Cover 9 @9: Grady Jarrett not worried about the NFC South

Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett loosens up for the team's second scrimmage Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, in Flowery Branch.
Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett loosens up for the team's second scrimmage Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, in Flowery Branch.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

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. Last season, the Falcons had a fully back-loaded NFC South schedule.

By the time they got to division play, they essentially were eliminated from the playoffs after their 1-7 start.

The team rallied to go 6-2 over the final eight games and earn second place in the division.

But with Drew Brees returning and six-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady landing in Tampa Bay, the Falcons have been a mere afterthought in the ramp up to the start of the 2020 season.

If the Falcons can’t handle the NFC North teams in the first half of the season, the NFC South won’t mean much again. Over their first eight games, the Falcons play four games against the NFC North – Chicago, at Green Bay, at Minnesota and Detroit. They also play Seattle and at Dallas and two games against Carolina.

If the Falcons can make it to the halfway point this season in much better shape than last year, then they can worry about Brady and Brees.

Over the final eight games, they have four games against the AFC West – Denver, Las Vegas, at Los Angeles Chargers and at Kansas City -- and two games apiece against New Orleans and Tampa Bay.

“It’s been a highly competitive division since I’ve been in the league,” Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. “Every game that we play against each other in the NFC South is really intense.”

Jarrett had three sacks on Brady in Super Bowl LI.

“Every year it changes, but it’s been fun to have some new additions to the NFC South,” Jarrett said. “We’ll get to see some new faces. So, for me that’s good. I just know it’s going to be highly competitive every time. Any time you get the opportunity to play against top players, it’s always fun and brings out the best in you, as it always should.”

The Falcons can’t afford another sluggish early part of a season. In addition to last season’s slow start, they opened 1-4 in 2018.

“I look forward to it and to us having a better year for the Falcons coming out on top,” Jarrett said. “I’m excited for us to compete, and I don’t see us backing down from nobody.”

The Falcons don’t mind that New Orleans and Tampa Bay are drawing most of the attention in the division.

“The attention ain’t going to win you no games,” Jarrett said. “We’re focused on being the best organization that we can be. Everything else is going to take care of itself.”

Don’t mention Brady to Jarrett, either.

“We don’t even see them guys until the 15th week of the season, so we can’t be over here worried about Tampa the whole year, and we don’t see them until half of the season is over with,” Jarrett said. “We have a lot of people ahead of us. A lot of games ahead of us.

“We are taking it week by week. We are just trying to compete with ourselves while we are in training camp, to make us the best team that we can be. Then when it’s time to go to work. We are going to handle each team, week by week.”

Somebody is ready for the season to start.

Bring it on.

2. Final scrimmage. The Falcons will work on some situations and take a final look at some players on the bubble in the final scrimmage Thursday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

3. The return of Ito Smith. Falcons coach Dan Quinn, who believes the backfield committee will vary on a game-by-game basis, has been pleased with the return of running back Ito Smith.

“He always had a fantastic feel for vision and seeing blocks,” Quinn said. “I think as a running back you just need to (run) over and over again the different plays. That way, OK, I want to see how this sets up against this look. See how this sets up against the next look.”

Quinn sounded like legendary coach Herman Boone, who in the movie “Remember the Titans” said: “I run six plays, split veer. It’s like novocaine. ... Just give it time, it always works.”

“We don’t have a ton of plays, but there are some different looks,” Quinn said. “It’s a matter of just continuing to push that over and over again to get the feel; the line to get to know him and where he likes to cut because some times that can effect where a play goes. So, I think just that chemistry between the line, the tight ends, the fullback and the runners. You just need time go through those, and that’s what we’ve been putting in extra time in that space for us.”

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Falcons running back Ito Smith discusses how tough it was to miss half of last season and how he hopes to reclaim his spot in the backfield rotation.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

4. Backup center. With Alex Mack getting a break from practice one day during every four-day block, Justin McCray has stepped into the backup center position.

“He and (Sean) Harlow have been the ones battling back and forth,” Quinn said. “On the days that Mack is not here, we have certainly been impressed by McCray because he’s had to take over the load and all of the calls. Those two have certainly answered those tests.”

5. Davidson could miss opener. Falcons rookie defensive end Marlon Davidson, who suffered a knee strain, is in danger of missing the season opener, which is set for Sept. 13 against Seattle at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Davidson, who played at Auburn and was drafted in the second round, has been out since Aug. 20. He’s getting close to returning.

“Not concerned from certainly a learning standpoint because this guy really gets the football part of it,” coach Dan Quinn said. “The conditioning part, he’s pushing it. But now, just the flow of it and getting into it. We’re excited to get him back on the field, and that’s coming soon. So for us, knowing that he’s pushing it and getting there ... for game conditioning, it will take a few weeks to get into the right space for sure.”

The Falcons want to play Davidson at defensive tackle next to Jarrett in pass-rushing situations. Now, second-year man John Cominsky, who’s having a strong training camp, will move up the depth chart.

The Falcons don’t have any long-term injuries, but Quinn noted that defensive end Dante Fowler has a sprained ankle. Fowler was not seen during the open portions of practice Monday and Tuesday.

“He and few others we’ve worked on the side,” Quinn said. “As you’re looking at the roster, there are few guys out. ... You won’t see (center Alex) Mack and (running back Todd) Gurley (on Tuesday). They’ll be off. (Left guard James) Carpenter will be back on. No one is (out) long-term.

