Originally created 11/30/03

Hobbled quarterbacks take luster off Falcons' visit to Houston



HOUSTON -- It was one of those dates to circle when the schedule came out: The top overall picks from the previous years' drafts, Michael Vick and David Carr, paired for a quarterback duel.

Even when the Falcons' Vick went down in preseason with a fractured lower right leg, he targeted Sunday's game in Houston for his triumphant return. And David Carr had shaken off an ankle sprain in October that cost him a game.

Then Carr hurt his right shoulder Nov. 16 in Buffalo, and Vick turned his gimpy ankle in practice four days later. Suddenly, Vick vs. Carr was looking more like Doug Johnson vs. Tony Banks.

"ouston has) got a good, young quarterback mixed in with a veteran guy that has really done a good job," Falcons coach Dan Reeves said. "Banks has stepped in and done a good job when he is playing. I think they're much improved over last year."

If Atlanta (2-9) believes whoever starts for the Texans is an equal threat, the same can't be said for Houston's take on the Falcons.

"He can sit out and make sure he's good and healthy for the next week," Texans nose tackle Steve Martin said about Vick.

That's not to say Johnson isn't potentially dangerous. He threw for 276 yards and two touchdowns last week and led Atlanta to an early 21-0 lead before Tennessee rallied for a 38-31 victory to send the Falcons to their ninth loss in 10 games.

Johnson started the first six games before he was pulled in favor of Kurt Kittner, but coach Dan Reeves turned back to Johnson last week. However, there is a chance Vick could make his 2003 debut, even though he's not starting.

"The best case would probably be that he'll be the backup, the second guy," Reeves said.

The biggest immediate change to the Falcons' offense is at running back. Shifty Warrick Dunn, Atlanta's leading rusher who accounted for 143 total yards against Tennessee, was placed on injured reserve Tuesday with a torn ligament in his left foot.

That leaves the ground game to T.J. Duckett, a 254-pound steamroller who presents a totally new set of problems for Houston (4-7), which is the NFL's fifth-worst team at stopping the run, but gradually improving after a rash of injuries in the first half of the season.

"You've got to prepare for just about anything when you've got a little squirrelly guy," Martin said, referring to Dunn. "Now you're kind of looking at a heavy hit-and-run game, lots of twin tight end sets. They're going to try to pound it with the big guy because he's effective."

While Atlanta brings in the worst-rated defense in the league, giving up 402 yards per game, the Texans are only 22 yards behind as they have used 17 defensive starters. Their latest injury problem occurred last week when Pro Bowl cornerback Aaron Glenn's groin strain, which cost him two games, flared up again.

Reeves sees the similarities between the teams and believes they'll both be threats next season as long as they can stay healthy.

"They have the type of experience mixed in with young players coming in that are new," Reeves said. "They've done a really good job with their drafts. Both teams have got good, young quarterbacks. That's the key ingredient when you've got guys like Carr and Vick: It gives you hope you can turn it around."

Linebacker Keith Brooking, the Falcons' leading tackler, said Houston's youngest players are the most dangerous. Stopping the Texans means stopping the rookies, running back Domanick Davis and receiver Andre Johnson.

"Those are their two go-to guys," Brooking said. "In the passing game, it's almost like the quarterback is dropping back and he's looking deep and looking for Johnson. If that is taken away, he's checking on down to Domanick. So he's a big part of the passing game, as well."

While it's no surprise Johnson, the No. 3 overall draft choice, is second among NFL rookies with 50 catches, Davis pops up in third place at 35 despite only six starts.

Banks said those weapons, along with tight end Billy Miller and receivers Jabar Gaffney and Corey Bradford, are enough to get the ball moving against any defense, much less the worst in the league.

Still, he refuses to take anything for granted Sunday.

"We haven't put a string of two wins together," Banks said. "We can't be too confident against anybody."