Cover 9@9: Can the Falcons catch the Super Bowl champion Buccaneers?

Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Ndamukong Suh (93) chases Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) during the first half Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (Mark LoMoglio/AP)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Ndamukong Suh (93) chases Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) during the first half Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (Mark LoMoglio/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

1. The No Spin Zone. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ coaching staff should send the former Falcons coaches a thank-you card and a nice bottle of wine for giving them the blueprint on how to stop the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV.

Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who’s a known blitzer, dropped back and played zone like the Falcons did in Week 15 to take away wide receiver Tyreek Hill.

Yeah, tight end Travis Kelce got free from some catches against both teams, but he didn’t wreck the defense like Hill could have.

The Chiefs needed a late 25-yard touchdown pass to Demarcus Robinson to beat the Falcons 17-14. Most just wrote off the close game and contended that the Chiefs were likely dis-interested in playing the going-nowhere 4-10 Falcons.

But the Falcons’ defense played a game for interim coach Raheem Morris and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich. If rookie A.J. Terrell had hauled in the acrobatic near-interception in the end zone, the Falcons would have had the upset of the season.

Bowles, who interviewed for the Falcons’ head coaching job, held the high-scoring Chiefs out of the end zone in the Super Bowl.

Also, Bowles used his pass rushers uniquely. He moved defensive tackle Vita Vea outside at times and he ran right through the Chiefs’ backup tackles. Also, linebacker Shaq Barrett was rested in the third quarter so that he could finish the game strong.

The Bucs had two sacks, eight quarterback hits and two interceptions.

While Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong Suh are the keys to Tampa Bay’s defensive line. Others contributors like Rakeem Nunez-Roches (13 snaps, 17%) and William Gholston (26 snaps, 35%) helped keep the heat on Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

One of the things the Falcons’ new regime must emulate is that they must find some players the way the Bucs did.

Barrett was buried on the roster in Denver. Nunez-Roches was a sixth-round pick by the Broncos in 2015. Gholston was a fourth-round pick in 2013. Gholston is a 6-foot-6, 281-pound end such as what the Falcons will need in defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ 3-4 system.

To catch the Bucs, the Falcons are going to need a pass rush like the Bucs.

Part of the solution will be a bounce-back season from Dante Fowler, who will fit nicely in the Barrett spot in the Pees’ scheme.

Also, congratulations to former Falcons assistant coach and special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong (1994-95, safeties/secondary and 2008-19 special-teams coordinator) and to former Falcons quarterback Byron Leftwich (2007), who both picked up a Super Bowl ring with the Bucs.

Leftwich, who didn’t get any interviews this coaching cycle, will be a hot commodity during the next cycle.

Armstrong interviewed for the head coaching position with the Falcons in 2015. He also interviewed with the Chiefs, but lost out to Andy Reid.

2. Gurley’s market value: Falcons running back Todd Gurley, who is set to become a free agent March 17, has a market value of $5.5 million, according to Spotrac.com.

Gurley said during an appearance on NFL Network on Feb. 3 that he had to reach out to new Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot to see if he was in the team’s future plans.

“We have to establish a running game again,” Falcons owner Arthur Blank said recently. “We’ve had one in the past. Not the last couple of years.

“If we established the running game, it makes the passing game much easier. It makes your ability to control the game. Control the clock. Control the tempo of the game. It creates your ability to quote, unquote, impose your will on the other team. Without it, it’s very hard to do those things and we haven’t that obviously in the last few years.”

Gurley was signed to replace Devonta Freeman last season, but he was slowed over the last half of the season and used mostly as a third-down back as Ito Smith took over the lead role.

Todd Gurley, who joined the Falcons on a 1-year, $5.5 million deal, rushed for 678 rushing yards on 195 carries.

3. Hurst wins NFLPA’s Alan Page award: Falcons tight end Hayden Hurst was named the winner of the NFLPA’s 2021 Alan Page Community Award for his outreach efforts Thursday.

