For better or worse, Demorrio Williams regained a starting job earlier this week when the coaches decided to take the same approach as last year regarding an injury to starting middle linebacker Ed Hartwell.
The Falcons hope to regain some of the $8 million in guaranteed bonuses they staked on Hartwell, who missed 11 games after tearing an Achilles tendon in his first season with Atlanta.
They could at some point, but heading into a showdown this weekend at Carolina, a bigger question surrounds how Keith Brooking, Michael Boley and Williams fare against a Carolina rushing attack that gouged the Atlanta defense for 371 yards rushing on 71 carries last season.
Hartwell won't play after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on both knees on Aug. 28. It's possible the hard-hitting 28-year-old could miss the home opener next week against Tampa Bay and a Monday night visit to New Orleans on Sept. 25.
An ensuing lineup shuffle sends Brooking to the middle, where he filled in and made his fifth straight last year Pro Bowl as Hartwell's replacement. The Falcons moved Michael Boley, a rookie who backed up Brooking at weakside, to strongside while giving Williams a different job, too.
Jordan Beck, who started the preseason finale and worked a lot with the No. 1 defense while Hartwell rehabbed during mini-camp and early in training camp, needs more seasoning in the middle. A big hitter on special teams, Beck isn't savvy enough to make pre-snap calls after missing all of his rookie season with a foot injury.
Returning to the middle suits Brooking well. The longest-tenured Falcon and a former Georgia Tech standout whom Atlanta drafted 12th overall in 1998, Brooking cares only about avenging two lopsided losses to Carolina in 2005.
"It's pretty obvious what this game means," Brooking said. "It's not just it being the first regular season game. There are the implications of it being a division game against a very good opponent, and away in a hostile environment. It's got the makings of being a great one. I'm very excited about it. I'm excited about our defense, I'm excited about our football team. I'm just ready to get it going."
Brooking is eager to work in run support behind Grady Jackson, the 360-pound nose tackle whom Atlanta signed two weeks ago. The Falcons, who made a splash in free agency by acquiring right end John Abraham, strong safety Lawyer Milloy and free safety Chris Crocker, need all the help they can get in defending the run.
Atlanta dropped from eighth in 2004, its first season under head coach Jim Mora and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, to 22nd last year. Not surprisingly, the Falcons dropped six of their last eight and missed the playoffs.
"It was very evident in the few plays we had in practice last week when he was in there," Brooking said of Jackson. "That presence will help us out tremendously -- not just myself, not just Ed Hartwell and Boley and Demorrio Williams. It's going to help our entire defense out. He's a man in the middle. There's no doubt. He uses that space well."
SERIES HISTORY: 23rd meeting. Atlanta leads, 14-8, but the Panthers took convincing wins in both meetings last season. Losing 24-6 at Carolina in Week 13 marked the first time in six starts that quarterback Michael Vick failed to beat Carolina. The Falcons are 5-6 all-time at Charlotte.
--Unless someone in the front office like team president-general manager Rich McKay insists otherwise, the Falcons will become the first team since the 1981 Los Angeles Rams to have one specialist, Michael Koenen, handle field goals, extra points, kickoffs and punts.
The Rams used Frank Corral as their four-tiered kicker.
"Right now, as we sit here on Wednesday, the plan is to go with Michael," Mora said. "That could change, but I don't foresee it changing."
As an undrafted rookie last year, Koenen punted and kicked off, but he raised the possibility of adding another dimension to his job description by kicking a 58-yard field goal against Tampa Bay. During preseason, the former Western Washington standout connected from 50 and 51 yards and added four others of at least 40.
"I have a lot of confidence in Michael," Mora said. "I think he'll be fine. Am I going to tell him not to tackle anybody? No, I'm not going to do that. He's a good little athlete. We're just going to let him play the game."
The Falcons signed Tony Yelk, who joined the team during summer after no other team drafted the former Iowa State specialist, to their practice squad earlier this week. Having Yelk at least relieves some of the burden off Koenen to take on all the work in practice.
"I've had to learn how to practice without overdoing it," Koenen said. "I've just had to cut it back a little bit. That's the biggest thing."
--DeAngelo Hall never backs off a chance to promote himself, and the third-year cornerback was in peak, verbal form as he pondered his place in NFL history earlier this week.
"When I'm out there, I'm trying to kill people this year, period," Hall said. "I want to be known as the best, and until I get it, I won't stop."
