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02 | 2018 ATLANTA FALCONS
PRACTICE SCHEDULE F RI DAY
GATES OPEN 8:20AM
GATES OPEN 8:20AM
S U N DAY
M O N DAY
AT MERCEDES-BENZ STADIUM
GATES OPEN 11:00AM
GATES OPEN 8:20AM
TH U RS DAY
GATES OPEN 8:20AM
GATES OPEN 8:20AM
F RI DAY
GATES OPEN 8:20AM
8.17 8.25 8.30
Training camp general parking is available at the Hog Mountain Sports Complex across the street from the Falcons complex. Fans with disability parking permits may park at the Falcons training complex. Permits must be properly displayed for law enforcement officials to grant entry. A designated seating area will also be provided for fans with disabilities.
MILITARY APPRECIATION DAY
GATES OPEN 7:45AM
PRESEASON SCHEDULE 8.10
FROM THE SOUTH: Take I-85 north. Exit to the left on I-985 toward Gainesville. Take exit 12 (Spout Springs Road). Turn left off the exit ramp onto Spout Springs Road. Go under I-985, travel 1/4 mile and turn right on Thurmond Tanner Road. Proceed on Thurmond Tanner Road for about one mile to the stoplight, then turn right on Atlanta Highway (Ga. 13). Go about a mile on Atlanta Highway (which becomes Falcon Parkway) past the Wrigley plant on the left and back over I-985. The Falcons complex will be on the left (4400 Falcon Parkway). FROM THE NORTH: Take I-985 south to exit 12 (Spout Springs Road). Turn right off the exit ramp onto Spout Springs Road. From here, use the same directions as above.
VS. CHIEFS @ JAGUARS
7:00PM EDT 7:00PM EDT
LOOKING FOR AUTOGRAPHS? Player autographs will be available on a first-come, first-served basis following practice. Autographs can be obtained on the viewing hill. Please call the hotline number below if you have any questions.
FALCONS HOTLINE: 470.341.4036
INDOOR PRACTICE FACILITY
FAN VIEWING AREA
2018 AT&T ATLANTA FALCONS TRAINING CAMP - WHERE TO GO
PRACTICE FIELD PRACTICE FIELD PRACTICE FIELD
FALCONS INFORMATION TENT
EAST SPONSOR VIP TENT
FALCONS OFFICES FAN ENTRY
OFFICIAL FALCONS GEAR
MEDIA CHECK-IN HANDICAP PARKING
AT&T FAST PASS
SHUTTLE DROP-OFF AND PICK-UP AVAILABLE AT HOG MOUNTAIN SPORTS COMPLEX
KWAY R A P S FALCON
THE 411 ON THE BRANCH AT&T helps millions around the globe connect with leading entertainment, business, mobile and high speed internet services. We’re proud to help keep Atlanta Falcons fans connected at the 2018 Training Camp in Flowery Branch.
FALCONS FAN DAY SET TO BRING TRAINING CAMP ACTION TO MERCEDES-BENZ STADIUM The Falcons are excited to host the first-ever open practice inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium at noon on Sunday, July 29. The “Together We Rise – Falcons Fan Day” event and fully padded practice will allow fans to experience the thrills of Mercedes-Benz Stadium while watching their favorite players prepare for the upcoming season. In the past, the Falcons ventured out into the community and held a training camp practice at a nearby high school, packing the bleachers in what was aptly named “Friday Night Lights”. This year, they will be starting a new tradition by inviting the community into their own home stadium. The event, which will mark the third day of training camp, provides season ticket members, and the general public, with the opportunity to watch the Falcons prepare for the 2018 season. *NEW* - AT&T FAST PASS ENTRY GATE
WHERE DO SPECIAL GUESTS AND VIP SPONSORS CHECK IN?
The AT&T Fast Pass lane allows guests who can show they have AT&T phone coverage the ability to skip the long line and get in faster at their own entry gate!
Staff/Player families, Special Guests and VIP check-in is located near the main building entrance of the Falcons Training Complex. Sponsor guests will check in at the coaches parking lot.
WHAT SHOULD I DO IF I WANT TO MAKE SURE THE TEAM IS PRACTICING OUTDOORS ON THE DAY I PLAN TO ATTEND PRACTICE? Check the Atlanta Falcons website for continual updates or call the 2018 AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp hotline (470-341-4036). Practice times are subject to change without notice. WHERE WILL FANS PARK AT 2018 AT&T ATLANTA FALCONS TRAINING CAMP? 2018 AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Parking is available at the Hog Mountain Sports Complex across the street from the Atlanta Falcons Training Complex located at 4400 Falcon Parkway, Flowery Branch, GA 30542. After Hall County Schools begin, please be mindful of bus/ parent traffic near parking areas. There is NO general parking available at the Falcons Training Complex. Satellite parking will be available Friday, July 27, Saturday, July 28, Friday, Aug. 3, and Saturday, August 4 in the Stonebridge Village shopping center adjacent to The Home Depot. IS PARKING AVAILABLE FOR FANS WITH DISABILITIES? Fans with disabilities will be allowed to park inside the Falcons Training Complex. Disability parking permits must be properly displayed for law enforcement officials to grant entry. A designated seating area will also be provided for fans with disabilities. One handicap individual and one guest may check in and be escorted to the ADA Viewing Area. Guests are not permitted to get autographs or photos in this area.
The gates will open at 11 a.m. and fans are encouraged to arrive early and enjoy the stadium’s awardwinning Food & Beverage options, which will always be offered at Fan First prices. The fans can expect cheerleaders and drum line performances, youth flag football scrimmages, music and a host of live-event entertainment throughout the day. To further excite attendees at Fan Day, Mercedes-Benz Stadium is planning its first public and live roofopening showcase to celebrate the completion of the one-of-a-kind design and engineering marvel. The ceremony will begin at noon to begin the practice and festivities, weather pending. To reserve tickets, visit atlantafalcons.com camps workouts at Flowery Branch. No flash photography of any type will be permitted at any time. No audio or video recording devices are allowed, including camcorders or cellular phones with video capabilities. Videotaping during practice is strictly prohibited.
WHAT SHOULD I BRING TO TRAINING CAMP?
WHERE CAN I PURCHASE MERCHANDISE?
For your comfort, please feel free to bring the following items to training camp: hats, jackets, rain gear, sunglasses, sunscreen, binoculars, blankets, umbrellas, lawn chairs, strollers, small, personal coolers, non-alcoholic beverages and light snacks.
The Official Falcons Gear tent is located on the east side of the Falcons office building.
WHAT SHOULD I LEAVE AT HOME? The following items will not be permitted at training camp: weapons of any kind, alcoholic beverages, pets (only service animals are allowed), Camcorders, professional cameras/tripods, large backpacks, large bags, large coolers or anything deemed inappropriate by security. Shirts and shoes are required. Please refrain from wearing any type of distracting or inappropriate apparel. Smoking is strictly prohibited. ARE BACKPACKS AND BAGS ALLOWED AT PRACTICE? For the safety and enjoyment of all fans attending Falcons practices, backpacks and large bags over 8.5” wide by 13” long by 5” deep are NOT permitted at training camp. All backpacks, bags and purses will be inspected upon entry into the Falcons Training Complex. Individuals who refuse to have a backpack, bag or purse inspected will be denied entry. MAY I BRING MY CAMERA TO TRAINING CAMP? Still cameras with lenses under 12” and without flash attachments are permitted for use during all training
WHERE CAN I BUY CONCESSIONS? There will be multiple food trucks on-site each day offering breakfast foods. IS THERE AN ATM ON SITE? There are no ATMs available to the general public at the Atlanta Falcons Training Complex. Please plan accordingly. DO YOU HAVE AN UPDATED ROSTER SO I KNOW WHO ALL THE PLAYERS ARE WHEN WATCHING TRAINING CAMP? Rosters are available at the General Information Tent located at the top of the fan viewing area. WHERE CAN I FIND A LIST OF DAILY ACTIVITIES RELATED TO TRAINING CAMP? Check the lists of daily activities related to 2018 AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp at AtlantaFalcons.com. The Training Camp hotline number is (470-341-4036).
