If there was one thing everyone knew for sure about the Atlanta Falcons before last Sunday it was that they couldn't play defense, particularly pass defense, worth a tinker's damn. This was the lone verity in regard to a team that has been confounding its fans and the experts for the past six years. The Falcons made the playoffs in 1978 and again in 1980 when their 12-4 record was as good as any in the NFC, but each time a losing season followed. The roller-coaster character of the team had been all too evident this year. The Falcons won their first and third games in the pre-season and lost the other two, to the Colts and the Buccaneers, by an aggregate score of 68-3. They beat one of last year's playoff teams, the Giants, on opening day, then were routed by the Raiders. How to figure them? But the defense...ah, the defense. There was something you could count on. Or, rather, couldn't count on.
In running up a pretty fair 3-2 record, the Falcons had nevertheless given up more yards than their potent offense had gained (1,665 to 1,660) and had allowed more points than that offense had scored (119 to 118). Opposing passers had averaged 212 yards a game against a secondary that had intercepted only three throws and a pass rush that had made only eight sacks. No question about it, the way to beat the Falcons was through the air. So what happened Sunday evening at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium against a team, New Orleans, with a quarterback, Ken Stabler, who's one of the most accurate passers in the history of the game?
To begin with, the Saints didn't score a point while the Falcons scored 35 easy ones. But that wasn't the half of it. This isn't one of those New Orleans teams jesters once called the "Ain'ts." It's a Bum Phillips-coached team that also came into the Atlanta game with a 3-2 record, a team that had the top overall defense in the NFC and the best defense against the run in the whole league. Saint pass rushers had 20 sacks, second most in the NFL. And at age 36, Stabler, the Snake, had been enjoying his best season since his Super Bowl days at Oakland. He'd completed 66% of his passes and was expected to use the miserable Atlanta secondary as a dart board.
Instead, he became a Snake in the grass. He was sacked five times, intercepted thrice, forced into two damaging fumbles and, finally, knocked out of the game late in the third quarter with bruised ribs. In sum, he completed only eight of 19 passes for a humiliating 56 yards. "We," said Stabler, possibly employing the royal we, "got the hell beat out of us." His fourth-quarter substitute, a onetime wide receiver with the engaging name of Guido Merkens, did no better, completing just four of 14 for 13 yards and getting sacked twice. All told, the Saints netted just 21 yards passing. Their total offense was 91 yards, which is exactly what they were penalized. Essentially, they advanced not one step the whole game. By the fourth quarter, they were so badly beaten that most of the 39,535 spectators on hand—there were 21,214 no shows—had departed, leaving only a scattering of frozen masochists in the seats as temperatures dropped into the 20s.
The maligned Atlanta defense, meanwhile, made life easy for the offense. Three of the Falcon touchdown "drives" were for 21 yards after an interception, 26 yards after a fumble recovery and 36 yards after a punt from the end zone. The Falcons had 329 yards in total offense, 189 of them on the ground, where the Saints had previously allowed only 77.2 yards a game.
Virtually everyone on the Falcon roster had a hand in this extraordinary victory. Atlanta's last touchdown came when backup Quarterback Mike Moroski threw his first NFL touchdown pass to rookie Receiver Stacey Bailey, who was catching his first NFL pass. But most of the damage was done by the relatively small but agile Falcon linebackers—Al Richardson, Fulton Kuykendall, Buddy Curry and Joel Williams—who galloped across the turf like light cavalry or maybe latter-day Four Horsemen. Anticipating Stabler's short passes, they alternately dropped back into intimidating shallow zones or rushed pell-mell through gaps in the New Orleans line to harry the tormented quarterback. Kuykendall had two interceptions, Richardson and Williams had two sacks apiece, and Curry was in on five tackles. The linebackers are young—Kuykendall is the oldest at 29—and none weighs more than 225. Williams, in fact, is only 215 and Richardson 206. But the four are principals in many important ways in the Falcons' suddenly brighter future, for it has long been said that if this team could ever put together a defense to match its offense it could be a Super Bowl contender. And Richardson, at least, feels that in the Saint game, "We finally meshed."
The offense, for its part, isn't what it once was, which was Steve Bartkowski flinging 50-yarders to Wide Receivers Alfred Jackson and Alfred Jenkins when he wasn't handing off to Running Backs William Andrews and Lynn Cain. That seemed good enough when the Falcons won the NFC West title in 1980, but last year, when they were only 7-9, some problems arose. Bartkowski got sacked 37 times, mostly while trying to throw his bombs. And the team went from 26 turnovers in 1980 to 41. Andrews, whose fame is so thinspread he makes other unsung heroes seem like Burt Reynolds, had his usual superlative season, becoming only the fifth NFL back to gain more than 2,000 yards (2,037) running and receiving, but Cain played hurt much of the year and rushed for but 538 yards. Defenses were teeing off, as they so cavalierly put it in the NFL, on Bartkowski, who by his own admission has no more mobility than an obelisk. They were still teeing off this year in that dim period of history known now as "pre-strike." In the Falcons' first two games Bartkowski was sacked 10 times.
