin Hooper, Eric Saubert, Levine Toilolo
New England PatriotsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 31 January 2017
The Patriots haven't faced the Falcons since the 2013 season and Atlanta's team has changed considerably since they lost to the Patriots 30-23 on their way to a 4-12 season.
Head coach Bill Belichick outlined one of the biggest differences he sees in this year's Falcons team when he fielded a question about the stamp Falcons General Manager Thomas Dimitroff has put on the team. After noting that he worked with Dimitroff's father when both men were with the Browns and with Dimitroff when he was in charge of college scouting in New England, Belichick noted Atlanta is "explosive offensively" and pointed to how fast the Falcons are playing on defense.
"I'd say the stamp on the team, the thing that I would notice the most is just the speed, the team speed that the Falcons have," Belichick said during a conference call last week. "They have a lot of fast guys. Defensively they close up space very quickly. Their linebackers run well. Their defensive line, although they have a couple of big, strong, physical guys in there, overall they have usually nine or 10 players on the field that I would say are fast. They're either as fast or faster than probably what the average speed of their position is in the league. I'd say that's a big stamp that he has put on the team."
Later in the call, Belichick said that he saw similarities between the Falcons defense and the one Dan Quinn ran when he was the defensive coordinator with the Seahawks. That unit hasn't posted the same kind of results as the Seattle one did on their way to a 28-24 loss to the Patriots in the Super Bowl two years ago, but they'll get a chance at gaining a better result in Houston.
And based on their offensive approach in their AFC Championship beatdown of the Steelers, they might well have a little something in store for Quinn and his defense.
Heck, the Patriots coaching staff might even surprise their own players. As ESPN.com's Mike Reiss put it, "Imagine the reaction among players when Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels began detailing the team's offensive plan for the AFC Championship Game.
"'OK, men. We've run 1,187 offensive snaps this season and played a lot of good football. So in the most important game of the year, with our season on the line, we're going to rely heavily on a personnel grouping we've utilized for a grand total of 12 times all year.'"
Reiss went on to suggest that makes little sense, and it likely wouldn't happen in most locker rooms. But in New England, this script has played out similarly in past years, and it speaks volumes about how ambitious, diverse, ever-evolving and confident the Patriots are with their offensive approach.
In turn, it creates a dilemma for opposing defenses -- as it will for the Falcons in Super Bowl LI -- because they never quite know what the Patriots will do.
What the Patriots sprung on the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game was their four-receiver package, pairing it with a turbo-like tempo. They had run it just 12 times all year, unveiling it for the first time against the Los Angeles Rams on Dec. 4 (for 10 snaps) and then using it twice against the New York Jets on Dec. 24. In all, they threw a total of six passes with four receivers on the field during the regular season, while the Green Bay Packers threw a league-high 291 passes out of the grouping.
So as Reiss described it, the AFC Championship Game was, in many ways, "a calculated sneak attack." The Patriots unleashed it on the Steelers on the second play, forcing them out of their nickel package and into dime, and pushed the foot down on the accelerator with an aggressive pass-first approach.
How could Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler have known it was coming with such force?
In all, the Patriots played with four receivers on the field for 13 first-half snaps in opening a 17-9 lead -- one more play than they had used the package over the first 17 games of the year.
"We knew we wanted to do a few things out of some different groupings that we felt like could help us move the ball, make first downs and score points. I think they went out there and did some things, were able to convert on a few third downs and help us move the ball," offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said.
How the Patriots ultimately decide to attack the Falcons in Super Bowl LI is what McDaniels and his staff are currently in the process of determining. Those decisions can also be impacted by injury-related factors as well.
"I think each week we go into it and we try to look at a group of players that we've got a lot of guys that can help us be productive on offense in a lot of different ways and in different roles," McDaniels explained. "You look at what you have available to you and you look at how the other team plays you or you think that they're going to play you in those groupings and then try to make the best decisions you can to gain the most advantage.
"That's why sometimes maybe it's more of a fullback and two tight ends, and another week maybe it's three receivers, a fullback and a tailback. There are a lot of different things that you can use and hopefully there's a rhyme and a reason for all of it because the most important thing is you're trying to put your guys in a position to have some success doing things that they do well. The defense and their matchups, that's always a critical component of making those choices."
The Falcons' overall speed has stood out to Belichick, as Atlanta's scheme has some carryover to the Seahawks under Quinn.
Bleacher Report's Doug Farrar pointed out that some have opined that Tom Brady won't have as easy a time against Atlanta's defense for a number of reasons. The Falcons are faster and more athletic than the Steelers, they play more aggressive press coverage at the line in both man and zone defenses, and they like to knock receivers off their point from the first step.
Farrar concedes these things are all true.
However, Farrar went on to remind readers that when the Patriots beat the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX, Quinn's modus operandi was similar -- the Seahawks are notoriously aggressive, especially at the line of scrimmage. The Patriots countered this with quick angle routes.
They're the best option-route team in the NFL, because their receivers so perfectly understand how to take a defender's leverage and use it against him.
So there is ample flexibility for New England.
Will it be four receivers again? Or something altogether different?
As Reiss summed up: "Unpredictable and ever-evolving, the Patriots are happy to keep everyone guessing. ..."
Still, if we're looking for potential game plans, the Sports Xchange believes the zone-based scheme Quinn runs is susceptible to spread sets. Given that, we should expect such looks, including Dion Lewis in the backfield. McDaniels may even go with some of the four-receiver formations New England used against Pittsburgh, taking advantage of a now-healthy corps of receivers. That approach will be balanced out with just enough LeGarrette Blount running at a speed-based Falcons front and the team's nickel packages.
