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Vastly improved Ryan has Falcons poised to catapult Saints

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- For the first time in franchise history, the Atlanta Falcons have put back-to-back winning seasons together, and they appear far from satisfied.

There's a quiet confidence building in Falcons training camp, a confidence I believe is warranted.

I think they're going to give the Saints all they can handle this season in the NFC South. The Falcons right now are poised to win that division, and they're talking like that very quietly, very humbly. Now they can start to shout it because they're loaded, and the players returning are getting noticeably better, especially at the most important position: quarterback.

Matt Ryan has looked terrific in camp. He reminds me of Tom Brady when Brady came into the league. The Patriots QB was skinny and slow, just like Ryan was in his first two seasons in Atlanta. But Ryan's been locked in that weight room for the last six months, and it shows.

He's bigger, he's stronger, he's faster. He looked good on the bootleg when I saw him practice against the Jaguars on Tuesday. His deep ball is significantly better. He threw a 60-yard pass that Roddy White was unable to close on, demonstrating his new arm strength

Ryan told me that he has a lot of leeway running the Falcons' offense. I think he and the Falcons are poised for a big season.


» Despite a rash of injuries last year, the offense still ranked 16th. One of the Falcons' major points of emphasis this summer has been their first-down package. They were a top-10 third-down offense, but coach Mike Smith and Ryan both say the team needs to do a better job on the early downs.

» The Falcons have a plan if wide receiver Michael Jenkins -- the team's No. 3 passing option behind White and tight end Tony Gonzalez -- isn't available for the season opener at Pittsburgh. Brian Finneran is the answer for the No. 3 spot in Jenkins' absence, but the checkdown game to the backs is going to be featured more this year.

» Atlanta has improved its 28th ranked pass defense on three levels this year. They will be better up front rushing the passer with the return of DT Peria Jerry, who missed most of his rookie season with a knee injury, while the addition of rookie linebacker Sean Weatherspoon bolsters that unit and the offseason aquisition of cornerback Dunta Robinson solidifies the secondary.

» There's a big battle brewing at the corner opposite Robinson. Brian Williams isn't healthy enough yet to compete, but Brent Grimes and Chris Owens are going at it with no clearcut leader. The Falcons, who were in nickel and dime defenses 58 percent of the time last year, should be in those pass-defense situations with less frequency this season.


Don't be surprised if ...

» ... Running back Michael Turner, who has never caught more than six passes in any of his six NFL seasons, is more involved in the passing game. He has made a big effort to improve as a receiver.

» ... There are several changes in the starting lineup by opening day, even though 21 starters return from 2009. There could be a few rookies breaking into the lineup, including Weatherspoon and DT Corey Peters.

» ... The Falcons roll through more personnel groups in a game than most teams. I watched a 20-play team period against the Jaguars on Tuesday, and the Falcons used 12 different personnel groups.


» Weatherspoon, the team's first-round pick, is working with the starters due to Mike Peterson being sidelined, but he might never give the job back. He plays like he's been out there for a few years. Yes, the coaches are hard on him, but he flashes some rare speed and power. He also looks like he will stay on the field for third-down packages.

» Peters, taken in the third round, has the bulk to hold up against a double team and the quickness to penetrate. Coach Smith pointed out that Peters has the hips to get through a gap and work down the line.

» Mike Johnson, a guard taken in the third round, is playing in the shadow of the starters is hard to evaluate at this point.

» Joe Hawley, a fourth-round pick who played guard at UNLV, could be the heir apparent to Todd McClure at center down the road. He plays and practices with lots of intensity.

» Kerry Meier, a fifth-round wide receiver, is a very good route runner who is making enough plays at practice to gain the confidence of Ryan.

» Dominique Franks, taken in the fifth round, will compete for a job as a returner and backup corner.


There were many on the day I watched the Falcons practice against the Jaguars, including:

» Turner running 30 yards for a touchdown on the first play of 9-on-7 drills, which is a period dedicated to the running game and the defense knows what's coming.

» Weatherspoon keying and diagnosing a run play and meeting the running back in the backfield as he got the handoff.

» The Falcons' offense calling a "G" power play with Justin Blalock pulling from the left guard and fullback Ovie Mughelli blasting through the left side of the Jaguars' defense.

» Tackle Sam Baker blocking Jaguars linebacker Derrick Harvey and making him a non-factor as a pass rusher.


"All I want to do is lead the NFL in receiving this year."
-- White

"I can match up with the top receiver, play on the left or right and the slot if they want me to. When I played on just one side, teams avoided me and I get bored."
-- Robinson

"No one knows how long we will all be together, especially great players like Tony Gonzalez. Our time is now."
-- Turner


Last year seven starters missed games because of injuries, and the Falcons might have had the toughest schedule in the league.

The front office spent a lot of time this offseason thinking through the medical plan for all the injured players. It appears intent on not rushing players back, so don't expect to see a lot of injured guys playing in the preseason before they're completely healthy.

"I could go right now," said Robinson, who suffered a hamstring injury in the first week of camp and has missed several practices, "but they want me to take another week off."

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