Hartwell injury forces Falcons to shuffle linebackers
It isn't the preferred method of attempting to slow an opponent which rushed for 371 yards in two divisional meetings in 2005, but the Atlanta Falcons, who will be forced to shuffle their linebacker corps for Sunday's season-opener against the Carolina Panthers, are at least accustomed to the drill.
With starting middle linebacker Ed Hartwell still sidelined as he continues to recover from arthroscopic surgery to remove debris from both knees two weeks ago, weakside star and five-time Pro Bowl performer Keith Brooking will slide into the "Mike" spot. Third-year veteran Demorrio Williams, the team's leading tackler in 2005 but relegated to nickel responsibilities this season, rejoins the starting lineup. And second-year veteran Michael Boley, who started 11 games as a rookie, is the strongside linebacker.
It's a starting combination the Falcons employed in 11 games in 2005, after Hartwell was lost for the year to a ruptured Achilles tendon, but the kind of musical chairs approach coach Jim Mora and coordinator Ed Donatell had hoped to avoid this season. But when Hartwell could no longer tolerate the discomfort in both knees, the linebacker shuffle was on again.
"You pretty much do what you have to do," said Brooking, who started at middle linebacker for three years earlier in his career, after Atlanta stalwart Jessie Tuggle was released. "It's not what we had planned, but it's something we've done before, so we're not treating it like it's a big deal. We'll do our jobs. We feel like we're going to be OK."
Winning divisional games is critical in the NFL. This critical NFC South game has all the makings of a classic showdown. Both teams have high expectations and need to get off to a fast start due to their tough schedules.
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The Falcons were anything but OK in defense versus the run in 2005, statistically ranking 26th in the NFL in that key category, and demonstrating poor tackling technique much of the season. To help rectify their most glaring deficiency, the Falcons added two new safeties in Lawyer Milloy and Chris Crocker, recently signed veteran run-stuffing tackle Grady Jackson and looked to Hartwell, who did not play very well in his five appearances before the Achilles injury in 2005, to get back to his previous form.
But the twin knee surgeries to Hartwell, who was supposed to provide a more physical inside presence, has disrupted those plans a bit.
The temporary remaking of the linebacker corps -- Hartwell is due back in a week or two -- certainly makes it lighter and more athletic unit. But against the Panthers, who ran roughshod against the Falcons two victories last year, the Falcons will also need to be more physical.
In last season's two games, Panthers tailback DeShaun Foster rushed for 296 yards and three touchdowns, and displayed great elusiveness when he broke into the secondary. Better tackling at the safety position this season might help curtail Foster's big-play ability. But keeping him from finding space in the secondary, by suffocating him at the point of attack, is an even better antidote.
"I'm sure," said Foster, "they're going to concentrate on [run defense]. We gashed them a few times last year with big plays and that was a factor for us. No matter who starts for them, and where they line up, their run defense will be a priority."
If nothing else, the linebacker shuffle gets Williams onto the field more, and his athleticism is notable. Boley, while somewhat undersized for the strongside position, is one of the best athletes on the team. But the key could be Brooking, who prefers to play the weak side, but who is never above sacrificing for the good of the Atlanta defense.
"It's not like I've never done it before," Brooking said. "Probably half my career has been spent playing in the middle. We didn't plan it this way, but you just kind of roll with the punches."
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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