Williams to start Sunday vs. Panthers

ATLANTA -- Facing what is essentially a must-win game as they attempt to remain in the wild card race, the Atlanta Falcons have installed rookie Jimmy Williams as the starting right cornerback for Sunday's home game against the Carolina Panthers.

The former Virginia Tech standout will replace veteran Allen Rossum, who has started five games in 2006, but who struggled in coverage in last Saturday's loss to the Dallas Cowboys. A second-round draft choice, Williams was the Falcons' highest-selected player this season, picked in the second round. Atlanta did not have a first-round choice.

The game will mark Williams' first start in the Atlanta "base" defense. He started three games earlier in the season, but all were as a "nickel" cornerback or an extra safety against a two-tight end formation.

At 7-7 and likely to require victories in their last two games to secure a playoff berth, the Falcons, who rank 31st in the league in pass defense, need a boost in the secondary and are hopeful that Williams will be able to provide it.

If history is any indication, the Falcons probably will use Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall to shadow Carolina star wide receiver Steve Smith on Sunday. But the coaches prefer a bigger and more physical cover defender on the other Panthers wideout, Keyshawn Johnson, whose superior size and strength probably would overpower the 5-foot-8 Rossum.

Noted more as a return specialist, Rossum is an adequate nickel cornerback. But he often is a liability when forced to play cornerback in a base defense, and usually is miscast in that role. In the reworked secondary, Rossum likely will play as the nickel cornerback.

Right cornerback has been a problem spot for Atlanta much of the past two seasons. Veteran Jason Webster began this season as the starter, but he was sidelined by injury, and Rossum took over.

Williams, 22, was expected to vie for the starting spot opposite Hall in training camp but never mounted a serious challenge for the job. He entered last season as the top-rated cornerback prospect in the country, but he did not have a strong senior season at Virginia Tech. His performance, and questions about his attitude, dropped him into the second round, and Atlanta grabbed him with the 37th overall choice.

The rookie was slowed at times this year by a severely sprained ankle. In recent weeks, though, Williams' performance has improved in practice, and Atlanta coaches are eager to expand his role. He has appeared in 11 games and has 13 tackles and one pass defensed.

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