The Falcons avoided a backbreaking, off-field catastrophe Wednesday when the Gwinnett County District Attorney's office dropped animal cruelty charges against defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux.
"It's a great relief to Jonathan," coach Bobby Petrino said. "He's a first-class young man that has been great since I've been here and I'm just really happy for him."
Babineaux was arrested in February by police for animal cruelty after killing one of his two pit bulls. Initial police reports said Babineaux killed the dog to get back at his girlfriend after an argument.
Though they never went public until Wednesday, Babineaux and his lawyers said the dog was killed in self-defense after it attacked Babineaux while he was caring for his then-five-month old child.
"Jonathan and his family did everything in their power to try to make this dog a part of their family," Pat McDonough, Babineaux's attorney, said. "They first neutered the dog then they had the dog put on Prozac and finally based on the advice from a Falcons' Village veterinarian, they sent him to one of the top-notch dog trainers. They did everything they could to make this dog a part of their family.
"Unfortunately, he had to do what he had to do to defend himself and his family."
Though this case was overshadowed by Michael Vick's dogfighting case, locally, it drew tremendous vilification of Babineaux, especially since the motive supposedly was vindication for a domestic dispute.
"The main thing is my name is cleared from the whole ordeal," said Babineaux, a third-year player and key rotation defensive lineman. "That's where I'm at right now. I'm just happy this whole thing is over."
Had charges been brought, it could have been an issue that could have done further damage to a franchise that cannot withstand anymore after the Vick fiasco.
"Literally, the district attorney is looking at prison time for a case like this," McDonough said. "It's unbelievable the visceral hate people had when they don't even have all the facts. People really had convicted him before they knew all the facts.
"In the NFL these days even if you're indicted ... often you can be suspended or kicked out of the NFL. So we know Jonathan is thrilled. We know we're thrilled and I'm sure Arthur Blank is thrilled. I'm sure there was a lot of pressure on the Falcons to disassociate themselves from somebody like Jonathan but they stood by him until the truth was able to come out."
Babineaux said he was able to remain focused on football during the ordeal, although it was tough at times. He is second on the team with two sacks and he has 16 tackles with a forced fumble.
"I just took things one day at a time," Babineaux said. "You've got to be a professional about everything. So I came out here did my job and I'll continue to do that."
After rushing for a season-high 155 yards last Sunday against San Francisco, the Falcons feel they may have finally resolved some of their issues in the running game.
In making the transition to a zone-blocking scheme to a more traditional in-line blocking, running game, the offensive linemen struggled at times making their blocks in time for impatient running backs to get through a hole. Players and coaches said the timing is more in sync and linemen have gotten better at what's been asked.
Starting tailback Warrick Dunn said the ground game also looked better because Bobby Petrino relied mostly on one running back -- him -- to do the heavy lifting. Dunn has been sharing carries with Jerious Norwood but Norwood suffered a sprained right ankle in the second half.
Said Dunn: "Any back would say yes (to getting the majority of carries). I'm not different. If that happens you can be patient, take chances instead of running on and off the field, when you try to get the most out of that carry. When you're getting consistent carries you take more chances to make things happen."
26th meeting. The Falcons lead the series 15-10. The Panthers, winners of two straight at the Georgia Dome, defeated Atlanta 27-20 Sept. 23. A meltdown by cornerback DeAngelo Hall, in which he drew three penalties on one series then got into a sideline shouting match with coach Bobby Petrino and assistant secondary coach Joe Whitt Jr., allowed Carolina to drive in for the tying touchdown.
--Carolina running back DeShaun Foster has eight 100-yard rushing games in his career. Four have come against the Falcons, including the initial meeting this season, when he ran for 122 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries.
--Quarterback Joey Harrington had his best game of the season Sept. 23 vs. the Panthers, when he completed 31 passes for 361 yards and two touchdowns.
--Carolina has won four of the past five games against Atlanta.
--Former Falcons offensive tackle Frank Omiyale, who was released this training camp, is with the Panthers. Carolina has switched to a zone cut-blocking scheme, which Omiyale is adept at having played it for two seasons in Atlanta.
--The Falcons worked out Carolina rookie quarterback Matt Moore before last April's draft and seriously considered drafting him or signing him as a free agent but decided to assess other needs.