2018 AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp, we are unable to provide tours of the team’s headquarters. WHAT IS THE SMOKING POLICY? For the comfort and health of all fans, the Falcons training complex is a smoke-free environment. There is NO smoking allowed anywhere on the grounds or inside the buildings at Flowery Branch. WHERE CAN I BEAT THE HEAT? In an effort to ensure comfort for all fans who attend a Falcons practice during 2018 AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp, covered seating is located on the hill in general fan seating. WHERE ARE FIRST-AID SERVICES LOCATED? Authorized medical personnel from the Falcons and Hall County will be available one hour prior to each practice through 30 minutes following each session. WHERE IS THE LOST AND FOUND AREA? The lost and found is at the Falcons Information Tent located at the top of the fan viewing area. WHERE DO I GO IF I HAVE QUESTIONS?
ARE THERE ACTIVITIES FOR CHILDREN?
Questions regarding all aspects of AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp may be directed to associates at the General Information Tent located at the top of the fan viewing area. In addition, any other Falcons staff member can assist you.
There will only be activities for children on Military Day.
WHAT SAFETY MEASURES ARE IN PLACE?
WILL THE FALCONS PROVIDE TOURS OF THEIR FLOWERY BRANCH FACILITY DURING TRAINING CAMP?
For your safety, the Atlanta Falcons, along with the Flowery Branch Police Department and other local law enforcement officials, will be present. We will also conduct bag inspections at the gate prior to entry.
Because of the large number of fans expected to attend the
The Falcons Training Camp Guide was produced and published by Score Publishing, a division of Score Atlanta. The president is I.J. Rosenberg, Managing Editor is Craig Sager II, Assistant Editor is Alex Ewalt, Associate Editors are Seth Ellerbee and Graham David and Creative Art Director is Rhonda Rawls. The photos in the Guide were taken by Falcons team photographers unless otherwise noted. Score is a full-service marketing company and can be reached at 404-256-1572 and SCOREATL.COM.
04 | 2018 ATLANTA FALCONS
06 | 2018 ATLANTA FALCONS
BY CRAIG SAGER II
an Quinn has posted 32 combined wins in his first three seasons as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons with a 3-2 postseason record in the same span. The team carried a 10-6 record into last year’s playoffs, and the victory over the L.A. Rams in the Wild Card Game gave the franchise consecutive seasons with playoff victories for the first time in its history. In the Divisional Round, Atlanta led eventual Super Bowl champion Philadelphia into the third quarter, but fell short 15-10. Overall, the 2017 campaign was defined by its ups and downs, which included spells of red-zone ineffectiveness, a decline in explosive plays and an unfavorable turnover ratio. Nonetheless, earning a playoff spot out of the rugged NFC South and remaining a Super Bowl contender was encouraging, especially with the introduction of new coordinators to both sides of the football. But perhaps the most obvious source of optimism last season was Atlanta’s defensive improvements. The young group blossomed and finished the season ranked in the league’s top 10 in total defense and points allowed, a feat that had eluded the franchise since the 1998 season. The current offseason has seen just a few minor changes; Greg Knapp was brought in to replace former quarterbacks coach Bush Hamdan, and Bernie Parmalee was brought in to take over as running backs coach. Also, Mayur Chaudhari was acquired to serve as special teams assistant under veteran coordinator Keith Armstrong.
OFFSEASON GAME PLAN
Quarterback Matt Ryan solidified his role as the face of the franchise with the signing of a record-breaking, five-year contract extension on May 3. Getting Ryan’s deal worked out was considered the top priority of the offseason by the front office, and the massive $150 million contract that the sides settled on remains the largest in NFL
history. The Falcons also signed kicker Matt Bryant to a three-year extension on March 6. The team acquired former 49ers guard Brandon Fusco on March 14, adding a proven starter with zone-blocking and passprotection skills. Fusco’s former teammate, tight end Logan Paulsen, was signed a week later. The 6-foot-5, 268-pound tight end is an effective blocker who will fill the void left by former Falcon Levine Toilolo’s departure in June, which freed up roughly $3.5 million of the team’s cap space. On March 24, Atlanta signed cornerback and special-teams ace Justin Bethel, a threetime Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro.
DRAFTING DIFFERENCE MAKERS
The Falcons’ six-man 2018 draft class divided its picks evenly between offense and defense. Atlanta’s first-rounder Calvin Ridley, the No. 26 overall pick of the draft, was considered the top available receiver by many experts for his speed, route running and ability to create space. Ridley was also an ideal fit for Atlanta because he has the skills to take over the slot position, which opened up following the departure of Taylor Gabriel to the Chicago Bears in March. The selection of cornerback Isaiah Oliver in the second round strengthened Atlanta’s already solid stable of cornerbacks and allows the defense to expand its nickel packages. Defensive tackle Deadrin Senat was taken in the third round to address Dontari Poe’s departure to the Carolina Panthers, which thinned out the interior of Atlanta’s defensive line. Senat recorded 178 tackles, 23.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks in his four seasons at South Florida. On the final day of the draft, the Falcons used their fourth-round pick to select running back Ito Smith, a versatile and electric playmaker who adds depth behind Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. The team sought more versatility with the selections of wide receiver Russell Gage (No. 194 overall)
and linebacker Foyesade Oluokun (No. 244). Gage, whom Atlanta selected after sending both of its seventh-round picks to Los Angeles, is a special-teams standout who caught Quinn’s eye. Oluokun, who played for Yale, provides much-needed depth to a very talented, but thin, corps of linebackers.
Atlanta opens Training Camp with 10 returning starters on each side of the football. After two years with an unprecedented amount of youth leading the defense, the Falcons are reaping the benefits. The 2018 defense is filled with starters who have taken part in the growing process together. Although Atlanta is still one of the NFL’s youngest defenses by average age, the experience gained in the last two years has molded players like linebacker Deion Jones, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, end Vic Beasley Jr. and safety Keanu Neal into reliable leaders. In the secondary, safeties Neal and Ricardo Allen are entering their third year playing together. The June 25 acquisition of veteran safety Ron Parker shouldn’t change either’s hold on the starting jobs, but adding Parker to the roster adds experience and depth. There is also the possibility of creating schemes that use three safeties to put Neal in position to do what he does best: roam and enforce. At cornerback, starters Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford return along with Brian Poole, who has spent time starting at nickelback and filling in at cornerback. The addition of second-round pick Oliver gives the coaching staff even more options. Middle linebacker Deion Jones led the team with 138 tackles last season, and his three interceptions matched the league high for interior linebackers. Jones brings elite speed and an ever-growing command of the defense. Fellow linebacker De’Vondre Campbell has also developed into an excellent playmaker and is returning to his natural strong-side linebacker
role this year after team injuries forced him to fill a variety of roles during the 2017 campaign. Campbell can defend opposing tight ends and has the ability to use his length to contribute in the pass rush. Second-year outside linebacker Duke Riley has a golden opportunity to follow the paths of Jones and Campbell and could make a sizeable leap from his rookie campaign. The interior presence of Jarrett, Jack Crawford and Senat on the defensive line gives Atlanta a group of run-stoppers capable of contributing to the pass rush. Brooks Reed and Derrick Shelby will be working alongside disruptive defensive ends Beasley and Takkarist McKinley. While the defense builds off its top-10 finish and continues its development, the offense and second-year coordinator Steve Sarkisian are working to add more firepower and better red-zone execution to the balanced outside-zone attack. Freeman and Coleman remain one of the most dangerous running-back duos in the game, but Training Camp will be crucial for finding a fullback who can contribute in pass protection and improve the short-yardage game. Center Alex Mack anchors the offensive line with left tackle Jake Matthews and right tackle Ryan Schraeder, while the guard position remains open for a closer examination with Wes Schweitzer, Fusco, Andy Levitre and Ben Garland all capable starters. Julio Jones paces Atlanta’s deep cast of receivers, which includes fellow starter Mohamed Sanu, four-year Falcon Justin Hardy and rookie Ridley. Sanu followed his strong Falcons debut by posting a career-high 67 receptions, 703 receiving yards and a team-high five touchdown receptions last season. Tight end Austin Hooper, who assumed the starting job fulltime last season, compiled 49 catches for 526 yards and three touchdowns but is expected to play an even bigger role in 2018, particularly in the red zone.
