Don't Look Past the Atlanta Falcons

Don't Look Past the Atlanta Falcons

While the Eagles stormed through St. Louis with relative ease, another post-season favorite from the NFC got their butts kicked on Sunday. The Atlanta Falcons failed spectacularly in a 30-12 road loss against the Chicago Bears, a game summed up quite succinctly in one awful play where quarterback Matt Ryan dropped back to pass, desperately ran around in a circle to escape the pressure, then inexplicably fumbled the ball before anybody even touched him.

It just so happens the Falcons are this Sunday's opponent, in a Sunday Night game where Michael Vick will make his triumphant return to Atlanta. Considering how far on either side of the spectrum both teams fell in Week 1, it might be tempting to write off the Falcons and crown the Eagles as a sure thing to reach 2-0. That would be a mistake.

I was a little perplexed as to how the Bears could so thoroughly embarrass a team that went 13-3 last season, then made significant improvements over the off-season. Funny little aside, it turns out there is a learning curve to watching eight televisions. Last year, I could comfortably tune in to four or more games at a time, but on Sunday I focused on the Birds, a little overwhelmed in my first trip back to Football Central.

In short, I didn't see much of the Falcons at all. However, Bill Barnwell summed up their effort pretty well in his Week 1 Review for Grantland:

The game turned on fumbles. There were five of them, and wouldn't you know — Chicago recovered all five. These weren't meaningless fumbles at the end of the game, either. Devin Hester fumbled on his own 25-yard line during the second play from scrimmage and recovered it. Hester then muffed a punt in the second quarter that would have given the Falcons the ball at midfield. After a Falcons drive at the end of the first quarter was ended in Bears territory by a Michael Turner fumble, the Bears broke the game open with a stripsack of Matt Ryan on Atlanta's second drive of the second half. Brian Urlacher picked up the fumble and took it to the house for a 30-6 lead. The only fumble that really came in garbage time was when Jay Cutler dropped one on his own 22-yard line with 5:31 left, and even that would have given the Falcons a faint glimmer of hope.

If the Falcons recover even one of the first three fumbles, the entire complexion of the game changes. The Falcons were forced to throw for most of the second half and faced an excellent Bears pass rush that teed off on Ryan. The Falcons star was sacked five times on Sunday after taking just 23 sacks during the entire 2010 season, and four of those sacks came during the second half, when there was no threat of a run game. Atlanta was also without center Todd McClure, who makes the line calls and adjusts the protections along with Ryan, and right guard Garrett Reynolds was making both his first NFL start and his first NFL appearance since December 2009.

So in other words, everything that could have gone wrong, did. Any club could have taken advantage in a similar situation. The fact that it was the opportunistic Bears didn't help matters.

Chances are Atlanta won't gift-wrap two in a row, and there are plenty of reasons to believe they can compete with the Birds.

1. The Georgia Dome
Over the past three seasons, including playoffs, the Falcons are 20-5 in their home building. They went 7-1 in the regular season in '08 and 2010. Even though there will be a large contingent of fans who are there to cheer on Vick, who is still considered a hero by many in that region, I don't foresee this swinging the home field advantage in the Eagles' favor.

2. Running Game
The Eagles were ripped for 169 yards by backs on Sunday, good for 4.8 yards per carry. In Chicago, Michael Turner made the most of his limited opportunities, rushing for 100 yards on 10 attempts. He's one of the toughest players to bring down in the league, and has big play potential once he gets to the second level, which the Rams were able to do with some frequency.

3. Passing Game
Unlike St. Louis, even if the Falcons fall behind, they have comeback ability. The Rams receivers looked completely inept, but Atlanta has one of the most complete groups in the NFL, a collection of reliable veterans who won't likely drop every pass thrown their way, a promising speedster who can stretch the field, and a Pro Bowl quarterback who can make all the throws. (We'll go more in-depth on this group in our upcoming Opposition Reports)

There's one more factor I'm not sure how you would classify or quantify, but Atlanta has something to prove on Sunday. The fact that the Bears beat them so handily does not make the Eagles' job any easier. They will be dealing with an angry, focused bunch who are determined to erase the memory of the Week 1 debacle, and know a win against Philadelphia will put them right back on the map.

