Bengals offer chance for Falcons to prove their toughness

The Bengals left Atlanta looking like the bigger and badder team last summer, and for Falcons coach Mike Smith it was the first harbinger of bad things to come for his team in 2013.

Win at Cincinnati on Sunday and maybe the Falcons can put to rest the chatter about their lack of toughness.

It was after the Falcons’ joint practice with Cincinnati during training camp in 2013 that Smith said he first started to worry about his team. The Bengals, “bigger and tougher,” pushed the Falcons around on the practice field.

The Bengals ended up being better, too, winning the AFC North while the Falcons, Super Bowl aspirants, slid to 4-12.

In an effort to get tougher — or, as Smith prefers to say, more physical — the Falcons made changes in personnel and attitude. Are they more rugged now?

The results were mixed in the season-opening victory over the Saints. The Bengals offer a chance for the Falcons to find out for sure.

“I saw some resiliency throughout the ballgame,” Smith said of the Saints game. “I think there are areas we can improve on in terms of our physicality. I think we are actually going to be playing a more physical football team across the board this week. It will be a big challenge.”

The Falcons weren’t up to it last summer. They were (and still are) a team built around their stars on offense. The Bengals were (and still are) a team built around bruising offensive and defensive lines.

Cincinnati’s smash beat the Falcons’ flash last summer. That’s the way it went for the Falcons during the season, too, when the offensive and defensive lines were at the core of their many problems.

The Falcons responded by adding bigger players on both lines. They hired Mike Tice (offense) and Bryan Cox (defense) to coach their lines. There was a renewed focus in the weight room, and training camp was more intense, leading to several fights.

The Saints game was the first chance for the Falcons to show if all of that paid off.

“There were some times where it paid off,” Falcons guard Justin Blalock said. “We were able to get some things going on the ground, which always helps. It’s always a good thing in football. You never hear anyone say, ‘We want to be less physical.’

True, but it’s also rare to hear NFL teams openly acknowledge they aren’t physical enough. Nose-diving from Super Bowl contenders to 4-12 forced that kind of honest self-assessment by Smith and the Falcons.

It started soon after last season ended when team owner Arthur Blank said the Falcons weren’t tough enough. Smith rejected that line of thinking, saying that all NFL players are tough, but acknowledged the Falcons needed to be more physical.

In an effort to do so, the Falcons signed guard Jon Asamoah in free agency and drafted offensive tackle Jake Matthews with the No. 6 overall pick. The Falcons also added massive nose tackle Paul Soliai and huge defensive end Tyson Jackson.

Toughness became a made-for-TV theme when HBO’s “Hard Knocks” focused much of its documentary footage on the topic. Cox’s brutally honest, profanity-laced assessments of his players often were the highlights.

“When you get on the field, you’ve got to be the toughest SOB out there,” Cox said before training camp.

That’s the way the Bengals play. They showed it Sunday when they slogged to a 23-16 victory at Baltimore to end a four-game losing streak at their division rival’s stadium.

The Bengals own a nine-game winning streak at home during the regular season. During that streak they’ve allowed an average of 16.7 points, with only three opponents scoring 20 or more.

Anchoring the middle of Cincinnati’s defense is big tackle Geno Atkins, the former University of Georgia standout, and 322-pound veteran Domata Peko.

“They are a great unit, great defense,” Falcons center Joe Hawley said. “We are going to have to game plan for those guys and keep the pocket clean and firm inside.”

The Falcons were encouraged by the play of their offensive line against the Saints. The protection was solid for quarterback Matt Ryan, and the running game was efficient. The unit hardly missed a beat when left tackle Matthews missed the second half with an injury and Gabe Carimi took over after few practice reps at the position.

It was a different story for the defense. The Falcons are built to stop the run, but the Saints averaged 5.1 yards per rush attempt (not including a scramble by quarterback Drew Brees) and had four “explosive” runs, which Smith defines as 12 yards or longer.

“It didn’t look too good in the first game,” Soliai said. “We can do better. We played against a good offense, but that’s no excuse. We (linemen) should be dominant and takeover the leadership in our defense.”

Among Falcons players, Blalock sounded the most skeptical about all the “physical” talk during training camp. For example, when the Falcons conducted Oklahoma drills, a live-tackling exercise that’s rarely used at the professional level, Blalock said he wasn’t sure how much it correlated to playing games.

So how does a football team go about becoming more physical?

“Playing harder,” Blalock said, smiling.

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