|The development of Lofton (above) will speed up under Peterson's tutelage.|
|Todd Kirkland/Icon SMI|
27 at New England
11 at San Francisco
25 at Dallas
2 at New Orleans (M)
15 at Carolina
22 at N.Y. Giants
29 TAMPA BAY
13 NEW ORLEANS
20 at N.Y. Jets
3 at Tampa Bay
Matt Ryan, Quarterback: Matt Ryan ranked sixth in the NFC in passing yards (3,440) andquarterback rating (87.7%) on the way to being named Offensive Rookie of theYear in 2008, and it figures that the franchise passer will have an even betterseason now that he has his feet under him. Literally. Ryan spent most of theoff-season sharpening his footwork, adjusting the pace and depth of hisdrop-backs in an effort to get better in sync with receivers Roddy White,Michael Jenkins and All-Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez, whom Atlanta acquired fromKansas City in April for a second-round draft pick.
"They all move at such different speeds," Ryan says. "The speed and therhythm of my drops are affected as much by the route as who's running it. Thisyear I feel like I've gotten much better at [knowing] what those guys doand the role my feet play in helping them get the ball in the rightspot."
When it comes to throwing to Gonzalez in particular, Ryan is findingthat he has slack with which to work. "He makes me a much betterquarterback because he just catches every ball that comes his way," says Ryan,adding that the tape he screened of Gonzalez shortly before the eight-timeAll-Pro came to the team didn't do his new tight end justice. "He's way betterthan advertised."
This article appears in the September 7, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated.
Youth is served in the remaking of the defense, but a knowledgeable veteran will be central to its success.
While installing his Cover 2 scheme last year, coach Mike Smith showedtape of the defenses he had coordinated in Jacksonville the five seasonsprevious. What stood out most to middle linebacker Curtis Lofton was the manplaying his position, Mike Peterson. "He was always going downhill, smashingsomebody and making plays," says the 6-foot, 248-pound Oklahoma product, who wasAtlanta's fourth-leading tackler as a rookie in 2008. "I was just like, Man,this guy is good."
Since the Falcons signed Peterson to a two-year, $6.5 million deal in March,Lofton has been able to learn directly from the 11-year pro. Peterson, whothrived under Smith's direction in Jacksonville, will now line up on theoutside -- where he alighted his first four years in the league, withIndianapolis -- to accommodate Lofton and buttress Atlanta's porous run defense.
In meetings Peterson sits next to Lofton and patiently fields his numerousquestions. "He wants to know what I'm looking at before the play and as it'sgoing on," says Peterson, who also helps by translating the scheme's jargon.
Peterson's addition is just part of the makeover for a Falcons defense thatjettisoned five starters after finishing as the league's eighth-worst unitagainst the run and ninth-worst overall. Atlanta drafted seven defensive playersin April, most notably Peria Jerry, a 6' 2", 294-pound tackle fromOle Miss at No. 24, who is expected to start immediately. (Rookies WilliamMoore, a safety, and Lawrence Sidbury, a defensive end, will rotate in as well.)The holdovers promoted to starting spots include free safety Thomas DeCoud,outside linebacker Stephen Nicholas, and cornerback Brent Grimes.
Overall the changes will make the Atlanta D more athletic but considerablyless experienced. To compensate, the unit spent extra time in camp going overassignments in an effort to curb freelancing. "Last year there'd be times when aguy didn't trust the scheme and would try to make a play on his own instead ofholding his gap where the defense is designed for someone else to make a play,"says strong safety Erik Coleman. "I've got to trust that if I stay outside onthis run support, the 'backer's going to be inside to make the tackle."
If any linebacker can be trusted to be where he's supposed to, it's Peterson.He not only has unwavering faith in the scheme -- he's racked up nearly 1,000career tackles in the system -- but is also a big believer in Smith, to whom he isfiercely loyal. After Smith left Jacksonville to take the job in Atlanta,Peterson fell out of favor with the Jaguars coaching staff. His muscle-flexingsack celebration in a Week 9 loss to the Bengals that dropped the Jags to 3-5led to a clash with coach Jack Del Rio; after that game Del Rio scolded Petersonand other players for their efforts, and made it clear he didn't want to hearany backtalk from them. When the linebacker fired back at Del Rio anyway, thecoach banished him from the team facility for two days, fined him $10,000 forinsubordination and benched him the following week against Detroit.
Now reunited with Smith and in an environment where he feels his input is notjust welcome but sought after, Peterson is eager to put that episode behind him.His good citizenship shows in the mentoring role he is playing with his youngteammates. In Lofton he sees a talent who -- with a little nudging -- could help carryAtlanta deeper into the playoffs than their wild-card appearance last year.
"He's a young guy who's willing to listen, and that lets you know he wants tobe a good ballplayer," Peterson says. "I tell him all the time that to be one ofthe top linebackers, you've got to be able to do everything: play the run, playthe pass. And he can do it. It's just a matter of pulling it out of him andmaking sure he does it on a consistent basis."
-- Andrew Lawrence