2018 ATLANTA FALCONS SCHEDULE 8.10 @ JETS
7:30 PM EDT MetLife Stadium
The Jets might have found an answer to the quarterback question with the addition of former USC Trojan Sam Darnold. The 21-year-old was taken third in the draft and will endure a trial by fire in a position battle against veteran Josh McCown, who has recovered from an injury that he suffered against the Broncos last year. The Jets will feature a new primary running back in Isaiah Crowell following Matt Forte’s retirement. Last year, Matt Ryan passed for 252 yards in Atlanta’s 25-20 Week 8 victory at MetLife Stadium.
7:00 PM EDT Mercedes-Benz Stadium
Atlanta last faced Kansas City in December of the 2016 season at home. The Falcons fell 29-28 following two interceptions by Georgia native Eric Berry, one returned for a touchdown and one for a two-point conversion. Kansas City will feature as many as seven new starters on defense while the offense returns mostly intact, with the exception of quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who replaces Alex Smith. Kansas City’s rushing and passing offense both finished 2017 ranked in the top 10, but the team’s 28th-ranked total defense raises its own set of concerns.
8.25 @ JAGUARS
7:00 PM EDT TIAA Bank Field
The Jaguars clinched the AFC South title in 2017 with a 10-6 finish, giving the franchise its first division title since the 1999 season. After scoring a 10-3 home playoff win over Buffalo, Jacksonville travelled to Pittsburgh and left victorious after a 4542 shootout with the Steelers to advance to the AFC Championship Game. New England ended the magic run with a 24-20 defeat. Jacksonville’s stout defense combined for 55 sacks a year ago, earning the proud “Sacksonville” nickname describing the Jaguars’ aggressive pass rush.
7:00 PM EDT Mercedes-Benz Stadium
Miami is facing a series of changes after a disappointing 6-10 record last year. The departure of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, wide receiver Jarvis Landry and center Mike Pouncey has steepened the challenge and left big holes to fill. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill missed all of last season with a knee injury, but if he’s back healthy, the offense could flourish. If not, backup Brock Osweiler could be called upon. Kenyan Drake will have to prove his durability after earning the starting running back spot last season.
9.06 @ EAGLES
8:20 PM EDT Lincoln Financial Stadium
The defending Super Bowl champs held off the Falcons 15-10 in Philadelphia to earn a trip to the NFC Championship Game last season. Quarterback Carson Wentz should be ready for the season following his return from injury, but backup and Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles also returns. The offensive backfield features Jay Ajayi and Darren Sproles. Last year, Sproles went down in Week 3 with a knee injury and missed the remaining games. Corey Clement, a 2017 UDFA, filled in for Sproles and will figure into the lineup this season.
1:00 PM EDT Mercedes-Benz Stadium
Atlanta and Carolina split their NFC South meetings last year. In the first meeting, Carolina took a 20-17 victory in Week 9 before Atlanta rebounded to win the matchup in the final regular-season game. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton enters the 2018 season healthier than he has been in a while. Before the 2017 season, Newton had surgery on a partially torn rotator cuff. Now, he will look to lead a more consistent passing attack after completing 291 of 492 passes (59.1%) for 3,302 yards and 22 touchdowns last year.
1:00 PM EDT Mercedes-Benz Stadium
Saints quarterback Drew Brees is entering his 18th season, but as the veteran proved a year ago, he and the New Orleans offense have no intentions of slowing down. Last year, Brees set the NFL record for completion percentage (72) while passing for the fourth-most yards (4,334) in the league. The one-two punch of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara turned the backfield into one of the league’s most productive. Atlanta faced the Saints twice in December last season, just 17 days apart. The Falcons won the first meeting 20-17 but fell in the rematch 23-13.
1:00 PM EDT Mercedes-Benz Stadium
Atlanta meets Cincinnati for the first time since 2014’s 24-10 loss at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals have missed the playoffs for the past two seasons after making the postseason each year from 2011-15. This season, the Bengals will have to improve after finishing dead last in total offense in 2017 (27th passing, 31st rushing). The goal is to surround quarterback Andy Dalton with up-and-coming talent in the hopes that he and the offense can have a bounce-back season.
10.07 @ STEELERS
1:00 PM EDT Heinz Field
Atlanta fell to Pittsburgh in the preseason last year 17-13, but the teams haven’t met in the regular season since 2014. The ever-steady Steelers will return mostly everyone from last year’s team that went 13-3 and finished as the AFC’s second seed. The Pittsburgh offense ranked third in the league last season overall (3rd passing, 20th rushing). Antonio Brown led the NFL last year with 1,533 receiving yards and has registered more catches (582) and yards (7,848) in a five-year span than anyone in the history of the league.
1:00 PM EDT Mercedes-Benz Stadium
Tampa Bay’s defensive woes in 2017 produced a league-worst 378.1 yards allowed per game, and the unit’s mere 22 combined sacks were also a league low. This compelled the team’s emphasis on building its defense this offseason. The Bucs drafted defensive tackle Vita Vea in the first round, added free-agent defensive linemen Vinny Curry and Beau Allen from the Eagles and acquired defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. Tampa Bay’s defensive improvements will be crucial to becoming more competitive in the NFC South and slowing down the division’s high-powered offenses.
08 | 2018 ATLANTA FALCONS
8:15 PM EDT Mercedes-Benz Stadium
Despite a disappointing 3-13 showing in 2017, the Giants remain confident that their franchise quarterback, 37-year-old Eli Manning, still has productive years left. New GM Dave Gettleman has beefed up the offensive line with two new guards, Patrick Omameh and Will Hernandez, and a left tackle, Nate Solder. Former Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, the No. 2 overall pick, will work behind the improved O-line. Manning’s top targets (WRs Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard, TE Evan Ingram) need to be more consistent this season.
11.04 @ REDSKINS
1:00 PM EDT FedExField
The Redskins struggled against their division last year, winning just one of the six games and finishing the year 7-9 overall. Washington hopes the addition of quarterback Alex Smith from Kansas City, following Kirk Cousins’ departure, will bring fresh leadership with a veteran presence. A key loss in the trade for Smith was cornerback Kendall Fuller, who had a breakout second season with four interceptions. The Redskins finished 21st in the league in total defense, but cracked the top 10 in several defensive categories including interceptions and sacks.
