FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Through the first two days of training camp, the Atlanta Falcons look just fine along the offensive line.
Of course, let’s see how they do when they break out the pads.
“We’re out here in pajamas,” guard Justin Blalock quipped.
All joking aside, the Falcons must improve up front after a miserable 2013 season, when a team with Super Bowl aspirations staggered to a 4-12 mark. Much of the blame fell on the offensive line after quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked a career-high 44 times, and Atlanta ranked last in the league in rushing, despite adding Steven Jackson.
“The message has been real clear from the very beginning: We want to get bigger and stronger,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said Saturday.
Looking to address their most glaring need, the Falcons used the No. 6 overall pick on tackle Jake Matthews, who is expected to start on the right side. The team also added free agent guard Jon Asamoah, another instant starter.
But the process involves more than just a few new faces. The Falcons challenged the holdovers – Blalock, center Joe Hawley and left tackle Sam Baker – to bulk up in the weight room.
Smith likes what he sees so far, yet knows it’s far too early to determine how much better the line will be.
“We have a good idea of how they can process what we’re doing schematically,” the coach said. “That doesn’t always mean they’re the best players. It’s a whole lot different when you’re in non-contact practices ... and then going out there and actually playing the game of football with a helmet, shoulder pads, knee pads and thigh pads.”
The lack of success running the ball last season was most frustrating, especially since a hard-nosed ground game has been a hallmark of the team since 2008.
“It’s something you take personally,” Blalock said. “As an offensive lineman, you pride yourself on running the football. We did that extremely poorly. There’s no way around it.”
Much of the attention will be on Matthews, a third-generation player whose father is Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews. There will certainly be a learning curve, but the rookie knows he won’t get an extended period to show he belongs.
“There’s a ton of playmakers on this offense,” he said. “My job is just to give them an opportunity to go out there and make plays.”
The first practice in full pads is Monday.
Smith can’t wait to see how the linemen fare.
“These guys are going to get an opportunity to really play football,” the coach said. “It’s going to be a really fun day.”