Globe NFL writer Albert Breer is visiting select training camps around the East Coast, and will report from each one he visits.
The Falcons’ plush facility, opened in 2000, is the league’s only of its kind, with the ability to hold a self-contained training camp. Three practice fields sit behind the team’s headquarters, with upscale dorms that house the players past them and a large 100-yard field house to the side. It’s not an old-school college setting, but players can get everything – practice, study, workout, sleep – on this campus.
Atlanta’s efficiency in its practice regiment, which allows for periodic water breaks due to the oppressive Southern heat, is impressive given the youth of the club. It’s clear that in a short time, GM Thomas Dimitroff, the old Patriots’ college scouting director, and coach Mike Smith have established a workman-like culture here.
But even with the added attraction in town, with New England coming in for practices Tuesday, the crowds are sparse. Several factors play in there, including the city’s transient nature and distance from the city and its suburbs to Flowery Branch, which is about halfway to the South Carolina border from downtown Atlanta.
To review his previous reports, check out his training camp tour page.
THREE THINGS TO SORT OUT
The defensive backfield: The Falcons opened a vault to bring in cornerback Dunta Robinson from the Texans, and expect safety Thomas DeCoud to make a leap to a star level in his third year in the league. But depth remains a concern. Steady vet Erik Coleman lines up next to DeCoud, and the team is hoping that Chris Owens or Brent Grimes soon steps forward opposite Robinson. Some of the team’s issues on the back end were on display with Randy Moss having his way during points of practices with the Falcon DBs. The hope is that the secondary grows around Robinson and DeCoud. The Saints’ presence in the NFC South – Drew Brees threw for 604 yards on Atlanta last year – magnifies the importance of this area.
The defensive interior: Atlanta feels like it has its answer at middle linebacker for the next decade, in Curtis Lofton. Now the issue is getting players in front of him. Peria Jerry, the team’s first-round pick in 2009, could be one big piece, given he can return to form as works his way back from last year’s season-ending knee injury. Next to him will be Jonathan Babineaux, once he comes off his suspension for the season opener, and rookie Corey Peters. The Falcons need to improve in two areas with this group – Helping Lofton make plays and creating interior pressure to help a crew of pass-rushers headlined by John Abraham.
Ryan’s development: Matt Ryan showed a lot of toughness and guile in fighting through injury in 2009, even while his numbers dipped a little from the year before. But it’s clear that this team will go as far as No. 2 takes them. The running game remains stout behind Michael Turner, but the offense is loaded at the receiver spots and built for the quarterback. Ryan is now is a place of elevated leadership, as well, and if he can move from the “very good” to “elite” level, this could well be an NFC Super Bowl contender.
TYING IN THE PATRIOTS
The Patriots integration of first- and second-year players, and expected reliance on them, is not unlike what the Falcons just went through with a crew of 2008 and ’09 draftees. The team overhauled its offense two years ago and its defense last year, and some of the growing pains felt could provide an example of some of the bumps the Patriots might go through with their own youth. Despite some of those struggles, Atlanta is awfully proud of how it grinded out a three-game win streak to finish the year, even after being eliminated from the playoff picture. It also shows how the Patriots could wind up being a much better team in December than they are in September.
THE QUOTE THAT CAPTURES
“I think the expectation levels have ramped up, and they should if you’re going in the right direction and the arrow’s pointing up. Your expectations should be much, much higher in Year 3.” — Coach Mike Smith
Amazing just how big this capital of the South really is, from a geographical standpoint, and what a travel hub it has become. I got off the plane at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport at 10 p.m. last night. It was 11:35 p.m. by the time I got to my hotel room, and that was without any lines or traffic or anything, and without leaving the Atlanta metro area. About 40 minutes from the gate to baggage claim to the rental car center to the wheel of my car. And then another 55 minutes to the SpringHill Suites in Buford. I think that reflects how massive the airport is, and how vast the city’s suburbs are.
THE GUY TO WATCH
S Thomas DeCoud. Last year, the club had some doubts the 2008 fourth-round pick could start. By season’s end, he was a foundation piece for the club’s future in the secondary. Big, rangy, long and instinctive, DeCoud is doing more reacting and less thinking on the field now, and will be counted on to lead on the back end, like Lofton has on the front end. “Once you get comfortable with your own defensive scheme and knowing the game better, you can react to plays and anticipate things as well,” DeCoud said. “I know the game a lot better. I saw of things last season that I hadn’t seen before, being a first-year starter. So it was building off those things, knowing what I didn’t do last year and making those things strengths as well.”
If you want a Falcon to root for, fifth-round rookie Kerry Meier wouldn’t be a bad pick. The receiver’s brother Dylan fell to his death on a hiking trip during draft week, and the family buried two days after the Falcons took Kerry. Meier has impressed during camp, and could be another young piece for the receiving corps. … There’s little question that the offense will keep going to Michael Turner in key spots. But if they’re going to find a way to lighten his load a bit this year, many of those carries will likely go to fullback Jason Snelling, who played some tailback in Turner’s place last year. Seems like the team has determined that game-breaker Jerious Norwood is more of a specialist for them. … The tunnel-vision focus of training camp is here, but it’s pretty apparent that Atlanta’s folks feel like a foundation’s in place for years to come. And that’s a credit to owner Arthur Blank, who tried to hire Bill Parcells (wouldn’t have been a bad choice) in 2008, then fell back on less flashy choices in Dimitroff and Smith. It’s clear that, in the wake of the Bobby Petrino/Michael Vick mess of 2007, Blank knew how to find the right people to right the ship. Amazing that less than three years after that mess, this has the look of a model franchise.