Petrino wants Harrington to unload ball quicker

Updated: September 17, 2007, 10:22 PM ET
Associated Press

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Joey Harrington, who has been sacked 13 times in his first two starts for the Falcons, was feeling more heat on Monday -- this time from his coach.

Bobby Petrino said it's not fair to blame the offensive line for the high sack totals -- including seven in Sunday's 13-7 loss at Jacksonville.

Petrino said Harrington is holding the ball too long.

The Falcons are lapping the NFL field in sacks allowed, with Joey Harrington being sacked 13 times. Through Sunday's games, no other quarterback had been sacked more than seven times.

"I think right now Joey is playing a little bit conservative, a little bit not to throw the interception," Petrino said. "Therefore it is causing him to hold the ball. He just needs to open it up more with confidence and play to go win the game."

Harrington could soon have a new backup. Byron Leftwich, cut by Jacksonville in a surprise preseason move, could sign a deal with the team this week.

ESPN reported Monday night that Leftwich will take a team physical on Tuesday.

Falcons spokesman Reggie Roberts said Monday night there has been no agreement between the Falcons and the 27-year-old Leftwich.

The key to a deal could be the physical.

Ankle and knee problems have prevented Leftwich, the seventh pick in the 2003 draft, from completing a full season. He missed 15 games the past two years before he was beaten out in the preseason by David Garrard for the Jaguars' starting job.

Falcons general manager Rich McKay could not be reached for comment on Monday night. Earlier in the day, the Falcons addressed another concern by re-signing veteran kicker Morten Andersen.

Harrington was sacked only 18.4 times per season in his first five years in the league with Detroit and Miami. He avoided sacks with quick passes in Detroit's West Coast offense but now is taking deeper drops in Petrino's scheme.

Harrington was 12-for-20 passing for 200 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions against Jacksonville as the Falcons fell to 0-2.

The Falcons are lapping the NFL field in sacks allowed. Through Sunday's games, no other quarterback had been sacked more than seven times.

In Monday's news conference lasting about 7 minutes, Petrino made four statements about Harrington holding the ball too long. The coach also said the line, backs and receivers share blame.

"I'm certainly concerned about our passing game, I would say our protection in our passing game," Petrino said, adding, "It's not all on the offensive line.

"Anytime you're getting sacks, it's the quarterback's responsibility to get us in the right protections and to get the ball out of his hands, it's the receiver's responsibility to get open on time and the offensive line, running back, tight end's responsibility to protect and do their assignment with their job."

Harrington was not available for comment on Monday.

Harrington was sacked four times in the fourth quarter in a 24-3 loss at Minnesota to open the season, and he was sacked three times in the final 15 minutes against the Jaguars. He was sacked on the Falcons' final play of each game.

The Falcons led the Jaguars 7-3 after three quarters, but Harrington was only 1-for-4 passing for 8 yards in the fourth quarter.

"It's not a sack issue, an O-line issue, a receiver issue," Harrington said Sunday. "It's everybody's issue."

The Falcons, who play Carolina in Atlanta next Sunday, have scored only 10 points in two games.

Tailback Warrick Dunn, who scored Atlanta's only touchdown of the season Sunday, said Harrington and others are still adjusting to the new offense.

"I think it's just guys being comfortable," Dunn said. "You can't just blame Joey on the sacks. Sometimes Joey drops back and may hold the ball a second too long.

"I think it's a matter of being comfortable in the offense and understanding where everybody is going to be. He knows that, but to me I don't think it's second nature to where he's reacting to what he sees. I think everyone is still thinking a little bit instead of just truly reacting."

Harrington, who has topped 100 yards rushing in a season only once, is a dramatic change in style from suspended former starter Michael Vick, who last year became the first NFL quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.

Vick was suspended indefinitely by the league last month following his guilty plea on a dogfighting charge. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Dec. 10.

It's not enough that Falcons fans must wonder how the loss of Vick hurt the team. Vick's former backup, Matt Schaub, ranks among the league's passing leaders as the new starter for Houston.

The Falcons traded Schaub only weeks before investigators uncovered evidence of dogfighting on Vick's property in Virginia.

The Falcons also lost quarterback D.J. Shockley to a season-ending knee injury in the preseason, leaving Chris Redman and Casey Bramlet as Harrington's backups.

The Falcons had 82 yards rushing in the loss, their second straight game under 100 yards. They were held under 100 yards in only one game last season.

"We're still learning, still growing," Petrino said. "We just have to do a better job of getting the ball in the end zone. I'm tired of moving the ball and not getting points."


Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press