Yep, this is the first big game of the young 2011 season, and you better believe it's gonna be a test.

Matt Klentak: Trade was about doing the right thing for Carlos Ruiz

Matt Klentak: Trade was about doing the right thing for Carlos Ruiz

The Phillies’ decision to trade beloved catcher Carlos Ruiz to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Thursday was ultimately made by Ruiz himself.

“This was about doing the right thing for Carlos because he has meant so much to this organization,” general manager Matt Klentak said Thursday night.

“Once Carlos cleared trade waivers last week, we started thinking about it. The Dodgers expressed some interest. Pete [Mackanin] and I talked to Carlos over the weekend. We discussed whether he wanted to finish the year with us or get the chance to chase another championship ring.

"He took a few days to discuss it with his family and got back to us Wednesday in Chicago and said that he'd be interested in exploring the opportunity and we finalized things with the Dodgers today.”

As a veteran of 10 seasons in the majors and five consecutive with the same team, Ruiz, 37, could have vetoed the deal. He chose to accept the deal because he wanted another chance to play in the postseason. He will serve as a backup to catcher Yasmani Grandal with the Dodgers, but is expected to get playing time. Ruiz's .368 on-base percentage from the right side of the plate could be a nice complement to the lefty-hitting Grandal.

The Phillies acquired the Dodgers’ backup catcher, veteran A.J. Ellis, minor-league pitching prospect Tommy Bergjans and a player to be named later in the deal. The Phils will not decide on the player to be named until after the minor-league season ends in mid-September. The Phils also sent an undisclosed amount of cash to the Dodgers. Ruiz is owed about $2 million in the form of salary and a contract buyout for 2017. Ellis, 35, is finishing up a one-year deal that pays him $4.5 million.

"This deal was not motivated by cash,” Klentak said. “It was about doing the right thing for Carlos, giving him the chance to get another ring.”

Klentak said he was "adamant" about getting Ellis back in the deal. The Phillies have two catching prospects in the upper minors in Jorge Alfaro and Andrew Knapp, but the club would like to see them finish their minor-league seasons.

“Carlos has been such an important leader for so long, we knew we had to fill a role on and off the field,” Klentak said. “There is a reasonably good chance one of our young catching prospects will be in the big leagues before the season is over. Both our Double A and Triple A teams are in pennant races and we believe it's important for them to continue to get meaningful at-bats and play in meaningful games.”

Ellis is expected to join the Phillies in New York this weekend. It’s not easy going from a first-place team with legitimate World Series hopes to a rebuilding club.

“I talked to A.J. this afternoon,” Klentak said. “He is a true professional. It's never easy for a guy who has been in one place his whole career to be told out of the blue that it's time to go. A.J. is determined and excited about contributing to the Phillies.”

Bergjans, a 23-year-old right-hander, pitched at Haverford College. He was an eighth-round draft pick of the Dodgers in 2015 and is 3-13 with a 4.98 ERA for Single A Rancho Cucamonga this season. He has 133 strikeouts and just 29 walks in 130 innings.

"Tommy was an excellent college performer,” Klentak said. “He has controlled the strike zone well in a tough league. We're always looking to add starting pitching and we had a chance to do it. He strikes out better than a batter an inning and limits walks which was appealing.”

Sources: Phillies shake up amateur scouting department

Sources: Phillies shake up amateur scouting department

The Phillies have undergone massive changes on the field and off over the last couple of seasons.
 
Those changes have reached the club’s amateur scouting department.
 
According to major league sources, the club recently fired three longtime members of that department, including Mike Ledna, a high-ranking coordinator and national cross-checker. Ledna was the No. 2 man under former scouting boss Marti Wolever, who was let go two years ago and replaced by Johnny Almaraz.
 
