SUWANEE — Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith held his starters out of the team's first live tackling scrimmage in hopes of avoiding injuries on Friday night.
The entire squad worked out in front of 6,000 fans at Peachtree Ridge High, but when Smith whistled for the hitting and full-speed blocking to begin, the starters went to the sideline.
"That's what you want to see," Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez said. "Obviously the veterans aren't going to take part in this scrimmage. You want to see those young guys come out here and compete. They're the future of this team and maybe a couple of guys that could actually help us out this year on the field."
Smith gave all the players Saturday off. The Falcons will practice on Sunday before taking a two-hour bus ride northwest on Monday to Dalton, where they will work for a couple of hours against the Tennessee Titans.
"You don't know how good you are until you play someone else," receiver Julio Jones said. "We're very excited to go play them and see what we can bring to the table this year."
The Falcons will be without defensive tackle Vance Walker, a three-year reserve who's played in 42 games since 2009. Walker has an undisclosed injury and has missed the last two days of practice.
Neither Walker nor No. 2 running back Jason Snelling accompanied the team to Peachtree Ridge High. Smith said Snelling is nursing a lower leg injury, but gave no other details.
Gonzalez, a 16-year NFL veteran, enjoyed watching Atlanta's defense mixing coverages, shifting personnel and giving the second- and third-team offenses different looks.
The Falcons were criticized for being too predictable under former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. Under Mike Nolan, who's entering his 15th year as an NFL coordinator, the defense looks energized.
In a non-tackling drill that featured the first-team offense against the first-team defense, cornerback Asante Samuel jumped an inside route and intercepted quarterback Matt Ryan's attempted pass over the middle to Jones.
"They're going to make some big plays on defense," Gonzalez said. "Obviously I've been going against Mike's defenses, it seems like, my whole career. They try to confuse you. They're coming from all directions, and they're physical. They're up in your face, and they're going to bump you off the line of scrimmage, which offenses don't like."