Tampa Bay wide receiver Vincent Jackson catches the ball over Falcons cornerback Asante Samuel during a game earlier this season. Samuel didn’t play a snap Sunday against Green Bay as the Falcons are beginning to play younger players with an eye on the future. (Reuters)
FLOWERY BRANCH — It certainly appears as if the Falcons are looking to the future by playing rookies over veterans as the season takes its last circles around the drain.
But coach Mike Smith insists the Falcons (3-10) are making lineup decisions based on “what is the best chance to win the football game.”
If that’s the case, Smith and his coaches have determined the Falcons are a better team without cornerback Asante Samuel on the field. An 11th-year veteran, Samuel was replaced in the starting lineup by rookie Robert Alford on Sunday at Green Bay and didn’t play a snap for the first time this season when healthy.
Samuel didn’t address reporters after the 22-21 Falcons defeat. He also wasn’t in the locker room during the media access period Monday and has declined interview requests for several weeks.
Smith said Samuel isn’t upset about his benching.
“He’s a team player,” Smith said. “He’s a mentor to these young guys and he will continue to be that.”
Samuel isn’t the only veteran to spend more time on the sideline as the season winds down.
Rookie Ryan Schraeder replaced Jeremy Trueblood at right tackle and played 71 percent of the snaps Sunday. Linebacker Akeem Dent didn’t play a single defensive snap against Green Bay. Rookies Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu are now mainstays at linebacker.
Smith said there’s “no tension” between the goals of getting young players experience and winning games. It’s possible the drop-off from veterans to rookies at those positions is small, if there is a drop-off at all.
Smith said the team wants to see the rookies get more playing but emphasized that the players earned it through their performance. Smith said the veterans know the reality.
“Asante, like a lot of guys on this team, understands the situation we are in and understand these (rookies) have worked hard and deserve a chance,” Smith said.
When safety Thomas DeCoud left the game with an injury, he was replaced by rookie Zeke Motta. At that point, the Falcons had four rookies in on defense: Alford, Worrilow, Motta and cornerback Desmond Trufant.
In addition, Bartu and rookie defensive linemen Malliciah Goodman and Stansly Maponga played significant snaps.
“We are all hungry for that opportunity to get on the field,” Worrilow said. “We all have a lot to prove. Whether you are a first-round draft pick or an undrafted guy, you want to prove to your coaches and your teammates you are a ball player and you are out there for a reason.”
One veteran who is exempt from stepping aside for the youth movement is tight end Tony Gonzalez, who is retiring after the season. Gonzalez played every offensive snap against the Packers while rookie Levine Toilolo was in for a total of 11 snaps.
“There are certain guys that are head and shoulders above other players in terms of the playing time they should have and Tony is one of them,” Smith said.