Cover 9@9: Falcons to look at joint practices to combat slow starts

HAPPY NEW YEAR! Welcome to the Cover 9@9 blog - our weekly list of nine things that you need to know about the Atlanta Falcons.

1. The No Spin Zone. After starting the past two seasons 1-4 and 1-7, Falcons coach Dan Quinn knows they must do a better job over the offseason and in training camp getting the team ready to play.

Last season, they paid lip-service to the five exhibition games and thought they could flip on the switch when they got Minnesota for the season opener.

Well, we know how that turned out.

Granted the NFL’s contact rules and no live tackling in practice make it difficult to get ready for the season. But the Falcons must figure out how to maximize the live contact.

“Quite honestly, some of it could depend if there’s some new guidelines for all of us in the league,” Quinn said. “To bring it up, we've kind of gone both ways. We’ve done some before where we played more of the guys (in the exhibition) season.”

Quinn believes the exhibition games are important for new players to gain experience, but the starters need to play more. They clearly weren’t ready to go against the Vikings.

“We want to pressure-test more as often as we can,” Quinn said.

The Falcons regularly held joint-practices under former coach Mike Smith. Quinn is considering stealing a page from coach Smitty’s book.

In the past the Falcons have used joint practices to help them evaluate their offensive and defensive lines against NFL competition.

With a rebuilding of the offensive line last season, the Falcons discussed holding joint practices with another team, but elected not to do so.

The Falcons have held joint practices with the PatriotsBengals, Titans and Jaguars in the past.

“If that includes a team they haven't done before as part of training camp, I'm willing to look at all things,” Quinn said. “We definitely had seasons where it's gone better at the start and obviously this one where it certainly didn't, but, yeah, I'm up for all that”

The key for the joint practice is that both teams have a mutual respect and the scrimmages don’t erupt into fights.

“To me, that’s what this part is going to be about, moving forward to say we’ve got good experience,” Quinn said. “I want to lean on a lot of smart people that are part of our organization and team and look at it from every angle.”

2. Salary-cap situation: The Falcons are already over the salary cap by $2.6 million, according to website Spotrac.

The team knows how to maneuver the cap and is not overly concerned. In January is usually when they take on some cap casualties to get back under the cap.

"We have to make some difficult decisions," general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "In my mind, when we do decide on the decisions we're going to make, I don't think it's going to leave our organization in a spot where we are devoid of talent."

The Falcons can also restructure some deals to create cap space.

“I feel like we have a really good setup and situation on how we put it all together, and Dan and I communicate very, very closely on how we want our team to come together,” Dimitroff said. “The money that we’re going to put into the team. I think on the other side of this, you’ll realize what I’m talking about.”

3. Balance the offense: Much is being written postseason about balancing the run and pass attack of the offense.

When you’re getting blown out at halftime, as was the case for much of the first half of the season, there’s little room to balance things out.

“We had some games we were behind, and you've got to rip it and throw it to go more,” Quinn said.

Hard to balance the run when you’re top running back is averaging 3.6 yards per carry.

4. Quinn's team have been streaky. The Falcons have had wild streaks in each of Quinn's five seasons. In his first season 6-1 turned into 8-8. In 2016, they started 4-3 before going on a Super Bowl roll. In 2017, they started 3-3 on the way to 10-6.

In the past two seasons, they rebounded from 1-4 and 1-7 starts to finish 7-9 each time.

Quinn didn’t have an answer for the streaks.

“That’s going to be a big push, obviously, moving forward,” Quinn said. “Like a lot of things, we need to dig deep and hard and find out why that’s happening.”

Quinn’s coaching goal is to get the collective play to high level faster and then maintain it.

“One of the exciting things in the weeks and months ahead is to make sure those things don’t take place to where, when you get yourself into a spot, how quickly do you get out of it?” Quinn said. “Certainly, on the losing side. I don’t have an answer for you on that one yet.”

5. Who exceeded expectations? Quinn was asked about players who exceeded expectations.

“Guys that I was happy to see make jumps that exceeded, I would say a guy like (wide receiver Calvin) Ridley took the spot even further after the (Mohamed Sanu) trade,” Quinn said. “I thought (wide receiver Russell) Gage was another one that could play in the slot and be effective, and you saw the production that took place into that one.

“On the defensive side, coming in, Grady (Jarrett), I had good high expectations of what he would do, and I think he certainly delivered on those. He's a guy that showed he can be so disruptive to wreck it.”

6. Five signed to futures deals.  Quarterback Danny Etling was among five players signed to reserve/future contracts by the Falcons on Monday.

The team also signed offensive lineman Lukayus McNeil, tight end Carson Meier, defensive back C.J. Reavis and running back Craig Reynolds.

All five players ended the season on the team’s practice squad.

7. 2020 opponents set.  With the Falcons' win Sunday over the Bucs, they finished in second place in the NFC South.

A second-place finish means a road game at the NFC East’s Cowboys and a home game against Seattle, who lost to the 49ers in their season finale.

Next season’s away games will be at: Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Carolina, Kansas City, Los Angeles (Chargers), Green Bay, Minnesota and Dallas.

In the home games, the Falcons will face: Bucs, Saints, Panthers, Bears, Lions, Broncos, Raiders and Seahawks.

One of those "home" games likely will be in London. The Falcons played the Lions in London in 2014. The Saints followed in 2017. The Seahawks traveled in 2018. The Bucs, Bears and Raiders were in London in 2019. The Broncos haven't played abroad since 2010.

8. Hooper top priority. Falcons tight end Austin Hooper market value is five-years, $49.9 million per year.

9. Potential free agent list. Here's a list of the Falcons potential free agents:

Unrestricted free agents  Defensive end/linebacker Vic Beasley, defensive tackle Jack Crawford, punter Matt Bosher, defensive end Adrian Clayborn, quarterback Matt Schaub (club option), wide receiver Justin Hardy, cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson, safety/linebacker Kemal Ishmael, defensive tackle Tyeler Davison, safety J.J. Wilcox, defensive end Steven Means, running back Kenjon Barner, fullback Keith Smith, safety John Cyprien, punter Ryan Allen, cornerback Jamar Taylor, tight end Austin Hooper, defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, linebacker De'Vondre Campbell, offensive lineman John Wetzel, safety Sharrod Neasman, quarterback Matt Simms and offensive guard/center Wes Schweitzer.

Restricted free agents – Defensive tackle Michael Bennett, kicker Younghoe Koo and running back Brian Hill.

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