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Gonzalez working to get up to speed

Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez (88) missed much of training camp this season. (Kevin Liles/USA Today Sports)

Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez (88) missed much of training camp this season. (Kevin Liles/USA Today Sports)

Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, who had a rare agreement with the team to miss most of training camp to help entice him out of retirement, is working to get up to speed after missing three weeks.

He completed the first two days of practice July 25-26 and then did not return until Aug. 18.

The Falcons didn’t waste any time getting Gonzalez back involved in the offense in the third exhibition game.

On the second play of the game, quarterback Matt Ryan threw a pass to Gonzalez for a 7-yard gain.

“I felt good,” Gonzalez said. “I felt fine. There is room for improvement, there always is.”

Gonzalez will continue to work on his conditioning.

“I’m improving my wind,” Gonzalez said. “I wasn’t winded, but I can get better. I can explode (better) off the line of scrimmage. I like where I’m at, at this point after missing all of that time.”

Gonzalez was happy that Ryan called his number so early in the game.

“I’ve been happy with my progress since I’ve been back,” Gonzalez said. “I can take a little p ride knowing that I wanted to do that. I took care of myself for those weeks that I wasn’t here. I was preparing myself for when I got back here.

Gonzalez finished with two catches for 21 yards. He was only targeted two times.

“I tried to hit the ground running,” he said. “I didn’t want to let my teammates down, nor myself down.”

The Falcons have not played their starters in the final exhibition game under head coach Mike Smith.

“No,” Gonzalez said when asked if he wanted to play in that game against Jacksonville on Thursday at the Georgia Dome.

But given how the team performed in its dress rehearsal, Smith is going to be tempted to play some of the starters. Certainly, the starting offensive line could use some more work. Given all of the time that Gonzalez has missed, he likely could use the additional work also.

“We never play in the fourth game,” Gonzalez said. “But if the other guys go, then yeah I’ll go out there. It’s football and I have fun when I’m out there. But I haven’t done it traditionally.”

The Falcons have been picked by many prognosticators to win the NFC South and be a Super Bowl contender. They have not shown many flashes of brilliance during the exhibition season, however.

“We’ve got to play better,” Gonzalez said. “There is no doubt about it. It’s just a preseason game. It is that dress rehearsal, but we have got to play better.”

He figures the offensive line will address its issues and the receivers will not drop so many passes.

“We see some weaknesses that we’ve had,” Gonzalez said. “We’ll work on them and get them right. We’ve got to. We’ve got no choice.

“I know these guys take a lot of pride in what they do from the offensive line to Matt throwing the ball to the receivers and myself catching the ball. It’s the little things that we can correct.”

In perspective

After practice Monday, Falcons coach Mike Smith tried to put in context the six sacks allowed against the Titans during Saturday’s exhibition game.

Smith said it’s not always obvious which offensive lineman is to blame when the protection breaks down. He said during the regular season any potential problems with protection would be accounted for when game plans are developed.

Still, no matter the circumstances, there’s a bottom line to what happened against the Titans.

“We can’t have our quarterback get hit that many times,” Smith said. “We’ve got to get better.”

Much of the outside scrutiny was directed at Lamar Holmes, who has started at right tackle since Mike Johnson suffered a season-ending injury early in camp. According to Pro Football Focus, Holmes was responsible for two of the sacks and three other quarterback pressures against Matt Ryan in 24 pass plays.

“We gave up way too many sacks and often times people want to pinpoint it on one person,” Smith said. “That’s not always the case. It’s a unit and the unit didn’t play very well.”

Holmes practiced with the starters Monday with Ryan Schraeder occasionally filling in, which has been the typical pattern.

Pro Football Focus assigned left guard Justin Blalock responsibility for two sacks and two hurries, center Peter Konz responsibility for one sack and one hurry and left tackle Sam Baker responsibility for two quarterback hits and one hurry.

The Titans used more defensive line stunts than is typical for an exhibition game, which contributed to the protection issues for the offensive line.

“You look at the tape, it’s a half a step here and there, recognizing (the stunts) and bumping back just a hair faster,” right guard Garrett Reynolds said.

Reynolds, Konz and Holmes are playing larger roles for the Falcons this season because of the retirement of center Todd McClure, the teams decision to release Tyson Clabo and Johnson’s injury.

“For the most part (the chemistry) is developed,” Holmes said. “It’s getting better. Week by week and day by day we are starting to communicate and talk more.”

Bartu adjusting well

The Falcons have used rookie Joplo Bartu as one of the linebackers in their nickel package for much of the preseason. Against the Titans they used him as the lone linebacker in the dime package and Smith said the results were good.

“I thought he handled it pretty well,” Smith said. “He had a nice forced fumble on the quarterback scramble. He did some things in coverage that we liked.”

The Falcons are looking for better pass coverage from their linebackers after Nicholas struggled defending tight ends last season.

Ewing coming along

Fullback Bradie Ewing played about 15 snaps in his first game since suffering a knee injury during the 2012 exhibition opener. Ewing returned to practice last week after missing three weeks with an undisclosed ailment that he said isn’t related to the previous knee injury.

“He did a nice job in his first action coming back,” Smith said.

Ewing is expected to start at fullback and also be a key contributor on special teams.

Roster cut back again

The Falcons on Monday released rookie wide receivers Rashad Evans, Marcus Jackson and Marcus Sales. All three players were signed as college free agents.

The moves got Atlanta’s roster down to the limit of 75 in advance of Tuesday’s NFL deadline. Teams must trim rosters down to the regular-season limit of 53 players by Saturday. They can sign players to the eight-man practice squad beginning Sept. 1.

On Sunday, they released tight end Tim Biere, fullback Devonte Campbell, linebacker Nick Clancy, tight end Colin Cloherty, quarterback Seth Doege, defensive end Cam Henderson, tackle Jeff Nady, running back Donald Russell, safety Troy Sanders, center Matt Smith and defensive end Brandon Thurmond.

“When we go down to 53, those are some very difficult decisions. There are a lot of young men who have worked their tails off for us since April that are not going to be on our team. … it’s always a tough time,” Smith said.