Cover 9@9: Falcons can’t afford another slow start

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (right) huddles up teammates during practice Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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 1-7 last season and 1-4 in 2018, the Falcons, who are trying to bounce back from consecutive 7-9 seasons, can’t afford to have another slow start in 2020.

In the season opener against Seattle at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Falcons are a two-point home underdog on oddshark.com. The Falcons are projected to be the underdog in three of their first four games. A 1-3 start will be horrible for the mindset of the team and the fan base.

After Seattle, they play at Dallas before hosting Chicago and playing at Green Bay on “Monday Night Football.”

The Falcons’ coaching staff’s best laid plans, which included joint practices and stress-testing the team over the offseason, went out the window when the world stopped in March for the coronavirus pandemic back.

Like the rest of the NFL, the Falcons tried to have the best virtual offseason possible.

The Falcons will enter the season with no joint practices, no exhibition games and very limited live tackling while facing elusive Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson.

Last season, the Seahawks blew out the Falcons 24-0 for all intents and purposes. The Falcons rallied to make the game look close before going down 27-20 to complete the 1-7 start.

The Falcons’ defense, under the direction of defensive coordinator Raheem Morris and assistant head coach Jeff Ulbrich, must come together quickly. They can’t start 2020 like they did in 2019. They need to 6-2 finish to carry over into 2020.

The big question mark will be rookie cornerback A.J. Terrell, who was the team’s first-round pick out of Clemson and Westlake High. Wilson will test him early.

The Falcons believe that wide receivers Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley have helped Terrell get ready for this NFL debut.

“The reason that you see who he has to go and compete against, that’s a big piece of his readiness of getting there,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “Through the spring of learning and then obviously being on field for training camp and getting all of the reps against guys like Julio and Calvin and Russ (Gage) in all different spaces, that’s as close to getting in and getting ready as you can get.”

Terrell won some battles and lost a few, too.

“So, we have a lot of confidence moving forward with A.J.,” Quinn said.

Wilson, powered by a strong rushing attack, helped the Seahawks amass 374.4 total yards per game, which ranked eighth in the league in 2019. He had an incredible 31 to 5 touchdown pass-to-interception ratio.

“He’s really accurate and makes really good decisions with the ball,” Quinn said. “I think he might have been 30 touchdowns and a small, single-digit number of interceptions. For a guy that’s bold enough to take shots down the field, to have that type of ratio, I think that goes to show you how accurate he is.”

If you don’t stop Seattle’s rushing attack, it will be a long day for the defense.

“Then, the second piece for him is there are some plays that are designed for him to get out of the pocket,” Quinn said. “Think of a bootleg or a keeper where it’s by design, and there are other plays that he sees something and moves outside of the pocket just to get more space to do things.

“So, there are really two plays that take place. It’s the first one, then if he starts going on the move, their offense is really equipped to producing. So, a lot of explosive plays come when he’s on the move. It’s almost like two plays. First one, starts in the pocket. Second one, when he breaks contain.”

2. Pass rush to get tested. Seattle has a revamped offensive line, with Ethan Pocic set to start at center.

The Seahawks gave up 48 sacks last season. The Falcons recorded only 28 sacks and signed Dante Fowler from the Rams, who had 11.5 sacks last season. The Falcons are counting on Fowler and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett to lead the charge.

“Grady Jarrett has had a phenomenal training camp,” Quinn said. “He really has.”

The Falcons know they want to avoid another slow start.

“Why are we excited?” Quinn said. “I think we all probably are because we know, what was it, six or seven weeks ago, we were like, ‘Man, can we pull this off? Can we do it?’ There were changes around every single corner, so we thought adjustable, having discipline to do things right. Those were big things.

"So, to be sitting here on game week saying, ‘There’s a lot of protocols and a lot of things at every turn that you had to be ready to adjust,’ I couldn’t have been more impressed with our team. … I was really proud of the group to get us ready to stand here today ready to go play ball.”

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has 8 of 11 starters returning and he’s confident that the offensive line has improved.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

3. Turnover central: Seattle’s defense was ranked 26th in total yards (381.6 yards), 27th in passing yards 263.9), 22nd in rushing yards (117.7), tied for 22nd in points allowed (24.9) and 29th in sacks (28).

