Atlanta Falcons Blog

Atlanta Falcons blog by D. Orlando Ledbetter, the pro football and Atlanta Falcons reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Cover 9@9: Neal must land his big hits within the rules

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The Chiefs lead the NFL in turnover differential, so the AJC’s D. Orlando Ledbetter joins Noah Coslov to discuss how the Falcons will prepare for that and how to overcome more defensive injuries.

Good morning! The Cover 9@9 is a weekly blog of everything you need to know about the Atlanta Falcons, we published 9 items at 9 a.m. each Wednesday morning.

1. Neal has to see his target. For the second straight game, Falcons rookie safety Keanu Neal is likely to get fined by the NFL.

He was fined $24,309 for the helmet-to-helmet hit he placed on Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Jordan Matthews in the 24-15 loss on Nov. 13.

Neal, a physical player who was drafted to add some toughness to the Falcons' defense, tried to defend the hit, but he needs to get his helmet out of the way.

The Eagles were outraged in part because no penalty was called on the play. Eagles rookie coach Doug Pederson reported the play to the league and they told him a penalty should have been called.

Against the Cardinals on Sunday, Neal appeared to lead with his helmet again and was called for a personal foul for a hit on Larry Fitzgerald. (See Curtis Compton's great photo above.)

Falcons coach Dan Quinn wrongly defended this hit.

"I thought it was a very aggressive play," Quinn said on Monday. "I thought it was a very clean hit where he's hitting the strike zone exactly where we want him to. As a coach, when I see that film and watch that, I thought, `Hey man, that was a good, clean, hard hit.' He did not hit him with his head. I recognize there's they're bang-bang and you throw the flag."

Quinn and his staff know how to fix this. They have to publicly defend Neal, that's understood. But in the closed practices they need to fix it. They don't want Neal missing games or paying fines for leading with his helmet.

This was covered in the league's release on the 2016 rule changes and points of emphasis.

Crown of Helmet

For safety reasons, the Committee believes that crown-of-the-helmet hits by defenders that were previously legal because the defender did not line up the runner should be illegal regardless of whether the defender lines up the runner prior to making contact. When the rule was first implemented, game officials were instructed to look for three elements for interpreting the rule for initiating forcible contact with the crown of the helmet:

  • The player must line up his opponent
  • He must lower his head
  • He must make forcible contact with the crown of the helmet.

Game officials will be instructed to call fouls when a defender lowers his head and makes forcible contact with the crown of his helmet on a runner outside the tackle box. The line-up requirement will still apply to a runner, since in many instances that player ducks his head to protect himself from impending contact by a defender, rather than to deliver a blow.

It looks like Neal is a keeper through nine games. But he needs to clean up his game and make sure he's within the league's rules moving forward.

2. AJC POWER RANKINGS. The power rankings are out. How high are the Falcons? Higher than Seattle?

3. TRUFANT DONE FOR 2016. Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant is set to have season-ending surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle and was placed on injured reserve Tuesday.

He has been replaced in the lineup by Jalen Collins in the past two games against Philadelphia and Arizona.

Trufant faces a long road to recovery from his torn pectoral surgery.

“The pec muscle, most likely he tore the pec off the shoulder,” said Luga Podesta, a doctor and director of sports medicine at St. Charles Orthopedics in New York and former training camp medical consultant to Cowboys and Saints. “Off his humerus, which is basically his shoulder. That will take him six months to come back from.”

4. CLAYBORN COULD RETURN.  The Falcons are optimistic that defensive end Adrian Clayborn can return during the early part of window from his knee surgery.

Clayborn has, partially torn his meniscus. The Falcons hope that he misses just three weeks.

“Typically, with a small tear, it’s probably about anywhere four to six weeks,” said Luga Podesta, a doctor and director of sports medicine at St. Charles Orthopedics in New York and former training camp medical consultant to Cowboys and Saints. “If he has it done now, he should be able to get back for the playoffs for sure.”

However, the Falcons are aggressively aiming for the Saints game. Earlier this season, they brought back linebacker De’Vondre Campbell during the early part of a four to six week window after he suffered a high ankle sprain before the second game of the season.

He’s just now starting to run well and show his speed.

Clayborn will be able to start his immediately.

“He’s moving it pretty much right after the surgery,” Podesta said. “They’ll give it a couple of days and let the inflammation go down. He’ll probably be on crutches for the first couple of days. Then it’s just really progressing his activity as the surgical wounds heal, the swelling goes out of his knee and it’s really about starting to regain his range of motion.”

