Smith eager for start of training camp

'We have definitely gotten younger and faster on the defensive side'

FLOWERY BRANCH — Falcons coach Mike Smith eased up out of the leather chair behind the desk in his office and calmly walked over to the window.

“Look at this,” Smith said.

He looked out the huge window, which overlooks the Falcons’ sprawling practice fields, and couldn’t contain the smile on his face last week.

There were six players, including linebackers Mike Peterson, Stephen Nicholas and Tony Gilbert, tight end Ben Hartsock and rookie defensive end Lawrence Sidbury, running sprints.

The players were getting a jump on the opening of training camp, which is Saturday, Aug. 1.

“I want us to be the best that we can possibly be as a team,” Smith said. “It’s important that our guys are always striving to improve.”

After posting an 11-5 mark, coming within seconds of winning the NFC South title and making the playoffs in Smith’s first season, he wants to follow that with another successful season.

Longtime Falcons fans are hoping Smith’s second team can end the dubious streak of never posting back-to-back winning seasons. (The franchise is entering its 44th season.)

If that’s any additional pressure, Smith is not feeling it. He appears much more relaxed entering his second training camp and even more enthralled as a former defensive coordinator who will get a chance to stamp his impression on the team.

Last season, the Falcons spent a lot of resources on the offense, adding quarterback Matt Ryan, running back Michael Turner and left tackle Sam Baker. The key challenge this season will be to replace five starters on defense, including longtime Falcons stalwart and five-time Pro Bowl player Keith Brooking.

There wasn’t a big free-agency spending spree for the defense. Peterson, a 10-year veteran, was the team’s only free-agent signing of note, and he received a modest two-year contract worth $6.5 million.

Instead, the Falcons will turn to young players, such as Nicholas and cornerback Brent Grimes, to see if they can win starting positions. Also, they spent seven of their eight draft picks on defense and hope that some of the rookies, especially first-round draft pick Peria Jerry, step forward.

“We have definitely gotten younger and faster on the defensive side of the ball,” Smith said. “That was one of the things we felt we wanted to do, younger, faster and more urgent.”

Peterson is set to replace Brooking at weakside linebacker, but the other four holes — strongside linebacker, cornerback, safety and defensive tackle — could be manned by four first-time starters and possibly two to three rookies.

“There will be a learning curve, and hopefully that learning curve will be accelerated through training camp and the preseason,” Smith said.

With Brooking and safety Lawyer Milloy not returning, there will be an apparent leadership void on defense.

“Leadership is not something that you are entitled to,” Smith said. “It’s something that you earn. ... it’s based on how you perform on the field. We have guys who are ready to step up and become leaders.”

In addition to re-formulating the defense in his likeness, Smith has other pressing matters entering this training camp.

The team wants to ensure the continued development of quarterback Matt Ryan, who won several rookie of the year awards last season. The trade for 10-time Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez was part of the plan to give Ryan another weapon that will help him mature faster as a NFL passer.

Also, the Falcons don’t want to lean as heavily on running back Michael Turner, who ran for 1,741 yards on 394 carries and scored 17 touchdowns in 17 games last season.

“We know that he can’t sustain 370 carries over a number of years,” Smith said. “We definitely know that we have to reduce the load that we put on him this year.”