They were able to cover up those horrible numbers with 16 interceptions and a plus-12 turnover differential, which was tied for third in the league.

The Falcons had similarly poor defensive rankings, but had a minus-5 turnover differential, which ranked 25th in league

4. Stat corner: Since 2012, Seattle is 57-9 (.863) when leading by four or more points at halftime.

5. Gurley vs. Seahawks: Falcons running back Todd Gurley has played nine games against Seattle.

He’s rushed for 83, 51, 38, 43, 152, 37, 120, 51 and 79 yards in each of those games. He’s rushed for at least one touchdown in six of the nine games. He has 10 rushing touchdowns in the past five meetings.

6. Series history: This will be the 18th regular-season meeting. The Seahawks hold an 11-6 edge. The Falcons are 2-0 against the Seahawks in playoff meetings.

In the last meeting, the Seahawks beat the Falcons 27-20 on Oct. 27, 2019 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium to drop the Falcons to 1-7 on the season.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Falcons linebacker Deion Jones believes the defense is ready to open the season, and he’s honored to be named a captain.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

7. Long-shot Falcons: The Falcons are 59-to-1 long shots to win the Super Bowl and have a over/under of seven wins for the upcoming 2020 season, according to SportsBettingDime.com.

Kansas City behind Patrick Mahomes and Baltimore with Lamar Jackson are the two AFC teams the odds on favorites to win the Super Bowl — at 7/1 and 8/1 respectively — while the next five teams with the best odds to hoist the Lombardi Trophy are from the NFC: San Francisco (11/1), New Orleans (12/1), Tampa (15/1), Seattle (19/1) and Dallas (20/1).

New Orleans wide receiver Michael Thomas (7/1) is favored to lead the league in receiving yards, while Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones is second at (8/1). Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is 48 to 1 to win the league’s MVP award.

