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The Don™

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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Perhaps no position group on the Falcons roster was more grateful to turn the page on 2007 than the offensive line.

Injuries hit early and often in a group that just two seasons ago led the NFL in rushing. The Falcons started four players at left tackle last year after knee injuries to Wayne Gandy, Todd Weiner and Renardo Foster. Veteran center Todd McClure was the only player to start 16 games.

Faced with a new system and injury, the line struggled. The team failed to rush for more than 155 yards in a game and gave up at least one sack in each game.

All ancient history.

The team has a new offensive line coach in 21-year NFL veteran Paul Boudreau. "Boo," as he's known on the field and the meeting room, quickly took the group back to the basics and introduced a series of drills designed to increase strength and effectiveness. The goal? To follow Head Coach Mike Smith's wish and establish a more powerful running game.

"We do a lot of interesting drills," second-year lineman Justin Blalock said. "I think they all carry over to the field. It's exciting when we get out there. You may not notice it, but you'll flip on the tape after practice (and it shows up). It's neat to see stuff carry over."

As Russell Falcons Training Camp nears, the team is working to find the right combination across the front. The Falcons return starters in McClure, Blalock, Quinn Ojinnaka, Tyson Clabo and Kynan Forney. If healthy, Weiner and Foster round out a steady group with NFL experience.

Boudreau and offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey spent much of the team's offseason time tinkering with each position and "cross training" players across the offensive front.

Trust and durability are pillars in Boudreau's system. He coached a Saints offensive line that allowed just 15 sacks in a season where all five starters played every play (more than 1,100 snaps).

"We've got a lot of guys playing a bunch of different positions trying to be interchangeable," said Blalock, who spent time at right tackle earlier in the offseason. "The more things you bring to the table the more valuable you're going to be. It makes it easier for us. Injuries are going to happen during the course of the season -- that's the nature of the beast -- but if we have guys that play multiple positions we can have a different starting lineup out there without missing a beat."

Ojinnaka worked at left tackle and left guard. Clabo stayed at right tackle -- a position he started 11 games at last season -- while Harvey Dahl played some right guard.

A key member of a young group, Blalock admits the game sometimes moved too quickly in his 14 starts last season. Tweaking his mind and body have been key as he reaches a new level of football enlightenment.

"I don't want to say now I see everything before it comes, but there were sometimes last year where I would look at the guy in front of me and be oblivious as to what's going on the rest of the play," he said. "Now I can look around and see more things going on. I think that's a testament to the new staff. They really break it down to us, use our meeting time real well and things are starting to make sense."

Boudreau is impressed with Blalock's resolve and aptitude.

"You tell him one time and you ask him to do something and the next time you turn on the film he's trying to do it," the coach said. "I like the fact that he's very smart (and) I like the fact he has an understanding of not just his job but everything around him."

The Falcons also added another veteran presence in the center of the line by signing five-year veteran Alex Stepanovich.

He was originally selected by the Cardinals in the fourth round of the 2004 NFL Draft. In his rookie campaign he started all 16 games and blocked for the League s all-time leading rusher, Emmitt Smith, who gained 937 yards. Last season, he competed in 12 games with Cincinnati which included four starts. He contributed to a pass protection unit that allowed only 17 sacks, a franchise record low.

Of course, the big offseason O-line news came with the acquisition of Sam Baker with the 21st overall pick in the NFL Draft. He's the only rookie addition to the line, but should prove to be a solid one.

"From my perspective, I saw a young man that started 49 out of 52 games in the Pac 10 as a left tackle, and had a pretty good run with Coach (Pete) Carroll," Smith said. "He s a very efficient pass blocker and outstanding athlete. I really think he ll be a cornerstone for us on the offensive line to protect our quarterback and also to open up holes for our running game.

"I think I'm starting to get it," Baker said at the end of organized team activities. "At first it was overwhelming, but now it's starting to slow down."

Things, of course, will heat up during camp, where the Falcons will look to finalize any position changes on the line and finish installing the new offensive system.

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