Behind Enemy Lines: Atlanta

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Joey Harrington may have led the Falcons to two straight wins but his steady quarterback play in those games doesn't mean much in terms of the team's big picture. Coach Bobby Petrino feels that Byron Leftwich gives the team the best chance to win and on Wednesday, he reiterated that point by saying as soon as Leftwich is recovered from right ankle surgery, he'll be back in the starting lineup.

Petrino and Leftwich did not rule out Leftwich starting as soon as Sunday against visiting Tampa Bay.

"If we were going today, Joey would start because you don't know how Byron's health is but I don't want to put myself in a corner where if Byron's at 100 percent healthy we wouldn't do it because we might," Petrino said. "To be honest with you, we made the decision awhile back that Byron was the starter and Joey was the backup. Right now it's just a health issue how is he health-wise."

Leftwich went through his first full practice Wednesday since having two screws surgically implanted to firmly support damaged ligaments in his right ankle. Leftwich suffered the injury during his first start with Atlanta, Oct. 21 against New Orleans.

Petrino and Leftwich said the reaction of the ankle to a heavy workload could determine how soon Leftwich will make his second start.

"We just wanted to go into this thing and see how I did in practice," Leftwich said. "Everything felt okay today. We have to see. I kind of wanted to surprise (Petrino). I knew last week that I had a chance to practice this Wednesday. The training staff, we've been rehabbing around the clock to get me back as soon as possible. I think my worst days are behind me. Hopefully we don't have no setbacks and things go well."

Harrington, meanwhile, was caught off guard by the news that he could be losing his job. Though Petrino said weeks ago that Leftwich would be the starter for the rest of the season after Harrington got Atlanta off to a 1-5 record as the No. 1 quarterback, Harrington clearly thought things had changed.

When asked by a member of the media how he felt about Petrino saying that Leftwich would regain his starting job when he was healthy, a stunned Harrington said, "That message has not been conveyed to me."

He went on.

"I'm not going to create a fuss. I'm going to do my job for this team. If they need me to play this week then I'm going to go do that and play like I have been playing all year. I feel like I have done what they have asked me to do this year and I will continue to do that."

Harrington said he thought he earned the right to continue starting, which could happen Sunday if Leftwich is not fully recovered.

"As of late, yeah I do. I've done what they've asked me to do," Harrington said about doing enough to remain as the starter. "We've won two games with the way this team has played and I do think I deserve a chance to be out there."

Tailback Warrick Dunn, who is in his 11th season, needs 58 rushing yards to reach the 10,000-yard milestone. Jacksonville's Fred Taylor became the 21st member of that exclusive club last week.

The irony of it is that Dunn could reach the mark against the Tampa Bay Bucs, the team that drafted him and where he had some of his best seasons.

The milestone has not been lost on Dunn's teammates or the coaching staff. Though backup tailback Jerious Norwood could return from a sprained right ankle, there are signs that Dunn could have his third straight game with more than 25 carries.

As for his teammates, "I have 56 total yards in my career," fullback Ovie Mughelli said. "To put things in perspective, I'm 9,954 yards away."

SERIES HISTORY

28th meeting, with Atlanta leading the series 15-12 after defeating the Buccaneers 17-6, Dec. 10, 2006. The Falcons swept the series last season after losing three straight. Linebacker Demorrio Williams returned a fumble 54 yards in the third quarter to put the Falcons up for good 7-6 at Raymond James Stadium.

NOTES, QUOTES

--None of the quarterbacks who played last season -- Michael Vick (Atl), Bruce Gradkowski and Tim Rattay (TB) -- from that final meeting are expected to play in this meeting.

--DE John Abraham has 10 tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles in three games vs. Tampa Bay.

--Neither team has scored 30 points in any of the last seven meetings. That trend is likely to continue with Atlanta averaging just 15 points per game and Tampa averaging 18.2.

--CB DeAngelo Hall had two interceptions in two games vs. Tampa Bay last season.