The union will donate $100,000 to the Hayden Hurst Foundation.

Hurst was recognized for opening up about his personal battles with depression, substance abuse and his attempted suicide in 2016.

“It is truly an honor to receive the 2021 Alan Page Community Award,” Hurst said in a statement release by the NFLPA. “I cannot begin to explain how much this means to me, my family, and to all the people that we will now be able to help through the use of these funds.”

As the NFLPA’s highest honor, the Alan Page Community Award annually recognizes one player who demonstrates a profound dedication to positively impacting his team’s city and communities across the country, following in the spirit of the Pro Football Hall of Famer and social pioneer for whom the honor is named.

The funding raised in the past two months allowed his foundation to support the mental health of nearly 270 teachers, 5,500 students and 8,185 parents through a program called In Focus, which implements social and emotional training programs into local K-8 schools in Atlanta, Maryland and South Carolina. The other funds will go toward providing assistance to two low-income schools in Florida.

“God works in mysterious ways and I believe my second chance was given to me so I could share my story and help save lives,” Hurst said.

Former Falcons great Mike Kenn won the Alan Page award in 1991.

4. Falcons’ AMBSE organization lays off 12 employees: AMB Sports and Entertainment, the parent company of the Falcons, Atlanta United and Mercedes-Benz Stadium, has had a recent round of layoffs across the organization.

At least 12 employees lost their jobs in various roles on the business side of the operation last week, according to two people familiar with the matter.

The cuts come as pro sports franchises are experiencing sharp revenue declines amid the coronavirus pandemic. Home games during the Falcons’ 2020 season were played before socially distanced crowds of about 11% of the stadium’s normal capacity.

An AMBSE spokesperson provided this statement to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Friday in response to questions about the recent layoffs: “It is an annual practice to review all areas of operations due to the ever-changing business climate. AMB Sports and Entertainment leadership did a careful review of current operations across its businesses and made the difficult, but necessary, decision to restructure and streamline operations. This has resulted in the elimination of select positions as well as closing some previously open positions across the portfolio.”

In an earlier round of cuts, AMBSE eliminated 12 positions last year, including that of Mercedes-Benz Stadium general manager. Last week’s cuts involved positions in digital media, sales and other areas.

5. Morgan to Steelers: Former Falcons offensive line coach Chris Morgan has been named the new assistant offensive line coach with the Steelers.

Morgan, one of the original members of Dan Quinn’s coaching staff, was named the offensive line coach of the year by Pro Football Focus in 2015 and was a part of the Falcons’ record-breaking offense in 2016.

The Steelers offensive line coach is Adrian Klemm.

6. Mack to 49ers? Falcons center Alex Mack, who’s set to become an unrestricted free agent March 17, finished his five-year, $45 million contract. He helped get the team to the Super Bowl, but the Falcons don’t have another $9 million to entice him back.

Mack, 35, has played 12 seasons in the NFL, including two with San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan. They were together in Cleveland (2015) and in Atlanta (2016).

“Kyle is an incredible coach,” Mack said via Matt Maiocco of NBC Sports Bay Area. “He’s an incredible coach, great person, strong motivator and runs an offense that is something that I’d know really well and that I performed very well in.”

Weston Richburg didn’t make it back after complications from knee surgery and former Falcon Ben Garland started five games at center and ex-Falcons practice squad player Daniel Brunskill ended the season as the starting center.

Atlanta Falcons center Alex Mack (51) signals protections from the line of scrimmage against the Minnesota Vikings during the second half Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, in Minneapolis. (Bruce Kluckhohn/AP)
Atlanta Falcons center Alex Mack (51) signals protections from the line of scrimmage against the Minnesota Vikings during the second half Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, in Minneapolis. (Bruce Kluckhohn/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

7. Super Bowl LVI longshots: The Kansas City Chiefs are 5 to 1 favorites to win Super Bowl LVI, according to BetOnline (www.BetOnline.ag, Twitter: @betonline_ag).

The Falcons are 50 to-1 longshots.

