FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- When Arthur Smith was asked the biggest difference in this 2023 Falcons team and those of his previous two years, he didn't hesitate in his answer. The defensive line is bigger, quite a bit bigger in fact.
"They pass the eye test," Smith said after Tuesday's practice.
A top goal of this organization this offseason was for the defensive line to get big, get deep and stay healthy. Two out of the three can be accomplished with less luck and more action. It's action the Falcons took in their work this offseason. But it's in training camp where that size and depth has been obvious not just in the Falcons first preseason win against Miami last week (when the defense recording five sacks) but in practice this week, too.
Adding pieces like David Onyemata and Bud Dupree in free agency meant something. Grabbing Zach Harrison in the 2023 NFL Draft? That meant something, too. Arnold Ebiketie wanted to add on a few extra pounds of muscle this offseason. The Falcons re-signed Lorenzo Carter. Then, as the pièce de résistance, Calais Campbell joined the team, someone Smith joked on Tuesday may be the biggest player currently in the league.
It's all of these moves and decisions along with the continued foundation of Grady Jarrett (don't forget about him) that makes this defensive line feel different in 2023.
It's something that was felt in the final period of Tuesday's practice, a red zone period with the Falcons units going against each other. It's felt in a tipped ball at the line of scrimmage, Campbell able to get his hand in the passing lane of Desmond Ridder. It's felt in Harrison getting a significant push off the outside of the protection, making Taylor Heinicke scramble (perhaps it's even a sack if sacks were allowed in practice). It's felt in the emergence of Timmy Horne and Albert Huggins as key pieces of depth within the defensive interior. It's all of these things happening simultaneously. All of which are important for the overall success of this Falcons defensive unit and the team as a whole.
And yes, it was felt, too, in Friday's first preseason game, despite the starting defense not making an appearance against Miami.
Defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen said after Tuesday's practice that Friday's preseason game wasn't the standard for defensive play for the Falcons. The standard is still out there, still to be reached.
"The next time we play," Nielsen said, "we raise the bar... You get five (sacks)? You want six. There's always more. So, we just push the guys to say, 'Hey, let's get another one,' because there's always other opportunities."
All opportunities that are well ahead of the Falcons so early in the preseason, but opportunities they want to capitalize on when they come.
A goal of the Falcons staff this offseason was to get bigger across the defensive line. They pumped money and resources into achieving that goal. Even 15 days into August, that decision is felt.
Notes, observations from practice
Roll call: RB Cordarrelle Patterson, DB Mike Hughes and DB Cornell Armstrong were three individuals who were not in attendance at practice on Tuesday. This trio hasn't been spotted at practice after returning to Miami. Head coach Arthur Smith said all three are working through soft tissue injuries. OLB Ade Ogundeji was also not in attendance on Tuesday after being carted off the field at the end of Monday's practice. Smith confirmed on Tuesday that Ogundeji suffered a foot/ankle injury. On Tuesday afternoon, the Falcons placed Ogundeji on injured reserve and will be out for the year.
The Falcons were able to suit up OL Drew Dalman and DL Ta'Quon Graham on Tuesday. Though neither participated much - or at all in some cases - in full team drills, they were present as the Falcons work them back in. In their spots remained OL Ryan Neuzil (working sparingly with the first-team offensive line at center) and DL Timmy Horne and DL Albert Huggins (getting some reps in the early parts of the defensive line rotation).
Neuzil played in quite a bit of Friday's game, taking a majority of his reps at center but also working a little at guard, too. He's someone who's making a strong case to stick around Atlanta a bit longer (perhaps as a practice squad guy in the future).
"I would say definitely our style of offense, just getting in, getting out in the huddle," Neuzil said as an area of improvement for him. "Like pushing the pace, getting the ball, the speed and sense of urgency we play with, I feel like that's really grown on me just being here."
