Falcons Put Faith in Youth

New head coach Bobby Petrino is putting faith in a rookie kicker who barely had enough time to make an impression on the team. His one preseason appearance apparently was enough. See what Petrino and special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said about the situation, along with notes from Atlanta, as the Vikings prepare to face the Falcons on Sunday.

The Falcons had just two games decided by a field goal or less last season, winning both. Coach Bobby Petrino must think that trend will continue.

Atlanta goes into Sunday's season opener at Minnesota with a first-year kicker who was cut by three teams over the past year before latching on with the Falcons. In just one workout, one practice and one preseason game, Matt Prater earned the kickoff and placekicking duties over veteran Billy Cundiff.

The move raised some eyebrows among some players in the locker room but in this season of transition, few questions are asked.

"It was a decision that once we got him here and really saw the ability that he has," Petrino said of Prater, "we felt that was the best for our franchise."

Special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg had been tracking Prater since the heavily tattooed kicker was at Central Florida. Prater kicked for Detroit last preseason and, after trying out for the Vikings, kicked for Miami this preseason. Rosburg had seen enough to believe that Prater has a future in his league.

"It makes you a little bit nervous," Petrino said Wednesday about having a rookie kicker. "He is certainly excited about the opportunity. He is a young man that has a tremendous leg, showed in a short period of time that he has a future ahead of him. We have just got to make sure that he is not too nervous about it, but I really liked what we saw in the period of time we had him here. It was good to come up the other night where he had to basically kick a game-winning field goal and put the pressure on him there. It gives us the opportunity to have him handle both kickoffs and field goals which allows (Michael) Koenen to punt and I think that will help his punting a lot more."

Rosburg showed his penchant for field position by opting for a bigger leg rather than experience.

The team charted Koenen's punts in Games 2 and 3 — he kicked off those games — and saw a decline in depth.

"The NFL is a league where opportunities abound," Rosburg said. "The most important thing is when you get an opportunity, make the most of it."

The Falcons didn't stop there with the potential vs. proof philosophy.

Atlanta traded former Pro Bowl punt and kickoff returner Allen Rossum to Pittsburgh for a late-round draft pick in 2008. Second-year player Adam Jennings takes over for Rossum.

"Adam had a big kickoff return and caught the ball well in the wind in Buffalo," Rosburg said, referring to Game 2 in the preseason. "Allen came back in Cincinnati game and ran a kickoff return back very well. Everybody's aware (Rossum) has been doing this at a high level for a long time. In the end, we were blessed to have two guys who could do it and we only had room for one."

Jennings won out over Rossum because of his ability but also because of his versatility. Jennings worked his way into the wide receiver rotation and he plays on other special teams. Rossum had been demoted behind two rookies in the secondary and was solely a returner.

"I don't know all the reasons why things happened the way they did," Jennings said. "Allen was a great player and I know a lot of people liked him for what he did on the field and in the community. This is an exciting thing for me and I want the responsibility.

"I've never gone into a regular-season game knowing I was going to touch the football. Now I know I'm going to have a chance to affect the outcome. I'm very excited about that."


  • FS Chris Crocker (bone bruise, knee) did not practice Wednesday. Coach Bobby Petrino said the team is preparing to start second-year player Jimmy Williams in Crocker's place. This could affect Atlanta's nickel package because Crocker is the nickel back. Lewis Sanders likely would move from cornerback to nickel and rookie Chris Houston would play cornerback.

  • The trade of returner Allen Rossum to Pittsburgh last Sunday was not much of a surprise, even though the Falcons parted with one of the best return men in their history. Rossum was solely a returner who carried a relatively high salary ($770,000) for being one-dimensional. Adam Jennings, who will replace Rossum, worked himself into the wide receiver rotation and plays on several special teams units.

  • The decision to cut veteran kicker Billy Cundiff in favor of first-year kicker Matt Prater was a difference in leg strength. Prater's deep kickoffs and ability to hit long field goals proved enough to special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg to select potential over experience. How Prater holds up at the moment of truth in a game doesn't seem to concern the Falcons coaching staff.

  • With Prater kicking off, Michael Koenen will focus solely on punting. Coach Bobby Petrino said the distance on Koenen's punts suffered when he kicked off during the preseason. Field position clearly is a philosophical premium for this staff.

  • RB Jason Snelling was re-signed to the practice squad after being cut in favor of Artose Pinner. The Falcons preferred Pinner, a five-year veteran, to be the No. 3 tailback because of his experience. Snelling led Atlanta in rushing in the preseason and the team hopes to develop him for the future, possibly as a fullback.

    With defensive tackle Rod Coleman's durability a concern following his offseason thigh surgery, the Falcons opted to keep five defensive tackles. Three were not on the team last season.

    Rookie Trey Lewis, drafted in the sixth round from Washburn, has been a big surprise and has shown the ability to play both tackle spots. Atlanta also signed Dallas castoffs Montavious Stanley and Remi Ayodele. The familiarity between Stanley and Ayodele and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who spent 15 seasons with the Cowboys, factored into both players being signed.

    Stanley will back up starter Grady Jackson at nose tackle while Ayodele and Lewis are being worked at both tackle spots. As for Coleman, he likely will play only on passing downs to limit the wear and tear on his leg. Jonathan Babineaux is expected to start alongside Jackson against the Vikings.

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