Falcons could start 5 or more rookies on defense

The Falcons are giving rookies bigger roles, especially on

defense, down the stretch of a lost season.

Coach Mike Smith said the commitment to youth which was so

obvious in last week’s loss at Green Bay will continue on Sunday

against Washington.

Smith continues to say his priority is to win this season and

establish momentum for 2014. He acknowledges there could be uneven

performances from 11 rookies, including some who are receiving

increased playing time in the final month.

”They’re going to go through growing pains,” Smith said.

”We’re going to go through growing pains, but long-term I think it

will be advantageous for us to get these … as many snaps as we

can.”

Smith began to look for more help from first-year players and

other backups as it became clear Atlanta (3-10) had no chance for a

sixth-straight winning season.

The youth movement is especially obvious on defense, where five

or more rookies could start against the Redskins. Three first-year

defensive backs could start against newly installed Washington

quarterback Kirk Cousins – cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert

Alford and safety Zeke Motta.

The Falcons also list rookie linebackers Joplo Bartu and Paul

Worrilow as starters. Two more 2013 draft picks, defensive ends

Stansly Maponga and Malliciah Goodman, are in the playing

rotation.

The matchup of last-place teams could be an ideal scenario for

Cousins.

”They’re in a similar position as us, being what their record

is,” Cousins said Wednesday in a teleconference with Atlanta

media. ”They do have some younger players in the rotation more

often than they did earlier in the year.

”I think at this point in Week 15 the rookie label starts to

mean a little bit less because these guys have accumulated a lot of

playing time now. As the first season winds down, the fact that

they’re rookies doesn’t carry as much weight as it did in Week 1 or

2 or 3.”

The emphasis on youth gained momentum last week when veteran

cornerback Asante Samuel was healthy but benched in favor of

Alford, who previously had been a regular only in nickel packages.

Trufant, a first-round pick, has been a starter all season.

”I feel we’re doing good,” Trufant said. ”A lot of guys are

having their numbers called and they’re stepping up. We’ve just got

to continue going and continue to get experience and make

plays.”

Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said the strong impact by the

rookies has been ”awesome.”

”You see so much promise in them and you see how far they’ve

grown since the beginning,” Weatherspoon said. ”You know you are

a part of something that’s going to be special and you’re just

looking forward to seeing them continue to grow and just playing

them a little more is going to make myself and some of the older

guys that much more comfortable with them.”

Motta could start against Washington after Thomas DeCoud left

last week’s game with a concussion.

It was the first time this season Samuel has not played when

healthy.

”It was tough,” Samuel said Wednesday. ”I’m a competitor. I

love to compete.”

Smith said Samuel is still contributing as a leader.

”Asante is a team player,” Smith said. ”Asante is a mentor to

these guys and he’ll continue to be that. I think Asante, like a

lot of guys on this team, they understand the situation that we’re

in and they understand there are some guys who have worked hard who

deserve an opportunity to play.”

Worrilow led the team with 12 tackles and 1 1/2 sacks against

the Packers. Worrilow, who was an undrafted college free agent from

Delaware, has posted 10 or more tackles in six straight games. He

is challenging safety William Moore for the team lead in

tackles.

Bartu, offensive tackle Ryan Schraeder and wide receiver Darius

Johnson also are undrafted rookies. Schraeder, from Valdosta State,

did not start last week but played 71 percent of the snaps.

NOTES: DeCoud (concussion) and RB Antone Smith (knee) were held

out Wednesday. Among players who were limited due to injuries were

TE Tony Gonzalez (toe), WR Roddy White (knee) and LB Sean

Weatherspoon (knee).

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org