Toughness has been a theme preached throughout Atlanta Falcons training camp by head coach Mike Smith. That message has shown up on the gridiron in the captivating, up-close footage HBO's Hard Knocks has provided.
To start Tuesday's third episode, cameras revealed the determination and resolve it takes for those trying to fight their way back onto the field in this violent sport.
Promising rookie linebacker Marquis Spruill, drafted in the fifth round out of Syracuse, tore his left ACL in the previous episode, and he was the star to start this edition. Spruill was undergoing surgery on the knee, and doctors' cameras gave an inside glimpse as to what Spruill's structural damage was.
Craig Sager II of Score Atlanta captured Spruill's reaction when the procedure was completed:
Former St. Louis Rams superstar running back Steven Jackson had a lackluster 2013 campaign in what was thought to be his first chance to play for a real contender. Now Jackson, aged 31, has been away from the practice field at training camp trying to rehabilitate a hamstring injury.
Jackson is trying to outrun the daunting 30-year-old milestone that dooms most modern NFL backs. At least his training appears to be going well, per The Washington Post's Jake Russell:
The good news is that Smith provided an encouraging update, saying Jackson is improving, though he still hasn't returned to practice as of now.
Falcons defensive end Kroy Biermann tore his Achilles and missed most of the 2013 season, and cameras briefly documented his struggle toward the beginning. D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution empathized:
Let's take a look at some of the key developments from this latest edition of Hard Knocks and how it translates to the Falcons' 2014 regular-season outlook on the field.
Jake Matthews Making Splash In Camp, Battles J.J. Watt
A holding penalty in the preseason opener versus Miami cost the Falcons a huge running play, but otherwise Matthews is acclimating well to the professional level by all accounts.
The son of a Pro Football Hall of Famer, Matthews was the No. 6 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft. Even playing at right tackle, the opposite end of the offensive line he played at Texas A&M, he is showing high football IQ and versatility.
Left tackle Sam Baker did a brief interview for a solo cam, and he said he asked Matthews if there was anything he couldn't do. Taking on the likes of Houston Texans prolific defensive end J.J. Watt was quite the daunting task to say the least.
Watt's reveal was pretty nice, too, as was his exchange with Smith, per Dane Brugler of CBSSports.com:
Offensive line coach Mike Tice gave Matthews some pointers, but Watt's length and power were too much for the youngster to handle. The last clip shown, though, saw Matthews drive Watt upfield and well away from the pocket.
Per Ian Rapoport, the injury to Baker will force Matthews over to the left side, where he may be more comfortable as it is:
If he is already doing so well adjusting to a higher level of competition and a different position, it stands to reason Matthews will be a big hit in Atlanta for years to come.
Backup Quarterback Battle Uncertain As T.J. Yates Adjusts
The Falcons have their franchise quarterback in Matt Ryan, but behind him, it's a bit of an unproven cast of characters.
One of the most interesting clips Hard Knocks has ever aired was when Yates was by himself in the film room, reciting play calls to himself. The Texans traded Yates to Atlanta after he'd been in the same offense for his entire career—and even led the franchise to its first playoff win.
In a fun development, Yates and the Falcons went to practice with the Texans. Yates traded fives with former teammates and exchanged words with new Houston starter Ryan Fitzpatrick, along with receiver DeVier Posey, who was becoming a new father.
Before the encounter with Houston, the veteran Yates discussed his thoughts on moving, via ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure:
It was something that my agent and (Texans general manager) Rick Smith had been talking about for a while. They were kind of throwing around the idea. It got me in a better situation than I was there. And I thank both organizations for executing the trade. I couldn't have landed in a better situation for my family, myself: being back at home and being with an organization like it is here and learning from one of the better quarterbacks in this league. And a great coaching staff. I couldn't be happier.
Well, based on what Hard Knocks tells us, it's at least a bit of a rocky transition for Yates. At least he was able to reunite with his old mates and probably received some encouragement in private as he continues to acclimate.
Yates went 7-of-16 passing against the Dolphins and threw two picks against the Texans in just 11 attempts, so he evidently has some progress to make to separate from Sean Renfree and Jeff Mathews on the depth chart.
Falcons Blown Out By Texans in 2nd Preseason Game, Sam Baker Injured
This was hinted at before, but Baker is Ryan's blindside protection and now appears to be lost for the foreseeable future.
A tough moment occurred in the trainer's room, when Dr. Spero Karas pulled up his phone to show a somber Baker the damage to his knee.
Alex Marvez of Fox Sports 1 alluded to the Falcons' misfortune in the context of their emphasis on player safety and their dedicated approach to medicine:
"I hope my wife didn't watch it, 'cause she'll freak out," said Baker.
Tice told Matthews on the sideline that when he woke up, he'd be the Falcons' left tackle—something Matthews seems capable of handling. Ryan came into the trainer's room during halftime to give Baker some support.
Beyond Baker's injury, it was a downright ugly 32-7 loss. The lone bright spot was rookie ball-carrier Devonta Freeman, who looks plenty capable of taking over the feature back role if Jackson is not up to the task given the advanced stage of his career.
Lighter Moments and Overall Outlook
Tight end Levine Toilolo did a wonderful poolside rendition of the song "Just A Friend" by Biz Markie on a ukulele. NFL.com's Patrick Crawley was impressed:
Defensive line coach Bryan Cox continues to be a hit, chewing out some big men in a film review session. That prompted this reaction from Adam Schein of NFL.com:
This quote summarizes the Falcons' plight at the moment, though, per HBO's official Twitter account:
Atlanta looks a bit lost on both sides of the ball. There is little discipline on either side, so it will be on Freeman to step up in the backfield and Ryan and Co. to deliver the goods in the passing game.
Without Baker, there will be even more pressure on Matthews to succeed right away when the regular season rolls around. The defense is still quite suspect against both the run and the pass, having allowed Fitzpatrick to post a strong outing and yielding 138 yards to the Texans, sans Arian Foster.
Smith took a bit of a toned-down, low-key approach in front of the cameras, even after the blowout preseason loss. It appears the memo to get tougher is ringing a bit hollow, as the Falcons are struggling to strike a balance between being aggressive and physical without reaching a boiling point and spilling over to costly penalties.
It's time for Atlanta to clean up its act quickly. Otherwise, Smith will find it hard to push his team back to the top in what should be an extremely competitive NFC South division.