The Falcons have begun setting the table for their future by entering into contract negotiations with standout, third-year linebacker Michael Boley. Terms and the status of those talks are unknown but the Falcons opted to be proactive with their leading tackler, who is emerging as a potential Pro Bowler this season.
"They've talked to my agent but I'm not really thinking about that stuff. We've got five games left," Boley said. "If it happens it happens. I'm trying to win these last five games. It would be great to play here for a long time. I love it here. It's a great team, great organization."
Boley's contract, which is paying him $435,000 this season, expires at the end of the season, which would make the 2005, fifth-round draft pick from Southern Mississippi a restricted free agent.
The Falcons hold the right to match any offer Boley could sign with another team and/or demand compensation for signing Boley by tendering him a contract after the season. However, team management and ownership wanted to reach out to avoid any potential issues. Team owner Arthur Blank pledged to do what was needed to retain players it felt formed a nucleus for the future and Boley clearly is a key part of the plan. Besides Boley being an emerging star (101 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles, interception), he is a highly intelligent player who also registers favorably on the character scale.
In his second NFL season, Boley filed for sole custody of his autistic son and won. He, with the help of his mother, took care of his son and, with the assistance of the team, got him enrolled in programs that cater to autistic children.
Boley is now married and recently had a baby with his wife and is rapidly turning into a fan favorite. After the damage left in the wake of the Michael Vick scandal, Blank is trying to make sure that he not only secures talented players, but ones he won't have to worry about off the field.
"He's huge," coach Bobby Petrino said of Boley. "He's a guy that we can build everything with and around. The thing I like so much about him is how well he knows the game. Besides his physical attributes, his smartness, his preparation, the way he handles himself in meetings. We definitely want to have him around."
As to what other players will be with Boley remains a huge uncertainty on the defensive side. End John Abraham and rookies Trey Lewis, Jamaal Anderson, Chris Houston, Stephen Nicholas and David Irons figure to be part of the mix, as does second-year safety Jimmy Williams.
Two defenders who could be in precarious situations are middle linebacker Keith Brooking, who has two years and more than $10 million remaining on his contract, and defensive tackle Rod Coleman, who has two years and slightly more than $8 million left on his deal.
Brooking is an adequate player at middle linebacker, but he is not as effective as he has been and is more of a natural weakside linebacker. Coleman, who is on injured reserve (knee, thigh, triceps, hand), has been injured for most of the past two seasons.
73rd meeting. The Rams have nearly double their win total over Atlanta in this series, 46-24-2, however, the Falcons have won the last two games, including a 47-17, playoff pasting in 2005. Atlanta rushed for 327 yards in that blowout, which propelled it to the NFC championship game in Philadelphia. The Falcons haven't been to the playoffs since. Tailback Warrick Dunn (142) and quarterback Michael Vick (119) both surpassed the 100-yard mark rushing.
--Though owner Arthur Blank insisted coach Bobby Petrino told him that he would return to coach the Falcons next season, Petrino continued to evade questions about not listening to any potential college offers. Petrino declined to definitively say he would return to coach the Falcons next season for a second time this week.
On Monday, Petrino said that he didn't want to think about entertaining any offers should they come his way because he was too focused on preparing the Falcons for the Rams game Sunday. Wednesday, when asked again if he would entertain any feelers from college suitors, here is what Petrino said.
"Monday was a hard day on all us coaches," Petrino said, referring to the round of mass firings and resignations in the collegiate ranks. "You never like to see what happened Monday happen throughout the country. There are concerns for friends, family. Everyone who walks around in that (Falcons coaching) office up there feels bad when something like that happens."
Petrino's sidestepping things continues to foster speculation that if the right job came his way, he would, at the very least listen.
--Atlanta and St. Louis are two of the worst offenses in the NFL, averaging 14 and 15.3 points, respectively. The Falcons rank 31st in the league in scoring, ahead of only San Francisco.
--To emphasize how woeful Atlanta's offense has been, the Falcons are plus-six in turnover differential but they haven't been able to capitalize. St. Louis is minus-nine in turnover ratio, which is more in line of a team with its record.
--The Falcons have outscored the Rams 81-34 in their last two meetings.