After the Raider game ended the prestrike season, Atlanta Coach Leeman Bennett had nearly two months to figure out what was wrong. When the play resumed, he had the solution: abandon the long passing game and go to the run and shorter passes. If his quarterback didn't have the ball or if he got rid of it quicker, he was less likely to be pummeled. Bennett got some help in the stepped-up running game from his rookie first-draft choice, Gerald Riggs from Arizona State, who weighs 230 and is fast. Riggs has alternated with Cain, the latter playing in the first and third quarters and the former in the second and fourth. This gives Bennett a relatively fresh halfback in the game at all times. Surprisingly, they willingly agreed to the split shifts. "He sees things I might miss," says Riggs of Cain, "and he tells me about them." When Cain finished his shift at the end of the third quarter on Sunday, he gave his replacement an enthusiastic high-five and then offered him some counsel. Of Atlanta's five touchdowns Sunday, Riggs and Cain scored two apiece. In his two quarters, Cain gained 36 yards in nine rushes and 21 on three receptions. In his, Riggs had 41 yards in 11 carries and 18 on three catches.
Bartkowski, who likes nothing more than to unlimber his strong right arm, sees virtue, too, in ball-control. "I think we got into the habit of depending too much on the big play," he says. "With the deep zones and the specialized defenses now, you only get maybe one to three chances to throw deep, anyway. We don't force the ball deep anymore, and by mixing the run and the pass we're keeping people from teeing off on the passer." In the four games since the strike, Bartkowski has been sacked just five times, twice by the Saints. On Sunday he completed 19 of 30 passes for only 153 yards, the longest a 29-yarder to Jackson. Eleven of his completions were to backs. Still, just for old time's sake, he uncorked a 55-yard bomb in the second quarter that fell barely out of Jenkins' reach. "We'll still take the deep shot from time to time," says Bennett, "but there are a lot of other ways to get the big play."
One of them is getting the ball to Andrews. In the Falcons' 34-27 win over Denver two weeks ago, Bartkowski dumped off a little flare pass to his fullback behind the line of scrimmage. The Falcons needed 16 yards for a first down, and Bronco Cornerback Steve Wilson had Andrews hemmed in. "I gave him an inside fake, then exploded outside," Andrews recalls. Actually, he burst right through Wilson, leaving his body on the turf, and continued on for an 86-yard touchdown. In the record books, that one looks like a bomb. It was undeniably an explosion. "I've been hit hard a lot of times," said Wilson, "but that shot had a lasting effect."
Andrews weighs only 200 pounds, but he runs with as much power as the monster backs. "Explode" is the operative word. As he describes it, "When I reach impact, I explode rather than absorb. It destroys the equilibrium of the opponent. I haven't seen anyone else run like that—exploding at the moment of impact. Earl Campbell is so strong and Walter Payton has great leg drive. I try to stay lower than my opponent, come at him in a ball and then...." Pow!
Andrews is much more than just a power runner. By his own estimate he caught "maybe seven balls" in four years of college football at Auburn, where he was mostly a blocking back for another NFL star-to-be, Joe Cribbs, but he has become a superb pass receiver. He leads the Falcons this year in rushing with 367 yards on 90 carries and in receiving with 346 yards on 25 receptions. Last season, he ran for 1,301 yards and caught for 736. In his three full years in the NFL, he has never rushed for fewer than a thousand yards or caught fewer than 38 passes. He gained 61 yards against New Orleans, which leaves him a single yard short of 4,000 in his career. Andrews doesn't break off long runs. He has averaged 4.6 yards per carry in his career and yet his longest gain from scrimmage has been 33 yards. He's workmanlike, not flashy. "I try most of all to be consistent," he says. Not for him the jittery step or the swiveled hip. It's just light that fuse and.... Pow!
Andrews, who's 26 and in his fourth season, is the sort of young yet experienced player the Falcons hope will give them more consistency. "When I first came here in 1977, we had a meld of young players and older people," said Eddie LeBaron last week. As executive vice-president, the former Redskin and Cowboy quarterback runs Falcon football. "But the heart of any team is in its young veterans—players who have had four to six years in the league. We decided to build for those players through the draft." In the meantime, LeBaron and Bennett, the coach he hired, hoped to buy time, to win enough to keep the fans interested while they laid the foundation for a consistent winner. If anything, though, the Falcons' performance has proved misleading, giving rise on sudden upswings to false hopes that are quickly dashed on the downturns.
In 1977, Bennett's first year, Atlanta finished 7-7 after going 4-10 in '76. "We did it on coaching," says LeBaron, who gave up a lucrative law practice in Nevada to return to football. "We did it mainly with defense. We tried to control the ball and not make too many mistakes. We had excellent punting." They were 9-7 in '78, the inaugural 16-game season, when they made the playoffs for the first time, as a wild-card team. "It was a year of miracle plays," says LeBaron. "We were bringing our young people along." Ah, but in '79, they were 6-10. "People said we were going downhill. I told them we were not very far away." That seemed an understatement when the Falcons went 12-4 in 1980.
"We had a hot roll," LeBaron continued. "We were sneaking up on people, winning games with last-minute field goals [seven of the wins were by four points or fewer]. But we still weren't able to dominate anybody. We had to play at our very best all the time. We had no serious injuries. I was still concerned that we had problems." These came forward the next year, when the team slipped to 7-9. "Everybody was waiting in the wings for us. We had injuries to key people—Joel Williams [who'd had 16 sacks in '80], Jeff Merrow [a defensive end], Warren Bryant [an offensive tackle], and Lynn Cain. Our deficiencies became apparent. We didn't have the depth."
And what about now? The Falcons are 4-2 and sitting pretty as the playoffs approach. "We've reached a point where we're fairly well built," said LeBaron. "We have some young people in important positions, like our linebackers, who'll get better and better. I think we should be pretty good now." This analysis was offered the day before the New Orleans game. The thought must have occurred to LeBaron then that he was being prematurely optimistic. "Of course," he added apologetically, "we'll have to look pretty carefully at our pass defense. We could use a better combination of the rush and play in the secondary."
Hey, Eddie, if that's all you're worried about....