ATLANTA - A number of Falcons will be thinking professional survival when Atlanta plays host to the Washington Redskins tonight at 7:30.
The Falcons must cut 18 players by Tuesday to reach the NFL's roster limit of 60 players, and the aforementioned candidates are "on the bubble."
Running back Gary Downs, a former North Carolina State standout from Columbus, Ga., and safety Chris Shelling, an Auburn product who also hails from Columbus, may need some luck to make the team.
Downs, who backed up Rodney Hampton with the New York Giants last year, hasn't practiced all week because of a hamstring injury sustained last week against Tampa Bay, and he doesn't have a carry in two preseason games. Although there is no official pecking order, Downs has been treated as the fifth tailback behind Jamal Anderson, Byron Hanspard, Harold Green and Richard Huntley.
Downs, whose strength is his special teams play, actually may be granted a stay because of his injury. The coaches have indicated they want to see him carry the ball in a preseason game before making a decision.
"The one thing you can't (control) in this game is injuries," running backs coach George Sefcik said. "We've just got to be a little patient and wait until he's ready to go again."
Shelling, who played in 13 games for Cincinnati in 1995, is battling veteran Terry Ray for a job. The coaches seem pleased with the progress of rookies Marcus Wimberly and Chris Bayne, who are playing behind starting safeties Will White and Devin Bush.
It's doubtful that more than five safeties will be kept, and Ray, who started 23 games for New England over the past two years, has more experience than Shelling.
Wimberly is a fifth-round pick out of Miami, and Bayne is a seventh-rounder from Fresno State.
"They're rookies going 90 mph - sometimes not in the right direction, but they're learning and getting better," Reeves said of the two.
Huntley, a 1996 fourth-round pick, has been given every opportunity during camp to make an impression, but he simply hasn't done much. A well-built 225-pounder, Huntley amassed 6,320 yards rushing at Division II Winston-Salem State. That's only 34 yards fewer than all-time NCAA leader Johnny Bailey had at Texas A&I in the late 1980s.
The best bet is that four tailbacks will be kept, meaning that either Downs or Huntley will be sent packing.
Receivers Roell Preston, Tyrone Brown and Freddie Scott can't all make the team.
Veterans Terance Mathis, Bert Emanuel and Michael Haynes have spots locked up, and that leaves only one or two berths for the others.
Preston, a former Mississippi star who caught a 40-yard touchdown pass from Billy Joe Tolliver in the preseason opener at Detroit, may have an edge because he returned kickoffs last year.
Scott, who made the team last year as an undrafted free agent out of Penn State, caught four passes for 101 yards against Detroit. Brown started three games last year and was popular with former coach June Jones.
"The cuts are always tough because you have players (who) have been with you going all the way back to March," Reeves said. "All of a sudden, you've got to tell them that you think you've got some people (who) are better and you've got to move forward."
All four quarterbacks are expected to survive the first major cut. Reeves reiterated that the competition between Tolliver and Tommy Maddox for the No. 2 job is too close to call.
Starting quarterback Chris Chandler will play the first half tonight, followed by Tolliver in the third quarter and Maddox in the fourth. Maddox will play the third quarter and the Tolliver the fourth in the preseason final against Jacksonville.
Washington will be without starting guards Tre Johnson and Bob Dahl and tight end Jamie Asher, as well as defensive tackle Sean Gilbert, who is holding out.
Running back Terry Allen, a former Clemson star from Commerce, Ga., may be held out with a sprained shoulder, although he did practice this week.
The Falcons will be without starting guard Robbie Tobeck, who is recovering from a fractured thumb.