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Falcons still ironing out defensive starters
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Jamaal Anderson, John Abraham and Chauncey Davis stand on the sideline during the Falcons’ scrimmage at Brookwood High. Davis and Anderson are battling to start on the defensive line alongside Abraham. - photo by The Associated Press

Falcons vs. Chargers

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: Georgia Dome

TV, radio: NBC; 550-AM, 92.9 FM

Web site: www.atlantafalcons.com

FLOWERY BRANCH — Coach Mike Smith is still waiting for two starters to win jobs on the left side of the Atlanta Falcons’ defense.
Chauncey Davis is trying to beat out Jamaal Anderson at end, and Brent Grimes is trying to hold off competition at cornerback.

The Falcons hope a home exhibition Saturday against San Diego will end the debate.

“We’re all out here battling for reps,” Anderson said Tuesday. “We’re all friends, and we all want to help our team win, but we want to start, too. It’s just total competition.”

With the season opener against Miami still a couple weeks off, neither situation is an immediate concern for Atlanta. Grimes, a former undrafted free agent, started the first six games last year while Anderson has started all 31 of his career games.

That doesn’t mean the Falcons will be complacent.

With just two career sacks, Anderson has yet to justify the decision to draft him No. 8 overall in 2007, particularly when his career is compared to right-side starter John Abraham, who ranks second among active players with 84 sacks since the start of 2000,
Grimes is no lock, either. Last September, the Falcons acquired cornerback Domonique Foxworth in a trade with Denver, and though injuries sidelined Grimes for much of the season’s second half, Foxworth started the final 10 games and played well enough that Baltimore signed him early in free agency.

Atlanta wants to see if Chevis Jackson will challenge Grimes after playing mostly in nickel packages as a rookie. The investment of a third-round pick last year means the Falcons want more production, and if it doesn’t come from Jackson, it could come from Chris Owens.

Another third-round pick, Owens has generated interest despite a leg injury that has limited him in practice this week.
Before the Falcons re-signed Davis early in free agency, Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff promised him a chance to beat out Anderson. The two linemen are friends, but both want to start for a defense that finished 24th in total yardage last season.

“It was important to me to be given an opportunity,” Davis said Tuesday. “At the same time, it meant a lot that they showed me some faith and wanted me to stay.”

Smith sidestepped whether Davis or Anderson will start against San Diego. They took turns in the first two exhibitions, but Smith, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and defensive line coach Ray Hamilton picked Davis for last week’s win at St. Louis.

“We try to keep the mindset that we are going to have seven or eight starter-quality on the defensive line,” Smith said. “It’s going to be a rotation that just doesn’t concern us on who is going to start the game. It’s going to be about matchups. We are going to change it up this week, so it’s going to be different than the previous weeks.”

Not every job is open, though.

“John Abraham, I can assure you, will start every game that he is healthy enough to start,” Smith said. “The other guys, it is going to be a matter of how the competition plays out. It could change from week to week and day to day. I don’t think that any one else on the defensive line that has the status of John Abraham.”

Working last season for the first time under Smith and his staff, Anderson had to basically relearn his position after a rookie year under Bobby Petrino, who resigned after just 13 games.

Hamilton, a respected line coach, taught him proper footwork, hand placement and body leverage. The Falcons also want to help him compensate for slower foot speed than Petrino and former GM Rick McKay envisioned when the drafted him after his junior season at Arkansas.

Anderson’s two sacks, coming in consecutive weeks at Philadelphia and Oakland, were only a glimpse of his potential, and Hamilton puts more stock in overall development.

“Jamaal still has a lot to learn, but to his credit, he works hard at what we ask him to do,” Hamilton said. “He’s come a ways, but he still has a lot left to accomplish.”

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