FLOWERY BRANCH — Earning a spot on the Atlanta Falcons’ 53-man roster gave Brian Finneran a great sense of accomplishment.
Catching three passes in a 22-20 victory over the Chicago Bears last week brought validation after two years rehabbing from career-threatening knee injuries.
“I’ve done it my whole career, but it was pretty special to contribute on the field in a big situation,” Finneran said Thursday. “You always want to make the most of any chance you get.”
The Falcons (4-2), whose next game is Oct. 26 at Philadelphia, kept Finneran as one of six receivers when final cuts were made after preseason.
Roddy White was a clear No. 1 with Michael Jenkins the second starter. Rookie Harry Douglas, a third-round pick from Louisville, had taken the job as the third receiver, and few expected Finneran’s body to hold up long enough to let him compete with Laurent Robinson and Adam Jennings.
Instead, Finneran moved ahead of them both as it became clear that Jennings secured a roster spot almost exclusively for his role as a punt returner.
When a knee injury sidelined Robinson three weeks ago, Finneran’s role in the offense expanded.
His 13-yard catch last Sunday early in the fourth quarter gave the Falcons a first-and-goal at the 5. Two plays later, White caught rookie quarterback Matt Ryan’s 3-yard touchdown pass for a 19-10 lead.
Finneran finished with three catches for 29 yards, which might seem hardly notable considering that White, the NFL’s No. 2-leading receiver, had 112 and Michael Jenkins set up Jason Elam’s game-winning field goal with a 26-yard sideline catch with one second remaining.
But Finneran, a Falcon since 1999, has proven that he can still make clutch plays as a receiver despite other jobs he holds on special teams.
Two of his catches against the Bears converted third downs, the second of which came despite a holding penalty on Chicago cornerback Corey Graham. Finneran was running a short right-to-left slant pattern from the right side when he created enough separation from the coverage to catch Ryan’s pass on the right side.
Six games into his first season since 2005, Finneran knows the Falcons don’t need to rely on him as much as they did earlier in his career. His best season was in 2002, when he caught 56 passes for 838 yards and six touchdowns in 16 starts as a favorite target of former quarterback Michael Vick.
The focus of Atlanta’s offense is understandably on Ryan, the NFL’s third overall draft pick, running back Michael Turner, the league’s second-leading rusher, and White.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity,” Finneran said. “We still have a lot of football left, so it’ll be nice to have this weekend off and recharge my batteries.”
First-year coach Mike Smith is thrilled to get so many contributions from his rookies.
Besides Ryan, the Falcons start Curtis Lofton at middle linebacker, and the second-round pick from Oklahoma led the defense with seven tackles against the Bears.
Douglas, who caught five passes for 96 yards, dove late in the third to catch a 47-yard pass. Cornerback Chevis Jackson, a third-rounder from LSU, made three tackles as the nickel back.
“Harry had a big catch against their coverage zero in the all-out blitz for an explosive play,” Smith said. “He had a catch over the middle in the red zone. Curtis continues to progress in the first six games in our base defense as our middle linebacker. He has done an outstanding job running to the football. He’s a stuff and shed linebacker that makes a lot of plays in the run game. Chevis (plays) one of the most difficult positions because things happen so fast in the slot where he lines up. I think he is progressing well.”
Turner led the NFL in rushing for the first five weeks of the season, but Washington’s Clinton Portis moved into the top spot after Atlanta’s bruising back ran 25 times for 54 yards against Chicago.
As the league’s No. 2 rusher, Turner has gained 231 yards over the last three weeks, 164 less than Portis.
Defensive end John Abraham leads the NFL with seven sacks, two of which came from the left side of a defensive formation. Though he starts on the right side, Abraham is being used in a variety of looks, sometimes even dropping into coverage, as coordinator Brian VanGorder and line coach Ray Hamilton seek to maximize his athleticism and confuse opponents.
White, who’s coming off his first 1,000-yard season, moved up one spot to No. 2 in the league’s receiving ranks. His 566 yards are 87 less than Green Bay’s Greg Jennings. ... The Falcons are 3-0 against the NFC North, 1-0 against the AFC West, 0-2 against their NFC South rivals.
Jerious Norwood has returned 17 kickoffs for 493 yards. His 29.0 average is the league’s fifth-best. ... Jennings’ 19 punt returns have averaged just 6.8 yards to rank 23rd. He has five fair catches.