With San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith still smarting from a bad shoulder, the Falcons figure the 49ers are going to try and run the ball -- and likely try to pound it up the middle. To boot, Atlanta just cut their main run stuffer, massive nose tackle Grady Jackson, for rookie Trey Lewis.
"He's done a nice job and made some plays," defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said of Lewis. "In the running game, his production has been up. It's about him being productive and he's been productive the whole time. He's a rookie but he's done well, so far."
Lewis, a sixth-round draft pick out of Division II Washburn University, has played in all but one game and he's played well. Though still raw and growing into his body (6-2, 320 pounds), Lewis showed enough while playing both defensive tackle positions for the coaching staff to trust him as Jackson's successor.
"They've put quite a bit on me this whole year so it's not going to be much different as far as how much stress it's going to put on me," Lewis said.
One of the main reasons Zimmer and his staff sense so much promise in Lewis is that he is very disciplined. The main reason why Jackson was cut, according to team officials, is that he cut corners too often, blowing schemes and allowing for untimely gains.
That said, Jackson led the defensive line with 21 tackles -- 5.5 for loss. Lewis, meanwhile, has 17 tackles, which ranks second among defensive linemen.
"You don't necessarily not make plays but at the same time you can't sacrifice your gap to make a play because if you don't make that play, there's going to be a huge gain," Lewis said, sounding as if he's repeating what he's been preached to perfection. "In a sense, you have to play your man and your gap and control the center but if you can get off and make a play then great."
With Lewis, Atlanta now starts three rookies on defense. First-round pick DE Jamaal Anderson and second-round pick CB Chris Houston are the others. Fourth-round pick OLB Stephen Nicholas was rotating series with Demorrio Williams, but he's been out for a month with a high-ankle sprain. "Trey has to realize that he's going to be facing elite people in the league and sometimes he's going to line up next to another rookie (Anderson) and teams are going to come at them. It's more than being a football player for him now. He's a starter and he's got 10 other people depending on him."
--Cornerback DeAngelo Hall and coach Bobby Petrino met Monday morning to clear the air about Hall's comments last week, criticizing the team's motives for releasing Jackson. Hall said the move validated locker-room concerns that a youth movement was under way and said he did not buy Petrino's reasoning that cutting Jackson was a football-related decision.
Petrino said Monday that details of the morning meeting would be kept private. Hall, meanwhile, said he would not speak to the media except for after games the rest of the season.
--"Trey has to realize that he's going to be facing elite people in the league and sometimes he's going to line up next to another rookie (Anderson) and teams are going to come at them. It's more than being a football player for him now. He's a starter and he's got 10 other people depending on him." -- Falcons DE John Abraham, on Trey Lewis.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
--TE Alge Crumpler, who did not play against New Orleans Oct. 21 because of knee and ankle injuries, is supposed to resume practice Wednesday.
--QB Byron Leftwich was back at team headquarters rehabilitating his surgically repaired right ankle. He could be ready to play in Atlanta's Thanksgiving night game against the visiting Colts.
"I'm feeling good about everything," Leftwich said. "I think I'm ahead of schedule. As you can see, I'm walking around. I'm happy about that."
--RT Todd Weiner (arthroscopic left knee surgery) has ramped up his rehabilitation but he is not expected to play vs. the 49ers. He could be back the following week against Carolina.
--CB Brent Grimes, who has been on the practice squad all season, was signed to the active roster Monday. Grimes, a second-year player who stood out in NFL Europa, took Grady Jackson's roster spot.
--OLB Stephen Nicholas (high-ankle sprain) is not expected to play vs. the 49ers.
REPORT CARD AFTER 7 GAMES
PASSING OFFENSE: D-plus -- Joey Harrington is completing 63 percent of his passes but most of his throws are short and are coming in long down-and-distance situations when defenses are allowing safe underneath throws. There is little fear of the passing game with Harrington running the show. In the one game Byron Leftwich started, the throws were deeper and more threatening and it allowed for the barely existent running game to rear its head.
RUSHING OFFENSE: D-minus -- If not for a handful of breakout runs by under-utilized backup Jerious Norwood, the running game would not exist. Over seven games, the Falcons have rushed for 636 yards -- 25th in the league. What a massive dropoff from the team that led the league in rushing the past three seasons. No Michael Vick and the abandonment of the zone-blocking scheme have left this element a mess.
PASS DEFENSE: C-minus -- The 20th-ranked pass defense in the NFL has recorded seven interceptions but only nine sacks. The lack of pressure has given quarterbacks plenty of time to find open spots. Saving the Falcons is that they haven't faced many dynamic passing offenses.
RUSH DEFENSE: D -- The 23rd-ranked Falcons haven't stopped anybody on the ground when it matters. Nose tackle Grady Jackson, who led defensive linemen with 21 tackles, was cut for rookie Trey Lewis so things might not get better.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C -- The placekicking portion was a wreck early on as the team went with untested Michael Prater for two games. Veteran Morten Andersen has been solid, but he doesn't have the big leg. The coverage teams have been excellent and kickoff returner Jerious Norwood has beenthisclose to breaking off a few for touchdowns. The punt return unit has been pedestrian at best.
COACHING: C-minus -- The failure to clearly convey the overall blueprint to players has resulted in trust/lack of trust issues. On the field, players do seem to believe in the system Bobby Petrino and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer are trying to implement. However, some on-field growing pains and off-field communications issues have this team in a potential heap of trouble.