Falcons need young players to thrive during stretch run

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — With the straightest of straight faces, Mike Smith decided to crack a joke on Monday.

The Falcons head coach, who, in his official business with the media, is mostly as serious as they come, had some fun at the expense of the team’s beat writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution while staring into cameras that would, at some point, carry the news conference on the NFL Network.

Noticing the reporter’s absence, Smith wondered aloud if he were in Green Bay — where the reporter had formerly covered the Packers, the Falcons’ Week 14 opponent — doing some “intel” on the situation of Green Bay’s injured quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

What a difference, as they say, a win makes.

For the first time in six games, the Falcons won on Sunday, while adapting to some of the changes of a disappointing 3-9 campaign.

Some of the changes on Sunday were philosophical, harkening back to Smit’s early days when the Falcons employed a run-first mentality designed to control the clock. But others involved personnel, as Atlanta continues to experiment with younger players for increased snaps.

In Smith’s first few seasons, with a young quarterback and one of the game’s top running backs (Michael Turner), the Falcons sought to be one of the top teams in the NFL in both running attempts per game and also time of possession.

With the selection of wide receiver Julio Jones in 2011, the Falcons made a somewhat tacit decision to become more explosive. That works when you’re scoring points, but it can also expose a bad defense.

Atlanta entered Sunday ranked 27th in the league in defense and tied for 30th in turnover margin.

On Nov. 21, the Falcons held the Saints — the league’s No. 3 offense — to their second-lowest points total of the season by winning the time of possession, (33:46-26:14).

Against Buffalo, Atlanta won time of possession by an even wider margin — 38:09 to 24:51 — a fact, Smith admitted somewhat sheepishly, that was abetted by the quickness with which the Bills scored at times, owing to explosive plays allowed by the Falcons defense.

“Yes it has,” Smith said. “I think time of possession is something we’ve done a very good job through our time here and possession, you’ve heard me say it before, possession is 9/10 of the game. You want to possess that football and I felt we did an outstanding job (Sunday).

“I thought it got skewed a little bit because of the big plays, unfortunately — the big, explosive plays and the short drives that the Buffalo Bills had — so we’ve got to do a better job on the defensive side.”

Smith then noted the Falcons allowed six explosive plays that totaled 214 yards, although two ended with his team in possession of the ball (forced fumbles).

Rookie cornerback Robert Alford saw extensive playing time against the Bills. Starting left corner Asante Samuel injured his arm and sounded as if he were well enough to return but the coaching staff elected to stay with Alford — who represents the future — based on performance.

Alford came up with the key fumble recovery in overtime, enabling the Falcons to win on their ensuing possession.

Smith felt the Bills were trying to target Alford, as they went at him three times on deep throws. Smith also thought Alford did “a very good job” on those throws.

Then, he explained the situation with Samuel. Alford played 55 percent of the snaps to Samuel’s 44 percent.

“Again, guys, we’re going to play a number of guys through this last part of the season,” Smith said. “We’re going to continue to do that. We need to get young guys as much experience as we can. Our No. 1 goal is to win the game.

“We felt like Robert stepped in there, Asante went down with an injury. Robert went in there. He was playing well, we wanted to see him play for an extended amount of time and I thought he handled it extremely well.”

On offense, the Falcons continued their experimentation on the line, which has gotten quarterback Matt Ryan pummeled of late and also entered Sunday 31st in the league in rushing yards. In the past two games, Peter Konz and Garrett Reynolds had alternated at right guard, depending on how they produced. This game, Konz played all the snaps at that position and the changes took place at right tackle.

The Falcons worked in undrafted rookie free agent Ryan Schraeder – mostly on running plays, it seemed — out of Division II Valdosta State in place of veteran Jeremy Trueblood, to whom the team has no long-term commitment. Schraeder got about 11 plays in at right tackle and another 20 as the team’s jumbo tight end.

Specifically of Schraeder, Smith later said on his coach’s show on 790 The Zone: “Ryan needs game experience. We feel he could be a good football player for us.”

Another offensive player who got more touches was running back Antone Smith. Smith broke a 38-yard touchdown run — his only carry of the game — and also had a 40-yard kickoff return on a reverse.

The Falcons also lined him up wide and threw him a deep ball that would have been a touchdown but Smith let the ball fall right through his hands. He caught another pass for six yards, his lone reception.

“We’ve seen him make those plays in practice,” Smith said of his namesake on the dropped deep ball. “… We got the matchup we wanted and unfortunately we didn’t convert but Antone has got the ability to do a number of things. He’s multi-talented. He can run, he’s got great explosion. He can catch the football and we all know what he’s capable of doing on special teams. In my mind, he’s one of the top special teams players in all of the NFL.”

Another young player whom Smith cited was rookie defensive end Malliciah Goodman, who missed the last two games with a calf injury. Goodman played 25 percent of the snaps and finished with two tackles.

“I thought he did some good things,” Smith said.

On Sunday, the Falcons visit the Packers, a team in worse straits than the Falcons of late. Without Rodgers, they have gone 0-4-1. Reports have conflicted as to whether Rodgers will return this week.

Expect continued experimentation with the Falcons — and perhaps even a few more jokes if things continue to break in their favor.