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Falcons camp observations: Isaiah Oliver, Jack Crawford shine in scrimmage; returner battle continues with Ito Smith in mix

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – On a sun-splashed Saturday practice in Flowery Branch, the Falcons held their fourth annual military day. But the highlight of Day 8 of the 2018 Falcons AT&T Training Camp was the second part of practice, the red vs. white scrimmage that resulted in a 24-17 win for the red team.

In case you missed it, here were the rosters for Team White and Team Red:

Rookie corner Isaiah Oliver records first INT of camp

When Matt Schaub, quarterback of the red team, threw the ball behind wide receiver Justin Hardy, Isaiah Oliver was there to make a play. Oliver picked off Schaub, giving the white team's offense featuring Matt Ryan, Mohamed Sanu and Calvin Ridley a chance to get back on the field.

Oliver, the Falcons' second-round draft pick out of the University of Colorado, has primarily played on the outside. During the scrimmage, multiple times he was lined up against wide receiver Julio Jones. Oliver held his own and the experience will only help him in the long run. Not every rookie cornerback can say they get to go up against a player of Jones' caliber on a daily basis.

Dan Quinn gushes over Jack Crawford's play

Quinn is trying to replicate a game-like scenario as much as he can to get the best evaluation of his team. One player in particular who impressed Atlanta's head coach in particular was defensive lineman Jack Crawford.

"I thought Jack Crawford was one that stood out today," Quinn said. "He looked to have a good day and was real active in the run game and the pass game."

After a strong start to the 2017 season, Crawford's first year in Atlanta was cut short as injured his triceps in Week 4 and was placed on injured reserve. He's expected to have a significant role along the Falcons' defensive line this season. Crawford not only has high expectations for himself, but for the unit as well.

"To be honest, I think we were stacked last year, I thought we had a lot of talent," Crawford said. "And for the most part, we retained a lot of that talent. We have the experience to be elite, it's just about bringing it together now. We have the chemistry, it's just about learning good habits and looking at where we can get better from last year."

Rookie running back getting serious look at returner

When the Falcons drafted Ito Smith in the fourth round of this year's draft, the value he could bring on special teams was something head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff talked about.

Smith was dealing with a foot contusion early on during camp that kept him on the sidelines until he returned to practice this week. Since his return, Smith's been getting reps as a potential kick returner – and did so again during the scrimmage.

"I do think he has the traits to do it," Quinn said of Smith as a potential option at returner. "He's got real quickness to go. We're going to have to get him into some game reps and take a look at it. It's also a good look for where our kickoff is. We had two offsides on kickoff today so, how do we have to tweak our alignments with the new rule? There's some learning that goes on with that, so I thought special teams was going to be a real big factor today, just from some learning and it certainly was

The kick/punt returner battle is one of the main position battles going on at camp and Quinn will continue to evaluate throughout the preseason.

Duke Riley, Justin Bethel make key defensive plays

Falcons linebacker Duke Riley and cornerback Justin Bethel were two defensive players who shined during the scrimmage. Riley, who is going into this second season, has had a strong offseason and it's apparent on the field. Riley sniffed out a pass from Matt Ryan to Devonta Freeman and landed the pass break up.

One of Riley's biggest strengths is his speed and it showed in this play. Riley was able to track the ball while staying stride-in-stride with Freeman, ultimately making a big play for the defense.

Bethel is a player the Falcons added through free agency this offseason in hopes to bolster their special teams unit. Bethel, a special teams Pro Bowler, is also a quality depth piece for the Falcons to have at cornerback.

And he showed that on Saturday when he broke up a pass that was intended for wide receiver Mohamed Sanu in the end zone.

The Falcons have emphasized generating more turnovers on defense this offseason and Riley and Bethel showed just how important that is on Saturday.

Tight ends Hooper, Saubert are targeted often and cash in

The Falcons have two tight ends in Austin Hooper and Eric Saubert who have shown they can be assets in the passing game. And that's been something on display throughout OTAs and the first part of training camp. On back-to-back plays, Matt Schaub targeted Hooper, both resulting in completions for the red team.

Saubert was one of Matt Ryan's main targets. If Ryan wasn't going to Mohamed Sanu or Calvin Ridley, he was throwing the ball Saubert's way. Ryan and Saubert cashed in for a touchdown, giving the white team their first touchdown of the day.

Hooper is someone Quinn and Ryan have seen a significant improvement from as he enters his third season. Each year Hooper's been on the roster, he's shown growth. Hooper knows how important his role is in the Falcons' offense and has done everything he could this offseason to make sure he gets the reps he needs with Ryan to ensure they're ready to go come Week 1.

For more on what Ryan expects from Hooper in his third season, check out this story.

Takk McKinley participates in individual drills, no contact yet

Takk McKinley is dealing with a bruised shoulder and is not participating in any drills that involve contact right now. Quinn has said they're day-to-day with McKinley and he's able to do all of the individual work during practice and the walk-through at night.

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