Falcons eager for defensive starters to play

Jim Mora

MIAMI - Head coach Jim Mora still must make 12 cuts and piece together a practice squad before the Atlanta Falcons begin to focus exclusively on the Sept. 12 season opener.

In the meantime, a fifth and final preseason game awaits at Dolphins Stadium tonight. Mora and his staff are eager to see which players step forward and claim jobs, but no outcome would suit the Falcons better than to keep their principal players healthy.

Defensive end Brady Smith will make his preseason debut after missing the last five weeks to rehab his neck and left arm. In last week's win at Jacksonville, Smith was one of three starters that didn't dress.

Cornerback Jason Webster (hamstring) and linebacker Keith Brooking (thigh) were the others, but now that everyone is apparently close to 100 percent, Mora looks forward to having the entire starting defense on the field for the first time since training camp opened July 25.

Smith is the lone starter who has yet to take a preseason snap, so it's safe to say that the team will monitor him closely.

"We can't stick him out there and expect him to play 60 plays versus Philadelphia, even if he plays versus Miami," Mora said. "Even if he was 100 percent healthy, had never been hurt, had never had surgery, that's a lot of snaps for a (32)-year old defensive end. It's a lot of snaps for any defensive end. You try to roll those guys through. I think he'll be ready to go. It certainly appears that way right now."

With the Falcons guaranteed to keep Smith, Patrick Kerney and rookie Chauncey Davis as the top three ends, it's possible the team will make space for a No. 4. Khaleed Vaughn and Junior Glymph are the two remaining candidates battling for that job.

Competition remains close between Demorrio Williams and Ike Reese to start at strongside linebacker. Williams, a second-year veteran and a fourth-round pick last year, entered camp as the leader, but Reese, an eighth-year veteran who left the Eagles to sign as an unrestricted free agent, has had a better preseason.

Atlanta (3-1 preseason) also coveted Reese to contribute heavily on special teams. His experience, speed and technique were impressive enough last season to land Reese a spot in the Pro Bowl.

"Whether he starts or not, I don't know if the impact he has on our team will change," Mora said. "I think it's going to be just as dramatic, whether he's a starter or not. He's just that type of player. He rallies guys. He is a pro. He's a man. Demorrio Williams played well, too. Ike played a lot at inside linebacker and that's where he practiced today. Ike is very versatile. He can play any of those three positions."

The Dolphins (1-3) are still searching for an identity following last year's 4-12 debacle. Former LSU coach Nick Saban now runs the show in Miami, but the team has a major problem with neither A.J. Feeley nor Gus Frerotte stepping forward to win the job.

Former No. 1 overall draft choice Tim Couch, who played his way out of Cleveland and failed to hold onto the job as Brett Favre's primary backup in Green Bay, has relocated to South Florida in hopes of landing an audition with the Dolphins.

Saban seems somewhat content to forego any pretense of a passing game if Miami gave establish the run on offense and keep scoring low on defense. Installing a 3-4 front required former Pro Bowl end Jason Taylor to move to outside linebacker, and Saban used four of his six draft picks on defense, including a second-round spot on end Matt Roth of Iowa, a third-rounder on Florida linebacker Channing Crowder and a fourth-rounder on LSU cornerback Travis Daniels.

Even the return of tailback Ricky Williams, whose sudden retirement last year alienated teammates and led to the downfall of former coach Dave Wannstedt, has failed to spark an offense that will depend heavily on the run. Having Williams gives rookie Ronnie Brown, a former Auburn standout and the No. 2 overall draft pick, more time to figure out the demands of pro football.

Saban's no-nonsense approach has struck a chord with Taylor.

"'He goes off sometimes, but I think it's good," Taylor told the Miami Herald as he discussed Saban. "When people make mistakes and are repeatedly messing up over and over again, at some point you've got to grab them by the back of the neck and slap them."

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