After Atlanta finished next to last in the NFL in run defense last season, some substantial bulk was added to the defensive line. Among the newcomers are two veterans expected to start — defensive tackle Paul Soliai (6-foot-4, 345) and defensive end Tyson Jackson (6-4, 296).
The big additions were on display at Friday Night Lights before a crowd of 12,316 at Archer High School.
Secondary coach Tim Lewis said Friday he can’t help but notice the added size on the defensive front.
“What stands out to me is how big we are up front,” Lewis said. “Our defensive line is a lot bigger. When I’m standing 40 yards back and watching I’m going, ‘Whew!’”
Lewis believes the big guys will cut down on his defensive backs having to make stops on running plays up the middle.
“The girth of the defensive line is a lot different, to see how wide they are,” Lewis said. “Runs don’t typically come screaming right at the safety. So that’s a nice thing.”
More size came in the draft with second-round pick Ra’Shede Hageman (6-6, 318), a defensive end from Minnesota.
The newcomers gained added importance when former starting defensive tackle Peria Jerry retired Thursday.
Defensive line coach Brian Cox laughed when told his linemen were hot topics among other assistants. He said general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith made good on their commitment to add size to the line.
“It’s a true testament to Thomas and coach Smith just trying to go out and get some talent, to upgrade some talent at some positions,” Cox said. “And now it makes us a much deeper team. It makes us a much bigger team. It makes us a much stronger team.”
Soliai is expected to start in the middle of the line when the Falcons use a 3-4 scheme. Jonathan Babineaux, a returning starter, and Jackson could be the first-team ends on a three-man front.
More help will come when Corey Peters (6-3, 305) completes his recovery from Achilles surgery. He had a career-high five sacks before the injury late last year and hopes to be ready for the start of the season.
The second half of the Friday Night Lights schedule was a scrimmage with full tackling. The offense won 15-5. The scrimmage ended with Tramaine Thompson’s touchdown catch.
Smith said the annual Friday Night Lights, held at different high schools, is “one of my favorite events.” He said the scrimmage before fans was a warm-up for the team’s preseason opener against Miami in one week.
“I really wanted to expose our young players to what it’s going to be like in terms of the intensity,” Smith said. “They’re going to see a little more intensity than they faced tonight, but I think they got a little taste of what it’s going to be like in the Georgia Dome.”
NOTES: The team signed DT Theo Agnew (6-4, 280) of Georgia State. Agnew participated in Atlanta’s rookie minicamp as a tryout player following the draft. He began his college career at Massachusetts before transferring to Georgia State. ... S Dwight Lowery left with a head injury that is not believed to be serious. ... WR Julio Jones was on the field but not in pads as he continues to have his practice time monitored in training camp during his recovery from foot surgery. ... RB Steven Jackson continues to be held out with a right hamstring injury.