NFC South: Atlanta Falcons

Falcons vs. Saints preview

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
8:00
AM ET
video When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday. Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans. TV: Fox.

Their records aren't pretty. Their defenses have been downright disastrous at times. But the stakes remain as high as ever as the New Orleans Saints (6-8) and Atlanta Falcons (5-9) head toward Sunday's showdown with the NFC South title hanging in the balance.

Both teams still control their own playoff fates with two weeks remaining in the season. Win out, and they'll be hosting a playoff game. Lose Sunday, and they'll need a lot of help to get in.

Their first matchup in Week 1 was a high-scoring thriller, with the Falcons rallying to beat the Saints 37-34 in overtime in Atlanta. A repeat is certainly possible since they feature two of the NFL's top-five passing offenses and the league's two lowest-ranked defenses.

ESPN NFL Nation reporters Mike Triplett, who covers the Saints, and Vaughn McClure, who covers the Falcons, discuss Sunday's matchup:

Triplett: The Falcons have won only one of their past four games. But it looks like they've been putting up a good fight against good teams. Do you think they have a realistic shot at winning their last two games of the season, against the Saints and Panthers?

McClure: I think it all depends on one person: Julio Jones. If Jones is well enough to play through a hip injury that sidelined him last week, the Falcons have a legitimate chance. Personally, I anticipate Jones will be ready for the Saints, based on everything I'm hearing. The offense doesn't flow as smoothly without him in the lineup, of course. Quarterback Matt Ryan and Jones really started to develop a rhythm with the deep ball prior to Jones' injury. If Jones indeed plays Sunday, I will be curious to see if his speed and ability to get down the field is hampered at all by the injury. Not to mention the Falcons need him as a red-zone threat after missing out on two such critical red-zone opportunities against the Steelers. The Falcons can't go to the Superdome expecting to win this game with a slew of field goals.

I see Sean Payton shook up the secondary a bit Monday night against the Chicago Bears. How did the defense hold up after the change, and do you anticipate any other tweaks this week?

Triplett: Honestly, I still don't have any idea how the Saints' secondary will hold up against a functioning NFL passing offense, because the Bears and Jay Cutler were awful. But the Saints had to like what they saw from the overall energy and aggressiveness -- from both the two new starters (CB Terrence Frederick and S Jamarca Sanford) and the veterans who were demoted to lesser roles (S Kenny Vaccaro and CB Patrick Robinson). They snagged a season-high three interceptions and sacked Cutler seven times. However, everyone was disappointed how quickly they let the Bears score twice in garbage time toward the end. So it remains a work in progress.

As for any changes, I expect to see the same players, but the Saints may tweak their plan since the Falcons have the depth to spread the Saints' secondary thin -- as we saw in Week 1 when Matt Ryan threw for 448 yards. I'm curious to see how the Saints handle Jones if he's healthy. New Orleans has one outstanding cornerback in Keenan Lewis, who often shadows No. 1 receivers. But against deeper teams such as Atlanta and Pittsburgh, the Saints put Lewis on the No. 2 receiver and double-teamed Jones and Antonio Brown (a tactic that worked better against Pittsburgh than Atlanta).

I know a lot depends on Jones' health. But is Atlanta's passing game still as dangerous as it was in Week 1?

McClure: I look back at the numbers from last week and the Falcons were able to put up 407 total yards against the Pittsburgh Steelers even without Jones in the lineup. Ryan has enough weapons to spread the ball around. I mean, Harry Douglas stepped up with 10 catches for 131 yards last week while both Roddy White and Devin Hester had touchdown catches. I think the underrated aspect related to the passing game is how the offensive line has held up despite going through so many changes. That's a credit to offensive line coach Mike Tice, who lost five linemen to season-ending injuries. Ryan has been sacked only twice the past three games. And although the Falcons are a "passing" team, it only helps when they have some semblance of a running game. Such was the case in a season-opening win over the Saints, when Ryan threw for that career-high 448 yards as his running backs combined for 108 yards on the ground. The Falcons are 17-3 under coach Mike Smith when they have a 100-yard rusher.

I've grown accustomed to Drew Brees being synonymous with a high-powered offense and it looks like the Saints enter this game second in the league in total offense. But this hasn't been a typical Brees-like year. Could you tell me where things have gone wrong for him and how he's handled rumors about the team pondering his replacement?

