Falcons Bolster Secondary With Sanders, Hayden

He’s buried himself in an unfamiliar playbook. He’s trying to become familiar with different terminology. He’s struggling to learn everyone’s name on his new team, including the coaches for the Atlanta Falcons.

The cornerback called up one of the assistants a couple of times over the weekend, going over calls and formations. Now, if only he could remember who was on the other end of the line.

“It’s a challenge,” Hayden said Monday, standing in front of a locker that was identified as his by a handwritten placard. “I’m still learning the coaches’ names.”

Hayden is one of two experienced defensive backs signed last week by the Falcons to bolster their thin secondary, another step toward building a team that can make a run at the . In the very next locker was safety James Sanders, who landed in Atlanta under similar circumstances.

Both were dumped by their previous teams — Hayden in Indianapolis, Sanders in New England — more for salary cap reasons than their performance on the field.

Hayden starred in the Colts’ Super Bowl win in 2007, clinching the victory with his return of an interception for a touchdown. Sanders started 49 games for the Patriots and is coming off a season in which he set career highs with three interceptions and six passes defended.

“You can’t coach depth. You can’t coach experience,” Falcons linebacker Mike Peterson said. “Anytime you get a chance to add that to the mix, it’s a plus.”

Given their resumes, both could eventually challenge for extensive playing time, maybe even a starting job. The current starters look forward to getting pushed by the newcomers.

“They are two proven players in this league,” safety Thomas DeCoud said. “Competition always breeds success. It will make us better as a team and as individuals.”

First, Hayden and Sanders have to learn the ropes with a new organization. They only signed with the Falcons in time to watch the final preseason game from the sideline. They practiced for the first time Monday, a dreary day in the Atlanta area as the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee made their way northward.

“Of course, I want to get out there and play,” said the 27-year-old Sanders, who got a locker right beside Hayden and had lunch with him before practice. “But right now, my focus is on learning the playbook and this team. Without that, there’s no way I can even be on the field.”

Sanders was quickly scooped up by the Falcons after being cut by the Patriots. The 28-year-old Hayden took a little longer to find a new job, having missed the final four games last season with a neck injury that reportedly scared off some teams.

Hayden said he’s fully recovered from the latest in a series of injuries that have kept him from playing a full season since 2007.

“My neck is fine,” he said. “I feeling good and ready to go.”

The Falcons lack significant depth behind DeCoud and William Moore. Second-year player Shann Schillinger is the only other safety on the roster, so Sanders should get extensive playing time once he’s familiar with the system.

Pro Bowler Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson are set at the cornerback positions, but Hayden could fill a valuable role at nickel back. Chris Owens is still on the roster, but has yet to live up to expectations heading into his third season. He was picked on mercilessly by Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay’s playoff romp over the Falcons.

After a winless preseason, Atlanta opens the regular season Sunday at Chicago in a matchup of division champions from 2010.

“I’m trying my best to get out there,” Hayden said. “I might miss the first game, but then I feel like I’ll be ready to go.”

Sanders was pleased to wind up with another winning organization after leaving the Patriots.

“This is a good, young, up-and-coming football team,” he said. “They have great players, great management, everything you could want in an organization. I’m thankful for the opportunity to be here. I’m thankful to be an Atlanta Falcon. I look forward to helping us win some games.”

Notes: Coach Mike Smith confirmed that Garrett Reynolds will start at right offensive guard. He was No. 1 on the depth chart throughout the preseason, so the announcement following Monday’s practice was no surprise. Reynolds beat out Mike Johnson for the spot held last season by Harvey Dahl, who signed with St. Louis. … The Falcons filled out the last remaining spot on their practice squad Monday, signing tight end Marquez Branson. A day earlier, the team brought back quarterback John Parker Wilson, safety Rafael Bush, offensive guard Andrew Jackson, offensive tackle Jose Valdez, linebacker Robert James and receivers Kevin Cone and Drew Davis. … With Wilson demoted to the practice squad, Atlanta plans to open the season with only two quarterbacks on the active roster: starter Matt Ryan and Chris Redman.

