In playing before a partisan Dolphins crowd in Miami, the Falcons must cope with the two-headed attack of rookie Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, who combined for 188 yards rushing in a 21-6 victory over the New Orleans Saints last week.
The Saints' difficult circumstances this season aside, Atlanta defensive coordinator Ed Donatell knows his team must prove stout when facing backs the caliber of Brown and Williams. Donatell tried not to read too much into the Falcons' Oct. 24 performance against the Jets in which New York managed just 37 yards rushing.
After allowing the Saints to post 211 yards rushing in their first game without injured star runner Deuce McAllister, Atlanta traced its problems to the season-ending injury middle linebacker Ed Hartwell suffered the week before and the personnel shuffle that ensued.
Keith Brooking, who moved from weakside to Hartwell's spot, hadn't played middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme since 2001. The four-time Pro Bowl selection tried too hard at times against the Saints to compensate for the inexperience of Michael Boley, a rookie making his first career start on the strongside, and Demorrio Williams, who wasn't accustomed to playing weakside.
"When you're making that many moves with guys _ because you are changing Brook, you are changing Demorrio and you are bringing in a guy who hasn't played, a rookie _ at linebacker, that's a major undertaking," Donatell said. "And to get through the first two weeks, I'm thrilled to have two wins. That was the first objective."
The crowd Sunday at Dolphins Stadium will be eager to see if Brown and Williams can duplicate the results they showed in the first NFL game played in Baton Rouge, La.
Brown, the No. 2 overall draft choice and a star for undefeated Auburn last season, finished with 106 yards. Williams had his best game since returning from a four-game suspension that the NFL handed down after the fifth overall pick of 1999 acknowledged a marijuana addiction that caused him to retire temporarily and sit out last season.
In his first home game on Oct. 21, Williams ran six times for minus-1 yard in Miami's 30-20 loss to Kansas City. The coming threat of Hurricane Wilma caused the Dolphins to move that game up two days and play on a Friday night, but Brown managed 95 yards and a touchdown on eight carries.
Few dispute Williams' talent. He rushed for 6,354 yards and 41 touchdowns in splitting his first five seasons between the Dolphins and Saints.
First-year Miami coach Nick Saban certainly wants to see more of what unfolded last week.
"They are outstanding players and the way they were utilized certainly is advantageous to us because they both have ability to make plays," Saban said. "They both made plays in the game. It makes us look like a lot better offensive football team and also makes a lot of the other players play better."
The Falcons (5-2) have faired poorly this season against some of the league's top backs. Seattle's Shaun Alexander, Buffalo's Willis McGahee and New England's Corey Dillon had a combined 390 yards and two touchdowns in beating Atlanta in two of three games.
Miami (3-4) has done an exceptional job of holding onto the football with no giveaways in the running game. Touchdowns, however, have been difficult. The Dolphins are tied for 19th with only four.
"There is always room for improvement, but the bottom line is we just got the win," Williams said. "We need to keep it in that frame of mind. You gain confidence when you stay positive and keep working to get better. I was able to get the ball a little more. We sustained some drives, and we were able to run the ball. The biggest thing for the running game is rhythm. When you convert third downs you can sustain rhythm. I think the line did a great job."
Brown, who grew accustomed to sharing the spotlight with Carnell "Cadillac" Williams at Auburn, believes he and Williams complement each other well.
"We knew we were going to get to that point that we were both going to feel comfortable in the backfield and things were going to start to happen for us," Brown said. "Hopefully we started a good thing and hopefully we can keep it going."