Q&A with ESPN Senior NFL Writer John Clayton

The Falcons were back in pads on Monday to practice with the Tennessee Titans for the ninth practice of 2014 XFINITY Atlanta Falcons Training Camp.

Reid Ferrin: What are your impressions of the 2014 Atlanta Falcons?

John Clayton: Well, I know they're on HBO's Hard Knocks, but I can see hard knocks; it's as simple as that and I think that's the big difference in 2014. They have a bigger defensive line and it's a harder-hitting, more-skilled offensive line from last year. You look at their package, where they have four defensive linemen, it's almost an average of 40 more pounds per player from the starting defensive line from last year, thanks to guys like rookie (Ra'Shede) Hageman at left end, (Paul) Soliai at defensive tackle and (Jonathan) Babineaux at defensive end, that's a big defensive line and you can see it's multiple, whether it's going to be 5-2, whether it's going to be a 3-4. It looks like they have a lot of options, but it was so needed, because I think last year, they lost the battle at the line of scrimmage and this year, they have the better ability to win the battle at the line of scrimmage.

RF: How would you describe Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan?

JC: He's skilled in the 3-4 and the 4-3 and he's got versatility and so when I think you put that all together, it will give him a chance to do what he does best, be creative. It's not like they're going to sit in the 4-3 and play cover-two, that's not his game; his game is trying to be versatile, trying to come up with fire blitzes and things of that nature. This defense really allows Mike Nolan to be Mike Nolan.

RF: How will the additions of Falcons OL coach Mike Tice and Falcons DL coach Bryan Cox impact this team?

JC: I go back to the 1970s, covering the Pittsburgh Steelers, and it was so much fun covering George Perles and the defensive line going against Rollie Dotsch and the offensive line; that was one of thrills of watching the Falcons practice (Sunday), Mike Tice, who is a feisty former tight end, who was actually a QB at one point, starts getting on his guys to go a little bit more aggressive, so when they get more aggressive, Bryan Cox comes out and he starts getting on his guys for making mental mistakes and saying, 'Hey, if you're not taking the stuff from the classroom to the field, you're not going to play much.' It's great to see that and you can see both of them gearing up for the competition. You're talking about a feisty offensive guy, who used to play against a feisty defensive player and they make for fun practices, but it also toughens up the lines too and gets better production.

RF: How would you evaluate the Falcons offensive line, including rookie Jake Matthews?

JC: You have to look at how smooth Matthews is, that's one of the better-looking rookies you're going to see, because number one, he has great technique and great athletic ability, but even if he makes a mistake, technique-wise, he has the athletic ability to catch up to it. He's playing right tackle, so he gets kind of an easier way to get into the league. The key to this draft was getting Matthews, because he really points in the right direction, where this line is going to go. That right side is soild; Jon Asamoah, he's a good guy, with some athletic ability, that can get that punch that you want at right guard and then you have Matthews, who can just as well play as an island out there on the right side. So, if you put all that together, that really helps and what it has allowed is Sam Baker to get bigger and more physical; guys are lifting better and I think it enhances the competition and enhances the offensive line.

RF: How can a guy like WR Harry Douglas benefit from the return of WRs Roddy White and Julio Jones?

JC: He can benefit, because they bracket coverage both Jones and White. Now, it's going to be even better, because if you bracket cover and play off on either one, they're going to kill you, especially with the new emphasis on all the physical contact being eliminated from defensive backs. If you play off in bracket coverage, it's silly, because they can get short passes over to Roddy White, passes over to Julio Jones and if you have bracket coverage, it opens things up for the tight end and opens up single coverage for Douglas. Having Julio out there, he's going to get the first bracket that could get single coverage for Roddy White and that was missing last year. Remember, when Roddy starts with the high-ankle sprain last season, he wasn't the same; it took him to like Week 11 or Week 12 to get into it and Julio was out 11 games, so they never had a chance last year to play together and that's why I was amazed that Matt Ryan completed 66-67% of his passes. You could see 6.9 yards per attempt as he wasn't able to get the big plays and now he can do that to get the offense going, as long as those two outside guys are healthy. Ryan is aiming for 70% completions this year and I think he has a chance to do that, getting the two outside guys back and being able to throw in some more quick passes; I think he has a chance to do that and if that's the case, this team bounces back.

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