Falcons Trying to Keep Special Teams Special

The overlooked story while the Falcons were marching through their 11-5 season was the contribution of the special teams. Their play helped to cover up a shaky defense and a leaky secondary.

Keith Armstrong, the Falcons' special teams coordinator, put together a punt-coverage unit that set a league mark for fewest punt return yards allowed with 49. The previous mark of 53 yards was set by the Buffalo Bills in 1991. The kickoff coverage unit was strong, forcing teams to start at the 24.6-yard line, fourth best in the league. Place-kicker Jason Elam won two games on the final play.

Kickoff returner Jerious Norwood was fifth in the league with the percentage of returns (70.6) that went for 20 yards or more (minimum, 50 returns). Rookie Harry Douglas made four returns of 20 yards or more, including a 61-yard touchdown against Carolina.

Armstrong has been studying the players who may make up his units in 2009 because he knows head coach Mike Smith is anticipating a strong encore. "We are trying to get faster as a football team and I think when you are faster, one of the areas where that will show up is your special teams," Smith said. "Not to put any pressure on Keith and that unit, but we expect to see improvement."

Armstrong likes some of the new talent the Falcons have added. "They are young," Armstrong said. "They are new at it. We have to improve their techniques. They are being introduced to a lot of new things."

A key area for Armstrong is getting the new players used to the nuisances and different rules of the pro game. The biggest special teams rule change calls for just two-man wedges on kickoff returns.

Player safety was the reason. Some severe injuries have been suffered while trying to bust up three- and four-man wedges. "There is a big learning curve, just like on the offense and defense," Armstrong said.

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES

--C Todd McClure debunked internet chatter that he's planning to retire. A few months back, a football website wrote that McClure planned to retire if his contract was not renegotiated. Robb Nelson, McClure's agent, said the report was a "mischaracterization" of his client's situation. The Falcons acknowledged that McClure has been playing at a high level, but do not talk about contract re-negotiations.

"No man, I've got a contract," McClure said when asked if he was retiring. "I've been here. I haven't missed a day of OTAs. Minicamps or nothing. I'm as fired up as I've ever been about being a Falcon right now. This is an exciting season that we've got coming up."

McClure made the team after being drafted in the seventh round of the 1999 draft. He's started 134 of 136 games, including the last 112 in a row.

"I'm going to play until the wheels fall off," McClure said. "I'm going to play until I get 31 No's (from other teams). Bob Whitfield told me that. He said, 'keep playing to you get 31 No's.' "

--Offensive tackle Renardo Foster and punter Robbie Dehaze were released. Foster, who spent last season on injured reserve, was released a day after the team signed offensive lineman Jeremy Newberry. Foster, 6-foot-7, 340-pounds, made the team as an undrafted rookie free agent last season in 2007. He started two games and played in seven under former coach Bobby Petrino before suffering a knee injury.

Dehaze was signed as an undrafted rookie free agent from Northern Arizona.

--Former two-time Pro Bowler Jeremy Newberry, has been working out at guard. "I'm learning guard," Newberry said. "I've been taking reps the last couple of days at guard." Newberry, a 12-year veteran, played some tackle early in his career. "I don't think they'll move me back to tackle anytime soon," Newberry said. "That was an experiment that went wrong my rookie year."

--The Falcons spent a lot of time on working on the passing game in the offseason. The focus for quarterback Matt Ryan was to make better decisions and be more accurate with his passes. "I don't think those two traits can be overlooked," Smith said. "That's what we emphasized with Matt. Make better decisions and be more accurate throwing the football."

--The Falcons signed two more of their draft picks to four-year contracts. Cornerback Chris Owens, a third-round draft pick, and offensive lineman Garrett Reynolds, became the third and four picks signed by the team. The Falcons earlier signed cornerback William Middleton, a fifth-round pick from Furman who graduated from Marist, and defensive tackle Vance Walker, a seventh-round pick from Georgia Tech.

Both were also signed to four-year contracts. All other picks remain unsigned. They are defensive tackle Peria Jerry (first round), safety William Moore (second round), cornerback Chris Owens (third round), defensive end Lawrence Sidbury (fourth round) and linebacker Spencer Adkins (sixth round).

--Running back Verron Haynes, who was not at the team's organized team activities on Wednesday, had a pretrial conference on charges for writing bad checks, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Haynes, a former University of Georgia standout, played for the Steelers for six seasons. He didn't play last season. He was signed by the Falcons on April 29. Haynes, 30, is set to go to trial on September 16 for writing a bad check to a luxury car dealership in the Pittsburgh area. He allegedly passed bad checks worth $70,000.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't think those two traits can be overlooked. That's what we emphasized with Matt. Make better decisions and be more accurate throwing the football." -- Falcons coach Mike Smith on what Matt Ryan needs to do to develop into an elite NFL quarterback.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The look like minor moves, but the Falcons are tinkering with the depth along their offensive line. They released Renardo Foster and signed veteran Jeremy Newberry. The Falcons know that last year was an anomaly. Four of the starters made all 16 regular-season starts. Only rookie Sam Baker missed action.

In addition to bringing in Newberry, the also signed guard-center Brett Romberg, tackle Will Svitek and drafted Garrett Reynolds. "Basically it's going to be a pretty good competition (for the backup spots)," Falcons offensive line coach Paul Boudreau said. "Romberg, (Bruce) Wilkerson and (Quinn) Ojinnaka and Svitek, those guys are going to compete for those spots. We'll look at all of the young guys and see who's worthy of keeping around."

 

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