FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Today's Early Bird Report includes Calvin Ridley's praise for Julio Jones as well as how Alex Mack's time in Cleveland made him great.
Calvin Ridley has blossomed in his first season with the Atlanta Falcons, and he has possibly the best mentor a rookie receiver in the NFL could ask for: Julio Jones.
Jones is widely regarded as one of the league's greatest players, and he's helped Ridley play at a high level already at this stage of his career. Through his first eight games, Ridley has caught 33 passes for 463 yards and seven touchdowns, tied for the second-most in the NFL.
Ridley recently on the RapSheet and Friends podcast and discussed what it's like to learn from Jones, which NFL.com's Adam Maya detailed in a decent piece.
"Like a big brother," Ridley said, per Maya. "He definitely takes control of the room and it doesn't matter who you are: He wants you to do well and get better. When we're on that field, he's coaching everyone, and it's just amazing to see Julio Jones out there working just as hard as we are. I really feel like when you've got Julio Jones on your team, the expectations in the room are high. We all should go out there and play good -- not only for us and the team -- but for him."
Here are some other articles for Falcons fans to check out today:
Return of the Mack: Cleveland helped Falcons center become great
Alex Mack has been one of the best centers in the league since his NFL career began, and he will face off against the team who he developed his high reputation playing for this weekend. During his seven seasons in Cleveland, Mack started every game he was healthy and earned three trips to the Pro Bowl. ESPN's Vaughn McClure spoke with Mack about his time in Cleveland and his journey to the Falcons.
"I think the combination of everything: A big, vibrant city with a lot going on, a franchise quarterback in Matt Ryan, and it had an offense that I really enjoyed and the outside zone scheme that I think suits me really well," Mack told McClure. "And I think Dan Quinn's attitude, his approach to football with competing every day and the positive vibes he's built around the building, it's something really powerful. Like, I enjoy going to work. And I think it's a great atmosphere. People are willing to work hard, and everyone takes care of their business. I couldn't be happier."
To read the rest of McClure's piece, click here.
Week 9 expert picks:
Now on a three-game win streak, the Falcons are getting plenty of support from the expert pickers at CBS Sports. Five of the six experts who had their picks in at the time of this edition of EBR picked the Falcons to beat the Browns on Sunday, including senior writer Pete Prisco, who is the most ride-or-die picker of the Falcons in the national media.
"The Falcons are playing consecutive road games outside, which is a challenge," Prisco writes. "But the offense has come alive behind Matt Ryan. The Chiefs carved up the Browns defense last week, and this week it will be Ryan. The Browns won't keep up."
Bleacher Report also believes the Falcons will win their second straight game on the road, although it isn't unanimous, with Brent Sobleski the lone dissenter among the three experts.
"But could this be a trap," Bleacher Report writes. "The Falcons are indeed prone to letdown performances, they're on the road, and Cleveland doesn't match up horribly on defense. Atlanta has often had to rely on its passing game, and the Browns have the second-best pass D in the league in terms of DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) at Football Outsiders."
The Falcons are huge favorites in FiveThirtyEight’s prediction model, holding a 78-percent win probability against the Browns. That is the highest number among all road teams and the second-highest among all teams, period.
ESPN: What's real and what's not from the NFL's first half
It's always difficult to project what will happen in the second half of an NFL season based on the first eight games, but it's a fun exercise, nonetheless. ESPN's Bill Barnwell is among the best at what he does, and he had some predictions to make, including why the Saints may not be completely safe atop the NFC South.
"The Falcons probably can't win the division, but they still have a 34.7 percent chance of making the postseason after winning their past three games," Barnwell writes in his section about Atlanta. "They could serve as a spoiler if the race comes down to record within the South. The Falcons beat the Panthers but narrowly lost to the Saints in Week 3, while the Saints' only loss came at the hands of FitzMagic and the Bucs in Week 1.
"Atlanta could ruin Thanksgiving and make playoff life more difficult for the Saints by beating them in New Orleans on Nov. 22. They'll need to maneuver through a three-game stretch with the Saints, a home game against the Ravens, and a road trip to Lambeau in December against a Packers team who could loom as a wild-card rival."
Barnwell also predicts that Julio Jones will score a few more touchdowns over the final eight games. To read what he had to say about that and other topics, click here.
