NFC South: Inside Slant

In this edition of the "Inside Slant," get caught up on the Atlanta Falcons and the Carolina Panthers as they prepare for this weekend's games. Also get strategy and personnel updates and key matchups for their games.

ATLANTA FALCONS

INSIDE SLANT

For an offensive-minded coach, opening the season without scoring a touchdown and venturing into the opposing team's red zone just once -- on the last play of the game -- isn't very comforting. Compounding things, the Falcons allowed two touchdowns -- one more than their defense -- in their 24-3 loss to Minnesota and allowed six sacks.

"They feel good about what we're doing on offense but we've got to go out and show it in a game," coach Bobby Petrino said. "I know it means a lot to them."

Falcons players trumpeted the new offensive scheme implemented by Petrino and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson all offseason and they said they haven't bailed on things after just one game.

The main issue is that players are still familiarizing themselves, not so much with the system, but with each other. Tight end Alge Crumpler and tailback Warrick Dunn barely played in the preseason so timing, to a degree, is off. The offensive line also is adjusting to a more traditional in-line blocking scheme, although players are using some of the zone-blocking techniques they employed the past three seasons.

"We have a whole lot of plays and there's a whole lot of different ways to block them so we're still trying to figure out what we're doing," guard Kynan Forney said.

Though Joey Harrington was sacked six times, the blame is being spread evenly. There were breakdowns along the offensive line, especially with speed rushers coming around left tackle Wayne Gandy. Harrington also held on to the ball too long -- a longtime knock against the former No. 3 overall pick. One of the reasons Harrington didn't throw the ball sometimes was that receivers struggled getting open.

Synchronization is the catchword being tossed around heading into Sunday's matchup with Jacksonville. Players and coaches said nothing drastic needs to take place but that more players need to win individual matchups, the unit needs to take a more aggressive posture and Harrington needs to throw the ball away when that's a better option than taking a sack.

"One thing we have to improve on is our assignments," Dunn said. "When we watched the film, you can see it's little things. Receivers have to be precise on certain routes and the quarterback, Joey, sometimes things aren't open and he's got to get rid of it. He held on to it a little bit.

"We take from that and move forward. We still have 15 more to go."

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

With running the ball against Minnesota proving difficult and then being forced to pass by falling behind, fullback Ovie Mughelli was used sparingly -- something that should change this week.

Atlanta is going to need to employ its top free-agent signee in both the running and passing games against the Jaguars. With Jacksonville's defensive tackles likely to clog up the interior the same way Minnesota's did, Mughelli could be used as a pile mover to create a crease for Warrick Dunn or Jerious Norwood.

Jacksonville's defense allowed for cutback lanes last week and if Mughelli can somehow clear some space, Dunn and Norwood could hit some of the big runs they are known for.

Mughelli also could help with pass protection. Atlanta had some issues with the speed rush from the edge and Mughelli might be needed to combat the heat felt by Joey Harrington, who was sacked six times vs. the Vikings.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

Weak-side linebacker Demorrio Williams was pulled after the first half of Sunday's loss at Minnesota and was replaced by rookie Stephen Nicholas. Williams had just one tackle and could be set back by missing all offseason camps and OTAs and most of the preseason while recovering from torn pectoral surgery. Nicholas, who has five tackles, filled in for Williams and acknowledged the abundance of reps he received helped him be productive. The coaching staff said both are being prepared to start against the Jaguars.

OG Tyson Clabo started nine games last season but he was inactive for the season opener. The coaching staff decided to use Ben Wilkerson as the swing guard because he can also play center. The Falcons probably will continue to use this strategy in order to maximize the game-day roster for special teams depth.

PR/KR Adam Jennings had mixed returns in his debut. He averaged just about 20 yards per kickoff return but managed just one yard on two punt returns. He used questionable judgment on one of his returns, fielding a punt at the 4 instead of letting it bounce in the end zone. He lost a yard and forced the offense to start at the 3.

Rookies DE Jamaal Anderson, WR Laurent Robinson and G Justin Blalock started and fourth-round OLB Stephen Nicholas played the entire second half. Sixth-round pick Trey Lewis, a defensive tackle, rotated with Jonathan Babineaux and second-round pick Chris Houston saw a lot of action when Atlanta went to a three-cornerback package.

DE Kevin Huntley, who spent last season and training camp with the Raiders, was signed to the practice squad Wednesday. The Falcons had an open spot because they signed QB Casey Bramlett to the active roster.

GAME PLAN

The Falcons are going to try to establish a running game that fell relatively flat last week at Minnesota. Who could blame them? Tennessee gashed Jacksonville on the ground so why not try to exploit the same weaknesses. Whether the running game gains traction won't matter, though, because Atlanta is going to try some long-range passes. For two days after the loss to the Vikings, coaches and players talked repeatedly about not making enough explosive plays.

It would be no surprise to see a handful of gadget plays.

Defensively, Atlanta is going to play eight in the box until David Garrard completes some passes. The Falcons defense was fairly sharp but it needs to be more physical to create turnovers. The corners are going to be left in man coverage a lot so the linebackers and safety can be available in run support.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

The Falcons' offensive front vs. Jacksonville's front four. Atlanta is resorting to more of its customary zone-blocking scheme in the running game, which could be the ideal way to take advantage of the Jaguars' highly aggressive defensive tackles. Jacksonville's players got out of their gap fits last week and Tennessee was able to tag them for more than 280 yards rushing, many of them coming on cutback runs.

