Live from Training Camp: Atlanta
Monday and Tuesday I was in Flowery Branch, Georgia at the Falcons practice facility. The Bengals were in town for combined practices as both teams prepared for tonight’s preseason opener. The last two days I’ve been in Spartanburg, South Carolina watching the Panthers who will begin preseason action tomorrow. In this three-part series I’ll share my training camp observations for each team as preseason week 1 gets underway.
Falcons to “Weaponize” Steven Jackson
Versatility. It’s a word that’s being used more and more in the NFL. As more teams run uptempo pass heavy offenses, versatile players are becoming a premium on both sides of the ball.
Steven Jackson has given the Falcons offense a whole new set of scheme options with his three-down ability. Despite turning 30 in July, Jackson is still in phenomenal shape. The 6’2″ 240-pound running back can obviously pound the ball between the tackles, but it’s his ability in the passing game that was featured this week at Falcons camp.
Jackson caught balls out of the backfield and motioned out pre-snap frequently on Monday. On Tuesday he lined up in the slot for entire segments of full team work as Matt Ryan barked out play-calls from the line of scrimmage. He was also featured in the running game as you would expect.
I have some concerns about Jackson’s age and heavy usage the last eight years. But it’s obvious that he’ll get enough volume to have a big year in Atlanta, and should thrive in all formats as long as he’s healthy. I would also expect more no huddle from the Falcons since they won’t have to sub Jackson out to go from power football to spread formations.
Status Quo at Linebacker
The Falcons are one of the few 4-3 defensive teams that take their middle linebacker (Akeem Dent) off the field in nickel and other sub-packages. At times last season their linebackers were really exploited in coverage leading analyst to speculate about changes they may make at the position for 2013.
Based on my observations the team’s approach hasn’t changed from a year ago. Dent plays in the base but leaves the field in the nickel as Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas stay on the field. This leaves Dent with little fantasy value in IDP leagues.
Weatherspoon did dislocate a finger on Monday so Dent will have an opportunity to show his coverage skills in nickel packages with the first team moving forward. However, Weatherspoon should be fine for the start of the season.
Matt Ryan Red Hot
The Falcons offensive line did have some trouble with the Bengals very talented defensive front. But Matt Ryan was on fire in the passing game despite being pressured often. On Monday both Roddy White and Julio Jones practiced giving Ryan reliable targets on both sides of the field. Both receivers are already in sync with their quarterback.
Ryan was also able to find slot receiver Harry Douglas and even the tight ends against the Bengals pressure blitz looks. Tony Gonzalez is not attending training camp and will not play in tonight’s game. Julio Jones also has some hamstring tightness but it shouldn’t be anything to worry about in your fantasy football league. Once all of these weapons are on the field in the regular season I expect Ryan to have another big year in Dirk Koetter’s quarterback friendly offense.
The Falcons double dipped at cornerback in April’s draft. First-rounder Desmond Trufant is already running with the starters opposite Asante Samuel. Trufant did get roasted by Mohamed Sanu in a redzone drill but held his own otherwise. Free Agent signee Robert McClain is currently the slot corner but he could be challenged by second round pick Robert Alford as the preseason progresses.
Kroy Biermann is a sneaky pick at defensive end this year. He’s always been used as a movable chess piece by defensive coordinator Mike Nolan but he could play even more snaps than in the past. He lined up at left defensive end opposite newly acquired Osi Umenyiora and also at strong-side linebacker. On one of the final plays Tuesday he intercepted a pass and raced for the endzone from his linebacker spot showing his versatility.