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Falcons rookie learning on the job

POSTED: December 19, 2007 5:03 a.m.

FLOWERY BRANCH — Covering receivers last year in the Southeastern Conference wasn’t too hard for Atlanta Falcons rookie cornerback Chris Houston.

"I could just kind of run side by side because most of the receivers weren’t faster than me," Houston said Friday. "It didn’t take me long to see that you can’t give receivers much wiggle room in the National Football League."

That’s right, particularly when you’re lined up against St. Louis’ Torry Holt, the only player in NFL history with six straight seasons of 1,300 yards receiving.

Houston’s matchup with Holt last week was just another chance for opponents to pull out the welcome mat from under Houston’s feet this year. The Falcons know that other teams will rarely try to isolate Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall when they can take their chances with Houston.

It’s a tough job and one that gets no easier with Atlanta’s injury-marred defensive line putting little pressure on the quarterback. The Falcons rank second-worst in the NFC with just 19 sacks, five of which belong to linebackers Michael Boley and Keith Brooking.

So after Holt beat him for a 31-yard touchdown catch, Houston spent the rest of the first half on the sideline. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer wanted him to remember that rookies can’t afford even the slightest misstep in awareness or technique.

Houston returned with the starters, replacing Lewis Sanders, and played the last two quarters of Atlanta’s 28-16 loss to the Rams.

"I have to play on top of receivers more because I have no help in the middle of the field," Houston said. "Most of the time, we’re out there on an island, me and DeAngelo, by ourselves. If you don’t stay on top of them, it’s like they say, ‘One step, and he’s gone.’ Most likely, in a situation like that, you’re not going to catch up."

It’s hard enough for the Falcons’ defense to create any momentum in a dismal season. Against New Orleans (5-7) on Monday, Atlanta (3-9) will attempt to end a three-game losing streak after getting outscored by a combined 54 points since winning at Carolina on Nov. 11.

For rookies cornerbacks trying to understand the nuances of their position, playing for a losing team makes the job even harder. Houston, who has made six straight starts on the right side, seems always to have a position coach or a veteran teammate at his side in practice.

"When you watch him out there, his teammates are doing a really good job helping him out, making sure he knows where he’s aligned and what the call is," coach Bobby Petrino said. "But he’s certainly going to keep getting tested with D.Hall on the other side."

To Houston’s credit, he’s taken the kind of deferential approach needed from a 23-year-old newcomer. Safety Lawyer Milloy, a 12th-year veteran and a four-time Pro Bowl selection, has seen hundreds of brash cornerbacks leave the NFL quickly because their pride became a detriment.

That hasn’t been the case with Houston.

"He’s willing to listen to criticism and he’s willing to learn," Milloy said. "That was never a problem. It was a matter of getting on the field and facing live action that took some time."

Mistakes aren’t surprising, particularly against a former MVP quarterback like Peyton Manning, who picked Houston apart on big gains to Reggie Wayne and Anthony Gonzalez last month. Houston also was penalized for pass interference in the Falcons’ 31-13 loss.

"At first, he was just like a rookie," Milloy said. "He’d give up a play and then kind of go into a little shell, but he got out of that. He’s at a point now where obviously he’s an every-down starter. He’s giving up plays, but now he’s making more plays than he’s giving up."

Houston, who has 35 tackles and eight pass breakups, earned credibility in the locker room after he knocked down a pass at Carolina that could’ve led to another Atlanta loss.

Now it’s just a matter of reminding himself before every snap that he’s no longer playing at Arkansas.

"Even if I am faster than the receiver who’s up against me, that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop him every time," Houston said. "These guys don’t necessarily have to be faster because they know how to read your body language and how to put themselves in a certain spot to get the ball."



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