THE BRANCH — The Falcons are set to play the most important game of the season without their starting quarterback. A defeat to the Eagles and reaching the playoffs will be extremely difficult.
Also, running back Michael Turner, wide receiver Michael Jenkins and right guard Harvey Dahl could miss the big game.
Despite their 12-1 record at the Georgia Dome under coach Mike Smith, no one believes they can beat the Eagles, who are 5 1/2 point favorites. AJC columnist Jeff Schultz picks the Eagles to cover. All seven of the Sporting News football prognosticators, including my man Clifton Brown (he’s from Philly) are going with the Eagles. At Pro Football Weekly, one of their nine editors, Mike Wilkening took the Falcons to cover the spread. None picked them to win outright. (UPDATE: Watching NFL Live and Herm Edwards and Mark Schlereth also picked the Eagles.)
Let’s look at some keys to the game and what some Falcons are doing in the community:
THE RUN GAME: The Falcons have been held to 75 and 88 yards rushing in their last two games. They will need to
run it better in order to help out backup quarterback Chris Redman, who’ll be making just his 11th NFL start.
“As running backs, we just have to run down hill,” running back Jason Snelling said. “They are an aggressive defense. Running down hill and getting tough yardage will help. ”
BALANCING THE LINE: With Sam Baker (elbow) and Harvey Dahl (ankle) injured, the Falcons may have to do some juggling along the offensive line.
They only had seven linemen active last Sunday for Tampa Bay. After Dahl and Baker went down and Brett Romberg and Will Svitek went in, the cupboard was bare.
Quinn Ojinnaka, a combo guard and tackle, could be active to give them more options and depth. He’s been inactive for seven games this season.
“I don’t know exactly how we are going to put it together,” Smith said. “But it’s all predicated on who’s healthy. It may go all the way down to the hour and a half before the opening kickoff.”
CONTROLLING THE EDGES: Tackles Sam Baker and Tyson Clabo have tough assignments against Eagles defensive ends Trent Cole (9.5 sacks), Juqua Parker (5 sacks) and Darren Howard (2.5 sacks).
“They’ve got three guys who play with a lot of energy and can run up the field,” Smith said. “They enjoy rushing the passer. It will be a challenge for us and our offensive staff to make sure we have protection schemes to eliminate those guys or they can make things rough.”
The Eagles will interchange their defensive ends and linebackers. It’s hard to tell who’s blitzing and who’s dropping in coverage.
“They do a lot of stuff in their blitz packages,” Baker said. “They have a lot of personnel that comes in. They’ve got a lot of different guys who can get to the quarterback. Recognition and communication is the biggest thing this week.”
VICK NOT EXPECTED TO PLAY WR: Got an e-mail from Geoff Mosher, who covers the Eagles for The Wilmington [Del.] News Journal, Camden [N.J.] Courier Post and The Sporting News.
“In Eagleland, looks like DeSean Jackson won’t play. Jeremy Maclin will move from split end to flanker. Reggie Brown (former UGA Bulldog) will probably start (at) flanker and rotate snaps there with Jason Avant. In 3 WR formations, Avant will move to slot. Team plays more 3-WR sets than anything, so most of Avant’s snaps will be in slot.”
The Eagles are seventh (26.6 points a game) in scoring.
“They are a very explosive team,” Smith said. “They are a fastbreak team.”
HOW THEY WERE BUILT: The Eagles are a general manager’s dream. Of their 22 starters, 16 were either drafted or signed by the team s a rookie free agents.
Here are the original Eagles: CB Sheldon Brown, SS Quintin Mikell, LB Joe Mays, LB Chris Gocong, DE Trent Cole, DT Mike Patterson, DT Brodrick Bunkley, TE Brent Celek, LG Todd Herremans, C Jamaal Jackson, RG Nick Cole, RT Winston Justice, WR DeSean Jackson, QB Donovan McNabb, WR Jeremy Maclin and RB LeSean McCoy.
The Falcons are getting there. They will start 12 of 22 homegrown starters. It would be 13 if Matt Ryan were playing. All were drafted.
WR Michael Jenkins, WR Roddy White, LT Sam Baker, LG Justin Blalock, C Todd McClure, DT Jonathan Babineaux, DE/DT Jamaal Anderson, LB Stephen Nicholas, LB Curtis Lofton, CB Chris Houston, FS Thomas DeCoud and CB Christopher Owens.
FALCONS IN THE COMMUNITY
Fullback Ovie Mughelli’s Foundation is holding a fundraiser to help create avenues for kids to learn more about the environment on Saturday at the Georgia World Congress Center.
“We are excited about our Foundation and its energy to give kids access and activities to learning about the environment,” says Mughelli. “We want to thank our supporters and encourage others to help empower our youth to take ownership and pride about their lives and the roles that they play in society.”
Funds raised will support the first annual Green Football Camp and Environmental Workshop in Atlanta , Ovie Mughelli Foundation’s Green Educational Workshops in Charleston , along with supporting Atlanta-area’s Green Speakers Series through partnership with Greening Youth, LLC.
Tickets for the event are $250. For more information call 510-417-1063.
GONZALEZ GOING SHOPPING: Tight end Tony Gonzalez will host his “Shop with a Jock” program at the Cumming Wal-Mart store for 50 children from the Atlanta Union Mission.
This private event will give homeless, neglected and abused children from the Atlanta area a night of fun, filled with food and games, and a $100 shopping spree at Wal-Mart with Gonzalez and other Falcons players.
BABINEAUX BAKING COOKIES: Defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux will bake Christmas cookies and help decorate the Covenant House Christmas tree on Tuesday with runaways and teenagers who live on the streets and find shelter at Covenant House.
Jonathan hopes spending time with the runaway and homeless teenagers will help lift their spirits and continue to stay and get help from Covenant House instead of living on the streets.