ATLANTA (AP) — Falcons coach Arthur Smith had an epiphany of sorts early this week and decided to change up his team’s practice routine.
Not because it’s finally Week 1, and his team was practicing for the first time in pads this week.
Smith had the team pile onto buses and make the 45-minute drive south of its training center in Flowery Branch to Mercedes-Benz Stadium to practice in downtown Atlanta.
The Falcons finished 7-10 in Smith’s first season, but they were just 2-6 in home games. Smith says that record has to improve, beginning Sunday when Atlanta opens the season against division rival New Orleans.
“We want to be really good at home,” he said. “I’m biased but in my feeling we’ve got the best stadium in all of sports. It’s our home. We need to win at home. You can go back and forth but if we’d have found a way to win two more home games, there’s a good chance we would’ve kept playing. We’ve got to be better at home.”
Another problem with no winning seasons since 2017 has been plenty of empty seats at home games. Smith saw it firsthand last year as the Falcons routinely played before a half-empty house.
The way he figured it, the players, particularly the younger ones, would benefit from having more familiarity with their home stadium.
“I think for me, being a part of this city, and ultimately just from a practice sense, we get to train in an environment we’re going to play in on Sunday,” Smith said. “And that’s important to us.”
For quarterback Marcus Mariota, Sunday’s game will mean plenty of butterflies as he prepares to start his first NFL game in three years. Mariota, a former No. 2 overall draft pick with Tennessee and a backup with Las Vegas the last two years, spent the last two seasons playing behind Derek Carr.
Now he gets to prepare as a starter.
“My dad told me a long time ago, it means that you care and it brings a little comfort for me,” Mariota said. “I always get it the first play of the game but then it goes away and it’s just football again. I really believe there will be a lot of emotions. I just kind of channel that. I don’t try to fight it or anything like that. Just be present in the moment and enjoy this.
“It’s the most competitive major league sport in the country. It doesn’t matter what week it is. You strap it up and play. I like that mentality and love being a part of it.”
Pro Bowl tight end Kyle Pitts liked practicing at the stadium with the roster paired down to the normal 53 players. Playing preseason games at home means the locker room is crowded with 90 or so players dressing.
“It was good for us to practice here today and prepare ourselves to win,” Pitts said.
Added starting cornerback A.J. Terrell: “It’s very beneficial to do this because it helps us get acclimated. I know it helps the younger guys, too, especially the rookies.”
NOTES: Rookie WR Drake London, the No. 8 overall draft pick, participated on the field and seemed to not be bothered by a knee injury that sidelined him for the final two preseason games. Smith said the team likely won’t know London’s status until Saturday. … CB Darren Hall (quadriceps) was limited in practice like London. … TE Parker Hesse was absent for personal reasons. … Smith teased Mariota for then-No. 11 Oregon’s loss to then-No. 3 Georgia on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mariota, who had a stellar career with the Ducks, was an honorary team captain before the game. Terrell and DT Grady Jarrett were honorary team captains for then-No. 4 Clemson in its win over Georgia Tech at Mercedes-Benz on Monday night. “I told Grady and Terrell they were better honorary captains that Marcus was,” Smith said.