Almaraz has overseen the last two drafts with a staff of mostly holdover scouts. He has clearly begun to put his stamp on the department with his recent shakeup. Ledna’s firing was preceded by the club’s decision to part with Steve Cohen and Paul Scott. They covered the talent-rich state of Texas.
 
It is not clear whether more changes on the scouting staff are coming. Over the last year or so, the Phillies have hired a new club president (Andy MacPhail), general manager (Matt Klentak) and manager (Pete Mackanin). The playing roster has also been churned, most recently with Carlos Ruiz being traded to the Dodgers on Thursday (see story). His parting leaves Ryan Howard as the lone member of the 2008 World Series championship team still with the club.

Soul's ArenaBowl chances hinge on slowing Rattlers' potent offense

Soul's ArenaBowl chances hinge on slowing Rattlers' potent offense

GLENDALE, Ariz. – The postseason accolades and awards are nice, but Soul defensive back Tracy Belton has a much higher goal.

Named as the Arena League Football Defensive Player of the Year during an awards ceremony Friday, Belton, considered the passion and spirit of the Soul defense, is more than comfortable putting aside individual honors and pushing his teammates to greater heights.

Reaching the ArenaBowl against the Arizona Rattlers Friday in the Gila River Arena (7 p.m./ESPN) the prize is out there, and Belton has his blinders firmly affixed. The focus and concentration is not in question, so the task ahead remains paramount.

“I want that ring, I need that jewelry,” Belton said during media day Friday. “Oh yeah, it would definitely be nice to get that ring.”

To obtain that shiny piece of hardware, Belton and his defensive teammates have the task of trying to shut down the most potent offense in the league.

Guided by quarterback Nick Davila, the AFL’s Most Valuable Player, the Rattlers are averaging 80.3 points per game. From an offensive standpoint, Arizona led the AFL in many offensive categories, including scoring, total offense, rushing, third-down conversion and fourth-down conversion.

To complement the offense, the Arizona defense ranked first in the league in defensive scoring defense, rushing defense, interceptions, turnover ratio and sacks allowed.

In a league which glorifies offense, the task ahead for the Soul defense is considered a challenge. After all, these teams each finished with a 13-3 mark and each defeated the other team on their home turf.

“To win this game, we hope they make mistakes,” Soul head coach Clint Dolezel said. “They are very explosive, but our secondary is playing at a high level. For us, we need to limit our mistakes.”

If Davila, who is the first player in AFL history to win the MVP award three times, is to be challenged, the Soul’s offense need to be proficient. Coming into the ArenaBowl, the Soul averaged 59.0 points per game. That was good enough for fourth in the league, but quarterback Dan Raudabaugh put up better numbers, in certain categories, than Davila.

In head-to-head competition, Raudabaugh tossed more touchdown passes (14 to 13), passed for more yards (541 to 431), completed more passes (48 to 32) and averaged more yards per game (270.5 to 215.5) through the air. Yet, the Rattlers’ offense is swift, quick, efficient and lethal.

“In this league, the quarterback is the most important position,” Davila said. “You have to make decisions quickly, and facing a defense like Philly, that’s the challenge for us. It’s about limiting mistakes. The team which makes fewer mistakes is the team that usually wins.”

Notes
Since the Phoenix Mercury are scheduled for a home game in Talking Stick Arena in downtown Phoenix Friday night, home site for the Rattlers, the title game was switched to home of the NHL's Arizona Coyotes. … Among league leaders this past season for the Soul, Belton was fourth in tackles, Jake Metz led in sacks, Darius Reynolds was sixth in receiving and Jeramie Richardson was second in rushing. … In comparison of QBs, Raudabaugh was second in the league in passing (101 TDs, 63.3 passing percentage) and Davila placed third (110 TD passes, 69.6 passing rating). … This is the third league title meeting between these two teams. The Soul dropped the previous two championship games, 72-54 in 2012 and 48-39 in 2013.