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NFL 2014: After 4-12 letdown in 2013, Mike Smith sets 'bigger and stronger' edict for Falcons

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ATLANTA - Mike Smith didn't like seeing the Atlanta Falcons pushed around in 2013.

After the Falcons' first losing season in six years with Smith, the coach set the agenda for the off-season.

"We want to be a bigger and stronger football team," Smith said.

The team's off-season additions, including players and assistant coaches, reflected the need to improve both lines. Right tackle Jake Matthews of Texas A&M was selected in the first round of the draft. Veteran guards Jon Asamoah and Gabe Carimi were signed.

Help also came for the defensive front, which needed more bulk in the middle to accommodate a shift to a 3-4 base scheme. Defensive end Tyson Jackson (6-4, 296) and defensive tackle Paul Soliai (6-4, 340) add size and experience. Second-round pick Ra'Shede Hageman (6-6, 318), a defensive tackle in college at Minnesota, will play end.

The humbling fall to a 4-12 finish also brought changes to Smith's staff. Offensive line coach Mike Tice and defensive line coach Bryan Cox were added after Atlanta finished last in rushing and next to last against the run.

Injuries devastated the team in 2013, when 11 players finished the season on injured reserve. Smith is hoping the off-season work in the weight room will help prevent another wave of injuries.

"It will pay dividends through a long 16-game season," Smith said. "It should help us in terms of staying healthy if we're bigger and stronger at the start of the season."

Here are some areas to watch as the Falcons open training camp on Friday:

JULIO'S HEALTH: Wide receiver Julio Jones was held out of team drills in off-season work with the hope he'll be ready for the start of training camp. Jones, a Pro Bowl pick in 2012, was leading the NFL in receptions last year when he broke a bone in his right foot in a loss to the Jets on Oct. 7. He broke the same bone at Alabama.

Jones, Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez gave quarterback Matt Ryan three elite targets. With the retirement of Gonzalez, Jones' return to form becomes even more important. White, 32, missed three games with ankle and hamstring injuries last year, ending his streak of 133 consecutive games played since entering the league in 2005.

BIG VOID AT LINEBACKER: Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon was under the supervision of team trainers, rehabbing a knee injury that ended his 2013 season, when he tore his Achilles tendon in June. He is lost for the season, possibly opening the way for rookie Prince Shembo of Notre Dame to start.

Weatherspoon missed most of the first half of last season with a foot injury, and undrafted rookies Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu suddenly became starters.

The loss of Weatherspoon, a 2010 first-round pick is significant. He was perhaps the defence's top playmaker.

PROTECTION FOR RYAN: Ryan was sacked 44 times last season — 16 more than his previous career high. That's a scary number for the quarterback who one year ago signed a contract extension worth nearly $104 million.

The offensive line was in constant turmoil in 2013. Left tackle Sam Baker missed 12 games with a knee injury. Baker's health is a key to the unit which has added Matthews at right tackle and Asamoah as the projected starter at right guard. Joe Hawley enters camp with an edge over Peter Konz at centre.

REPLACING GONZALEZ: Levine Toilolo, a second-year player who had 11 catches last season, is the probable replacement for Gonzalez, who set almost every important NFL record for tight ends.

Bear Pascoe, who played five seasons with the Giants, was signed to add experience at the position. Pascoe made six starts last season. Another option is Mickey Shuler, who played in six games with the Dolphins in 2010.

NEW COMPETITION FOR JACKSON: Steven Jackson will be 31 when the season opens and needs to show age won't keep him from returning to form. He missed four games with a hamstring injury and managed only 543 yards rushing last year, ending his streak of eight straight 1,000-yard seasons with the Rams.

The Falcons need help after finishing last in the league in rushing. Rookie Devonta Freeman, a third-round pick from Florida State, could earn at least a share of the carries with a strong training camp.

___

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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