Originally created 10/11/05

Injuries thin Falcons' defense



FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. - With Ed Hartwell lost for the season following surgery Monday to repair a torn right Achilles' tendon, the Atlanta Falcons are looking for a new middle linebacker.

The good news is, there are experienced volunteers for the opening.

Veterans Keith Brooking and Ike Reese said Monday they would gladly move to the middle. Coach Jim Mora, still considering those and other options, said the loss of Hartwell leaves a void.

"We'll recover as a football team and Ed will recover, but we will miss his presence," Mora said.

The Falcons also were without quarterback Michael Vick, who missed Sunday's game with a sprained knee. Mora said it's too early to predict Vick's status for next Sunday's game against New Orleans in San Antonio.

"I've got to believe Mike will make progress," Mora said. "We'll see. We should have a good feel Wednesday."

Backup Matt Schaub passed for 298 yards and three touchdowns - season highs for the team - without an interception.

Backup cornerback Chris Cash also probably is lost for the season with a broken arm. Hartwell and Cash were injured in Atlanta's 31-28 loss Sunday to New England.

Cash filled a key role in the secondary when he was signed after a season-ending injury to Kevin Mathis. But the loss of Hartwell could cause the most dramatic adjustments to the defense.

Hartwell, the team's most significant free-agent acquisition of the off-season, was expected to lead the defense as a run- stopping middle linebacker. He was viewed by Mora and general manager Rich McKay as the missing piece from last year's team, which lost in the NFC Championship game.

He had 30 tackles and a pass deflection before the injury.

Reese, another off-season pickup, took over for Hartwell on Sunday, but he has worked more at strongside linebacker. At 6-foot-2 and 222 pounds, Reese may be too light to take the lead as the full-time run-stopper in the middle of the defense.

"I know I can go in and do a sufficient job," Reese said. "I don't know if I can go in and do the type job Ed did."

Reese said he has been studying all three linebacker spots each week and would welcome the chance to focus on one position. He was listed on Sunday's depth chart as the top backup to strongside linebacker Demorrio Williams.

Reese, an eighth-year pro, said he did a "so-so" job while filling in for Hartwell against the Patriots.

"I did some good things out there," he said. "I did some things that showed I had played the position enough."

Brooking, the weakside starter, is a four-time Pro Bowl linebacker who has experience and adequate size in the middle. If Brooking moved back inside, Reese or rookie Michael Boley could join Williams as the outside linebackers.

"I'm completely comfortable with whatever they decide," Brooking said.

Boley, a fifth-round pick, has made his biggest contribution as the leader in special teams tackles. Reese also plays a key role on special teams.

"Having a guy like Ike gives you some flexibility," Mora said.