11.11 @ BROWNS
1:00 PM EDT FirstEnergy Stadium
1:00 PM EDT Mercedes-Benz Stadium
There’s only one direction to go for the Browns following an 0-16 showing. The rebuild began with the hiring of John Dorsey as GM. He immediately traded for quarterback Tyrod Taylor, receiver Jarvis Landry and safety Damarious Randall. Perhaps the most exciting addition is Oklahoma’s Heisman-winning quarterback and this year’s No. 1 pick, Baker Mayfield. Until Mayfield is ready to take the reigns, Taylor, who went 22-20 with the Bills, will start. The Falcons last met Cleveland in the 2014 regular season when the Browns won 26-24 in Atlanta.
The Dallas Cowboys are all-in with quarterback Dak Prescott, and the organization’s offseason moves have reflected the “In Dak We Trust” mantra. Prescott, who shined as a rookie replacing Tony Romo, went through a sophomore slump as his passer rating, completion percentage and yards per game fell while his interceptions went up. The Cowboys ranked near the bottom of the league in passing but were second in rushing, giving them a middle-of-the-pack finish in total offense (14th). Ezekiel Elliott is one of the league’s elite backs and leads the Dallas ground game.
11.22 @ SAINTS
8:20 PM EDT Mercedes-Benz Superdome
After hosting the Saints in September, the Falcons will travel to New Orleans for a Thanksgiving Day showdown between the NFC South’s last two division champs. Atlanta fell 23-13 on Christmas Eve its last time in New Orleans as Matt Ryan passed for 288 yards. In the game, Saints rookie Marshon Lattimore turned the momentum when he secured a fluke interception while lying on the turf, and two defensive stands inside their own 2-yard line helped lift the Saints to victory and their first playoff appearance since 2013.
1:00 PM EDT Mercedes-Benz Stadium
The first of Atlanta’s five-game December schedule brings the Ravens to town for the team’s first meeting since 2014’s 29-7 Falcons victory in Baltimore. The Ravens have missed the playoffs the past three seasons, but this offseason they stocked the offense with playmakers to make a serious charge back into the playoff picture. The team added veteran receivers John Brown and Michael Crabtree during free agency, and the addition of tight ends Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews in the draft will give veteran quarterback Joe Flacco even more targets.
12.09 @ PACKERS
1:00 PM EDT Lambeau Field
Last year, Matt Ryan passed for 252 yards and a touchdown and the Falcons secured a 34-23 victory in the inaugural game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Before Green Bay’s 7-9 record last year, the organization had avoided a losing season every year since 2008. The season started strong, but a broken collarbone to quarterback Aaron Rodgers in Week 6 started the spiral. A healthy Rodgers and perhaps the home crowd will be needed to avoid falling for a fourth-straight time to the Falcons.
1:00 PM EDT Mercedes-Benz Stadium
The Falcons took a 38-19 victory over Arizona in the 2016 regular season the last time these teams met. Last year, the Cardinals defeated the Falcons in the preseason 13-7 before going 8-8. A new head coach, Steve Wilks, takes over the Cardinals this year following Bruce Arians’ retirement, and he views his task as a retool, not a rebuild. Quarterback Sam Bradford, whose career has been marred by injuries, signed a two-year contract with incentives to be game-ready. Veteran star receiver Larry Fitzgerald will be back in action again.
12.23 @ PANTHERS
1:00 PM EDT Bank of America Stadium
Matt Ryan passed for 317 yards in the Falcons’ final regular-season game last year to lift his team over the Panthers 22-10 and into the playoffs. The Falcons only needed one touchdown from Ryan to Devonta Freeman to go with Matt Bryant’s field goals of 56, 42, 33, 30 and 30 yards. Last year, Cam Newton was forced to run the ball more than expected due to injuries across the receiver corps. This year, healthy wideouts could allow Carolina opportunities to improve in the passing game after finishing 2017 ranked 28th.
12.30 @ BUCCANEERS
1:00 PM EDT Raymond James Stadium
Tampa Bay finished 2017 with a 5-11 record, including two losses to Atlanta, and had an offense that gained the most first downs in the NFC, but floundered in the red zone. Those struggles, along with a porous defense, proved costly. The 2018 Bucs plan to fly under the radar with an improved defense and a strengthened offensive line. The Buccaneers have finished last in the rugged NFC South six of the last seven years, but they hope to be in the playoff mix by the time the regular-season finale comes around.
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LIVE PRESEASON GAMES AND FULL SEASON COVERAGE
10 | 2018 ATLANTA FALCONS
Done Deal T
he Atlanta Falcons and franchise quarterback Matt Ryan formalized the start of their newest chapter, agreeing to a record-breaking five-year contract extension on May 3. The front office openly discussed the deal as the top priority heading into the 2018 offseason, and it was easy to see why. Ryan’s new deal would reward him for the prime role he’s played in producing the most successful decade in Falcons history while guaranteeing he stays in this role for the years ahead. The second major factor was external. The market for quarterbacks was projected to bring about record-breaking contracts in the offseason, and Ryan’s side chose to observe what his counterparts were offered before final negotiations. This projection was validated just three days after Super Bowl LII when the San Francisco 49ers opened the offseason with a bang. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, a former Tom Brady backup and 26-year-old with just seven all-time starts, was signed to a five-year deal worth $137.5 million. The salary’s annual payout and the $90 million worth of guarantees packaged into the first three years of the deal both set short-lived records that Ryan’s contract would ultimately break, but another megadeal was still to come. Quarterback Kirk Cousins had entered the free agency market after spending his last two seasons with the Washington Redskins under consecutive one-year franchise tags. The Jets were reported to offer Cousins a deal that would pay out $30 million per year, but ultimately Cousins agreed to a deal with the Minnesota Vikings, even though it offered $2 million less per year. The deal gave Cousins a fully guaranteed $84 million over three years. It was the first fully guaranteed contract in NFL history and the offseason’s second record-breaking contract to precede Ryan’s. “We realized in the end that [Ryan’s camp was] waiting to see what was going on with Kirk Cousins coming
off what Garoppolo and what San Fran did,” said general manager Thomas Dimitroff of Ryan’s negotiations. Ryan, the fastest quarterback in NFL history to reach 40,000 passing yards (151 games), as well as the 2016 league MVP and the holder of 20 individual franchise records, clearly had the credentials to receive even more. After a final series of meetings and negotiations, the sides signed off on a five-year extension that will give Ryan $150 million with $100 million in guarantees. The deal makes Ryan the first player in NFL history to average at least $30 million per year, but surely not the last, as price tags for franchise quarterbacks are expected to continue rising. “Matt is getting what he has earned, and we all know the marketplace for a great quarterback,” reflected owner Arthur Blank, adding that Matt has been “the model face of the franchise, a great leader, and he has embraced our values. He has led us on and off the field.” From a roster standpoint, the extension decreased the cap hit from $21.65 million down to $17.7 million for the upcoming season. Perhaps even more important, now Atlanta won’t have to test this surging market again for years. “Matt has set the tone for our team in many ways; as a leader in the locker room, on the field and in our community,” said head coach Dan Quinn. “He helps us be the best team that we can be.”