Clayborn must then regain his strength and flexibility in the knee.

5. KEEP AN EYE ON FALCONS IN NFC RACE. ESPN analyst Louis Riddick, a former personnel executive and NFL player with the Falcons, Browns an Eagles, believes the Falcons are a team to watch in the NFC.

The Falcons (7-4) are in control of the NFC South with five games to play. The Buccaneers are a game back at 6-5.

After chatting about Seattle on Sports Center with Scott Van Pelt last night, Riddick discussed the Falcons and what they need to improve on during the playoff race.

“The team for me is Atlanta,” Riddick said.

6. SCHULTZ BREAKS DOWN FALCONS' CHANCES. "With only five games left in the season, the Falcons’ offense is on pace to scored 521 points, which would shatter the franchise record of 442 that was set in 1998, the same season they finished 14-2 and went to the Super Bowl.

But before you get dizzy with anticipation …

This same team also is on pace to allow 439 points, which would rank as the fourth most in franchise history. The only three teams that allowed more points finished 3-13 (461 in 1996), 4-12 (452 in 1985) and 4-12 (443 in 2013)."

7. CHIEFS KNOW HOW TO FINISH. The Falcons, who have blown three fourth-quarter leads this season, will face a difficult test on Sunday in trying to close out the Kansas City Chiefs, who have a patent on miraculous finishes this season.

In their most recent escape, Andy Reid’s team appeared to be dead against the Broncos, down 24-16 with three minutes to play. They rallied to tie the game with two seconds left and won it in overtime when a deciding field goal went through after slamming into the left upright.

The Chiefs also posted dramatic comeback victories over Carolina and San Diego.

8. TALE OF THE TAPE. 2016 Regular Season Statistics Rankings.

9. DEPTH CHART.  The Atlanta Falcons have signed center Trevor Robinson and cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson to the active roster. The team has also signed offensive lineman Kevin Graf to the practice squad.

In order to make these moves, the Falcons waived punter Matt Wile and placed cornerback Desmond Trufant on injured reserve.


WR 11 Julio Jones, 16 Justin Hardy, 14 Eric Weems

LT 70 Jake Matthews, 76 Tom Compton

LG 67 Andy Levitre, 63 Ben Garland

C 51 Alex Mack, 63 Ben Garland, Trevor Robinson

RG 65 Chris Chester, 71 Wes Schweitzer

RT 73 Ryan Schraeder, 76 Tom Compton

TE 81 Austin Hooper, 80 Levine Toilolo, 82 Joshua Perkins

WR 12 Mohamed Sanu, 18 Taylor Gabriel, 19 Aldrick Robinson

QB 2 Matt Ryan, 8 Matt Schaub

RB 24 Devonta Freeman, 26 Tevin Coleman, 28 Terron Ward

FB 42 Patrick DiMarco


DE 50 Brooks Reed, 99 Adrian Clayborn, 93 Dwight Freeney

DT 95 Jonathan Babineaux, 98 Cliff Matthews

DT 97 Grady Jarrett, 91 Courtney Upshaw

DE 94 Tyson Jackson, 77 Ra’Shede Hageman

LB 44 Vic Beasley Jr., 41 Philip Wheeler

LB 45 Deion Jones, 55 Paul Worrilow, 53 LaRoy Reynolds

LB 59 De’Vondre Campbell

CB 23 Robert Alford, 29 C.J. Goodwin, B. W. Wilson

CB 32 Jalen Collins, 34 Brian Poole, 30 Deji Olatoye

S 37 Ricardo Allen, 27 Robenson Therezie, 20 Sharrod Neasman

S 22 Keanu Neal, 36 Kemal Ishmael


K 3 Matt Bryant

KO 5 Matt Bosher

P 5 Matt Bosher

KR 14 Eric Weems, 16 Justin Hardy

PR 14 Eric Weems, 16 Justin Hardy

LS 47 Josh Harris

H 5 Matt Bosher

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Both the AJC’s Mark Bradley and Noah Coslov misread the Falcons coming into the season, so now that they’re 7-4, what should be considered a successful season?

