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Falcons rookie CB learning on the job

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FLOWERY BRANCH - Covering receivers last year in the SEC wasn't too hard for Atlanta Falcons rookie Chris Houston.

"I could just kind of run side by side because most of the receivers weren't faster than me," the cornerback said Friday. "It didn't take me long to see that you can't give receivers much wiggle room in the National Football League."

That's right, particularly when you're lined up against St. Louis' Torry Holt, the only player in NFL history with six straight seasons of 1,300 yards receiving.

Houston's matchup with Holt last week was just another chance for opponents to pull the welcome mat out from under Houston's feet this year. The Falcons know other teams will rarely try to isolate Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall when they can take their chances with Houston.

It's a tough job complicated by Atlanta's injury-marred defensive line putting little pressure on the quarterback. The Falcons rank second-worst in the NFC with just 19 sacks, five of which belong to linebackers Michael Boley and Keith Brooking.

So after Holt beat him for a 31-yardtouchdown catch, Houston spent the rest of the first half on the sideline. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer wanted him to remember rookies can't afford even the slightest misstep in awareness or technique.

Houston returned with the starters, replacing Lewis Sanders, and played the last two quarters of Atlanta's 28-16 loss to the Rams.

"I have to play on top of receivers more because I have no help in the middle of the field," Houston said. "Most of the time, we're out there on an island, me and DeAngelo, by ourselves. If you don't stay on top of them, it's like they say, 'One step, and he's gone.' Most likely, in a situation like that, you're not going to catch up."

Houston and Atlanta (3-9) face New Orleans on Monday night, with the Falcons trying to end a three-game skid.

Atlanta has been outscored by a combined 54 points since winning at Carolina on Nov. 11.

For rookie cornerbacks trying to understand the nuances of their position, playing for a losing team makes the job even harder.

Houston, who has made six straight starts on the right side, always seems to have a position coach or a veteran teammate at his side in practice.

"When you watch him out there, his teammates are doing a really good job helping him out, making sure he knows where he's aligned and what the call is," coach Bobby Petrino said. "But he's certainly going to keep getting tested with D. Hall on the other side."

To Houston's credit, he's taken the kind of deferential approach needed from a 23-year-old newcomer.

Safety Lawyer Milloy, a 12th-year veteran and four-time Pro Bowl selection, has seen hundreds of brash cornerbacks leave the NFL quickly because their pride became a detriment.

That hasn't been the case with Houston.

"He's willing to listen to criticism and he's willing to learn," Milloy said. "That was never a problem. It was a matter of getting on the field and facing live action that took some time."

Mistakes aren't surprising, particularly against a quarterback like Indianapolis' Peyton Manning, who picked Houston apart on big gains to Reggie Wayne and Anthony Gonzalez last month. Houston also was penalized for pass interference in the Falcons' 31-13 loss to the Colts.

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