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Falcons training camp 2023: Day 9 recap and notes

The blistering heat returned to Flower Branch in front of a packed hill of fans Saturday morning and with it so did the defense, who seemed to have revenge on their minds following a successful offensive day on Friday.

NFL: AUG 05 Atlanta Falcons Training Camp

On the last weekend practice of training camp before the team departs for Miami and gets into preseason mode, we were treated to an absolutely stifling performance from the defense, and the secondary in particular. The fans showed out, the weather did not relent and Flowery Branch was the place to be as the franchise celebrated arguably their greatest team ever. For more coverage and clips, I direct you to my Twitter (X?) feed here.

Let’s dive right into what I saw on the practice field in what was a heavy day of scrimmage, on Day 9.

The defense allows some early red zone success and then nothing else

Following some install work and 7-on-7 action, we got a chance to watch the first, second and third team offenses work from the 20 in a red zone drill. All three of the offenses promptly took it all 20 yards and each scored a touchdown — a Desmond Ridder to Bijan Robinson slant for the first team, a Carlos Washington Jr. rush for the second team and a Logan Woodside to Tucker Fisk short pass for the third team. It looked like we would be seeing a continuation from Friday.

After that (and before that, but we’ll get to that in a second), the defense absolutely had enough. The coverage was absolutely stout against every team and the defensive backs started collecting pass breakups like candy — Tre Flowers, A.J. Terrell, Darren Hall, Mike Hughes, Cliff Chattman, Breon Borders and Natrone Brooks all had at least one pass defended throughout the day. Even when receivers would look like they had a reception, the defensive pressure would either pry the ball loose or force an outright drop.

All three of the offenses found it to be incredibly tough sledding when trying to move the ball, and all three of them failed to score in their final 2-minute drill drives that each one had to finish off the practice. Overall, it looked like more of what we saw in the first three days of camp from the secondary, but with even more physicality now that the pads were on.

Breon Borders, DeMarcco Hellams and Jessie Bates III all record interceptions

After a couple of consecutive days of practice where we didn’t see any interceptions, the defense exploded and had three today, which was a high for any single day thus far in this year’s training camp.

CB Breon Borders got the action started early, in the initial 7-on-7 period for the third team before we even got to red zone work. He stepped in front of a Logan Woodside pass near the sideline (I did not see who the intended recipient was) and undercut it for an interception. In a real game situation it would have gone back all the way for an easy touchdown.

The next two interceptions both happened near the end of practice, after the secondary had their way with the offense for most of the session. The first team’s final 2-minute drill drive was derailed after S Jessie Bates III snuffed out what looked to be a slant pattern for WR Drake London and stepped in front of it for an easy interception of Desmond Ridder to give the defense an automatic win.

The final interception came on the final play of the day, when the third team had the opportunity to go down the field in their own 2-minute drill. Woodside took his shot deep to Keilahn Harris in double coverage and the deepest man, S DeMarcco Hellams, made a play on the ball and came down with a nice interception. Hellams looked like he landed hard on his back and stayed down for a minute before getting up and walking off under his own power to some cheers from the fans.

Rough day for all of the quarterbacks

While the secondary was phenomenal, the other side of that coin is that Atlanta’s signal callers all were pretty bad overall.

I sound like a broken record at this point, but I’m a little concerned about the fact that Desmond Ridder is still not completing many deep passes at all. I recall seeing one completion of his which went for 10 yards or more and a bunch of short ones outside of that. ESPN’s Michael Rothstein does a good job of tracking the QB completions during each practice, and he had Ridder down as 8-16 overall today. The interception to Bates was pretty bad as it was an easy step in and undercut for the Pro Bowl safety, but the good is that Ridder did well in the red zone and found Bijan for a score there.

Logan Woodside had his roughest day of camp, throwing the two interceptions and not being able to get anything going for the most part otherwise. He racked up five incompletions on the final 2-minute drive, and both of his interceptions were ill-advised throws.

Taylor Heinicke is the only one in the group not to throw an interception but he did take two sacks, and he dropped the ball twice — once on a snap and another time in the pocket for what was ruled an incompletion. He missed three deep shots on the day, where he overshot his receiver every time, including one where WR Frank Darby had a step on Cornell Armstrong with the latter even falling down. His worst miss was on his final drive of practice where he overshot an open Josh Ali in the back of the end zone which gave the defense the win.

I will give it to Heinicke, however, in that he had a lot of good to go along with his bad. He connected on multiple deep shots, including one to Darby where he delivered an incredible ball to his wide receiver for an over-the-shoulder catch in double coverage — easily the best pass of the day. Of the three, I’ve found that Heinicke is the least afraid to take his chance and sling the ball down the field. Rothstein had his completions at 9-13.

