Falcons have linebacker issues

The Falcons, however, were playing their first game without Ed Hartwell, a marquee middle linebacker whom they signed expressly to anchor their defense against the run. His loss is considerable.

Moving Keith Brooking from weak side to middle linebacker gives the Falcons an eighth-year veteran with previous success at the position. Brooking replaced Atlanta legend Jessie Tuggle in 2001 and performed adequately enough to earn the first of his four straight Pro Bowl selections.

Against the Saints, Brooking spent too much time and energy worrying about the inexperience of players on either side of him. Rookie Michael Boley, making his first career start and taking over at strong side as Demorrio Williams switched to weak side, had taken only a limited number of snaps at the end of a blowout win over Minnesota in Week 4.

Williams, a second-year veteran with just five career starts entering last week, is better suited to play weak side. At 6-0, he is three inches shorter than Boley and has less body mass. The Patriots exposed Williams' struggles in getting off blocks against bigger tight ends two weeks ago.

Boley, a fifth-round pick from Southern Miss, made two exceptional plays that led to immediate touchdowns for the Atlanta defense. Forcing a fumble from Smith, Boley watched as cornerback DeAngelo Hall picked up the loose ball and ran 66 yards to force a 10-10 tie. Over four minutes later and with no time remaining before halftime, Boley jumped to block John Carney's 47-yard field goal attempt. The ball bounced once before Williams grabbed and ran untouched for a 59-yard score.

On the downside, Boley blew an assignment that sprung Smith through the right side for a 24-yard touchdown in which no Atlanta defender laid a hand on him. Boley, Williams and Brooking will put in extra hours this week, both on the field and in the film room, to gain more perspective on their jobs and to understand how each role affects another.

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