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Falcons' Joe Hawley getting up to speed for zone-blocking scheme

Near the conclusion of last season, Joe Hawley was one of the first people to applaud undrafted rookie James Stone for an admirable job filling in as the starting center.

Hawley also made sure to give his Atlanta Falcons teammate a playful nudge heading into 2015.

“The maturity James showed to be able to lead the offensive line and make the calls, it was very impressive,” Hawley said, “ but I did tell him, 'Enjoy it because as soon as I get back, that’s going to be my job.'"

Hawley started the first four games at center last season before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in his right knee. He is scheduled to take the next step in the recovery process in two weeks, when he begins doing drill work on the field. Hawley is confident about being back at full strength by training camp.

And Hawley is confident about excelling in new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme to clear paths in the run game.

“I don’t think it will be an adjustment; I’m actually really looking forward to it because I know it fits my strength,” Hawley said. “I’m an undersized lineman for the NFL, so running and my quickness I have to use to my advantage. I think that will play a huge role in it. I don’t think the adjustment is going to be hard. I think it’s going to be a positive.”

Hawley spent a few moments Monday chatting with new offensive line coach Chris Morgan about the scheme. Shanahan spoke at length about it when he addressed the media Tuesday.

“We believe in the outside-zone scheme,” Shanahan said. “It’s something I do believe in very strongly. And the main thing we’re going to get these linemen when they get in here is we just want to get them to run. They’re going to run a lot more than they ever have before. We’re going to try and challenge the defense from sideline to sideline, not just between the tackles.

“And it’s a challenge to get guys to run and yet still be as physical as anybody. So there’s an element there where it’s not just lateral, but it’s getting downhill, too. It takes time to develop. There’s nowhere I’ve been where you get in right away and guys just get it. You’re usually asking them to do stuff that they haven’t done consistently throughout their career. But when you get the commitment from guys to do it, you rep it all the time, guys usually come around.”

Former Falcons offensive line coach Mike Tice, who implemented some zone elements, often raved about Hawley’s ability to run. The 6-foot-3 Hawley weighs 290 pounds and entered the NFL with a reputation for his quickness. He even posted the second-fastest three-cone time at the NFL combine back in 2010 when he worked out as a guard.

But will the other linemen be able to run with him?

“I think the big thing in terms of zone-blocking is teamwork and unity as an offensive line,” Hawley said. “You’ve got to work well together. It’s a lot of combination blocks and getting to the second level with those combination blocks. If you can get that and work well with the guy next to you, that’s going to help the zone scheme.”

Health might keep the line from developing unity in the zone-blocking scheme immediately. Besides Hawley, tackles Jake Matthews (foot) and Sam Baker (knee) are recovering from significant injuries. Matthews had surgery for a Lisfranc ligament tear in January and has another three months before he’s back to full strength.

As for Hawley coming off knee surgery, he’s building confidence by the day.

“I think the biggest thing, because this is the first surgery I’ve ever been through, is getting your body stronger and adjusting to it and getting back to normal,” Hawley said. “And it’s also half mental; getting that confidence back in using it. I’m actually just getting to that point now where I’m starting to use it more. I’m doing some leg press and balance work.

“The doctors have told me that once I get to full health, it should be stronger than my left ACL. As I worked toward getting better and getting healthier for training camp, I think confidence is going to play a huge role. And I think that might take a little time once I get the pads back on. But I think I’ll be good once I get rolling.”