One never has to look far at an NFL training camp to find someone willing to espouse the virtues of competition, it’s possibly the biggest cliché at this time of year. But on Saturday, the final practice of the Atlanta Falcons’ first four-day block of camp, the competition was as palpable as the humidity.
“That was by far one of the most competitive practices since I’ve been here,” Arthur Smith said to begin his post-practice press conference.
Although the Falcons’ pads remain pristine and won’t be put on until Monday, there was plenty of physicality and emotion on display in front of the sizable crowd that made the trek to Flowery Branch. Atlanta’s secondary group ferociously celebrated any pass breakup, while the wide receivers embraced the press coverage in 1-on-1 drills and often successfully fought their way free.
The offensive and defensive linemen are the ones perhaps most disadvantaged by the lack of pads, but that did not prevent them from ramping up the intensity. Twice that intensity boiled over and resulted in full-on fights.
Jalen Dalton, a defensive lineman who joined the Falcons this offseason, was ejected from practice by Smith after attempting to throw a punch during a showdown with offensive lineman Germain Ifedi.
“Those guys are competing,” Smith said. “You go to the edge; it’s just learning experiences. Nobody did anything really that dumb, but somebody takes a swing at the air, you throw them out.”
The second fight came just slightly later in practice and involved center Jonotthan Harrison and nose tackle Anthony Rush, who was thrown to the ground. Both dust-ups were resolved fairly quickly, and nobody appeared to be injured as a result, but they certainly added to the loose and lively atmosphere on Saturday.
Those on the hill watching practice seemed to enjoy the show of competition and the edge that the players had. It was a symbiotic channeling of energy with the players feeding off the crowd, and the fans spurred on by the tenacity on the field.
“Stay up” is a very common refrain from the coaches and support staff during camps, partially to avoid running afoul of any NFL rules at this point of the preseason but mostly to avoid any unnecessary injuries. Atlanta seemed willing to allow players to hit the deck slightly more than usual today – an allowance the players took full advantage of – and it perhaps spurred the level of competition the coaching staff has been yearning for.
During his time at the podium, defensive coordinator Dean Pees shared one of the many lessons he’s learned throughout his long and successful career in the NFL. The best teams, he explained, don’t need a coach to give a big, rousing speech to get emotionally ready for a game, that comes internally. Those are the players Atlanta has sought in its attempt to reorient the culture within the building.
Coach Dean has spoken #DirtyBirds pic.twitter.com/eDQKPvIs8x— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) July 30, 2022
Saturday was a long-awaited sign that those efforts may have begun to pay off. One of the more notable aspects of the practice was that the energy seemed to be entirely player-driven. There were no mid-practice huddles filled with screaming to pick up the pace. The tempo was apparent early on, and the players had set it.
Perhaps that had something to do with the focus of the session – a high emphasis on red-zone and goal-line work. When the end zone is in play, the stakes, even in practice, become a bit higher. In terms of actual performance, there was an encouraging balance between the offense and the defense. Kyle Pitts and Drake London made their share of exceptional plays, but A.J. Terrell and Jaylinn Hawkins responded with stellar coverage shortly thereafter.
Mariota ain't holding anything back pic.twitter.com/0wZj3Jq9RO— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) July 30, 2022
Not much is expected of the Falcons this season, but the members of the organization, themselves, aren’t thinking that way and can’t afford to. In many ways, the 2022 season is about finding answers and those players who can be long-term solutions. That process is still in the early stages, but Saturday was a step in the right direction.
For this team to get where it ultimately wants to go, the right players and the right mindset need to be in place. The fact that Saturday’s competitive session started with the players, is perhaps the best takeaway that could come from a camp practice.
“You really want the truth, it takes the right players to do it,” Pees said. “You’ve got to take guys that won’t take [the losing]. I will not tolerate this. I won’t take it. You’ve got to find those guys. . . . It’s players that got to get ready, and that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to change a culture, trying to bring players in here that got that kind of attitude.”