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Dunn shows he's big enough to rush for 10,000 yards

POSTED: November 21, 2007 5:04 a.m.

ATLANTA — Take that, all those folks who thought Warrick Dunn was too small to play in the NFL, who figured he would last no more than a year or two before they ran him out of the league — probably on a stretcher.

The diminutive running back may be "5-foot-nothing," as teammate Ovie Mughelli jokingly put it, but he’s at 11 years and counting, still carrying the ball fearlessly against defenders who look as though they could swallow him whole.

Today, Dunn could forever stamp himself as one of the toughest and most durable runners to play this game by joining the 10,000-yard club. At the moment, there are only 21 members of the exclusive group.

"I think I’ve surprised people over the years with how hard I run and how tough I am," said Dunn, generously listed at 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds. "I haven’t worn down. Just to be at this point in my career, to me that says a lot to all the people who doubted me."

Dunn’s timing is impeccable, too.

He’s just 58 yards from 10,000 with the Falcons (3-6) hosting the first-place Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-4), the team that drafted him out of Florida State in 1997 and made him a lead runner for the first five years of his career.

"It’s weird," Dunn said.

"A couple of weeks ago, people were saying this might happen. But the way things were going at the time, I thought it might take six more games to get there. It’ll be crazy if it happens. I’m sure those guy don’t want it to happen, not against Tampa."

Indeed, personal accomplishments were the last thing on Dunn’s mind when the Falcons lost six of their first seven games, a dismal start that could largely be traced to Michael Vick’s dogfighting case.

Also, Dunn was struggling to come to grips with new coach Bobby Petrino’s offensive system.

It didn’t fit the 32-year-old runner nearly as well as the West Coast system used by the previous staff.

During the Jim Mora era, Dunn had three straight 1,000-yard seasons and the team led the league in rushing each time. Through the first seven games this season, he had a paltry 292 yards and was averaging just over 3 yards per carry.

"Sometimes, you have a system that helps a guy be very productive. Sometimes, you have to make things work," Dunn said. "This system here, I don’t know if it’s a fit for me. I just have to make it work."

He’s made it work the last two weeks, rushing for 189 yards to help the Falcons to their first winning streak of the year. Improbably, they’ve also climbed to the fringe of the playoff race in the weak NFC South.

The Falcons can move within one game of the Bucs — and first place — with a win today. New Orleans and Carolina, both 4-5, also are right there in a division that no one seems to want.

"Welcome to the NFL," said Falcons quarterback Joey Harrington, who will make his third straight start if Byron Leftwich hasn’t fully recovered from ankle surgery. "It’s funny, because the two worlds of football in this country (are) so completely polar opposites. If you lose one game in college football, your world is over. If you lose a game in the NFL, or even lose four games in the NFL, you’ve got 12 more to make up for it. The playing field is so level."

Tampa Bay took control of the division with an early three-game winning streak, but lost three of five going into last week’s bye. The Bucs are hoping the time off will help them recapture their September form.

"Right now, we are sitting in the driver’s seat. We really control our own destiny," linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "Win our games, take care of our business, and we will have nothing to worry about."

While the Bucs allowed just 44 points in their first four games, they have looked more vulnerable since then. In addition to a 33-14 loss to the Super Bowl champion Colts, Jacksonville and Detroit both put up more than 20 on Tampa Bay, which ranks sixth in the league in yards allowed (286 per game), but 21st in points against (18.2).

Still, this figures to be a low-scoring game. The Falcons’ defense has been carrying the team while the offense tries to figure out Petrino’s system and goes through the inevitable struggles of replacing a dynamic offensive weapon such as Vick.

There’s still plenty of uncertainty at quarterback. While Harrington led Atlanta to wins over San Francisco and Carolina, Leftwich will start if his ailing ankle has recovered. Petrino feels the former Jacksonville starter has a stronger arm and will stretch the defense a little more than Harrington, who relies more on the short passing game.

The Bucs will probably try to wear down Atlanta with a three-back rotation that includes Earnest Graham (a team-high 454 yards), Michael Pittman and former first-rounder Michael Bennett, who was acquired from Kansas City last month.

"It gives us a lot of options, especially with the speed of Michael Bennett, the versatility of Michael Pittman, the way I am running the football right now," Graham said. "It is going to be hard for teams to really prepare for that."

With Jerious Norwood hobbled by a sprained ankle, there hasn’t been much doubt who’s running the ball for the Falcons. Dunn has carried it 53 times over the last two games, putting him on the brink of the 10,000-yard milestone.

He’d love to get it against his former team, and a third straight win would make the day even better.

"As long as we win and I get 59 yards," Dunn said, "I’m good."


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