Really, the only question is whether the New England offensive line produces at the level that's been more than good enough nearly all season or if it struggles like it did in the playoff opener against Houston. If the line is up to the task against Vic Beasley (league-best 15.5 sacks) and an otherwise lackluster rush, Brady should like what he sees in terms of room work through the air.
Speaking of Brady, nobody is going to be arguing the team doesn't have the quarterback to get the job done.
As Profootballtalk.com's Michael David Smith pointed out this week, Brady is already the owner of several Super Bowl records, and he'll add to those milestones this weekend. Here's a look at the records Brady owns:
Games played: Brady and former Broncos and Bills defensive lineman Mike Lodish are tied for the most Super Bowls played, with six. Brady will play in No. 7 and have the record to himself after Super Bowl LI.
Super Bowl MVPs: Brady and former 49ers quarterback Joe Montana are the only players to win the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player award three times. Brady could make it four against the Falcons.
Pass attempts: Brady already has the record at 247, and he'll almost certainly have the record by more than 100 after Super Bowl LI: Peyton Manning is second in Super Bowl history, with 155 passes thrown.
Pass completions: Brady has the all-time record, with 164. Peyton Manning is again second, with 103. Brady also owns the Super Bowl records for completions in a game, with 37 in Super Bowl XLIX, and for consecutive completions, hitting 16 in a row in Super Bowl XLVI.
Passing yards: Brady owns the all-time record with 1,605. With a huge game he could reach 2,000 career yards in the Super Bowl; second is Kurt Warner, with 1,156 career Super Bowl yards.
Touchdown passes: Brady has thrown 13 touchdown passes, two more than second-place Joe Montana, who threw 11 touchdown passes in his four Super Bowls.
Put it all together, and Brady is 164-for-247 for 1,605 yards, with 13 touchdowns, in six Super Bowl games. ...
On the other side of the ball. ... As the Xchange framed it: "Football cliche and history tell us that defense wins championships."
It has certainly been a key part of the Patriots' dynastic success in the Super Bowl over the years. Though Belichick's team is known for the Brady-led offense, the defense was critical to the title runs in 2001, 2003 and 2004. Certainly, New England's last title came in large part thanks to cornerback Malcolm Butler's gave-saving interception in Super Bowl XLIX.
Still, much of the hype leading up to Super Bowl LI will focus on the glamour of the Brady-led No. 3 scoring attack taking on Matt Ryan's No. 1 Falcons scoring offense. But, it's really how New England's No. 1 scoring defense matches up with Ryan, Julio Jones and the full complement of Atlanta playmakers that could key the Patriots' drive for a fifth Lombardi Trophy.
Historically, the No. 1 defense has taken on the No. 1 offense five times in the Super Bowl and won four of the battles. ...
Other notes of interest. ... The Patriots haven't trailed in a game since Nov. 27 against the Jets. Brady threw a game-winning TD pass to Malcolm Mitchell with 1:56 remaining in a 22-17 victory that day and New England has gone 421:56 without being behind in a game. New England trailed by 10 points at one point in that game, their largest deficit of the season with Brady active. If it's hard to take a lead against the Patriots, it's even harder to come back. New England has won 57 of the past 58 games when leading after three quarters with the lone loss coming last season to Brock Osweiler and Denver.
Teams blitzing the Patriots have had little success this season, with Brady leading the NFL with a 124.3 rating against the blitz. The Steelers tried to combat that by rushing three on 19 of Brady's pass attempts last week, but he completed 13 of those for 137 yards.
Brady has been one of the best QBs at converting sneaks in his career, getting first downs on 98 of 108 (90.7 percent) runs on third or fourth-and-1 in his career, compared to a league-wide rate of 69.8 percent in that span. After being nearly perfect (66 for 67) from 2004-12, Brady has been more ordinary of late at 21 for 28 the past four years.
It's no surprise the Falcons' Jones is the NFL's most dangerous big-play receiver. His 31 catches this season of at least 20 yards lead the NFL. But he hasn't been able to match the far less heralded Chris Hogan in the postseason. Hogan has eight catches of at least 20 yards in New England's two playoff wins and needs just one more in the Super Bowl to tie Larry Fitzgerald (2008) and Greg Jennings (2010) for the most in a single postseason since 2000. ...
On the injury front. ... The Patriots listed nine players as questionable on last Friday's final Bye Week injury report: Martellus Bennett (knee), Hogan (thigh), Mitchell (knee), Danny Amendola (ankle), RB Brandon Bolden (knee), ST Nate Ebner (concussion), K Stephen Gostkowski (illness), LB Dont'a Hightower (shoulder) and DE Jabaal Sheard (knee).
Of the players of fantasy interest, expect Gostkowski, Bennett, Hogan, Mitchell and Amendola to play as usual. ...
And finally. ... It didn't get a lot of attention, but Gostkowski set an all-time NFL record during the AFC Championship Game.
Gostkowski kicked his 67th career postseason extra point on Sunday, which moved him ahead of Adam Vinatieri, who has kicked 66, for the most in NFL history.
Since replacing Vinatieri as the Patriots' kicker in 2006, Gostkowski has played in 21 postseason games. Vinatieri has played in 30 postseason games, 17 with the Patriots and 13 with the Colts.
In third place on the all-time postseason extra point list is Packers kicker Mason Crosby, who has made 59.
QBs: Tom Brady, Brian Hoyer
RBs: Rex Burkhead, Jeremy Hill, James White, Mike Gillislee, James Develin
WRs: Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, Kenny Britt, Phillip Dorsett, Malcolm Mitchell, Matt Slater
TEs: Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen