Falcons lean on execution, Dunn

The Atlanta Falcons are playing better than their 3-6 record would suggest. The reasons for their recent two-game winning streak boil down to improved play in the fourth quarter and a heavier reliance on former Bucs RB Warrick Dunn. Find out more in this insider article on the Falcons.

New Orleans head coach Sean Payton placed mousetraps throughout his locker room last week as a way to tell his players that the St. Louis Rams were a "trap" game.

That didn't help New Orleans, which lost to the Rams anyway. Tampa Bay faces a similar game against Atlanta on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.

The Falcons (3-6) are riding a two-game winning streak since the bye week and are, believe it or not, just two games out of first place in the NFC South. Tampa Bay (5-4) holds first place.

It's difficult to believe that with everything the Falcons have endured — the Michael Vick saga, the terrible start, major injuries to the defense and the quarterback carousel between Joey Harrington and Byron Leftwich — that they're still in the race.

But they are in contention and first-year head coach Bobby Petrino said it's been one of his most difficult coaching jobs.

"We've worked our way through all of that," Petrino said. "We've had good leadership on this team. They've stuck together. We've tried to put all that aside."

Since the bye, Petrino believes the biggest difference in this team is their ability to handle tight games in the fourth quarter. Six of Atlanta's nine games have been decided by 10 points or less.

The last two weeks, however, the Falcons have won those close game. Two weeks ago against San Francisco, the Falcons drove into field goal range and Morten Andersen kicked a 27-yarder with 1:10 left to ice the game. Last week, Harrington connected with tight end Alge Crumpler for a 30-yard touchdown pass with 20 seconds left to break a 13-13 tie.

"We've been in tight games all year long and we haven't been able to execute," Petrino said. "The last two weeks we've been able to."

The return to health of DT Rod Coleman has allowed the Falcons defense to rise to a No. 16 NFL ranking. Coleman had two sacks against Carolina last week.

And, the Falcons have leaned on a familiar face offensively. Veteran back Warrick Dunn has rushed for 189 yards and two touchdowns in the past two games as the Falcons have leaned more heavily on their running game.

Dunn is just 58 yards away from rushing for 10,000 yards in his career. He began the season by having back surgery and missing all of training camp. He return to complete health came just in time for the Falcons.

"It's great," Petrino said. "He's back and feeling good and running at full speed. He had no training camp and he had that operation early. But as we kept going and he kept feeling better and we just needed to keep giving him the ball. He's helped us the last two weeks."

Dunn should get help this week with the return of backup Jerious Norwood from injury. However, wide receiver Joe Horn may not be back from a hamstring pull. He hasn't practiced all week.

That's what worries the Buccaneers entering Sunday's game. They're just 1-3 on the road this season.

It's a wonder there are no mousetraps sitting around the locker room this week.

Falcons primer

Three things to watch on Sunday

The quarterback

Bobby Petrino hasn't committed to a quarterback yet. If Byron Leftwich is healthy, he might start him ahead of Joey Harrington, who has quarterbacked the Falcons during their 2-0 streak.

The defense

This unit is healthy and has grown into one of the league's better units, led by DT Rod Coleman, who had two sacks last week, and DE John Abraham, who has five of his sacks in the Georgia Dome.

The kicker

He may not be long, but he is accurate. The ageless Morten Andersen has missed only three of 19 field goal attempts since being re-signed. He can be clutch late if given the chance.

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Listen to Bucsblitz.com's Matthew Postins every Tuesday with former Buccaneers linebacker Scot Brantley on WHBO 1470 ESPN Radio in Tampa and Clearwater from 3-6 p.m. If you miss the show, check out Bucsblitz.com's exclusive team media center for Postins' archived appearances.

Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.

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