The Falcons completed their eighth practice of AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp on Thursday, which marked the last practice of camp at the team facilities before they travel down to Mercedes-Benz Scrimmage for their third and final scrimmage on Friday.
Yet, in the wake of the Milwaukee Bucks players deciding to boycott their playoff game against the Orlando Magic on Wednesday to protest police brutality after the shooting of Jacob Blake. The Bucks' decision led to the NBA postponing all playoff games on Wednesday and Thursday and many different NFL teams calling off practice Thursday. While the Falcons were still out on the field, social justice was the topic of conversation before and after practice.
"Certainly, coming from my end of things, how as a white coach can I become a better ally? Because the stories that you have heard bothered you so much to say, 'Hey man, I support you' just wasn't enough," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "So, learning about experiences that have taken place, hearing about those, those really bothered me deep down. I just wanted to get to this space to say, 'Hey, just saying I support you just isn't enough.' That, to me, was saying, 'What does that look like? What does an ally look like in this space?' Because I wanted to have a bigger role."
The Falcons formed a social justice committee during the 2017 season to put action behind their words. Members of the committee have engaged with youth in the community and the Falcons have participated in police ride-alongs and discussions about solving police brutality. Most recently, the committee is focused on increasing voter awareness, and the organization announced its "Rise Up & Vote" initiative.
Following Thursday's practice, members of the Falcons' social justice committee huddled between two practice fields. After a lengthy discussion, Quinn then walked over to converse with the committee for several minutes before the group disbanded and walked off the field. Defensive end Steven Means, a member of the committee, spoke with the media following practice.
"Our head coach continues to give us the forum to be able to bring these things to the forefront of the team," Means said. "For you to cancel certain things that you've got in your schedule, coaches hold the time they have as precious. So, if you've got a coach that's willing to cancel a meeting or tell you, 'Don't worry about this day, we're going to take this day and worry about this.' Or he's going to give us the opportunity to be able to take away moments from his schedule, that's big. I don't know if people realize that, but we have that here."
Offense has the sharp practice it needed
Much of training camp has been defined by the Falcons defense. The defense continued to play well on Thursday, but the offense rose to its potential and challenged them in each drill.
That began during a scramble drill period, during which Matt Ryan looked especially focused. He found Hayden Hurst in the back of the end zone, and the new tight end made an excellent one-handed catch for the first of his two touchdowns in the drill. A couple plays later, Ryan hit Julio Jones, who made a leaping catch at the back of the end zone. Calvin Ridley also made a remarkable touchdown catch near the back-left pylon, tapping both feet down before his momentum carried him out of bounds.
The defense made a few nice plays as well during the period. In one of the best moments, Keanu Neal jumped in front of a route and intercepted a pass, managing to keep both feet in bounds. Kendall Sheffield also broke up a pass intended for Christian Blake, and there were several coverage sacks where the quarterback couldn't find anyone open.
Todd Gurley showing his worth
Based on Thursday's practice, the Falcons' decision to sign Gurley could make them look extremely smart. He was fluid running the ball, making several cuts with ease and even breaking out a spin move before bouncing the ball back outside and hitting a crease. On one of his first carries of the day, he gained the edge and showed off some speed down the sideline. Gurley also caught a few screen passes, and he could prove very effective in that aspect of the offense.
Gurley wasn't the only running back to impress, however. Brian Hill continues to put together a very good camp. He is running with conviction, hitting the hole without hesitation and reaching his next gear rather quickly. Ito Smith hasn't had as many breakaway runs as Hill or Gurley, but he does his best work in close spaces where his vision and agility can shine. Newly signed running back Craig Reynolds also had a few notable runs on Thursday, although they came against third- and fourth-string groups.
Offensive line gelling well
Quinn said Wednesday he was hoping to see the strides players like Matt Hennessy made during the final days of camp after the team finished installing the playbook, and he must have liked what he saw from the offensive line Thursday. The starting group gave Matt Ryan plenty of time to move around the pocket and opened up more than a few holes for the running backs.
Second-year guard Chris Lindstrom, who has received a lot of praise in camp, pancaked one defender while pass blocking. Atlanta needs its offensive line to play well in 2020, which makes the unit's performance in practice all the more noteworthy.
More camp observations
Younghoe Koo was a perfect 5-for-5 on his field goal attempts for the second day in a row. He hit three from 37 yards out, one from 40 yards away and a final one from 43 yards away. He did miss one kick during a simulated last-second drill where the field goal unit had to rush onto the field and get a kick off with the clock ticking down.
Hayden Hurst looked like an absolute red-zone monster Thursday. He had three touchdown catches down near the goal line, and he also made a number of other tough catches over the middle of the field. He and Matt Ryan look to be on the same page so far.
The Falcons added Brandon Powell to the list of players who worked off to the side during practice, which also included Olamide Zaccheaus, Qadree Ollison and Marlon Davidson. Kurt Benkert returned to practice after missing Wednesday's session.
Deone Bucannon showed his quickness and agility during an 11-on-11 period, breaking on a receiver to get into position to deliver what would likely have been a big hit in live action.