Scouting the Falcons

Call it clockwork if you want, but the Falcons have developed a trend this season that pays huge dividends when they score first but produces unwanted tension when they don't. Taking the initial lead has helped Atlanta produce a 6-0 record this year. Unfortunately, the team is 1-4 when opponents score first, the lone exception coming at Buffalo in Week 3.

Because he knows that games are stressful without any kind of omen on the horizon, coach Jim Mora has sought to defuse the impact of starting too quickly or too slowly.

"I think what we need to do is just come out that play football and not panic and stay steady," Mora said Wednesday. "If that means playing 0-0 for a while, or 3-0, or 0-3, just manage the game well early. That is what we will do. That is kind of our focus."

Defensive end Patrick Kerney remembers how the Falcons, despite allowing Kris Mangum, Julius Peppers and Nick Goings to score three unanswered touchdowns in the fourth quarter and blowing a 14-point lead last December against Carolina at the Georgia Dome, built a 10-0 cushion that helped them gain confidence in a 34-31 overtime victory.

In a 27-10 win at Carolina nearly 16 months ago, Warrick Dunn's 38-yard touchdown run midway through the first quarter opened the scoring. The Panthers answered with DeShaun Foster's 1-yard run less than two minutes later, but Atlanta never trailed.

"For us, getting off to a quick start helps us establish some rhythm defensively, and I'm sure it has the same effect on our offense and special teams," said Kerney, who had 14 tackles, three sacks and a fumble recovery against Carolina last year. "The thing we have to do is remain steady, not get too emotionally high or low, so that we have the right mindset to hold a lead or the right approach to be alert if we fall behind."

Mora acknowledges the tension created on the sideline when the Falcons surrender double-digit leads in the first half, as they did in home losses to New England, Green Bay and Tampa Bay and a road loss at Seattle. Regardless how well Atlanta has generally played in winning nine of the last 10 against the Panthers, Mora insists his team will stay levelheaded.

"I don't feel that anyone has our number, and I don't feel like we have anyone's number," Mora said. "I think that every week is different proposition. Now, when you look back on it and analyze it and see the record over the last eight years, that is fun to look at and to speculate as to why, but the only thing that matters is what happens on Sunday. That is really all we think about. That is all we can think about. Otherwise, we get caught up in things that don't really matter to the team."

SERIES HISTORY: 21st meeting. Falcons lead 14-6, and they have won three straight and 12 of the last 14. Quarterback Michael Vick is 5-0 against the Panthers. Including a 2001 game as a rookie in which he briefly subbed for Chris Chandler, Vick has scored eight touchdowns (four rushing) with 925 yards passing, 378 rushing, four interceptions and nine sacks. His fourth-and-goal run up the middle for a 12-yard touchdown forced overtime last year at the Dome.

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--The Falcons are 11-1 when they rush for 200 or more yards since Jim Mora arrived as coach and brought offensive line consultant Alex Gibbs with him. They improved to 5-0 last week when hitting that mark in 2005.

"You want to keep pounding away and keep pounding away," quarterback Michael Vick said. "You want to build for your next opponent. Every snap you want to continue to try and get better. I think our offensive line takes pride in that, getting our ball carriers big chunks of yards and having huge running games."

--Coach Jim Mora was pleased to see Patrick Kerney, Rod Coleman and Antwan Lake combine for five sacks against Detroit's three quarterbacks last week.

Atlanta had produced just one sack, a combined effort against Brett Favre by Kerney and Jonathan Babineaux, in its previous three games.

"It was good to get some pressure on the quarterback again," Mora said. "As we all know, as you guys are at games and watch the NFL, success one week does not mean anything the next week. You have to get out and do it again."

Mora expects Carolina to give Jake Delhomme a lot of time to find his receivers, but the Falcons sacked the Panthers' quarterback six times for minus-37 yards last year.

"He makes good decisions," Mora said of Delhomme. "He doesn't take a lot sacks, he doesn't throw a lot of interceptions. He is not easy to get to. Hopefully we can make some plays."

BY THE NUMBERS: 1,053 - Yards that TE Alge Crumpler, Atlanta's leading receiver, and WR Brian Finneran, the team's most productive wideout, have combined for this year. Carolina's Steve Smith, who leads the league in every major receiving category, has 560 yards after catch.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're going to always create matchups for him, just because of the position that he plays. Trying to stop him means other things come open. If you try to stop other things, then we're going to run the ball at you. It's, 'Pick your poison.' We're going to give it to you the way we like to do it. That's Falcons football." - QB Michael Vick on TE Alge Crumpler's presence.

