Mike Smith has heard enough about his offensive line.
He's addressed the fact all week that his front five can play better to protect quarterback Matt Ryan, but the Falcons' head coach refuses to rest all the blame for the team's 13 sacks on the offensive line.
"When you talk about giving up sacks and the play of the offensive line, it's not always the offensive line," Smith said Thursday. "Everybody is responsible for us not being successful in protecting the quarterback."
Smith shared that a wide receiver may break out off his route incorrectly and interrupt the timing with Ryan, thus causing him to hold the ball longer than he should. He also acknowledged that running backs and tight ends are involved in blocking and must share some of the burden. The bottom line according to Smith is that Atlanta has allowed 13 sacks collectively.
"I think there's been way too much emphasis on the offensive line," he said. "We protect as a team. It's not just the offensive line. Again, our guys are being evaluated each and every week and we're going to make sure we put the best guys out there."
Ryan commended the effort of his line Wednesday, saying they're "playing hard up front." Although Smith left Ryan out of the list of reasons a sack is allowed, Ryan owned his role in the situation, citing that he can execute things a little better more consistently.
"The ball needs to come out," he said. "You can't keep hanging on to it back there, at some point the ball has got to come out. I think I need to be better. I think those guys up front will get better. We'll do all that, but it's a joint effort."
Smith expected his line to block better for sure. But now that the breakdowns have occured, they're working overtime to get things fixed. Since they're into the season now, it poses challenges for personal evaluation. With a full offseason to work with players, they can ensure practice snaps to improve performance. Once the season begins, preparation mode begins and occurs each week, thus making reps challenging for certain players.
The offensive line is a possible target for a shakeup, but Smith said saying there's a competition along the line isn't anything new. He reminds his team often that comeptition is everywhere at all times. He felt there were only a few players on the team who can say they've got a lock on a starting job.
"The majority of our guys on our team, we want to have open competition," Smith said. "We want to make sure we're always putting the best players out there on the field to give us the best chance to win."
The open competition worked last week. After starting newcomer James Sanders at safety over incumbent Thomas DeCoud in Week 2, DeCoud competed all week at practice and got the starting nod last week. DeCoud turned in one of his finest games as a pro, logging nine tackles, one pass defensed and an interception.
Hayden's return:An injured hamstring suffered against Philadelphia kept slot cornerback Kelvin Hayden out of practice last week, last Sunday's game and practice Wednesday. The newly-signed corner returned to practice on Thursday, surprising Smith a little.
"Kelvin did a real good job with our athletic performance department, the trainers, getting back out here," Smith said. "We thought that it might be a little bit longer than a couple of weeks. He was able to work. Hopefully there won't be any ill effects tomorrow and he'll be able to continue on his road to recovery."
Hayden was an official "limited participation" player Thursday, but said he was happy just to be back on the field with his teammates. He said he'd experienced a hamstring injury before and when he felt the signature tweak against Tampa Bay he felt the smart thing was to tell the coaching staff, who removed him from the game for examination.
The cornerback was pleased with the way the coaching staff handled his rehab this week and feels positive moving forward.
"I feel pretty good," he said. "I felt good mentally. I think that's the main thing, being mentally strong about the situation. You don't want to be negative going out there with a hamstring (injury). I think the coaching staff have the right formula as far as not throwing me in there, but building up as the week goes on. I'm fine with that. Like I said, I just want to put it behind me."
Smith described the fact that Hayden was already on the field as "encouraging" and said he and his staff are hopeful he'll be ready to play Sunday afternoon in Seattle.
Defend T-JAX:Tavaris Jackson is not an unknown opponent to the Falcons.
They faced him in 2008 when he was with Minnesota and Jackson had a pretty good day. The QB threw for 233 yards with two touchdowns and 0 interceptions. The highly mobile Jackson also rushed eight times for 82 yards.
Smith said keeping Jackson contained in the pocket and not letting him beat them with his legs will be key.
"If you let him and give him a lane, he can tuck the ball down and run," Smith said. "That's going to be very important for us. You don't want him to be getting a whole lot of rushing yards."
Jackson is establishing chemistry with one his former teammates in Minnesota, the recently-acquired wide receiver Sydney Rice. In last week's win over the Cardinals, Jackson connected with Rice eight times, gaining 109 yards receiving. The first two weeks Rice was out with an injured shoulder.
Shutting down Rice will be priority number one which will limit Jackson's options. He's still developing chemistry with the other playmakers on offense, including tight end Zach Miller and last season's leading receiver Mike Williams. So far this season Williams has not made much of an impact, catching five balls for 43 yards in three games.
Cornerback Brent Grimes said Jackson likes to make his reads and decisions quickly and get the ball out fast. That combined with his ability to tuck it and run for positive gains make him a challenge to defend. The good thing is the Falcons have faced more than one quarterback with that skill set this season.
"He presents a lot of problems we've been dealing with three weeks in a row now, facing quarterbacks that can run," he said. "You've just got to be prepared for it, staying disciplined in the pass lanes and handle your responsibilities."
Injury Report:Hayden was the lone limited participation player at Thursday's practice. Sam Baker who was limited on Wednesday returned to full participation, as did Curtis Lofton.
Jonathan Babineaux continued to not practice as he rehabs his knee injury. The remainder of the did not participate players were unchanged from Wednesday. Roddy White (thigh), Jason Snelling (concussion), Cliff Matthews (knee), Stephen Nicholas (calf) did not participate.