After a day off on Thursday, the Atlanta Falcons were back on the field in Flowery Branch for their eighth practice of training camp on Friday. There were several former Falcons legends among those in attendance, including John Abraham, Ovie Mughelli, and Matt Ryan.
Ryan was flanked by his two young sons – the Ice Cubes – and spent a good while at the start of practice talking with head coach Arthur Smith in between the two practice fields.
“We love Matt,” Smith said after practice. “I enjoyed the hell out of the year I got to work with him. Dave (Ragone) and I stay in touch with him … I loved having Matt out here.”
That’s enough catching up, however. Let’s get to the latest developments from Friday.
Jeff Okudah carted off the field
At the tail end of 1-on-1 drills during an early portion of practice, Jeff Okudah, the former No. 3-overall pick who joined the Falcons this offseason as their No. 2 corner, went to the turf after defending Frank Darby on a route. Players and coaches quickly gathered around the talented young defender, and a cart was brought out to take him to the locker room.
“You never really know until you get an MRI,” Smith said afterward.
There was not much more provided beyond that, as the Falcons’ head coach was wary of providing any misinformation or pre-empting the right way to relay such sensitive information that impacts those close to the player.
Atlanta’s secondary has been a highlight of camp so far, and Okudah has undoubtedly been a part of that positivity. While it remains to be seen what the exact nature of his injury is, the natural inclination is to look at how the team could move forward without him.
“We’ve got a lot of depth at a lot of spots,” Smith said, naming Cornell Armstrong, Clark Phillips III, Mike Hughes and Dee Alford by name earlier in his answer. “So, if we don’t get good news on Jeff, you feel like we have a lot of depth.”
In the immediate aftermath of Okudah’s injury, it was veteran Tre Flowers who primarily stepped in opposite of A.J. Terrell.
Next week’s joint practices against Miami will give the Falcons’ secondary a tough test. It could also provide more answers about who will step up if the worst-case scenario with Okudah comes to pass.
Goal-line passing looked sharp
Through the first two weeks of camp, it’s largely been Atlanta’s defense drawing the lion’s share of attention. For at least the final period of practice on Friday, an entertaining goal-line session that featured pure drop-back sets, the offense got the better of the defense.
The first two offensive units found the end zone multiple times. Unfortunately, this was far beyond the allotted time for filming by the media, so there are no clips from this drill. However, here are some of the highlights I jotted down.
- Desmond Ridder focused on Drake London, who was double covered in the back of the end zone, and he came off of that read too late to see an open Bijan Robinson at the goal line. His throw was off target, and a defender converged. Incomplete.
- Ridder was quick and decisive on his next throw. He hit a quick and fast back-shoulder to Kyle Pitts, who was very well covered by Kaden Elliss in man coverage. Touchdown.
- His easiest pass of the session came on the third and final play for the starters. Mycole Pruitt came free on a slant at the goal line, and Ridder hit him between the 8 and the 5. Touchdown.
- Taylor Heinicke, who looked sharp Friday, picked up right where Ridder left off. He hit Carlos Washington on a backfield screen, and the rookie back strolled behind his caravan of linemen into the end zone. Touchdown.
- On the second play, Heinicke had to buy a bit of time in the pocket before eventually finding Parker Hesse at the back of the end zone. Hesse’s catch drew huge cheers from the offensive sideline, but it wasn’t the only one. Touchdown.
- Seconds after Atlanta’s offensive players were herded back to their sideline, they were charging back toward the end zone. In a very similar fashion, Heinicke found Josh Ali at the back line for a score. Shoutout to Mack Hollins who was like an NBA bench hype man on these two plays. Touchdown.
“I thought the offense looked pretty clean,” Smith said of the offense’s red zone play. “I thought we hit some pretty good pockets. Initially, for the offense, it looks pretty good. As we get into the film room and talk as a staff, we’ll see what the issues were.”
Drake London and Mack Hollins are going to be some nice red zone targets pic.twitter.com/fJDI9IDKkX— Will McFadden (@willmcfadden) August 4, 2023
I’ve been impressed with all of the QBs so far today. Still just drills, but Ridder, Heinicke and Woodside look solid. pic.twitter.com/Vqb8f40kgE— Will McFadden (@willmcfadden) August 4, 2023
Secondary continues to impress
Although Okudah’s injury was the biggest takeaway from Friday, the play of Atlanta’s secondary continues to be noteworthy.
A.J. Terrell looked like the version we saw in 2021, breaking up passes and providing a personal eclipse for the receivers in his coverage. Jessie Bates and Richie Grant were both very active in the training camp version of run defense, and the safeties were largely impressive during 1-on-1 drills. Micah Abernathy also made his presence felt as he seeks to stick around. The former Volunteer was around the ball often and potentially recovered a fumble, although the play could have been ruled an incompletion.
Oh, and Clark Phillips continues to be a pesky gnat for any player he’s up against. For a rookie, he shows no fear, and it’s immensely endearing. I’ll be curious to see if he gets a true crack at the No. 2 corner role if Okudah misses a lengthy period of time. He may be earning one.
Godwin Igwebuike shows off speed
One of the big highlights for the offense unsurprisingly came on the ground. Newcomer Godwin Igwebuike, who the Falcons signed on Monday, took a handoff in an 11-on-11 period and turned the corner around the left edge. Once he saw daylight, Igwebuike turned on the jets and outran the defense for a touchdown.
As a rule, all run plays in training camp should be taken with a grain of salt, but this was the rare occasion where it was very likely a touchdown through and through. Given how loaded Atlanta’s backfield is, the play might not help Igwebuike’s chances too much, but he should have plenty more opportunities this preseason.
Quotes from Arthur Smith I liked
Providing context on how quickly injury information can spread and why he always wants to know all the facts before speaking:
“This is why I’m always hesitant because of the way information travels, sometimes you have to be mindful of people’s families or their loved ones or friends. If bad information gets out, and God knows their parents are looking at it or their wife or whoever, you really just never know until you get an MRI.”
Looking ahead to next week’s joint practices and how it will help him evaluate his team:
“Miami is one of the faster teams. It’ll be good for us to see some of those matchups among other things.”
Explaining why he moves around frequently to various positions groups and drills throughout practice, despite having a background as an offensive coach:
“That’s the thing, everybody’s got their own voice as a head coach or however your style is. I can’t separate myself into just one group. My background as being play caller has been on offense but at the same time, to be a really good head coach, in my opinion – and again, everybody’s different; you [can] talk to 31 other guys. I need to be around the whole team. There’s certain things that I think need to be addressed or I want to see.”
He was asked about how his offense changed from Year 1 to Year 2, and how it might again grow in Year 3 given the talent on hand, and I thought his answer is something everyone should take to heart:
“We’ve clearly evolved. This year, we feel like we have different strengths and we’ll see how it goes. We’ve got our plan and we got to be able to adapt, too, if it’s not working, and have some flexibility. We have a lot of ways we feel like we can move the football.”
Arthur Smith has heard all of y’all’s positionless talk:
“I wouldn’t call it positionless, we got to line up somewhere.”
Alright, that’s it for the news and notes from Friday’s training camp practice. I hope I did Kevin and Adnan justice, and I appreciate you reading!