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Experience gives Falcons vets a leg up

Despite skipping voluntary OTAs, Falcons veterans Tony Gonzalez and John Abraham will be ready for camp.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Falcons have a new offensive coordinator and a new defensive coordinator installing relatively new systems and two of the team's most veteran players on either side of the ball are a bit behind the learning curve because of their absences during the offseason.


Defensive end John Abraham skipped the voluntary offseason team activities but is present now for this week's mandatory three-day mini-camp and new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said he is a bit behind.


Tight end Tony Gonzalez was not present for any of the three OTA sessions open to the media (teams are allowed 10), but new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said Gonzalez was "out for a few days" during OTAs visiting with the team. Gonzalez has been excused from mini-camp, head coach Mike Smith said on Tuesday, because of the death of his stepfather. Koetter said most of Gonzalez's communication is through Smith and tight ends coach Chris Scelfo, though he said he has had some contact with Gonzalez.


In each case, the respective coordinators are not concerned about the readiness of the long-time veterans on their units come the regular season. On the defense, all of the players are learning new terminology, which is mostly where Abraham's learning curve has lagged.


"He's missed some of the OTAs and we're at a little bit of an advanced state as far as the language..." Nolan said. "So some of John's things right now is John's going a little bit slower, having to ask more questions because he wasn't here for those times. Nonetheless, John's a good player, I know that. There's nothing John's going to do at a minicamp that's going to make me, as a player… who's played 13 years, that doesn't change your opinion very much."


Nolan has often run 3-4 defenses in the past, but since he inherited a 4-3 with the Falcons, he's keeping about half, if not more, of that defense intact. So it's the new part that Abraham and the rest of the players must learn.


That new part of the defense will employ 3-4 looks. Nolan thinks those 3-4 looks will benefit the team's ends -- Abraham, Ray Edwards, Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury.


"Because all those guys, if they were on a 3-4 team, they'd be outside ‘backers," Nolan said. "They could benefit and I think the inside ‘backers, too. The 3-4 is very friendly to linebackers. There's a little bit more to know, but you also get turns. You don't have to blitz to rush a linebacker in a 3-4; whereas in a 4-3, it has to be blitz, so you're exposing somebody else. In a 3-4, you don't have to expose anybody and still get a turn, so that's probably the biggest thing."


A 3-4 employees two inside linebackers. Right now, Akeem Dent and Lofa Tatupu are battling for the lone starting spot at middle linebacker in the 4-3. Nolan was asked if he could envision both Tatupu and Dent playing on the field at the same time.


"Yeah," he said. "We want to get our best three on the field. Hopefully, it's not because of injury. If somebody beats somebody out, that would be good."


Right now, incumbent starting strong side linebacker Stephen Nicholas has not participated in OTAs or mini-camp because of an ankle injury he suffered at the end of last season. Smith said he expects Nicholas to be ready for camp. Spencer Adkins has practiced with the first team in Nicholas' spot.


Where on the defensive side, the players are learning the new terminology, on the offensive side, the Falcons elected to keep the same terms to smooth the players' transition. Instead, Koetter had to translate his offense into the existing terminology.


"I learned it," Koetter said. "I'm the one on the learning curve, so hard for me, easy for them."


As far as Gonzalez, Koetter said the tight end has his playbook and is doing some long-distance learning.


"I'm looking forward to Tony getting here and I can't wait to be around him and spend more time with him," Koetter said. "Tony is improving on what he needs to do."


Koetter was unconcerned about Gonzalez's missed time as the 15-year pro enters what he has said will be his final season.


"It'll be no problem at all," Koetter said. "Tony's maybe one of the greatest tight ends to ever play the game. We're not inventing football over here. Everything we're doing, Tony's done before. There's a few new little wrinkles here and there. Coach Scelfo has been in contact with him. Tony was out for a few days during OTAs, spent some time with us. Again, a player like him, he's seen it all, done it all. We don't need to be worried about that. He'll be fine."