Flowery Branch, Ga --The Atlanta Falcons' offensive linemen got an early break on Wednesday during the third week of the team's OTAs.
They were allowed to leave practice to head inside for weight lifting as the remainder of the team focused on passing drills, the theme of this week's sessions.
With the team practicing predominately in seven-on-seven, skeleton-style drills, the offensive linemen called it a day.
"The emphasis this week is on the passing game," said Head Coach Mike Smith following Wednesday's practice. "It's something that we really want to spend some time with, working with the skill guys. That's what we tried to accomplish this week."
Despite having an offense with a lot of weapons, the Falcons only managed a middle-of-the-pack 16th ranking in the NFL in 2009. Similarly their passing offense was 14th in the league with 223 yards per game.
Smith has repeated throughout the offseason his belief that the NFL is changing and becoming a game that requires a potent passing attack. With the right tools in place, he believes his team is ready to take that step forward.
"I think that it's important that our guys understand what our guys are trying to get done and what we need to get done in the passing game," said Smith. "It's a spacing game and it's a speed game and that's what we're emphasizing with these guys this week. We want to make sure we're very precise because the defenders are just as fast as the offensive guys so we've got to go out there and compete with them."
With only a few players not in attendance during June's OTAs, teammates who have now spent much of the last six weeks toiling together are beginning to coalesce around a common goal.
They're using time spent at the team's Flowery Branch facility to bond and ensure when training camp comes in July, they're ready both physically and mentally.
"This is when you get your body right," said 12-year veteran Mike Peterson. "Once the season comes it's too late to try to start eating right or start doing the things you need to do. It's just a matter of getting your body right and getting in the right condition and learning the system."
The scripted routine of OTAs also allows players the time to dive into the playbook so when training camp begins, when players must fight to earn roles on the team, it's more akin to flipping a switch than overnight cramming.
"This is the time to go over the plays, get it right in your mind, get the mental stuff corrected, and when you get to training camp the physical part just takes over," said wide receiver Brian Finneran.
Finneran struggled through 2009 with knee injuries and ultimately wound up on Injured Reserve in December. He shared on Wednesday that he believes he's on a positive track back to 100% and is using OTAs to regain his feel on the field.
Third-year linebacker Curtis Lofton believes his mind is in mid-season form.
The middle linebacker led the team in 2009 with 118 solo tackles, but feels his game in incomplete. He's using OTAs to find bigger ways to make an impact in 2010.
"I know the system just as good as anybody now," said Lofton. "My physical has to catch up with my mental. I've got to make plays. That's one of my weak points from last year. I made a lot of tackles but I didn't make many plays. So this year in OTAs I'm really focusing on knowing what I'm supposed to do so I can be able to make plays on Sunday."
The players often speak of the talent on the team, the coaching staff's hard work, and the solidarity they share as they seek their ultimate outcome: the playoffs and beyond.
"We want to take this team to the next level and win a Super Bowl," said veteran safety and team leader Erik Coleman. "In order to do that we have to work hard out here. All of our guys are on board and we're fighting hard to get to that goal."
Veterans John Abraham and Tony Gonzalez were not present for Wednesday's OTAs, but the team is aware of their absence. Cornerback Brian Williams, defensive tackle Peria Jerry, and wide receiver Harry Douglas continued to rehab on the side.
Third-year cornerback Brent Grimes sat out of practice due to what Smith described as a hamstring injury.
Last season the Falcons suited up five receivers for most games and the competition to be among those five this season looks to be fierce.
At the top of the depth chart is two-time Pro Bowler Roddy White, the team's 2009 leader in receptions, yards, and receiving touchdowns.
After steady veteran Michael Jenkins, the roster spots become more of a free-for-all.
The return of Harry Douglas, injured for all of last season, should provide a lot more flexibility for offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey if he's able to return to his rookie role as a reliable slot receiver. Eric Weems, who emerged as a dangerous return specialist last year, ten-year vet Finneran, and '10 fifth-round draft pick Kerry Meier will all be in the mix.
Finneran has noticed the receiver position is a highly-contested one every training camp and expects this year to be no different. He believes, after the top guys, the players that can make impacts in multiple ways will have the best chances.
"There are a lot of guys that are up for about five spots," he said. "It'll be interesting to see what happens. That's where those last couple of spots come down to, guys that can help on special teams and make an impact. Eric Weems obviously did that for us big time last year. We'll see if anybody else tries to step up and make something happen."
In addition to White, Jenkins, Douglas, Finneran, Weems, and Meier there are five receivers expected to enter training camp with eyes on a job with the Falcons.
When asked if he believed fullbacks don't get the credit they deserved, Peterson laughed and reminded everyone where his loyalty lies.
"They do the dirty work," he said of the position most notable for paving the way for a running back's big gains. "Tell Ovie [Mughelli] to stop crying, man. That's what he signed up for. Offense always gets the hype. I'm not buying into that."
Peterson led a steadily-improving defense that held opponents' rushing attacks to 106.9 yards per game last season, good for 10th in the NFL.
Peterson went on to say that if anyone wants to hear a strong case for any member of his defense, he's happy to oblige, but otherwise he won't be defending a fullback, teammate or not.
Hold the Hijinks
Ask a rookie entering the NFL and he'll tell you one of the run-of-the-mill concerns he has is the hazing.
It's long been a tradition for team veterans to haze their rookies in numerous embarrassing and attention-grabbing ways. From being tied to goal posts to singing your school fight song at full-team meetings, players don't hesitate to put the spotlight on their younger teammates.
Right now, during OTAs as they install the finishing touches on a plan for success in 2010, the Falcons don't have time for hazing.
Fourth-round draft pick Joe Hawley has felt very little wrath and a lot of welcome. He describes a ridiculing that is more big brother than fraternity brother.
"They tease us a little bit and give us a little bit of trouble, but it's nothing too bad," the former UNLV center said.
Senior Director of Player Development Kevin Winston said last week there's a reason for this.
The franchise has a belief that the rookies need this time to get up to speed football-wise.
"We're trying to win football games," said Winston. "The rookies, what I tell them, by the fourth game of the season you're not a rookie. You don't have a lot of time."