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Matt Ryan's Atlanta Falcons driven to leave 2013 season behind

NFL Media's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics in his robust Inside the NFL Notebook, including (click on each link to go directly to the topic):

» Andre Johnson's happiness.
» The balance Jay Gruden must strike with RGIII.
» How the Niners are adjusting to defensive losses.
And much more, beginning with one team's push to bury a disappointing season in the past. ...

Sunday was a beginning, not an end for the Atlanta Falcons. But that doesn't mean it wasn't nice to finally close the book on the 2013 season.

And the afternoon's resounding 37-34 overtime win over the rival New Orleans Saints did more than that. It also lent credence to the idea that last year's collapse was an aberration for a regime that had been to the playoffs in four of the previous five campaigns.

"I look at it as an anomaly," said coach Mike Smith from his office on Thursday, regarding the 4-12 season. "I know the type of organization we are from top to bottom. We feel like we're a relevant organization in the NFL. That's what we strive to be. And if you're relevant, you look up in November and December, and you're in the conversation to play in January."

That's a long ways off. But for quite some time, the chance to atone for last year seemed like it was, too.

With the failures of last fall providing a needed wakeup call, Smith and Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff used the offseason to shake the steady foundation that had repeatedly gotten the team to the postseason before. The process continued to play out in the preseason -- and pretty much anyone with an HBO subscription could watch it happen, as this season of the television channel's "Hard Knocks" focused on Atlanta's training camp.

The first thing was obvious, and plastered all over cable TV: The Falcons needed to get bigger and stronger, though Smith is hesitant to use the word "tougher." On the first day of the free agency period in March, the team poured a considerable sum of money (up to $79.5 million in total worth) into a trio of five-year deals to import two defensive linemen (Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai) and an offensive lineman (Jon Asamoah). Two months later, Dimitroff and Smith spent the 2014 NFL Draft's sixth overall pick on offensive tackle Jake Matthews and the 37th overall pick on defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman.

Additionally, Smith challenged the guys in-house -- as illustrated by a before-and-after picture competition he set up for the players -- to become sturdier. The Falcons' offensive linemen now weigh an average of 320 pounds, compared to 310 pounds last year, and the defensive linemen weigh an average of 315 pounds, compared to 300 in 2013.

"We had to be more physical, and physicality starts with strength and size," said Smith. "I think we've done a very good job of challenging players to be stronger."

The second part of the equation came from the team's 13-man leadership committee, which examined everything about how the operation had been run. It didn't lead to any sort of overhaul, but it did bring about noticeable tweaks in how the team practices, how the schedule is set up and the way coaches present information, from both an offseason and in-season standpoint.

For better or worse, everything the Falcons went through in 2013 created a powerful motivator for reflection.

"We all like positive reinforcement, but sometimes negative reinforcement carries more weight," said Smith. "When you're growing up, and your parents tell you not to do something, you may do it again. They (ground you for two weeks), you'll have a different approach. We try to separate each year, but there's positive and negative reinforcement, and you learn from both. This season started the last day of the 2013 season. It was a learning experience."

Another lesson: Stay healthy. Having a force-of-nature like receiver Julio Jones, among others, back in the lineup -- Jones missed 11 games with a foot injury in 2013 -- doesn't hurt. That said, Smith also figured the team had to become more resilient, and he thinks he saw it in how the group played well in the absence of starting left tackle Sam Baker, out for the season with a knee injury.

All of this certainly added up for the man throwing the ball to Jones and Co.

Two weeks ago, when I was working on an in-depth piece on the search for the next great quarterback, one respected NFL coach responded to my assumption that Andrew Luck is alone among the signal-callers primed to rise in that regard by adding the Falcons' Matt Ryan to the discussion. I was surprised. But Ryan's Week 1 performance (448 yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 128.8 rating) put wisdom to the coach's words.

"I know this: It was his best performance as an Atlanta Falcon," said Smith. "He knew where to go with the ball, knew what we were trying to do, scheme-wise; he was on top of his game. Matt's always gonna be someone who challenges himself, and he did it again this year."

Like most of the rest of his teammates, Ryan has made himself a better player since January, working on his body to become more nimble and refining his footwork.

