Today marked the first padded practice for the Falcons, and it certainly underscored the reason for training camp--to ensure that players are prepared for the season. It's not unusual for the first practice with contact to not quite live up to expectations, and while there were some good things accomplished on both sides of the ball, we'll hope to see ample improvement the next time players are in pads.
Jake Matthews talked to the media Saturday about wanting to be consistent, and that's the best way I can describe his performance today, so he's succeeding. He was really consistent in pass protection and run blocking.
Patrick DiMarco had a solid day. He was running well and catching the ball well throughout practice. If he continues to look like this throughout camp, I think he'll be an easy favorite to lock up a spot on the 53-man roster.
Robert Alford had a really nice pick on a Matt Ryan pass that wasn't the greatest pass he's ever thrown. Alford ran the interception back, and was very gently "tackled" by Matt Ryan, which was kind of unexpected and funny.
Jonathan Massaquoi has looked really well-prepared. He got some pressure on Matt Ryan today, which was probably part of the reason that Ryan's timing seemed off today. More on that later.
Marquis Spruill seemed to have good timing in the punt block drill and also finished the day with a nice tackle on Devonta Freeman.
Only one play at the end of practice was truly run at full speed, but on running plays with the first team on the field, it seemed like the run defense was stouter with Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson out there.
Young players did struggle some with the speed of the game. Many players struggled with leverage issues. It looked like the first day in pads. Again, it would be nice if we could expect the first practice in pads to be perfect, but that's unrealistic.
Matt Ryan's timing looked off today. It's not anything to panic about and it's very likely an adjustment to having defensive players actually coming across the line of scrimmage at him. His timing looked great to me on Saturday. Julio Jones wasn't practicing today, which didn't help matters for Ryan.
The offensive line and defensive line pretty much had an all-out brawl today. It started with an altercation between Stansley Maponga and Gabe Carimi, and culminated in both lines doing the NFL training camp equivalent of clearing the benches. Rookie outside linebacker Jacques Smith went so far as to throw some punches at center Joe Hawley, which was something Hawley did not enjoy. Head coach Mike Smith made his way across the field to get the lines back in order, yelling expletives all the way. It was an adventure. Jacques Smith mixed it up later with Ryan Schraeder, so I don't think he's making many friends along the offensive line these days.
On one hand, it's good to see these guys rush to the defense of their teammates when something goes down, and it's not a terrible thing that they're aggressive enough to come to blows during practice. On the other hand, it's not terribly productive, and the guys they're fighting with are their teammates, too. The coaching staff was not thrilled, and while Jacques Smith showed some promise in pass rushing drills Saturday, he may not be making the best impression on the coaching staff.
Peter Konz's jersey said Knoz instead of Konz. Bless his heart.
Mike Smith spoke to the media after practice and said that while he thought the energy was there and the effort was there, that he expected to see on the tape that the pad level was too high. It did seem like players were struggling to get leverage, but that is very correctable. Smith said, "...I thought it was an okay first [padded] practice."
Regarding the altercation between the offensive and defensive lines, Smith said that the players were basically wasting a lot of energy. "They're fighting for jobs," Smith said, "but that's not the way to fight for a job." Smith said he would prefer to see the players keep the fighting between the whistles, but he also acknowledged that with the level of competition for a limited number of roster spots that these things are bound to happen from time to time.
When asked if tackling to the ground was a step toward becoming a tougher team, Smitty bristled at the question. Perhaps he's just tired of hearing about toughness. Smith said that every player who plays in the NFL is tough. "It's about being resilient," Smith said. "It's about being tough. It's about being physical." While Smith would not concede that toughness was an issue for the Falcons, he did emphasize that the Falcons need to be a more physical football team.
Smith said that he believed the offense and defense made an equal number of mistakes on the field during the padded practice, and that the offense and defense also had a pretty even number of nice plays.
When asked about inside linebacker Prince Shembo, Smith said, "Prince Shembo has done some really nice things all through this offseason." Smith was also asked about the rookie linebacker crew and said, "The rookie linebacker crew is going to be competitive. There's going to be ups and downs for the different players as we go through training camp."
On the players who have stood out so far during camp, Smith said it's too early to say, but he did say that the whole rookie class has a lot of good qualities. He seems particularly high on Jake Matthews and Ra'Shede Hageman, which isn't terribly surprising given that those two were the highest draft choices. On Matthews and Hageman, Smith said, "I think our first and second-round picks are outstanding players that are going to help us. They're on a fast track to having lots of playing time."
Perhaps the most illuminating thing Smitty had to say after practice was on the tempo of the offense. Smith said that the Falcons have been running the no huddle in camp, and that it's not just important to the offense. "More and more teams are doing it," Smith said, "not only for an offensive scheme, but you have to do it for a defensive scheme as well." Smith went on to say, "I think it will be a big advantage for us at different times of the season."
Rookie linebacker Prince Shembo, who has performed well in camp thus far, also spoke to the media after practice. Shembo said he's spending time in the film room and trying to learn from his teammates because he hasn't played inside backer since ninth grade.
When asked about the physicality of the padded practice, Shembo said, "Yeah, the physicality was good--it was real good." He also said that the contact was definitely a big jump.
When asked if the first day of padded practice was a date that he would circle on the calendar as a rookie, Shembo said, "I'm just trying to take every day one day at a time. I can't circle [any] day on the calendar."
Shembo was asked about the speed of practice, and he said, "It was good--the speed was fast. It was just like the other practices except I had pads on."
When asked if he feels like he's getting better over the course of OTAs and training camp, Shembo said he definitely feels like he's improving. "Yeah, I feel like I'm improving--a lot better than I was at OTAs. But I just want to improve even more." When asked if there was a comfort level with his improvement, Shembo said he just needed to keep learning and studying even more and that he would spend his days off seeing what he could work on to improve.
When asked about the linebacker corps--all the rookies as well as hybrid players like Kroy Biermann and Jonathan Massaquoi, new additions Tim Dobbins and Pat Angerer, and second-year players Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow--Shembo said, "Yeah, yeah, but we all get along. I think it'll be a good group."
Weigh in on the first padded practice in the comments! I'll be back at Flowery Branch this afternoon for practice, so you can share any questions you have or things you're curious about in the comments, also.