FLOWERY BRANCH, GA —The Falcons showed last season what happens when big plays happen.
In 2009, Atlanta ranked as the fifth-worst defense in the league in yards allowed per game and a large reason for that was the amount of explosive plays they gave up.
Explosive plays are defined by coaches and players around the NFL as any run play of 15 yards or more and any pass play of 25 yards or more.
Last season they allowed the sixth-most 20-plus-yard plays (55) and were tied for seventh-most on plays of 40-plus-yards (11).
Seventh-year veteran safety Erik Coleman said the defense was embarrassed last season by their struggles with big plays, as well as their inability to get off the field on third downs. This offseason and training camp is focused on improving those statistics.
"We work on that by everyone working on their run fits, making sure you secure your tackle," Coleman said following Tuesday's morning practice. "Everybody gets to the ball. If someone misses a tackle, someone else has to be there. In the secondary, we've got to work on our pass rush. We've got to work on our coverage to make sure we're taking the proper angles."
Coleman personally has worked on better understanding his positioning within the defense and how pursuit angles can mean the difference in a tackle or an interception.
One change to the secondary that may help the defense give up fewer explosive plays this season is the new secondary coach, Tim Lewis. A former player, Lewis spent four seasons with the Green Bay Packers as their 1983 first-round draft pick. His career cut short by injury, Lewis enters his 16th season as an NFL assistant.
"He knows what it takes to go out there and win and he demands a lot of us," Coleman said. "As soon as he got here he kind of changed the tone of the defense, he brought a lot of different coverages. He brings a different knowledge of the game that most of us didn't have before. It's refreshing."
Through six days of training camp, the secondary has responded to the high level of play by the rest of the defense. They've been breaking up passes and coming down with interceptions. Coleman, the secondary's veteran leader, attributes the play in camp and the feisty attitude of the cornerbacks and safeties to a hunger to improve their game and improve their standing in the league.
"We left some plays out there [last year]," Coleman said. "We know if we want to be successful, we're going to have to pay the price here and work hard every day. That's what we're doing here. That's what we're going to continue to do and hopefully we'll just continue to get better and gel as a group."
Injury update:Wide receiver Troy Bergeron was held out of practice Tuesday morning. Head coach Mike Smith said he had swelling in his calf, but anticipates he'll return to practice Wednesday.
Jerious Norwood and Dunta Robinson did not return to the field Tuesday.
"Both those guys, we're going to continue to treat them in the training room and get them out for the team period so that they can watch," Smith said. "I think that will be the plan right now for the rest of the week. Both of those guys won't participate in the scrimmage on Friday night."
Smith said he plans to give players like Vic Beasley Jr. and Todd McClure scheduled days off, around every fourth or fifth practice.
Smith said he liked the return of wide receiver Matt Ryan and defensive tackle Peria Jerry. He anticipates both will be participating in all team periods and drills soon. They are currently increasing the two players' involvement levels.
"Those two guys are progressing very well right now in terms of getting back to full participation," Smith said.
Claim to Falcons fame:Offensive lineman Garrett Reynolds holds the distinction of being the only offensive player drafted of the eight selected in the 2009 draft.
A former right tackle at the University of North Carolina, Reynolds played in one game in his rookie season, against Buffalo in Week 16 at right guard. The mammoth 6-foot-7, 317-pound lineman wasn't resistant to the switch at first, but preferred his familiar position on the outside. With reps at guard, he's adjusted and grown comfortable, but he feels there is a significant difference in the two positions.
"At guard everything happens a little bit faster," Reynolds said Tuesday. "At tackle you're on your on a lot. You have a little bit more space out there by yourself so you've got a second before you make contact. At guard as soon as that ball snaps, you better have your hands up and be ready to roll."
The transition to a new position and into the NFL has been made smoother by starting right guard Harvey Dahl and former guard and current starting right tackle Tyson Clabo. Reynolds credits the two of them with helping him understand blocking schemes and hone his technique.
Reynolds and the offensive linemen are glad that practice in pads have begun because of the physical nature of their position and the number of reps they endure each day in camp. They like to hit, but they appreciate a little added padding.
"The tempo is still the same and some of us during certain periods would rather have them on than not because guys still go full speed and you're banging up your shoulders and stuff like that," he said. "It's a little hotter with them on and everything, but during some periods you're glad you have them on."