Triplett: Brees' season has been funny because he's still on pace for nearly 5,000 yards, 35 touchdowns and a league-high completion percentage of 70.0 (sixth in NFL history). But you're right -- it has been a little shakier and less consistent than usual. The biggest problem is he has turned the ball over too many times in big situations (12 interceptions, two lost fumbles). I think he has pressed too much, feeling like he needs to do it all with the defense struggling. It has been an exact repeat of 2012 in that sense. The Saints' downfield passing game has also been spotty, with Brees settling for more check-down passes than usual.

All of that being said, Brees is still awfully sharp. He put on a clinic last week at Chicago, completing 18 of 20 passes in the first half. Three weeks ago, he threw five touchdown passes at Pittsburgh. He's still one of the NFL's elite -- and both he and the Saints know that. So while they may start looking for an eventual future replacement soon, there's no way that they're looking to move on in the short term.

These two teams are in a tight battle for the NFL's worst defense this year. Are the Falcons even worse off than they were in Week 1, and what are their biggest issues?

McClure: This question seems to come up every week. Yes, the Falcons surrender the most total yards in the league at 409.9 yards per game and the most passing yards at 292.5 yards per game. To put it simply, the lack of a consistent pass rush and the lack of legitimate playmakers on that side of the ball make the Falcons extremely vulnerable. There have been splashes of solid play, like the way the Falcons shut down Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell in the running game last week and the way they pressured Drew Stanton and the Cardinals a few weeks back. But consistency is non-existent.

Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has developed a reputation over the years for being creative with his schemes, but he doesn't have much to work with now. I think the Falcons made a mistake by spending their free-agent money on beefing up the defensive line with space-eaters Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson, and both players would admit they set high standards for themselves. Desmond Trufant will be a cornerstone for the franchise for years to come as a shutdown cornerback, but Trufant can't beat Brees and the Saints by himself -- unless he comes up with a pick or two.

I see quite a challenge for the Falcons in trying to slow down running back Mark Ingram. Is it correct to say Ingram is starting to live up to his potential?

Triplett: Absolutely. He's on pace for his first 1,000-yard season even after missing three games with a hand injury. And he has been running with authority and confidence all year. However, a lot of his success has to do with the Saints finally improving their run game overall, dating to last season (Ingram had 97 yards in a playoff win at Philadelphia). And a lot of it has to do with opportunity.

First of all, trading Darren Sproles freed up Ingram to play more of an every-down role, and he has thrived by running out of passing sets, etc., instead of just heavy run packages. Secondly, he finally got the opportunity to be a featured back with 20-plus carries per week when Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas got hurt midseason, and he delivered in a huge way with four 100-yard games in a six-week span.

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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith made clear his feelings about providing injury updates on top receiver Julio Jones, who continues to recover from a hip injury.

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Jones, who missed last Sunday's game against the Steelers, did not practice Wednesday. Smith said Monday he wasn't going to engage in a "Julio watch" and reiterated his stance following today's practice.

"We'll make a decision on 10:30 [Central time] on Sunday morning, when we put in our inactives," Smith said. "And that will be the last time I'm going to talk about Julio."

All indications are Jones will be ready to go Sunday, no matter how the practice situation unfolds this week. The Falcons no doubt rested Jones against the Steelers knowing how crucial it would be to have him back for the Saints in Week 16. A loss in New Orleans means the 5-9 Falcons would be eliminated from the NFC South race and playoff contention.

Four other Falcons sat out Wednesday's practice, along with Jones: Roddy White (knee), Harry Douglas (foot), Jon Asamoah (back), and William Moore (foot). Cornerback Josh Wilson (hand) was limited.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones, who missed last Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers with a hip injury, was not on the field for the start of Wednesday's practice.

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Coach Mike Smith said he anticipates having Jones back to face the Saints this Sunday. All indications are Jones is progressing well and will indeed suit up, barring any last-minute setbacks.

Also absent from the start of Wednesday's practice were receiver Roddy White (undisclosed), safety William Moore (foot), and right guard Jon Asamoah (back). Receiver Harry Douglas (foot) was on the field catching passes without a helmet.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- One of the big topics following the Atlanta Falcons' 27-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday was the status of outside linebacker/defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi, who was benched in the game just days after he complained about his snaps.

Falcons coach Mike Smith called the benching a "coach's decision." Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan followed up Tuesday by talking about his message to Massaquoi in this particular circumstance.

