FLOWERY BRANCH – Before training camp opens today, we chatted with Falcons coach Mike Smith, the winningest coach in franchise history, who’s determined to rebound from his first losing season.
He was in good spirits during an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He shared some thoughts about the team and gave the fans some key information before things get started today with a closed morning walk-through and an open afternoon practice.
(Check back later throughout the day as we post stories, notes, blogs and videos on AJC.com from the first day of training camp.)
Q: How are you all going to make sure that get a rookie like Jake Matthews ready to play?
A: “We’re fast-tracking a lot of these guys. We’re going to give them an opportunity to compete. Jake has been running with the first team since early on in the OTAs and he’s handled it extremely well. I think he’s got the skill set to be very successful offensive tackle. We are going to continue to give him as many reps as we possibly can to get him ready to go and to man that right side offensive tackle position.”
Q: How you all plan to get Ra’Shede Hageman ready for a rotational spot on the defensive line?
A: We really want to have a very deep rotation on the defensive line. Offensive line, basically, barring injury, you put those five guys in and they play the entire game. It’s a different deal on the defensive side. Ra’Shede will be in the rotation. He’ll be a guy that we’ll identify what we feel like he’s strongest at, whether if it’s going to be in our base package or sub package or one of our sub packages. We will focus in those areas. I really believe this, more so than ever, you don’t have 11 starters. You don’t have 12 starters when you talk about the nickel and the linebacker. The way that the snaps can play out, we are going to have 14 or 15 starters on the defensive side. Ra’Shede is a guy that’s going to get the opportunity to compete.
I want to flip back to the offense. It’s going to be an ultra-competitive atmosphere in terms of playing time on both sides of the ball. I think that to determine on offense, who the nine players (along the offensive line) that will be on the 53 (man roster) is going to be very competitive. I think we’ve got 12 or 13 guys that are going to be competing for those nine spots.
On the defensive line with our rotation, we want to be more than one-and-a-half deep. We want to be two-deep across the board and have guys cross-trained. It’s going to be very competitive. We’ve got some guys that have some game-playing experience that are going to be in the mix. More so than any, this is going to be the most competitive camp that we’ve had, especially at those two positions.
Q: How about sizing up the free safety competition?
A: Of course, Dwight Lowery has the most experience. He’s got starts in the NFL. Dez (Southward) is going to an opportunity to compete for that spot. Sean Baker showed some things that we were impressed with and so did Kimario (McFadden). I think we’re set at the strong safety position. But there will be a lot of competition there at the free safety. Right now, going into training camp, Dwight Lowery is listed as our starter.
Q: How’s that nickel back completion going to shake out? You have a lot of people stacked at that position?
A: We certainly do. Robert (McClain) played it for us last year. Josh Wilson, who we signed in the offseason and Javier Arenas have experience at the nickel position. I see that being competitive battle as well. Then we also have Ricardo Allen, the rookie that we drafted out of Purdue that has experience at the nickel. As we stated many times, our five defensive back-package, or what some people call sub-defense, plays between 63 to 65 to 68 percent of the time. So, we’ve got to get that solidified. But those guys will have an opportunity to compete for that. Some of them have similar traits, but others have strengths and weaknesses, so it will interesting to watch that battle.
To me the competition is the key across the board. I think it’s going to be competitive for roster spots. It’s going to be competitive for starting positions. That brings out the best in everybody. I’m very excited about watching these guys compete and playing the game of football.
You know that OTAs and minicamp are not playing the game of football especially in the lines, offensive and defensive lines. It’s very difficult to get a try evaluation of offensive and defensive linemen when you’re in non-contact practices. Basically, our offseason is non-contact practices.
So, it will be interesting to watch the battles that will take place. A lot of them will be determined by who can play multiple positions. That will be important for us to have guys who can get into a rotation on the defense and inside and outside. It’s going to be important for us on the offense to determine who’s going to be able to play guard and tackle and who’s going to be able to play the center-guard combination as well because you’ve got to have multiple guys that can play center/guard and you have to guys who can play the guard/tackle position.
