FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – In the preseason when the Atlanta Falcons faced the quarterback with the highest 2008 season rating, San Diego's Philip Rivers, the result was not pretty.
Now that the game will count on Sunday when they host the Miami Dolphins in the season opener, the Falcons had best hope they have worked out those defensive issues because, in quarterback Chad Pennington, they face one of the most accurate passers in NFL history.
Pennington ranked second to Rivers in quarterback rating last season with a 97.4 mark and Falcons Head Coach Mike Smith quoted the statistic on Thursday that Pennington's career completion percentage of 66.0 is the highest for quarterbacks with 1,500 attempts or more.
Known more for his cerebral play than his strong arm, Pennington is on the Falcons' minds and the Birds will have to have their young defensive players prepared to prevent Pennington from exploiting them. First-time starters on the defense include linebacker Stephen Nicholas, safety Thomas DeCoud and rookie defensive tackle Peria Jerry.
Also, cornerback Brent Grimes started only six games last season.
It remains to be seen how much defensive back Brian Williams, who can play corner or nickel, will be worked in after the Falcons signed him last Sunday.
"He knows where to go with the football," Smith said of Pennington. "…He reads defenses extremely well and he knows where to take the ball. He's not going to put himself in a bad (situation). He's going to get the ball in the right guy's hands at the right time. It creates problems. It's a spacing game, if he doesn't take a shot down the field we've got to be able to rally around the underneath stuff."
Such rallies were tough in that Chargers game, with screen passes representing a particular conundrum.
One potential antidote to the Dolphins' passing game could come in the form of Falcons defensive end John Abraham, if he can create pressure on Pennington. Abraham was listed on Wednesday's injury report as not participating fully, but Smith said the team's 2008 sacks leader fully participated on Thursday.
"I'm fine," Abraham said Thursday. "It's nothing serious... Sunday is the day."
As talented as Abraham is and with as positive of a preseason as fellow defensive end Kroy Biermann has had, the Dolphins' offensive line presents a tough task. In the offseason the Dolphins upgraded with the signing of center Jake Grove, a sixth-year veteran from Oakland. And last season tackle Jake Long became only the fourth player since 1970 to be drafted first overall and make the Pro Bowl in the same season.
Smith talked about how he and Miami head coach Tony Sparano have similar philosophies in terms of being physical teams and placing a heavy emphasis on running the ball.
The Falcons ranked second in the NFL last season by averaging 35.0 rushing attempts per game while the Dolphins ranked 12th in that category (28.0). Smith said he thinks that disparity was more a function of Miami's having an experienced quarterback in Pennington while the Falcons went into the season with a philosophy of trying not to expose then-rookie quarterback Matt Ryan to too many potential hits on passing plays.
On Sunday, the Falcons will have to be careful with Ryan, as the Dolphins come with two fearsome pass rushers in linebackers Jason Taylor and Joey Porter, a 2008 Pro Bowler whose 17.5 sacks were a career high and ranked second in the NFL. Taylor's 104 sacks since 2000 are the most in the league.
While the Falcons no doubt feel more secure in Ryan and their ability to protect, the run will continue to play a prominent role. Michael Turner led the NFL in attempts with 376 and ranked second in yards at 1,699. The Falcons coaching staff appeared to handle Turner with kid gloves during training camp and the preseason so as not to scratch or dent their Pro Bowl runner.
Tight end Tony Gonzalez said he expects Turner to pick up off where he left off last season and understands that philosophy of treading lightly where Turner is concerned.
"If you look at last year, what did he lead the league in carries last year? That catches up with you after a while," Gonzalez said. "Earl Campbell -- there's so many examples of guys if you do that for a period of time over two or three years you're going to break him down, so, yeah, I would think, yeah, maybe they're trying to save him up for the regular season because they know what he can do."
Gonzalez's presence should ensure more running lanes for Turner in an offense that ranked sixth last season in total yards and should be more potent.
"Teams can't always play us eight and nine in the box," said Turner, who was excited about the addition of the Future Hall of Famer. "Tony opens it up for us. You have to respect him as a receiving tight end, a threat to catch it down the middle or line up out wide or some things like that."
One subplot of the game is that both teams represented the league's biggest surprises in 2008. Both won 11 games and earned playoff berths after disastrous 2007 seasons.
Miami narrowly avoided going winless in that '07 and Falcons wide receiver Marty Booker was a part of that team.
"I tried not to," he said of whether he kept track of what Miami did last season. "For what we went through in '07 the guys who were still there – I'm not a jerk or anything – I did want to see them do well or whatever. It was kind of crazy how things happened when we parted ways and when we were down there but there were still a few guys I still wanted to see do well and everything."
The Dolphins have had a huge makeover in personnel and the entire coaching staff also is new. But some players remain like corner back Will Allen and safety Yeremiah Bell.
Booker can provide his teammates with some intelligence on those players, as can Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey who coached in Miami in 2006 and 2007.
"You know their strengths and weakness you can capitalize on so it helps a little bit," Booker said, "but it's still part of the scheme; you still have to sit down and study and try to figure out what they're doing."
A tough test for Week 1.
MORE ON THE FALCONS-DOLPHINS GAME:
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