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Williams to make start at CB

    FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Finally, after 15 games, rookie Jimmy Williams has become the Atlanta Falcons’ starting right cornerback.
    The second draft pick from Virginia Tech expected to win the job before Atlanta won 20-6 at Carolina in Week 1, but incumbent Jason Webster played well enough to hold the job.
    Webster, though, has missed six games with a torn groin. Williams technically started the last two weeks, but coordinator Ed Donatell opened each game in a nickel scheme.
    The Falcons lost Webster during practice before a miserable home loss to Cleveland in Week 10. A couple of days later, Williams went down with a high ankle sprain as he practiced on special teams.
    ‘‘I’m extremely excited to have this opportunity,’’ Williams said Thursday. ‘‘I believe I’m ready for the challenge of helping our defense face this great group of receivers from Carolina.’’
    Williams’ promotion means that Allen Rossum can work as a third or fourth cornerback and save his legs to return punts and kicks. Atlanta coach Jim Mora knows that Rossum, at 5-foot-8, 187 pounds, would have an extremely hard time trying to cover a big wideout like Keyshawn Johnson.
    DeAngelo Hall, who starts on the left side, almost certainly will spend most of the game opposing Carolina’s No. 1 receiver, Steve Smith, in a matchup of two Pro Bowl players.
    Johnson, at 6-4, 211 and needs just five catches to reach 814 and pass former Los Angeles Rams great Henry Ellard for 15th on the NFL’s career list. The tandem of Johnson and Smith ranks third in the league since Week 3 as a receiving tandem with 133 catches and fourth with 1,705 combined yards.
    The Falcons (7-7) have lost three straight at home and five of seven overall. Carolina (6-8) brings a four-game losing streak to the Georgia Dome, and the Panthers aren’t sure if starting quarterback Jake Delhomme can play with a thumb injury that he suffered in a Week 13 defeat at Philadelphia.
    Carolina coach John Fox lists Delhomme as questionable. Primary backup Chris Weinke, who started the last two games, is probable with a sore chest.
    ‘‘We don’t care what their record is,’’ Williams said. ‘‘They’re a great team.’’
    Perhaps the most critical absence in the Atlanta secondary occurred in a Week 9 loss at Detroit, when nickel back Kevin Mathis fractured his neck in what could be a career-ending injury.
    Mathis, a respected open-field tackler, has two career interceptions that he’s returned for touchdowns against the Panthers.
    One reason Williams ranked no higher than fourth among the Falcons’ cornerbacks during the first two-plus months was his difficulty reading formations both on the practice field and in the film room.
    Williams played only on special teams from Week 2 to Week 10, when he was on the field for just one snap as the Browns tried a last-second deep pass at the end of the first half.
    In 11 games, Williams has been credited with one pass breakup, eight solo tackles and four stops on special teams.
    ‘‘We are trying to work him in more and more each week,’’ Mora said. ‘‘The last two weeks he has seen significant time. We are trying to keep Allen Rossum as fresh as possible to return and that elevates Jimmy’s role. You will get to see a good bit of Jimmy this week.’’

Groin still sore,
but Vick practices
     Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick took snaps with the first-team offense in practice on Thursday, further increasing the likelihood that his groin strain won’t keep him from starting against Carolina.
    Falcons coach Jim Mora listed Vick as probable for the second straight day.
    Vick has a 6-2 career record against the Panthers, who visit the Georgia Dome on Sunday. He is attempting to start 16 games for the first time in his six-year career.
    In 2002, ’04 and ’05, Vick started 15 games. A broken ankle kept him off the field for 11 games in 2003. The No. 1 overall draft choice in 2001, Vick started two games as a rookie.
    This season marked the first time as a full-time starter that Vick didn’t earn a spot on the NFC Pro Bowl squad. With 15 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions, Vick has a 77.7 passer rating that ranks 18th in the NFL.
    Vick seeks to avoid the first four-game home losing streak in his career when Atlanta (7-7) hosts Carolina (6-8). The Panthers have dropped four straight games.

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