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Falcons’ Ishmael in central role with season at stake

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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Thanks to compensatory picks, the Atlanta Falcons were loaded with seventh-round pick for the 2013 NFL Draft.

They elected to burn one of their three seventh-rounders on little-known safety Kemal Ishmael from Central Florida. Now, with former Pro Bowler William Moore placed on injured reserve, Ishmael will be the starting free safety in the NFC South playoff-elimination game against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.

Earlier this season, Moore was placed on short-term injured reserve after suffering the injury against the Vikings on Sept. 28. NFL rules stipulated that he had to miss a minimum of eight weeks before playing in games.

The Falcons drafted Moore, 29, in the second round of the 2009 draft out of Missouri and he has been a starter since his second season. He went to the Pro Bowl after the 2012 season. Last year, the Falcons signed Moore to a five-year contract that included $14 million guaranteed.

The Falcons are comfortable with Ishmael, who won over the trust of the coaching staff with a fine offseason during OTAs and minicamps.

“He had to do it for several weeks before when William was out,” Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. “He’s gotten better with the things that he was struggling with early. He’s continued to work on them. He’s done well.”

Ishmael has 88 tackles, according to the Falcons’ coaches film review statistics. He leads the team with four interceptions and has six pass breakups.

Ishmael will have a key role against Carolina, which relies heavily on the running of quarterback Cam Newton and running back Jonathan Stewart, who rushed for 122 yards in a win over Cleveland last Sunday.

“His strengths are primarily in the run game,” Nolan said. “Run defense. He’s a very good tackler. He’s a physical player. We’ll need that play out of him this week because our opponent runs the ball very well and has some big backs. So, we’ll have to tackle well.”

There have been some ups and downs for Ishmael, who has played in all 15 games and made nine starts.

After some struggles on deep passes this season, Ishmael came up with the game-changing play against the New Orleans Saints last week when he stripped tight end Jimmy Graham of the ball at the goal line.

“It felt good,” Ishmael said. “The coaches talked about going into this week and playing with no regrets and putting everything on the line. Our playoffs started (against the Saints).”

Ishmael fought through those tough times after blowing coverages on deep passes against Chicago, Detroit and Green Bay.

“Just sticking together with the guys,” said Ishmael when asked how he made it through those difficult times. “Matt (Ryan) does a great job of holding us together. William Moore does a great job and we know that we are a good team. We know we can beat anybody if we do what we have to do and not make simple mistakes.”

Ishmael, a tough and rugged player who played for George O’Leary at Central Florida, has tried to eliminate those simple mistakes and make plays for the defense.

Safety Sean Baker was added to the active roster from the team’s practice squad.

Moore returned from injured reserved to play against the Cardinals on Nov. 30 after missing seven games. He helped lead the defense to one of its best games and the team’s only victory over an opponent with a winning record over the past 31 games.

“I’m sure the other players are disappointed as well because they trust William as a good player,” Nolan said. “Anytime that you lose a guy next you that you know is a good player, it’s going to concern you.”

SERIES HISTORY: The Falcons lead 24-15. Atlanta beat Carolina 19-17 on Nov. 16 with a 44-yard field goal by Matt Bryant.

NOTES: RB Steven Jackson (quadriceps) did not practice on Wednesday. If he cannot play, the backfield load will fall to Jacquizz Rodgers and rookie Devonta Freeman. … WR Julio Jones (hip/oblique) did not practice, but will play Sunday. …


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