--Before defeating the Rams 34-17 in 2004, the Falcons had lost seven straight to St. Louis, their former NFC West foe.
--Atlanta coach Bobby Petrino and St. Louis coach Scott Linehan said that despite their poor records, they have had no problems keeping their players focused for Sunday's game. "Our attitude is still good," Petrino said. "The players are in it to win the game. We're just going to keep working at it, pounding away at it."
BY THE NUMBERS
1 -- The number of losses needed for Atlanta to have nine, the total number of losses coach Bobby Petrino sustained in four years coaching at Louisville.
QUOTE TO NOTE
"You don't want to be on film -- I don't care what your record is -- you don't want be on film and everybody around the league looks at you as a quitter. You want to end up strong. Professionals do that. There are some guys around this league who feel their season is over or it's a possibility they won't make the playoffs and some of them jump off the ship. That's not happening here and if I saw it, I would address the players I thought were doing it." -- Falcons WR Joe Horn.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Atlanta will go with its base 4-3 and move strong safety Lawyer Milloy in the box to help fortify things near the line of scrimmage. If Jackson starts to get loose, there is the possibility that the Falcons could insert rookie weakside linebacker Stephen Nicholas to help.
Nicholas has played exclusively on special teams since returning from a high-ankle sprain three weeks ago but he is much more stout against the run than starter Demorrio Williams.
Williams, an undersized ball hawk, is frequently targeted in the run game, especially when he's aligned behind end John Abraham. Nicholas, meanwhile, could be the starter on the weak side over the next few years. Williams will be a free agent after the season and probably not re-signed, and with Atlanta all but out of the playoff hunt, the Falcons could begin phasing Nicholas in more.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
--There was some thinking that once TB Warrick Dunn reached the 10,000-yard rushing milestone, which he did Thanksgiving night, the coaching staff might start incorporating Jerious Norwood more into the rushing game. Coach Bobby Petrino said Dunn would remain as the main workhorse because of his effectiveness of late.
--WR Joe Horn practiced Wednesday and will start vs. the Rams. Horn missed the past three games with a strained hamstring.
--RG Kynan Forney returned to practice Wednesday after missing Thursday's game with an illness. He will start against the Rams.
The Falcons could actually have a hard time running the ball inside against La'Roi Glover and Adam Carriker, so they likely will try to get to the edges with TB Warrick Dunn or with some quick passes near the line of scrimmage.
Atlanta has been throwing more hitch passes and slip screens against aggressive fronts to compensate for its inability to run the ball. Tight end Alge Crumpler has not been a primary target of late but he could emerge in this quick-hitting type of plan.
With backup tight end Dwayne Blakley back, the Falcons probably will use more two-tight end sets to help with protection. That also could allow them to set up some of the delayed tight end drag routes Bobby Petrino likes to employ.
Atlanta's short game will be used to set up some shots downfield. The only question will be whether Joey Harrington will have the time to get off some of the longer sideline patterns that have been effective.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Falcons LG Justin Blalock vs. Rams NT Adam Carriker. These former Big 12 standouts will face off again, except Carriker will be coming from the inside, where Blalock and the Falcons have been vulnerable. Carriker's athleticism has allowed St. Louis to do a lot of gaming and Blalock is still struggling picking up some of the high-speed stunts opponents have thrown at him. Blalock probably is going to need some help from fullback Ovie Mughelli to control his region.
Falcons passing game vs. Rams MLB Will Witherspoon. Witherspoon has been a monster with pressure and in coverage. He has nine passes defensed, eight QB pressures and six sacks. The Falcons have to be conscious of him coming on blitzes but also know where he is when he drops into coverage. Atlanta likes to run a lot of crossing routes that take time to develop. The Falcons likely will throw into the middle of the field if he vacates it on a blitz, but they might stay away from those routes if he's lurking in coverage.
With RG Kynan Forney back in the lineup after missing the Colts game with an illness, the Falcons should be somewhat more aware and able to handle the plethora of blitzes Rams defensive coordinator Jim Haslett will throw at them. D'Anthony Batiste started his first NFL game against the Colts and did fair, but Indianapolis didn't blitz much.