The opening game of the season is always a chance for a team to start building momentum heading into a new year. When the schedule first came out, many Vikings fans cringed at the thought of facing Michael Vick in Week 1, especially being mindful of his 50-yard scramble in overtime against the Vikings in his last trip into the Metrodome.
Instead, thanks to a suspension stemming from his role in a dog-fighting operation, Vick isn't playing and many people have taken the Falcons out of the playoff-hopeful category and into the realm of potential contender for the first pick in next year's draft.
A big reason for that is the quarterback situation. While Vick was never a great percentage passer, he could alter a defense completely because of his uncanny rushing ability. It would take a defense out of its normal comfort zone and often resulted in big plays. Instead, the Falcons now turn to Joey Harrington, the former Lions quarterback who was blamed for the franchise's ineptitude over the last several years. In six career starts as a Lion, he never beat the Vikings and had twice as many interceptions as touchdowns. He flopped in Miami in his first chance to resurrect his career and wasn't planned on being the starter when he came to Atlanta. He was simply supposed to replace Matt Schaub, who was traded to Houston just months before the Vick story broke. Now Harrington is being asked to take control of the offense. If you're looking for a team weakness, it starts right here. You don't have a 23-43 record as a starter by fluke.
The running backs for the Falcons were the backbone of the offense last year and are expected to be again. Warrick Dunn is a veteran who has saved his best numbers for the last three years with the Falcons. He was the last running back for almost two years that ran for 100 yards on the Vikings the last time they met in 2005 and, while he had shoulder and back surgery in the offseason, he insists he can still be the man. He's having his role pushed hard by second-year pro Jerious Norwood. A speedster who can turn a nothing-looking play into a touchdown gallop, is pushing Dunn for the primary back role, but the expectation is that, while Norwood will probably get more carries most of the year, it will still be a time share. The Falcons are so serious about running the ball, they signed old-school fullback Ovie Mughelli to a six-year, $18 million contract to open holes for the speed guys. A guy who has turned some heads in the preseason is rookie Jason Snelling, who some believe might take on a T.J. Duckett role as a goal-line touchdown stealer.
The Falcons wide receiver situation has always been something of a joke. The team has seemingly brought in a new free agent every year to join their draftees and holdover guys with the promise of being a No. 1 receiver. It has yet to pay any dividends, but it hasn't stopped the Falcons from trying. This time they've brought in veteran Joe Horn, who was an emotional leader for the Saints following Hurricane Katrina, but was allowed to leave because of his age and salary demands. Horn isn't the same guy fans saw four or five years ago, but has made the transition to more of a possession receiver who has good hands and will move the chains. The rest of the receiver corps is the same young guys Falcons fans have waited to see develop. Michael Jenkins and Roddy White are both former first-round draft picks, and neither of them has stepped up to show any consistency to warrant consideration as a game-changing receiver. Rookie Laurent Robinson is the latest source of hope, but this has been an ongoing soap opera for years.
The best receiver on the team is likely tight end Alge Crumpler. A favorite of Vick's, Crumpler has the athletic ability to get deep down the seam and is also especially dangerous in the red zone. Atlanta head coach Bobby Petrino, making his NFL coaching debut, plans on moving him all over the field as a tight end, H-back, slot receiver and even out at the sidelines as a wide receiver. He could be the one offensive player the Vikings need to be the most concerned with.
The offensive line remains a work in progress. Not too long ago, the Falcons had a small line that used the Denver style of chop blocking to be successful. Now they're in the process of transitioning into a bigger down-your-throat type of O-line and the jury is still out on how successful that transition will be. Left tackle Wayne Gandy is in his 14th year and had a much easier job than your normal left tackle because Vick was left-handed and Gandy wasn't covering his blind side. Now he will be working with Harrington, which will create a domino effect of pressure down the line. Left guard Justin Blalock is a rookie who is learning on the job. Center Todd McClure is adequate at best and will struggle against Pat Williams. The right side of the line is the strength with guard Kynan Forney and tackle Todd Weiner, but with a right-handed QB behind them, it changes the dynamics of the protection.
The Falcons had to scramble to replace Patrick Kerney at defensive end, who waited until the day after the final day in which teams could franchise players to announce he would opt out of his contract and became an unrestricted free agent. As a result, the Falcons used their first draft choice on Arkansas DE Jamaal Anderson. He joins veteran and high-price trade acquisition John Abraham as the ends. When healthy, Abraham can be dominant, but staying healthy has proved a problem. Health is also a concern in the middle, where Rod Coleman spent most of training camp healing from a ruptured quadriceps injury resulting from a jet ski accident. He is expected to be out almost a month. As a result, third-down DT Jonathon Babineaux was asked to join free agent signee Grady Jackson on rushing downs. Teams took advantage of that in the preseason and the chance to take advantage of the middle could be possible for the Vikings.
The linebacker position is the strength of the defense and will be critical trying to stop the running tandem of Chester Taylor and Adrian Peterson. Keith Brooking is a rock in the middle, where he is being moved full time after making five Pro Bowls as an OLB. Michael Boley is a star in the making on the strong side. An unsung leading tackler, Boley was used as a blitzer effectively and created a lot of turnovers. On the weakside, Demmorio Williams is in his fourth year and really came into his own last year when he became a full-time starter. He is aggressive and chases down plays effectively to make tackles anywhere on the field. Depth isn't a concern either, as rookie Stephen Nicholas is expected to provide backup help at multiple positions. He got a chance to show himself off in the preseason and was one of the more pleasant surprises to come out of a dismal Falcons camp.
The secondary begins and ends with DeAngelo Hall. The Falcons left corner is in his fourth year and has already established himself as one of the top cover corners in the NFL. He has been dominant at times and taken away his side of the field for long stretches during the game. The Falcons also feel good about Lawyer Milloy, who turns 34 in two months, but is still a heavy hitter at safety. While his better days are behind him, he still can be an intimidator. From there, the dropoff is significant. The Falcons signed free agent Lewis Sanders to be their starter, but he is likely only holding the spot warm for rookie Chris Houston, a second-round draft pick that, like the Vikings' Cedric Griffin last year, will start the season as a nickel back, but push for a starter's job. At free safety, Chris Crocker has been injured and slowed up, giving second-year man Jimmy Williams a chance to play. If the Vikings attack an area of the Falcons secondary, it could well be the safeties that they target.
The Falcons and the Vikings have more than a little recent history, especially at the Metrodome, where the Falcons ended the Vikings' dream 1998 season and where Vick made a career-highlight film moment with a 50-yard touchdown run in overtime for an Atlanta victory. Both teams are being viewed by many national pundits as teams that are much more likely to lose 10 or more games than contend for a division title. But many of those same people felt the same way about the Saints last year and got surprised. A win to open the season can start the momentum rolling for teams, and both of these teams desperately need a win to get their season off on the right foot. Each of them legitimately believes it can dominate the other. Even though very few around the country will see the game on free TV, it should be a good measuring stick for both teams to see exactly where they stand as the games start being played for real.
Preview: Changes Abound for Falcons
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