Monday August 11th, 2014

The block letters at the entrance to the Falcons training camp are 8-feet tall and three-dimensional, spelling out what could be a discarded Levitra slogan but is in fact the organization’s overarching mission statement: Rise Up.

Considering the level of extracurricular fisticuffs in Flowery Branch this preseason, how about "Put 'em up"?

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At a Falcons practice I watched last week -- I was in town for an upcoming piece on general manager Thomas Dimitroff -- rookie running back Devonta Freeman got through to the second level of the defense when he was T-boned and decleated by cornerback Javier Arenas. This being a "thud" session, members of the offense took umbrage, including right guard Mike Johnson, who landed a roundhouse right to the helmet of Arenas, his former Alabama co-captain. The general fracas that ensued resembled a baseball fight, which is to say it harkened back to a high school slow dance, with many Falcons pairing off and holding each other close, but with no additional punches thrown.

The tension was broken by wide receiver Roddy White, who leapt onto the back of a defensive player -- a linebacker, I believe -- and rode him around for a few moments, shouting and laughing. Seeing that, nobody could stay mad.

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Here were a pair of Falcons subplots on display. The Hard Knocks crew is in town. The first episode had aired the previous night, featuring multiple training camp scuffles. Dimitroff, for one, was not displeased. Yes, bad luck with injuries had contributed greatly to Atlanta’s 4-12 record in 2013. But the team had lacked grit, a nasty streak that the GM and coaching staff hope to have restored in the offseason. Between the Hard Knocks cameras and the desire to play with more edge and urgency, the Falcons may lead the league this preseason in jacking each other up after the whistle.

But that’s not why White is in such a good mood. He’s pumped because Julio Jones, Atlanta’s No. 1 receiver, is back on the field and looking like his dominant self.

Jones, a fourth-year player and flat-out mismatch machine, was leading the NFL in catches (41) and was second in receiving yards (580) when he was lost for the season last Oct. 7. In a Monday night loss to the Jets, Jones broke the fifth metatarsal bone in his left foot for the second time in three years.

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Among the precautions taken to ensure the bone doesn’t break again, doctors installed a bigger screw. “The biggest one they have,” Jones told me after practice. “A six [millimeter].” They extracted marrow from his hip and injected it into the metatarsal, to build that bone up. This offseason, at the urging of Dimitroff, Jones spent time at a cutting-edge facility in North Carolina where specialists analyzed his biomechanics.

"It was like this big experiment on me, man. It was crazy," said Jones. "They checked how much force I use to push off and how I land -- the impact. They checked the flexibility in all my joints."

To improve his "alignment," he spends more time in the training room before practice, stretching out and warming up his hip and ankle joints.

He’s slamming Vitamin D and bananas. He’s wearing a wider, custom-made shoe with a steel-reinforced sole. He’s taking every other day of training camp off. When he is on the field, he’s shining. During a red zone drill I watched, he snagged two touchdown passes in three snaps. On the first, he took two steps, slanted in, then used his body -- he looks bigger, more buffed out, than his listed 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame -- to shield defenders from the ball. On the second he was met at the goal line by two defenders whom he knocked backward with ease.

His cuts are crisp; his burst hasn’t gone anywhere. Asked if he’s thinking about the new screw in his foot when he plants and moves, he said, "Absolutely not," citing his deep confidence in the doctors he’s been working with.

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It was a hot August day in Georgia with the regular season more than a month away. Jones could barely contain his happiness: “It feels great to be back out here. This is the longest I’ve been without football. To have the opportunity to get back out here, man, I love it.”

White, who will see softer coverages with No. 11 back on the field, also loves it, as does quarterback Matt Ryan.

True, Ryan will be without 14-time Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez, who finally retired after 17 NFL seasons. While 6-8 Levine Toilolo shined in the practice I saw -- he snagged a touchdown pass 10 feet in the air in the back of the end zone -- he’s still an unfinished product. Presumably, bell cow running back Steven Jackson will return from the tweaked hamstring that’s kept him out of the bulk of training camp.

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Ryan, the most important player on this team, will have extra time to find Jones, the second-most important player on the team, behind a beefed up and reconstituted line that’s been instructed to play meaner. Of course, it won’t matter how ornery they are if the team’s streak of bad injury luck continues. Unless Jones can suit up, it’s tough to see how Atlanta will rise up.

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