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Ryan aims to avoid sophomore slump

FLOWERY BRANCH - Tony Gonzalez knows something about sophomore slumps and says second-yard Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan is doing all the right things to avoid a letdown.

'I know my second year I didn't play well at all,' Gonzalez said Wednesday. 'It was actually the worst year of my NFL career. That was because of the way I approached it. I just didn't approach it the right way.'

Gonzalez, the 13-year tight end entering his first season with the Falcons, expects Ryan to avoid his mistakes.

Ryan, the 2008 NFL offensive rookie of the year, will have a stiff opening test against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday.

The Dolphins' defense, led by outside linebackers Joey Porter and Jason Taylor, held opponents to only 39 points in four exhibition wins.

Gonzalez, the 10-time Pro Bowl pick, joins an offense that also includes Michael Turner, who rushed for a team-record 1,699 yards last season, and Roddy White, who set another team record with 1,382 yards receiving.

The offense also boasts speedy backup running back Jerious Norwood, and receivers Michael Jenkins and Marty Booker - more reasons Gonzalez says Ryan should enjoy another strong season.

'There are a lot of players who don't have sophomore slumps, and I don't anticipate him having one,' Gonzalez said. 'There's not too much pressure on him anyway because he does have a lot of weapons around him and we're here to help him.'

Ryan started every game as a rookie and passed for 3,440 yards with 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions as the Falcons made the playoffs with an 11-5 record.

'They've got a lot of weapons there but there's no question in my mind this is the guy here who really drives that ship,' said Miami coach Tony Sparano of Ryan on Wednesday.

Sparano said Ryan 'can make all the throws.' The coach said he impressed with more than Ryan's strong right arm.

'My assessment is he doesn't play like such a young quarterback,' Sparano said. 'He's a guy that I think very much plays like a veteran quarterback in this league. Very smart player. ... He's a leader. He's a winner. I just see great command of the huddle there.'

One year ago, Ryan had a long list of reasons to feel opening day pressure. He was the No. 3 overall pick in the NFL draft who was immediately handed the starting job. He also was asked to be the new face of the franchise following Michael Vick's fall from grace and into prison.

Ryan completed his first pass to Jenkins for a 62-yard touchdown in Atlanta's 2008 opening win over Detroit.

'It was a good way to start, there's no doubt about that,' Ryan said Wednesday. 'I think it definitely helps. It gives you a sense of confidence when something like that happens. And maybe as a rookie that's something you need. It definitely helped.'

Ryan said he can't count on opening every season with a long touchdown pass.

'I'm not naive,' he said. 'I hope it's the case this year, but it's probably not going to be the case every year. But I feel like if we can get off to a good start this week, that's going to help us for the season.'

The Falcons were fortunate to open last season against a Detroit team that wouldn't win a game. Miami, which improved from 1-15 in 2007 to 11-5 last year, is a tougher challenge.

Ryan says he's better prepared for the challenge.

'It's a lot different heading into Game 1 than it was last year, especially with just understanding what you need to do to prepare heading into the first game,' Ryan said. 'I'm a lot better served to play this weekend than I was last year. I feel more comfortable. I feel like I'll be ready to go when the game rolls around and hopefully we'll have the same result we had last year.'

SideBar: DOLPHINS AT FALCONS

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

Where: Georgia Dome

TV/Radio: CBS/92.9-FM