--FG kicker Morten Andersen, the NFL's all-time leading scorer (2,504 points), has scored more points against Tampa Bay (1,119) than any other team. Andersen also was named the NFC's Special Teams Player of the Week this week for kicking two field goals and two extra points in Atlanta's 20-13 victory over Carolina.

BY THE NUMBERS

556 -- The NFL record number of field goals kicked by Andersen.

QUOTE TO NOTE

"The last time I felt 100 percent was the first quarter of the Akron game my senior year, in October, about five, six years ago. Right now, I'm trying everything I can to show everybody, to show coach, that I'm trying to get back." -- Falcons quarterback Byron Leftwich, who is recovering from right ankle surgery and could start Sunday vs. visiting Tampa Bay.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Falcons could use aggressive play and formations with their safeties to help fortify the edges -- especially against the run. Though Tampa has game-breaker Joey Galloway at wide receiver, there is a feeling they can limit him with Pro Bowl corner DeAngelo Hall and safety help over the top. Outside linebacker Michael Boley is athletic enough to cover a tight end downfield if he has to, but Atlanta is preparing for the Bucs to try and smash it with the ground game.

SS Lawyer Milloy and backup FS Jimmy Williams, a big, physical hitter, could be used a lot in "heavy" packages in run situations.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--TE Martrez Milner, who suffered a high-ankle sprain in Sunday's victory over Carolina and was subsequently placed on injured reserve, will have the same surgical procedure on his left ankle as QB Byron Leftwich had on his right ankle. Two screws will firmly attach damaged ligaments to the bone for added strength and support in the joint.

--TB Jerious Norwood went through a full practice Wednesday and he is expected to play against the Buccaneers. Norwood sat out Atlanta's game at Carolina with a sprained right ankle. Norwood is expected to re-assume his role at kickoff returner. WR/PR Adam Jennings handled those chores last week.

--Rookie TB Jason Snelling was put on the active roster after the Dallas Cowboys tried to claim him off the practice squad. With Snelling, Atlanta has four tailbacks -- Warrick Dunn, Norwood and Artose Pinner are the others.

--WR Joe Horn (hamstring) said he should be healthy enough to play against Tampa Bay. He missed Wednesday's practice. Rookie Laurent Robinson, who started in Horn's place against Carolina, worked with the first-team offense Wednesday.

--WR Roddy White is on pace to finish the season with 1,141 receiving yards, which would rank seventh in franchise history.

GAME PLAN

The Falcons' short-passing game will be in full effect, as the Bucs tend to allow some underneath completions with a round of punishing blows to the receiver as the reward. Atlanta will try to get its WRs going early on slants and in the flats to possibly pull the linebacker away from the line of scrimmage in order to create space for the running game.

The key for Atlanta is to get a lead and get it early. Its defense is playing at an incredibly high level and if it can play with an advantage, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer won't hesitate to dial up creative ways to jam the line of scrimmage and apply pressure to Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia.

The Falcons have done a much better job of stuffing the run because of more disciplined play and if Atlanta can limit Tampa's running game, it can get another team into a grind of a game and put the outcome on the leg of kicker Morten Andersen.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

Falcons running game vs. Buccaneers LBs Barrett Ruud and Derrick Brooks. Atlanta has run the ball better the past two weeks than it has all season because coaches finally realized that FB Ovie Mughelli is a wrecking ball who can clear a wide path. The lead plays the Falcons run will be put to the test by Tampa Bay's ultra-aggressive linebackers, who don't want TB Warrick Dunn to reach the 10,000-yard milestone against them. Brooks has also had some of his best career games against Atlanta and if the Bucs' front four can occupy Mughelli, it could allow him to be at his opportunistic best.

Falcons OLB Michael Boley and DE Jamaal Anderson vs. Buccaneers two tight-end sets. The Buccaneers have been successful lining up in double-tight sets and punishing Atlanta's front. Boley is going to have to not only hold up in the trenches, but he also must be aware of some of the pass routes the Bucs throw out of the set that will require him to either cover the tight end or running back. Anderson will have to keep the tight end he faces off Atlanta's linebackers or else Tampa's running backs could have some success if they get to the second level of defense.


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