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More than Matt: Falcons rookies impressive
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FLOWERY BRANCH — Matt Ryan isn’t the only rookie having a good training camp with the Atlanta Falcons.

As expected of a quarterback drafted No. 3 overall, Ryan commanded everyone’s attention with a 105.7 passer rating as Atlanta opened the preseason with a 20-17 loss at Jacksonville.

First-year Falcons coach Mike Smith was also impressed, for the most part, with his other high draft picks:

Left tackle Sam Baker gave up a sack to Paul Spicer that was nullified by a Jaguars offside penalty, but the 21st overall pick out of Southern Cal essentially held his ground against Jacksonville’s 10th-year defensive end.

Atlanta’s second-round pick, linebacker Curtis Lofton, tied for the team lead with six tackles.

Chevis Jackson, the first of three third-round picks, started at right cornerback in place of Chris Houston (shoulder) and worked well in man-to-man and zone coverages.

Atlanta’s second third-rounder, receiver Harry Douglas, caught two passes for 19 yards, but also was penalized twice on consecutive plays for a false start and an illegal shift.

"One thing that I thought was most positive was that we were very physical," Smith said of the team. "I thought in the first half we went toe-to-toe with those guys."

Much of the Falcons’ success or failure at quarterback likely could depend on how well Baker, whose primary job is to protect the blind side of Ryan and starting quarterback Chris Redman, plays this year.

Under former coach Bobby Petrino, Atlanta’s offense scored just 16.2 points per game, the NFL’s fourth-lowest average. Quarterbacks were sacked 47 times to tie for seventh-worst.

Entering this week’s preseason home game against Indianapolis, injuries and inexperience threaten to undermine the offensive line for a second straight year.

On Monday, center Alex Stepanovich, who has worked as a starter since longtime incumbent McClure left practice in the first week of camp, was carted off the field with a back injury.

After practice, Smith said it was still too early to give a prognosis on Stepanovich, but Smith didn’t sound as if McClure or right tackle Todd Weiner, a starter since 2002, will be ready to play against the Colts.

Without McClure or Stepanovich, third-stringer Ben Wilkerson would start at center.

Right guard Kynan Forney, a starter since 2001, has lost his job to Harvey Dahl, who has just five games of NFL experience since Dallas signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2005.

Whoever plays on the interior line must help eliminate penalties. Baker, Stepanovich, left guard Justin Blalock, right tackle Tyson Clabo, left tackle Terrance Pennington and Forney combined for seven of the 10 times Atlanta was flagged on offense.

"We are going to kill ourselves when we get in first-and-15 or third-and-long situations," Smith said. "The other thing we are going to work on is we had three turnovers on the plus side of the 50 and we only came away with 10 points, a field goal and touchdown. That is when you have the advantage and you could convert those situations into points."

Regarding Jackson and Douglas, the coaching staff learned that both rookies should be able to take a lot of snaps in reserve roles this year.

Jackson, whose 34-yard interception return for LSU helped seal the Tigers’ national title win over Ohio State seven months ago, played patiently and aggressively against the Jaguars.

"The way they disguise plays in the NFL with the motions and everything, you still match up and play football," Jackson said. "Once you figure out what they’re trying to do with splitting the formations and things that, it really helps you. I think I picked that up pretty well."

When Houston returns, Jackson is expected to contribute mostly as the No. 1 nickel corner, a role that opened when Von Hutchins was lost for the season two weeks ago.

Douglas could emerge as the No. 4 receiver behind Roddy White, Michael Jenkins and Laurent Robinson. A former standout at Louisville, Douglas knows he will need much film study and practice to understand how to read defensive schemes before the snap.

"They disguise coverages better in the NFL," Douglas said. "I know I had one coverage where I saw it a little late. They brought an all-out blitz. I’m working on just trying to know when it’s coming instead of thinking if it’s coming or it’s not coming."

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