During Patriots and Falcons practices this week, there is one pool reporter assigned to each who is allowed access to the entirety of the session. Jarrett Bell of USA Today was with the Patriots on Wednesday and Thursday, while TheMMQB.com's Peter King was with the Falcons. The primary takeaway from King's latest report was that Atlanta center Alex Mack is still pretty banged up after suffering a fibula injury in the NFC title game. If Mack is forced to miss any time in Super Bowl LI, the Falcons will need to figure out the size, power and speed combination of Patriots defensive linemen Alan Branch and Trey Flowers with backup Ben Garland taking Mack's place. Here's King's full report.
HOUSTON – Pro Bowl center Alex Mack had his struggles in the Atlanta Falcons’ last full-speed practice of Super Bowl week Thursday afternoon at Rice University, and coach Dan Quinn said he was “concerned, yes’’ about Mack’s injured left fibula as the clock ticks down to Sunday’s game against New England.
“I just know his toughness and strength is so great,’’ Quinn said after another brisk and quick (88 minutes) practice on Rice’s grass practice field adjacent to Rice Stadium. “The good thing is I know he’s feeling better than he did in the NFC Championship Game. But yeah, I’m concerned. I’m not panicked, but I’m concerned.’’
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Mack and wide receiver Julio Jones (sprained toe) were listed as limited in practice, while pass-rusher Dwight Freeney (calf) sat out practice in what was more of a veteran maintenance day. Freeney, who turns 37 two weeks after the Super Bowl, is expected to be ready to play against the Patriots Sunday evening. “Dwight’s played with [minor injuries] this year,’’ said Quinn.
It’s quite likely Mack will play too. But he’s clearly the Falcons’ biggest issue entering the game. A couple of times during Thursday’s practice—on a 72-degree partly cloudy afternoon, with light northerly winds—Mack was seen coaching backup Ben Garland off to the side on technique work. That’s a mark of how the Falcons practice; often, receivers are seen coaching receivers, or quarterback Matt Ryan discusses technique or positioning with receivers and backs, or linemen coach linemen. Garland, a studious type, has been working overtime on New England tape with Mack in the past week.
“This game, because of the multiple fronts by New England, requires a lot of prep work by the center,’’ Quinn said. “Identifying this look, this front, this player’s positioning, they [Mack and Garland] spend a lot of time in the film room together normally … and I would say it’s been even more these two weeks because this opponent requires even more.”
Quinn said he was pleased with the overall tempo of the fast-paced practice. The Falcons did a lot of scout-team third-down work, and other than two dropped passes in team drills by the first unit, they looked crisp and read.
The second-year head coach said: “Man, was I pleased with the work today. This was a full-speed practice, with a lot of third-down work, and that’s where you make you. I like the way we executed our plan today. New England’s got a big playbook, and we threw a lot at the guys. Often times we make it as hard as we can on them, like today. It’ll never be as hard as the game, but we’re gonna try to simulate the toughest looks we can. I was pleased with how they reacted today.”
Several members of the FOX TV crew—including Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews and Chris Myers from the game crew, and Jimmy Johnson from the studio show—were on hand to watch practice. Also watching: Westwood One radio’s Tony Boselli, who will work the Atlanta sidelines for the radio call of the game. Boselli is one of the 15 finalists for Saturday’s Pro Football Hall of Fame voting.
Atlanta continues prep work with a practice, this one earlier in the afternoon, at Rice on Friday.