Falcons at near full-strength for season opener

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

Falcons offensive lineman Matt Hennessy comments on his focus leading into Week 1 against the Eagles.

FLOWERY BRANCH — Falcons coach Arthur Smith re-convened the team after its NFLPA-negotiated three-day break at the end of training camp.

After passing their COVID-19 tests, the Falcons will be near full strength when they open the season against the Eagles at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Only linebacker Brandon Copeland (undisclosed injury) and cornerback Kendall Sheffield (undisclosed injury) were not seen during the opening portion of practice.

“I thought we got some good work in today,” Smith said on Monday. “It’s a big week for us. Obviously, there is a lot of excitement for Week 1. Opening day is always a nice time around the NFL. There will be a lot of excitement all week. We know we have a big challenge ahead of us.”

The new Falcons staff has answered the question about the team’s sagging rushing attack. They elected to move on from the top four running backs from 2020, while mostly keeping the young offensive line in place.

The Falcons are solid at left tackle with Jake Matthews and right guard Chris Lindstrom. Center Matt Hennessy is set to enter his second year and rookie Jalen Mayfield appears set to start at left guard after the Falcons didn’t make a trade to get a veteran guard.

Also, right tackle Kaleb McGary must continue to improve his play.

Mayfield, a third-round pick from Michigan, played mostly right tackle in college.

“He’s going to be facing some pretty good players this Sunday,” Smith said. “There is going to be somebody every week.”

Smith has worked with Russ Grimm (2016), Bruce Matthews (2011-13) and Mike Munchak (2011-13) during his time with Tennessee. Munchak (2001), Matthews (2007) and Grimm (2010) are all former offensive linemen enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Smith said one of his lessons from Grimm was that someone gets the short end of the straw on every NFL play.

“We drafted him here and he has an opportunity to play,” Smith said of Mayfield. “That’s the way that I look at it, it’s an opportunity.”

Philadelphia’s depth chart lists Fletcher Cox, the six-time Pro Bowl selection as their right defensive tackle, which would put him over Mayfield. Javon Hargrove is listed as the Eagles’ left defensive tackle.

“We understand there maybe some growing pains,” Smith said. “We’ll try to eliminate some risks, but potentially at some point there is going to be a third down and you’re going to have to block one of their guys. I’ve got a lot of faith in Jalen.”

Falcons offensive lineman Kaleb McGary (left) watches from the sidelines with rookie offensive lineman Jalen Mayfield as the Falcons face the Tennessee Titans in a preseason game Friday, Aug. 13, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Hennessy is taking over for the departed Alex Mack, who signed with the 49ers in free agency.

“It’s not like he’s some seven-year salty vet either,” Smith said. “That’s the thing, if you look at our line up front other than Jake, we’re pretty young. We believe in these guys.”

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has been sacked more than 40 times in each of the past three seasons. Smith, who will call his own plays, will have to protect Ryan and the line by running the ball.

“A lot of things factor into the run game,” Smith said. “Offensively, we want to make sure that we are balanced. That number can change week to week depending on matchups.”

Smith praised offensive line coach Dwayne Ledford for getting the line ready.

“Are you are getting these guys enough reps and enough work that they feel good about their combination blocks?,” Smith said. “Or if they get singled up, their techniques (are good) and everybody is in sync.”

Hennessy believes the group is ready for the challenge.

“We’re really fired up to get to work this season,” Hennessy said. “Leading off against the Eagles, which is a great team with a super-talented front seven. It will be a great challenge. We’re excited.”

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has praised Hennessy’s approach to the position.

“For me, I just focus on staying present and kind of eliminating all of the distractions,” Hennessy said. “Really, avoid thinking about anything but what I’m doing at that moment. Don’t let the ups and downs kind of get with me down. I just kind of go with the flow.”

Hennessy opened last season rotating at left guard with James Carpenter. He started two games at center late in the season against Kansas City and Tampa Bay. He has some advice for Mayfield

“Just stay off the roller coaster,” Hennessy said. “The good and the bad. You know he’ll do some things, but it’s the NFL and inevitably you’ll lose some reps as well. Don’t go up and down with it, just stay even keeled with it throughout the whole thing.”

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