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NT Antwan Lake, who has done a decent job as a spot starter for Chad Lavalais, is still recovering from an auto accident Tuesday in which another car ran a red light and sent him to a nearby hospital with a cut on his forehead and bruises on his back and shoulder. Fortunately for Atlanta, Lavalais has completely healed from the sore foot that sidelined him in the loss two weeks ago to Tampa Bay.

Lake is a better pass rusher than Lavalais, but the Falcons can't bring pressure effectively without first stopping DeShaun Foster and Stephen Davis. Though Kevin Jones and Shawn Bryson had high averages last week at Detroit, the Falcons only allowed 75 yards on the ground. Doing so allowed them more freedom to bring pressure (Atlanta had five sacks) and to take risks in coverage (two interceptions).

The offensive line, with RT Todd Weiner and RG Kynan Forney, seems healthy after the former dressed but didn't play against the Lions. It's here that Atlanta will win or lose the game with Warrick Dunn, T.J. Duckett and Michael Vick seeking to rush for 200-plus yards for the second straight game against Carolina.

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--WR Brian Finneran missed practice Wednesday with a cold. He is eager to resume his role as a possession receiver in the offense after having just two difficult incompletions thrown in his direction last week.

--WR Roddy White stands the best chance of causing damage in the Carolina secondary, simply because he is strong and fast enough to beat single coverage. He won't have many chances, though, against the Panthers' talented defensive backfield.

--SLB Michael Boley gave his top performance of the season in forcing Lions tight end Marcus Pollard to play his position more as a blocker than Detroit preferred. Boley's work in coverage against a standout player like Pollard gives him a boost of confidence against Michael Gaines and Kris Mangum (if the latter is healthy).

--SS Keion Carpenter will play several steps deeper than he has since DeAngelo Hall battled Terrell Owens in the opener. The Falcons give Steve Smith abundant respect.

--PK Todd Peterson could decide the game if the score is close and Atlanta needs a field goal inside of 45 yards. He hasn't missed this year, going 16-for-16.

GAME PLAN: Steve Smith won't run many routes, if any, without DeAngelo Hall shadowing him and sticking to his side. Hall is playing at a high level right now and welcomes the challenge of drawing one-on-one matchups against the NFL's leading receiver. With the rest of the secondary playing zone and sometimes soft coverages to prevent huge gains and scores, Keary Colbert, Ricky Proehl and Rod Gardner will have some opportunities for Jake Delhomme to exploit underneath.

If Carolina can establish an effective ground attack, the Falcons could find trouble quickly. If not, WLB Demorrio Williams, UT Rod Coleman and LDE Patrick Kerney could have big games against QB Jake Delhomme.

The Panthers' personnel in the secondary is far superior to Atlanta's receiving corps of Roddy White, Michael Jenkins and Brian Finneran. Crumpler will make some plays, but this game will be decided by Carolina's ability, or lack thereof, to contain Dunn, Duckett and Vick.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

Falcons RBs Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett vs. Panthers LB Chris Draft. The primary reason that Draft was jettisoned last spring by the Falcons was his lack of speed, both vertically and horizontally, so with Dan Morgan nursing his umpteenth injury, the Falcons will see plenty of their former teammate. Dunn and Duckett are both excelling right now at turning 2-yard gains into 5-yard gains and 6-yard gains into double-digit runs. Atlanta will look for Draft, regardless of his position, and attack him.

Falcons RT Todd Weiner vs. Panthers DE Julius Peppers. Weiner missed last week's win at Detroit because of a lingering elbow injury. He has generally done a decent job against Peppers in seasons past, but Weiner hasn't been fully healthy since September. Peppers is an elite player with speed to beat Weiner and attack Vick's blind side.

Falcons LDE Patrick Kerney vs. Panthers RT Jordan Gross. Kerney regained a touch of swagger after last week's mauling of the Lions, and his motor won't stop until the final second. If UT Rod Coleman makes life miserable for Tutan Reyes and causes someone to slide in for assistance, Kerney could have a bunch of one-on-one matchups against Gross.

INJURY IMPACT: RDE Brady Smith, listed as questionable with a toe injury for the fifth straight week, is highly unlikely to play. Rookie Jonathan Babineaux, drafted in the second round as an interior lineman, will be a point of attack for the Panthers' running game.

NT Antwan Lake is expected to practice later this week after hurting his forehead, shoulder and back in a minor car accident Tuesday. Darrell Shropshire will spell starting NT Chad Lavalais occasionally if Lake can't go. Lavalais will need to take some snaps off with Mike Wahle playing opposite him.

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