Week 10 power rankings:
The Falcons have climbed out of their 1-4 hole, and the national power rankings awarded them for that accomplishment. Some more than others, however, as the Falcons shot up in a couple of power rankings and only made marginal gains in others. Also, be sure to check out Matt Tabeek’s Wildly Important NFL Power Rankings.
"The award for Effort Win of Week 9 goes to the gritty Falcons, who refuse to make excuses despite being able to construct their own mini- Pro Bowl team out of the players on their injury reports and injured reserve. Atlanta is getting a little healthier -- including in the standings -- because of a defense that has bent (plenty) without busting in the past couple of weeks. In Washington, Matt Ryan had his best road showing since that blowout win over the Jeff Fisher Rams two years ago.
"Of all the individual plays on Sunday, I thought a single pass to Mohamed Sanu, insignificant in terms of outcome, signified the heart of Dan Quinn's football team. Up 17 and trying to run out the clock with six minutes and change left, Ryan hit Sanu over the middle in tight coverage on third-and-7. Sanu tried to drag two defenders for the first down, only to have center Alex Mack (the center!) come running in to push the pile. All heart. Atlanta clearly hasn't given up on making the postseason as easily as all the analysts have given up on them."
"At 4-4, they are playing great on offense. Matt Ryan has been sensational. They have a chance to be a playoff team."
"The Falcons fell below expectations and started 1-4 primarily because of injuries. They currently have six starters on injured reserve, although Pro Bowl middle linebacker Deion Jones is due back in a couple of weeks. Still, the Falcons -- behind an MVP-worthy showing by Matt Ryan -- have managed to rattle off three straight wins and are back in the playoff hunt."
"And they've done it, clawing all the way back to .500 and into the playoff race. The Falcons were way too talented to fold, and our rankings reflected that even when they were 1-4."
Throughout the offseason and training camp, Steve Sarkisian and many of the Falcons' offensive players discussed how much more comfortable they were going into their second season working together. And while they weren't exactly firing on all cylinders in their season opener, the Falcons' offense has been incredible this season.
The Ringer: The NFL's most dominant offenses refuse to be stopped
Much of the first half of the 2018 NFL season was defined by spectacular offensive play, and the Atlanta Falcons certainly belong in that category. Steve Sarkisian's unit has been humming in Year 2, and the Falcons are currently fifth in yards per game (412) and eighth in points per game (28.5). The Ringer's Robert Mays has not missed the Falcons' offensive explosion despite the team's slow start.
"At 4-4, the Falcons have a tough road to a wild-card berth in the NFC, but their 38-point outburst against Washington proves this team can score on anybody," Mays writes. "Atlanta has struggled against talented defensive fronts on the road this season (see: the total collapse against Pittsburgh in Week 5), but the Falcons offensive line was able to neutralize a Washington front four that's packed with high-end talent. Matt Ryan was sacked only twice while throwing for 350 yards and four scores. A good chunk of that production came on screens to running back Tevin Coleman (who took a short pass 39 yards for a touchdown), but Ryan had more than enough time to get the ball to his dynamic pass catchers. Most of those throws went to Julio Jones, who hauled in seven catches for 121 yards and his first touchdown of the season. I'm glad to see that my theory (that Jones can't cross the goal line without exploding) wasn't actually true."
To read the rest of Mays' piece on The Ringer, click here.
The Ringer: The Falcons offense is back. Will that be enough?
The Ringer wasn't finished talking about Steve Sarkisian and the Falcons' offense, though. In a separate piece, written by Danny Kelly, Atlanta's second-year offensive coordinator receives praise for the work that he's done in the face of scrutiny entering the season.
"But over the past month, the Falcons have overcome their injury-decimated defense, dug themselves out of the cellar, and gotten back to .500 on the back of their high-flying offense," Kelly writes. "Led by quarterback Matt Ryan, who's posting MVP-caliber numbers, and narrative-busting play-caller Steve Sarkisian, who's solved the team's red zone woes, the Falcons' offense is quietly humming along at a clip that comes close to its incredible 2016 performance. In a season that's been dominated by the NFL's most unstoppable offenses, the Falcons have put together a juggernaut of their own—and that group makes this team a dark horse playoff contender in the season's stretch run."
This is a really well-written and in-depth piece by Kelly on the Falcons' offense and how its evolved, and I highly recommend checking it out.