Falcons cornerback Robert Alford, left, is one of several rookies seeing increased playing time as Atlanta closes its disappointing season. (Reuters)
FLOWERY BRANCH — After rookie cornerback Robert Alford’s ill-advised lateral while returning a recovered fumble against Buffalo, Falcons coach Mike Smith almost blew a gasket.
He grabbed Alford and pulled him close, face to helmet, and had a little chat about the nuances of playing situational football in the NFL.
He’s not very vocal on game days, but with the Falcons playing so many rookies this season, Smith and his coaching staff’s patience have been tested during this disappointing 4-10 campaign. At least 11 rookies are set to play key roles when the Falcons face the San Francisco 49ers (10-4) at 8:40 p.m. Monday at Candlestick Park.
“You’ve got to be patient,” Smith said. “Those guys are out there and they are trying their hardest. They are giving us their best effort.”
Smith and his staff decided to play more younger players over the final four games of the season. Over the past two games, rookies have played 902 snaps against the Green Bay Packers and the Washington Redskins.
Against Washington, the rookies played 486 offensive or defensive snaps. On offense, right tackle Ryan Schraeder played 68 snaps (100 percent), wide receiver Darius Johnson played 29 snaps and tight end Levine Toilolo played 23.
On defense, safety Zeke Motta and cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Alford played all 68 defensive snaps. Linebacker Paul Worrilow played 58. Linebacker Joplo Bartu played 47. Defensive ends Malliciah Goodman played 27 and Stansly Maponga played 10.
In Green Bay, 10 rookies played a total of 416 snaps — 85 on offense, 331 on defense. At pivotal times, the inexperienced showed.
“We’re going to get a good evaluation of a lot of guys in the last quarter of the season,” Smith said. “I think it’s going to pay dividends for us moving forward.”
Rookie safety Kemal Ishmael played 13 snaps on special teams against Washington. He has not played from scrimmage this season.
“You are trying to get some small wins,” special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong said. “You’re trying to get some progress. Anytime that you can improve and get a guy to understand something, it’s a victory.”
Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s unit has been hit the hardest.
The Falcons have demoted veteran linebackers Akeem Dent and Stephen Nicholas in order to play undrafted rookie free agents Joplo Bartu (674 snaps) and Paul Worrilow (674). In the secondary, rookie cornerbacks Desmond Trufant (906) and Alford (475) have played extensively.
It should be no surprise that the unit is ranked near the bottom of the league in every key category: total yards per game (386.3, 29th), passing yards (254.9, 25th), rushing yards (131.4, 29th) and points (27.7, 27th).
“It’s been a challenging because you’re teaching all the time,” Nolan said. “Typically, when you are talking to somebody that’s experienced, you tell them once.”
It’s been a little different this season.
“There is a lot more coaching going on,” Nolan said. “It’s been a great pleasure and a great joy coaching these guys as well because they are very receptive. They lay it on the line. There is no quit in these guys. I think that will pay off for them individually and hopefully collectively for the Falcons in the future.”
Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has been playing three rookies with Schraeder’s time getting ramped up late in the season. Second-year tackle Lamar Holmes, who played only seven snaps last season, is essentially a rookie.
“It can be frustrating, but at the same time that’s what you are going to go through sometimes with younger guys,” Koetter said.
Smith can get livid on the sidelines. But he usually saves his outbursts for the officials. He rarely lays into a player along the sidelines.
“If you’re going to get after them and yell at them, I’ve found that it’s best to do that on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday,” Smith said. “You want to be as supportive (as you can in game). That’s a hard, physical and mentally tough game that those guys play. You want to be as supportive as you can as a coach and as a coaching staff.”