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Tuesday July 7th, 2015 7:05AM

Peter Konz steps into big role as Falcons' center

By The Associated Press
FLOWERY BRANCH -- Peter Konz had his proverbial baptism by fire as a rookie, starting 12 games at right guard for the Atlanta Falcons.

Now that he's the starting center following the retirement of Todd McClure, Konz will be grateful for that experience when Atlanta opens the regular season Sept. 8 at New Orleans.

"One of the main things I learned was staying calm," Konz said Sunday. "It's easy to have your head spinning in your first game and kind of freeze in the lights, as they say, but having that experience and playoff experience, especially, lets you know what level you have to play at every day."

There's still much to learn, particularly in making the right calls to keep quarterback Matt Ryan upright and clear space for running back Steven Jackson.

The Falcons went 13-3 last year and earned a No. 1 playoff seed as Ryan earned his second Pro Bowl invitation and led the league in completion percentage, but the rushing attack struggled in short-yardage situations and faltered in the second half of both playoff games.

Now that Jackson, the NFL's career-leading active rusher, has replaced Michael Turner, Atlanta hopes to cure its woes, but Konz's focus in training camp is on himself and the offensive line.

"I think it's coming along right now," Konz said. "Everybody is friends. Everybody is communicating really well. I think we just need to keep feeling each other out, know how we block, know how we react and that will make us a better unit."

Konz, a second-round draft pick last year, was a three-year starting center before leaving Wisconsin as a junior, but the Falcons slid him in at right guard when Garrett Reynolds suffered a season-ending back injury last fall.

Coach Mike Smith says Konz did his job well enough that the Falcons never hesitated to make him the starting center.

"I think it was a learning experience for Peter to know what the guy next to him is doing on both sides," Smith said. "Peter is a very smart, intelligent player, and we're asking a lot of him, but we've got a lot of confidence in his athleticism and his will and his passion."

Left guard Justin Blalock, the longest-tenured Atlanta lineman entering his seventh season, believes Konz's offseason work on the field, in the classroom and the weight room gave him a head start heading into training camp.

Blalock says Konz is still figuring out how to identify blitzes and shifts along the defensive front.

"Sam Baker, Garrett Reynolds, Mike Johnson and myself have been around the block a time or two and we've seen some things, but a lot of that, honestly, will be on him," Blalock said. "He's doing a great job so far. He's a very heady guy, so I don't anticipate any problems there."

Nonverbal communication is important, too, particularly on the road when crowd noise forces Ryan to use a silent snap count.

"There will be times when maybe things just happen too quickly before the snap and there's not time to speak," Blalock said. "Even during a play sometimes with the way physically that you control a block, there are a lot of intricate details, but he's doing a great job so far. That's why we're out here busting our butts so we can get up to speed."

Konz helped his cause physically by using free weights more than kettle bells in the offseason. He also ran more to improve his endurance.

"I'm bigger," he said. "I keep trying to improve on that and also to get functional strength. When it comes to the third and fourth quarters, we expect our team to be even better than last year."

NOTES: The Falcons practiced in full pads for the first time in camp. Smith was pleased that there were no fights or injuries. "It's our goal every year to get to that first game as healthy as possible," he said. ... Rookie CBs Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, the first- and second-round draft picks, are both taking plenty of snaps at nickel. ... DE Stansly Moponga, a fifth-round pick, was on the field after the medical staff cleared him for full contact. Moponga missed all of minicamp and the offseason training activities because of a left foot injury.
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