FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Just two days into Atlanta’s off-season workout program, Falcons coach Mike Smith is calling for major improvement on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
Smith fears the Falcons could bottom out for the second straight year if they don’t change for the better.
"I feel like we’ve lost our way," Smith said Tuesday. "I feel like I’ve lost my way a little. The emphasis along the way is to be a bigger and stronger football team and win the line of scrimmage."
Assessing his team’s 4-12 record last year, Smith said the Falcons were most hurt by a lack of strength and size up front.
The offence ranked last in rushing, and quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked a career-high 44 times.
The defence ranked last in third-down efficiency, second-worst against the run and third-fewest in sacks.
Smith reiterated that he’s to blame "because I’m the head coach," but he likes how the team filled major needs in free agency by signing guard Jon Asamoah and defensive linemen Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai.
The Falcons re-signed defensive linemen Jonathan Babineaux, Peria Jerry and Corey Peters. They also hired Bryan Cox to replace defensive line coach Ray Hamilton.
On the offensive line, left tackle Sam Baker returns after missing 12 games last year with a knee injury. Center Joe Hawley and guard-tackle Mike Jonson signed new contracts.
Offensive line coaches Mike Tice and Wade Harman were hired. Pat Hill and Paul Dunn were fired.
"That’s where we fell short, and there’s one person that’s responsible for it — it’s me," Smith said. "It’s not on the guys that were coaching last year. It’s my responsibility, and we’re going to do everything in our power in the weight room, in the classroom and on the field to get that accomplished."
Ryan has been impressed with the high turnout this week, calling it "maybe not 100 per cent, but close to it."
Despite getting hit 100 times last season — third-most in the NFL — Ryan says he feels fine physically, but the two-time Pro Bowl pick looks forward to better protection this year.
Public criticism of the offensive line was a constant issue, but Ryan, who signed a new contract last July that includes $59 million in guaranteed money, believes his teammates are ready to start anew.
"I think those guys were not naive," Ryan said. "Those guys took some heat, and they’ve had to answer tough questions all of last season and through the off-season so far, and I think they’ve taken it as a challenge. I’ve been really impressed how they’ve handled it professionally and how they have taken it personally, too, and want to become better."
Ryan stopped far short of blaming his teammates for last year’s struggles. Other problems factored in, too.
A broken foot ended Pro Bowl receiver Julio Jones’ season after five games. Running back Steven Jackson missed four games with a hamstring injury and averaged a career-low 3.5 yards per carry.
Roddy White, the franchise’s career-leading receiver, played hurt all year and had his worst season since 2006.
Those issues allowed opponents to double-team tight end Tony Gonzalez, who retired in December, while the pocket caved in repeatedly on Ryan.
Ryan, who began last season with a career record of 56-22, said he’s grateful that fans approaching him in public understand what caused the Falcons to sink from Super Bowl contender to the NFC’s second-worst team.
"Expectations were incredibly high going into last year, and we didn’t live up to them, but southern hospitality is a real thing," Ryan said. "When you grow up in a place like Philadelphia and go to school in a place like Boston, it’s different. It’s different down here, and I think everybody can say we’re thankful for that and we appreciate the support we get in this town."
Ryan said Smith set a solid tone Monday in the Falcons’ first team meeting of 2014.
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"He didn’t sugarcoat it," Ryan said. "He was to the point, and I think the message was received by the guys in the locker room. I’ve always enjoyed the way he approaches things. He’s straightforward, he’s positive and upbeat, and I think guys respond well to that."