FLOWERY BRANCH — The Atlanta Falcons finished last in the league in rushing last season, averaging 77.9 yards per game.
Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said that’s going to change this season.
“We have to run the ball better than we did last year,” Koetter said. “Atlanta, since coach (Mike) Smith has been here, has always been a good running team except for last year. There were a lot of reasons for that. We don’t need to go into that now. That’s in the past. We are going to be a better running football team, starting with the offensive line and progressing throughout the team.”
In OTAs, the Falcons are lining up with four different players along the front line from the unit that played most of last season.
Left guard Justin Blalock is the lone mainstay.
Left tackle Sam Baker is back from knee surgery. Center Joe Hawley is at center instead of Peter Konz. Jon Asamoah is at right guard instead of Garrett Reynolds, who was released and rookie Jake Matthews is at right tackle instead of Jeremy Trueblood, who was not re-signed.
“They looked good,” Koetter said. “It’s a good blend of experience in Jon (Asamoah), who knows what’s ahead and knows what to expect from the program and then Jake is just such an advanced guy for somebody coming out of college. Obviously, with his pedigree, it’s a good mix.
“They are off to a good start together, learning the playbook together. I think those two and the improvements across our (offensive) line are going to be very helpful. Joe (Hawley) is a great communicator. We’ve got some good battles on the offensive line. I’m excited to see how it shakes out. We’ll end up keeping eight or nine guys.”
NEWTON ON TRACK: After a couple months of hand-wringing over Cam Newton’s ankle surgery, the Carolina quarterback and former Auburn standout appeared to be ahead of schedule during the second of the Panthers’ 10 OTAs last week.
He did not participate in drills, but Newton spent the entire session on the field. In between chats with coaches, quarterbacks and wideouts, he played light catch. Afterward, he ran through patterns with a small receiver group that included first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin.
“(Cam’s) been throwing the ball on the side the last few days,” Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. “He says that foot’s getting stronger and stronger every day, so we’re excited about what’s happening for him.”
Newton is expected to return for the start of training camp, and the Panthers hope to have Greg Hardy’s legal situation settled by then as well.
The defensive end was arrested earlier this month on charges of domestic violence. His next court date is scheduled for June 27, but the team has no plans to hold him out of any offseason workouts.
QB CONTROVERSY IN N.Y.: It’s early in the offseason, and there’s already a quarterback controversy brewing within the New York Jets.
Of course, in typical Jets fashion, it has little to do with anything that’s taking place on the field between incumbent Geno Smith and free-agent signee Michael Vick, who recently said that there was not an open competition at quarterback and that he signed with the Jets assuming that Smith would start.
Head coach Rex Ryan, on the other hand, preached the competition mantra of general manager John Idzik following a recent OTA practice.
“There is competition,” Ryan said. “There’s no doubt.”
Vick, the former Falcons quarterback, seems to have some doubts.
“Nah, it’s not an open competition,” Vick said at one point.
The general belief is Smith — who showed flashes of promise during the final month of a trying rookie season and is a decade younger than Vick — will get the benefit of the doubt if he and Vick play similarly in preseason. But that decision is a long way off, for better or for worse.
“It’s the second day of OTAs and here we have these questions,” Ryan said. “Let’s let it play out.”