Training camp preview: 5 questions facing Falcons

The health of Falcons receiver Julio Jones' foot is one of the biggest questions facing the franchise entering training camp.

Dale Zanine/Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

After the final air horn blew on Thursday, signifying the end of mini-camp — a double blast that served as an exclamation mark on the start of their final five weeks off this offseason — the Atlanta Falcons gathered on the practice field by position group.

One by one, as their huddles broke up, they walked off quietly. This was not the sprint off the field of previous years, when the team was coming off playoff seasons and felt a sense of truly having earned the time off.

The end of mini-camp held more a sense of the work that lies ahead to try and turn around 2013’s dismal 4-12 record. Head coach Mike Smith told the media that he did not want players to lose ground on progress they had made in the weight room and that many players in a morning meeting raised their hands to indicate they would be present and working out at the facility during the break.

With that in mind, here are five issues the franchise will face in terms of the hard work ahead when it returns in late July for training camp:

This was a major focus in the offseason. Organized Team Activities and mini-camp did not reveal much about this group because there was no hitting allowed. Last season, it became ominous early in training camp when the Falcons conducted joint practices with the Cincinnati Bengals and several observers noted how the Falcons got manhandled.

To that end, the Falcons will conduct combined practices on Aug. 4 in Flowery Branch against Tennessee and in Houston with the Texans on Aug. 13 and 14. Reports from those practices on how the Falcons’ unit performs could give a strong indication of what lies ahead in 2014, as the Texans also possess top defensive linemen, especially in the form of J.J. Watt.

The Falcons have lavished praise on first-round pick Jake Matthews, their new right tackle, but all rookies must adjust to the speed and power of the NFL. During one of the public sessions of mini-camp on Wednesday, Osi Umenyiora gained a step on him in an 11-on-11 passing play and might have been able to put a shot on the quarterback, if it were a game situation.

Smith’s mantra throughout the offseason in his first six seasons often has been that the team’s health is paramount. In situations in which players get overenthusiastic during practice, he will often scold them not to "go to the ground" — where injuries can happen. He seemed to back away from that on Wednesday when starting left tackle Sam Baker got involved in a fracas with a defensive player, reportedly new starting right outside linebacker Jonathan Massaquoi.

Baker is key to the Falcons’ success but, at the same time, he has a long history of injuries. The fact that he played only three games last season was a factor in the team’s poor performance. Yet Smith did not flinch when he was asked whether he was concerned about Baker getting hurt in such a situation.

This is a signal that camp will be tougher, more intense and more spirited. New offensive line coach Mike Tice and defensive line coach Bryan Cox probably will spice that mix up as well.

It will be interesting to see if this approach has the intended effect.

The new approach on defense seems straight-forward: Place bigger players in greater numbers on the line of scrimmage and make stopping the run an absolute priority and then force teams into third-and-long, in which case defensive coordinator Mike Nolan can work his schematic magic, confusing opposing quarterbacks into mistakes — as he did so successfully in 2012 against the likes of Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.

Against key NFC South opponents like New Orleans and Carolina, this approach makes sense. When the Saints run the ball effectively, which they often do, an under-appreciated aspect of their game, it makes their passing attack almost impossible to defend. And Carolina, bereft of receivers, will rely heavily on the run. Additionally, stopping 6-foot-5, 245-pound quarterback Cam Newton and the Panthers from running the ball is a must. They ran for roughly 200 yards in each of the teams’ two meetings in 2012.

Nolan has said in the past he thinks the approach that is best in terms of rushing the passer is not to rely on one player but to have, ideally, every defensive player earn about four sacks. This is the strategy the Falcons will use.

Preseason games should give some indication as to whether it is working.

With the new defensive philosophy, the players on the line of scrimmage are intended to occupy the offense’s blockers, freeing up the middle linebackers and defensive backs to make plays at or behind the line of scrimmage.

Linebacker Paul Worrilow, coming off a break-out rookie season, will have to improve upon what he did in 2013 when he was a tackling machine. The Falcons cannot afford a step back, as free safety Thomas DeCoud took last season coming off a Pro-Bowl season.

And with Sean Weatherspoon out for the season, the Falcons will have to see if newly signed Tim Dobbins, who played for Nolan in Miami in 2010, Joplo Bartu or rookie Prince Shembo are up to the task of defensive playmaker. Dobbins has never totaled more than 57 tackles in a season.

Maybe the Falcons go the route of the cap casualty following final cuts in September. They have done that with a measure of success in the past.

Jones was leading the NFL in yards receiving and receptions by a wide a receiver when he suffered a season-ending injury to his foot last season.

The Falcons have been extremely cautious with the player who possesses game-breaking skills. It’s understandable. He underwent a serious surgery to repair the foot. Jones had broken a screw that was inserted into it during a previous surgery when he was in college. As part of the most recent surgery, he had the foot strengthened with bone marrow taken from his hip. That’s no run-of-the-mill surgical procedure.

Jones did not participate with the team at all during OTAs or mini-camp. Training camp will represent his first time on the field with the team in more than nine months. With Tony Gonzalez gone and Roddy White a year older and set to turn 33, much relies on Jones’ shoulders.

The Falcons need him healthy and at 100 percent to reach their potential. Training camp should provide an early glimpse as to whether he is back to being "the old Julio."