Saturday special: Josh Wilson

December, 20, 2014
Dec 20
11:55
AM ET
Every Saturday during the regular season, we will feature a member of the Atlanta Falcons special teams. This week, it is veteran cornerback Josh Wilson, who has transformed himself from return man to return blocker:

Not that Josh Wilson would approach Falcons teammate Devin Hester and brag, but Wilson believes he was a rather electric return man himself at one point in his NFL career.

Wilson actually led the league with 1,753 kickoff returns yards in 2008. He also has 10 returns of 40-plus yards, including a touchdown.

Wilson
"I’ve got a whole highlight film," Wilson boasted. "That second year, I had eight 40-pluses. They were all great."

His past success as a kickoff returner only helps Wilson appreciate his role blocking for Hester that much more. The veteran cornerback plays a variety of roles on special teams, including the safety on kickoff coverage and the corner on field goal block. But there is something a little more thrilling about helping clear holes for Hester in the return game.

"Everybody that knows me here knows I had never been anything in my whole life but a returner," Wilson said. "To actually be one of the guys up there blocking and to see what it’s like, I’m excited when I get my block. I never blocked anybody in my life before.

"I always wondered, 'How are you going to get that block?' It’s a little harder than you think. I know what it’s like being that guy back there, and it makes me go a little bit harder and protect him more. I know what it’s like when that guy comes free and you don’t see him. It’s a little different mindset for me. It helps me work and grind through every play."

Hester, of course has made Wilson’s adjustment that much easier.

"On punt return and kickoff return, we’ve got the one of the greatest, if not the greatest, return man of all time back there," Wilson said of Hester. "Give him a chance. Do your job. Block for however long it takes to give him a chance to do something special, which he’s done his whole career. That’s what you’ve got to take with your mindset. We’re on the return team. We’ve got a guy back there that can make it happen."

Every now and then, Wilson has flashbacks to his glory days. He will never forget the 89-yard kickoff return touchdown he had with the Seahawks as a rookie that helped beat current teammate Steven Jackson's Rams, 24-19.

"Nate Burleson and I were back deep, and both of us were returners and ended up running into each other," Wilson recalled. "And I remembered I looked at him like, 'You want the ball?' And they were come at us and he looked at me like, 'Nah, I’m good.' It was a crazy play.

"I remember coach Mike Holmgren saying when he first saw it he was like, 'No, no, no.' Then he was like, 'Go, go, go.' And he came up to me on the sideline -- and Mike Holmgren is a big man -- he looked down on me and said, 'Don’t you ever do that again, but great job.'"

Wilson actually got a chance to return this preseason. Sometimes, he’ll try to nudge special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong about getting back in the mix.

"I tell Keith that all the time," Wilson said. "And he says, 'Just go ahead and get that block.'"

Fantasy: Julio Jones

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
2:52
PM ET


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Christopher Harris analyzes WR Julio Jones for Week 16.
I can't help but think about what happened to the Saints a few weeks ago at home when they lost to the Panthers 41-10. That alone should give the Falcons a little added confidence about being able to compete with the Saints on their turf.

Yes, the Saints have won three in row at the Superdome against the Falcons and seven of the last eight there, but the Falcons easily could have won last year's battle had it not been for a tipped ball and interception in the end zone.

Of course, Julio Jones' status means to the world to the Falcons in this game, but I expect him to fight through a hip injury.

The matchup is of the two worst teams in defensive efficiency this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Falcons rank 31st by costing their team 8.5 expected points per game toward the scoring margin while the Saints rank last, costing 8.6 expected points per game toward the scoring margin.

The Saints allow 26.7 points per game; the Falcons 26.4. With everything on the line for the Falcons, including the postseason and coach Mike Smith's future, they'll find a way to rally.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Falcons receiver Julio Jones, recovering from a hip injury, was not on the field for the start of Friday's practice.

 Jones hasn't practice all week and is game-time decision for Sunday's game against the Saints. With the Falcons' season on the line, there are strong indications he'll play through the injury despite the missed practice time.

Jones tested his hip last Saturday at the Falcons' indoor practice facility, and it was determined he wouldn't be able to go against the Steelers. Coach Mike Smith said the decision on Jones' status will be made when the inactives are released 90 minutes before Sunday's kickoff.

Also missing from Friday's practice was starting right guard Jon Asamoah, who has been sidelined with a back injury. It appears Asamoah won't be able to go, meaning Gabe Carimi would start in his place.