That to me is going to be a very good battle.
Q: Prince Shembo, how does he fit in the linebacker competition?
A: We’ve got a young group of linebackers. Prince has worked for us both inside and outside in OTAs. I think that he made the adjustment very well to get some reps inside. It’s important for us to have when you start talking about putting your 46-man (game-day) roster together, you’ve got to have guys that can play inside and outside. When you go to the 46, you must have that flexibility. I thought he made a very smooth transition to the inside. We’ll start him as an inside linebacker to start camp, but we will continue to cross-train him because he gives up a lot of multiplicity. He and a number of guys in terms of where they can line up.
Again, I think that’s going to be something that we’ll develop throughout training camp. We will not pigeon-hole guys into certain positions. Some of our other linebackers are going to sometimes line up with their hand in the dirt and sometimes they are going to line up in two-point stances and I think that’s going to create identification issues for the offense.
Q: How has it been with the HBO Hard Knocks’ cameras around?
A: Well, they’ve been here through our minicamp, so it’s nothing new for us. Again, our focus is on putting together the roster. I don’t think it’s going to affect us one bit. We know what our task is and our task is to get these guys prepared. We have to put the best 53 guys together to open the season. I don’t think after a day or two, it’s going to affect the players either. Once we get into the swing of training camp, it’s training camp. We are always under a microscope in this league and I don’t think this (exhibition) season is going to be any different from any other (exhibition) season.”
TRAINING CAMP SCHEDULE
Date Practice Times (public availability)
Tuesday, July 22 Rookies report
Thursday, July 24 Veterans report
Friday, July 25 Practice 3:30 – 5:50 p.m. (open to the public)
Saturday, July 26 Practice 3:30 – 5:50 p.m. (open to the public)
Sunday, July 27 Practice 3:30 – 6:05 p.m. (open to the public)
Monday, July 28 Practice 3:30 – 6:05 p.m. (open to the public)
Tuesday, July 29 Practice 3:30 – 6:05 p.m. (open to the public)
Wednesday, July 30 Players’ Day Off (No Media Availability)
Thursday, July 31 Practice 3:30 – 6:05 p.m. (open to the public)
Friday, August 1 “Friday Night Lights” at Archer High School (Lawrenceville)
6:45 – 9:10 p.m. (open to the public)
Saturday, August 2 Practice 3:30 – 5:30 p.m. (open to the public)
Sunday, August 3 Practice 3:30 – 6:05 p.m. (open to the public)
Monday, August 4 Combined Practice w/Tennessee 3-5:30 p.m. (open to the public)
Tuesday, August 5 Players’ Day Off (No Media Availability)
Wednesday, August 6 Practice 3:30 – 6:05 p.m. (open to the public)
Thursday, August 7 Pregame Walkthrough (No Media Availability)
Friday, August 8 Falcons vs. Miami Dolphins
7:00 p.m. ET – CW69
Saturday, August 9 Practice 4:30 – 5:45 p.m. (open to the public)
Sunday, August 10 Players’ Day Off (No Media Availability)
Monday, August 11 Practice 3:30 – 5:50 p.m. (open to the public)
Tuesday, August 12 Practice 10:00 a.m. – 12:35 p.m. (open to the public)
Wednesday, August 13 Combined Practice w/ Houston Texans (Houston, TX)
Thursday, August 14 Combined Practice w/ Houston Texans (Houston, TX)
Friday, August 15 Pregame Walkthrough (No Media Availability)
Saturday, August 16 Falcons at Houston Texans
8:00 p.m. ET – CW69
Sunday, August 17 Players’ Day Off (No Media Availability)
Monday, August 18 Practice 10:15 a.m. – 12:15 p.m. (closed to the public)
MANDATORY MINICAMP REVIEW
THE LATEST FROM OTAS