Falcons running back Jacquizz Rodgers will get the majority of carries today with Steven Jackson out with a hamstring injury. (Reuters)
MIAMI — The Atlanta Falcons are expected to be a Super Bowl contender, but it’s the Miami Dolphins who take a perfect record into the teams’ matchup today in South Florida.
The Dolphins haven’t started 3-0 since 2002 but have a chance to change that in their home opener after impressive wins at Cleveland and Indianapolis to start the season. The Falcons opened the season with a disappointing 23-17 loss at New Orleans but rebounded to beat St. Louis 31-24 last week.
Atlanta will be short-handed on both sides of the ball, as linebackers Kroy Biermann (Achilles) and Sean Weatherspoon (foot) and fullback Bradie Ewing (shoulder) were placed on injured reserve and running back Steven Jackson (hamstring) won’t play today. Cornerback Asante Samuel (thigh) and receiver Roddy White (ankle) also were held out of practice Wednesday and are questionable today.
The absence of Jackson, along with a revamped offensive line, could be a concern for Atlanta against a Miami team that is tied for the league lead with nine sacks.
After being held to 17 points in the opener, Atlanta’s offense rebounded against St. Louis but was still too one-dimensional. The Falcons had only 36 rushing yards and have to rely on backups Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling to improve upon that. The defense has given up big chunks of yards but has limited the damage on the scoreboard, although the rash of injuries on that side of the ball leave numerous questions going into Sunday.
The untold story of the Falcons’ rise to prominence in the NFC under head coach Mike Smith has been the team’s relative good health.
Part of the reason why Smith has been able to put together five straight winning seasons and make four trips to the playoffs has been the team’s lack of injuries.
The odds seemed to catch up with the Falcons all in one game as they could go to Miami without six players. The Falcons’ backups, who will fill in for four departed starters, will be on the hot seat against the Dolphins.
Linebacker Joplo Bartu, an undrafted rookie from Texas State, will take over at weak-side linebacker for Weatherspoon. Defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi will take over Biermann’s role. Fullbacks Snelling and Patrick DiMarco could split the fullback chores of Ewing, and Snelling and Rodgers will fill in for Jackson.
Bartu has the biggest shoes to fill.
“I’m looking forward to proving everybody wrong that doubted me,” Bartu said. “I’ve got a chip on my shoulder.”
Bartu, 22, got off to a good start against the Rams. Forced to play 63 snaps after Weatherspoon left the game with a foot injury, Bartu responded with six tackles, including two for loss, and a quarterback hit.
Now, he will start at outside linebacker. It’s a rapid ascension for a player who was just trying to make the team in training camp.
“At the end of the day, it’s just football,” Bartu said. “When you’ve been playing football for so long, no matter if it’s 2,000 people watching or 80,000 people watching, it’s (still) just football.”
At Texas State, Bartu said he played defensive end on passing downs as a junior and again when injuries left the team thin on the line early in his senior season.
Bartu impressed Falcons coaches with his pass-coverage ability during training camp. Against the Rams, Bartu also flashed instincts playing the run and made some sure tackles in the open field.
“He did a very good job,” Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. “I would hope for him to do the same and keep getting better.”
Massaquoi also has a major task in attempting to replace the steady Biermann.
“People can expect me to play that role the same, if not the same then greater,” said Massaquoi, a second-year player. “As the next man up, you have to keep the tempo and the pace almost as though no one has left.
Massaquoi believes that he can help the Falcons anemic pass rush, which has registered two sacks, both by defensive tackles.