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FALCONS MINICAMP: Falcons’ aerial attack looking as sharp as ever

Second-year WR Julio Jones and the Falcons’ offense ranked last a season ago in passing yards on screen plays — something they hope to change.

Second-year WR Julio Jones and the Falcons’ offense ranked last a season ago in passing yards on screen plays — something they hope to change.

FLOWERY BRANCH — The Atlanta Falcons are installing a new hitch in their aerial attack, one that emphasizes screen passes.

No one is likely to benefit more than receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White.

For the first time since coach Mike Smith took over in January 2008, the Falcons are emphasizing the screen pass, an option that was lacking in four years under former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey.

Atlanta hopes the new approach, being installed by new coordinator Dirk Koetter, will give quarterback Matt Ryan more options and keep defenses guessing.

“We’re going to take whatever defenses give us,” Jones said. “It’s good to have that in our game plan, but whatever coach calls we’re going to try to make it work.”

Ryan’s 68 yards passing on screens last season ranked 32nd in the NFL, and he had just 20 attempts. If the Falcons can get the ball more quickly in space to Jones — their fastest receiver — they can force defenses to spread out and limit the blitz.

“I think at times in the past if it didn’t work early we kind of tended to get away from it or didn’t do it at all,” center Todd McClure said. “That was one of the first things when this offensive staff came in. They said that we’re going to be a great screen team.’ “

When the Falcons did deploy the screen under Mularkey, Ryan usually threw quick passes to Jones or White near the sideline. The problem was that Jones and White had rarely had blockers to clear space, so both receivers had to beat coverages alone.

In Koetter’s scheme, slot receiver Harry Douglas and speedy running back Jacquizz Rodgers will join Jones and White in attacking with screen passes that will be led by a blocking tight end or an offensive tackle.

“There’s different ways we’re executing our blocking schemes on the screens that I think is going to be real beneficial,” said McClure, a 13-year veteran. “As an offensive line, you love to have a screen game that the defensive line has to respect. That way they’re not just pinning their ears back and rushing the quarterback.”

The Falcons believe a diversified passing attack will offer a better chance to win the NFC South for the second time in three years.

Perennial favorite New Orleans will be without coach Sean Payton all season. Tampa Bay is rebuilding under rookie coach Greg Schiano. Carolina, despite the considerable playmaking ability of quarterback Cam Newton, is still overhauling its defense.

Under Smith, Atlanta has gone 43-21 in the regular season, but the Falcons are 0-3 in the playoffs, and their last two appearances were an embarrassment.

Last January, the New York Giants shut out Atlanta’s offense, stopping two fourth-and-1 runs, holding the ground game to a 3.0-yard average on 21 attempts and allowing conversions on just four of 14 third-down attempts.

Though Koetter’s offense in Jacksonville ranked last in total offense and yards passing and was 29th in scoring, the Jaguars had a rookie quarterback in Blaine Gabbert and a receiving corps that hardly compared to Atlanta’s, which includes NFL career-leading tight end Tony Gonzalez.

Gabbert, despite his overall struggles, completed 36 of 45 screen attempts. Ryan, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, would surely have as good a chance at succeeding.

Koetter has “been watching film, and he knows how to get the ball into our hands,” White said. “He wants to get it to us quick, make people miss and then get after guys.”

For White, the challenge goes beyond improving just one dynamic of the passing attack. He believes the offense will benefit downfield as defenses try to contain former All-Pro running back Michael Turner and the NFL’s career-leading tight end in Tony Gonzalez.

Last year, White, a three-time Pro Bowl pick, became the eighth NFL player with five consecutive seasons with at least 80 catches and 1,000 yards receiving, but he thinks Koetter is determined to give others a chance to shine.

And he’s fine with that.

“I know that sounds crazy, but we’ve got other guys out there that can play,” White said. “Julio is going to be a big part of the offense this year. Harry is going to do wonders in the slot. We have to maximize our talent and get the ball in everyone’s hands.”


Atlanta 2nd-year players making strides in minicamp

The Atlanta Falcons are looking for their new guys — especially their second-year players — to mature quickly as minicamp resumes this week.

FLOWERY BRANCH — Rookies are not the only Falcons players going through their first minicamp this week.

This also is the first offseason program for such second-year players as receiver Julio Jones and running back Jacquizz Rodgers, who had no minicamp or organized team activities last year because of the NFL lockout.

Jones, Rodgers and other second-year players are making up for lost time with lessons with their position coaches that began with OTAs in May.

Falcons coach Mike Smith says he’s expecting to see the 2011 draft picks mature quickly.

“It’s great to have Julio here in the offseason program,” Smith said. “Last year was very unique because we didn’t have an offseason program. We anticipate his maturation process is going to go real quick. The arrow is just going up and up with him and I think with all of our second-year players.”

Some 2011 rookies played key roles despite missing the normal summer preparation.

Rodgers was the team’s second-leading rusher in 2011 even though he said he wasn’t confident he knew all the plays until almost halfway through the season.

“I would say probably like Week 5 or 6 is when you started feeling comfortable, because it’s different from the practice to the game,” Rodgers said.

Jones, last year’s first-round draft pick from Alabama, missed three games but still had 54 catches for 959 yards and tied for the team lead with eight touchdown receptions.

Jones said he never allowed himself to wonder how much better his rookie season might have been with the benefit of a traditional offseason.

“I’m a competitor. I don’t think it was that hard for me, as far as going out and competing and that aspect of the game,” Jones said Wednesday. “But as far as the timing and everything, you can’t make that up. Either you have that timing or you don’t, and I didn’t have that timing last year.”

