FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Lorenzo Carter remembers his first (regular-season) NFL game well. The New York Giants played Jacksonville on Sept. 9, 2018, the day he officially started living a dream come true.
Looking back on it one day short of five years later, while representing his hometown Atlanta Falcons, the edge rusher would have some advice for his former self.
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"I would say, 'take it slow,'" Carter said Thursday afternoon. "I remember being really tired really quick. With all the emotions and adrenaline flowing, even when they're playing the national anthem, it can feel pretty intense. You just have to ride that roller coaster without getting too high or too low."
Carter will likely offer similar sentiments to young players in his position group, where two of the five Falcons edge rushers are rookies and Arnold Ebiketie is presumed to be a significant contributor Sunday against the New Orleans Saints.
The Falcons will need several rookies to step up in big offensive and defensive roles, or in the kicking game. Getting those young players prepared has been an obviously major emphasis over the course of the offseason program and throughout training camp.
"You see it happen all over the league a lot of times Week 1, there's kind of messy football right there," Falcons head coach Arthur Smith said. "We'd like to be to the point where we don't have the self-inflicted wounds. Guys are going to be nervous whether they play in the preseason or not. The adrenaline will be flowing and a lot of times you can tell them, and they can talk to veterans, but at the end of the day they've got to experience it for themselves."
Take a look as the team puts in the work at Flowery Branch to prepare for this week's game against the Saints.
On a team in transition, with promising talent coming from the 2022 rookie class, the Falcons will need Drake London, Ebiketie and Tyler Allgeier to step. They'll need Troy Andersen and others in various facets of the game early on.
Ebiketie should get his early reps out of the way against the Saints, with his siblings in the stands.
This year's No. 38 overall pick knows extra adrenaline will come on the first snap and maybe a bit after. That was the case in his first game at Penn State as a senior transfer. He anticipates that being the case at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
"It's finally time to go, but it's not about doing anything different," Ebiketie said. "It's about keeping the main focus on technique and what you've learned.
"…The more you learn and the more you understand the defense and what the [opposing] offense is trying to do, the better and faster you play. I've been watching film and will continue to do that so, come Sunday, you're confident and you know your keys and you're ready to play."
Dean Pees has been around long enough to know that young players, or even veterans looking to impress in a new spot, can get a little over-amped. And he also knows that bad things can happen if one of 11 is out of place on defense. The defensive coordinator tries to give those guys an assist coming out the gate.
"You have to in some ways start them out without making it really difficult," Pees said. "You try to put them in position where they have one thing to think about, not a bunch of things to think about before the first snap.
"There have been times, even with veterans – I remember one time in Tennessee where a backup had to go in, so I blitzed him. He didn't have to think about coverage or reads or anything, because I knew he was going to be wired up anyway, so I just sent him and it turned out pretty good. You try to make it as simple on them as it can be."
Those rookies must be sound against the Saints, in a game that could turn on a play or two. How much can the Falcons rely on rookies in the early going? Coaches must find that out in the preseason and adjust lineups and packages accordingly, while playing to strengths, of course.
That's an important factor for which young players makes it onto the field, because Pees isn't eliminating parts of his game plan/playbook based on a player who is on the field. That was a point made clear this offseason, pushing those looking for significant snaps to get their responsibilities down cold.
"They need to know it all," Pees said. "I felt like, last year, sometimes I wanted to call some things that I didn't call. I thought, I'm not going to do that again. We're going to have our stuff ready to go. … They have to know it. I don't want to be hamstrung, handcuffed in a way that I can't call something because so-and-so is in the game. And these guys know it.
"I made that very clear during the offseason. You're preparing to go in and play and we shouldn't not be able to call something because you don't know how to do it. That's not fair to the team or the organization or the fans or anybody. We need to be able to call what we need to call when we need to call it. It's your job. You're a pro."
All that's about the short-term, but the Falcons also have big-picture plans for players and their development. While game-planning takes center stage during the regular season, coaches are still pushing young players to improve their craft and bring talent out. Improvement may cause lineups and packages to evolve if players emerge during practice.
"Everything's going to be new for them. They played in the preseason, but we'll have to see who can handle what," Smith said. "And we have to understand there's a long-term vision at play as well. They may have not had a lot of productivity Week 1 but that doesn't mean that by Week 5 they may be up and really helping us."
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