The change has been made. Byron Leftwich was named the Falcons' starting quarterback Wednesday, a month after signing with the team and two days after former starter Joey Harrington failed to inspire a listless offense in a nationally televised, 31-10 loss to the New York Giants.
"We're 1-5 and we just didn't feel good about some of the things we did, particularly after turnovers, so we're making the change," Petrino said. "Joey took it good. He's a professional. One thing about playing quarterback, a lot of times when things aren't going good and all 11 guys on the field play a part into it, but you know in the business that the quarterback is the one you make a change with."
Leftwich will be the starter for the rest of the season unless he gets hurt, Petrino said, and he will make his debut as the starting signal-caller Sunday at New Orleans. Harrington is the No. 2 quarterback and Chris Redman was dropped to No. 3. All three quarterbacks (Harrington first) were notified of the changes in private meetings with Petrino Wednesday morning.
Petrino said he was looking for a spark, some type of bump in an offense that has scored just six touchdowns. That said, he also was not pleased with Harrington's production of late.
The Falcons offense has scored two field goals off seven turnovers the past two games, losses to Tennessee and the Giants. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall returned a fumble for a touchdown. The failure to get anything going when the defense and special teams gave it strong field position was a sore point. Though Petrino did not elaborate, there must have been something else, though. Players were not rallying around Harrington on the field as much as they were in the locker room. A fire was missing, that coveted huddle presence that sometimes can elevate a group of players looking for answers during a tough stretch.
"We'll see Sunday," Leftwich said about him being able to kick start things. "I'm just going to be me. I'll try to lead this team, try to make football plays, try to score some points and try to help this team win."
Leftwich, who unsuccessfully relieved Harrington in the fourth quarter of a 20-13 loss at Tennessee two weeks ago, will face a vulnerable secondary.
However, he will be playing behind a shaky offensive line that has played a huge role in allowing 21 sacks this season. The Falcons also have yet to establish a consistent running game, which has made them a one-dimensional target for blitzes.
"We have to do our jobs first before Byron can be successful," wide receiver Joe Horn said. "Everyone has to join in and beat the man in front of him. If that doesn't happen, if we drop balls and the line doesn't block, what's the need to have Byron starting anyway?"
Tight end Alge Crumpler said the team's receivers have to get used to balls that are thrown much harder by Leftwich than Harrington. "He puts it in there just like Mike (Vick)," Crumpler said.
There could end up being two changes in the starting lineup for the upcoming NFC South game at New Orleans.
Rookie right cornerback Chris Houston could supplant veteran Lewis Sanders. A decision on such a move probably won't come until later in the week but Houston has been taking more snaps with the first-team defense. He also saw extended action in the second half of Atlanta's loss against New York.
"Chris did take a lot of snaps in the second half Monday night," Petrino said. "Lewis is a little banged up. He missed about half of the practice today so we will wait and see."
Houston was projected to start upon being drafted in the second round out of Arkansas. The Falcons decided to bring him along slowly but he has been incorporated into the defense more and more over the past three weeks.
SERIES HISTORY: 76th meeting. Falcons lead the series, 43-32. The Saints swept the NFC South series last season, beating Atlanta by a combined score of 54-16. The last meeting at the Superdome was the first major event held in the facility after Hurricane Katrina and the Saints, buoyed by an incredible wave of emotion, routed the Falcons 23-3.
--The Falcons and Saints have split the last six meetings with Atlanta sweeping in 2005 and New Orleans winning both games last season.
--Saints WR Devery Henderson had a field day with the Falcons last season. In New Orleans' 31-13 home victory, he had an 11-yard touchdown run on a reverse. In Atlanta, he had four receptions for 155 yards, including a 76-yard touchdown catch on the Saints' first possession.
--Suspended quarterback Michael Vick accounted for 250 of the Falcons' 333 total yards in the teams' second meeting in 2006, a 31-13, Saints victory at Atlanta. Vick rushed 12 times for 166 yards and was 9 of 24 passing for 84 yards.
--Falcons wide receiver Joe Horn had six catches for 108 yards in two games vs. Atlanta last season.
--The lone completion from Vick to Ashley Lelie in Game 1 between the Falcons and Saints last season -- a 48-yard touchdown -- was Atlanta's longest touchdown completion of the season.
