FLOWERY BRANCH — The Atlanta Falcons’ first workout in full pads brought a sense of relief to veteran linebacker Mike Peterson.
With the NFL’s year-old collective bargaining agreement limiting how many times teams can hit in practice,
Peterson liked the spirit he saw from his teammates.
Until Sunday, Peterson, a 13-year veteran, felt as if training camp had yet to start.
“It’s been a cakewalk, man,” he said. “You have to get your extra work in the film room or studying a little more, but as far as the physical part of it, it’s been a cakewalk.”
The Falcons are trying to gauge their nasty factor six months after losing 24-2 to the New York Giants and dropping to 0-3 in the playoffs under coach Mike Smith.
A first day in pads was traditionally one of training camp’s toughest, but the new CBA eliminated two-a-day practices and lessened the number of times players will collide in pads.
Such changes mean that players and coaches must carefully balance the tempo of practice.
Be smart. Be aggressive. Stay healthy.
On one snap, former Pro Bowl running back Michael Turner was still in the backfield and turning to his left when linebacker Stephen Nicholas grabbed his jersey and held on tight. Smith yelled at Nicholas to let ball carriers run.
Though the 2½-hour practice included hitting, tackling was forbidden. Quarterbacks, as always, were off limits.
“We kind of tried to ease them into it today,” Smith said. “We had three walkthrough periods, but I thought the competition was very good. We were on our feet most of the time. That’s one thing we’re trying to do when we’re in pads, is to make sure that we’ve all 22 guys standing up because when you got guys on the ground, that’s when injuries happen.”
Rookie guard Peter Konz, a second-round draft pick, said the workout was somewhat similar to his first practice in pads as a freshman at Wisconsin.
Being new to the team, Konz is still learning terminology and adjusting to the speed of pro football, but he’s learning the importance of taking film study and applying it on the field.
In a three-on-three drill, offensive line coach Paul Dunn had to remind Konz “not to play the drill but to play the look.” For Konz, excelling at the nuances of blocking will be critical if he is to win a starting job. He must learn how to read defenses and what their pre-snap movement means.
“He wants me to figure out for myself what the blitz is instead of thinking that this is a certain drill and that I’m going to get the same thing every time,” Konz said. “He really wants me to be more independent in my thinking and be one step ahead of the defense instead of just trying to guess.”
Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, easily the team’s loudest and most vocal player, revved up the tempo when the whole team gathered on one field to hit for the first time.
“Get your mouthpieces!” Weatherspoon yelled. “Get your mouthpieces!”
Within a couple of minutes, Weatherspoon, a third-year starting linebacker, locked hard with Mike Cox as the fullback tried to block him in an 11-on-11 drill.
Now this was football.
“A lot of guys were really anxious to put the pads on today, and when you came in the locker room you could kind of sense it,” Weatherspoon said. “Everybody was really excited, and you could sense the tempo. It was fun to put them on and get some hits, man. It’s something we definitely look forward to.”
Smith expects a few skirmishes to flare up when camp grinds into its second week and players lose some patience.
But Sunday went smoothly, even if it wasn’t old-school, smash-mouth football.
“There was some fun being poked at one another from both sides of the ball,” Smith said. “That’s always a good sign as long as it stays friendly in nature and doesn’t escalate into anything beyond that.”