Roddy White (knee), Harry Douglas (foot), and William Moore (foot) were suited up for Friday's practice.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- First, it was New Orleans Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis talking about sending the Falcons to their funeral. Then it was injured Atlanta Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon telling the "sorry" Saints to keep the Falcons' name out of their mouths.

Moore
Lewis
It all made for a good conversation leading into Sunday's critical showdown between the NFC South rivals. And Falcons safety William Moore added a little more spice to the trash talk a few days before kickoff.

In speaking about the words initiated by Lewis, Moore shook his head and laughed.

"On Sunday, that's when we really see what people are made of," Moore said. "Through the week, it really doesn't even matter. I really think when people talk during the week, they're really just trying to hype themselves up and give themselves energy. Speak with the pads. Don't talk about it; speak with the pads.

"The last I checked, [Lewis] was a defensive guy. I mean, I won't see him. But if he's calling out my guys like Julio [Jones] and Roddy [White], I put my money on those guys. I put my money on our offense.''

Moore actually commended the Saints, outside of Lewis.

"I think it shows the professionalism in their team that Drew Brees hasn't said anything; Jimmy Graham hasn't said anything," Moore said. "I guess Keenan is talking to the offense. But, like I said, I put my money on the offense."

In regard to Weatherspoon's comments, Moore had no issues with his injured teammate speaking his mind.

"Spoon's not dressing up, but Spoon has the right to say what he wants," Moore said. "Obviously, he feels some kind of way. I know he'd rather be out here with us. When it comes to that, we just have to step it up. Spoon is a part of this team. When he says something like that, we've got to go back it up because he is representing this team."

As Moore concluded, fellow safety Kemal Ishmael chimed in from his locker.

"That's real," Ishmael said.

Falcons vs. Saints preview

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
8:00
AM ET
video When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday. Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans. TV: Fox.

Their records aren't pretty. Their defenses have been downright disastrous at times. But the stakes remain as high as ever as the New Orleans Saints (6-8) and Atlanta Falcons (5-9) head toward Sunday's showdown with the NFC South title hanging in the balance.

Both teams still control their own playoff fates with two weeks remaining in the season. Win out, and they'll be hosting a playoff game. Lose Sunday, and they'll need a lot of help to get in.

Their first matchup in Week 1 was a high-scoring thriller, with the Falcons rallying to beat the Saints 37-34 in overtime in Atlanta. A repeat is certainly possible since they feature two of the NFL's top-five passing offenses and the league's two lowest-ranked defenses.

ESPN NFL Nation reporters Mike Triplett, who covers the Saints, and Vaughn McClure, who covers the Falcons, discuss Sunday's matchup:

Triplett: The Falcons have won only one of their past four games. But it looks like they've been putting up a good fight against good teams. Do you think they have a realistic shot at winning their last two games of the season, against the Saints and Panthers?

McClure: I think it all depends on one person: Julio Jones. If Jones is well enough to play through a hip injury that sidelined him last week, the Falcons have a legitimate chance. Personally, I anticipate Jones will be ready for the Saints, based on everything I'm hearing. The offense doesn't flow as smoothly without him in the lineup, of course. Quarterback Matt Ryan and Jones really started to develop a rhythm with the deep ball prior to Jones' injury. If Jones indeed plays Sunday, I will be curious to see if his speed and ability to get down the field is hampered at all by the injury. Not to mention the Falcons need him as a red-zone threat after missing out on two such critical red-zone opportunities against the Steelers. The Falcons can't go to the Superdome expecting to win this game with a slew of field goals.

I see Sean Payton shook up the secondary a bit Monday night against the Chicago Bears. How did the defense hold up after the change, and do you anticipate any other tweaks this week?

Triplett: Honestly, I still don't have any idea how the Saints' secondary will hold up against a functioning NFL passing offense, because the Bears and Jay Cutler were awful. But the Saints had to like what they saw from the overall energy and aggressiveness -- from both the two new starters (CB Terrence Frederick and S Jamarca Sanford) and the veterans who were demoted to lesser roles (S Kenny Vaccaro and CB Patrick Robinson). They snagged a season-high three interceptions and sacked Cutler seven times. However, everyone was disappointed how quickly they let the Bears score twice in garbage time toward the end. So it remains a work in progress.