The common theme here? A drive to prove what Smith said: That 2013 was an anomaly.

Again, the Falcons still have quite a bit of work to do before that happens. But the season-opening statement did, at least, make Smith believe there's more to come.

"It revealed something I really knew beforehand: that this is a resilient group," said Smith. "When we've got all our pieces, we're very capable."

Smith might've known it before. Now it's easier for the rest of us to see it, too.

Four downs

1) On the Ray Rice fallout ... Plenty of actions on the part of the NFL and teams can be categorized as public relations moves, but I feel pretty strongly that the response by some owners to the initial two-game suspension given to Rice as a result of his domestic violence case was rooted in legitimate concern. Last year, I worked extensively on a piece detailing how teams vet players. In doing so, I tried to identify where clubs drew lines. Violence against women was probably the most common line I found from team to team, and it usually came from the highest levels of the organization. So it was no surprise this week to see a statement from Giants president John Mara expressing disappointment with the initial two-game suspension and offering support for the strengthened domestic violence policy announced last month. Here's how one college scout put it to me when talking about how prospects are discussed in his building: "Crimes against women, battery against a woman, that's pretty hard to overcome at our place. You hit your girlfriend or wife, that's not, 'I messed up.' It's way past that." In that way, it's good to see that, even before more video of Rice's incident surfaced this week, a long-held philosophy was turned into policy.

2) On HGH testing ... Momentum has built over the past two weeks for a new drug policy to be implemented, and there's a good chance Friday is the day it gets done. (UPDATE: The NFL Players Association did indeed vote to approve a new policy late Friday.) Despite the buzz over whether this player or that player will be reinstated (hello, Josh Gordon), the real sea change here is the introduction of human growth hormone testing, which was one of the last things the NFL and NFLPA agreed to before the end of the 2011 lockout. So this week, I asked New England's player rep, second-generation NFL player Matthew Slater, about the prospect of it. His response: "We want our game to be a game of integrity that is played by players who are clean, played by players who are playing this game the right way, so it's important. I think it's important that we eventually reach an agreement on that, and it's not like we as a union don't want that; we just want a fair process. We want the science to line up, testing to line up, everything to be fair, and that's important for us, but at the same time, whether it's the union or the other side of it -- the league -- we're all protecting the shield, and we all want to project that shield in a positive light."

3) 'Dre's day. Veteran receiver Andre Johnson caught six passes for 93 yards in the Houston Texans' win over the Washington Redskins on Sunday, but maybe just as significant as that stat is the smile he carries around on his face now. New Texans coach Bill O'Brien had to sell Johnson on his program, and -- less than two months after Johnson's holdout ended -- it seems like that's happened. The Houston star told me he's been drawn to hard-nosed coaches going back to youth ball, and that's why he likes O'Brien. "Definitely more blunt; he's gonna tell you what it is, he doesn't care who you are, and he's gonna show you what you're doing wrong," Johnson said. "It's good to have that, because no one gets treated special. If I go out there and mess up, he's gonna let me know. That's cool, though. I like that." Johnson added that he likes that O'Brien's offense has him playing all three receivers and calls for so many adjustments. As for his role, No. 80 has found an old Patriot on tape to emulate, saying he could "play the role of Randy Moss," kidding but not kidding. "Hope I can go out and catch 20-something touchdowns."

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4) Mark Sanchez's future is unclear. For now, former New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez is in the midst of an image-makeover season as a backup with the Philadelphia Eagles, and if nothing else, he'll hit free agency in 2015 with some teams wondering if he could be a different player in a new system. At best? Well, with Sam Bradford down and Shaun Hill hobbled in St. Louis, the rumor mill could start spinning again about Sanchez reuniting with former Jets offensive coordinator and current Rams play-caller Brian Schottenheimer. The trouble is, it might not be what's right for either guy. Chip Kelly's system in Philly works for Sanchez because it moves and isn't overly complicated, which gets him playing fast. On the flip side, Schottenheimer aspires to run a game-plan-specific system, and that means there's a lot of volume. While it's easy to make this match on paper, in practice, it might not be the best idea.

