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Mark BradleyMark Bradley

Have the once-meek Falcons gotten too mean?

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"Play with composure!" Smitty whispers. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

“Play with composure!” Smitty whispers. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

I preface this by saying that exhibitions are no predictor of what happens when teams start playing games for real. I write knowing that, two games into September, this could fall under the heading of “never mind.” That said …

Twenty-nine penalties have been assessed against the Atlanta Falcons in three preseason games for a total of 268 yards, and that’s not counting infractions that offset or were declined. (On their final snap of the 24-17 loss to Tennessee on Saturday, they were flagged for two violations, neither of which was accepted.) But here again we offer a caveat.

As sloppy as they’ve been, the Falcons’ opponents have been worse — 35 accepted penalties for 297 yards. Still, the avoidance of penalties was one of the reasons the Falcons got good under Mike Smith and, until last season, stayed that way. From 2008 through 2012, they ranked sixth, seventh, first, fifth and first in fewest penalty yards, and even in the 4-12 disappointment of last year they were 13th.

“I don’t think it’s just the Atlanta Falcons,” Smith said Saturday night. “I think it’s all across the National Football League.”

Preseason 2014 has indeed been strewn with yellow, which can happen when refs get new directives and points of emphasis. Teams have to adjust, and by October teams usually do. (The good ones, anyway.) And the Falcons’ penalties haven’t been all late hits; the rookie tackle Jake Matthews was called for holding and a false start in Saturday’s first half. Even so, the contrarian in me wonders if they should have been more circumspect in their wishing.

In January, Arthur Blank pointed to the lack of retaliation after Matt Ryan suffered a late hit against New Orleans last season as evidence his team lacked toughness. For the record, Smith won’t use the word “toughness”; he’ll simply say that he wants his team to play “physical,” which is what every coach says. But it surely was no coincidence that training camp — perhaps spurred by the presence of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” — saw a goodly number of fights, including one that left rookie Ra’Shede Hageman wondering if he’d broken his hand. (He hadn’t.)

So this correspondent wondered Saturday if, in the pursuit of toughness or physicality or whatever, the Falcons’ attention to detail has suffered. “I certainly hope not,” Smith said. “We are a detail-oriented organization from top to bottom in everything that we do.”

He pointed to a sequence at the end of the third quarter as a case study in What Not To Do. The Falcons had sacked Zack Mettenberger — once a Georgia Bulldog, then an LSU Tiger, now a Titans’ rookie — on third down. But linebacker Pat Angerer, apparently appropriately named, was flagged for unnecessary roughness. Instead of punting, Tennessee drove to a field goal.

Moving to further action: After the Titans scored the winning touchdown with 5:45 remaining, rookie linebacker Jacques Smith was ejected for delivering a blow to the head on Tennessee’s (successful) two-point conversion.

“Yes, there is some aggressive play,” Mike Smith said. “We want to be an aggressive football team, but we have to make sure that when the play is over there’s not a yellow flag on the ground.”

Once again: I might well be making Everest out of an anthill. If Pat Angerer or Jacques Smith is playing in the fourth quarter against the Saints two weeks hence, the Falcons will have far bigger problems than their penalty rate. But it wouldn’t be productive for a team that has long been known for not beating itself to turn into a bunch of wild-eyed macho men. There’s some precision involved in football, lest we forget.

As for protecting the man who’s essentially the franchise: The Falcons seem to have figured that out. Ryan was accosted by linebacker Zach Brown after a first half scramble-and-slide, and for once Matty Ice got steamed. This led Brown to poke Ryan’s facemask. This led center Joe Hawley to rush to the rescue and backup tackle Ryan Schraeder to get called for unnecessary roughness.

“I absolutely have no issue with that,” Smith said. “That is our quarterback. Their job is to protect the quarterback.”

Given Blank’s offseason challenge, might Schraeder even be rewarded with a raise for his penalty?

“You’ll have to ask Thomas (Dimitroff),” Smith said, deadpan, and then he and the general manager left the room.

From myajc.com: Even if it didn’t count, the Falcons looked pretty good. (In the first half, I mean.)

Photo gallery: Falcons-Titans in all its raging glory.

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