Will Falcons, Saints, NFL make it to the finish line?

Credit: AJC

Falcons defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich ranks the Saints’ weapons and chats about how COVID-19 has impacted the season.

Credit: AJC

With the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, the Falcons and the New Orleans Saints have different issues and concerns as the NFL approaches the three-quarters mark of the season.

The league is trying to find a path to finish the season and hold the playoffs.

The Falcons have had 12 players placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list and dodged a major wipeout of the defensive line that caused two coaches to miss time and one to test positive.

The Saints have had their issues. They were fined after a postgame celebration that was deemed to violate the league’s intensive protocols.

Over the past week, the NFL made Denver play a game without four of its quarterbacks while it moved the Pittsburgh-Baltimore game three times before playing a rare Wednesday afternoon contest.

Also, the San Francisco 49ers were forced to move their games to Arizona amid governmental decrees.

With four weeks left in the season, and the coronavirus pandemic surging around the nation, the NFL believes it can complete the season, conduct the playoffs and finish with the Super Bowl.

“I’m confident we’ll be able to do that,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said on a conference call Wednesday.

The Falcons have closed their facilities four times in an abundance of caution to stop the spread of the coronavirus after positive tests.

“I’ve been blown away by the dedication of this organization, the coaches and the players and everybody in this building at their level of just diligence as far as just wearing the masks,” Falcons defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said. “Wearing the trackers. I haven’t been in other buildings, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find another organization that is taking this more seriously.”

Some of the measures have not helped the football product that the Falcons, and other teams, have put on the field.

“For (interim coach) Raheem (Morris) to take the team over on a Tuesday or Monday, whatever it was, and then essentially cancel that week of practice, not because the league told them to, but because it was the right thing to do because we had a few positives,” Ulbrich said. “We wanted to keep the team safe and the players safe, the coaches safe. So, there’s definitely some obstacles.”

So, the Falcons wear their masks, and some wear masks and shields, and try to abide by the enhanced league protocols. The Falcons are doing more of their preparation over the internet.

“Definitely, getting more comfortable with this virtual environment,” Ulbrich said. “A lot of our teaching is relegated to this format. (I’m) getting better at that. I think the players are getting better at receiving the information in this format. Then just making the most of the time that we do have.”

The opening of practice looks the same. Players stretch and warm up, but they are not spending as much time on the field.

“You get 60 minutes on the field, and there are times where that’s got to be an equivalent of two hours of work,” Ulbrich said. “The players have been great as far as responding. We talk about being water around here, fluid and flexible, and that’s what we’ve done.”

After Dan Quinn was fired Oct. 11 is when the Falcons had their major scare and defensive line coaches Tosh Lupoi and Jess Simpson were left at home. Defensive tackle Marlon Davidson went on the reserve/COVID-19 list first, then Simpson was out and then Lupoi, for contact-tracing purposes, followed by defensive end John Cominsky.

“It’s just a part of life,” Lupoi said. “It’s something we actually embraced. You can look at it in a negative way or a positive way, where you know at any point it can provide an opportunity for your brother next to you if somebody goes down. You have to treat it that way.

“It’s very similar to battling through some injuries. We treat it the same way. It’s a next-man-up attitude where the standard can’t fall. We have to operate to that standard and continue to get after the passer and stop the run and generate some turnovers.”

After Simpson tested positive, Lupoi went to contact tracing.

“We approached it real similar,” Lupoi said. “We already had so much experience with the virtual meetings. To still be able to meet with the defensive line virtually, really like we would anyways in this protocol. The meetings were very regular and obviously not being on the field -- for me the (contact) tracer time happened a little later in the week.”

Lupoi missed a walk-through and the Minnesota game, which was played Oct. 18.

“(That) was a very new experience that I would not like to ever repeat again, watching our team go to battle on TV,” Lupoi said. “Again, it’s something that’s part of our time and life right now. When it happens, you don’t like it, but you need to keep safety as the No. 1 priority, and that’s what we’ve been doing.”

Lupoi felt weird that Sunday morning. He got up at his normal time as an early riser.

“I sent some messages to the fellas, again, keeping a lot of things really similar as far as tip sheets and things going on there,” Lupoi said. “And then just like I normally would on a game day, I got a little workout in the morning. And then, of course, when kickoff happened, I was in the mode of watching it like (fans) were.”

Watching the game and seeing his players on the television was difficult.

“Ups and downs, frustrated and then fired up,” Lupoi said. “Fortunately, the group executed a great game, and we got an awesome win. That probably made it a little better for me not being there. Hopefully I don’t have to repeat that again ever.”

For the Saints, they had just held off a challenge from Tom Brady and the Buccaneers on Nov. 8. They celebrated and danced. Even coach Sean Payton was jamming. But they were in violation of the league protocols.

The Saints, as repeat offenders, were fined $500,000 and lost a seventh-round draft pick.

The Saints enter Sunday’s game against the Falcons in contention for the NFC’s top seed and are trying to wrap up their fourth consecutive NFC South title.

We’ve tried to preach all season long, the next game, the next game, and it’s the only game that you really can focus on,” Payton said. “Especially, this season in light of all of the different distractions. All of the teams are having to deal with COVID-19, the protocols, the changes in protocols. We’ve really tried to focus on the opponent that week and really, internally, ourselves that week, our improvement and our execution.”

The Saints are paying close attention to possible new protocols for the playoffs.

“We are doing our best,” Payton said. “Each club is really trying to pay attention to the meeting set-up, the practice set-up. The proper protective gear. I think as you get closer to those games and closer toward the end of the season, possibly into the postseason, you’ll see that getting stricter and stricter. We’ll operate accordingly.”

The NFL will continue its daily testing and monitoring of situations around the league.

“We have been discussing the last several weeks how we would proceed into the postseason,” Goodell said. “We have made changes to our protocols over the last few weeks. We are continuing to evaluate the kind of changes that we may want to make coming into the postseason. They do present different challenges like the rest of the season has. So, we’ll be prepared for that.”

The NFL is considering a number of alternatives.

“I would say all of the options were on the table to make sure that we do it safely, correctly in recognizing the unique nature of the postseason versus the regular season,” Goodell said.

However, moving teams into an NBA-style bubble in one city is not an alternative that the NFL is considering.

“We don’t see the bubble, as most refer to it as, where we are all in one location entirely,” Goodell said. “We feel strongly that our protocols are working, as we demonstrated over the last several weeks. We are willing to adjust the protocols, adapt those protocols, take additional steps that we might be meeting the environmental circumstances that we are dealing within our communities. But I don’t see us doing a bubble in the sense of how the media focuses on it.”

Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, is keeping track of the surge nationwide.

“Ninety percent is a failing grade here,” Sills said. “We have to have 100 percent compliance because the virus only needs a small opening to get in.”

Dawn Aponte, the NFL’s chief football administrative officer, believes that some teams may quarantine their quarterbacks.

“We have talked about that,” Aponte said. “There are teams that don’t have a player who participates in the meeting room with other players, particularly the quarterbacks. Practice-squad players are kept separate. But there are definitely ways that can be done on a team-by-team basis. There are ways to keep players safe and ensure their availability.”

AJC correspondent Jason Butt contributed to this article.

Falcons’ next four games

Saints at Falcons at 1 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6

Falcons at Chargers at 4:25 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 13

Buccaneers at Falcons at 1 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 20

Falcons at Chiefs at 1 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 27

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