NFC South Inside Slant — Atlanta

Get the latest updates on Tampa Bay's division rivals with the "Inside Slant," a premium service of Bucsblitz.com. In this edition, the Atlanta Falcons deal with the aftermath of cornerback DeAngelo Hall's outburst against Carolina, plus inside information and matchups for this weekend's game against Houston.

ATLANTA FALCONS

The Falcons have probably survived more bizarre turmoil than any team in recent memory, but that wear and tear -- and losing three straight games -- seems to be causing some fissures in the locker room. Making matters worse, another dose of Michael Vick news resurfaced, drawing a team trying hard to distance itself from anything Vick, back into his off-field woes.

Now, coach Bobby Petrino, who has done an admirable job of getting his team to focus on football throughout months of chaos, is being put to the test.

Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall on Wednesday breached the team's desire to keep matters in-house when he angrily told media that the team fined him $100,000 and planned to bench him for Sunday's game against visiting Houston.

Hall was disciplined for a third-quarter meltdown in last Sunday's 27-20 loss to Carolina, where he drew three penalties on one drive then yelled at Petrino and assistant secondary coach Joe Whitt Jr. on the sideline.

"I might sit a quarter. I might sit two quarters. He didn't tell me how long I am going to sit," said Hall, who was informed of his punishment Tuesday night by Petrino. "My agent (Joel Segal) is working on it. Him and Gene Upshaw (are) working on it. Hopefully we can get something worked out, but I don't think it was fair."

Hall's decision to make things public did not sit well with some of the higher-ups with the Falcons. Though Petrino said Monday that Hall would face "substantial" discipline, Petrino said the matter would be handled internally -- and kept that way.

Hall was upset because he thought the fine was excessive, as was the benching.

"I don't think this is the first time that this has happened in the National Football League. I don't think it will be the last time," Hall said. "Like I said, I do think it was a little bit unfair, but he made his decision. We can move on. We can try to rectify it and move on."

Hall had preliminary contract extension talks with the team before the season but those were suspended until after the season. This tense development might not prompt either side to want to revisit those conversations, especially since team owner Arthur Blank wants to clean up his franchise after all of the problems Vick's situation drew.

As for Hall, "I want to be here," he said. "I started my career here. I want to finish my career here."

Just hours before Hall spoke his mind, court documents were filed regarding Vick's failure of a drug test, which was ordered as part of his pre-sentencing release agreement. Vick pleaded guilty to federal dogfighting charges in August, reaching a deal that could bring him roughly a year in prison, instead of the five-year maximum.

However, the judge told Vick that he held the right to go outside sentencing guidelines, which he might do now that Vick provided a dirty urine sample just 17 days after standing in front of the judge and pleading guilty.

Vick was indefinitely suspended from the NFL and this development won't help his chances of having commissioner Roger Goodell lift the ban once Vick gets out of jail.

By failing a drug test, Vick also violated the league's substance-abuse policy. It is unknown if Vick is in the drug program but if this was a first violation, he would be placed in the program if he were ever allowed to play in the league again. If this was a second violation, if Vick's suspension is ever lifted, he could be suspended again for this failed drug test.

Until Vick is sentenced Dec. 10, he has to go to drug counseling and be under house arrest from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. He also has to wear a tracking device on his ankle -- not the image the NFL is trying to portray.

NOTES

Doug Johnson started the last meeting at quarterback for Atlanta but was replaced by Michael Vick after going 12-for-27 for 116 yards and throwing an interception.

Houston RB Samkon Gado had the best game of his career vs. the Falcons when he was with Green Bay in 2005, rushing for 103 yards.

Only one Falcon -- tight end Alge Crumpler -- remains with Atlanta from the skill position players who competed against the Texans in 2003.

Both teams finished 5-11 in 2003, the only year Atlanta and Houston played.

BY THE NUMBERS

10 -- The number of times the Falcons, in their 41-year history, have started with an 0-3 record. In each of those seasons, they lost at least nine games -- the total number of losses coach Petrino had in four seasons at the University of Louisville.

QUOTE TO NOTE

"We upped our yardage, upped our touchdowns a lot; we had more explosive plays and we made some big plays. The fact remains that we need to do more if we're going to do more to help our team win games. There's a definite optimism. People are feeling better." -- Quarterback Joey Harrington, on Atlanta's offense.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Though talk continues about establishing a running game, it appears more and more as if the Falcons are going to throw the ball to move the chains.

