Falcons’ camp battles to go down to wire

082720 Flowery Branch: Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn (center) demonstrates a defensive drill during training camp on Thursday, August 27, 2020 in Flowery Branch. Quinn said the team would discuss how to handle the boycotts around the nation following the practice.    Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
082720 Flowery Branch: Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn (center) demonstrates a defensive drill during training camp on Thursday, August 27, 2020 in Flowery Branch. Quinn said the team would discuss how to handle the boycotts around the nation following the practice. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

In this condensed exhibition season with no games, longshots to make the team are down to four practices before the Falcons must cutdown from 80 to 53 players on the active/inactive list by 4 p.m. Saturday.

The Falcons are set to practice Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in Flowery Branch before holding a final practice Thursday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Falcons will likely start cutting down Friday and wrap up Saturday.

“We have another one coming up (Thursday),” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said of the scrimmage.

The Falcons made sure that everyone played in the scrimmage Friday. “It’s an important part of that evaluation,” Quinn said. “So, think of this as another (exhibition) season game, so to speak, for us to get those evaluations and to test and push it.”

Quinn is hoping to get several players back from injury Monday. Wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus, running back Qadree Ollison, wide receiver Devin Gray and defensive tackle Marlon Davidson (knee strain). Also, defensive end Steven Means went on the reserve/COVID-19 Saturday.

“I think we’ll have a good bit of those guys back in limited fashion, if nothing else, on Monday’s practice,” Quinn said.

The Falcons have spent a great deal of time focusing on improving their rushing attack. Todd Gurley ran strong in the scrimmage. They also are counting on Brian Hill, Ito Smith and Ollison to backup Gurley by committee.

In 2019, NFL teams with a 100-yard rusher posted a 78-28 record for a .736 winning percentage. That rated higher than teams with a 100-yard receiver (96-84-2, .533) or a 300-yard passer (68-61-2, .530).

The Falcons didn’t have a 100-yard rusher in any game last season. The Falcons only went for more than 100 yards rushing, as a group, in four games. Devonta Freeman’s season-high was 88 yards in a loss Oct. 13 to Arizona.

“We’ve still got work to do to get our run game in order, but I would say, as a position, some guys who have experience carrying it and have been sharp so far in camp,” Quinn said.

The Falcons must decide on the left guard position. Rookie Matt Hennessy is competing with veteran James Carpenter.

“It’s definitely the most demanding part of the offense is the running phase of it, but it’s just the same reps over and over again,” Quinn said. “Just so you see the block, you get the feel for it. For us, having those reps is such an important part of it.”

Matt Gono opened camp at left guard with the first team, but has since worked out at left tackle. His path to the roster could be as a backup guard-tackle.

“One of the things with just about everybody participating is we’re getting those reps over and over again,” Quinn said. “I’m expecting that to keep continuing, keep building and stacking as we’re going.”

In 2016, the Falcons rushed for more than 100 yards in 10 games on their ways to the Super Bowl. They rushed for more than 200 yards twice.

In 2017, the Falcons rushed for more than 100 yards in 11 games as they went to the playoffs. They rushed for more than 200 yards in one game.

In 2018, the Falcons rushed for more than 100 yards in six games, including one game of more than 200 yards.

The last time the Falcons had a 100-yard rusher, was when Hill rushed for 115 yards against Carolina in the 15th game of the 2018 season.

Getting the running game going has faced some challenges.

“As it started, we hadn’t been in pads for a long time,” Quinn said. “The installs were good, you got the assignments down, but now it’s the technique and the hand placement and the speed off the ball.”

Quinn has been pleased with the progress.

“So, I would say we’re definitely gaining on it as we’re going because now the installs are over so it’s you do the same plays over and over again to really groove it,” Quinn said.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Falcons must make decisions in the secondary.

Cornerback Darqueze Dennard had a strong showing in the most recent scrimmage and appears set at nickel back. Rookie A.J. Terrell and Kendall Sheffield were beaten by wide receiver Calvin Ridley. Isaiah Oliver appears to have the edge over Sheffield to hold onto his right cornerback spot.

“I would say the defense has done a good job of having opportunities to create takeaways,” Quinn said. “The only way that you get in the plus in that space is by forcing them.”

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