ATLANTA — Nearly two years later, Michael Turner still wonders how Darnell Dockett got into the backfield so quickly.
The Falcons have to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“We’ve just got to do a better job of mixing it up,” said Turner, Atlanta’s leading runner. “I don’t think it was any clues we gave to him. Just a good guess.”
Today, the Falcons (0-1) will host the Arizona Cardinals (1-0) in the first meeting between the teams since a wild-card playoff game in suburban Phoenix at the end of the 2008 season.
Dockett, Arizona’s load of a defensive tackle, was at the center of the biggest play in that game, maybe one of the biggest plays in franchise history. Early in the second half, with the Falcons looking to build on a 17-14 lead, he timed Matt Ryan’s snap count perfectly, burst through the line and arrived at the quarterback just as he was attempting a handoff to Turner.
The ball popped loose, Antrel Rolle picked it up and ran 27 yards for a touchdown that gave the Cardinals a lead they never relinquished and the momentum to make it all the way to their first Super Bowl.
The stakes won’t be nearly as high in Week 2 of the regular season, but this is a crucial game for the Falcons coming off a 15-9 loss at Pittsburgh, where they failed to take advantage of Ben Roethlisberger’s suspension, and a road game looming against defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans.
If Atlanta loses its home opener, there’s a very real possibility that a team projected by many as a surprise title contender could be buried in an 0-3 hole before the leaves change colors.
“We don’t want to be behind the eight-ball,” Turner said. “It’s not the end of the world if we lose, but we know the importance of this game. It’s kind of like a must-win for us. We want to get off to a fast start.”
This will be a special game for Dockett, but not because of his postseason heroics. He grew up in an Atlanta-area neighborhood plagued by crimes and drugs, told over and over again that he would never amount to anything. At age 13, he endured the cruelest blow of all, returning home to find his mother had been shot to death.
The crime has never been solved.
“That’s where my life really started,” Dockett said. “There’s so much tragedy there.”
He planned to dedicate the game to his slain mom.
He also hoped to return to his old neighborhood, just to show the kids that at least one person cares about their plight, that a better life is possible for those who make the right choices.
“Good things are out there,” Dockett said. “You shouldn’t count somebody out.”
Both teams are coming off ugly performances in Week 1. At least the Cardinals escaped with a victory, holding off the St. Louis Rams 17-13 despite fumbling seven — that’s right, SEVEN! — times.
St. Louis recovered four of them, but Arizona staggered to its first win of the post-Kurt Warner era.
Derek Anderson, trying to rebuild his career in the desert after getting dumped by Cleveland, threw for 297 yards and a touchdown — not a bad start for the quarterback who beat out former No. 1 pick Matt Leinart for the starting job during the preseason.
Anderson has put his career with the Browns in the rearview mirror, both the good times (a Pro Bowl appearance) and the bitter departure.
“I’m just moving past everything back there,” he said. “I learned a lot about myself as a football player and a person. It wasn’t always pretty. But I’m excited about my new opportunity here, my new teammates, and kind of getting a fresh start.”
He began winning over those new teammates by bouncing back from a brutal hit to the chest by St. Louis defensive end Chris Long late in the third quarter.
He staggered off the field looking as though he might be done, but came back to direct an 86-yard drive for the game-winning touchdown — a 21-yard pass to Larry Fitzgerald.
“There’s a little bit of an acclimation process,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said of Anderson. “What stood out was his toughness, how he stood in the pocket. The offense feels comfortable with him in there and rallied around him. That’s why he’s in there. We felt there was a chemistry with him and the team responded to him. I’m excited about continuing this process.”
The Falcons are eager to get their offense in gear.
All the weapons are there — Ryan, Turner, tight end Tony Gonzalez, receiver Roddy White — but Atlanta failed to score a touchdown against the Steelers, on the heels of the first-team offense managing only one TD during the preseason.
“We certainly have high expectations for ourselves on offense,” Ryan said. “You like to get the ball into the end zone, so in a sense, it’s frustrating. But at the same time, that was good defense we went against in Pittsburgh.
They made more plays than we did.
We have to take that frustration into the next week and use that to help you play better.”
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