The third and largest contract of Ryan’s 11-year pro career reflects the confidence that the organization has in the 33-year-old passer as this new chapter begins. And for Ryan, getting the deal behind him adds motivation and focus for 2018. “The ultimate motivation more so than anything is winning a championship,” said Ryan. “We were close a
couple of years ago, and when you don’t get it I think it makes you even hungrier than you were before. It makes you work with a level of detail that you’ve maybe never worked with before. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. It’s about trying to win a championship and trying to be the best version of myself for this team this year.” The contract came just a week after the conclusion of the 2018 NFL Draft, which Atlanta used to pick up star Alabama receiver Calvin Ridley with the 26th overall pick. Ridley adds another weapon in an offense shaped around Ryan and is expected to contribute to an even more dynamic and dangerous attack in 2018. Ryan is also entering his second season with offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, the like-minded play-caller who stepped in when Kyle Shanahan left after Ryan’s MVP season. “This group certainly has the opportunity to be as good as any of the offenses we’ve had before,” said Ryan. “We have talent at a lot of different positions. We have a great offensive coordinator in Steve Sarkisian, who is in his second year, which I think is huge [in] understanding, No. 1, our scheme, and No. 2, the guys and how we fit into our scheme, our personnel. We have that opportunity to be as good as any offense I’ve been a part of. … I feel like we’ve got a lot of the pieces in the right places for right now.” In Sarkisian’s first year, Ryan completed his seventh-straight season passing for more than 4,000 yards and led the Falcons into the playoffs for the sixth time in his career. “We’ve got a great opportunity this year to be a good football team. In 10 years of doing it, that’s what I’ve found. If you think you’ve got three to four years or five years, you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s about being all-in with the team and the vibe that we have as a team right now. It’s about this year’s window.”
he hiring of Dan Quinn on Feb. 2, 2015, brought an innovative defensive mind to an organization that was in need of a defensive overhaul. Atlanta’s 6-10 finish in 2014 revealed the team’s defensive vulnerabilities with a 398.3 yards allowed per game average. This inglorious statistic gave the Falcons the worst-ranked defense in the league and ultimately handed Quinn total control to rebrand the defense to suit his vision. At his initial press conference, Quinn laid out a straightforward approach to this steep task. First and foremost, he underscored the importance of becoming “tight as a group.” That, however, was a process that would take time, so questions regarding the schemes, personnel and player traits favored by Quinn appeared more pressing with the NFL Draft less than two months away. Quinn clarified his mission of building a “fast and physical” brand of football four times before the conclusion of the presser, a pursuit that has maintained its progression, molded the current roster and manifested dramatic transformations as Atlanta gears up for its 2018 season.
FAST AND PHYSICAL
Physicality is a cherished quality by any defense, but Quinn’s emphasis on speed combines the traits into the counteractant needed in the modern NFL. Without the ability to tackle in the open field and cover sideline to sideline, defenses would be filled with holes and would be outmatched by the multiple-receiver sets and spread offenses prominent in today’s game. Shaping speed into a cohesive, fundamentally sound defense adds importance to player
12 | 2018 ATLANTA FALCONS
development and therefore requires a coaching staff able to take on the role of teacher. When Quinn assembled his staff, he brought in a highly motivated group that included former players, experienced veterans and a healthy blend of personalities to broaden their ability to connect with the players. Among them was Jeff Ulbrich, whom the Falcons wrestled away from UCLA. Ulbrich left his job as defensive coordinator there to coach Atlanta’s linebackers, a position he spent a decade playing with the 49ers. The defense climbed out of the league’s basement and finished the 2015 season ranked 16th in total defense. With a year under their belt, that vision of a “fast and physical” defense was sharper entering the 2016 draft. Still, the team found even more inspiration when Ulbrich noticed Deion Jones at the combine. Jones was an undersized outside linebacker from LSU with speed and an exceptional motor. Jones had just one year of starting experience under his belt and had a lot to learn when it came to the X’s and O’s. But Ulbrich could envision Jones in the heart of the defense, using his elite speed to cover tight ends and running backs in the passing game, and patrolling sideline to sideline in the running game. The Falcons were high on Jones and looking to rebuild the linebacking corps, but they went after safety Keanu Neal on Day 1 of the draft. They took Jones with the 52nd overall pick and added tight end Austin Hooper and outside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell before Day 2 had ended. It would be up to Ulbrich to bring the two new linebackers, Jones and Campbell, up to speed. Additional reps and
time covering the playbook was the first step, but the next steps had to be taken by Jones and Campbell themselves. The staff was toying with the idea of starting the two rookie linebackers, and there was no time to wait. “At first we were timid. We didn’t know what to expect,” admitted Campbell. “We didn’t want to come in and take over. But that is what our coaches were expecting of us.” Nine months after being drafted, the two rookie linebackers, along with Neal and rookie cornerback Brian Poole, were starting in Super Bowl LI. Atlanta’s fast and physical (and especially young) defense was catching league-wide attention. The group made another stride last season, becoming Atlanta’s first defense to finish in the top 10 in total defense and points allowed in 20 years. Jones’ play as a run-stopper and elite pass defender earned him a trip to the Pro Bowl, and Campbell’s own versatility and ability to fill several roles when injuries struck also received praise. The unique abilities of Jones and Campbell, and their importance in the heart of Quinn’s rebranded defense, are no longer a secret heading into the 2018 season. “It’s been two seasons with long playoffs runs, so there’s been a lot of games played by these guys,” explained Ulbrich. “They’ve learned a lot and they’ve matured a lot. What is exciting about the both of them is that they are still like their [harshest] critics [while] going for it every day. Competing to be the best in the game. They have a tremendous amount of humility and it’s going to be really cool just to see how they progress because they are no way near tapped out.”
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ith only three touchdown receptions last season—the fewest of his career other than his injury-shortened 2013—Julio Jones will look to get more involved in the red-zone offense. He was still second in the league in receiving yards (1,444) and third in catches of more than 20 yards (23) while being named a Pro Bowl starter, so it’s clear the 29-yearold isn’t slowing down. In two playoff games last season, Jones had 18 catches for 195 yards and a TD.
evonta Freeman battled through a sprained MCL and PCL in the latter part of the season, including the postseason, and that kept him from rushing for 1,000 yards for the third-straight year. Still, his 865 yards rushing led the team, and he aims to come back from his knee issues stronger than ever. Entering his fifth season, Freeman is already No. 8 in Falcons history in rushing yards (3,248) and seventh in touchdowns (30).
ro Football Focus heaped praise on Alex Mack this summer, naming him one of its Top 50 players for 2018 (No. 45) and the secondbest run blocker in the league at center. In 2017, his ninth season in the NFL, Mack made his fifth Pro Bowl and was named second-team All-Pro for the third time in his career. Mack will turn 33 this November, but he has started all 16 regular-season games in eight of nine campaigns.
