Falcons' Defense Strides, Stumbles

The Falcons' rebuilt defense is still a work in progress. Atlanta is attempting to replace five starters, so things were expected to be bumpy at the outset. "There are going to be some growing pains," coach Mike Smith said. "There are a lot of new pieces on the defensive side of the ball."

On the first drive of the exhibition season, with Detroit playing its starters against the Falcons' top unit, the Lions rammed the ball down to the Falcons 2-yard line before a sack by defensive tackle Thomas Johnson, a surprise starter, forced a field goal attempt. "We bent, but we didn't break," Smith said. "We had some breakdowns, but in the red zone and inside the 10, we were able to make some plays."

New starters included Thomas DeCoud at free safety, Mike Peterson at weak-side linebacker, Stephen Nicholas at strong-side linebacker, Johnson at defensive tackle and Brent Grimes at right cornerback. They are replacing Keith Brooking (Dallas), Michael Boley (New York Giants), Grady Jackson (Detroit), Domonique Foxworth (Baltimore) and Lawyer Milloy, who was not re-signed.

Some of the returning starters were not up to par.

Defensive end Jamaal Anderson had a tough time with Lions left tackle Gosper Cherilus and spent too much time on the ground. He was replaced by Chauncey Davis in the next series. The battle for that position will continued to be waged throughout the preseason.

Covering running backs out of the backfield was a problem last year, but with faster linebackers, the Falcons hope to tighten things up. Another concern is the Falcons' strength against the run after letting Jackson leave during free agency.

Veteran defensive end John Abraham put the first-unit's play in perspective. "We are a young defense and we've got to a lot of new faces and a lot of people doing things they didn't do last year," Abraham said. "We just have to get it together and get everybody on the same page."

There were some bright spots for the Falcons, including the play of Johnson. He started at nose tackle before being replaced by Peria Jerry, the Falcons' first-round pick, on the second series.

Battle of the week: Thomas Johnson vs. Peria Jerry at nose tackle. The Falcons are looking at four different players for the nose tackle spot opposite of Jonathan Babineaux. In the exhibition opener, Johnson, a player who has been cut by three different teams, started ahead of Jerry, a first-round draft pick. Jerry came in during the second series.

Player of the week: WR Eric Weems is making a bid to make the roster as the fourth receiver and a special teamer. He had a 34-yard punt return in the preseason opener.

--Oprah Winfrey has her book club. So does Falcons coach Mike Smith. Smith has a non-mandatory book club. Over the offseason, all of the players were issued a book by author Jon Gordon entitled "Training Camp: What the Best Do Better Than Everyone Else." Last season, the Falcons were requested to read "The Energy Bus: 10 Rules to Fuel Your Life, Work and Team with Positive Energy." They went on to ride the Energy Bus to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth.

Smith met Gordon through a friend while he was on the staff of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Smith brought his motivational books to the attention of coach Jack Del Rio. During Smith's third year with the Jaguars, the team incorporated one of Gordon's books into their program and had him come in to speak. He has spoken to the Falcons in the past two training camps.

"Jon is a very good motivational speaker," Smith said. "The guys enjoy Jon. He spent quite a bit of time with us after his speech."
Smith basically thinks that a team that reads together, plays together.

"I felt like giving guys something to read, each offseason, was something they could all talk about," Smith said. "Kind of like a mini-book club. Even if they just take four or five points from that book, it's something that helps us on team building."

Most of the players have brought into the book club. "It kind of helps unite us," said kicker Jason Elam, an author in his own right.

Based on last season's records, the Falcons have the fourth-toughest schedule in the league 150-105-1 (.588). Only the schedules of Miami, Carolina and New England are rated tougher.

Gordon in the "Training Camp" book writes about the 11 traits of being the best and the 20 traits of mental toughness. "All of the things we went through last year, we'll have to go through almost twice as much this year," fullback Ovie Mughelli said. "Most coaches have a speech, but to have a motivational speaker come in and hammer in what you've already read in the book ... it really helps me out on the field and off the field as well."