BY THE NUMBERS: 40 -- The number of seasons Atlanta and New Orleans have played one another.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Those were two pretty good players that they went up against. The greatest thing is, they both battled and their technique was good. I thought they did a pretty good job considering some of the situations they were in. We will certainly look to see improvement this week, but the one thing I liked most about both of them is they battled and competed the whole game. Those two players they were going against are pretty good." -- Coach Bobby Petrino, on tackles Tyson Clabo and Renardo Foster, who made their first career starts at tackle vs. the Giants Monday night.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Falcons could have matchup problems with Saints running back Reggie Bush because its starting safeties aren't shifty or quick enough to cover him if he's used in the slot.
Because New Orleans doesn't boast a power running game, Atlanta could play a lot of nickel sets and use nickel free safety Antoine Harris to match up with Bush. Regular nickel back Chris Crocker could stay at free safety, where he plays in base sets, while Harris, who matches up with Bush physically, could track the multi-threat running back.
This would not be a radical shift for the Falcons because Harris played nickel back for part of the preseason and for two regular-season games while Crocker rehabilitated from a bone bruise in his knee.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
--Backup FB Corey McIntyre suffered a hamstring injury on punt coverage Monday night and is questionable for Sunday's game. McIntyre, the special teams captain, did not practice Wednesday and is being carefully monitored. If McIntyre can't go, the Falcons could promote rookie FB Jason Snelling off the practice squad, although it has several options in terms of special teams.
--DT Rod Coleman (knee surgery) was sore following the Giants game and was held out of practice for precautionary reasons. He is expected to play vs. New Orleans.
--DT Jonathan Babineaux (stretched knee ligament) also is expected to play vs. the Saints but he was held out of practice Wednesday.
--With Chris Redman being demoted to No. 3 quarterback, the Falcons will try to find a holder on field goals for Michael Koenen, the team's long-yardage kicker. Redman likely would be placed on the inactive list on game days as the emergency quarterback and could not come into the game in the first three quarters unless Byron Leftwich and Joey Harrington were pulled out of the game permanently. Redman could come into the game in the fourth quarter and another quarterback could re-enter the game. There has been no indication who would hold for Koenen, who is the holder for regular placekicker Morten Andersen.
--SLB Michael Boley, the NFL's third-leading leading tackler, said he is starting to realize that he is garnering respect from his peers. Late in the game against the Giants, he got the wind knocked out of him. New York tight end Jeremy Shockey came and stood over him then helped him up and gave him some encouraging words. "He didn't have to do that," Boley said.
GAME PLAN: With the strong-armed Leftwich, the Falcons likely will open on offense trying to make deep completions. The success of such a tactic would largely be predicated on the protection. If Leftwich is afforded time, though, Atlanta will take shots to try and get the Saints to pull a strong safety out of the run box to help in coverage. The Falcons typically throw deep outside of the hash marks to Roddy White or rookie Laurent Robinson. By attempting to possibly hit TE Alge Crumpler or slot receiver Michael Jenkins in the deep middle third, they might be able to catch the Saints off guard.
Atlanta desperately needs to get something going on the ground because it has been unable to score in the red zone or establish long drives in second halves. Starting tailback Warrick Dunn is really struggling to find his way and is being pushed hard by Jerious Norwood.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Saints OLB Scott Fujita vs. Falcons TE Alge Crumpler. Fujita may have had his two best games last season against the Falcons as he effectively disrupted the gimmick option play Atlanta tried to run with Michael Vick and he helped lock down Crumpler. With Vick not around to pose a weakside bootleg threat, teams are using defenders to blanket Crumpler off the intermediate releases between the hash marks. Crumpler, who seems somewhat bothered by his problematic left knee, is having a very hard time getting open.
Falcons offensive tackles vs. Saints outside pass rush. Though most of Atlanta's 21 sacks allowed have come from breakdowns between the tackles, the Saints' edge rushers could cause Atlanta's young tackles, Tyson Clabo and Renardo Foster, a lot of problems. New Orleans had eight sacks last season against the Falcons, as DE Will Smith feasted by getting up field quickly -- and that was against veteran Wayne Gandy, who was pretty solid. The Falcons used tight ends and/or a fullback to help the tackles against the Giants last week but when New York got ahead, it offset Atlanta's quick passing game by using press coverage at the corners and blitzing multiple linebackers and/or safeties.
INJURY IMPACT: The Falcons don't appear to have any major injury issues but if backup fullback Corey McIntyre (hamstring) can't play, the Falcons may opt not to activate another fullback and possibly keep an additional tight end, linebacker or defensive back active.