FENSE QB F O TE
att Ryan followed up his MVP 2016 year with his seventh-straight 4,000-yard passing season, but he will be looking to toss more touchdowns than he did a year ago (20). Matty Ice has been an iron man for the Falcons, missing just two games in his 10 seasons under center. Ryan is the undisputed face of the franchise and now, after signing a fiveyear extension in the offseason, is the first $30-million-per-year player in NFL history.
ustin Hooper started off his sophomore campaign with a bang, rumbling for an 88-yard catch-and-run touchdown that saw him stiff-arm a Bears defensive back into oblivion. Hooper is certainly capable of the spectacular play. But consistency issues kept the Stanford product from what could have been a breakout season. He’s the clear No. 1 option at TE this season in front of second year-man Eric Saubert and free-agent signing Logan Paulsen.
ohamed Sanu tied a career high in 2017 with five touchdown grabs, most on the team, and had his second-best receiving total with 703 yards. Sanu, a high school quarterback, also passed for a score, the third of his career. Sanu is a strong No. 2 who can keep the chains moving with key third-down receptions. He had the lowest drop rate in the league over 201516 but took a slight step back in that category last year.
att Bryant is the third-oldest active player in the NFL (behind fellow kickers Phil Dawson and Adam Vinatieri). He turned 43 in May but is still in top form. Bryant knocked home 34 of 39 field goals in 2017, tied for the seventh-most makes in the league, and was one of seven full-time kickers to stay perfect on extra points (35-of-35). He has come through in the clutch time and time again during his 10 seasons in a Falcons uniform.
e’Vondre Campbell enters his third season as a rock at outside linebacker. At 6-4, 232 pounds, he has speed to go with size. Finishing third on the team in tackles and getting two sacks and four pass breakups last year, Campbell’s game is on the rise. He also had a sack in the playoff win over the Rams, and Dan Quinn plans to ramp up his usage in the team’s blitz packages. Campbell is yet another weapon that opposing QBs must account for.
long with Deion Jones, Keanu Neal also made his first Pro Bowl as a second-year player. Neal is one of the league’s most brutal hitters at strong safety. He racked up 136 combined tackles to finish second on the team and added six pass breakups, three forced fumbles and an interception. His pick came on a deflected Cam Newton pass late in the final regularseason game, helping the Falcons seal the 2210 win and a playoff berth.
he Falcons’ second-round pick from 2016 has become a star at linebacker. In his second year, Deion Jones made his first Pro Bowl, led the team with 138 combined tackles and was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week in a sensational Week 14 game against the Saints. In that contest, Jones had 13 combined tackles, two pass breakups and an acrobatic, last-minute interception of Drew Brees in the end zone to seal a 20-17 win.
DEFENSE DE DT
akkarist McKinley was a huge addition to the defense last season after being selected in the first round. The rookie rush end finished second on the team with six sacks last year and forced two fumbles. The potential is there for McKinley to be even more disruptive in 2018, and it’s his time to step up; Adrian Clayborn, the Falcons’ sacks leader in 2017, moved on to the Patriots in March. Takk can expect a significant increase in snaps this season.
rady Jarrett has become a force on the interior of the line. The 25-year-old started all 16 regularseason games for the fist time in his career in 2017 and enjoyed career highs in sacks (4) and tackles (34). Jarrett isn’t your typical defensive tackle; at 6-foot, 305 pounds, he uses his superior quickness and burst to wreak havoc behind the line. Per Pro Football Focus, he led all interior linemen with 16 tackles for loss or no gain.
ustin Hardy will get the first crack at return duties on punts and kickoffs, but there is a handful of others who will be vying for the job. Hardy got some action on kickoffs in 2016 but was the backup to Andre Roberts last season; he also had a 70-yard punt return to set up a touchdown in the team’s final preseason game of 2015. If Hardy doesn’t get the nod, wideouts Calvin Ridley, Marvin Hall and Reggie Davis could win the job.
ccording to Pro Football Focus last season, there was no better cornerback in press coverage than Desmond Trufant. The sixth-year man is best when he’s physical with wide receivers off the line, a skill perfectly in line with the Falcons’ aggressive mentality. Though he missed one game with a concussion in 2017, Trufant was back in good form after an injury-shortened ’16; he had two interceptions and 12 pass breakups last season.
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16 | 2018 ATLANTA FALCONS
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FALCONS BOLSTER ALL THREE PHASES WITH BALANCED ROOKIE CLASS T
he NFL Draft is an involved process that requires hours of film study, collective vigilance and pinpoint execution to ensure that each selection meets the team’s needs. Head coach Dan Quinn and General Manager Thomas Dimitroff have led this process the last four drafts, and their affinity for drafting speed and athleticism is one of the primary staples of their approach. Still, team needs differ year to year, as do the talent pool and order from which teams must pick. In an effort to guarantee both sides of the football are bolstered with incoming talent each year, regardless of the variables, Atlanta has remained consistently balanced. In 2015, Quinn’s first year as head coach, four of the seven picks were defensive players, and each of the following three drafts split their six-man classes evenly between three defensive picks and three offensive picks. So, out of the 25 picks made during the Quinn era, 13 were defense and 12 were offense.
PLAN OF ACTION
Conversations leading up to the 2018 Draft revealed a strong sense that it was a year particularly deep with defensive line talent, among other positions like quarterback and offensive line. Atlanta entered the draft with a heightened demand for a defensive tackle after losing Dontari Poe in free agency, but the depth of the position opened up opportunities to look elsewhere in the earlier rounds. Consequentially, Atlanta used its No. 26 overall pick to draft wide receiver Calvin Ridley. The decision to select Ridley gave the offense an immediate contributor and another weapon to help the unit achieve its goal of becoming more explosive this season. “I don’t think anybody in the state of Georgia or the city of Atlanta was happier than me when he was available for us at that position,” said quarterback Matt Ryan. “I think he’s going to be a great addition to what we do offensively, and I think Julio [Jones] is fired up to get another guy from Alabama.” When the team went on the clock with its second-round selection (58th overall), the decision was made; the length, ball skills and athleticism of cornerback Isaiah Oliver were far too valuable to miss out on.
18 | 2018 ATLANTA FALCONS
“We think that he has some of the best ball skills in the draft, hands down,” Dimitroff said of Oliver. “He’s a very talented, all-around versatile athlete.” After picking up playmakers on both sides of the football in the first two rounds, the Falcons used their third-round pick (90th overall) to fill their defensive tackle needs with Deadrin Senat, whom Quinn considers an ideal fit for the middle of Atlanta’s defensive front. “We’re very excited,” said Quinn. “He’s got really good quickness for a big guy, strong, square and the effort and toughness and all the things we look for at that position.” In Round 4, Atlanta added running back Ito Smith, whose explosiveness and catching ability aligns with starters Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
The Falcons’ final two selections were each made in the sixth round of the draft and were invested in players who excelled not only at their positions, but on special teams. Improving special-teams units has been a continuous theme of the Atlanta offseason, enough to compel the team to ship both seventh-round picks to the L.A. Rams in order to move up and take LSU receiver Russell Gage at 148th overall. Gage played defensive back before transitioning to become a productive receiver in college, giving him an ideal skill set to be groomed into a potential gunner role on special teams. Yale linebacker Foyesade Oluokun rounded out the six-man class and was taken with the 200th overall pick. Oluokun is a smart and versatile player with special-teams potential who also brought much-needed depth to the linebacker position. In addition to these picks, 27 undrafted rookies were added to the team after the draft. Quinn considers these newcomers a part of the draft class, and whether or not they technically are is a moot point. These players will have opportunities to earn roster spots and are essential to the competiveness and success of the offseason. “Because we believe in competition so much, because we believe in developing the players, people know that coming here as [an undrafted] college free agent is an excellent way to go,” explained Quinn. “We are going to make sure they can battle against anyone. The best man is going to play.”
THE TASTE of
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FALCONS PREP FOR
NEW HELMET RULE
& MODIFIED KICKOFF T
going to see real improvement in tackling and the technique of it.”
