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Petrino faces big offensive challenges

FLOWERY BRANCH - Bobby Petrino turned basketball-crazy Louisville into a national college football power in four years, so perhaps his next challenge with the Atlanta Falcons may not seem so imposing.

Then again, consider that in their 41 years the Atlanta Falcons have never managed back-to-back winning seasons. Each of the Falcons' rare high points has been followed by crushing disappointing seasons, a trend that leads to heavy coaching turnover.

Petrino, hired Sunday, follows Jim Mora, who was 26-22 in three years. Mora missed the playoffs his last two seasons after his 11-5 debut in 2004, when the Falcons advanced to the NFC championship game.

The firing of Mora shows the expectations of owner Arthur Blank are lofty, at least by Atlanta's historical standards. Midway through the 2006 season, Blank warned that a .500 finish would not be satisfactory.

The expectations don't seem to scare Petrino.

''One thing we have been able to do as a coaching staff is get things turned around in a short period of time,'' he said Monday.

The biggest turnaround must come on offense.

Quarterback Michael Vick and tailback Warrick Dunn each rushed for 1,000 yards and tight end Alge Crumpler earned his fourth straight Pro Bowl selection, but the Falcons finished last in the league in passing and 25th in scoring.

Petrino's most imposing challenge may be achieving a run-pass balance while also rebuilding an undersized offensive line. Alex Gibbs' blocking strategies helped the Falcons lead the league in rushing three straight years but also led to weak pass protection.

For all his speed, Vick was sacked 45 times this season and ranked 31st in sacks per attempt.

The Falcons were built for speed, an effort which became more obvious when burly running back T.J. Duckett was traded before the season to clear playing time for rookie speedster Jerious Norwood, a likely future starter.

The speed should work in the Falcons' favor on their Georgia Dome turf, but instead the team lost a combined seven of eight home games in the final two months of the 2005 and 2006 seasons.

Petrino believes in a strong running game, but perhaps his biggest challenge will be to add bigger offensive linemen who can provide Vick more time to pass while still clearing running lanes for Dunn and Norwood.

Barring a major effort in free agency and the 2007 NFL draft, it won't be easy to achieve a quick overhaul of the line. Right tackle Todd Weiner, right guard Kynan Forney and center Todd McClure are the most probable holdovers.

On Monday, Petrino proclaimed ''We can go out and move the football and be very aggressive in doing that.''

Added Petrino: ''I'm looking forward to the challenge in developing the passing game here.''

The challenge is not all about Vick. The Falcons have struggled with inconsistency at wide receiver.

Michael Jenkins, a 2004 first-round pick, emerged with seven touchdown catches, but 2005 first-rounder Roddy White couldn't hold a starting job. Even with the return of Brian Finneran, who missed the season with a knee injury, further upgrades may be necessary. Ashley Lelie, acquired just before the start of the season, is a free agent.

Perhaps the best way to boost Vick's passing numbers and add balance to the offense would be to make better use of Dunn and Norwood as receivers out of the backfield.

Norwood showed early in the season that he has excellent hands, and Dunn has had big receiving seasons in the past, but the two combined for only 34 catches and one touchdown this season.

The defense ranked only 22nd in yards allowed despite such recent high-priced additions as John Abraham, Lawyer Milloy, Ed Hartwell and Grady Jackson joining Patrick Kerney, Keith Brooking and DeAngelo Hall.