FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — 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 (players) ... 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-consecutive 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 ex-Clemson player 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. “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.
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 1½ sacks against the Packers. Worrilow, who was an undrafted college free agent from Delaware, has posted 10 or more tackles in six consecutive 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.