Atlanta quarterback Joey Harrington has been solid through his first three outings in place of Michael Vick.
Coming off their first loss of the season, the Texans now shift gears and prepare to face the winless Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome. This Sunday's game will mark the return of Matt Schaub, Atlanta's former backup quarterback, whom the Texans acquired in a trade in March.
Atlanta had a tumultuous offseason, highlighted by the legal troubles of quarterback Michael Vick. With all the news surrounding the Vick situation, the Falcons' hire of former University of Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino seems to have been lost in the mix. Petrino has introduced his explosive style of offense to a team that has been among the best at running the ball over the past few seasons. Though they will still continue to run the ball, Petrino is sure to be more aggressive with his downfield passing play calls.
Had the Texans not acquired Schaub, they would be preparing to face him this week. Instead, they'll face Joey Harrington, the former third overall pick whom the Falcons signed in the offseason. Harrington was originally brought in to be Vick's backup, but now is the starter with Vick's NFL future in question. Harrington has played well through three games, throwing for 760 yards and two touchdowns. His backup is Chris Redman, a former pupil of Petrino's at Louisville. Also in the mix is recently signed Byron Leftwich, who was released at the end of training camp by the Jaguars. Leftwich may see some playing time should Harrington struggle during the season.
After being injured for most of the preseason, Warrick Dunn returns as the starting running back. Dunn has rushed for over 1,100 yards in each of the last three seasons, leading one of the most formidable rushing attacks in the league. Right behind Dunn is Jerious Norwood, who should also see plenty of carries this season. Norwood is the more explosive of the two backs, having averaged over six yards per carry last season in a reserve role. Clearing the way for both backs is fullback Ovie Mughelli, who comes over from the Ravens. Mughelli is a crushing run-blocker capable of gaining short yardage when called upon.
Wide receiver has been a position that Atlanta has struggled with the past few seasons. Help should come from 12-year veteran Joe Horn who was signed in the offseason. A vocal leader, Horn will be a great influence on youngsters Roddy White and Michael Jenkins, two receivers blessed with blazing speed but not the sharpest route-running skills. 2007 third-round pick Laurent Robinson and speedster Adam Jennings fill out the receiver corps.
Atlanta is fortunate to have one of the most productive tight ends in the league in Alge Crumpler, who earned his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl bid last season after grabbing 56 receptions for 780 yards and a career-high eight touchdowns. Behind Crumpler is little depth, with former undrafted free agent Dwayne Blakely and rookie Martrez Milner as the backups.
The offensive line, like the rest of the offense, will see a change in philosophy as they switch from the zone-blocking scheme to more of the power-blocking scheme preferred by Petrino. Fitting that mold to a tee is rookie left guard Justin Blalock. The former All-American from the University of Texas, Blalock is a mammoth mauler (6-4, 329) who excels in run-blocking. The rest of the line remains unchanged as left tackle Wayne Gandy, center Todd McClure, right guard Kynan Forney and right tackle Todd Weiner return to their starting roles. The holdovers are more suited for the zone-blocking scheme and will need to quickly adjust to Petrino's power scheme to be effective.
Defensive end John Abraham missed most of last season due to injury, but is healthy and having a productive start this year with three sacks in the first three games. On the other side, Abraham is joined by 2007 first-round pick Jamaal Anderson. The former Arkansas Razorback is big and fast and should compliment Abraham very well. Along the interior, tackle Grady Jackson plugs the middle. Jonathon Babineaux fills the other starting spot as regular starter Rod Coleman recovers from a knee injury.
At linebacker, Keith Brooking moves from the outside back to middle linebacker, his more natural position. Brooking was a beast last season, racking up 138 tackles and 2.5 sacks. The athletic Michael Boley will start on the strong side. He possesses great speed and can come in to rush from defensive end on occasion. Demorrio Williams, who excels in pass coverage, starts on the weak side. There is not much depth behind the starters, with seven-year veteran Marcus Wilkins the most experienced reserve.
The secondary is led by Pro Bowl strong safety Lawyer Milloy. The 12-year veteran became an immediate leader on and off the field in 2006 and showed he is still productive, making 98 tackles with five passes defensed. Chris Crocker will start at free safety but will have converted corner Jimmy Williams looking over his shoulder for an opportunity to snatch the starting spot away.
On the corners, superstar DeAngelo Hall should man the left side while former Texan Lewis Sanders starts on the right side. Hall earned his second consecutive Pro Bowl bid last season after making a team-high four interceptions and a career-high 16 passes defensed, but may not play on Sunday depending on Petrino's course of action following Hall's outburst in the Falcons' Week 3 loss to the Panthers. Rookies David Hall and Chris Houston will see most of their action in obvious passing downs.
Needing to solidify the kicking game, Atlanta turned to a familiar face, all-time NFL scoring leader Morten Andersen. The 47-year old enters his 25th season, making him the second-oldest player ever to play in an NFL game. Andersen still possesses an accurate leg inside 40 yards, but struggles with kicks from distance.
When longer kicks are needed, the Falcons will turn to punter Michael Koenen, who made a league-long 58-yard field goal last season. Koenen averaged 42.1 yards per punt last season, dropping a career-high 25 kicks inside the 20-yard line.
Replacing former return standout Allen Rossum, Adam Jennings will return both punts and kickoffs. Jennings played a significant role last season on special teams, making four tackles, recovering a fumble and recovering an onside kick.
What to Watch For
- Atlanta recently signed former Jaguars starter Byron Leftwich to a two-year deal. If Joey Harrington struggles at some point during the season, expect Leftwich to be given a shot at the starting role.
- How long will Warrick Dunn remain the starting running back? Backup Jerious Norwood is bigger and faster than Dunn and more suited for Bobby Petrino's power-running game. Norwood averaged over six yards per carry last season and is one of Atlanta's biggest playmakers on offense.