--Mora believes the Falcons missed Kevin Mathis' toughness immensely after the longtime veteran defensive back missed the last 15 games of his ninth year with a potentially devastating knee injury.
Now that Mathis has fully recovered and taken a place as a reserve safety, Mora can see more resolve throughout the defensive backfield. In two picks against Jake Delhomme and the Panthers, Mathis has scored two touchdowns.
"He will have a role on special teams and ... it's just good to have him back out there," Mora said. "Kevin has proven to be a playmaker, and to me what's even more important is that I love his mindset and toughness. He is a fierce competitor."
--In winning three straight over Carolina from Week 14 of 2003 through Week 15 of 2004, the Falcons had a plus-12 turnover differential. The Panthers, however, enjoyed a lopsided 6-to-1 in their two victories last season.
--"I don't think I will be. I'm in a different mindset this season. Whatever I've got to do -- put friendships on hold or end them -- cool. Like I said, it's a business. You best believe that when he's hanging up in the air, I will be taking a shot at him, period." -- Cornerback DeAngelo Hall on whether he plans to accept an invitation for the second straight year to dine at Steve Smith's house on the night before the game.
--It's still possible the Falcons could sign either a kicker or a punter before the opener, and a move could come as late as Saturday, but the team likes the notion of adding an extra defensive lineman (possibly rookie Tommy Jackson) or a running back off the practice squad (fullback Kevin Dudley) to beef up positions that are potentially thin.
What's more compelling, however, is the chance that an injury to Koenen could lead to scenarios in which defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux or cornerback Omare Lowe could serve as a place-kicker. Atlanta has even given starting receiver Michael Jenkins some snaps as a punter.
Hopefully, Koenen stays healthy the entire season, and the Falcons don't have to resort to anything desperate. If that holds true, the biggest developments for the opener involve the latest veteran pickups, No. 3 receiver Ashley Lelie and starting nose tackle Grady Jackson.
Both players have experience, which could give Atlanta an edge because Carolina scouts never saw them play enough to see how their new team will use them. It's no secret that Lelie's primary asset is running fast and deep, so when he enters as the third receiver, Jenkins moves to flanker and Roddy White works from the opposite wideout spot.
The key for the Falcons is to have quarterback Michael Vick put the ball up in air for Lelie, who can out-jump many corners for big gains. Every team knows that Lelie has been among the NFL's leaders in yards per catch since Denver drafted him 20th overall in 2002.
Jackson's presence not only beefs up the middle of the line; It also gives Atlanta more options in the abundant rotations that position coach Bill Johnson uses to keep players fresh. With Jackson plugging the inside and occupying space against guards and centers, Atlanta should have more chances to blitz Brooking and bring left end Patrick Kerney and right end John Abraham off the edge.
--MLB Jordan Beck might not take a snap in defensive sets unless the Falcons take a big lead or fall behind by a big margin. That's OK, because Beck will be fresh on special teams, and he's strong enough to create matchup problems for Carolina's coverage and blocking units.
--RCB Jason Webster didn't take many snaps the last two weeks because of a sore ankle, so rookie Jimmy Williams could see more action that the coaches would like. That could create an advantage for the Panthers with an experienced wideout like Keyshawn Johnson schooling the youngster.
--FB Fred McCrary backs up starter Justin Griffith, but the former is a valuable part of the offense and special teams. Too bad McCrary nurses a sore ankle, which could limit his effectiveness, if not his availability.
--C Todd McClure faces a long afternoon in attempting to block Kris Jenkins, Maake Kemoeatu, Jordan Carstens and Damione Lewis. His best hope to have Vick release the ball quickly, so that the Panthers' big interior linemen wear down.
--RB Jerious Norwood runs as fast as Vick or Hall, but he must prove himself worthy in protections before the coaching staff can trust him to take a lot of snaps.
-- Vick must prove he's still a special player, but the reality last year was that he never took over a game. That was particularly the case against Carolina, an opponent he was 5-0 against before losing twice in 2005.
In order for him to convert those big third downs and eventually wear down the defense, he must stay patient and not force the ball into tight coverage while still giving wideouts Roddy White, Michael Jenkins and Ashley Lelie a chance to make a play when necessary.
For the defense to be successful, it must stop a season veteran in DeShaun Foster and rookie extraordinaire in DeAngelo Williams. Foster absolutely ran over, through and around the Falcons last year, so it's time for newcomers like Abraham, Milloy, Jackson and Crocker to prove their worth.
SCOUTing the Falcons
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