FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The youth movement is in full force for the 3-9 Atlanta Falcons.
Both defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter made such clear when they talked about utilizing a few rookies over the final four games.
Specifically, Nolan mentioned incorporating second-round pick Robert Alford into the left cornerback role typically filled by veteran Asante Samuel. Alford played 35 snaps in last Sunday’s 34-31 win over the Buffalo Bills and had the key fumble recovery in overtime.
Samuel played 28 snaps.
"It’s that time of year – I think all the guys understand it, because [Samuel] is not the only one – across the board on defense and offense. There are several guys that are giving up some reps to the young guys,’’ Nolan said. "[Samuel’s] been on a lot of teams and played a lot of years. It’s kind of the nature of the beast when you get late in the season. You know, you start to take some more looks at young guys to see what they can do.
"It’s not always necessarily 'take somebody’s job.' A lot of times, it’s just to see so you can develop them. You’d like to be developing guys when you get ahead by a few touchdowns. But when you get late in the season, you want to come out of it learning more about your people. Because as we all know, we’re not playing for a playoff spot anymore."
Alford has handled his role well this season. He kept his head up after being pulled off punt returns following a fumble. And he’s shown flashes of his great speed and ball skills on defense. Alford leads the team with two interceptions to go with his fumble recovery.
"I think Robert’s done a good job," Nolan said. "Look, he’s our leading ball disruptor as far as takeaways go. He intercepted the ball in the Carolina game, which was an outstanding play in the corner of the end zone. And he had one earlier in the season on a deep crossing route. And, obviously, he picked up that fumble the other day and made a play on it.
"We’ve been pleased with Robert all along. That’s why the other day when we went in, we left him in because he’s been doing a good job. And hopefully, [he] just keeps getting better."
Head coach Mike Smith lauded Alford for the way he played the deep ball against the Bills, although Smith also reprimanded the rookie for throwing a lateral to fellow rookie Desmond Trufant after Sunday's fumble recovery. Alford and Trufant are sure to make plenty of the plays together in the future, although Trufant has been in the spotlight more often this season.
"He wasn’t as game ready, we didn’t think, as early as [Trufant] was," Nolan said of Alford. "But going forward, you know, he’s a guy that we’ve got to continue to look at because he’s a good player. He’s like [Trufant]."
On the offensive side, Koetter talked about getting rookie tight end Levine Toilolo and rookie tackle Ryan Schraeder more involved. Toilolo had a nice 12-yard catch against the Bills, while Schraeder played a season-high 27 snaps at right tackle and lined up at tight end in the jumbo package.
Koetter said Schraeder did OK but had a couple of misses. And he wants to get Toilolo more playing time to improve his blocking skills.
"At the end of the year here, we know Levine’s a player that we’re trying to … Tony [Gonzalez] is not going to be here next year. We know we’re going to try and get Levine some work. We know we’re going to try and get Schraeder some work. But, you’re also trying to win the games. Fine line there, but we need to get both those guys some work."