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"Just being frank with him, as I told Massaquoi just the other day -- and I'm not divulging anything that's secret between the two of us -- but he was playing well, he got hurt (against) Detroit, he came back injured, he hasn't played since, now all of sudden he's well again," Nolan explained. "That's fine, but now you have to practice that way so we can see that you're well, and get back on the field. And if it's the reps that you're concerned about, in practice, you know, there are scout-team reps to be taken all the time, so you can jump in on anything you want to say, 'Look, I'm well. And here's what I can do.'

"And I think Mass will do that. At least I'm hopeful he will. He's got something to offer. Last year, I thought he was one of our most improved defensive players. Matter of fact, he might have been the most improved defensive player. And last year, it showed late in the year. And we're obviously late in the year right now. So if he can do that, it would be great. But he didn't have the injury a year ago that he had this year that held him out for a month. ... Like I said, he's just got to show up."

Massaquoi injured his right foot during the Falcons' 22-21 loss to the Lions in London back in Week 8. He said his foot didn't really feel back to normal until before the Green Bay game in Week 14, but he played just seven snaps against the Packers. The lack of playing time led to him voicing his displeasure for the second time this season.

"As you see and I see and I know, if I get 40 snaps and I get into a groove and rhythm, I’m able to change the dynamics of the game," Massaquoi told ESPN.com last week.

It remains unclear whether Massaquoi's words led to his benching against the Steelers, and the coaching staff would never make that public.

Moving forward, it's fair to wonder if Massaquoi will be utilized in Sunday's crucial road game in New Orleans. A loss to the Saints would knock the 5-9 Falcons out of playoff contention.

Massaquoi, who has two sacks and six quarterback hits this season, played 26 of 75 defensive snaps when the Falcons beat the Saints 37-34 in the season opener.

Nolan was asked if Massaquoi can help the defense get after Saints quarterback Drew Brees.

"If he's playing at his top level, yeah," Nolan said. "But again, there's something to do before we just say, 'Hey, you look good. Go in.' You have to do some things in practice so we can see."

QB snapshot: Matt Ryan

December, 16, 2014
Dec 16
1:00
PM ET
A quick observation of quarterback Matt Ryan and how he played in the Atlanta Falcons' 27-20 loss in Week 15:

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The aspect you have to appreciate about Ryan is how he owns up to his mistakes.

Such was the case after Sunday's game, when Ryan was uncharacteristically off in the first half. The biggest blunder was the pass he threw to Harry Douglas at the start of the second quarter that ended up right in the hands of Steelers cornerback William Gay, who returned it 52 yards for a touchdown.

"I let it go, and certainly a decision you can't make," Ryan said. "I can't do that. It stops there."

Yes, Ryan recovered nicely by finishing the day completing 26 of 37 passes for 310 yards and two touchdowns. But he missed three of his first five throws, including the interception. And his two bad passes on the Falcons' first possession stalled a drive into Steelers territory. In all fairness to Ryan, playing without Julio Jones (hip) didn't help matters.

With their playoff lives on the line, the Falcons need Ryan to play like an elite quarterback for all four quarters, not just when the team is playing from behind. He'll be challenged this week simply by the circumstances of a hostile road environment against the bitter-rival Saints. Ryan is 1-5 all time vs. Drew Brees at the Superdome.
It looks rather improbable for the Atlanta Falcons to finish first in the NFC South now, although it's not impossible.

Monday night's 31-15 win by the Saints over the Bears means the Saints, now 6-8, are atop the division standings in front of the 5-8-1 Panthers and 5-9 Falcons. The scenario still exists for the Falcons to sweep their last two games against the Saints and Panthers and end up in the playoffs with a 6-0 mark in the division. But traveling to New Orleans Sunday won't make it any easier, considering the Falcons have lost three straight at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and dropped seven of the last eight there. Plus, the Saints have a little momentum from their convincing win over the reeling Bears.

The Falcons beat the Saints 37-34 in overtime in the season opener, but that was light years ago.

"We know that it’s a must-win game because it’s the next game," Falcons coach Mike Smith said of Sunday's matchup. "It’s very important. I think everybody’s aware of the ramifications. I think it will have an atmosphere of a playoff game. Any time we go to New Orleans it does. When we’ve gone down there, the games have been very competitive. I anticipate that it will be competitive as well. We all understand where we’re at. We all know that we control our own destiny. Doesn’t matter what anyone else does, and the first thing that we have to do is we have to play very well and win the ballgame in New Orleans.”