Three checkdowns

1) One of these days, some team is gonna take a more serious look at Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles as a head coaching candidate. Four of Arizona's final seven opponents last year scored 14 points or less. And even without Darnell Dockett and Daryl Washington in the lineup on Monday, the Cards held the San Diego Chargers to 17 points.

2)Dolphins offensive line coach John Benton should take a bow; pulling five new linemen together to control a season-opening victory over the New England Patriots is no small feat. This week, of course, might present an even bigger challenge for Miami, given who the Buffalo Bills line up along their defensive front.

3) Last week, Washington Redskins coach Jay Gruden told me he wanted Robert Griffin III to "manage the game. I'm not looking for fantasy stats; I'm looking for him to protect the football and make good, sound decisions. If we score 10 points and he doesn't turn the ball over, I can live with that." Griffin and the offense went on to score six points in the season-opening loss to the Texans, and the team coughed up two fumbles -- one by the quarterback. The key is finding a balance between being conservative and cutting loose, which I assume is what Gruden is working Griffin toward.

Two college players to watch Saturday

1) South Carolina RB Mike Davis (vs. Georgia, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS): The true junior topped 1,000 yards last year at a clip of 5.8 yards per carry -- and at 5-foot-9 and 223 pounds, his game figures to translate to the pros. This year, he got off to a slow start, with bruised ribs taking him out of the opener against Texas A&M, and so the showdown against Georgia on Saturday comes with big individual implications. "Strong, powerful and good burst between the tackles," said one AFC scout. "He'll be more of a one-cut power scheme guy at the next level." Two matchups here will be fun to watch on Saturday. On the field, seeing Davis lock horns with Bulldogs linebacker Ramik Wilson -- another likely future pro -- should be interesting. On the stat sheet, Davis will square off against Todd Gurley, Georgia's all-everything back. On both counts, this will be one of those weeks that could propel the Gamecocks star's stock.

2) Texas LB Jordan Hicks (vs. UCLA, 8 p.m. ET, Fox): Hicks hasn't come close to living up to the expectations that followed him after Mack Brown swiped him out of the Cincinnati area from Ohio State. And a lot of that isn't his fault, as a litany of injuries have stunted his development. "He looks the part," said an NFC scout. "This is the first year he's really been healthy, ever. ... He's a real good athlete, he's gonna show up. There was a series last week where he made damn near six tackles." At 6-foot-1 and 234 pounds, he should have the range to play in a number of different schemes, and trying to stymie Paul Perkins and the UCLA run game will provide a nice test.

Extra point

Just six defensive starters from last season's NFC Championship Game started for the San Francisco 49ers in Dallas in Week 1, a staggering figure of change forced by injuries, suspensions and attrition. Still, the guy pushing the buttons says things remain the same.

"The standard has not changed," Niners defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "We've played good defense for three years here, both to the naked eye and statistically. We've played good, winning defense for three years. And we won a lot of games. The defense needs to continue doing what it does. It doesn't need to step back there at all."

If those words are proved true, Fangio will have done a heck of a job. It'll be November before he gets Aldon Smith (suspended), NaVorro Bowman (knee injury) or Glenn Dorsey (torn biceps) back, and there's still mixing and matching in a young secondary. But the one thing Fangio isn't trying to do is replace any of those guys.

No, the idea is now to adjust the group's personality to the individuals' strengths. Having malleable vets like Justin Smith and Patrick Willis can help on that front -- "A healthy Justin Smith goes a long way in building a good defense," Fangio said, "and obviously Patrick Willis goes a long way; those are two future Hall of Famers," -- as the young fill-ins work their way in.

"We've had to develop a personality -- I'm not sure we're there yet -- based on what we do well, what we can't do well," said Fangio. "Every team takes on its own personality based on its personnel, and so we've developed a style based on what guys can and can't do. We altered it in 2011, and had a style that worked for us for three years, because we had very little transition."

They've gone through a lot more now, and it'll stay that way for the time being.

On Sunday, Tony Romo's passer rating barely broke 60, and the 49ers had four takeaways against Dallas, which is all positive. On the flipside, though, the Cowboys rushed for 5.5 yards per carry.

So where the defense has been a strength forever, it's now a work in progress. And that work will be tested over the next few weeks with the Bears, Cardinals and Eagles filling out the rest of the September docket.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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