The Falcons special teams vs. former coordinator, Joe DeCamillis. DeCamillis, who spent 10 seasons with Atlanta, knows much of the Falcons' personnel and player tendencies and will use a variety of angled kicks and punts to pin his former team in bad field position. DeCamillis is very crafty but so is Atlanta's new special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg, who needs to get better production out of returner Adam Jennings -- the backup returner last season under DeCamillis.

INJURY IMPACT

Jimmy Williams will make his second straight start at free safety in place of Chris Crocker, who did not play Sunday at Minnesota and has yet to practice this week because of a bone bruise in his right knee. While Crocker heals, Williams seems to have settled into the starting role for good. Free-agent signee Antoine Harris has taken over for Crocker at nickel back.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

INSIDE SLANT

The Carolina Panthers hope a one-two punch in the backfield will provide the spark they need to get back to the playoffs.

The duo of DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams provided a solid one-two combination punch this past Sunday and helped knock out the St. Louis Rams 27-13 in Carolina's regular-season opener at the Edward Jones Dome. Foster and Williams combined for 156 of the team's 189 rushing yards.

Foster, who became the franchise's all-time leading rusher this past week, carried the bulk of the load for the first three quarters, piling up 87 of his 94 yards. Williams had only seven yards on four carries entering the fourth quarter, but he carried 11 times for 55 yards in the final 15 minutes and helped wear down the Rams.

Expect more of the same Sunday when the Panthers host the Houston Texans.

The formula on how these guys will be used is likely to change depending on the opponent, but it's clear offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson feels like both backs will get enough carries to keep them happy. Expect Foster to see a few more carries than Williams in most games, but the second-year back from Memphis could be used more as a receiver out of the backfield.

Both had one reception on Sunday -- Foster's for seven yards and Williams' for 13.

"When you've got another quality back there, it's going to be good," Foster said. "We've got a good one-two punch back there. I think it's just the offense, as long as we keep playing within ourselves, we should be good."

Said Williams: "I think we're both excited about this offense. You get the opportunity to choose your own hole in this offense and zone scheme. We have the offensive linemen to do it and they open up some gaping holes. I mean you can't do anything but run through them."

The Panthers lacked an explosive running game last year with the exception of one particular game -- a franchise-record 242-yard performance against these same Rams in a 15-0 shutout last November.

That's why the enthusiasm from Sunday's game is a little tempered -- the Rams aren't a good run defense.

The Panthers should face a tougher defense this week in Houston, which smothered Larry Johnson in a 20-3 win.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Panthers added some help at tight end by signing free agent Christian Fauria Tuesday.

The team released cornerback Curtis Deloatch.

Fauria, a 13-year veteran, spent last season with the Washington Redskins. He's expected to come in and back up Jeff King.

Fauria previously played with Seattle and New England before signing with Washington in 2006.

In 12 NFL seasons, Fauria (6-4, 250 pounds) has played in 176 games with 118 starts for Seattle, New England and Washington and has recorded 247 catches for 2,490 yards and 20 touchdowns. He spent last year with the Redskins and posted two receptions for 17 yards before being placed on injured reserve with an ankle injury.

Originally a second-round draft choice (39th overall) by the Seahawks in 1995, Fauria appeared in 103 contests with 73 starts in seven seasons. In 1998, he notched career highs of 37 catches and 377 receiving yards, both of which were single-season team records for a tight end at the time.

Signed as an unrestricted free agent by the Patriots in 2002, Fauria, 35, was a member of the Super Bowl XXXVIII and XXXIX championship teams.

He led all New England receivers with a career-best seven receiving touchdowns in 2002. Fauria's position coach for three seasons was current Panthers offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson.

Deloatch had been re-signed on Sept. 7 after being waived earlier in the week. He contributed on special teams in the regular-season opener at St. Louis and made one tackle.

Additionally, Carolina signed running back Alex Haynes to the practice squad and terminated tight end Chad Upshaw from the unit. Haynes rushed for 61 yards on 14 attempts and caught three passes for 25 yards during the preseason for the Panthers.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

RG Jeremy Bridges is expected to return from his suspension after this week. It's unclear whether or not he'll return to the starting lineup.

WR Keary Colbert will continue to start for the Panthers even though he caught just one pass for nine yards and Drew Carter caught two touchdowns as the No. 3 receiver.

TE Christian Fauria was added to the roster and will help back up starter Jeff King.

OL Jordan Gross and his teammates didn't allow any sacks against the Rams last Sunday.

FB Brad Hoover could serve as the team's short-yardage back. He ran twice for 16 yards last week against the Rams.

GAME PLAN

If last week is any indication, the Panthers will look to get Steve Smith involved in the game plan early. Against the Rams, Smith would have been the intended receiver on the first five plays (on one of those plays Smith wasn't open and Jake Delhomme was forced to scramble). Given the Texans' injury problems at the safety position, look for Carolina to try to take advantage of that weakness. The Panthers are also expected to mix in running backs DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams and establish the run, something Kansas City failed to do against the Texans last week.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

Texans DE Mario Williams vs. Panthers LT Travelle Wharton. Williams outscored the entire Kansas City team last week, taking a fumble back for a touchdown. He also had five tackles and two sacks in Houston's 20-3 win over the Chiefs. Williams, who was bothered by a foot injury for most of last season, appears to be rounding into the form that convinced the Texans to take him with the No. 1 pick ahead of Reggie Bush in the 2006 NFL draft. Obviously, this will be a test for Wharton in just his second full game back from a knee injury.

INJURY IMPACT The Panthers came out of Sunday's game against the Rams fairly healthy. Carolina is hoping to get defensive end Stanley McClover back in uniform this week after he missed last week's game with a thigh injury.


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