FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Falcons play the Carolina Panthers a ton. Twice a year if we're getting technical.
The Falcons have not faced these Panthers, featuring a new head coach in Frank Reich and a new quarterback in Bryce Young, the former Alabama star Carolina traded up to take with the No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick.
Arthur Smith was quick to point out his familiarity with the team's defensive personnel and a Reich's scheme, which the Falcons head coach has faced in the past. There is an element of unknown heading into this one that can't be ignored, however, and must be dealt with in the moment on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
"You've got to trust your rules and trust your training," Smith said. "You know, that's why we've tried to make it hard and make camp competitive. But, every week, there's going to be stuff that somebody throws at you, especially when when they have no record, things they won't show before the opener. The key is that you've got to be disciplined with your rules."
There's plenty to study, even if it's not always Panthers tape. The Falcons can watch Reich's offenses of the past, knowing the scheme will be tweaked to fit personnel. Defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero's scheme functioned well in Denver last year and has some similarities.
At some point, though, you have to trust what you've been taught and react.
"You have to rely on what you've put in over the course of training camp," safety Jessie Bates III said. "You won't see everything you expect to see on film watching the Colts offense and stuff like that, but you fall back on the rules you established during camp and you go out there and play fast."
That puts communication at a premium, especially on a defense with so many new pieces. The Falcons have just five returning starters from last season, so cohesion and chemistry building have been points of emphasis all summer. Now we'll see how the Falcons fared in those areas and whether if translates to quality play when the pressure's on.
The Falcons won't look like that have in previous years, either, even with Smith still running the offense. His schemes looked completely different in 2022 than it did the year before, and there will be some tweaks coming Carolina's way that the Panthers haven't seen.
There's a new defensive scheme in Atlanta, too, with Ryan Nielsen calling plays for the first time. While the Panthers will look to the Saints' work last year – Nielsen was New Orleans co-defensive coordinator – so there will be an air of unpredictability on all sides of this one.
We take a look at the players on the current 53-man roster for the 2023 Atlanta Falcons, sponsored by Veepio.
Cornerback Mike Hughes made his return to the practice field Monday for the first time since sustaining a soft-tissue injury during training camp. He had been missing in Atlanta since Aug. 13.
"It felt good, man," Hughes said. "Just trying to take it slow, day by day. But I feel pretty good for the most part."
Hughes clarified the injury was to his hip flexor and it happened when the Falcons were in Florida for joint practices for the Miami Dolphins.
Running back Cordarrelle Patterson (soft tissue), wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge (ankle) and cornerback Jeff Okudah (ankle), however, were still absent Monday.
Falcons head coach Arthur Smith was vague with his status updates prior to practice.
"I'm very pleased with how everyone's progressing," Smith said. "As we get into Wednesday, it will be an important day for those. We got to decide realistically who's going be ready for Week 1. Those guys worked hard over the weekend rehabbing. Most of those guys will be back out there, with the exception of a few." -TW
QB1 from Round 1
The Falcons must prepare for a brand-new face in Panthers quarterback Bryce Young, who Carolina drafted earlier this year with the No. 1 overall pick.
Young played at Alabama from 2020-22, winning the Heisman Trophy in 2021 and leading the Crimson Tide to a national championship title in 2020.
"With someone like Bryce, he's been in a lot of big-time games and certainly been under the pressure cooker at Alabama," Smith said. "I don't want to speak but him, but I have a lot of respect for him. I imagine the moment wouldn't be too big for him."
The Panthers have been rotating quarterback since the Cam Newton era ended with the 2018 season. Young will mark their sixth quarterback in as many seasons.
When it comes to preparation, the Falcons are focusing on the Panthers' offensive scheme more so than the quarterback himself since Young obviously does not have any real NFL film. He played in all three of Carolina's preseason games, completing 14 of 24 pass attempts for 129 yards and a touchdown. He also ran the ball four times for 22 yards.
"I'm pretty sure some things that we haven't seen that we'll see, and we'll just have to adjust on the fly," Hughes said. "That's with any quarterback. But specifically for him, we don't have a lot of tape on him. But we know he's a hell of a player So, we'll be ready." -TW