Atlanta has been very effective with its four-wide sets and probably will try to spread Houston out and get the ball up field early. Bobby Petrino is big on taking deep shots to open up the middle for crossing routes.

The Falcons run an abundance of crossing routes from every receiver spot, including tight end, and Joe Horn and Alge Crumpler have been the main targets on intermediate routes. Michael Jenkins has been the man across the middle deep.

Leading wide receiver Roddy White has mainly been targeted on perimeter-based routes.

The player who could be incorporated into the passing game against the Texans, especially if some semblance of a running game is established, is fullback Ovie Mughelli. Mughelli has not been factored into the offense very much and could be laying in the weeds to surprise opponents who don't have much of a scouting report on him, especially in the passing game.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

FS Chris Crocker felt discomfort in his right knee after Sunday's loss to Carolina and has been held out of practice as a precaution. He is not expected to miss Sunday's game with Houston. Crocker suffered a bone bruise in the third preseason game against Cincinnati and missed the first two games. He had a strong debut against the Panthers, recording five solo tackles and a sack.

With LT Wayne Gandy still feeling a mild twinge in his sore hamstring and RT Todd Weiner bothered by a sore left knee, rookie backup Renardo Foster is working at both tackle spots. The flip-flopping is no big deal for Foster. While at Louisville, Foster switched back and forth between the left and right side depending on strongside/weakside alignment.

Rookie WR Laurent Robinson returned to action vs. Carolina after missing Game 2 at Jacksonville (hamstring). Robinson was one of two offensive skills players who did not have a catch.

S Antoine Harris has been getting more reps at both safety spots as the Falcons try to figure out ways to get this versatile player on the field. Harris has worked at nickel back and is better in coverage than both safety backups, Daren Stone and Jimmy Williams. Harris also is one of the best special teams players on coverage units.

Backup TE Dwayne Blakley will miss his second straight game with a pectoral injury suffered against Jacksonville on a kickoff return. Rookie Martrez Milner will take his place. Milner recorded his first NFL catch, a seven-yarder, last week vs. Carolina.

GAME PLAN

The Falcons have been soft against the run; they must solidify the point of attack between the tackles to stand a chance of limiting Houston's overall offensive effectiveness.

Atlanta will move strong safety Lawyer Milloy back in the box after having him play deep in the secondary against Carolina to help with coverage of wide receiver Steve Smith. Milloy's presence closer to the line of scrimmage should help, but tackles Grady Jackson and Jonathan Babineaux have to be stouter and middle linebacker Keith Brooking must play with more of a downhill mentality.

More and more teams are double-teaming Jackson, taking Babineaux out of the play with a single blocker and isolating a fullback in Brooking, who is struggling getting off blocks to make plays near the line of scrimmage.

What could have hurt Atlanta against Carolina was the surprise deactivation of rookie defensive tackle Trey Lewis. Lewis has been a force and has managed to consistently get penetration in the center-guard or guard tackle gaps, depending on alignment. The Falcons deactivated him to activate Josh Mallard, a pass-rushing tackle who is a converted end and is undersized to play inside.

Atlanta will probably execute a lot of run blitzes up the middle and do plenty of gaming with linebacker Michael Boley and end John Abraham to apply pressure to Matt Schaub on passing downs.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

Falcons special teams vs. Texans special teams. Atlanta's kickoff coverage team has allowed a very respectable 19.7 yards a return, in large part to deep kicks by Michael Koenen. Koenen needs to continue the trend this week because Jerome Mathis is the NFL's top kickoff returner. In the punting game, Houston is allowing just 7.4 yards a return, which is roughly 6.0 more than Atlanta have averaged. The Falcons have struggled blocking gunners and return man Adam Jennings has yet to find make that first tackler miss and gain any sizeable yardage.

Falcons DE John Abraham vs. Texans LT Ephraim Salaam. Though it will be hard to get to the quick-throwing Schaub, his knowledge of Abraham could prompt him to get rid of the ball a fraction earlier than he'd like. Salaam might need some help against Abraham, who is back on his game as one of the NFL's top pass rushers. Abraham has added an inside speed/bull rush to his arsenal, which is tricking tackles used to trying to guard against him coming off the edge.

INJURY IMPACT

It might not be an injury, but the temporary benching of starting cornerback DeAngelo Hall opens a door for the Texans to go after rookie Chris Houston, who likely would replace Hall. Houston is going to be a decent player but he has not developed as quickly as the team thought he would when it drafted him in the second round and declared him a starter. His vulnerability in certain coverages could make him a target.


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