Frank Darby and Slade Bolden show out

The most impressive receivers today for me were Frank Darby and Slade Bolden. Let’s start with Darby. He not only had the great over-the-shoulder catch from Heinicke that I just mentioned, but he also had a deep reception on a dig route in front of the coverage on the play right after that one. He would have had a touchdown as well had Heinicke been more accurate on his first deep shot to him, early in the day.

Darby has been an absolute standout since the pads first came on on Monday, and I would peg him as the current favorite in that WR5 battle as of this moment.

Slade Bolden, meanwhile, had the catch of the day on a Woodside throw on a seam route where he went up for it along with defender Andre Smith and came down with a specular grab. From there, Bolden seemed to catch everything that came his way from both Heinicke and Woodside to put together arguably his best performance of camp.

Good news on injury updates regarding Jeff Okudah, Matt Hennessy and Jonnu Smith

The Falcons haven’t been without their fair share of injuries during camp, and arguably the most impactful one may have come yesterday after CB Jeff Okudah went down with an ankle injury on a one on one drill where speculation and concern were that he would be out for a long while.

We got a bit of relieving news in the post-practice press conference when Arthur Smith opened it by letting us know that Okudah’s MRI came back with good results and that they expect him back sometime very early in the season. He did say maybe not Week 1, but he also did not outright rule that timeframe out, either.

G Matt Hennessy and TE Jonnu Smith are the other guys who did not participate in practice. This is now Smith’s fourth straight missed practice with a “flare up” while Hennessy has not been seen on the field since getting hurt in the early walkthrough on Day 3. Both were out there as spectators today and Arthur Smith said that they both are getting closer to returning.

Fans show out, as the franchise celebrates its 1998 NFC Champion team

The fans sense something special with this team. That was clear when we saw the biggest turnout for a training camp practice since 2017, last Saturday, and they showed up in droves again today. I noticed it on my drive up to the facility at 8:30 a.m. seeing just how large the line to get in was. This is a full hour before the scheduled start time.

Without much of a doubt after that, the hill ended up getting packed, as hundreds of Falcons fans showed up to watch their beloved Birds hold a padded practice, despite the fact that it was 90 degrees on a Saturday morning with humidity hitting you right in the face.

The fans who showed up were not only treated to a scrimmage heavy practice, but they also got to honor some members of the 1998 team, which went a franchise best 14-2 and won the NFC Championship Game.

Among the players from that team who showed up were Terrance Mathis, Ray Buchanan, Tim Dwight, O.J. Santiago, Bob Whitfield and of course the Dirty Bird himself — Jamal Anderson, who obliged the crowd with his famous touchdown dance which gave that team its nickname (yes, we know that Santiago popularized the dance first).

Other notes:

  • Carlos Washington Jr. and Godwin Igwebuike both had some strong runs in the early portion of practice today, including Washington’s touchdown for the second team in the red zone drill. This on the heels of a very long Igwebuike touchdown run in yesterday’s practice. This is quietly becoming a very intense battle for that RB4 spot on the roster.
  • The Falcons rotated DT Albert Huggins and DT LaCale London into the first team in the early portion walkthrough. Both are guys to keep an eye on throughout the preseason.
  • CB Natrone Brooks has had some nice plays in camp overall, but today he had one of the best sequences I’ve seen out of any secondary player all camp. It came during the third team’s final 2-minute drill. I mentioned how QB Logan Woodside had five incompletions in that period. Well, four of them were with Brooks as the primary man in coverage, and all four happened in the span of five plays — two short passes to WR Penny Hart, two long passes to WR Zay Malone, all incomplete, all covered by Brooks.
  • Some other injuries today to note. DE Joe Gaziano went down in the late portion of practice and S DeMarcco Hellams was down for a bit following his interception on the last play of the day. Both ended up walking off under their own power.
  • Training camp running interception counter after the three we saw today (scrimmages and red zone only): Jaylinn Hawkins (2), Micah Abernathy, Clark Phillips III, Richie Grant, Breon Borders, Jessie Bates III, DeMarcco Hellams
  • Quarterback interception totals from camp so far (scrimmages and red zone only): Desmond Ridder - 4; Logan Woodside - 3; Taylor Heinicke - 1

This now signals the end of The Falcoholic’s training camp coverage for 2023, as tomorrow is an off day and we will not have anyone out there on Monday, before the team departs for Miami for their joint practice after that.

Thanks to all who followed along and read our training camp notes each day. This is just the beginning, however, as we now move into our preseason coverage. Before you know it, Week 1 will be upon us and The Falcoholic will be there every step of the way throughout what we hope will be a very special year.