GAME 11: Falcons 38, Cardinals 19

5 things we learned from the Falcons' win over the Cardinals

MARK BRADLEY: The Falcons keep getting better as they go

Julio Jones gets calls this time

Taylor Gabriel continues scoring streak in win over Cardinals

Coleman scores TD in return from injury

Falcons' offensive line 'stepped up to the task'

GAME 10: Eagles 24, Falcons 15

5 things we learned from the Falcons' loss to the Eagles

Ryan, offense slowed down to a crawl

Perkins stalls key drive with costly penalty

Defense gets blown of the line of scrimmage

Keanu Neal can expect fine but Falcons' biggest issue is injuries (Trufant and Tamme)

Falcons go into bye week wrong way -- beat up by Eagles

What Dan Quinn had to say after the loss to the Eagles

What Matt Ryan had to say after the loss to the Eagles

What the Falcons had to say after the loss to the Eagles

PHOTOS: Falcons fall to the Eagles

5 things we learned from the Falcons' rout of the Bucs

GAME SEVEN: Chargers 33, Falcons 30 in OT

5 things we learned from the Falcons loss to the Chargers

Dan Quinn's gamble with house-money backfires

6 penalties 'unacceptable' for Falcons offensive line

Philip Rivers confounds Falcons with short passes: 'He picked us apart'

Matt Ryan's late-game interception leads to overtime loss

PHOTOS: Chargers rally to beat Falcons

GAME SIX: Seahawks 26, Falcons 24

5 things we learned from the Falcons loss to the Seahawks

MARK BRADLEY: The Falcons didn't win, but they made one guy believe (me)

MARK BRADLEY: The Falcons got jobbed but did themselves proud

Matt Ryan's turnovers were costly

What Dan Quinn had to say after the 26-24 loss to Seattle

Seattle slows down Falcons' running backs Freeman, Coleman

Ryan Schraeder, offensive line rebounds in second half

Julio Jones: 'It was just a missed call'

What the Falcons had to say after the 26-24 loss to Seattle

What Matt Ryan had to say after the 26-24 loss to Seattle

Richard Sherman non-commital on pass interference non-call

PHOTOS: Falcons at Seahawks in Seattle

GAME FIVE: Falcons 23, Broncos 16

5 things we learned from the Falcons upset of Super Bowl champs

MARK BRADLEY: The Falcons rock a rookie in the Rockies

What Dan Quinn have to say after the win over Denver

Coleman amassed 163 yards to power the offense

Vic Beasley has breakout game with 3.5 sacks

Kemal Ishmael moved to linebacker, led team in tackles

What the Falcons had to say after the win over the Broncos

Photos: Falcons battle the Broncos

GAME FOUR: Falcons 48, Panthers 33

5 things we learned from the Falcons' 48-33 win over the Panthers

Tweetcap: Falcons 48, Panthers 33

Old pro Freeney shows new trick with Falcons

Falcons' rookie Neal holds on vs. Olsen

What Julio Jones had to say after the 48-33 win over the Panthers

What Dan Quinn had to say after the 48-33 win over the Panthers

What Matt Ryan had to say after the 48-33 win over the Panthers

Alford battled; Collins to return

Early view in NFC South isn't what most expected; Falcons on top

GAME THREE: Falcons 45, Saints 32

5 things we learned from the Falcons' 45-32 win over the Saints

Falcons, Saints protest with unity circle before game

REPORT CARD: Falcons earned high marks for drubbing Saints

What Dan Quinn had to say after the 45-32 win over the Saints

What Matt Ryan had to say after the 45-32 win over the Saints

What the Falcons had to say after the 45-32 win over the Saints

Keanu Neal makes strong debut for Falcons

Falcons' Deion Jones runs for glory, not survival, in return home

AJC POWER RANKINGS: Falcons best in NFC South?

GAME TWO: Falcons 35, Raiders 28

5 things we learned from the Falcons' win over the Raiders

Trufant's heads-up play saves the day

Tight ends help to power offense

Weatherspoon plays strong in first start since 2013

Matthews, Schraeder held Mack sack-less

JEFF SCHULTZ: Falcons put on offensive show and win

What Matt Ryan had to say after beating the Raiders

What Dan Quinn had to say after the win over the Raiders

GAME ONE: Buccaneers 31, Falcons 24

5 things we learned from the Falcons' loss to the Bucs

No sacks for new-look Falcons pass rush

Julio Jones not worried about his ankle injury

Falcons have a case of the "no-huddle" blues

REPORT CARD: Falcons can't 'gift' opponents 17 points

FILM REVIEW: Beasley missing in action

AJC'S NFL POWER RANKINGS: Where are the Falcons?

Hageman charged is domestic violence case



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About the Author

D. Orlando Ledbetter is the Atlanta Falcons beat writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.