“There are a couple that we’ll manage through the next few days in preparation for next week to make sure that we are fully healthy and ready to rip, beginning on Monday.”

6. Hennessy could miss opener, too. Falcons rookie guard Matt Hennessy suffered a knee injury in the scrimmage Friday and would have to heal quickly to get ready for the opener.

Quinn said there are no long-term injuries, but there appear to be some short-term ones.

Carpenter would figure to get the first shot, but the coaching staff does seem to like McCray.

7. Rushing attack. The NFL may be a passing league, but the teams that can run the football are winning the most games.

In 2019, NFL teams with a 100-yard rusher posted a 78-28 record for a .736 winning percentage. That rated higher than teams with a 100-yard receiver (96-84-2, .533) or a 300-yard passer (68-61-2, .530).

The Falcons didn’t have a 100-yard rusher in any game last season. The Falcons went for more than 100 yards rushing, as a group, in only four games. Devonta Freeman’s season-high was 88 yards in a loss Oct. 13 to Arizona.

In 2016, the Falcons rushed for more than 100 yards in 10 games on their way to the Super Bowl. They rushed for more than 200 yards twice.

In 2017, the Falcons rushed for more than 100 yards in 11 games as they went to the playoffs. They rushed for more than 200 yards in one game.

In 2018, the Falcons rushed for more than 100 yards in six games, including one game of more than 200 yards.

The last time the Falcons had a 100-yard rusher was when running back Brian Hill rushed for 115 yards against Carolina in the 15th game of the 2018 season.

8. Blank’s book. Falcons owner Arthur Blank memoir “Good Company” will hit the bookstores Sept. 15. Our Bo Emerson sat with the owner in suite at the scrimmage last Friday and wrote a review.

Football-wise, Blank revisits the Michael Vick saga, the players calling him to complain about Bobby Petrino and a chapter on the Super Bowl collapse.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Falcons rookie safety Jaylinn Hawkins, a fourth-round pick, discusses his jump to the NFL from California in the Pac-12.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

9. Depth chart. The Falcons must be down to 53 players by the deadline, 4 p.m. Saturday. Then the real roster juggling will begin to get 16 players on the expanded practice squad. Look for teams to put more veterans and fewer developmental players on the practice squad. If a team gets hit with rash of reserve/COVID-19 listings, they want to pull up talent that they think can play in the NFL.

OFFENSE

WR -- 11 Julio Jones, 80 Laquon Treadwell, 13 Christian Blake, 19 Devin Gray, 14 Chris Rowland, 12 Juwan Green

LT -- 70 Jake Matthews, 73 Matt Gono, 71 Ka’John Armstrong

LG – 77 James Carpenter, 61 Matt Hennessy, 73 Matt Gono, 64 Sean Harlow

C -- 51 Alex Mack, 65 Justin McCray, 64 Sean Harlow

RG -- 63 Chris Lindstrom, 65 Justin McCray, 66 Justin Gooseberry

RT -- 76 Kaleb McGary, 75 John Wetzel, 72 Evin Ksiezarczyk

TE -- 81 Hayden Hurst, 88 Luke Stocker, 87 Jaeden Graham, 86 Khari Lee, 89 Jared Pinkney

WR -- 18 Calvin Ridley, 83 Russell Gage, 17 Olamide Zaccheaus, 15 Brandon Powell, 1 Jalen McCleskey

QB -- 2 Matt Ryan, 8 Matt Schaub, 6 Kurt Benkert

RB -- 21 Todd Gurley, 25 Ito Smith, 23 Brian Hill, 30 Qadree Ollison, 42 Craig Reynolds

FB -- 40 Keith Smith, 44 Mikey Daniel

DEFENSE

DE -- 56 Dante Fowler, 95 Austin Edwards

DT -- 97 Grady Jarrett, 50 John Cominsky, 99 Hinwa Allieu

DT -- 96 Tyeler Davison, 90 Marlon Davidson, 94 Deadrin Senat, 79 Sailosi Latu

DE -- 93 Allen Bailey, 55 Steven Means*

DE -- 98 Takk McKinley, 92 Charles Harris, 91 Jacob Tuioti-Mariner

LB -- 54 Foyesade Oluokun, 36 Deone Bucannon, 46 Edmond Robinson

LB -- 45 Deion Jones, 59 LaRoy Reynolds, 43 Mykal Walker, 48 Ray Wilborn

RCB -- 26 Isaiah Oliver, 20 Kendall Sheffield, 29 Josh Hawkins, 42 Delrick Abrams, 44 Tyler Hall

LCB -- 24 A.J. Terrell, 33 Blidi Wreh-Wilson, 28 Jordan Miller

NCB -- 38 Darqueze Dennard, 20 Kendall Sheffield, 34 Chris Cooper

SS – 22 Kenau Neal, 37 Ricardo Allen, 48 J.J. Wilcox 32 Jaylinn Hawkins, 35 Jamal Carter

FS -- 27 Damontae Kazee, 37 Ricardo Allen, 41 Sharrod Neasman

SPECIALISTS

K -- 7 Younghoe Koo

KO -- 7 Younghoe Koo

P -- 4 Sterling Hofrichter

LS -- 47 Josh Harris

H -- 4 Sterling Hofrichter

KOR – 17 Olamide Zaccheaus, 15 Brandon Powell, 25 Ito Smith, 14 Chris Rowland

PR – 14 Chris Rowland, 15 Brandon Powell, 17 Olamide Zaccheaus

·* -- On the reserve/COVID-19 list.

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