Atlanta Falcons linebacker Prince Shembo (left) works against Atlanta Falcons running back Josh Vaughan (right) in the first padded practice of training camp. The session was spirited, to say the least.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Second-year linebacker Paul Worrilow said he hadn’t gone through an Oklahoma drill since he was at the University of Delaware, where the Blue Hens opened every spring practice with the drill that pits two players against one another in a full-contact situation in a confined space.
Veteran offensive guard Justin Blalock said he hadn’t participated in an Oklahoma drill since high school, maybe middle school. He admitted he couldn’t remember; it had been such a long time.
Head coach Mike Smith had never put the Atlanta Falcons through an Oklahoma drill, not until Monday’s training camp session, the teams first in full pads. Smith had always chosen to run practice with players going full speed right up to the point of contact, but nothing farther. This kept players fresh, and limited injuries.
But it also had a negative effect–lowering the efficiency of the team’s tackling. There were also questions about Atlanta’s toughness, and a move to get this team tougher in the offseason. Smith vehemently disagrees with the use of the word "tough," but admitted the philosophy change in practice was a result of finding ways to get more out of this team.
"Everybody that plays in the NFL is tough," Smith said after practice Monday. "I can’t tell you that I’ve ever been around a football player that plays in the National Football League that’s not tough.
"In terms of being physical–we’ve got to be a more physical football team. And that’s been what we’ve been talking about since the very beginning of this offseason, and the end of last offseason, is being a more physical football team. You just don’t turn it on when you go out on the field and play a game. You’ve got to work on it on the practice field, and we’re going to make sure that everybody understands what we’re trying to get done."
Atlanta didn’t win the battle in the trenches last season. The Falcons finished dead last in rushing yards with 77.9 per game. They finished next-to-last by allowing 135.8 yards per game on the ground to opponents.
To fix that issue, the Falcons used the offseason to bring in free-agent additions like defensive lineman Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson, and offensive guard Jon Asamoah. Atlanta’s first two picks in the draft were selections for the trenches, in offensive tackle Jake Matthews and defensive end Ra’Shede Hageman.
While improving personnel is a good start, the Falcons also had to make some adjustments to how they coached.
Gone are both line coaches from last season, replaced by always-fierce Mike Tice, and relentless attacker Bryan Cox, the new offensive line and defensive line coaches, respectively.
While Tice and Cox are very hands-on in practice, and vocal in their teaching methods, the edict of improved physicality is being shared throughout the roster. Hence the Oklahoma drill that was a huge hit in practice on Monday.
Blalock said after practice that he wasn’t sure how much an Oklahoma drill correlated to playing the game. But it was surely entertaining, and it fired the team up.
"I think we can gain a lot from it," said Blalock. "If it’s done the right way, like we did today. Even with the fighting it will be all right. We have helmets, the guys have their hands taped up, it’ll be fine. When grown men are competing that hard, there’s egos involved. Someone’s got to win, unfortunately, and people take exception. We’ll still do our drills, and get in the work we need. Obviously we’d like to temper that down as we get closer and closer to the season, because that will cost our team yards (and) points in games, if we don’t have more discipline than that."
Blalock was referring to multiple fights that broke out in Monday’s camp session. The intensity that came at the beginning with the Oklahoma drill, and was carried forth because the team was in pads for the first time, spilled over into altercations. But the fisticuffs weren’t the only difference in practice.
Smith also had some portions of practice that were full-contact moments, tackling to the ground after running at full speed. The intensity of those drills was off the chart. It even carried over into 1-on-1 drills where the rookie Hageman broke his helmet trying to get by Matthews, a fellow rookie.
From Player 1 to 86 (no one should be confused that the two kickers, the punter or the long snapper got in too many full-contact moments), Monday’s increased physicality was a welcomed enhancement to practice. If it translates to a way of football life for these Falcons, it should also be an enhancement to Atlanta’s win-loss record.