Coming off a disappointing 4-12 season, the Atlanta Falcons embraced the chance to be on HBO's "Hard Knocks."http://espn.go.com/nfl/story/_/id/11304 ... api_public
Organizationally, the Falcons are embracing harder knocks from their players, too. The team's physical changes are a big theme of training camp. The 2014 Falcons are bigger, stronger and nastier. That change was long overdue. Since 2008, the Falcons have had a finesse offense directed by Matt Ryan and a slightly undersized defense featuring smart players with speed.
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I remember coming to Falcons camp in 2013 when they worked with the Cincinnati Bengals. Atlanta coach Mike Smith loves dual practices with other teams because they give him an early test of his squad. The Bengals exposed some of Atlanta's problems last year. Cincinnati's defensive linemen dominated the Falcons' offensive line in drills. The Atlanta defensive line couldn't do much with the Bengals' offensive line. The trends carried into the season, when the Falcons lost too many battles at the line of scrimmage. Ryan took a particular pounding.
Things look different for the Falcons at this year's camp. They signed right guard Jon Asamoah from Kansas City because he's a decent athlete who packs a punch with his blocks. He'll get up on a defender and stuff him with his hands. First-round choice Jake Matthews has it all. He's physical. He's athletic. His techniques are superb, but even if they are off, he can recover quickly and make the block. The right side of the Falcons' line has been stabilized.
Left tackle Sam Baker is bigger and stronger. Smith knows if the offensive line can win a majority of its battles and protect Ryan, the Falcons can get back into playoff form.
What's also noticeable is how much bigger the defensive line has become. The Falcons plan to mix defensive formations, using some 3-4 on run downs and some 4-3. In some passing situations, they will use a 5-2.
They hope bigger is better. They have a big sub package in their 4-3 that features Ra'Shede Hageman (318 pounds), Paul Soliai (345), Tyson Jackson (296) and Jonathan Babineaux (300). That defensive line is 156 pounds heavier than the one that started last season, an average of 39 pounds per man. The personnel changes have allowed the linebacking corps to get bigger because 255-pound Kroy Biermann, a career defensive end, will get plenty of snaps at linebacker.
The thing the harder-hitting Falcons have to worry about, though, is injuries. Last season, five starters suffered injuries in the first half of the Falcons' second game. Receiver Roddy White played injured until the final month of the season. Running mate Julio Jones missed 11 games. Losing at the line of scrimmage and the injury losses caused the season to crash.
Atlanta's health took a hit at Sunday's practice, in part because of the team's more rugged personality. Hageman, the Falcons' second-round pick, got into a fight with center Joe Hawley. Smith wasn't pleased, with good reason; Hageman suffered a hairline wrist fracture. Another fight broke out later. Early in practice, offensive line coach Mike Tice scolded his blockers to improve their effort. Defensive line coach Bryan Cox lit into a couple of his players for mistakes.
The Falcons can set the tone for their season at home against division rival New Orleans in the opener. The Falcons are 3-9 against the Saints over the past six seasons, but eight of those losses were by eight points or fewer. As long as Atlanta can get to that game healthy, a more physical Falcons team could show that once again it will be a major factor in the NFC South.
Reading this has me a little confused about the defensive line. Is Sol and Jackson playing both on passing and running downs? From this piece, it sounds like both will stay on the field with Jackson moving inside.
This is the first I have heard about a 5-2 although it makes sense based on the LB situation.