Having Julio Jones back should help matters, and all indications are Jones is a definite to play coming off that hip injury. But losing starting cornerback Robert Alford to a season-ending wrist injury might hurt, especially with the way Saints quarterback Drew Brees utilizes all his receivers. Eight different Saints caught passes Monday night. And the Falcons could have used Alford to keep up with speedy Kenny Stills, who had a 67-yard pass play against the Falcons at the Superdome last season with Robert McClain on him. McClain is now the starter in place of Alford.

More than anything, the Falcons need to get their offense flowing early in New Orleans and get off to a fast start. They did so in last year's season opener at the Superdome, jumping out to a 10-0 lead. It made for a winnable game, although the Falcons dropped a 23-17 decision as Matt Ryan's pass to Tony Gonzalez got tipped and picked off in the end zone in the final moments.

Smith was asked about getting off to a fast start this Sunday.

“Absolutely, it’s going to be very important for us," he said. "I hope that we’ll have a lot of fans there in New Orleans. I know because of the proximity we usually have a good contingent going down. It’ll be nice to see them down in the dome, but it’s going to be imperative that we start fast. But we also need to finish and play consistently. We’ve put together spurts of good football this season, and we haven’t been able to do it like we need to for 60 minutes. It’s going to be very important that we’re consistent.”
ATLANTA -- That wasn't a typical Matt Ryan performance, particularly at home.

The finally numbers showed the Atlanta Falcons' quarterback throwing for 310 yards and two touchdowns with a passer rating of 102.3 in Sunday's 27-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. But Ryan also got off to a slow start and misfired on some passes, including one at the beginning of the second quarter that cornerback William Gay intercepted and returned 52 yards for a score. It was the second home game in a row Ryan has thrown a pick-six and it's his third of the season.

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Ryan
"It was just kind of a tough play," Ryan said. "I let it go and certainly a decision you can't make. I can't do that. It stops there."

Some wondered if receiver Harry Douglas should take some responsibility for the miscue because of the route he ran. Regardless, Ryan shouldn't have thrown the ball with Gay in tight coverage and over the top of the route.

"It was one of those plays where they played a funky coverage and guy just jumped the route," Douglas said.

Ryan was in a funk early, which is why the Falcons had to play catch-up against a Steelers team they could have outscored. On the first offensive drive of the game, Ryan threw consecutive bad passes to Douglas and Roddy White. The one was behind Douglas, while the other was too high and behind White. The Falcons had first-and-10 at the Steelers' 46-yard line but couldn't put points on the board as the incompletions stalled the drive.

When you consider the Steelers took a 20-7 lead into the locker room at halftime, it only magnified Ryan's pick-six and those misses. Throw in the fact the Falcons settled for field goals on two, third-quarter trips into the red zone and it all added up to the loss of a winnable game.

The Falcons also fell behind early last Monday night at Green Bay and couldn't recover.

"Not talking about last week, talking about this week, we didn't really get started the way we wanted to," said Ryan, who was without top target Julio Jones (hip injury). "We had an opportunity early on and just missed on a couple. We continued to battle back.

"I think offensively it comes down to a couple things: you can't turn the football over and when you have opportunities in the red zone, you've got to put it in the end zone. We didn't do a good enough job of that today."

And Ryan fully understands he has to absorb the bulk of the blame for it. He's the quarterback.

Roddy White wanted win, not record

December, 14, 2014
Dec 14
5:45
PM ET
ATLANTA -- Observed and heard in the locker room following the Atlanta Falcons' 27-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at the Georgia Dome:
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    Setting the record straight: Roddy White appreciated being acknowledged for setting a franchise record with his 62nd career touchdown, which occurred after his 4-yard score in the fourth quarter. But White saw no reason to bask in the moment. "It didn't mean anything today because we didn't win," he said. "You're judged in this league off wins and losses. That's all that really matters."
  • On the defensive: Cornerback Desmond Trufant obviously was frustrated with the illegal-contact penalty he picked up with 3 minutes, 5 seconds remaining in regulation that kept a Steelers drive alive after a third-and-4 incompletion by Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers went on to run out the clock after the Falcons gave up a 25-yard pass play from Roethlisberger to Heath Miller on third-and-1. "I'd have to see on film," Trufant said of the penalty. "I wish it didn't happen. All I can do is move on. I just know I'm going to get it back next week. That's all I can say."
  • Take your pick: Matt Ryan's pick-six on the first play of the second quarter obviously was one of the most pivotal plays of the game. It was a bad throw and a bad route run by Harry Douglas that led to William Gay's 52-yard interception return for a score. But Ryan and Douglas didn't make the only mistakes on the play. "We've got to be able to get the guy on the ground and give our defense an opportunity to go out there and play," Falcons coach Mike Smith said of his team failing to tackle Gay. "That was a critical play in the game, but there were a number of them."

