Atlanta Falcons offensive tackle Jake Matthews (70) blocks defensive end Kroy Biermann (71) during practice during Falcons Friday Night Lights at Archer High School. (USA TODAY Sports: Dale Zanine)
FLOWERY BRANCH — With a resume that shows he coached offensive lines for four NFL teams in the last 18 years, Mike Tice knows a good prospect when he sees one.
So, now as offensive line coach of the Atlanta Falcons, Tice’s high praise of rookie offensive tackle Jake Matthews should be heeded.
Tice has been impressed with Matthews’ early training camp work at right tackle, which is probably as it should be because Matthews was drafted No. 6 overall out of Texas A&M.
“We knew when we drafted him that he was farther along than other tackles in the draft,” Tice said. “We felt like we were going to get a guy that was ready to step in early. From the second week since he’s been with us, he’s taken all of the reps with the ones.”
On the first day of practice, Matthews, the son of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, served notice that he wouldn’t be taking any mess. After blocking defensive end Kroy Biermann several yards down the field, he hit the veteran in the face after he wouldn’t release his jersey.
Biermann got ticked and the first fight of training camp ensued.
In a joint practice against the Tennessee Titans, Matthew was stout in pass protection, a major problem for the Falcons, who gave up 44 sacks last season.
Tice believes that Matthews can sustain this high level of play he has set in the first 10 training camp practices.
“It’s going to continue,” Tice said. “I don’t even worry about him. Sometimes I don’t even watch him on film because I have to look at the other stuff and try to clean that up.”
Peter King, the famed Sports Illustrated writer and editor of MMQB.si.com, was impressed with Matthews on his visit to Falcons camp.
“A quick little picture in my practice day with the Falcons: Jake Matthews (was) in the two-minute drill (and) playing right tackle, King said. “(He) stoned the pass rusher on seven consecutive hurry-up snaps in the two-minute drill. Let me tell you, when the Falcons saw that, they said, ‘We haven’t seen this in years. A right tackle who could actually stop people.’ “
While that is a great observation, Matthews’ ability was hardly a secret. NFLDraftScout.com projected him as the No. 6 overall prospect in the draft, exactly where he was picked, and described him as “an enforcer who can consume defenders. He moved from right to left tackle last season to protect QB Johnny Manziel’s blind side and proved he is NFL ready. The latest NFL prospect from the famous Matthews gene pool, Jake is the son of 19-year veteran Hall of Famer Bruce (Houston, Tennessee) and looks it.”
Tice plans to have Matthews, who is the centerpiece of the revamped offensive line, and the rest of his unit on the move.
The line has been working on pulling extensively and executing blocks in the open field.
The technique is not new to the Falcons’ playbook, but he plans to use it more often.
“Some of the schemes were already in the offense,” Tice said. “Maybe our ratio is a little bit higher in calling them. It’s something that I’ve done for years, pulling the center.”
Tice believes pulling linemen help the offense schematically defeat containment.
“I like getting that leverage on defenses,” Tice said.
Tice was elated in talking about a block that right guard Jon Asamoah made while he was pulling outside and down the field.
“He had a great pull on the first play of red zone,” Tice said. “He blocked the safety down field. It was outstanding.”
The Falcons look to improve their rushing attack, which ranked 29th in the league last season.
“We want to be able to run the ball when we want to run it,” Tice said. “If we run it 12 times a game, we want to run it 65 percent efficiently. If we run it 25 times a game, we want to run it 65 percent efficiently. We want to make third-and-1s, we want to make them all. That’s what we want to be up front and we will be.”
The Falcons’ revamped offensive line passed the first big test of training camp.
“I thought they did a nice job in certain aspects of the practice,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said.
Last season, the Falcons struggled in joint practices with the Cincinnati Bengals and that foreshadowed a season that would be difficult in the trenches.
Some of Tennessee’s talented players along the defensive front include defensive ends Jurrell Casey and Ropati Pitoitua. Also, former Georgia Tech standout Derrick Morgan is being moved to left outside linebacker as the Titans shift to a 3-4 defense.
Morgan and Matthews had some good battles.
“That’ number 70 is a rookie, right?” Morgan said. “He’s a tough guy and has sound techniques. He’s going to be pretty good.”
Elsewhere on the offensive line …
Left tackle Sam Baker enjoyed the work against the Titans.
“It felt good to get some other looks at some different defenses,” Baker said.
Tice is tweaking some of Baker’s footwork.
“Sam has worked extremely hard on changing up some of techniques,” Tice said. “We’ve been trying to dabble in a few minor footwork changes and a few changes with his body lean and some steps on the backside in the run game. He’s bought in and he’s doing an outstanding job trying to execute these techniques. I think he’s had a very solid camp.”
Center Joe Hawley, who is approaching former guard Harvey Dahl’s “unofficial record” for training camp fights, is in a battle for the starting center spot with Peter Konz.
Hawley was ejected from the joint practice with the Titans after getting into a scuffle. He’s been at the center of several fights thus far.
“The guys knew the rules of engagement,” Smith said of booting Hawley from practice. “They were violated and when they’re violated there’s going to be a consequence. Some other guys had to step up and take some extra reps.
“In a game if that were to happen, you know, we’re going to lose a player. We need to learn we can’t be fighting.”