The effect of waivers: The Falcons waived ILB Mykal Walker on Sunday, thus opening up a spot on the would-be, 53-man roster. With Walker already having been picked up by the Chicago Bears, the Falcons have a new pecking order at inside linebacker. Of course, ILB Troy Andersen and ILB Kaden Elliss remain the starters as they were before, the Walker move has opened the door for players like ILB Nate Landman and ILB Tae Davis to step into more prominent roles as backups. Davis particularly, who's presence Smith said you could feel on Friday against the Dolphins.
Between the two, Landman and Davis finished the first half on Friday with a combined stat line of 10 total tackles (two for a loss), with Landman having one of the Falcons five sacks on the night.
Another recent transaction that could change the pecking order at another position was the updated status of WR Frank Darby, who was waived/injured on Monday. This doesn't mean its the end of the road for Darby in Atlanta as he will revert to injured reserve if not claimed off waivers. However, with a 53-man roster cut down coming at the end of the month, it may put more weight in the case of receivers like J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Penny Hart, Josh Ali and Zay Malone potentially making the roster, all of whom are fighting for one - maybe two - roster spots.
Seconds of the secondary: The longer the weeks of camp go, the more you are starting to feel the secondary becoming set in their lineup. The ones (at the moment) are as followed: CB A.J. Terrell and CB Tre Flowers outside, S Jessie Bates III and S Richie Grant deep and DB Dee Alford roaming at nickel when needed. With DB Mike Hughes and CB Jeff Okudah working through injuries, this feels secure. However, the Falcons second level of the secondary is taking form, too, with some new additions following last week's joint practices.
Jaylinn Hawkins and Micah Abernathy continue to take the safety reps, but Breon Borders was seen taking a couple outside corner reps on Tuesday, too. Borders had an eye-catching performance in Miami through two days of joint practices and in the game Friday with a pick-six. He seems to be someone working his way up the depth chart as he gets his hands on the ball time and time again. As Terrin Waack reported in her camp reports earlier in the week, DB Clark Phillips III returned to the practice field after being injured in Miami. He continues to work as the second-team nickel behind Alford.
Let's get physical: QB Desmond Ridder didn't play on Friday, but there's an expectation that he will against the Bengals at the end of this week. Asked how much he wants to play on Friday, Ridder said he'd like to get out there for a little bit, "shake some of the rust off the bones," he said. Maybe get hit a few times, too.
This - of course - brought up the obvious follow-up question: "Do you want to get hit?"
Ridder's response: Yep.
"Oh yeah, sometimes that's what gets me in the flow of the game," Ridder said. "Maybe it's a sack. Maybe it's a little pushover. Whatever it may be. Sometimes I'd rather not feel like I'm out there in seven-on-seven and have all day to throw and not get hit."
He may get his wish on Friday.
Where he fits (Ginda edition): After parting ways with Walker at the beginning of the week, the Falcons signed ILB Frank Ginda, who was the USFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2023. Ginda has slotted into the third team alongside Mike Jones Jr. at inside linebacker. If the Falcons follow a similar rotation this coming Friday as they did last Friday, perhaps we'll see Ginda quite a bit in the second half against the Bengals after Andersen, Elliss, Landman and Davis rotate out. It'll be interesting to see how Ginda matches up despite not having made his NFL debut yet.
Key plays in the red zone: As we've already discussed, the Falcons final period of Tuesday's practice took place in the redzone. We've already talked about the plays some of the defensive linemen made, so let's focus on the offense for a second and give them their moment in the sun, too.
Ridder's connection with some of his top receivers was on display during the period. The second-year quarterback threaded the needle between Andersen and Elliss to find Drake London right at the goal line for a touchdown. Both linebackers were in good position to make the play, but with a little zip on the ball, Ridder found the small window needed for the touchdown.
A few plays later, Ridder went to the back of the endzone to find his other tall receiver: Mack Hollins. Slowing up his pace as he neared the back corner of the endzone, the ball came down into Hollins' hands with two defensive backs in the area. Hollins pivoted and hopped to a stop after the catch to make sure both feet were down before continuing his jog out of bounds. Hollins was quite hyped about the play.
Take a look as the Atlanta Falcons put in the work in Flowery Branch during the 2023 AT&T Training Camp.