Rapid Reaction: Atlanta Falcons

December, 14, 2014
Dec 14
4:13
PM ET

ATLANTA -- A few thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons' 27-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at the Georgia Dome:

What it means: The Falcons dropped to 5-9 overall but still have a shot at the playoffs. They have to win their last two games against the Saints and Panthers, the same scenario they faced going into Sunday's game. So, in essence, losing to the Steelers didn't matter. But these last two games mean everything if the Falcons hope to salvage the season, win the NFC South and host a first-round playoff game.

Stock watch: You have to give the defense a little credit for showing up in this game. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's crew had some hiccups, like a 44-yard catch-and-run surrendered to running back Le'Veon Bell, an illegal contact penalty by Desmond Trufant that kept a Steelers drive alive, and a 25-yard pass play from Ben Roethlisberger to Heath Miller on third-and-1 that essentially clinched the game. But the defense also came up with some key third-down stops and made the Steelers settle for a couple of field goals when they appeared destined to score touchdowns. Nose tackle Paul Soliai and linebacker Prince Shembo combined on a sack, and Tyson Jackson batted down a pass. Kroy Biermann also had moments when he brought solid pressure toward Roethlisberger. Again, the defense wasn't dominant, but it was good enough to put the Falcons in position to win. The offense simply couldn't close the deal. Matt Ryan's pick-six early in the second quarter really hurt.

Injury update: Julio Jones was held out of Sunday's game with a hip injury. Although Falcons coach Mike Smith was optimistic about Jones' status leading into the game, Smith probably knew all along the best approach would be to rest Jones for the final two games. It will be interesting to see if Jones makes a full recovery in time to have an impact performance against the Saints next week. The Falcons also hoped to get starting strong safety William Moore (foot), starting cornerback Robert Alford (wrist) and starting right guard Jon Asamoah (back) back from injuries.

Game ball: Roddy White didn't have a spectacular performance, but he deserves recognition for reaching a milestone. His 4-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter made him the Falcons' all-time touchdown leader with his 62nd career score, surpassing former running back Michael Turner. White finished Sunday's game with seven catches for 58 yards. Harry Douglas was a close second for game-ball honors with 10 catches for 131 yards in Sunday's game.

Next up: The Falcons travel to New Orleans for their most important game of the season against the rival Saints, whom they beat 37-34 in overtime in the season opener.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones and safety William Moore are listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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Falcons coach Mike Smith reiterated that there will be game-time decisions on the status of both players. The only player ruled out was cornerback Robert Alford, who continues to recover from a broken wrist.

Jones' injury is believed to be a hip pointer, suffered in Monday night's 43-37 loss at Green Bay. He has not practiced all week, although Smith maintained that both Jones and Moore could play in the game without any practice time.

Moore, who injured his right foot, was on the field Friday for the first time since suffering the injury in Green Bay. He simply went through drills on the side with the athletic performance staff.

Jones was not seen doing any type of drill work through the course of the week.

"He's been working with our athletic performance guys in terms of working on his conditioning and running," Smith said. "He's been running, yes."

Smith again expressed confidence about Jones. At the same time, Smith said the decision is not up to him.

"I want the doctors and the people to say that he's ready to go," Smith said. "It's not going to be a decision I'm going to make. It's not a decision that Julio is going to make. They're going to evaluate it and make that decision."

In other news, fullback Patrick DiMarco missed Friday's practice while ill and is questionable for the game. Smith said the other players on the injury report are probable: Roddy White (ankle), Harry Douglas (foot), Stansly Maponga (elbow), Jon Asamoah (back), Justin Blalock (back) and Paul Soliai (shoulder).
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Observed and heard in the locker room following the Atlanta Falcons' 43-37 loss to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.