2020 NFL OPENING ODDS & PROPS

ODDS TO WIN THE SUPER BOWL

1. KC 7/1

2. BAL 8/1

3. SF 11/1

4. NO 12/1

5. TB 15/1

6. SEA 19/1

7. DAL 20/1

8. BUF 28/1

9. PHI 33/1

10. PIT 30/1

11. IND 35/1

12. NE 40/1

13. MIN 28/1

14. TEN 35/1

15. LAR 50/1

16. GB 33/1

17. CLE 55/1

18. ATL 59/1

19. ARI 63/1

20. DEN 68/1

21. LAC 72/1

22. LV 70/1

23. HOU 65/1

24. CHI 65/1

25. DET 70/1

26. NYG 145/1

27. NYJ 91/1

28. MIA 175/1

29. CAR 190/1

30. CIN 110/1

31. WAS 200/1

32. JAC 500/1

OVER/UNDER WINS

1. KC 11.5

2. BAL 11.0

3. SF 11.0

4. NO 10.5

5. DAL 9.5

6. SEA 9.5

7. MIN 9.0

8. TB 9.0

9. BUF 9.0

10. PHI 9.0

11. PIT 9.0

12. IND 9.0

13. GB 9.0

14. TEN 8.5

15. NE 8.0

16. LAR 8.0

17. CLE 8.0

18. HOU 7.5

19. CHI 7.5

20. ATL 7.0

21. DEN 7.0

22. LAC 7.0

23. LV 7.0

24. DET 7.0

25. ARI 6.5

26. NYJ 6.0

27. NYG 5.5

28. MIA 5.5

29. CAR 5.5

30. CIN 5.5

31. WAS 4.5

32. JAC 3.5

ODD TO WIN 2020 NFL MVP

1. Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs): 11/2

2. Lamar Jackson (Ravens): 6/1

3. Russell Wilson (Seahawks): 8/1

4. Aaron Rodgers (Packers): 12/1

5. DeShaun Watson (Texans): 12/1

6. Carson Wentz (Eagles): 18/1

7. Kyler Murray (Cardinals): 19/1

8. Drew Brees (Saints): 24/1

9. Matthew Stafford (Lions): 38/1

10. Tom Brady (Bucs): 32/1

11. Dak Prescott (Cowboys): 48/1

12. Matt Ryan (Falcons): 48/1

13. Philip Rivers (Colts): 54/1

14. Baker Mayfield (Browns): 59/1

15. Jimmy Garoppolo (49ers): 65/1

16. Christian McCaffrey (Panthers): 65/1

17. Cam Newton (Patriots): 70/1

18. Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers): 75/1

19. FIELD: 9/1

ODDS TO LEAD THE NFL IN RECEIVING YARDS

1. Michael Thomas (Saints): 7/1

2. Julio Jones (Falcons): 8/1

3. Davante Adams (Packers): 11/1

4. DeAndre Hopkins (Cardinals): 11/1

5. Tyreek Hill (Chiefs): 12/1

6. Chris Godwin (Bucs): 19/1

7. Mike Evans (Bucs): 20/1

8. Kenny Golladay (Lions): 24/1

9. Odell Beckham Jr (Browns): 24/1

10. JuJu Smith-Schuster (Steelers) 32/1

11. FIELD: 7/3

8. Practice squad: Offensive lineman Willie Wright signed with the Falcons on Tuesday and was added to the practice squad.

Wright, who’s 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds, plays center. He played at Tulsa and spent time with the Cleveland Browns.

Offensive tackle John Wetzel, after clearing waivers, was signed to the practice squad along with cornerback Delrick Abrams, quarterback Kurt Benkert, safety Jamal Carter, defensive end Austin Edwards, wide receiver Juwan Green, cornerback Tyler Hall, offensive guard Sean Harlow, cornerback Josh Hawkins, quarterback Kyle Lauletta, punter Cameron Nizialek, tight end Jared Pinkney, linebacker Edmond Robinson and wide receiver Chris Rowland.

The Falcons have one more opening on the practice squad.

For the first time, teams are allowed to keep 16 players on their practice squads. Because of complications that may arise from COVID-19, teams also will have much more flexibility in promoting players from the practice squad to the active roster.

9. Depth chart: The Falcons released their first depth chart for the 2020 season Monday.

James Carpenter is listed as the starter at left guard after rookie Matt Hennessy was injured late in camp.

On defense, the Falcons list three safeties as starters in Keanu Neal, Damontae Kazee and Ricardo Allen.

Also, wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus won the kick returner job, while Brandon Powell was listed as the punt returner.

Here’s a look at the official depth chart:

OFFENSE

QB -- Matt Ryan, Matt Schaub

WR -- Julio Jones, Christian Blake

WR -- Calvin Ridley, Olamide Zaccheaus

WR -- Russell Gage, Brandon Powell

TE -- Hayden Hurst, Jaeden Graham, Luke Stocker

RB -- Todd Gurley, Brian Hill, Ito Smith, Qadree Ollison

FB -- Keith Smith

LT -- Jake Matthews, Matt Gono

LG -- James Carpenter, Matt Hennessy

C -- Alex Mack, Justin McCray

RG -- Chris Lindstrom

RT -- Kaleb McGary, Timon Parris

DEFENSE

DE -- Takk McKinley, Allen Bailey, Charles Harris

DT -- Grady Jarrett, Marlon Davidson, Deadrin Senat

DT -- Tyeler Davison, John Cominsky

DE -- Dante Fowler, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner

LB -- Deion Jones, LaRoy Reynolds

LB -- Foye Oluokun, Mykal Walker, Deone Bucannon

CB -- A.J. Terrell, Darqueze Dennard, Blidi Wreh-Wilson

CB -- Isaiah Oliver, Kendall Sheffield

S -- Damontae Kazee

S -- Ricardo Allen, Sharrod Neasman

S -- Keanu Neal, Jaylinn Hawkins

SPECIAL TEAMS

K -- Younghoe Koo

P -- Sterling Hofrichter

LS -- Josh Harris

KR -- Olamide Zaccheaus

PR --Brandon Powell

Holder -- Sterling Hofrichter

KO -- Younghoe Koo

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