FLOWERY BRANCH — Entering his 10th year coaching in the NFL, Mike Smith knows that preseason stats are essentially meaningless.
Starters rarely play past the second quarter. Teams traditionally prepare game plans for just one of their four exhibitions.
Yet Smith, in his first season as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, acknowledged Monday that he likes the effort of his defense, which hasn’t allowed a touchdown in 10 quarters.
"Any time you have success, I think you’re going to feel good about yourself and what you’re doing," Smith said. "Again, it’s the preseason and it’s a different time than the regular season, but it’s a really good start for our defensive unit."
When the Falcons (1-2) visit Baltimore (1-2) in their preseason finale Thursday night, Smith will be interested to see if some of Atlanta’s promising young defenders are ready for the Sept. 7 opener against Detroit.
Two rookies have earned important roles: middle linebacker Curtis Lofton and cornerback Chevis Jackson.
Lofton, a second-round draft pick from Oklahoma, moved into a starting job and replaced Tony Taylor last week. In a 17-3 win over Tennessee, Lofton had a team-high six tackles and impressed the coaches by beating blocks and taking down Titans running back Chris Johnson on two runs that combined for just three yards.
Jackson, the first of Atlanta’s three third-round draft picks, has held onto the nickel cornerback role since Von Hutchins suffered a season-ending injury early in training camp.
On the final play of the first quarter against Tennessee, Jackson, a former LSU standout, intercepted Vince Young’s pass for Roydell Williams at the Falcons’ 25 and returned it 22 yards to help set up a game-tying field goal.
"We told them from the beginning that we’re going to play the best 11 guys," Smith said. "If you earn it, you’re going to be in that position. These guys have done it. They’re going to make some mistakes, and we’re going to have some growing pains, but it’ll be fun to watch them develop and mature."
Of Atlanta’s six draft picks on defense, linebacker Robert James is the only one who can’t contribute this year after the fifth-rounder sustained a concussion and was waived injured.
Cal’s Thomas DeCoud, the last of Atlanta’s three third-round picks, is backing up Erik Coleman at free safety and working on special teams. Another fifth-round selection, right end Kroy Biermann had four tackles, one sack, one pass breakup and one quarterback hit against the Titans.
Cornerback Wilrey Fontenot, a seventh-round pick from Arizona, might be signed to the practice squad after spending the last four months behind Jackson and starter Chris Houston on the depth chart.
Coleman and strong safety Lawyer Milloy give the Falcons a combined 18 years of experience in the secondary, but both corner spots are relatively young.
Brent Grimes, who starts in DeAngelo Hall’s old job on the left side, has just two games of NFL experience, none as a starter, but the Falcons like what they’ve seen thus far in his ability to close quickly in coverage and to surprise opponents with a vertical leap that exceeds 40 inches.
Houston, a second-round pick in 2007, started 11 of 16 games last year on the right side but still seeks his first career interception.
For Smith and coordinator Brian VanGorder, the success of youngsters paired alongside established starters like John Abraham, Grady Jackson, Keith Brooking, Michael Boley and Milloy will be critical to a unit that seeks identity as a unit and needs major improvement from left end Jamaal Anderson, who had no sacks as the No. 8 overall draft pick last year.
"I think Brian VanGorder and his staff have done a nice job of installing the scheme and instilling a belief that we’re going to be a defense that’s going to make teams earn everything they get," Smith said. "They’re beginning to understand that if we can make them go the wrong way, there’s an opportunity for us to make a big play or there’s an opportunity for (other teams) to make a mistake."Notes: Perhaps feeling pressure one day after the Falcons signed 13-year NFL veteran Marcus Pollard, tight end Martrez Milner (leg) returned to practice Monday for the first time in over three weeks. ... No. 2 center Alex Stepanovich (back) practiced for the second straight day, and Smith believes he will be able to take some snaps against the Ravens. ... After returning five attempts for an average of 18 yards last week, Adam Jennings will start the season as the punt returner.