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Falcons Add Depth at Linebacker With Dent

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — The Atlanta Falcons have added depth at linebacker with only their second pick in the NFL draft.

The Falcons had to be patient after moving up 21 spots to No. 6 overall and drafting Alabama receiver Julio Jones in the first round. After waiting 85 picks, Atlanta picked Georgia linebacker Akeem Dent in the third round on Friday night.

Dent provides insurance for the Falcons, who have Stephen Nicholas and 34-year-old Mike Peterson as free agents.

Dent (6-1, 233) led Georgia with 126 tackles and had 2½ sacks as a senior.

Dent started 29 games at Georgia, playing both outside and inside. He was a second-team All-Southeastern Conference pick as a senior.

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Weatherspoon Close to Returning to Healthy Falcons

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga.. Rookie linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is close to returning from a knee injury, just more good news for the healthy Atlanta Falcons.

“Yeah, that’s the key to winning in the NFL, just staying healthy,” receiver Roddy White said Thursday. “Having all your guys with you everyday in practice and in games is a big deal, man.”

The former Missouri star’s hopeful return Sunday in St. Louis would give the NFC-leading Falcons another boost. It would be the first time this season that all 22 current starters play in the same game.

Players and coaches rarely want to answer hypothetical questions about injuries, and linebacker Mike Peterson is no exception, but with the Falcons lucky to avoid catastrophic injuries this year, he does acknowledge that they’re blessed.

Thus so far.

“The thing about injuries, man, is that it’s around the league, and you can’t really prepare yourself for it,” Peterson said. “It’s something that happens to everybody. This year — knock on wood — we’ve been real fortunate. We haven’t had too many setbacks with guys as to when they can come back.”

Of the nine NFC teams either leading a division or trailing by one game, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Chicago are relatively healthy when you consider what and New Orleans — and to a lesser extent, New York, Seattle and St. Louis — have endured to stay in contention.

The (4-5) have lost receivers Donnie Avery and Mark Clayton to season-ending injuries, and franchise running back Stephen Jackson is playing with a broken left ring finger.

Atlanta’s problems have been less frequent. Cornerback Dunta Robinson missed just one game because of a concussion. Weatherspoon and receiver Michael Jenkins, sidelined the first five games with a bruised shoulder, are the only starters to miss substantial time.

White calls it an encouraging scenario.

“It’s a big part of the chemistry, too, when everybody’s out there on the field and everybody’s jelling together,” White said. “When you have to flip flop guys from week to week, one guy might not have the chemistry the group has with another guy.”

White, the NFL’s leading receiver, had a scare Nov. 7 in a narrow home win over Tampa Bay. Hit near the sideline after making a first-quarter catch, White lay on the field with a sprained knee before walking gingerly to the sideline.

He returned briefly before leaving again and getting fitted for a soft brace that helped him play the second half. Though he finished the game with his lowest totals this season in catches and yards receiving, White still caught a critical 9-yard pass to convert a third down and set up Atlanta’s last touchdown.

The Falcons hope Weatherspoon, the 19th overall draft pick, can play Sunday at St. Louis. Knee and ankle injuries sidelined him in five of the last six games, but Atlanta benefited from reserve Stephen Nicholas, who had 33 solo tackles in the games Weatherspoon missed.

“It’s a good problem to have when you’ve got guys that you’re confident can come in and play,” coach Mike Smith said. “We’re very excited about getting Sean back because of how he started the season off, so I think it’s just a really good situation for us.”

Weatherspoon’s speed, tackling and pass coverage skills should further bolster a defense that ranks second in interceptions, second in third-down percentage, seventh against the run and eighth in scoring.

Atlanta needs to improve its pass rush and ball pressure as the defense ranks 18th in sacks and fumble recoveries.

Weatherspoon had 26 solo tackles, a 9-yard sack and one pass breakup while starting the first four games, but his presence away from ball accounts for more than statistics as opponents often have to find another point of attack.

“I want to do my part,” Weatherspoon said. “I want to make plays and have fun out there. Sitting on the sidelines is not fun. It’s not the same when you wish you could be out there.”

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