Their Week 6 matchup with the New Orleans Saints will be less difficult now that running back Deuce McAllister is out for the season with a torn knee ligament. The Falcons (3-2) return to practice today and will begin installing their game plan to face the Saints (2-3).
Atlanta must replace two important defenders after losing middle linebacker Ed Hartwell and nickel cornerback Chris Cash to season-ending injuries in last week's 31-28 loss to the Patriots. Head coach Jim Mora met Monday with Keith Brooking, Ike Reese, Demorrio Williams and rookie Michael Boley before he makes a final decision with coordinator Ed Donatell and linebackers coach Chris Beake about replacing Hartwell.
"I'm completely comfortable with whatever they decide is best for our football team," Brooking said. "We have a lack of depth there, so we need to get our best players on the football field."
Brooking earned his Pro Bowl trip after playing middle linebacker in a 4-3 defense four years ago. After the Falcons switched to a 3-4 scheme under coordinator Wade Phillips in 2002-03, Brooking played inside linebacker and made the NFC Pro Bowl squad twice.
Mora, Donatell and Beake moved him to weakside linebacker when they installed a 4-3 alignment with one-gap responsibilities last year. This freed Brooking to harass quarterbacks, disrupt passing lanes and pursue the football more freely, but Hartwell's injury could change his role again.
Williams, who played arguably the worst game of his two-year career in last week's 31-28 loss to the Patriots, starts at strongside and is too small to fill the middle. Boley, a fifth-round draft pick from Southern Mississippi, is projected as a future starter somewhere in the corps, but he has played exclusively on special teams thus far and also light.
Antoine Cash, an undrafted rookie and a teammate of Boley at Southern Miss, hopes to return this week after sitting out the Patriots game with a strained groin. The Falcons are likely to decide, however, between Brooking and Reese, the latter of whom replaced Hartwell after he tore his right Achilles tendon late in the third quarter.
Reese played the final period and met his challenge head on when running backs Corey Dillon and Patrick Pass ran at him three times. They gained a combined two yards as Reese made each tackle.
"I think with a full week of practice at it and studying at it, I can go in there and definitely do a sufficient job," Reese said. "I don't know if I can go in there and do the type of job Ed did. Obviously, he's better suited to play middle linebacker. That's why they brought him in here. I think with my experience - I played it before, even before I came here - I think I can go in there and definitely do a good job of it."
Reese, who has five career starts and filled in at weakside for Mark Simoneau in Philadelphia's 28-6 victory over Washington last November, is a critical part of special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis' coverage and return units on kickoffs and punts. Hartwell didn't play special teams, but the speedy Reese signed with specifically to help in that regard.
He was a first-time Pro Bowl selection on special teams last season.
"If I was told that my experience and my leadership was more valuable in our special teams unit than to be out there playing middle linebacker, then, hey, that's what I do now," Reese said. "That's what I do now. Either way the coaches and the organization decide they want to go, I'm with it. I just believe that, given an opportunity to go out there and play linebacker, I believe I can do a great job in doing it."
The list of candidates to replace Chris Cash includes Christian Morton, Ronnie Heard, Allen Rossum and Omare Lowe. None is likely to be seen as a long-term solution, so the team probably will work out some potential free agents this week.
Losing Chris Cash, who broke his right forearm and wrist, hurts, particularly after Kevin Mathis, the player originally set for that role, suffered a potentially career-ending knee injury in a Week 2 practice.
"(Mathis played) a significant role in nickel and dime defenses," Mora said. "Last year, I believe he started 12 games in filling in for DeAngelo (Hall) and Jason (Webster) when they had nicks.
"Our personnel department went out and found Chris Cash and he fit that same mold as Kevin. I am not saying that he is the same guy, but he is the same type of guy. He had real savvy playing the inside in the nickel step in the zones. He had athleticism to cover a guy man to man. He is physical. He has a presence about it. The players bonded to him immediately. To lose him was tough, but you can't feel sorry for yourself."