FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The mandate came from the top of the Atlanta Falcons’ chain of command when the offseason began.
Owner Arthur Blank, echoing what coach Mike Smith said the day after Atlanta wrapped up a 4-12 record, demanded that the team get stronger and stouter on both sides of the line of scrimmage. For the defensive line, that meant acting quickly in free agency to sign 345-pound nose tackle Paul Soliai and 296-pound end Tyson Jackson to fit a new 3-4 scheme.
It’s still a work in progress three weeks into training camp, but Soliai and Jackson both believe the line is slowly improving.
Last week’s preseason debut got off to a poor start. The Falcons beat Miami 16-10, but the line was embarrassed to let Miami bang out a 10-play, 73-yard touchdown drive on the opening possession.
“We’ve got to show people what we want to be this year and we’ve got to go out there and prove it,” Soliai, an eight-year NFL veteran, said Tuesday. “We can’t just talk about it. We’ve just got to show it on tape.”
In coordinator Mike Nolan’s three-man front, the Falcons emphasize that each man play his gap correctly before looking to help elsewhere on a given play.
“It’s not a 4-3 defense where you can just shoot up field and try to make plays,” said Jackson, a sixth-year veteran. “You’ve got to be real disciplined. Everybody has to be sound and we pretty much have to build the wall. The front seven has to build the wall. Our first objective is to go out and stop the run.”
Soliai and Jackson are the biggest defensive linemen employed by the Atlanta Falcons since Grady Jackson took up considerable space six years ago.
Jackson’s mammoth frame helped the Falcons maintain a tough, physical presence up front in 2008, the team’s first under Smith, but Atlanta’s line went with sleeker, quicker personnel in the years that followed.
That approach came crashing down last season when the Falcons ranked last in third-down efficiency, second-worst against the run and third-fewest in sacks.
Paired with 10th-year Atlanta veteran Jonathan Babineaux, Soliai and Jackson have brought experience and physicality to a line that lacked both qualities.
Rookie Ra’Shede Hageman, a second-round draft pick, and Mallicah Goodman, a fourth-round pick last year, are the top backups. The Falcons moved ends from the former 4-3 scheme – Kroy Biermann, Jonathan Massaquoi, Osi Umenyiora and Stansly Maponga – and placed them at outside linebacker.
Smith’s camp mantra to the line has been to use a smart, physical approach without being reckless and drawing penalties or missing assignments. The Falcons simply want to win the line scrimmage, which is easier said than done, but Smith hopes the emphasis is sinking in.
“It doesn’t change,” Smith said. “It’s always been that way, and we’ve got to continue to watch our guys perform that they’re performing with the physicality that we want as a coaching staff.”
The line gets a daily dose of tough love from new position coach Bryan Cox, the former rough and rowdy NFL linebacker whose first point of emphasis is for his players to use proper technique with their feet and hands.
“He takes to make sure our first steps are proper steps to put us in position against the run,” Babineaux said. “We want to be very physical against the run. Since day one when Bryan got here, he’s emphasized that every day.”
Notes: The Falcons left in the early afternoon for Houston, where they will practice two days against the Texans before the teams play a preseason game Saturday. ... Rookie RB Devonta Freeman returned to the field after leaving Monday’s session early with dehydration.
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