BY THE NUMBERS
147 -- Rushing yards Falcons tailback Warrick Dunn needs to reach 10,000 yards mark for his career.
QUOTE TO NOTE
"It would be an honor. Some of the greatest runners in history have had longevity and produced. To be in that company would be great. Also, most people didn't think I'd be in this league three or four years. To overcome that and play at a high level for a long time in this league is a milestone in itself." -- RB Warrick Dunn.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
With Carolina having to use Vinny Testaverde, David Carr or Matt Moore at quarterback there is little secret they are going to try to establish the run. Even without their issues at quarterback, the Panthers have had tremendous success against the Falcons on the ground -- especially off tackle.
Expect the Falcons' front four to really focus on gap control since much of Carolina's running success has come on cutback runs. Strong safety Lawyer Milloy will play near the line of scrimmage as usual, but the Falcons may shoot in through some inside gaps to have him in place for some of the cutbacks.
Another measure the Falcons might take is to go to a three-safety set, where a cornerback is pulled in exchange for a bigger safety, like Jimmy Williams, for run support purposes.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
--OT Todd Weiner will return after missing the past four games, three while recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery to remove debris. Weiner was active for last Sunday's game against San Francisco but did not play. Weiner is expected to start but it is unknown if he would re-assume his spot at right tackle or move to left tackle. Tyson Clabo has done a good job in Weiner's absence and left tackle Quinn Ojinnaka played fairly well in his NFL debut against the 49ers.
"I've done that my whole career, playing both sides," Weiner said. "We don't know how that's going to go yet. I'm real excited to be back out there."
--TE Alge Crumpler returned to practice Wednesday after missing the past two games with left knee and ankle injuries. Petrino said Crumpler's progress will be monitored but it appears he will be ready to play against the Panthers.
--FS Chris Crocker is in the last year of his contract and there have not been any discussions with the team about an extension. Crocker said he would like to return to the Falcons.
--Rookie CB David Irons has emerged as Atlanta's top special teams players and he is also gaining fans among the coaching staff. Irons is the brother of injured Bengals running back Kenny Irons.
"I wish he had two of him," Petrino said of David Irons. "He's a guy we love. He does everything full speed, does everything with a smile on his face. He loves the game of football and is fearless. He has done a great job on special teams. It will be fun later on in his career to see how he grows into a cornerback. I think he'll be real good at that."
The Falcons don't want to pass too much because there seems to be some reservations with the coaching staff about how much of a role it wants Joey Harrington to have in the outcome of the game. However, Atlanta is going to have to hit on some throws early to pull back Carolina's safeties from the line of scrimmage.
The return of TE Alge Crumpler should allow the Falcons to establish an intermediate passing game in the middle of the field, something that has been missing. By opening up the field, Atlanta hopes to create enough seams near the line of scrimmage to establish the running game.
The Falcons rushed for just 91 yards in the first meeting but they ran just 19 times (they threw it 44). Petrino wants to balance out those numbers.
Atlanta also figures to continue incorporating FB Ovie Mughelli into the running game.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Falcons DE John Abraham vs. Panthers OT Travelle Wharton. Fresh out of high school, Wharton had to try and block Abraham, then in his last season at South Carolina. Things didn't go well for the young fella and not much has changed. In their past two meetings, Abraham has beat Wharton for four sacks and two forced fumbles. In a season-opening meeting in 2006, Wharton suffered a season-ending knee injury trying to block Abraham.
Falcons CB DeAngelo Hall vs. Panthers WR Steve Smith. In the first meeting between these teams, Hall's personal war with Smith blew up in his face as he committed pass interference and two personal-foul penalties against Smith on the same drive. The loss of composure allowed Carolina to tie the score and drastically change momentum before rallying to victory. Hall was fined $100,000 and he recently pledged a media blackout except for after games. Hall has quietly had an excellent season and he could make good for himself by letting his action speak for itself.
If Norwood can't play, the Falcons lose a tremendous amount of speed and their biggest home-run threat on offense. Artose Pinner is a short-yardage bruiser who won't be able to pull away from defenders like Norwood. That could allow the Panthers to be more aggressive defensively. Adam Jennings, who lost his job returning kicks to Norwood, would resume the role. Jennings is a small, shifty runner with good speed but not the type of wheels to return a kick all the way to the end zone.