The Falcons welcomed the Tennessee Titans to Flowery Branch for a combined practice on Monday afternoon. That meant there were 180 players on the fields, as well as more coaches and media, and it was hot and chaotic, but it was really interesting to see the Falcons competing against guys who aren't on their team.
Head coach Mike Smith said on Sunday that the rules for the combined practice had been very clearly communicated to players on both teams. There would be controlled contact, and no tackling to the ground would be permitted. Obviously, fighting with Titans players was against the rules. Both teams wanted to take precautions to prevent injury to their players.
The offensive line did not look sharp early in practice in one-on-one drills against the Titans, but I thought that might be just the adjustment of actually going up against different guys for the first time in several months. When put in 11-on-11 situations I thought the starting offensive line looked really solid as a unit. Run blocking is improved, and pass protection was significantly improved. Jake Matthews seemed to wear down as practice went on, but overall he held his own and looked really, really consistent.
Bernard Reedy did give up the ball in return drills, but as a receiver he impressed. He's definitely one to keep an eye on in preseason action. He broke away for a touchdown yesterday and his speed is impressive.
Jonathan Massaquoi looks prepared to live up to his full potential this season. Contact on the opposing quarterback was obviously not permitted, but Massaquoi did bring pressure pretty consistently and had a simulated "sack."
Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson are going to give opposing offensive lines fits. They won't be able to double team both of these guys, and both probably need to be double teamed. They both get such good push up front, and they're massive. I think that pressure is going to make things a little easier on the rest of the defense. I saw Tennessee resorting to holding these guys a lot to try to keep them from rolling right through the offensive line.
Ra'Shede Hageman did practice after suffering a wrist injury on Sunday, and he did well. I am really pleased that he won't miss any time with the injury, which happened when he was fighting Joe Hawley, because he's developing nicely, but he definitely needs the practice time.
Desmond Trufant is just fantastic. He has so much natural talent, but his work ethic is incredible, also. When he makes a mistake--even a very minor one--he's angry, but he channels that anger into correcting it. It never becomes a distraction. He's also really aggressive. Nobody's pushing Trufant around.
Devonta Freeman has never shied away from contact--he actually seems to welcome it. Obviously yesterday's practice was not full contact, but Freeman looked really good working through the defense for yards.
As previously mentioned, there were clearly-defined rules establishing what was and was not permitted against the Titans, and Joe Hawley broke those rules when he was involved in a scuffle during practice. Hawley was ejected from practice.
Man, I feel bad for Peter Konz. I think the talent is there, so I don't know what the disconnect is for him. He took over the first team responsibilities after Hawley was ejected, and he got blown up on the first play. He struggled in one-on-ones against the Titans, also. I do expect that Konz will make the roster as a backup, but let's hope he doesn't have to play.
Gabe Carimi was helped from the field after suffering an ankle injury. I'll likely have an update on the severity and the amount of time he is expected to miss following practice tomorrow.
There were a few other stressful moments in terms of injuries. Desmond Trufant appeared to suffer an injury, but thankfully returned to the field a few minutes later. Jonathan Asomoah left the field at one point for what was assumed to be an injury, but returned to the field following an "equipment adjustment." Ra'Shede Hageman appeared to tweak something in a lower leg toward the very end of practice and was favoring that leg after practice.
Mr. Falcon himself, Tommy Nobis, was in attendance. It was fun to watch him catching up with another former Falcon, Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt.
Another member of the Titans coaching staff with Atlanta ties is offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey. Mularkey and Matt Ryan had a pleasant reunion.
Mike Smith spoke to the media after practice, and when asked about how he felt the practice went, he said that he had only watched the offense, but he felt like it went well overall, and that there's a lot that the coaching staff will be able to learn from watching the tape.
On Joe Hawley's ejection, Smith said, "Yes, the guys knew the rules of engagement and they were violated. When they're violated, there's going to be a consequence. The consequence was that some other guys had to step up and take some extra reps, and we lost a good player. During the game, if that were to happen, we're going to lose a player and we need to learn that we can't be fighting." When asked if there would be a fine involved for Hawley, Smith said that he wouldn't discuss that, but that if it happened in a game situation that the NFL would certainly lobby a fine. It's clear that Smith wants players to start putting their focus on the season.
On the offensive line, Smith said, "I thought they did a nice job in certain aspects of the practice. Again, we ended up a little light at the end of practice because we had an injury to one of our offensive linemen and then we had a player that got ejected so it put a lot of stress on some other guys."
When asked about the identity of this training camp, Smith said, ""I think that physicality is an emphasis point that we've been talking about, not only at the beginning of training camp, but also at the end of the season. The first thing we evaluated was that we needed to be a more physical football team, and you can't just say you're going to be a more physical football team. You've got to go out and do it and prove it every day."
On what the coaching staff can discern from the shared practice against the Titans, Smith said, ""I think we'll be able to pick up lots of things in terms of their competiveness. There's always a pecking order that takes place on a football team. When you get an opportunity to work against other teams, you're going to get to really see the true competiveness in a man. I think it's important for us to continue to not only evaluate when we're working against ourselves but more importantly put more weight on the evaluation when we work against other players and teams."
Matt Ryan also spoke to the media after practice. When asked about what it was like to practice against the Titans, Ryan said, ""It's good to go against somebody else, see somebody else different during training camp. We see some different looks. I think it will be a great opportunity for us to look at the tape and evaluate where we are at."
On offensive tackle Jake Matthews, Ryan said that he doesn't play like a rookie in his opinion. "He is as savvy as any rookie that I have been around, in any position. He plays very physical. He is extremely athletic. I have been incredibly impressed with him, up until this point. I am excited that we were able to draft him."
On whether or not it's frustrating to not be working with a game plan heading into Friday's preseason matchup with the Dolphins, Ryan said it's not frustrating at all. "I think that part of the positive of not having a game plan, or any of those things, is that it makes you test your rules," Ryan said. "It shows you where you're at in terms of your knowledge of the offense. When you can adjust to things on the fly and adapt to what you need to adapt to, different looks. That stuff is huge and I thought today was really good."
On running back Jacquizz Rodgers and his role in the passing game, Ryan said, "Quizz is huge, huge in our passing game. He's a great receiver, out of the backfield. He has made some huge plays for us in the past couple of years, game winning plays. His pass protection is about as good as it gets. He is a smaller guy, but he packs a lot of punch in his hits when he goes in. He does a great job of securing the pockets. I am lucky to have him."
On wide receiver Julio Jones, Ryan said, "Today when he was out there he ran crisp and looked explosive. He made some catches for us and he is coming along really nicely. No doubt, he will be ready to go when we get to the season opener."
Obviously, the entrenched starters won't be the focus of preseason action, but Ryan did have a lot to say on the importance of preseason and how ready he feels. "I feel good about it. I think everybody is ready to get out onto the field. That is why we practice. We practice as hard as we do. We train as hard as we do during the offseason to have the opportunity to play the games. Everybody likes to get to that part of training camp where you are actually playing some games. You get to get away from the practice field a little bit. You get a chance to showcase what you can do."
Ryan also said, "I look forward to seeing what the young guys can do. You see these guys on the practice field, some have impressed. I like to see what they can do in a game like situation. That is where you can evaluate those guys the best."
Hard Knocks featuring the Atlanta Falcons debuts tonight at 10:00 p.m. on HBO.
The Falcons will have practice tomorrow from 3:30 p.m. to 6:05 p.m. The practice is open to the public.
Friday will be the first preseason game in the Georgia Dome against the Miami Dolphins. Kickoff is at 7:00 p.m. The game will air on Atlanta's CW69.