As for any changes, I expect to see the same players, but the Saints may tweak their plan since the Falcons have the depth to spread the Saints' secondary thin -- as we saw in Week 1 when Matt Ryan threw for 448 yards. I'm curious to see how the Saints handle Jones if he's healthy. New Orleans has one outstanding cornerback in Keenan Lewis, who often shadows No. 1 receivers. But against deeper teams such as Atlanta and Pittsburgh, the Saints put Lewis on the No. 2 receiver and double-teamed Jones and Antonio Brown (a tactic that worked better against Pittsburgh than Atlanta).

I know a lot depends on Jones' health. But is Atlanta's passing game still as dangerous as it was in Week 1?

McClure: I look back at the numbers from last week and the Falcons were able to put up 407 total yards against the Pittsburgh Steelers even without Jones in the lineup. Ryan has enough weapons to spread the ball around. I mean, Harry Douglas stepped up with 10 catches for 131 yards last week while both Roddy White and Devin Hester had touchdown catches. I think the underrated aspect related to the passing game is how the offensive line has held up despite going through so many changes. That's a credit to offensive line coach Mike Tice, who lost five linemen to season-ending injuries. Ryan has been sacked only twice the past three games. And although the Falcons are a "passing" team, it only helps when they have some semblance of a running game. Such was the case in a season-opening win over the Saints, when Ryan threw for that career-high 448 yards as his running backs combined for 108 yards on the ground. The Falcons are 17-3 under coach Mike Smith when they have a 100-yard rusher.

I've grown accustomed to Drew Brees being synonymous with a high-powered offense and it looks like the Saints enter this game second in the league in total offense. But this hasn't been a typical Brees-like year. Could you tell me where things have gone wrong for him and how he's handled rumors about the team pondering his replacement?

Triplett: Brees' season has been funny because he's still on pace for nearly 5,000 yards, 35 touchdowns and a league-high completion percentage of 70.0 (sixth in NFL history). But you're right -- it has been a little shakier and less consistent than usual. The biggest problem is he has turned the ball over too many times in big situations (12 interceptions, two lost fumbles). I think he has pressed too much, feeling like he needs to do it all with the defense struggling. It has been an exact repeat of 2012 in that sense. The Saints' downfield passing game has also been spotty, with Brees settling for more check-down passes than usual.

All of that being said, Brees is still awfully sharp. He put on a clinic last week at Chicago, completing 18 of 20 passes in the first half. Three weeks ago, he threw five touchdown passes at Pittsburgh. He's still one of the NFL's elite -- and both he and the Saints know that. So while they may start looking for an eventual future replacement soon, there's no way that they're looking to move on in the short term.

These two teams are in a tight battle for the NFL's worst defense this year. Are the Falcons even worse off than they were in Week 1, and what are their biggest issues?

McClure: This question seems to come up every week. Yes, the Falcons surrender the most total yards in the league at 409.9 yards per game and the most passing yards at 292.5 yards per game. To put it simply, the lack of a consistent pass rush and the lack of legitimate playmakers on that side of the ball make the Falcons extremely vulnerable. There have been splashes of solid play, like the way the Falcons shut down Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell in the running game last week and the way they pressured Drew Stanton and the Cardinals a few weeks back. But consistency is non-existent.

Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has developed a reputation over the years for being creative with his schemes, but he doesn't have much to work with now. I think the Falcons made a mistake by spending their free-agent money on beefing up the defensive line with space-eaters Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson, and both players would admit they set high standards for themselves. Desmond Trufant will be a cornerstone for the franchise for years to come as a shutdown cornerback, but Trufant can't beat Brees and the Saints by himself -- unless he comes up with a pick or two.

I see quite a challenge for the Falcons in trying to slow down running back Mark Ingram. Is it correct to say Ingram is starting to live up to his potential?

Triplett: Absolutely. He's on pace for his first 1,000-yard season even after missing three games with a hand injury. And he has been running with authority and confidence all year. However, a lot of his success has to do with the Saints finally improving their run game overall, dating to last season (Ingram had 97 yards in a playoff win at Philadelphia). And a lot of it has to do with opportunity.

First of all, trading Darren Sproles freed up Ingram to play more of an every-down role, and he has thrived by running out of passing sets, etc., instead of just heavy run packages. Secondly, he finally got the opportunity to be a featured back with 20-plus carries per week when Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas got hurt midseason, and he delivered in a huge way with four 100-yard games in a six-week span.

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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Roddy White's left knee might never stops hurting. His left ankle kept him from playing against the Cardinals three games ago. And a hamstring injury forced him to miss a Week 3 game against Tampa Bay.

