SUWANEE, Ga. -- As far as the Atlanta Falcons are concerned, the countdown starts tonight.
The team's exhibition game against the Tennessee Titans won't be about winning and losing, but the first significant checkpoint heading into the season opener Sept. 12 against Minnesota.
"We're getting closer, that's all it means," said defensive tackle Travis Hall. "You can tell the guys are getting a little more excited this week. We're a little more focused. Minnesota is in the back of everybody's mind right now."
First, the defending NFC champions have to participate in the pageantry of tonight's preseason game in downtown Nashville. It will mark the home debut of the Titans in their new Adelphia Coliseum. Kickoff is at 8 p.m.
For the Falcons, however, the game is nothing more than the most significant workout for the starters since the team opened training camp a month ago.
"The first group will play about a half," said coach Dan Reeves. "We want to take a longer look at them as we get closer to the Minnesota game."
Around camp, everything is Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota.
"Minnesota is our first game," said running back Jamal Anderson. "That's when the games count. These other (exhibition) games are to get ready for the regular season. That's all."
A major topic in camp this week has been the team's poor tackling in the first two exhibition games. As a result, the defense concentrated more on fundamentals this week than during the first three weeks of practice.
"We're using these next two games to get better," Hall said. "We concentrated a lot on tackling this week, especially the linebackers and the secondary. Up front, we don't have a lot of those problems.
"We know we have two weeks to be awesome. We have to be at our best in time for the Minnesota game. Right now, we're still a step behind, but we're closer."
Atlanta will be closer to full strength tonight as well. Defensive end Chuck Smith (toe), tight end O.J. Santiago (knee), linebacker Henri Crockett (knee) and defensive back Elijah Williams (knee) all returned to practice after missing most of training camp, and each could play tonight.
At the same time, wide receiver Chris Calloway (ankle) and cornerback Randy Fuller (foot) won't play tonight.
Calloway was signed during the offseason to replace Tony Martin, who led the team in receptions and yardage last year. Martin was cut after he was indicted on four federal money laundering charges and one charge of conspiracy to hide drug proceeds in South Florida.
The Falcons were willing to keep Martin this year if he was willing to waive a $400,000 signing bonus until his legal problems were resolved. He refused and the team cut him weeks after Super Bowl XXXIII.
Martin was found not guilty in federal court Thursday and Calloway continued his routine of jogging on the sidelines. Calloway has yet to play in a preseason game after suffering an ankle sprain in the first week of training camp.
"Right now, we're not where I'd like us to be, but you're never where you'd like to be in training camp," Reeves said of the team's preparation. "Injuries, of course, have a lot to do with that. We've got two weeks to get ready. We made some mistakes in our first two (preseason) games that we can't make against Minnesota. We have to learn from that.
"I've never been through a training camp that didn't have injuries. Somewhere during the season, we'll be in the same situation and we'll know how to handle it. That's football. The injuries can be a positive thing because some of your younger guys got a chance to play. We've had a chance to work on our depth. We know what guys can do in certain situations."
The biggest concern remains Martin's old position at wide receiver.
"Nobody has stepped out yet," Reeves said. "With Chris out, nobody else has moved in there and taken the job."
Second-year player Tim Dwight, the team's top kick returner, will start in Martin's spot tonight. Others who will get a chance to make an impression include Eugene Baker, Jammi German, Ronnie Harris and rookie Rondel Menendez. Dwight and German have had problems making catches, Harris has been hurt and Menendez, who runs the 40-yard dash in 4.24 seconds, has had problems learning the team's plays.
"Chris looks pretty good running on the side, but you don't know how he's going to be when he's out there making cuts," Reeves said. "That's something totally different."
If Calloway is healthy enough to practice next week, he could play in the team's final preseason game - a trip to Cincinnati next Friday. After that, the countdown ends with Minnesota.
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