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Falcons defense eyes first contact at City Park Stadium
0802FALCONS LinePractice
The Atlanta Falcons offensive line protects quarterback Matt Ryan (second from left) during a training camp practice at the team's training complex Thursday in Flowery Branch. - photo by Nat Gurley | The Times

Kia Motors Friday Night Lights

What: Atlanta Falcons preseason scrimmage, along with a fan fest, autograph session, fireworks

When: Gates open at 6 p.m.; 6:45 p.m. today

Where: Bobby Gruhn Field at City Park Stadium, Gainesville

How much: Free

More info: atlantafalcons.com

Scrimmage

The sixth annual Kia Motors Friday Night Lights will give Falcons fans an up close and personal look at the team less than a week before its first preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Thursday in the Georgia Dome. The scrimmage will also mark the first time this summer that players will be allowed to tackle in certain situations.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has a potent new weapon in running back Steven Jackson, the NFL’s active rushing leader, while the team’s revamped defense now includes two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Osi Umenyiora and rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant, the 22nd overall pick of the 2013 NFL Draft.

Parking/tailgating

Parking for the scrimmage will be available at First Baptist Church on Green Street and at the parking lot at Gainesville High School on Century Place. Shuttles will take fans from those locations to City Park. Tailgating is permitted, but alcohol is prohibited. Gainesville High will have concessions available, with proceeds benefitting the athletic department, and Falcons vendors also will have food for sale.

Activities

The event includes children’s activities, opportunities to get autographs from the players after the scrimmage and a fireworks show.

Security

Gainesville Police will provide 28 officers to direct traffic and do crowd control at the event, which is expected to draw about 10,000 people. The private security firm that works Falcons games, CSC, also will do crowd control.

Vardeman: City Park has seen its share of big moments

FLOWERY BRANCH — Sean Weatherspoon is ready to hit somebody.

The Falcons’ starting outside linebacker and defensive captain has endured seven training camp practices without the freedom of taking a ball carrier to the ground. For someone who plays with so much intensity and emotion, he’s finding it hard to go so long without tackling.

Luckily, Weatherspoon and the rest of the Atlanta defense will get at least a small taste of full-contact football when the team visits City Park on Friday night for its annual Friday Night Lights intra-squad scrimmage.

The event marks the first time since the conclusion of last season that the Falcons will be allowed to tackle. They won’t be lining up their teammates for bone-shattering hits or trying to tear down quarterback Matt Ryan in the backfield, but it’s enough contact for Weatherspoon and his fellow linebackers to be more than excited about the change of scenery from the typical practice fields at their Flowery Branch training complex.

“I’m very eager — it’ll be a little bit more physical out there than it has been here, I assume,” Weatherspoon said. “We look forward to going to Gainesville and having a good time, and showing the fans a little bit of what we can do this year.

“We’ll use it as time to go out there and have some fun, and continue to build our roster.”

The defense will be limited to standard, low-intensity tackles for health concerns. Players will not cut tackle, nor will offensive players cut block.

Falcons head coach Mike Smith said they will hold between five and seven series with 30-45 plays of actual live work.

“It’s going to be as close as we can simulate to playing football before the first preseason game,” Smith said.

Atlanta opens its preseason schedule next Thursday, when it hosts the Cincinnati Bengals at the Georgia Dome.

The team will open this evening’s event with typical practice drills, similar to that of their daily training camp practices.

Smith said the team is looking forward to the change scenery, especially at a high school stadium, where fans can get closer to the action than a typical game at the Georgia Dome. The new environment also offers a sense of nostalgia for players.

“Every time we’ve had this event, the players have enjoyed it and it’s good for the fans,” Smith said. “It’s a very great setting being in a smaller venue with smaller stands and fans right up on top of you.

“It lets players get back to their roots, and I think you’ll see a very spirited late afternoon and early evening when we get out there and work.”

With more freedom granted to them, defensive players are hoping a recent string of strong practices will translate into more success at tonight’s scrimmage. Much of the headline stories involving the Falcons this offseason have been focused on the offense after the acquisition of Steven Jackson and the massive contract extension signed by Matt Ryan last Thursday.

Instead, Smith had plenty of praise for the defense’s performance at Thursday’s practice, which included several interceptions during two-minute drills.

“We had some situations that were advantageous towards them in the two-minute drills that we had,” Smith said. “It’s going to be back and forth each day. One period, it’s going to be offense. The next period, it’s defense.

“They’re just out competing and trying to get better.”

Weatherspoon, who has been predicted to be a breakout linebacker this season, has also seen a recent change in the defense’s tenacity. The Falcons are younger on the defensive line and in secondary, but have plenty of potential to be a surprise force in an offensive-minded NFC South.

But they won’t know for sure until they can hit. That changes tonight.

“Guys came out (Thursday) and walkthroughs were pretty cool, but when we came out on the field we had a different focus,” Weatherspoon said. “Guys were trying to turn it up a little bit to make sure we had a productive day.”

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