Falcons having trouble getting their kicks _ away

Sunday, October 1st 2006, 11:58 am
By: News On 6

ATLANTA (AP) _ The Atlanta Falcons again lead the NFL in rushing. Their defense surrendered only one touchdown in the first three games. Looking good so far.

What about the special teams?

Well, that's where things take an ugly turn. Talk about a group that's not living up to its name.

Atlanta (2-1) has already given up a season's worth of blocked kicks heading into Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals.

Three field-goal attempts _ one in each game _ were swatted away by the other team. And last week, New Orleans also smothered a punt by Michael Koenen, falling on the ball in the end zone for a touchdown that sparked the Saints to a 23-3 victory in their return to the Superdome.

Other than the occasional game-winning field goal, special teams go largely unnoticed during the course of an afternoon. But it's hard to ignore just how bad the Falcons have been when lining up for a kick or dropping back to punt.

``There's a fire burning and we have to put it out,'' coach Jim Mora said. ``Until we do, they're going to continue to attack us. We can't ignore it.''

Koenen started out the season as the Falcons' kicker, but lost that job after he made only 2-of-8 field-goal attempts. Two of his misses were blocked or tipped.

Forty-six-year-old Morten Andersen was signed to handle field goals (Koenen remained the punter), but ran into the same problems as his predecessor. The Saints blocked a chip shot from 25 yards, denying the Falcons what should have been an automatic three points.

Look for the Cardinals (1-2) to take another run at Andersen and Koenen, hoping to get that momentum-changing block.

``They are going to make it look different, but they are going to attack us the same way,'' Mora said. ``We can expect people to keep loading up right over our tackle and tight end and coming after us. We have to put out the fire because it is burning hot right now.''

For starters, the Falcons need to do a better job of recognizing what the other team is doing. The Saints easily blocked Koenen's punt by looping special teams ace Steve Gleason right up the middle _ a play Atlanta worked on in practice but didn't pick up at the line.

``It's something that they've shown in the past, that we practiced, and we just didn't execute it,'' Mora said. ``We didn't see it. They lined up and we called the protection and we made the audibles we needed to make, and we just didn't see it right. It was ugly.''

Kurt Warner can relate to ugly. The Cardinals quarterback is coming off a dismal performance at home against St. Louis, which prompted Arizona's fans to showed him with boos and call for rookie Matt Leinart to take over as the starter.

At first, coach Dennis Green seemed to be leaning toward a change. Then he announced Warner was the ``best quarterback on this team'' and would start against the Falcons, who were left to wonder if the back-and-forth was just a ruse.

``We're all confident in Kurt,'' Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. ``He's got a lot of ability. He's done it before. He's led a team to championships and we think he's capable of doing it here, too.''

Warner threw three interceptions _ two of them with Arizona inside the Rams' 14-yard line. He also fumbled away a snap at the St. Louis 18 with 1:46 to play, sealing the Cardinals' 16-14 loss.

``A loss like that, the way we lost it, it still just leaves a real bad taste in your mouth,'' Fitzgerald said. ``It's nothing that's going to go away anytime soon because it does hurt.''

But he also stood up for Warner, saying it was unfair to blame one player for the defeat.

``That's the toughest position in football. You're criticized for everything that goes wrong,'' Fitzgerald said. ``But it takes 11 people to make this thing go on offense. We all have to play better. It's not just on Kurt or anybody else individually.''

Maybe Green decided to stick with Warner after taking a look at his career record against the Falcons, a perfect 6-0 with 18 touchdowns, just five interceptions and a trio of 300-yard performances.

Of course, those games were played from the 1999 through 2001 seasons, when Warner was the MVP quarterback of ``The Greatest Show on Turf'' _ the high-scoring, Super Bowl-winning Rams. He's hardly the same player these days, which is probably why the Falcons were more concerned with Edgerrin James than trying to figure out who was starting at quarterback for the Cardinals.

``It doesn't really matter,'' defensive end Patrick Kerney said. ``First things first. They've got a great running back in Edgerrin James. We've got to stop him.''

Mora said the Falcons would basically prepare the same way for Warner and Leinart.

``You prepare for the scheme,'' the coach said. ``Hey, they're not going just change their scheme if they go with Matt as opposed to Kurt. They're going to run the same plays.''