Falcons want big improvement from guys up front

By Paul Newberry | 7/31/2014, 1:16 p.m.
Through the first two days of training camp, the Atlanta Falcons look just fine along the offensive line.
Falcons Head Coach Mike Smith

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) - Through the first two days of training camp, the Atlanta Falcons look just fine along the offensive line.

Of course, let's see how they do when they break out the pads.

"We're out here in pajamas,'' guard Justin Blalock quipped.

When they did break out the pads on Monday, things got testy and several skirmishes broke out. Head Coach Mike Smith even brought back the old Oklahoma Drill where offensive blocker takes on a defensive player with a running back carrying the ball.

All joking aside, the Falcons must improve up front after a miserable 2013 season, when a team with Super Bowl aspirations staggered to a 4-12 mark. Much of the blame fell on the offensive line after quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked a career-high 44 times and Atlanta ranked last in the league in rushing, despite adding Steven Jackson.

"The message has been real clear from the very beginning: We want to get bigger and stronger,'' coach Mike Smith.

Looking to address their most glaring need, the Falcons used the No. 6 overall pick on tackle Jake Matthews, who will move right into the lineup on the right side. The team also added free agent guard Jon Asamoah, another instant starter.

But the process involves more than just a few new faces. The Falcons challenged the holdovers - Blalock, center Joe Hawley and left tackle Sam Baker - to bulk up in the weight room.

Smith likes what he sees so far, yet knows it's far too early to determine how much better the line will be.

"We have a good idea of how they can process what we're doing schematically,'' the coach said. "That doesn't always mean they're the best players. It's a whole lot different when you're in non-contact practices ... and then going out there and actually playing the game of football with a helmet, shoulder pads, knee pads and thigh pads.''

After reaching the NFC championship game during the 2012 season, the Falcons clearly skimped on the line, deciding to use much of their salary cap on high-profile offensive stars such as Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez and Jackson. But Jones went down with a season-ending injury, White was banged up much of the year, and the Falcons learned just how valuable it is to have guys who actually block someone once in a while.

The beleaguered linemen were so outmatched at times, taking a holding penalty wasn't even an option. The defenders would go right on by them before they could even stick out a hand.

The lack of success running the ball was especially frustrating, especially since a hard-nosed ground game was a hallmark of Smith's team when he first came to Atlanta in 2008.

"It's something you take personally, "Blalock said. "As an offensive lineman, you pride yourself on running the football. We did that extremely poorly. There's no way around it.''

Much of the attention will be on Matthews, a third-generation player whose father is Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews. There will certainly be a learning curve, but the rookie knows he won't get an extended period to show he belongs.