The new helmet-hitting rule is an expansion to the defenseless-player rules that protect a player in a defenseless posture from being hit in the head or neck area, such as an outstretched receiver making a catch. Now, whenever a player lowers his head to initiate contact with an opponent, it is to result in a 15-yard penalty and a possible ejection. League leaders said the rule stems from studies showing that the lowering of the head while delivering a hit is associated with a higher risk of injury. The leverage-based tackling techniques taught by Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn and his staff comply with the new rules, but he has still used additional film this offseason to highlight examples of bad technique and new drills to clean up habits that could get flagged in the season. “Well, No. 1, I’ve been a big proponent of a leverage-based shoulder-tackling technique for a long time,” said Quinn after OTAs. “So, it’s something in our program that we’ve really tried to teach hard. For you guys to understand it better, I think the main thing is, when is the helmet used to initiate contact? … It’s more when there’s time and space and an offensive player or a defensive player has the decision that they can put their head to the side and use their shoulder. You teach that anyway, but in the heat of it, you’ve seen some examples where we haven’t done that as well as we want. It’s going to take a hell of a lot of teaching and continued work on that, but, for us, I feel like it’s our responsibility to teach it the best. … I do think that you’re
The new kickoff rules will be one of the most talked-about aspects of the 2018 season, and both the coverage units and the return units will be playing with new sets of rules. “From the kickoff standpoint, they took all the running out, so you have to have your front foot on the 34-yard line,” explained special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong. “That is as far back as you can cheat. It has to be a five-five alignment flanking the kicker. You can no longer motion, you can no longer shift. Everybody has to be set for a count before the kicker approaches the ball and when the foot meets the ball is when you can leave.” The elimination of a running start is going to give the return team more time and space, and Armstrong believes this gives them the upper hand. But the rules impacting the return team also leave vulnerabilities. For example, the return team has a required setup zone that will contain eight players, allowing for three deep returners. Those eight players in the setup zone are required to line up within 15 yards of the spot of the kickoff, and they are barred from hitting within those 15 yards. This leaves space between the zone and the returners that could turn mortars or squib kicks into a footrace. Once they retreat, the use of wedge blocks, shoulderto-shoulder blocks and double teams with any of the three deep returners will be a flaggable offense. “Essentially what is going on is that kickoff returns, obviously there is a setup zone there,” explained Armstrong. “It’s going to be from the 45 to the [other 40-yard line]. And within that 15 yards, you have to have eight players. You cannot have your left foot on the 40 and your right foot on the 39. They are going to be very tic-tac about it. … Those eight people are in that setup zone and then you have three people deep, so as you can imagine, there is a lot of space. Get ready for surprise onside kicks, bloops, mortars. … I think the biggest thing is being ready to adjust to the learning curve. You have to keep an open mind. Nobody knows what anyone is going to run yet. That’s the big secret. But I’ll tell you what. It’s fun to play with. I’ve already been through three notepads.”
he NFL rule book thickens with time, and the introduction of new rules each offseason is often a response to disputes that have taken place over previous seasons or specific measures used to nudge the future of the sport in new directions. The 2018 offseason introduced several such changes, highlighted by a new “helmet-hitting” rule and a series of rule changes involving kickoffs intended to make play safer. The impact the new rules will have this upcoming season remains to be seen, but the importance of Training Camp and the preseason to adapt to the changes will be a theme for all 32 teams around the league.
20 | 2018 ATLANTA FALCONS
THE MODIFIED KICKOFF
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SARK'S OFFENSE S
econd-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian considers the biggest difference from last offseason to the current offseason to be his “overall comfort level.” When Sarkisian came to Atlanta in February 2017, his first steps were to take on the process of familiarizing himself with each of the players on a person-to-person basis. Now, with a full regular season and two playoff games with his group, the familiarity between coordinator and player has clarified the group’s purpose and goals in ways that are only possible with firsthand experience. In the second go-round, Sarkisian is confident that the offense can climb from finishing 15th in scoring last year toward the top of the league, where they were during the 2016 season. Red-zone execution, and more specifically scoring in the red zone, was one of the biggest shortcomings of the offense last season, but the minor dip in explosive plays from the 2016 season to the 2017 season also lessened the scoring. The Falcons finished No. 1 in the league in third-down conversions and finished third in the league in explosive plays (runs of 10plus yards and receptions of 25-plus yards). The balanced attack consistently moved
the chains, but the group ranked 23rd in the league in scoring touchdowns inside the 20-yard line. Sarkisian has been hard at work digging into the offensive schemes and game film to improve the performance in the red zone this season.
REUNITED IN ATLANTA
Atlanta’s first-round draft pick this year, wide receiver Calvin Ridley, adds to the overall explosiveness of the offense, but his quickness and ability to play in the slot creates opportunities that can be used effectively in red-zone situations as well. Sarkisian worked with the wide receiver during his one season at Alabama and thinks he is a great fit for the team. “Calvin is a dynamic playmaker,” Sarkisian said. “He can catch the deep ball and he can run. What I appreciate about Calvin and where I thought he would fit very well was his work ethic. It is what he brings every day, it’s his demeanor and it’s him fitting into The Brotherhood and the culture here. So far, all these things have held true. We are seeing the person we thought we were going to get on a daily basis and we are also seeing the player we thought we were going to get.”
The Falcons offensive coaching staff did not have much turnover this offseason, but one change that excites Sarkisian is the addition of Greg Knapp, the new quarterbacks coach. Knapp has coached offense in the NFL since 1997 and has coached some of the greats at the quarterback position, such as Peyton Manning and Steve Young. Knapp is also familiar with Atlanta; he was the Falcons offensive coordinator from 2004 to 2006, when Michael Vick was the starting quarterback. Sarkisian is thrilled to have Knapp on staff. “We have the same philosophy in how we view the game,” Sarkisian said. “When Greg goes into that QB room, I know that what is being taught is exactly what needs to be taught.”
REACHING THE NEXT LEVEL
For an NFL team to have success, it is crucial that the offensive coordinator and the quarterback are on the same page and have a strong relationship. Sarkisian believes that he and Matt Ryan had solid chemistry last season, but they are ready to get to the next level of their coordinator-quarterback relationship. Sarkisian wants to get to the point where Ryan can almost anticipate the play call before it’s made. With a year of experience working with Ryan, Sarkisian
has a much better understanding of the type of calls Ryan likes. The offseason has been an opportunity to introduce new wrinkles into the playbook, and Sarkisian has been looking into incorporating the trendy RPO (run-pass option) into the Falcons offense next season. The key to being effective with RPO plays is quickness, and Sarkisian is certain that Ryan is quick enough in his decision-making and with his feet that these calls will be successful. Sarkisian would also like to get more receptions out of the backfield from Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. He says improving in this area is a two-way street; he is prepared to call more plays for them to get receptions, but they also must capitalize on their opportunities to catch the ball. Sarkisian has made it a priority this offseason to get his dynamic running backs even more involved in the passing game. “They have taken to the challenge, and it has shown so far,” Sarkisian said in the spring. Sarkisian is looking to pull all the right strings in his second year as an NFL offensive coordinator. With more consistency and an improved ability to finish drives with touchdowns, the Falcons could be poised for a mammoth year.
MERCEDES-BENZ STADIUM WARMS UP FOR ROUND 2 BY CRAIG SAGER II
ercedes-Benz Stadium opened its doors for business in August 2017 with an unimaginably busy first year on the horizon. The excitement surrounding the grand opening, and the parade of events to come, brought a strong sense of achievement and pride. Atlanta’s awe-inspiring steel fortress houses two million square feet of groundbreaking achievements and features, including the incredible versatility required to accommodate such a wide range of events. Through teamwork, imagination and an exploration into the layers of fan experience, a stadium with an atmosphere unlike any other had been achieved. It was finally time to show it off to the world.
