FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — The Falcons are giving rookies bigger roles, especially on defense, down the stretch of a lost season.
Coach Mike Smith said the commitment to youth which was so obvious in last week's loss at Green Bay will continue on Sunday against Washington.
Smith continues to say his priority is to win this season and establish momentum for 2014. He acknowledges there could be uneven performances from 11 rookies, including some who are receiving increased playing time in the final month.
"They're going to go through growing pains," Smith said. "We're going to go through growing pains, but long-term I think it will be advantageous for us to get these ... as many snaps as we can."
Smith began to look for more help from first-year players and other backups as it became clear Atlanta (3-10) had no chance for a sixth-straight winning season.
The youth movement is especially obvious on defense, where five or more rookies could start against the Redskins. Three first-year defensive backs could start against newly installed Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins — cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford and safety Zeke Motta.
The Falcons also list rookie linebackers Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow as starters. Two more 2013 draft picks, defensive ends Stansly Maponga and Malliciah Goodman, are in the playing rotation.
The matchup of last-place teams could be an ideal scenario for Cousins.
"They're in a similar position as us, being what their record is," Cousins said Wednesday in a teleconference with Atlanta media. "They do have some younger players in the rotation more often than they did earlier in the year.
"I think at this point in Week 15 the rookie label starts to mean a little bit less because these guys have accumulated a lot of playing time now. As the first season winds down, the fact that they're rookies doesn't carry as much weight as it did in Week 1 or 2 or 3."
The emphasis on youth gained momentum last week when veteran cornerback Asante Samuel was healthy but benched in favor of Alford, who previously had been a regular only in nickel packages. Trufant, a first-round pick, has been a starter all season.