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Falcons looking for air of change

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) -Last season, Warrick Dunn and Michael Vick became just the ninth pair of NFL teammates to run for 1,000 yards.

So much for numbers. That wasn't enough to get the Atlanta Falcons into the playoffs.

The previous tandem to combine for 2,000 yards rushing, Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner, helped get the Cleveland Browns to the postseason in 1985 with an 8-8 record. The Falcons were 7-9 last year and went home early.

"Even if Mike was here, he'd be the first to say that Coach (Bobby) Petrino's offense would give us our best chance to have a balanced attack on offense," Dunn said Wednesday. "That's what we want, to spread the ball around and get all the playmakers involved."

With an imbalanced attack that led the league in rushing three straight years but consistently struggled in passing, Atlanta owner Arthur Blank fired Jim Mora seven months ago and hired Petrino from Louisville.

Petrino seemed a perfect complement. He discarded the cut-blocking zone schemes installed by former offensive line coach Alex Gibbs without compromising the elusive running styles of Dunn, Vick and No. 2 running back Jerious Norwood.

The Falcons last season ran for 2,939 yards - the ninth-best total in history and the NFL's highest since the 1984 Chicago Bears - but they scored just nine rushing touchdowns and often failed in the red zone.

Petrino also planned to harness Vick's tendency to scramble and make better use of a left arm that could throw a 70-yard pass. That chance was likely lost, however, when the Atlanta quarterback was indicted two weeks ago.

Now, as Dunn recovers from recent back surgery, the Falcons have must rely more on backup quarterback Joey Harrington and less on a ground game that led the NFL in rushing from 2004-06.

"We can't just run the ball and we can't just throw the ball," Petrino said. "It would be nice for us to run the ball well early to take some pressure off Joey (Harrington) and get him into a comfort zone between run and play-action."

Petrino, who had a 41-9 record at Louisville the last four years, is renowned for deploying a spread offense that stretches the field.

With Vick unlikely to play this season and possibly facing the end of his career, Petrino has turned to Harrington, whose career record of 23-43 raises a red flag.

Even so, Petrino believes his scheme - along with a receiving corps of tight end Alge Crumpler and wideouts Joe Horn, Roddy White and Michael Jenkins - will restore confidence in an offense that lacks identity without Vick.

"We need to be as balanced as we can on first-and-10 between run and pass plays," Petrino said. "If we get positive yardage on first down, that will help us out a lot. I think it is going to be paramount if we can throw the ball deep, too. Teams are going to drop safeties down and blitz early on us, so we are going to have to hit some big plays down the field."

Dunn, who has averaged 4.4 yards per carry since signing with the Falcons six years ago, plans to return by the final preseason game, Aug. 31 against Baltimore.

"From what they tell me, I'm already way ahead of schedule," Dunn said. "I see no reason that I won't be on the field sooner than a lot of people predicted. I'm already jogging, and it's only been 11 days since the surgery."

Atlanta will open the regular season Sept. 9 at Minnesota.

Regarding Vick, nobody knows what to expect. The three-time Pro Bowl quarterback faces federal charges of running a lurid dogfighting operation that allegedly crossed state lines.

If convicted, Vick could spend five years in federal prison and never return to the NFL, but the league's No. 1 overall draft choice of 2001 and two others have pleaded not guilty.

The trial begins Nov. 2 in Richmond, Va.

Vick's troubles, however, consume little of the daily planning of Petrino, a first-time NFL head coach whose work as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach helped Mark Brunell produce the best three years of his career from 1999-2001 in Jacksonville.

"We have to be able to do both," Petrino said of a ground and air attack. "There is no question about that."

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