As will be standard throughout the season, today's practice was only open to the media for the first 30 minutes, which means we get to observe the players warming up and then participating in special teams drills. There's only so much you can discern from that, but we'll hit the high points.
Keith Armstrong seemed pretty happy overall with what the players were doing during special teams drills. Eric Weems was on the field and participated in various roles on the receiving end of return drills. He did do some returning today.
Steven Jackson was on the field with his helmet ready to participate, as was Jonathan Asamoah. The only player who appeared to be prepared to sit out was Dezmen Southward, who is dealing with a head injury suffered during Saturday's preseason game.
After practice, Coach Smith talked to the media. Smitty said that one thing the team would like to get out of Thursday's final preseason game in Jacksonville would be to practice some situational things they haven't yet seen in preseason action.
"I'd love to get another short yardage situation--you know, those types of situations, "\Get some of our guys that potentially can be playing in a two-minute situation that are going to have an opportunity to help us win games this year. So those are the situations that you'd always like to see, and hopefully they'll come up in the game."
When asked if there has been a difference between the training camp position battles this season compared to Smitty's previous six years here and whether those competitions had been more intense. Smith compared this season to his first season in Atlanta.
"I think that the position battles--there's probably as many position battles going on this year as there was the first year that we were here. So I think it's very similar to that, and I think that the guys have done a very good job competing, not only on the practice field, but for the most part, on the--on game day as well. So I'd say it's very similar to our first year here."
Smith was asked about Gabe Carimi and whether or not he will get some snaps in Thursday's game. Smith confirmed that the team will look at Carimi in various positions along the offensive line.
"Well, Gabe will play in the game. He's had an opportunity to practice. We need to get an evaluation. Gabe unfortunately was injured in the scrimmage against the Tennessee Titans and missed basically all of the preseason. And we need to get a good evaluation, so he'll get--look at multiple positions if we can."
Smitty was asked about the nickel and how the snaps on Thursday will be distributed between Robert McClain, Javier Arenas and Josh Wilson. Smith did not want to share specifics about which players would be starting, etcetera, to preserve a competitive advantage, but he did have some information to share about the nickel position.
"...they're all three going to play, and I don't think you can read into who gets the first snaps. It's going to be a matter of the guys getting an opportunity to go out there and compete. And we will put them in much quicker in the ballgame than we have in the previous weeks. They won't take a whole half. It'll be rotations by series."
Smith was asked about the linebacker situation, and again, he did not want to share specifics with the media about how the team plans to shape the roster.
"The 53-man roster--it's a different dynamic every year in terms of how it's going to be put together. Sometimes you're going to be looking at going one more on the offensive side, sometimes it's one more on the defensive side. We're going to play our base defense about 35% of the time, so it's really not our base defense. So we need to have guys that can get in there and rush the passer and play defensive end on our roster. So if it's some of those linebackers that are going to be counted as defensive ends, or are they going to be counted as linebackers?"
When asked about the importance of Thursday's game for the young receivers who hope to solidify a roster spot, Smith emphasized that it's extremely important for anyone on the bubble.
"It'll be very, very important for a number of guys. The competition has been very good all through training camp, and not only are we fighting for roster spots, we're fighting for potential practice squad spots as well. As you know, when we get to our 53-man roster this year, we'll have the opportunity--if guys clear waivers--to bring ten back on our practice squad. So we're not only competing for the 53-man roster, but we also are evaluating for our practice squad."
Smith also elaborated on the purpose of practice squad and the expansion of the squad to ten players.
"It's called a developmental squad--practice squad, developmental squad--and you want to be able to develop guys that eventually will be able to help us win games. We've got the opportunity this year to add two more, and I think that's a great thing that the NFL's doing. The eligibility is a little bit different. It opens it up for more players as well. So it's going to be an interesting couple of days when we go through our roster cut downs and try to put our practice squad back together."
Matt Ryan also spoke to the media after practice. Ryan was asked what the starters were trying to do as they get ready for the last preseason game.
"Yeah, I think it's a good chance for us to clean up a couple of the things that we made mistakes on in the last game. We've had two days of practice, so I think on the field it's a good chance for us to do that. And then leading up to it--obviously playing time and that kind of stuff is up to Coach Smith. But whenever they decide what we're going to do, we'll go out there and execute the best we can and work on a few things and then get ready to go."
