"We originally planned to practice in pads," Smith said of Wednesday. "We went through our first two periods in pads and then we decided to take the pads off the guys. We had been going very, very hard. We had been going for a pretty good stretch of hitting one another. We had two [sessions] yesterday of hitting. We felt it was in our best interest to take the pads off."
HOUSTON NEARING LIFTOFF:Cornerback Chris Houston had two interceptions during Tuesday's practice and added another in Wednesday's morning session.
Houston said that in his second year with this coaching staff he is growing more comfortable with his role in the defense.
"I'm feeling real good," he said. "I'm seeing things slow down, that's the biggest key…. I'm staying after practice to put in extra work. God willing, it all works out."
Smith said he has noticed the difference.
"I think Chris has improved," he said. "This is his third [NFL] season. He's a guy who will continue to get better. It's time for him to make that big step and the third year is usually when that happens. Chris is gaining confidence. It's his second year in our system. We anticipate that he'll play efficiently."
Houston and the team's other defensive backs also are benefitting from practice against a creditable wide receiver corps. When the Falcons wide receivers huddle on the sideline, they often resemble a basketball team: Brian Finneran is 6-foot-5, Michael Jenkins stands 6-4 and Julio Jones is 6-0.
That leaves players like Houston, who is listed at 5-11, at a disadvantage in practice but with some helpful training come game time.
"You don't go against too many tall wide receivers," Houston said. "We're going against Finneran and Michael Jenkins and Roddy. Those are long guys. We're learning how to use little techniques playing against them so we can take them against guys that we play who are about the same height or a little bit taller."
RAISING THE COACH'S IRE: A few times during practice this week, including again on Wednesday, the team has earned Smith's ire for having the wrong -- or not enough -- personnel when the team lines up to scrimmage.
"Well that is a big concern," Smith said. "When you start the preseason and you have 80 guys on your roster that's probably one of the biggest concerns is making sure you've got substitution patterns correct and that you've got 11 guys on the field.
"And that's really on us as a coaching staff, not just the players. It's on the coaching staff, as well, that we get the right guys out there. That's the one thing that probably irritates a coach more than anything is not having 11 guys out there on the field."
DOUGLAS' FRIEND IN NEED: After the morning's practice session, players signed autographs for Brandon McWilliams and several of his friends who are suffering from various types of cancer. Since first meeting McWilliams on Feb. 13, Falcons wide receiver has forged a special bond with the 23-year-old who is suffering from alveolar soft part sarcoma (ASPS), a rare and deadly form of cancer.
McWilliams' mother, Ruby Elmore, said that after first meeting McWilliams in the hospital Douglas and his father visited her home for dinner.
Elmore said Douglas has been a faithful friend.
"Harry has made this really special," she said.
If McWilliams sends Douglas a text message "Harry doesn't waste any time" in writing back, Elmore said.
According to the website cureasps.org, the disease "is a very rare, slow-growing tumor of an unknown origin… that arises mainly in children and young adults." Only 1 percent of cancers are sarcomas and ASPS represents less than 1 percent of sarcomas, according to the website.
Elmore said her son has been in a difficult fight. Doctors from WellStar Kennestone Hospital, whom Elmore credited for being a great source of support, have found cancer spreading to McWilliams' lungs and brain. In April, he had 10 inches removed from his intestine.
"This boy's in a fight," Elmore said. She said her son must wear an oxygen mask 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but still summons the strength to shower on his own.
"He has the will to live," she said.
She said after doctors learned that the cancer had reached Stage IV in October, they expected her son to live past neither Thanksgiving, nor Christmas nor New Year's Day.
Yet he has.
McWilliams is a former football player at South Cobb High School where he wore No. 22. Elmore said Douglas has been an inspiration to her son. Douglas, who tore the ACL in his left knee last week and will miss the season, helped to round up his teammates and have them sign autographs on Wednesday.
"He has never let my son down," Elmore said of Douglas.