White
White
But no matter how much White's body throbs with pain, the veteran Atlanta Falcons receiver always approaches every game as if he's going to play -- particularly a late-season game like this Sunday's against the rival Saints, with postseason hopes at stake.

"Everybody has little nicks and stuff like that," White said. "Nobody is completely healthy after 14 games in an NFL season, so you're going to feel bumps and bruises. You've just got to put yourself in a mental state that you're going to get through it. You're going to fight through it and do what you have to do to get the job done."

White was asked if he has relayed the same message to teammate Julio Jones as Jones continues to recover from a hip injury. All indications are Jones is going to try and gut it out despite not being on the practice field the past two days.

"I don't have to relay it to him, because he's played hurt before," White said. "I know what he can do and how that feels. But as far him playing this Sunday, I don't want him to have to go out there and he can't run or he can't be himself, because that's not going to help us. And that would limit the stuff that we can do on offense, because we'll be calling plays to get him the ball. If he can be the explosive, down-the-field guy and make people miss, he needs to chill and see if we can make it for next week."

Strong safety William Moore certainly understands the importance of toughing it out through an injury. Moore confirmed that he has a torn fascia in his right foot. It is an injury that typically takes one or two weeks to heal and doesn't require surgery. But it can be painful to play through because the only true treatment is immobilization.

Moore, who missed last week's game against the Steelers, was back on the practice field Thursday running sprints and backpedaling in a limited capacity. He vowed not to miss Sunday's game for anything in the world.

"This is it: for all the marbles," Moore said. "Ain't no reason to sit back and watch. You know, my team needs me, and I want to be there. This is what I play the game for; for opportunities like this in December. We have an opportunity, regardless of what the record says. And I want to contribute. I don't want to sit back and watch."
video

Matthew Berry discusses the quarterbacks he loves and hates for Week 16.

Inside Edge: Falcons-Saints

December, 18, 2014
Dec 18
4:01
PM ET


video

ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando delivers stats to help you make a pick for Atlanta at New Orleans.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Falcons strong safety William Moore, who missed last week's game against the Steelers with a foot injury, returned to practice on Thursday, while star receiver Julio Jones remained sidelined with a hip injury.

 Moore's injury is believed to be related to a plantar fascia tear. His status for Sunday's game against the Saints remains unknown, although seeing him on the field with a helmet was a promising sign.

As for Jones, there's still a strong belief that he'll be ready to go Sunday despite the missed practice time. The Falcons rested him last week against the Steelers, no doubt realizing the importance of the final two games in the big picture. The 5-9 Falcons have a chance to win the NFC South and make the postseason with wins over the Saints and Panthers to close the regular season.

Receivers Roddy White (knee) and Harry Douglas (foot), like Moore, also returned to practice Thursday.

Right guard Jon Asamoah remained sidelined with a back injury. If Asamoah is unable to go Sunday, Gabe Carimi would start in his place.
There are times when even NFL players are reminded how football means little in the grand scheme of life.

Atlanta Falcons nose tackle Paul Soliai recently experienced one of those moments.

Soliai
A few weeks back, Soliai received the call he feared would come sooner than later: his father, Rev. Foto Levao, died after suffering a heart attack while at the airport in Samoa.

"He was on his way back to his house in Las Vegas," Soliai said. "They had gone to Samoa for a visit. He had a triple bypass before, so I think he knew it was coming to an end. So he just wanted to go back home to Samoa one more time."

Soliai said his father was 64 when he passed away. Since the funeral was in Samoa, Soliai was away from the team for a week and missed the Arizona game. He returned for the Monday night matchup with the Packers, but came off the bench.

Getting back in a normal football routine might have been difficult at first, but Soliai adjusted.

"I know if my dad was still here, he’d probably tell me to just keep playing," Soliai said. "Since the funeral was back in Samoa, it was nice to see family, because I hardly go back. And my mom is doing good now. She’s back in Vegas. I call her every day just to make sure everything is OK."

Falcons coach Mike Smith expressed sympathy for Soliai through the difficult time.

"That’s a very difficult personal situation that as a coach and as an organization, you have to be supportive, and that’s what we were," Smith said. "For Paul and his family, it’s a situation they had to deal with. We just wanted to support him."

Soliai is refocused on football now. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said Soliai played by far his best game of the season last week against the Steelers. Soliai recorded his first sack of the season to go with a quarterback hit and two tackles in 35 snaps played.

