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Falcons camp observations: Players put in extra red-zone work; Matt Ryan and Austin Hooper developing chemistry, more

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Falcons released their first depth chart of the preseason Tuesday, a signal that their first exhibition is quickly drawing closer.

The team continues to put in work during the 2018 AT&T Training Camp, and the players have now taken it upon themselves to practice specific aspects of their game during the Falcons’ Plan D period after practice. This period has always given players the option to work with coaches on individual skills, but head coach Dan Quinn explained a small tweak to their approach with it this year after Tuesday’s practice.

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“What we added this year was a day where it was going to be player-led,” Quinn said. “These are the things the players want extra time at. So, one day it might be coach-driven, ‘Hey, here are the things I want you to work at.’ Another day it might be a group session, ‘Hey, we’re going to work the rookies on some things.’ And then, today, it was one [that was] player-led. Quarterbacks and receivers wanted to get some more time working on routes, especially in the low red zone.”

Near the edge of the practice field, Matt Ryan worked with receivers Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Justin Hardy and Calvin Ridley as well as running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman on a variety of goal-line route combinations.

It’s part of the team’s clear emphasis on improving in that area of the field, and it’s clear the players are determined to get better on their own time as well.

“It’s very important,” Julio Jones said after practice of their extra work after practice. “So me and Matt can be on the same page in the red zone. Over the years, I have the ability to make plays and he has the ability to put the ball there. It’s all about us being on the same page, not having to think when we get down there. Knowing where he’s going to put the ball and knowing what I can do when he puts the ball in the air. It’s been beneficial for us, even the young guys, they’re working on it as well.”

The Falcons ranked 23rd in the NFL in red-zone percentage last season, scoring a touchdown on 50 percent of their trips into that area.

Another big-time mentor visits practice

The Falcons have invited a few guests to practice thus far in camp, including former Falcons defensive linemen Patrick Kerney and Chuck Smith. On Tuesday, they had former Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed up to Flowery Branch to attend a practice.

“Sometimes hearing a different point of view from a guy who’s done it I think is really valuable,” Quinn said. “I’ve learned a hell of a lot from players through the years, and we’re really honored – just like [Leon Washington] and Pat and Chuck – really honored to have Ed with us today.”

Safety Ricardo Allen, the recent recipient of a three-year contract extension, was one of the players who could draw the most from Reed’s experience as one of the best safeties in NFL history.

“I’m a knowledge thief so just being around Ed, probably the best safety in the league to ever play, he was rangy, he was a middle-field guy, he had knowledge, he was a hitter – he did it all,” Allen said after practice. “If you look at him, he’s not the biggest guy around, either. Just to be able to have his presence around. I’ve never really been coached by a top safety or a Hall of Famer or a legend like that, I’ve always coached myself. So, for me to really get some insight from him and see what he’s seen on the field and he can help me maybe take my game to the next level, so I can maybe become an All-Pro or be one of the best safeties in the league.”

Other notes and observations

  • The Falcons continue to work on special teams at the beginning of practice. The various rule changes on special teams are things NFL teams will be adjusting to in the preseason.
  • Justin Hardy, Ito Smith, Marvin Hall, Reggie Davis, Calvin Ridley and Isaiah Oliver were the players seen back to return kickoffs.
  • There were plenty of 1-on-1 competitions that took place on Tuesday with the tight ends working against the SAM linebackers and strong safeties, the running backs going up against the WILL and MIKE linebackers and the free safeties, the wide receivers competing against the defensive backs and the defensive line battling the offensive line.
  • Austin Hooper and Eric Saubert were two tight ends who stood out in their 1-on-1 reps, making a couple of contested catches each.
  • As for how the receivers fared against the cornerbacks:
  • Rookie receiver Christian Blake showed a nice second gear early in practice to catch up to a deep ball after getting bumped off his route by a coach.
  • Rookie running backs Justin Crawford and Ito Smith had a few nice plays during the 11-on-11 period, showing their prowess as pass-catchers as well as good vision to find cutback lanes.
  • Ito Smith still wasn’t quick enough to avoid this:
  • Austin Hooper and Matt Ryan have shown good chemistry during this camp, especially during the two-minute drills. Today, Ryan hit Hooper often during an 80-yard march down the field.
  • Matt Ryan tossed a touchdown to Julio Jones during an 11-on-11 period.
  • Takkarist McKinley participated in contact drills during today’s practice after being held out of contact for the past several practices.

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