With injuries to starting cornerback Brent Grimes and nickel corner Kelvin Hayden, the Falcons have a thin secondary as they hit the road for Houston this weekend.
Falcons head coach Mike Smith announced Wednesday that Grimes will be out for multiple weeks with an injury. Kelvin Hayden was inactive at practice on practice and Smith said Hayden was "very doubtful" for Sunday's game.
With those statuses come a different status for three players in the Falcons' secondary. Chris Owens, Dominique Franks and Darrin Walls will be thrust into action. For the rookie Walls it will be the first time he's been on the active roster for a game this season.
However, this isn't the first rodeo for Owens, a 2009 third-round pick started six games at the end of his rookie season and played well. He started three games in 2010, but was used primarily as the team's nickel corner. His results were mixed, but Smith said he nor his player have been discouraged by the tough times he's seen on the field.
"I think that Christopher Owens, when you play corner in this league, you're going to have some plays that you like and plays that you don't," Smith said on Wednesday. "I like his attitude. I like the way he competes and we're moving forward with the guys that are healthy to play this week."
Franks, a second year corner out of Oklahoma, gathered an interception in one of the two games he played in as a rookie. This season he's been used sparingly because of Owens being ahead of him and the signing of the veteran Hayden. He's been active for five games this season and saw most of his action last week against Minnesota, getting five tackles and one quarterback hit.
Knowing he'll see the field is a plus for Franks, instead of entering a game with the uncertainty of what his role will be. With that knowledge he can better prepare in the practices leading up to Sunday because of the extra time he's getting.
"It's a lot easier because you're going out there on the practice field and getting the rep and seeing things firsthand," Franks said. "Before you may only see it on the sidelines and trying to visualize it. Now you're out there so it makes it a lot easier when your number gets called on Sunday so you can know what you've seen."
Walls was one of the surprises for the Falcons in training camp, entering the training season as an undrafted free agent with the odds against him. His work in camp earned him a spot on the 53-man roster, an achievement for an undrafted rookie.
Although his playing time will be up in the air, he's the emergency corner for the Falcons, the last line of defense. Being active for the first time is a milestone for Walls in his young career.
"Walls will definitely be a guy that's in the mix at this point in time," Smith said. "So, Darrin Walls should get his first opportunity to be on the 46-man roster."
Owens agrees with Franks assessment that knowing he'll be in the mix on Sunday makes things different in terms of preparing. The "what if" is removed and it's only a positive. In his third season, Owens is familiar with preparing as a starter.
"Now I know my name is going to be called and I've got to prepare as if I'm a starter," Owens said. "I'll be ready on Sunday."
Atlanta's defense will face an interesting proposition against the Texans. Although Houston has a dangerous offense, they're turning to an unknown themselves, rookie quarterback and former third-stringer TJ Yates. The Texans also employ a top-five running game and the popular opinion is they'll lean on the run as they acclimate their new quarterback.
The Falcons' corners may not be tested as much as they could expect from a veteran QB, but they know they'll accountable for their own play and not allowing the defense, the No. 2-ranked run defense in the NFL, to experience a drop off.
"I'm held to the same standard," Owens said. "We've got the arrow pointing up and we're going to keep it pointing up."
Andre 3000:Mike Smith isn't shy about the fact that he talks with his players about teams they once played for.
It just so happens one of his high-profile players played with this week's first opponent, for six years in fact.
"Again, we always talk to our guys about teams that they've played on, the coaching staffs and get some good information based on the specific players," Smith said on Monday. "They've spent time there and they know certain things about certain players and how they do things. So we've already had that conversation."
In this particular case, the Texans best player faced this particular Falcon every day in practice.
This week it's Andre Johnson vs. Dunta Robinson, Part 2, and this time it counts.
"I can say we both know each other fairly well," Robinson said. "He knows me and I know him. We went against each other every day for six years so some things I am familiar with. I faced him every day so I understand his speed and his strength. A lot of guys that are facing a receiver like that for the first time, you really don't know until you play against it. I've seen it. I just try to use some of the things that I've learned facing him every day and I'm just going to go out there and try to make him work for it."
It hasn't been a typical year for Johnson though. A Week 4 hamstring injury kept Johnson out until last week's win over Jacksonville. While he was out his team lost its starting quarterback and last week he watched the backup go down as well. Now the backup's backup is playing, but Robinson thinks Johnson is too good to just assume the Texans won't try to get him involved simply because of the inexperience at QB.
"They use him in so many different ways," Robinson said. "He'll line up in the backfield. He'll play multiple positions, where they're trying to get the ball in his hands. I'm pretty sure they'll try to make it so the quarterback has some easy throws early, some easy completions to Andre early. I think they'll go from there. I don't think they'll completely go away from their passing game because it's such a big part of their offense."
The 6-foot-3 Johnson is an imposing figure on the field and when he's right he's among the best receivers in the NFL that can be counted on one hand. Last week he caught the 700th pass of his career, a feat accomplished in 120 games, making him the player to reach that mark in the second-fewest games.
A matchup like Johnson presents is one Robinson enjoys. Known as a physical corner, Robinson appreciates the style Johnson brings to the game. This matchup will require equal parts technical and physical. The Falcons will throw multiple players and schemes at him to try to keep him off his game.
"Andre is a big, physical receiver," Robinson said. "You can't give him the same look play in and play out. You have to switch it up and give him a lot of different looks. That's what we'll try to do as a defense. "
Under The Radar:Although they've won five of their last six games, the Falcons aren't the talk of the NFC. Instead, everyone is talking about the undefeated Packers, the streaking Saints or the surprising 49ers. Otherwise the discussion is on teams facing particularly challenging situations regarding their playoff futures. Teams like the Bears and the Giants have such circumstances.
We won't mention the Eagles and Lions. Everyone else is, though.
It could be said the Falcons are a team under the radar.
Or maybe they're laying in the weeds.
Either way, Atlanta isn't too concerned with what others may say about where they stand right now. In fact, they're pretty comfortable with whatever is said or written.
"We'd prefer it that way," Michael Turner said. "We're not a team that looks for a lot of press. We just like to go out there, just play and build on what we can."
Tony Gonzalez has a 40-minute commute to work each day and he admits he tunes into the sports talk stations to keep up with what's going on. He mentioned on Wednesday that he hasn't heard much Falcons talk lately and frankly, he doesn't care.
"I don't think the guys on this team care," he said. "We're going to keep going out there and keep getting wins. Come playoff time, we'll see what kind of statement you can make."
Injury Report:John Abraham, Todd McClure and Tony Gonzalez all returned to full participation in practice on Thursday. Sam Baker and Vance Walker were limited.
Brent Grimes, Kelvin Hayden, Stephen Nicholas, Julio Jones and Michael Turner did not practice again on Thursday.
Smith continued to say Hayden is doubtful against the Texans and Grimes was not with the team on Thursday because of the surgery he was scheduled to undergo.
The head coach added that he hopes to get some of the players that did not practice on Wednesday and Thursday back at practice on Friday.