Now, with OTAs and the minicamp, Jones said he can tell a difference after a full offseason with quarterback Matt Ryan and receivers coach Terry Robiskie. Ryan found Jones for long passes in each practice Tuesday and Wednesday.

“It’s great, not only spending time with Robiskie but with Matt, connecting on balls and everything and just knowing where I’m supposed to be, the right depth and everything,” Jones said. “It’s very critical for me.

“The past is the past. You’re just looking forward to the upcoming season and trying to go out there and play football and play fast and just have that confidence me and my quarterback are going to be on the same page this year.”

First-year offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said he was amazed rookies moved into crucial roles across the NFL last season, including in Jacksonville, where his Jaguars’ offense struggled with rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert. Jacksonville finished last in total offense and in yards passing and 29th with 15.2 points per game.

“All rookies who had to play last year, that was an unbelievable stress on those guys,” Koetter said. “For those guys to do what they did was impressive. Obviously, having an OTA and minicamp and being able to be coached by their position coaches, you can see it in those guys’ performance out here.

“Julio and Jacquizz give us two more explosive players and are progressing exactly as they should be.”

Another key second-year player for Atlanta is middle linebacker and former Georgia star Akeem Dent, who will compete with Lofa Tatupu for a starting job.

Dent, a third-round pick in 2011, played mainly on special teams as a rookie.

Dent said having his first offseason is “real big.”

“Last year, I didn’t have a real chance to get to know everything that was going on,” Dent said. “So right now I really have to come in and hone in on my assignments and get to know the whole defense.”

Notes: The three-day minicamp ended with one practice Thursday. … Offense had the edge with a series of big catches in team drills. Jones drew cheers from the fans with a long touchdown catch. Roddy White caught a touchdown catch on a crossing pattern and then dunked the ball over the crossbar. … With tight end Tony Gonzalez excused to miss the minicamp following the death of his stepfather, tight ends Tommy Gallarda and Lamark Brown caught Smith’s attention with catches over the middle. But Smith noted that Gonzalez was missed. “Of course, that play action game gets a lot better when you have 88 out there, no disrespect to the guys we’re talking about out here” Smith said. “They did a nice job, though. They’re learning.”


LB Tatupu gets second chance with Falcons

No matter what position he has to play, Lofa Tatupu is ready to make the most of his chance to revive his career with the Falcons after being cast off by the Seahawks.

FLOWERY BRANCH — Lofa Tatupu started to believe his career was over as he spent the 2011 season away football.

Following his release from the Seattle Seahawks before last season, Tatupu said his only chances with other teams were as an outside linebacker. Tatupu, a three-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker with Seattle, wasn’t looking to change positions.

When he realized he wasn’t going to play last season he began to lose hope and considered filing his retirement papers.

“At a certain point I just stopped working out,” Tatupu said. “I thought it was over. I was really ready to send those papers in.”

A call this year from Tatupu’s agent, Fletcher Smith, changed the linebacker’s outlook.

“He called me and said, ‘Do you want to go play?’ ” Tatupu said. “I said, ‘Absolutely.’ He told me the options and I said, ‘Yes, I’m going to go work out right now.’ ”

One of those options was the Atlanta Falcons, who need help at the position after Curtis Lofton signed with the Saints.

Tatupu, 29, opened minicamp with the Falcons this week, competing with former Georgia star Akeem Dent for the starting job and relishing the rebirth of his career.

“I’m excited about the whole process and just being back playing ball again,” Tatupu said.

Tatupu signed a two-year, $3.6 million contract with Atlanta.

Falcons coach Mike Smith said Tatupu is expected to push Dent, a third-round pick in 2011.

“Lofa is a very experienced player and we anticipate he and Akeem should have a good battle this training camp,” Smith said.

The Falcons re-signed many of their free agents, but the loss of Lofton, who led the team in tackles the past three years, was significant.

“I just hope I bring the veteran leadership,” Tatupu said. ‘I know Curtis, he’s a hell of a ballplayer and I know they’re missing that with his departure. I’m hoping to take up where he left off.”

Smith said Tatupu’s body “is probably in a different place” after he missed last season.

“We’ve just got to bring him along slowly, especially in training camp when we’re going to be going twice a day and we’ll be in pads,” Smith said.

Tatupu looks like a run-stopper but he excelled in pass coverage. He had 10 interceptions in his six seasons with Seattle, including four in 2007.

Tatupu said he feels comfortable now that he’s back on the field.

“You’ve got to knock a little rust off, but for the most part it’s second nature, especially as a middle linebacker,” he said. “You’re supposed to know what everybody is doing. You’re supposed to be the field general. From that standpoint, I really wasn’t taken back by it. I just come in and do what I do.”

Tatupu had arthroscopic surgeries on both knees after the 2010 season but said he was physically ready to play last year. He was released when he wouldn’t agree to restructure his contract with the Seahawks.

“A lot of what kept me out last year wasn’t my injuries,” he said. “I was ready to play. I wanted to play.”

He said his year away from football only strengthened his love for the game.

“The hunger has always been there,” he said. “I’ve never taken anything for granted, not one day, whether it’s practice or a walk-through. What we’re doing is a blessing. It’s a privilege, not a right.”

Tatupu said he would “be around the game somehow” if he wasn’t playing.

“It might be coaching high school,” he said. “I’ve got to be around the game. When all is said and done, I’m going to coach or I’m going to do something that has to do with this game, because I just love it so much.”