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Keeping up with Jones: Julio Jones, who set a new franchise record with 259 receiving yards on 11 catches, wanted to finish the game but couldn't as a result of what the team called a hip injury. "It was very tough," Jones said of watching from the sideline. "Last year, I missed the majority of the season with a broken foot. And that came back into my mind when I wasn't able to go back out there with my teammates and fight with them at the end of the game. I'll be OK. I just have to get treatment this week, and we'll go from there."

Walking wounded: Cornerback Desmond Trufant had his right hand heavily wrapped after he apparently got it stepped on in the second half. Trufant said the hand is not broken but was very swollen. He did not anticipate missing any game action. The Falcons already are down one starting cornerback as Robert Alford missed Monday night's game with a broken wrist. Alford could be back for Sunday's game versus the Steelers. ... In other injury news, starting right guard Jon Asamoah looked rather stiff as he sat at his locker with a back injury. Asamoah, who was replaced by Gabe Carimi, vowed to be ready for Pittsburgh. And there was no sign of safety William Moore in the locker room after. Moore suffered a foot injury in the game but did not return.

Absorbing the blame: Strong safety Kemal Ishmael, who finished the game in place of Moore, took full responsibility for the 60-yard touchdown from Aaron Rodgers to Jordy Nelson in the fourth quarter that really gave the Packers breathing space. "Just a good play call on their part," Ishmael said. "I could have done better, but it was a good route by Jordy Nelson, a veteran receiver. It was a good double move up top. I just should have gotten a little deeper. Great throw by the quarterback, too. I have to give them their due."
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Receiver Roddy White, who missed the Atlanta Falcons' last game with a left ankle sprain, is active for Monday night's matchup against the Green Bay Packers.

White said he had no doubts about playing in the game after returning to practice last Friday. White looked fine planting and cutting on the foot during warmups.

The following players are inactive for the Falcons: cornerback Robert Alford, quarterback Sean Renfree, safety Charles Godfrey, linebacker Tyler Starr, tackle Jonathan Scott, outside linebacker Stansly Maponga, and linebacker James Anderson. Alford (wrist) and Maponga (elbow) are recovering from injuries.


FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Matt Ryan beat Aaron Rodgers the first time they faced each other in the NFL, when Ryan was a rookie in 2008 and the Atlanta Falcons went to Lambeau Field and beat the Green Bay Packers 27-24.

Six years later, Ryan and Rodgers will square off again at Lambeau Field for an ESPN "Monday Night Football" matchup.

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Ryan knows what to expect from Rodgers.

"I've known Aaron since I came into the league and he's a great guy; really, really great competitor," Ryan said. "And he's playing at a really, really high level, but he's doing that for a long time. Always have had the utmost respect for him and how he handles himself and how he goes out there and plays. And he's continuing to play great."

Rodgers, named the NFC's Offensive Player of the Month on Thursday, has 32 touchdowns and three interceptions in 380 pass attempts this season. Ryan has 21 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 465 pass attempts.

Head to head, Ryan is 2-2 against Rodgers, but Rodgers won the most important of those -- in the 2010 division playoff when the sixth-seeded Packers knocked off the top-seeded Falcons 48-21. Green Bay went on to win the Super Bowl that season.

Rodgers was out with a separated shoulder when Ryan and the Falcons lost to the Packers 22-21 last season.

"Sometimes those things get made out to be bigger than they are," Ryan said of his matchups with Rodgers. "Certainly, our teams have had some good games in the past and have played in the past in important situations. And that's always fun. But he's a great player, and he's playing a high level. Their offense is playing at a high level. And our defense is going to have their work cut out for them. But I'm confident they'll do a great job."

Rodgers and the Packers are second in the league in scoring at 31.7 points per game. The Falcons are 22nd in scoring defense, allowing 24.9 points per contest.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith often talks about how pressuring opposing quarterbacks isn't always measured in sacks. Well, his team proved his point in Sunday's 29-18 win against the Cardinals.

The Falcons didn't record a sack, but they put tremendous pressure on quarterback Drew Stanton. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan was aggressive with his blitz packages, and defensive linemen Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and Cliff Matthews stepped up with big defensive efforts while winning their battles at the line of scrimmage.

[+] EnlargeJaron Brown
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesFalcons safeties William Moore and Dwight Lowery apply pressure on Arizona in their Week 13 game.
Smith pointed to third-down efficiency as the statistic most indicative of the defensive pressure applied. The Cardinals were 1-of-7 on third down.

