Falcons camp report: Faster, better and thinking very big

Aug 17th, 2010 | By sportsnews | Category: Sports

Falcons: Love and Hate | RapidReports | Training camp tour | Bleacher Report

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Tony Gonzalez has been in the NFL for 14 seasons. At the age of 34, the Atlanta Falcons tight end knows what a good football team should look like. He knows the key ingredients, and he said the secret really isn’t the coaching, the Xs and Os or the any of that rah-rah stuff.

“You have to have players,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t care how hard you work. I’ve been on teams that worked hard and weren’t good. It’s the players. You can’t win any other way. I don’t care how brilliant the coach or the GM is. You have to have the guys who can get the job done. And we have that.”

The Falcons do have that, and it jives with the team’s slogan for this season, a slogan featured on billboards all over the Atlanta area.

Rise up.

The Falcons will do that in 2010. They finished 9-7 last season after going to the playoffs in 2008, but that had a lot to do with injuries more than performance. This is a talented team that just might be Super ready, depending on how quarterback Matt Ryan continues to develop.

What’s even more telling is the attitude of the team. They know they’re good. You can sense it on the field. In past years here under third-year coach Mike Smith, there was some talent and some hope.

Now there is talent and confidence.

“I think we have what it takes [to win it all],” running back Michael Turner said. “But when I was with the Chargers, we had all the talent to win it all and we didn’t. I preach that message to the guys. We have the talent, but it takes a lot of work. It doesn’t mean anything is guaranteed. But we have the players to make it happen.”

What’s even better, they aren’t shying away from the idea that they are a good team, perhaps even Super good.

“We’re not interested in winning a couple of games here and there,” Gonzalez said. “Why can’t we go out and win it all? Why should we shy away from that? I want to go undefeated and win the Super Bowl. If we play our best, why couldn’t that happen? I don’t think it’s being arrogant saying that because that should be the goal. Anybody out there saying why are we saying that or those are false expectations are people I don’t want on my team.”

“I don’t think anybody is shying away from the idea we can be good,” Ryan said. “In fact, it’s the opposite. We’re embracing it.”

You would think having the Super Bowl-champion New Orleans Saints in the same division might deter some of that talk. But the Falcons’ players wouldn’t have it any other way. They relish the idea the champs are in their division.

“That’s great,” Turner said. “We have a measuring stick right in our division.”

“We’re lucky to be able to play against them twice this year,” Gonzalez said. “It gives us an idea of where we are.”

The Falcons played the Saints close in two losses last year, one of those with their backup quarterback, Chris Redman, because Ryan was out. That gives them hope heading into this season.

But if they’re to beat the Saints out in the division, they have to improve against the pass. They were 28th in the league against the pass last season.

That’s not good enough against Drew Brees, which is why cornerback Dunta Robinson might be the team’s most important player, aside from Ryan. The Falcons signed Robinson as a free agent from the Houston Texans, giving him a six-year, $57-million deal, in large part because of the troubles they’ve had matching up with the New Orleans passing game.

“The reason I was brought here was to help match up with the Saints,” Robinson said. “There is no doubt about it. I’m here to improve that pass defense. They were 28th last year. We have to get into the top half of the league — at least. We don’t want to be a good defense. We want to dominate. And that starts in your own division.”

Watching the Falcons in their preseason victory over Kansas City last Friday and again in practice, the one thing that really stands out now is the speed on defense. The key there will be whether defensive end John Abraham can emerge as a force off the edge again. In 2008, he had 16½ sacks but slipped to 5½ last season.

The rest of the line will be better with 2009 first-round pick Peria Jerry back at tackle after missing most of his rookie season with a leg injury. The emergence of end Kroy Biermann will also help.

Yes, the defense has to play better, but the key, as it always is for Super teams, will be Ryan. He was slowed by a toe injury last season, but he’s healthy now and looked sharp in the practices I watched. Most of his numbers dipped some from his rookie season, but Ryan threw 22 touchdown passes last season in 14 games compared to 16 in 16 games in ’08.

“Third year in the system, understanding it,” Ryan said. “I think I’ve come a long way.”

This franchise has come a long way. Three years ago it was reeling from the Mike Vick scandal and a coach (Bob Petrino) bolting the team in midseason. Now it’s coming off consecutive winning seasons for the first time in franchise history, and has a roster loaded with young, talented players.

Smith is the right guy to steer this team, a no-nonsense coach who seems to push when it’s needed, but also relates to the modern player. His players call him “Smitty.” Enough said.

Unlike his players, Smith isn’t getting caught up in the expectations. But deep down you can tell he’s a coach who knows he has a good team.

“Expectations become higher because we have young players, but they’re experienced players,” Smith said. “We have a lot of third-year players who have a lot of games under their belts. That amps up the expectations.”

With it, comes the swagger. These Falcons are loud and brash on the practice field, almost showing that we-know-we’re-good mentality.

“If we’re going to be the organization we want to be long term, we have to deal with the expectations each year,” Ryan said. “Our own expectations are higher than anything else you might read about. We think we might be very good.”

I’d have to agree, good enough, in fact, they appear ready to take over as the team to beat in the division by season’s end.

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