FLOWERY BRANCH, GA — Cooler weather and some world-class sparring mates led to a solid morning practice for the Falcons on Tuesday morning. The New England Patriots joined the team, giving the Falcons a chance to work on some new things, and a few former teammates a chance to catch up.
The mood was more laidback than some of last week's spirited moments with the Jacksonville Jaguars. New England and Atlanta are familiar from the top down, given Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff's previous experience as the Pats' director of college scouting.
"They're a well-coached team," running back Michael Turner said. "Everybody wanted to make plays, but we didn't want to get anybody hurt or anything like that. It was a nice tempo."
Falcons head coach Mike Smith was happy to prepare against a defense that's quite a bit different from the Falcons'. During last week's practices with the Jaguars, the team saw a lot of familiar looks, as the Jags run a system very similar to Atlanta's. New England, however, runs a 3-4 defensive system, and the Falcons spent a lot of time on blitz pickups.
"Seeing the new schemes is very important to us," Smith said. "The 3-4 is something that we're going to see a lot during the season — three of our first four opponents. So I think the work that we got today is invaluable."
New England quarterback Tom Brady aired the ball out a few times, putting Falcons cornerbacks to work against Randy Moss over the top and Wes Welker down low. The defense's highlight of the day: cornerback Dominique Franks made a great break and half-intercepted a pass intended for a Pats running back. The two wrestled for the ball as both sidelines cheered. Franks emerged with the ball.
The Falcons' young linebackers also got a chance to take on some fresh pass coverage duties.
"I got a great look today, going against some different types of tight ends," rookie linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. "They got a slasher in Aaron Hernandez, then you got the big kid Rob Gronkowski from Arizona. That'll help me going against the tight ends in our division."
Another Patriots tight end, Alge Crumpler, looked sharp against his former team. Although he lives in Atlanta and played at the Georgia Dome with the Tennessee Titans during the 2008 preseason, this was his first practice at Flowery Branch since December 2007.
Crumpler looks trim and healthy, and is excited to play his second season with the Patriots. He said he can sense the difference at the Branch since he left the Falcons.
"I think Smitty's done a great job of getting guys that are ready to compete and put a good product on the field," he said. "It's fun to be back in town. There's not a lot of familiar faces. Todd (McClure), (Brian) Finneran — great guys. No matter what's going on in the organization, the locker room is always where you're the tightest.
"The guys you spend time with, through the good years and the bad years, are what you have the most memories of. It was great to see the guys and talk to them in between periods, but when that whistle blew I was locked in. I'm in a great place now. I'm enjoying being able to teach and compete."
There was a little competitive jawing, most noticeably by Moss after a pair of long grabs, but the teams are coexisting professionally. Last week's combined practices were notably more intense than today's.
"Jacksonville was a little bit more physical," Weatherspoon said. "That's what you expect before the first preseason game. Those guys are amped up, ready to go against other people. We didn't hear much from New England. We can tell they got good chemistry."
The less contested atmosphere could be partially due to Tuesday's weather. A little cloud cover and drizzle always helps keeps tempers cool.
Matt Ryan thanked the Patriots for bringing some Boston weather down to Georgia.
As Crumpler put it, "We're lucky, guys. It wasn't hot today. I've been here on some hot days."