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Mike Smith's Practice Habits


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What I Learned About Football This Week That I Didn't Know Last Week

NFL teams, particularly one of the league's hot teams this season, don't practice like your father's NFL teams did.

"We're not trying to land on the moon here,'' Atlanta coach Mike Smith said Friday. "It's a football game. The idea is to keep your players as fresh as possible late in the season while continue to teach them what they need to know to play each week.''

Who could argue with that? But coaches have different ways of getting to that point, and one of the reasons the Falcons have been revived this year (probably not a major reason, but it's part of the puzzle) is the smart way Smith has gotten his team to practice.

Players generally have Monday off, except to lift weights or perhaps to stretch and do limited aerobic and conditioning work on the field. Tuesday is a day off. In regular weeks, when games are played on Sunday, the practice work is done Wednesday through Friday. In the first eight weeks of the year, Smith had his players work in pads on Wednesdays, in shorts and shoulder pads on Thursdays, and in shorts on Friday. Helmets are worn each day. In the last eight weeks of the season, Wednesdays and Friday are in shorts without pads, and Thursdays are in shorts and shoulder pads for part of the practice only.

Each practice begins --on padded days -- with stretching and aerobic work, followed by a physical portion of practice, maybe 12 to 20 minutes of offense working against defense in a timed, up-tempo period with limited contact. Then the practice stops. Players take off helmets and pads, if they're wearing them, and put them aside for the first of three learning sessions incorporated into the practice.

Each practice contains three of what Smith calls "Concept Periods,'' 10- to 12-minute blocks in which players break down into their position groups, or into full offensive and defensive groups, and walk through concepts they'll be using in the game plan that week. "It might be the kind of session where we say to the players, 'If they do X this week, we'll do Y,' '' Smith said. Sandwiched between the three "Concept Periods'' are two practice periods, where the offense might work against the defense and run a set number of scripted plays Smith wants to make sure his players work on during the week .

"We always script the number of plays we'll practice in a week,'' Smith said. "But we never say how long we'll be at practice. We tell the players we have to get through X number of plays. A practice that's scheduled for an hour and 40 minutes might be, say, an hour-32 because the guys are setting a quicker pace. They know the quicker they get in an out of the huddle, the quicker the practice will be over.''

Smith credits past mentors Brian Billick, Marvin Lewis and Jack Del Rio for teaching him how to run efficient practices. He explained that these practices "mimic the way guys play. In a game, you play for a series, come to the sidelines, look at the pictures, and talk about what you're doing out there. We're doing the same thing with these practices -- you play, you look at the pictures, you learn.''

The Falcons must be learning pretty well. They're five wins better than they were a year ago, with three games still to play.

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