The Atlanta Falcons spent Thursday morning wrapping up preparations for their first preseason game against the Titans on Friday in the Georgia Dome. Here are a few pictures from the day.
Offense Progressing: The offense has struggled at times, but it made substantial improvements this week—especially on Tuesday, when Kyle Shanahan's unit crisply worked its way down the field during 11-on-11s. Despite a rash of injuries, the running back corps has done a good job picking up the outside zone blocking scheme. The linemen in front of them have started meshing, and Matt Ryan, sharp as ever, has been himself. Now in a system that requires QBs to be mobile, he's looked tremendous throwing on the run and seems to have a firm grasp of the new playbook.
At wide receiver, Leonard Hankerson and Justin Hardy—acquired via free agency and the Draft, respectively—have impressed. Hardy's willingness to learn from veterans has paid off and won over teammates; Hankerson's reliable hands and playbook acumen have made him a valuable asset on and off the field. The tight ends have looked solid, as well, especially Jacob Tamme: a former Bronco who's caught just about everything thrown his way. Not to be forgotten, Levine Toilolo's seldom dropped a pass and has blocked well, too.
Competitions Heating Up: With more talent and a new, energetic coaching staff in place, a competitive ambience was to be expected at Flowery Branch. Position battles have only intensified since camp began on July 31—especially at offensive line. According to the first unofficial depth chart, Chris Chester has worked his way into a starting job, and James Stone has, surprisingly, leapfrogged Jon Asamoah. The latter development could be temporary—in fact, that's how it'll probably unfold—but nevertheless, it's set an important tone as the exhibition schedule gets underway.
UDFAs Impressing:The Falcons signed an intriguing group of undrafted free agents in May, and a number of these rookies have stood out. On defense, interior lineman Joey Mbu has caught the attention of Dan Quinn and Bryan Cox with his consistent effort. Cornerback Kevin White's also looked solid and has held his own when afforded first-team reps. Desmond Trufant may not dress against Tennessee (more on that below), so White, 23, will could play nickel and see time at CB in the base 4-3 package.
"Just going to go out there and have fun," he said. "Going to learn the defenses correctly and try to help the team win. It's our first game, we don't know what to expect, so I'm going to have fun and work hard."
On the other side of the ball, Terron Ward is a scheme fit and gives the Falcons a bit of a different look at running back. Although he's 5-foot-7, the Oregon State product is stronger than his frame suggests, put up good numbers in college and has a nose for the end zone. With Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman temporarily sidelined due to hamstring injuries, he's bound to get lots of carries on Friday.
"I'm excited," Ward said. "Excited to get out there and do some good things, give 100 percent, play fast and have fun."
Chances Aplenty: The coaching staff has given a lot of time alongside their best teammates, and that will continue during preseason games. Backups will be sprinkled in with starters. Rookies will see lots of action. And in the end, these opportunities will go a long way toward shaping the 53-man roster for opening night.
"I'm looking for the competition for these guys to jump through just like we have seen at practice," Quinn said. "More than anything, that's really the attitude and the mindset of how to play, and it's an awesome time for some of these young guys who are getting their first game experience. We are thrilled for them. I can't wait to see those guys in particular."
Injury Update:Freeman (hamstring), Coleman (hamstring), Brooks Reed (hip/groin), Cliff Matthews (ankle)* *and Desmond Trufant (shoulder) didn't participate in Thursday's practice. Trufant is listed as day-to-day and will likely sit out against the Titans. Reed said that, even though he's missed all of camp so far, he should be ready for Week 1 of the regular season. Joe Hawley (knee) and Jake Matthews (foot) will play, albeit in limited capacities.