Falcons sticking with plan after emotional victory
ATLANTA — Last week, Falcons head coach Mike Smith didn’t think any tension existed between the team’s dual goals in the last few games of the season, giving young players game experience while also trying to win.
Somehow, the Falcons managed to pull off both in their victory over Washington on Sunday, doing so in spite of a multitude of mistakes on defense, which should be expected with so many young players taking snaps.
Seven rookies played defensive snaps against the Redskins, representing 47.4 percent of the total plays. If second-year defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi, who was inactive for the first eight games of his rookie season and did not register a tackle on defense last year, is taken into account, then that number grows to a majority (55.2 percent).
“There’s going to be a learning curve,” Smith said on Monday. “We say it all the time with these young players: We’re getting experience with on-the-job training with a lot of guys in the last quarter of the season. I think it’s going to pay dividends for us moving forward. We’re going to be able to determine who can play and they’re going to be put in a lot of different situations.”
Smith cited one stretch of about nine minutes — starting with 48 seconds left in the first quarter and ending with 6:35 left in the second — in which the Falcons allowed four plays for roughly 150 yards of explosive plays.
Smith said while other plays were sprinkled in — this was the sequence when the teams traded fumbles on three consecutive plays — that those four plays were almost consecutive.
The mistakes included lining up wrong and a lot of missed keys.
“A lot of it is youth,” Smith said of the reason behind the explosive plays. “There were two specific plays that were on two of our guys and then the touchdown pass after the explosive run was on one of our young guys. I’m not going to call them out specifically.
“We had no chance on the touchdown pass after the explosive run. It was kind of what we call a ‘fubar.’ It was not lined up correctly, didn’t have a chance. We had three young guys back there and they had a little bit of an issue getting lined up on that specific play.”
If a young player works alongside a veteran, the latter can often make sure the former is lined up correctly before the ball gets snapped. With so many young players on the field at once, the Falcons have no such safety net.
The situation was especially acute in the secondary. Seventh-round pick Zeke Motta started in place of injured safety Thomas DeCoud (concussion), second-round pick Robert Alford started in place of Asante Samuel at left cornerback and first-round Desmond Trufant — who has started all season — was a third rookie in the defensive backfield.
All three played 100 percent of the snaps.
Motta struggled to line up correctly on a 23-yard touchdown reception by tight end Fred Davis, which followed Alfred Morris’ 37-yard run with 48 seconds left in the first quarter.
Alford allowed a 62-yard reception by Aldrick Robinson and then Trufant was called for an illegal contact penalty even while giving up a 53-yard touchdown reception to Pierre Garcon with 6:35 left in the second quarter.
“A lot of it had to do with eyes and looking where you’re supposed to be looking,” Smith said. “There were teaching moments where if you’re getting beat on a double cut, if you’re going to hold the (receiver), make sure you hold him good where he doesn’t get the opportunity to still catch the football.
You take the five-yard penalty on a defensive holding and those are all things our young guys are going to learn. There were some run fits that hurt us on the explosive run in terms of the rotation, the technique we used on a long run so they’re all learning opportunities for our guys.”
The Falcons blew an early 14-0 lead and went into halftime trailing, 20-17. While a coach could have been forgiven for knocking over a chair or breaking something, Smith, who sees his role very much as that of a teacher, had a different approach.
“You’ve got to be patient,” he said. “Look, those guys are out there, they’re trying their hardest. They’re giving their effort. Our guys have not lacked effort all season long. It’s really been about execution.
As a coaching staff, you have to make those adjustments at halftime and you have to talk to the guys about how we’re going to do it better the next time we have an opportunity to be put in that situation. Yes, you’ve got to make some subtle adjustments.
“More times than not, most of the adjustments are made on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday (in practice). If you’re going to get after them and yell at them, I’ve found it’s better to do it on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. You want to be supportive. That’s a hard, physical, mentally tough game that those guys play and you want to be as supportive as you can as a coach and as a coaching staff.”
Specifically, Smith cited as a positive the fact that the Falcons allowed only 13 net yards in the third quarter after yielding 320 in the first half.
DeCoud (who hasn’t been cleared for contact yet) could return in place of Motta, as Smith said he will begin practicing this week. Smith said if DeCoud is healthy he will play.
Smith offered mixed messages on the health of linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (knee), though he said he was optimistic Weatherspoon could return for Monday’s game at San Francisco.
While Smith said the playing time will pay dividends, there are some concerns. None of the rookies forced any of Washington’s five fumbles (two were unforced). Trufant did have one of the interceptions and rookie Malliciah Goodman did recover a fumble. All of the rest of those big plays on the turnovers were turned in by veterans.
Only two more games are left in this 4-10 season for those young players to show what they can do.
“As coaches, you don’t want to have those negative learning situations,” Smith said. “You want to have positive learning situations and we’ve had way too many negative learning situations in this ballgame and the entire season.”