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Falcons continue progress at Friday Night Lights
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Falcons head coach Mike Smith watches drills at the Friday Night Lights scrimmage at City Park in Gainesville. - photo by Nat Gurley | The Times

A change of scenery was exactly what the Atlanta Falcons needed to gain a boost of confidence at the halfway point of its 2013 training camp.

The Falcons took a break from their typical practice setting at team headquarters at Flowery Branch on Friday to hold its annual Friday Night Lights intra-squad scrimmage, this year making the trip to City Park Stadium in Gainesville for their longest practice session and first time seeing full contact this season.

“I think you’ve got to be able to change it up,” Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. “We try to do that with our players in terms of how we practice and getting things accomplished in practice. This was the first time that we really got to play football and tackle, and it was fun to watch these young guys.”

The scrimmage, which began after some early position drills and 11-on-11 passing sessions, ended in a 14-14 tie under a custom scoring system in front of an audience of 14,250 fans. The typical six points were awarded for touchdowns, with two points awarded for two consecutive first-down plays and another point for a play longer than 20 yards. On defense, interceptions and fumble recoveries were worth three points, and a forced three-and-out or sack totaled one point.

Pre-scrimmage drills simulated a standard practice for the Falcons, and Smith once again saw plenty of progress by his Super Bowl-hopeful team.

“I thought the guys came out and did a very nice job. We wanted to play football and let the guys tackle, especially with the young guys.”

The scrimmage featured tackling, a first for the Atlanta this summer, but contact was limited mostly to non-starters to avoid injuries among first-string players.

That opened up opportunities for younger players to make some first impressions among their teammates and fans alike. Backup quarterback Sean Renfree recorded the longest pass of the scrimmage, a 35-yard completion to another unknown, rookie Rashad Evans. A few plays later, Renfree found tight end Andrew Szczerba in the end zone for the first touchdown of the scrimmage.

Second-year cornerback Peyton Thompson closed out the scrimmage with a interception return for a touchdown.

“I think our guys really enjoy this,” Smith said. “It’s getting back to your roots, as a coach, as a player. There’s nothing like a Friday night on a high school field and watching a football game, of playing in a football game.

“Our guys really enjoy this session that we have. It’s become a tradition — people here at Gainesville did a great job. The field was in great shape and the fans were outstanding.”

The practice and scrimmage together made for the longest single session this fall, which bodes well for the team’s conditioning progress.

“It doesn’t matter how you are in terms of running with sprints and going the types of traditional conditioning,” Smith said. “There’s nothing like having to go out and push big guys around, and run and tackle. That’s what we got out of tonight.”

Aside from drawing a record crowd to City Park Stadium, Falcons players also enjoyed a short break from humid practices.

The Falcons usually begin training camp sessions at 3:30 p.m. and typically battle humid weather throughout the day.

“It’s definitely a little bit cooler than being at Flowery Branch at 3:30,” Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. “You can’t complain — you come out here, get your work in and have some fun.”

For Weatherspoon, the scrimmage highlighted his training camp experience this fall. The team’s defensive captain didn’t see much time in the scrimmage and didn’t register many tackles, but the support of the large fan base — which included his mother — made the trip away from the training complex worthwhile.

“The fans are really excited, the players are excited,” Weatherspoon said. “We’ve been talking about this all week. We’re looking forward to these days, coming out here and running around a little bit. Just having some fun with the guys is always awesome.”

Having full contact also strengthened some of the position battles on defense, particularly at linebacker, offensive line and in the secondary. Smith said starting jobs in those have yet to be solidified.

Atlanta will cut it roster to 75 players on Aug. 27, then to its regular season size of 53 on Aug. 31.

“We’re having open competition at a number of positions, linebacker being one of them, secondary and the offensive line,” Smith said. “Those are probably the three areas that were not set in terms of what our roster is going to look like when get to our 53-man roster.”

The Falcons take a day off from practice today then return Sunday afternoon for a session in Flowery Branch. They will hold combined practices with the Cincinnati Bengals, their first preseason opponent, on Monday and Tuesday.

Atlanta hosts Cincinnati at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Georgia Dome.

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