Ryan was asked whether or not he was looking forward to getting the regular season started and putting last season behind him.
"Yeah, I think everybody is. I think we've worked really hard during the preseason and during the offseason, and I think we've made good strides as a team. We need to finish that up in Jacksonville and then put this behind us and get ready for week one and New Orleans, and I think everybody's kind of chomping at the bit to get ready to go."
Ryan was asked what he would like to see cleaned up on the field.
"I think we've got to improve on our penalties. You know, one of the things that hasn't been really good for us during the preseason has been the penalties. And in the past, we've historically been a very minimally-penalized team. So we want to get back to that. I think we've got to play smarter football, and that starts with knowing your game plan and knowing your assignment and trusting your technique, and I think if we do that we'll cut out some of those penalties."
Ryan was asked about the running game.
"Yeah, I think we've run the ball very efficiently--very productively during the preseason. I think that's a credit to our backs and also to our offensive line. I think those guys have done a really, really good job--a really nice job during the preseason. So I'm excited about what our run game's going to be like this year. I think it's going to be important for us--if we want to have the kind of year that we want to have, it's going to be important for us to run the football, and I think we're going to be able to do that."
Ryan also said he is happy to have both Roddy and Julio healthy and on the field.
"I think that's one of the things you see kind of in our third preseason game, when we've got all of those guys out there we've got a chance to be pretty explosive. And it puts a lot of stress on the defense to have to cover that many guys. As a quarterback, it's a nice situation to have, because you've got so many options and you don't have to worry about trying to find a certain guy. You just have to read your spots and know that whoever's there has got a chance to take it to the house at any time."
On the importance of the last preseason game for the young guys who are still battling for roster spots, Ryan said it's extremely important, and also something he enjoys watching as a veteran.
"It's huge. When you talk about probably the last 15 or 20 spots on the roster, a lot of those spots are determined by performances in the fourth preseason game. So I know that we've got a lot of guys who are excited about this opportunity who are going to go out there Thursday night, do everything they can to try and make this football team. And it's always fun to watch. I think as a veteran player, it's always fun to watch those guys go compete and play with such great passion, because you know that they want to be here. So I'm looking forward to it."
When asked what he's most looking forward to offensively to help the Falcons establish a high-scoring offense, Ryan talked about the three keys to making that happen.
"It's not one thing that's going to make us a good offense. We've got to do a lot of different things well. And I think we'll have some adjustments from what we did last season--a couple tweaks, a couple different looks here and there. But in order for us to be a high-scoring offense we've got to be efficient running the football, and then we've got to convert our third downs. And the third thing is we've got to make explosive plays. I think if we do the combination of those things--we run the football effectively, convert third downs, and create explosives, that's going to be our recipe for success."
Ryan was asked about the importance of sustained drives in that equation, also, and he agreed that sustained drives are a factor.
"That's one of those things--you talk about converting on third downs, that's huge. You get those third and two to five, third and six type situations, and you can convert those, that's what leads to ten, twelve, thirteen-play drives. You've got to convert those critical third downs. That's one part of it, but I also think some of those quick drives that we had the other night--some of those four or five-play drives with explosive plays--they're going to be big for us, too."
Ryan also believes that the sustained drives are good for the defense.
"I mean, the sustained drives--certainly time of possession. That's one of those things--you're going against a good offense, you like to keep them off the field. But it's kind of a balance of both of those things. You first and foremost want to score points, and sometimes that happens with one play, or sometimes it happens with 15. But a combination of the two--a nice balance of the two is probably what you want to strive for."
Ryan was asked about how high he thought his completion percentage could go. Ryan's expectations for himself are high, but attainable.
"I don't think there's any limit. I think everybody's got to be of the mindset when they're playing at this level--you want to complete every pass you throw. But one of the things we've talked about as we've watched film from the last couple of years is that we always have three or four plays a game where we feel like, "You know what? We could be a little bit better in those situations." And I think if we do that--have three or four or five more completions a game--you can ramp that number up over 70, and I think that's a good place for us to strive to get to."