FLOWERY BRANCH — Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith was in a good mood after practice Saturday because his starting offense rolled Thursday night a 27-23 preseason loss at Baltimore, and it figures to get better today with the return of Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez.
The 37-year-old Gonzalez participated in the first three days of training camp after team officials in the spring coaxed him out of a brief retirement. He then left with the team’s permission to be with his 12-year-old son, Nikko, as he began his youth football career in Los Angeles - keeping a promise he made while “retired.”
After missing the Falcons’ first two preseason games, including a 34-10 loss to the Bengals, Gonzalez will play in next week at Tennessee.
“That’s very good news,” Smith said. “Tony will be participating as we stated earlier in training camp that he was going to play in the third preseason game. We’re excited to have him back on the practice field.”
The Falcons jumped out to a 23-7 lead against the Ravens before Baltimore won the battle of subs. Both the rushing and passing attacks were dramatically improved.
Pro Bowl wide receiver Julio Jones returned after missing the Bengals game with tight hamstrings, and caught three passes for 55 yards and a touchdown.
Quarterback Matt Ryan passed for 97 yards with an 8-yard scoring strike to Jones.
Newly acquired running back Steven Jackson rushed eight times for 42 yards one week after rushing five times for 8, and Atlanta had 170 yards on the ground and 258 through the air.
“Overall, I think me and Matt connected very well out there,” said Jones, who last season caught 79 passes for 1,198 yards and 10 touchdowns. “When I go out there, it’s a game. You can’t play around like, ‘Eh, it’s preseason.’ That’s how guys get injured. I just go out there and . . . play to the best of my ability.”
There was a bit of bad news in Baltimore, as four-time Pro Bowl wideout Roddy White sprained an ankle. Smith said White will not play Saturday at Tennessee. He’s not likely to play in the Aug. 29 preseason finale against Jacksonville, either, as Smith typically does not play starters in the last game.
He’s expected to be ready for Atlanta’s regular season opener Sept. 8 at New Orleans.
Gonzalez, the NFL’s career receptions leader among tight ends with 1,242, may get some work Sunday morning as the Falcons close their camp. He caught 93 passes for 930 yards and eight touchdowns last season to earn a 13th trip to the Pro Bowl.
He’s a candidate to boost an offense that was anemic against the Bengals before rebounding in Baltimore. Smith said that Atlanta’s young offensive linemen, including right tackle candidates Lamar Holmes and undrafted rookie Ryan Schraeder, were better.
“When you have some explosive runs, you are controlling the line of scrimmage,” Smith said. “I thought both of them took a step forward. This is going to be a big week for them because we’re going to play our starters . . . into the third quarter.”
Notes: Starting outside linebacker Stephen Nicholas left practice Saturday with an undisclosed injury, and did not return. . . . Smith said that running back Jason Snelling, who missed the Ravens game, is expected back at practice Sunday. Also, linebacker Robert James and fullback Bradie Ewing are likely to return from injuries to practice Tuesday. . . . The Falcons have allowed a punt return for a touchdown in each game so far, chiefly with what Smith referred to as, “ back-end guys,” on special teams.