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Birds audition for roster spots in preseason finale


FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. --With one notable exception, the Atlanta Falcons have achieved the coaching staff's major goal of the preseason: stay healthy.

As the Falcons enter their final preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at the Georgia Dome, they will do so with that not-so-small factor in mind.

Head Coach Mike Smithsaid after Tuesday's practice it would be a game-time decision as to whether some players would completely sit out the game. Defensive end John Abrahamand center Todd McClure, two key veterans, did not practice on Tuesday and did not wear pads on Monday -- a possible hint as to the amount they might play.

Safety William Moore(hamstring) will not play, nor will running back Jerious Norwood(head, leg), which seems more of a cautionary move. With the exception of wide receiver Harry Douglas, who tore an ACL the first week of camp, the Falcons are relatively healthy.

"We want to make sure that we get our 53 guys as healthy as possible into the opening game there in September," Smith said. "If everyone feels good and is ready to go, they'll get an opportunity to play."

Some starters remained in the game with less than 10 minutes left in regulation last Saturday, but Thursday is sure to be different. Smith said the game will be the final chance to evaluate many of the team's players -- young and old -- before mandatory cuts on Saturday.

The Falcons, currently with 73 players on their roster, must get down to 53. They can then re-sign up to eight players to their practice squad.

Smith said Thursday was an important game for the Falcons' quarterbacks, but would not reveal how much starter Matt Ryanwould play.

"We're going to get our first-team guys in and out as quickly as possible," he said. "How many snaps that is I really can't tell you. But we want to get them in and out and give the guys we really need to evaluate an opportunity to go out there and compete."

Ryan said regardless of what his playing time is on Thursday, he feels prepared for the regular season, which starts on Sept. 13 against the Miami Dolphins at the Georgia Dome.

"We still have some improvements to make, no question about it, but I think we're ready," he said. "I think we're getting close. I think we'll be ready to go once Miami rolls around."

It's not just young players who are fighting for roster spots that will have the chance to get more playing time. One player who is looking for a spot is wide receiver Robert Ferguson, a nine-year veteran who has 151 career receptions for 1,993 yards.

Ferguson has two receptions in the preseason for 24 yards. Marty Booker, another veteran brought in during camp, leads the Falcons with 10 receptions for 93 yards.

Roddy White, Michael Jenkinsand Brian Finneranhave played well and Eric Weemshas made an extremely strong case for himself both in punt returning and also with five receptions, including the game-winning touchdown in the final seconds last Saturday.

Ferguson said he feels no anxiety about the looming cuts.

"No, absolutely not, man," he said with a laugh. "Just going out there and playing. Same thing I've been doing for years."

Ferguson has played for but two NFL teams in the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings, both of which have run the West Coast Offense. As a result, Ferguson has had to put in a great deal of work to learn the offense of Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey.

"It's totally different -- totally, totally, totally different," he said of this camp. "I've always been in the same offense my whole career so this is a totally new experience for me. It's been a huge, huge, huge, study, study, learning experience for me. I haven't studied this much since my first year in the NFL. I've been doing a lot of studying. A lot of studying."

Another player looking for a spot is Troy Bergeron, the former star with the Arena League's Georgia Force who spent four weeks on the Buffalo Bills' practice squad last season. Bergeron has had a nice camp with four receptions for 46 yards in hte preseason

In addition to wide receiver, cornerbacks Brent Grimesand Chris Houston will have another chance to improve upon last Saturday's showing before they will start competing with the newly-acquired Tye Hill, who will practice for the first time with the team next week.

Smith also specifically mentioned the tight end position on Tuesday, notably Keith Zingerand Jason Rader who could be competing with each.

In the Ravens, the Falcons will face a team that has gone 3-0 this preseason and has one of the league's top defenses. At quarterback, the Ravens have Joe Flacco, who has often been compared to the Falcons' Ryan, as the two were the first rookies to start the season at quarterback and have success in a number of years.

Flacco, who helped the Ravens advance to the AFC Championship Game last season, completed 23 of 28 passes for 247 yards and a touchdown in a 17-13 victory over Carolina last week.

The Ravens also will bring to town former Falcons cornerback Domonique Foxworth whose 11 passes defended for the Birds ranked second on the team last season.

A few of the Ravens' key defensive players missed their preseason game last week because of injuries, including cornerback Samari Rolle (neck/shoulder) and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (foot). University of Georgia product Dannell Ellerbe (knee), a linebacker, also did not play last week.

ADDITIONAL NOTES:After practice on Wednesday Smith was in a particularly candid mood. He said cornerback Chevis Jackson would work in Thursday's game both at the nickel position, his usual one, and at corner itself. He also said reserve linebackers Robert James, Jamie Winborn and Spencer Adkins are all likely competing for only one or two spots.
And in reference to jobs with the offensive line, he said that four players – whom he did not name – are likely competing for two spots. Currently, the Falcons' unofficial depth chart lists four players on the third team: tackle Adam Speer, center Ben Wilkerson, guard Ryan Stanchek and tackle Michael Butterworth.

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