Early Bird Report: Falcons praise Steven Means as leader and player

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Falcons defensive end Steven Means may not be known to many casual Atlanta fans, but he is a vital presence in the team's locker room and a growing leader in the community. On Thursday, Means was named the Falcons' Walter Payton Man of the Year, given to those in the NFL who have done outstanding community work.

Means learned of his honor via a virtual call with Ricardo Allen, the team's nominee for the award last year and a close friend. With the news finally out, teammates and coaches had the opportunity to celebrate what Means, a member of the Falcons' Social Justice Committee, has meant to the organization.

"Steven Means is one of my favorite players I've ever coached," Falcons defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said. "He's probably one of the best humans I've ever met in my life. That is zero exaggeration. I'm just so happy for him that he's finally starting to have some of the success of the work he's put in. He's a tireless worker with amazing energy and focus and passion for this game. Really all he needed was an opportunity, and people are starting to see all the work we see every day."

In a piece for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jason Butt wrote at greater length about the excitement within the organization for Means.

Falcons run game headed in wrong direction

As the Falcons neared the goal line during their loss to the Saints, they felt confident in handing the ball off to red-zone bell cow Todd Gurley. His nine touchdowns this season tie Gurley for sixth among running backs with Josh Jacobs and Alvin Kamara, and after he picked up 8 yards on first down to set up a second-and-2 at the Saints' 13-yard line with under two minutes remaining, the Falcons were comfortable to keep feeding him.

On second down, however, Gurley was stopped for no gain, and he was then dropped for a 7-yard loss on third down while trying to cut the ball outside.

"I know they made some kind of movement inside," Interim coach Raheem Morris said after the game of the third-down play. "Gurley saw the bounce look and he took the bounce look. You don't really want to take the bounce look in that situation. He did. He reacted as a football player would do. They were able to get him down around his ankles and get a big-time loss and create us in a 4th-and-9 situation."

The run game, as a whole, hasn't been where the Falcons would like it to be in recent weeks against their top rival, which Mike Triplett wrote about for ESPN. Atlanta gained just 70 rushing yards against New Orleans after getting 52 yards on the ground in its first matchup. The Falcons have always sought a balanced approach on offense, and they believe that starts with the run game.

Week 14 NFL rookie power rankings

A.J. Terrell has proven to be a really solid player for the Falcons throughout his rookie season, not shying away from matchups with Michael Thomas or other top-flight receivers. He nearly stepped in front of a Taysom Hill pass on a deep out-breaking route to secure an interception, but it still made for an impressive pass breakup. As he emerges in Atlanta, Terrell is now gaining some national recognition. He is currently ranked 15th among all rookies in Josh Edwards's NFL rookie power rankings for CBSSports.com.

"A.J. Terrell has shown improvement ever since Raheem Morris took over the interim coaching role," Edwards writes. "The season is over for Atlanta, but the hope is that the momentum carries into 2021."

What we learned from Week 13

Proving resilient in the second half, the Falcons made Sunday's rematch against the Saints into a nail-biter. Atlanta ultimately couldn't get into the end zone one more time to complete its comeback, but it can't be said the Falcons went down without a fight.

Now, at 4-8 and with some pretty tough remaining games on the schedule, it doesn't appear likely the playoffs are in story for Atlanta. But, with a big offseason looming on the horizon, coaches and players will do everything they can to put their best feet forward. There are some key areas that need improvement, which Kevin Patra discussed in his takeaways for NFL.com, and how the Falcons perform in those areas could be revealing.

"The Falcons kept the game close despite another good game from the Saints' defense," Patra writes. "ATL struggled to get going early, with two three-and-outs to open the contest. New Orleans then forced a trio of field goals in the first half. The inability of Matt Ryan and Co. to turn FGs into TDs was the difference Sunday. A fourth-quarter touchdown broke a streak of 42 straight drives without allowing a TD by the Saints defense. Ryan did a better job getting the ball out against New Orleans than the previous loss, only being sacked three times -- five fewer than Week 11. Julio Jones (6/94) made some ridiculous catches and Calvin Ridley (5/108) added explosion as the Falcons stayed in the game into the fourth quarter despite going 5-of-13 on third downs. There are no moral victories in the NFC South rivalry, so having a shot late to pull the upset won't bring smiles to Atlanta. The Falcons going 1-of-4 in the red zone was the difference in the contest. The red area has been Atlanta's bugaboo all year, and it was no different against a good Saints D Sunday."

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