Pressure's on: Will start against Panthers be Harrington's last?

Joey Harrington's third stint as a starting quarterback might be his shortest one yet.

With Byron Leftwich now looking over his shoulder, Harrington could be making his final start in an Atlanta Falcons uniform unless he can get the team's offense going in its home opener Sunday against the Carolina Panthers.

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With Harrington off to a bad start since being handed the starting job following Michael Vick's suspension, many believe Leftwich will soon take over under center after the Falcons signed him Tuesday to a two-year deal worth $7 million.

Atlanta (0-2) has generated just 10 points in two games with Harrington as the starter and he's been sacked 13 times -- six more than any other quarterback.

"I think right now Joey is playing a little bit conservative, a little bit not to throw the interception," Falcons coach Bobby Petrino said. "Therefore it is causing him to hold the ball. He just needs to open it up more with confidence and play to go win the game."

This may be his last chance to win one for quite some time, considering his previous NFL stints included a mediocre season in Miami and a disappointing four-year tenure with Detroit after being the third overall pick in 2002.

It may be important for Harrington to start strong Sunday with this being the Falcons' first home game, otherwise the boos he so often heard in Detroit might hound him very quickly in Atlanta -- and calls for Leftwich could soon follow.

"Joey Harrington remains our starting quarterback and Chris Redman is still No. 2, but signing Byron Leftwich presented us a unique opportunity to add a veteran with tremendous experience to our quarterback group," Petrino said.

If Harrington struggles again this week -- he's committed three turnovers without throwing a touchdown pass -- the Falcons might turn to Leftwich as early as next week against Houston. Atlanta has totaled 577 yards of offense to rank 27th in the NFL.

A surprise cut by Jacksonville during the preseason after four years as the starter, Leftwich has missed 15 games over the past two seasons due to ankle and knee problems.

"I'm a football player and the last couple of weeks have been tough on me," Leftwich said. "I appreciate the opportunity and I look forward to doing whatever I can to help our team."

The good news for Harrington is he's facing a defense which is one of only three in the league that has failed to register more than one sack. However, he still must be wary of one of the game's most feared pass rushers in Julius Peppers.

The defense of the Panthers (1-1) is off to an uneven start. It held St. Louis -- an offense which is usually tough to slow down at home -- to 238 total yards in a season-opening 27-13 victory. Carolina was not nearly as good in its home opener last Sunday, getting picked apart by first-year starter Matt Schaub in a 34-21 loss to Houston.

The offense didn't do its part, either, committing three turnovers and getting held to 66 rushing yards after amassing 186 at St. Louis. Pro Bowl wideout Steve Smith had eight receptions for 153 yards and caught all three of Jake Delhomme's touchdown passes, but Keary Colbert and Drew Carter combined to drop at least four passes.

"We didn't make plays. We dropped the ball," Panthers coach John Fox said. "We have to improve in just about every area for us to win a game in the NFL."

DeShaun Foster ran for 94 yards on 17 carries in the opener and DeAngelo Williams added 62 on 15 attempts, but that duo was held to 53 yards on 17 carries last Sunday. Foster and Williams combined for nine receptions, but those accounted for only 40 yards.

"Offensively, we're too up and down, too inconsistent," said Smith, the NFC's leading receiver with 17 catches, 271 yards and four touchdowns. "Reason why? I can't tell you. I could speculate, but there's no need to do that. Just too inconsistent."

Atlanta's ground game, meanwhile, is off to a rough start, averaging 3.4 yards per carry and failing to rush for 100 yards in either game. That happened only once all of last season with the fleet-footed Vick running an offense which led the NFL in rushing.

The Falcons have been held to a combined 14 points and 388 total yards in losing their last two home games against the Panthers. Carolina had lost its previous seven trips to the Georgia Dome.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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