Falcons LB Hartwell to make '06 debut vs. Steelers

ATLANTA -- Middle linebacker Ed Hartwell, who missed the Atlanta Falcons' first five outings of the season after undergoing arthroscopic surgeries late in training camp to flush debris from both knees, will make his 2006 debut when he returns to the starting lineup for Sunday's game here against Pittsburgh.

The game will mark the first regular-season appearance for Hartwell since Oct. 9, 2005, when he suffered a torn Achilles tendon that prematurely ended his season.

With the sixth-year veteran back in the lineup, the Falcons will shake up the linebacker corps. Five-time Pro Bowl performer Keith Brooking, who played in the middle during Hartwell's absence, will return to his more natural and preferred weakside spot. Third-year veteran Demorrio Williams, who started all five games at weakside linebacker will go back to the bench despite leading the team in tackles. Second-year veteran Michael Boley remains the strongside starter.

"[Hartwell] is anxious to play," coach Jim Mora said after Wednesday's practice. "It's been a while since he's been on the field. . . . We're excited to have Ed back."

The Falcons signed Hartwell, who played the first four years of his career with the Baltimore Ravens, to a six-year, $26.5 million contract in the spring of 2005. He was the team's most prominent unrestricted free agent addition that year, but so far has returned little dividend on Atlanta's investment. In five games last season, before the Achilles injury, Hartwell registered 31 tackles, but was not the kind of impact defender against the run that coaches had envisioned.

Hartwell, 28, claimed he was healthy and ready to return last week, but predicted in the day preceding last Sunday's game against the New York Giants that the Falcons would not yet activate him. Mora suggested that he wanted to give Hartwell one more week of rehabilitation. But there are also suspicions the Falcons did not want to break up the trio of Brooking, Williams and Boley, because it was playing well.

But in the loss to the Giants, the Atlanta defense surrendered 259 rushing yards on 38 carries. New York star tailback Tiki Barber gashed the defense for 185 yards on 26 attempts and, particularly in the second half, frequently broke runs into the secondary with very little resistance from the Falcons' front seven.

Even with the subpar game last week, the Atlanta defense has demonstrated improvement versus the run, ranking 15th statistically, allowing 107.2 yards per game and 4.2 yards per carry. Atlanta finished the 2005 season No. 26 against the run, surrendering 128.9 yards per game and 4.7 yards per rush.

Hartwell allowed last week that he was "chomping at the bit" to get back into the lineup. Given that the Falcons are facing a Pittsburgh offense that always wants to establish the run first, Atlanta might have wanted more size in the lineup, and Hartwell (6-feet-1, 250 pounds) will provide that. Still, it likely was a difficult decision to demote Williams, who will still be used as a nickel linebacker on third down.

"Certainly, the only guy not excited about this is Demorrio Williams, and I respect that," Mora said. "I think Demorrio understands that his role is going to change a little bit. He is still very important to this football team, it's just that his role is changing. He will continue to play on third down and we will develop packages to get him on the field and let him do the things he does best."

Williams has 41 tackles. Brooking is second on the team with 35.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Tuesday suspension of starting left guard Matt Lehr for a violation of the NFL's steroid policy means that youngster Tyson Clabo will move into the lineup. The Falcons also signed former Denver lineman P.J. Alexander to replace Lehr on the roster.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.