Elam, whose third action-thriller book "The Blackout" is due out around Christmas, is a full-fledged member of the book club. "He's just making sure that we are ready not only physically, but mentally as well," Elam said.

CAMP CALENDAR: The Falcons have two-a-days scheduled for Monday through Wednesday, as well as a morning practice Thursday, before their preseason game against St. Louis on Friday, Aug. 21.

NOTES, QUOTES

--The Falcons' defense, already trying to fit all of the pieces together, suffered a couple of blows against the Lions on Saturday. Starting cornerback Chris Houston (hamstring) and reserve defensive end Kroy Biermann (foot sprain) left the game and did not return. Safety William Moore (knee) and linebacker Edmond Miles (knee) did not play against the Lions.

Houston is one of the two returning starters in the secondary. The Falcons are hoping that the third-year player and former second-round pick continues to improve in his second season as a full-time starter. Biermann was part of the defensive line rotation last season and registered two sacks.

--Falcons running back Michael Turner ran for a 40-yard touchdown in the first quarter and was happy to retire to the bench. "We just want to get out there, get into game shape a little bit and get ready for the regular season," said Turner, who finished with 63 yards on six carries.

--Eric Weems made good decisions while returning punts in the preseason opener. He had three fair catches and a 34-yard return in the second quarter. "They front line held up nice," Weems said.

He had to take a little ribbing for being tackled by the punter. "Yeah, they got on me a little bit," Weems said. "But it was still a good return." Chandler Williams returned punts in the second half.

The Falcons are looking for a new punt returner because Harry Douglas was lost for the season after suffering a torn knee ligament in practice on Aug. 5.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "He threw the ball well. He's going to continue to get better. I was impressed with what he did." -- Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, on Detroit rookie Matthew Stafford.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

DE Jamaal Anderson has been steady over his first two seasons, but hasn't produced the big plays that are expected from a player picked eighth pick in the draft. He has two sacks in two seasons. Coach Mike Smith wants at least six or seven from the end opposite John Abraham. Chauncey Davis had four sacks last season and also is steady at the point of attack. He's getting cross-trained at defensive tackle, but could end up the starter instead of Anderson.

Rookie Lawrence Sidbury will get extensive action. He's trying to make the leap up from Richmond to the NFL. The fourth-round pick has a shot to win the designated rusher spot opposite of Abraham in passing situations. Michael Boley and Coy Wire. Boley left during free agency. Wire started down the stretch, but came off the field in passing situations. Wire averaged eight tackles in three of the last four games.

--Stephen Nicholas was listed at No. 1 on the depth chart at strong-side linebacker, and he's off to a good start in training camp. It's the third-year player's position to lose. Jamie Winborn was signed on the first day of training camp. He's a veteran and could fill the spot if Nicholas and Coy Wire do not pan out.

--Christopher Owens, the third-round pick from San Jose State, has a chance to snag a starting spot at cornerback.

BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Thomas Johnson vs. Peria Jerry at nose tackle. The Falcons are looking at four different players for the nose tackle spot opposite of Jonathan Babineaux. In the exhibition opener, Johnson, a player who has been cut by three different teams, started ahead of Jerry, a first-round draft pick. Jerry came in during the second series.

OTHER BATTLE FRONTS: Eric Weems took the lead in the battle to replace Harry Douglas as the punt returner. ... DE Chauncey Davis is making a strong bid to replace Jamaal Anderson opposite of Jonathan Abraham.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: WR Eric Weems is making a bid to make the roster as the fourth receiver and a special teamer. He had a 34-yard punt return in the preseason opener.

ROOKIE REPORT

--RT Garrett Reynolds, a fifth-round pick, played well in his first NFL action. He played with the second team.
--CB William Middleton covered slot receivers when the Falcons put their nickel package on the field.

INJURY REPORT: CB Chris Houston suffered an injury hamstring in the preseason opener. ... DE Kroy Biermann suffered a sprain foot. ... S William Moore is out 2 to 4 weeks with a knee injury. ... WR Harry Douglas (left knee) tore his ACL and is out for the season.

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