Soliai would be the first to say he hasn’t performed up to his own expectations after signing a five-year, $33 million contract ($14 million guaranteed), but he will try to finish up the season strong. And he will keep his father in his thoughts every step of the way.

"He’s actually my stepfather, but he took care of me since I was 3," Soliai said. "I never called him my stepdad. I never called him by his name. I always called him my dad, because that’s the only person I knew. He was just a good guy."
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Sunday would have been a ideal time for Atlanta Falcons cornerback Robert Alford to make his return: back in his home state of Louisiana against the hated Saints and their potent receiving corps.

Instead, Alford landed on injured reserve this week after undergoing wrist surgery. That puts the onus on another Robert -- McClain -- to bring his best game forward in the most important contest of the season.

McClain
Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan sees weekly progress in McClain's performance.

"I think Robert's got good confidence to play the game," Nolan said. "He's got his work cut out for him because Drew Brees is an outstanding quarterback. He'll throw to whoever he thinks the match is. So Robert's got to hold his own, at times. But I believe Robert has good confidence on the outside. I think he has more confidence outside than he does inside."

Falcons coach Mike Smith made a similar assessment of McClain, who played nickelback at the start of the season.

"Again, it's a lot easier to play on the outside because you've got the boundary to help you," Smith said. "When you're inside, you've got receivers that really have two-way gos. But Robert's done a nice job. I think he's playing with more confidence, like Mike [Nolan] said."

As much as he appreciated the kind words from his coaches, McClain wanted to clarify one aspect.

"I agree and disagree because I feel as though I play with confidence regardless of where I am on the field," McClain said. "I mean, there's not really much more I can say about it. I'm going to go out there and compete. Coach Nolan knows I'm going to go out there and compete and play as hard as I possibly can play. He knows I know my playbook. He knows I'm going to go out there and give it 100 percent."

McClain has started the last four games in place of Alford and had a bumpy first few games as the starter. Then he made one of his best plays of the season last week against the Steelers when he knocked the ball away from Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant in the end zone after Bryant got a step on him and almost came up with a one-handed grab.

Remember, McClain also had a key interception in the end zone during the Falcons' 37-34 overtime win over the Saints in the season opener. He's not the fastest cornerback on the roster, but can make up for it with heady plays.

"It's always good building on positives," McClain said. "But I feel as though I never play a good game, regardless of whether I have an interception or 10 tackles. I feel like I never play well enough, especially if the team doesn't win. I'm a harder critic on myself than a lot of people. The biggest thing this weekend is getting a win on Sunday."

Desmond Trufant is the corner the Falcons rely upon to be the shutdown guy. But Alford understands his role and the challenges ahead against the Saints.

"There will be a lot of matchups between me and [Kenny] Stills, me and [Marques] Colston, me and Nick [Toon]," McClain said. "And if they bring in any other receivers after that, I'll be ready for the matchup. They move personnel around a lot, so I could even be matched against [Jimmy] Graham sometimes. You just have to compete. It's all about competition."
video

The NFL Live crew make their picks for Atlanta at New Orleans.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith made clear his feelings about providing injury updates on top receiver Julio Jones, who continues to recover from a hip injury.

Jones
Jones, who missed last Sunday's game against the Steelers, did not practice Wednesday. Smith said Monday he wasn't going to engage in a "Julio watch" and reiterated his stance following today's practice.

"We'll make a decision on 10:30 [Central time] on Sunday morning, when we put in our inactives," Smith said. "And that will be the last time I'm going to talk about Julio."

All indications are Jones will be ready to go Sunday, no matter how the practice situation unfolds this week. The Falcons no doubt rested Jones against the Steelers knowing how crucial it would be to have him back for the Saints in Week 16. A loss in New Orleans means the 5-9 Falcons would be eliminated from the NFC South race and playoff contention.

Four other Falcons sat out Wednesday's practice, along with Jones: Roddy White (knee), Harry Douglas (foot), Jon Asamoah (back), and William Moore (foot). Cornerback Josh Wilson (hand) was limited.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones, who missed last Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers with a hip injury, was not on the field for the start of Wednesday's practice.

Jones
Coach Mike Smith said he anticipates having Jones back to face the Saints this Sunday. All indications are Jones is progressing well and will indeed suit up, barring any last-minute setbacks.

Also absent from the start of Wednesday's practice were receiver Roddy White (undisclosed), safety William Moore (foot), and right guard Jon Asamoah (back). Receiver Harry Douglas (foot) was on the field catching passes without a helmet.

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