Here are league-wide odds:

Odds to Win Super Bowl LVI (2022)

Kansas City Chiefs 5/1

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 9/1

Buffalo Bills 12/1

Green Bay Packers 12/1

Los Angeles Rams 12/1

San Francisco 49ers 14/1

Baltimore Ravens 16/1

Cleveland Browns 20/1

Seattle Seahawks 20/1

Dallas Cowboys 25/1

Miami Dolphins 25/1

New England Patriots 25/1

Indianapolis Colts 28/1

Los Angeles Chargers 28/1

New Orleans Saints 28/1

Tennessee Titans 28/1

Pittsburgh Steelers 33/1

Arizona Cardinals 40/1

Philadelphia Eagles 40/1

Falcons 50/1

Carolina Panthers 50/1

Chicago Bears 50/1

Las Vegas Raiders 50/1

Minnesota Vikings 50/1

Houston Texans 66/1

New York Giants 66/1

Washington Football Team 66/1

Cincinnati Bengals 75/1

Denver Broncos 75/1

Detroit Lions 75/1

Jacksonville Jaguars 75/1

New York Jets 75/1

8. Falcons’ Cannon wins Salute to Service Award: Steve Cannon, CEO of AMB Sports and Entertainment, the parent company of the Falcons, won the 2020 Salute to Service Award presented by USAA on Feb 3.

The award was created to acknowledge the exceptional efforts by members of the NFL community to honor and support members of the military community. Cannon was recognized Saturday during the NFL Honors program.

“It’s means the world to me because of my military background and service to country,” Cannon said. “It means an awful, awful lot. Here I find myself connected to powerful and amazing platforms that allow you to kind of get the word out and shine a spotlight on service and sacrifice.

Cannon becomes the fourth member of the organization to win the over over the past five years. He joins Ben Garland (2018), Andre Roberts (2016) and Dan Quinn (2015) as winners. Last season, San Diego’s Donnie Edwards was the winner.

“I’m just thrilled that the Falcons have been just such a model across all of sports when it comes to honoring and giving back to the military,” Cannon said. “Service is a big deal for us.”

USAA, a leading provider of insurance and other financial services to U.S. military members, veterans and their families, will contribute $25,000 in Cannon’s honor to the official aid societies representing all five military branches. The NFL Foundation will match USAA’s donation of $25,000, which will be donated to Cannon’s military charity of choice and Atlanta Falcons’ owner, Arthur Blank, also will match with a $25,000 donation from the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation.

“That’s the power of the spotlight,” Cannon said. “When you tell stories about people out on the front line serving on our behalf, then all of sudden people get interested and money flows for causes.”

Cannon will use the funds for a charity that he founded, the Johnny Mac Soldier’s fund.

“We provide college scholarships for the children of the fallen,” Cannon said. “Those kids who’s parents have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. For the last six years, we’ve been honoring a classmate of mine, John McHugh, Johnny Mac, who was killed in Afghanistan and so this helps those efforts.”

Cannon graduated with honors from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1986, was Airborne Ranger qualified and served as a 1st Lieutenant in West Germany during the fall of the Iron Curtain. During his time in the Army, he also served five years as an artillery officer.

“Just grateful and privileged that we continue to demonstrate as a franchise that we care about community,” Cannon said. “That we care about our military and this is another data point that supports that.”

The Salute to Service Award is part of the NFL and USAA’s year-round commitment to recognize and honor the military community. Fans can join the NFL and USAA in honoring the military community by visiting NFL.com/Salute.

9. Falcons’ 2021 draft position: NFL Network’s Bucky Brooks released his Mock Draft 1.0 and has the Falcons selecting BYU quarterback Zach Wilson. He has Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields going second overall to the New York Jets.

Brooks’ picks

1. Jacksonville Jaguars - Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson

2. New York Jets - Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State

3. Miami Dolphins (via Houston) - Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU

4. Falcons - Zach Wilson, QB, BYU

5. Cincinnati Bengals - Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon

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