"We went into the game wanting to put pressure on the quarterback, and I know the first thing you're going to say is, 'Well, Coach, you had no sacks.' But we hit and knock the quarterback down 11 times," Smith said Monday. "So we got accomplished what we needed to get accomplished. We forced three turnovers. There were two others that we felt like we possibly should have had in the ballgame. So we did a good job on third down.

"We had the quarterback feeling the pressure, and we took the ball away. And when you win the turnover battle and you win third downs on defense, you're going to have a pretty good day."

The official statistics showed the Falcons with eight quarterback hits, with two apiece by Matthews and free safety Dwight Lowery, who perfectly executed his blitzes.

Nolan blitzed nickelback Josh Wilson on the Cardinals' first third-down opportunity, which caused Stanton to hurry his throw for an incompletion. Babineaux, who had four quarterback pressures, batted down a pass on another third down. Then a perfectly executed stunt by outside linebacker Stansly Maponga and Matthews, along with pressure from Babineaux, caused a Stanton incompletion on a third-and-13 play. Maponga, unfortunately, injured his right elbow on the play.

On a third-and-5 play in the third quarter, Matthews exploded by Cardinals center Lyle Sendlein and put a hit on Stanton that jarred the ball loose. It appeared to be a fumble recovered by Babineaux, but the Falcons never challenged the ruling on the field of an incompletion.

Regardless, Matthews' inspired effort in just 14 of 55 defensive snaps played was symbolic of the intense pressure applied by the Falcons. Matthews, who had been inactive in nine of the first 11 games, got an opportunity to play with nose tackle Paul Soliai away from the team following a death in the family.

"I thought Cliff was very productive," Smith said. "He put some pressure on the quarterback. He basically played in our sub-package, and Cliff's a great story. ... When his opportunity has come up, he's made plays."

If the Falcons can find a way to generate similar pressure against Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers on Monday night, they'll really be in business. Rodgers historically is one of the best in the league against the blitz. In his MVP season of 2011, Rodgers' passer rating against the blitz was 131.4. According to Stats LLC, that was the second-highest mark in the NFL against pressure since 1993.

The Packers and Rodgers, however, are 18th in the league in sacks allowed per pass attempt. Rodgers, who has attempted 380 passes, has been sacked 25 times.
ATLANTA -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Atlanta Falcons' 29-18 win against the Arizona Cardinals at the Georgia Dome:

Foul play, Part I: Falcons coach Mike Smith did his best to bite his tongue about a sideline penalty called against the coaching staff following a facemask penalty on Devin Hester. The penalty nullified Hester's 70-yard punt return for a touchdown. The Falcons were flagged 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct on top of the 15-yard Hester penalty, which pushed the Falcons back to the Cardinals' 32-yard line and made them settle for Matt Bryant's 20-yard field goal. When asked about the bench penalty, Smith said, "Please don't make me answer that question. There was a penalty, and we can't have a penalty on our sideline. I asked the official what transpired. You guys saw the replay, just like I saw the replay. The flag came out, and in the NFL, that's a 15-yard penalty."

Hester
Foul play, Part II: Speaking of Hester, he was fuming after his touchdown got wiped away for the facemask call against Cardinals punter Drew Butler. "I didn't agree with it," Hester said as he stood by his locker after the game.

You would think the greatest return man of all time would get the benefit of the doubt in that situation. As he stood by his locker, Hester gave his perspective on the call. "I didn't agree with it," Hester said. "I felt he grabbed my facemask. Misread on the ref. Several plays later, they admitted it was the opposite call -- the wrong call on their part. It's too late now." Hester said the admission was made by an official other than the one who made the initial call.

On the line: The Falcons' offensive line held up well against what was supposed to be one of the most feared defensive fronts in the league. Not only did the line give Matt Ryan time to throw, but it also cleared holes for Steven Jackson's first 100-yard rushing effort of the season, including a season-long 55-yard jaunt. "We got off to a fast start, which always helps, man," right tackle Ryan Schraeder said. "We knew we were going to be able to run the ball. It was just a matter of getting on them early. And we ran the no-huddle offense, and those guys were tired." Giving up 500 total yards would wear any defense out.

Walking wounded: Outside linebacker/defensive end Stansly Maponga had his right arm in a sling after he suffered what was referred to as an elbow injury, but Maponga indicated he would be fine. Desmond Trufant didn't talk about the neck injury he suffered and didn't seem to move his neck awkwardly afterward, but he finished the game regardless.

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