FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The Falcons were given the unusual go-ahead to tackle to the ground on the first day of full pads in training camp, and even rookie Prince Shembo could see that players were too excited to finally be hitting.
Two fights broke out during the intense practice.
“I think it was too much anticipation to be honest,” said Shembo, the inside linebacker from Notre Dame. “Everyone was over-amped. Even the veterans.”
Shembo has good reason to be excited about his first NFL training camp as he competes with second-year player Joplo Bartu for a starting job. One of the two is expected to join Paul Worrilow as the starting inside linebackers in the base defense.
Even though Shembo expected to play outside linebacker when he was drafted in the fourth round, he appears to be making a smooth transition to the middle of the 3-4 scheme.
“Prince is fitting in real good,” Worrilow said. “We do a lot of work together. Just watching him play, he’s a natural at inside.”
It’s an important competition as the Falcons must replace Sean Weatherspoon, who was lost to a season-ending Achilles injury last month.
Shembo (6-foot, 253) has made a good first impression on Mike Smith. The coach said the rookie and other players worked hard but need to work on their technique.
“Prince has done some really nice things all through this offseason,” Smith said. “I think he’s done some good things in the training camp thus far.
“I think a lot of the guys ... my observation from the sideline was the pad level was too high. We’re going to get that corrected and I think we’ll see better practice tomorrow and better practice the following day. But the effort was outstanding.”
Perhaps the highlight of the first day in full pads came when offensive linemen were matched against pass rushers in one-on-one “Oklahoma” drills. Offensive guard Gabe Carimi and defensive end Stansly Maponga traded swings in a fight that lasted too long for Smith.
Smith said his message was, “You’re wasting a lot of energy when you’re fighting.”
“But it’s expected,” he said. “Guys are competing and they’re fighting for jobs. But that’s not the way to fight for a job. The way to fight for a job is to do it between the whistles.”
The Falcons’ streak of five straight winning seasons with Smith ended with last year’s disappointing 4-12 finish. Atlanta finished last in rushing and next to last against the run.
In previous training camps, Smith’s emphasis was to make sure players were healthy for the start of the season. That meant most full-pads practices included tackling where players were wrapped up but not taken to the ground.
That changed Monday, when only the quarterbacks were off-limits.
“We had a couple of scripted snaps where we got to play the game of football, where we took somebody to the ground,” Smith said. “I think it’s important that we limit that, but I think it’s important that we work on it as well so that the first time we’re tackling for some of these guys is not in the first preseason game.”
Added Smith: “In terms of being physical, we’ve got to be a more physical football team. That’s been what we’ve been talking about since the very beginning of this offseason, being a more physical football team. You don’t just turn it on when you go out on the field and play a game. You’ve got to work on it on the practice field. We’re going to make sure everybody understands what we’re trying to get done.”
Shembo and other players got the message.
“Some guys said it was different, that we hadn’t done this in a while,” Shembo said. “Stuff happens and you’ve just got to go ahead and do it.”