THE EPICENTER OF ENTERTAINMENT
The Falcons played their final game of the 2017 preseason at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Aug. 31. The regular-season action kicked off in Chicago against the Bears on Sept. 10, and their highly anticipated home opener against Green Bay was played on Sunday, Sept 17. This 16-day gap left plenty of time for the stadium to generate a whirlwind of unforgettable moments before the showdown with the Packers. On Sept. 2, No. 1-ranked Alabama kicked off Week 1 of the college football season against Florida State, resulting in the mostwatched college football opener in history. Two days later, Georgia Tech and Tennessee packed the city’s brand new palace for a double-overtime Labor Day thriller, which also ranked among the 10 most-viewed games of the college football regular season. Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s other resident team, Atlanta United FC, was next up, christening the stadium on Sept.
10, already 24 matches into its inaugural campaign. With only nine total matches left on the regular-season slate, the Five Stripes’ inaugural match at MBS opened a crucial six-match homestand that would determine the fate of the season. Sandwiched right in the middle of this six-game stretch was the Falcons’ home opener against the Packers. Atlanta United finished the homestand unbeaten, capping off the incredible run in picture-perfect fashion with a playoffclinching 3-0 victory over Philadelphia Union on Sept. 27 (Arthur Blank’s 75th birthday). A crowd of 70,425 filled Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the third game of the homestand, setting the MLS single-game attendance record that would be surpassed five weeks later by the 71,874 fans who attended the regular-season finale against Toronto FC. Meanwhile, the Falcons kept the home crowd buzzing with a 34-23 victory over Green Bay, the third time in 11 months that Atlanta served a visiting Packers team a defeat. A crowd of 80,000-plus packed Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Oct. 12 to see Garth Brooks perform the venue’s inaugural concert. When the soccer season ended less than two weeks later (Oct. 26), the pace appeared to briefly slow down. Even so, daily tours offer fans the chance to see the inner workings of the stadium and keep the doors open year-round. Plus, the Falcons’ battle for a playoff berth was intensifying each week, largely because of a schedule that was packed with crucial division matchups down the stretch. On Dec. 2, the Georgia Bulldogs topped Auburn 28-7 in the SEC Championship Game in front of a full house of 76,534 spectators. Five days later, the Falcons hosted the Saints in the venue for the first time; Deion Jones leapt back and intercepted Saints
24 | 2018 ATLANTA FALCONS
quarterback Drew Brees in the end zone with 1:25 left to save the game and give Atlanta a 20-17 win. The Falcons hosted the rival Carolina Panthers for their regular-season finale on Dec. 31, needing a win to secure a spot in the playoffs. The teams entered the half tied 7-7, but five clutch field goals by Matt Bryant in the second half, including a 56-yarder, sent Atlanta to the playoffs with a 22-10 win. The grand finale of Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s first year lineup, however, came on Jan. 8, 2018, welcoming back No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Georgia to square off in the College Football Playoff National Championship. Alabama head coach Nick Saban faced his former defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, head coach of the Bulldogs. A crowd of 77,430 watched the game carry into overtime, where Alabama prevailed 26-23 after a walk-off 41yard touchdown pass. Throughout the year, Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s Fan First pricing made headlines. The value items such as $2 bottomless drinks, $2 hot dogs and $5 cheeseburgers were wildly popular, and the stadium’s premier dining experiences, which also offer Fan First pricing, created an incredible amount of options. The speed of service, number of points of sale and the quality of the food didn’t go unnoticed either. The prices remain fixed regardless of the event, and the fan bases of Atlanta United and the Atlanta Falcons both ranked first in their respective leagues this past season for food and beverage experience.
BIGGER AND BIGGER
Minor improvements were made to the stadium in the spring and summer months, most notably the addition of more exits to make exiting events easier. Now, as the
one-year anniversary of Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s opening rolls around, the attention turns to the next lineup of events, headlined by Super Bowl LIII in February 2019. The stadium will host several events for the first time in the upcoming months, including the MLS All-Star game on Aug. 1. Juventus, the legendary club that has been champions of Italy’s Serie A for the last six seasons and UEFA Champions League finalists in 2015 and 2017, will face the MLS All-Stars in the match. Atlanta United has a record-setting six players representing the club on the MLS All-Star roster. “We welcome Juventus — one of the world’s iconic clubs — as our opponent for the 2018 MLS All-Star Game presented by Target,” said Commissioner Don Garber following the announcement. “Our midseason showcase annually attracts the most prominent clubs in global soccer, and this year our All-Stars will face one of the sport’s most historically successful teams. And we can’t think of a better city to host the game than in Atlanta, which due to the incredible success and popularity of Atlanta United has rapidly captured the attention of the entire soccer world.” The largest high school football kickoff event in the country, the MetroPCS Corky Kell Classic, will make its Mercedes-Benz debut with a five-game lineup on Saturday, Aug. 18. The Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Classic; two Falcons preseason and eight home games; the remaining Atlanta United schedule; and the 2018 SEC Championship Game in December will take it from there. Each passing day brings us closer to Super Bowl LIII, which will kick off at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Feb. 3, 2019, and show off the one-of-a-kind venue and atmosphere to its biggest audience yet.
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Atlanta sports market saw a reTtionhemarkable addition with the construcof Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Since
the stadiumâ€™s opening on Aug. 26, 2017, for a Falcons preseason game, fans have been introduced to a whole new experience at Falcons and Atlanta United games. Fans can now look forward to another amenity that will enhance their game-day experience and the local community. The Home Depot Backyard, opening this September, will feature 11 acres of multipurpose green space where the Georgia Dome once stood. The Home Depot Backyard will enrich the area and provide a wide range of event opportunities. These programming options will
focus on four areas: arts and culture, communal education, health and wellness, and service-oriented activations. Fans attending games at MBS will also have the opportunity for an elite tailgating experience and activities. Partnering with Tailgate Guys, who have been revolutionizing game-day experiences since 2009, there will be many options for standout packages that will be available for the 2019 football season. Access to tents, TV packages, tables and chairs, bellhop services, an onsite concierge and catering makes for an unparalleled trip to any game. The local community will use it on a day-to-day basis. Aside from an ideal place to conduct fitness classes, a
26 | 2018 ATLANTA FALCONS
portion of the Home Depot Backyard will feature a playground for all ages to congregate and interact. The regulation turf football field provides even more free space for kids and adults to practice sports or simply enjoy their day. For all those looking to seek shade from the sun or have a sit-down meal, the dual-level Home Depot Pavilion offers a whole new setting where people can enjoy a different environment. The Home Depot Pavilion will have an ADAaccessible ramp with many entry points so guests of all abilities can participate. Bathrooms will also be available during operating hours. A half-mile bike path connecting the Westside neighborhoods with the downtown area allows
for easy access from surrounding parts of the city. With such a vast array of flex space, the Home Depot Backyard brings a lot to the table for Falcons and Atlanta United fans. The construction of a 35-foot mirrored soccer ball on the north plaza just above the Home Depot Backyard will pair with the Falcon sculpture near the main entrance, representing both of the stadiumâ€™s home teams. The addition of 520 parking spots guarantees that those who want to take part in any Home Depot Backyard activities will be able to do so. The Home Depot Backyard can offer something for everyone on any day of the week, making it a great place for fans and members of the community.
Official Energy Partner
behind the Brotherhood. At Georgia Power, we share your passion to rise up long before the first game of the season. Weâ€™re right there with you, cheering at practice and on game days as our Falcons charge down the field. For more than 100 years, weâ€™ve been bringing that same winning energy to the community we call home. #PowerToWin georgiapower.com/sports
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