Flowery Branch, GA --Wednesday was a milestone day for a few Falcons players.
Harry Douglas and Peria Jerry returned to full-team drills, allowing them to continue to ease back into game-playing shape. Cleared medically to practice before camp began, the two 2009-injured players have been present on the practice field, but only participated in position drills.
Before getting too excited about the return of two key players for the Falcons, Head Coach Mike Smith said he needed to wait and see how they respond to practice. They're on schedule with the return of Douglas and Jerry, but they want to see their reaction to the workload off the field and ensure there are no residual effects to practicing.
"We're going to see how they're feeling today after practice," said Smith. "Tomorrow hopefully they'll be able to continue on that same program where they're getting all the snaps that they normally get. We're pleased with those two guys and where they are."
Cornerback Brian Williams' injury came in Week 6, weeks after Douglas and Jerry went down. Smith said he anticipates William, who is on the practice field in drills, will begin to work his way back into full participation next week.
Cornerback Dunta Robinson and running back Jerious Norwood missed practice again on Wednesday, but Smith did not provide an update to Robinson's hamstring injury or Norwood's hip.
Rookie Brandyn Harvey was held out of practice. He suffered headaches following Tuesday's practice and the coaching staff didn't put him through practice as a precautionary measure. Smith said the wide receiver ran and rode a bike today and they're monitoring him before they allow him to return.
"Brandyn had headaches after practice so we're definitely, in those situations, are going to be cautionary and make sure that he's ready to go. He did run and ride the bike today. He finished practice yesterday, but we just want to make sure he's okay before we put him back out there."
Quarterback Matt Ryan is pleased to see Douglas return to the field and look as strong as he has in returning from an ACL injury suffered last season in training camp.
"I think offensively one of the good guys to see back is Harry Douglas," Ryan said Wednesday. "He's looked really good, really healthy. I'm impressed with his work ethic all offseason and that's continued during the first week of training camp."
Dog days:With temperature highs reaching 96 on Wednesday, Smith called today's single practice one of the toughest his team will experience. Entering this week of padded practices, Smith said they were the dog days of camp, a week where installation occurs, sweat runs, and hard work is mandatory.
Smith did provide his players some relief, allowing them to take off their pads close to the conclusion of practice, a session that saw the team work on goal line offense and defense and third-and-one situations.
"It's probably the toughest practice weather-wise that we've had," said Smith. "It was very, very hot. The football field was steamy so we tried to improvise a little bit there at the end of the practice and take the pads off. I thought the guys fought through it."
Even after 13 seasons, tight end Tony Gonzalez has never gotten used to the heat of training camp and the two-a-days that accompany it. But he still believes it makes the team better.
"It's good to come out here and work like this," said Gonzalez. "It tests the mental capabilities of our team. I think we passed the test today."
Gonzalez does hope for a day when two-a-days are over, but he knows it's a way of life now.
"Hopefully they do change it soon because coming out here twice a day is a little tough," the tight end said. "But that's how it's always been done. Right now, getting into day eight, nine, ten, eleven, the next three or four days, it's tough. But that's also testing the mental ability that we have, our mental toughness and it's going to make us a better football team."
Catching some eyes:At the one-week point in camp, a number of players and the head coach provided an assessment on players catching their eyes thus far.
Ryan looped middle linebacker Curtis Lofton into what he called "the usual suspects", players that are consistently making plays at practice and around the ball always. The quarterback also felt rookie linebacker Sean Weatherspoon has impressed him.
Weatherspoon also drew praise from Gonzalez who grinned as he discussed the linebacker's play in practice so far.
"I've been really impressed with Sean Weatherspoon," said Gonzalez. "For a rookie to come in and play like he has, shows a lot of maturity on his part. His whole swagger, it's going to help us out a lot. Right now it's looking like a very, very good pick. If he can carry what he's doing right now to Game Day and keep learning that defense, the sky's the limit. He's got all the ability in the world."
Smith singled out a number of rookies, including Weatherspoon as players whose progression he's been pleased with. He was excited to see defensive tackle Corey Peters' continue to hold his own on the line once the pads went on. Cornerback Dominique Franks, he feels, has continued his high level of play and getting his hands on passes. The head coach also appreciated what offensive linemen Mike Johnson and Joe Hawley were learning from the offensive line veterans, a unit that returns all five starters for the third consecutive season.
"They have very good size and they understand what it takes to play in there," said Smith. "That unit is a good unit to learn from. That first five is a very solid group."
Locker room rivalry:The offense has been overshadowed in the first week of camp by the play of the defense.
The defense has set the tone early in camp, playing with a passion and feistiness that has at times made the Falcons' offense look bad. Wide receiver Roddy White said recently the defense was "dominating" the offense.
As more of the offense is installed, the offensive players believe things will come around. In short, they're not worried.
"Offense is more timing oriented and it takes a little bit of time to get back into the rhythm," said Matt Ryan. "We've certainly been working hard in the meetings and coming out and getting a little better each day. We've got a lot going in install-wise. We've got a lot of young guys out there learning the system as well. It's going to take some time but I'm confident we're going to get those things together and continue to improve during training camp and be ready to go Game One."
Tony Gonzalez, always one to speak his mind, took it a step further saying there's another reason the defense has looked how they have early on.
"Defense is pretty easy, you just go out there and hit them in the face," the future Hall of Famer said. "They probably wouldn't say that though."
But Gonzalez agreed with Ryan that the installation process can take some time and he feels good about where they stand in it.
"We know exactly what we're doing out there," he said. "We're still installing and we're moving every day ahead and learning new plays. Once we start get those plays and start running them over and over again that's when we'll start clicking. Right now I'm happy with where we're at. We've just got to keep going out there and working and getting better."
The players might not admit it, but it's quite possible they're looking forward to the annual Friday Night Lights event this Friday, when the teams will scrimmage against each other, allowing one side of the ball, offense or defense, to prevail over the other in a Smith-created scoring system.
New bird tweeting: Veteran safety Erik Coleman joined the twitosphere recently (@ErikColeman26), and he's been quite active updating fans with some behind-the-scenes glimpses of training camp. Yesterday Coleman replied to one Falcons fan, saying "We have been playing with a lot of intensity! That's the only way we are gonna get better! The rookies are bringin it!"
And today when the heat index jumped into the triple digits, Coleman put it all in perspective with a re-tweet of a Tony Gonzalez post from the afternoon: "RT @TonyGonzalez88: Tough day at the office...101 on the heat index. It's all for the ring!"