2 Atlanta Falcons With the franchise quarterback hurt, the Keith Brooking-led defense must carry the load

August 31, 2003

The steak dinner was exceptional, and the view, overlooking
intricate landscaping in the backyard, wasn't bad either. All-Pro
linebacker Keith Brooking had been invited to the home of Falcons
owner Arthur Blank, and it was time to get to the point of this
mid-February visit. Brooking's contract with Atlanta had expired,
the unrestricted free-agent signing period was fast approaching,
and the five-year veteran wanted to have a man-to-man talk with
Blank. No agents. No salary-cap gurus. Just the two of them.

Brooking, generally regarded as one of the best players in the
league at his position, was looking to deliver a simple and
heartfelt message to Blank: All he wanted was a fair deal and the
chance to finish his career in Atlanta. He had grown up in the
area, starred at Georgia Tech and been the first-round pick of
the Falcons in the 1998 draft. "Atlanta is in my heart," he says.
"This is where I've always wanted to be."

A few days later the Falcons signed Brooking to a seven-year, $41
million contract that included a $10.5 million bonus--the
third-richest deal for a linebacker in the NFL. Some six months
later it looks like the smartest move the team made in the
off-season. With quarterback Michael Vick sidelined for at least
four games with a fractured right fibula, the Falcons need the
defense to carry a bigger share of the load until their offensive
catalyst returns.

More specifically, the team needs Brooking to set the tone. Often
referred to as a throwback for his aggressive, no-nonsense
approach, his fiery temperament is in evidence even in practice.
(At Georgia Tech he got kicked out of practice after hitting
quarterback Joe Hamilton.) At 6'2" and 245 pounds Brooking has
the speed to run down ballcarriers all over the field, the
instincts to blitz effectively and the quickness to shadow backs
and tight ends in pass coverage. "Keith doesn't just make a lot
of tackles," says fellow linebacker Chris Draft. "He makes plays
when they count."

"People don't understand the subtle ways he helps our defense,"
says defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. "We were fourth in the
league in sacks last year. When we blitzed, we never had to worry
about leaving Keith in single coverage, because he can cover just
about anybody."

After playing middle linebacker in a 4-3 set in his first three
years in the pros, Brooking made a seamless transition to
Phillips's 3-4 in 2001, leading the Falcons with 127 tackles from
his inside position. His teammates, however, were slower to make
the adjustment. In training camp last year Phillips simplified
his schemes, running only a handful of fronts and coverages until
the players became more comfortable with his system. Though the
Falcons ranked only 19th in total defense, they finished second
in the league in takeaways (39) and were eighth in points
allowed. In their two playoff games they held the Packers and the
Eagles to seven and 13 points, respectively. "At the end of last
season," Brooking says, "I don't think anybody was playing better
than our defense was, except for Tampa Bay."

The strength of the defense remains concentrated in the front
seven. Ends Patrick Kerney and Brady Smith are hard-driving pass
rushers, and the 5'11", 232-pound Draft had the best season of
his four-year career. The secondary is questionable, with a pair
of free-agent pickups--former Packers cornerback Tyrone Williams
and former Bengals safety Cory Hall--now in the mix. Most
important, 11-year veteran corner Ray Buchanan has to rebound
from a miserable 2002, during which he missed four games for
violating the league's policy on steroids and related substances.

Even before Vick was injured, the defense believed it had to do
more. "We want to take the pressure off Mike because he might not
have that magical season everyone is expecting," Buchanan said in
July. "The key is to shut down teams and give [the offense] good
field position because we don't want to put him in situations
where he has to win the game by himself."

"We're only going to get better," Brooking vows. One high-profile
player is down, but another is ready to take charge. --J.C.

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS BIRDS OF PREY Brooking (below, top) makes plays from sideline to sideline, and Draft is coming off his best year as a pro. COLOR PHOTO: NFL PHOTOS CLARIDGE COLOR PHOTO

UNDER THE GUN

--Last year, in his only start of the season, backup quarterback
DOUG JOHNSON stepped in for an injured Michael Vick and led the
Falcons to an upset of the Giants. Now, with Vick out (broken
leg) for at least the first month of the season, the fortunes of
a Super Bowl contender could be riding on the right arm of the
fourth-year passer.

ENEMY LINES
An opposing scout's view

"Peerless Price will be a good addition at wideout, and Brian
Finneran is underrated. He has excellent height [6'5"] and uses
his body to shield defenders from the ball.... Alge Crumpler
should have a big year. He's a tough runner after the catch, and
he can really stretch the field. He can create matchup problems
with his athleticism.... Their running game is solid. T.J.
Duckett is a load when he gets going, but the key to their
backfield is Warrick Dunn. He's elusive in the open field, and
he's a tougher inside runner than people give him credit for....
Their best lineman is probably Travis Claridge, who's not very
nimble but has a strong base and is a surly run-blocker.... Dan
Reeves has his critics, but he knows how to attack a defense. He
tailors his system to take advantage of his opponent's
weaknesses.... Patrick Kerney runs well, has a great motor and
understands how to use his hands. Keith Brooking can really run
for a big middle linebacker, and Chris Draft plays smart, and
he's tough.... Ray Buchanan is a liability. He can't run, and now
he's got a reputation as a guy who won't tackle."

SCHEDULE

Sept. 7 at Dallas
14 WASHINGTON
21 TAMPA BAY
28 at Carolina

Oct. 5 MINNESOTA
13 at St. Louis (Mon.)
19 NEW ORLEANS
26 Open Date

Nov. 2 PHILADELPHIA
9 at N.Y. Giants
16 at New Orleans
23 TENNESSEE
30 at Houston

Dec. 7 CAROLINA
14 at Indianapolis
20 at Tampa Bay (Sat.)
28 JACKSONVILLE

SCHEDULE STRENGTH

NFL rank: 11
Opponents' 2002 winning percentage: .523
Games against playoff teams: 6

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2002 statistics

2002 RECORD: 9-6-1
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total):
OFFENSE 4/23/14
DEFENSE 23/16/19

COACH: Dan Reeves; seventh season with Atlanta (187-155-2 in NFL)

WARRICK DUNN

POS. PVR ATT. YARDS AVG.
RB 68 230 927 4.0

REC. YARDS AVG. TDs
50 377 7.5 9

DOUG JOHNSON

POS. PVR ATT. COMP. %
QB 159 57 37 64.9

YARDS TDs INT. RATING
448 2 3 78.7

JUSTIN GRIFFITH (R)[1]

POS. PVR ATT. YARDS AVG.
FB 267 91 471 5.2

REC. YARDS AVG. TDs
19 199 10.5 2

PEERLESS PRICE [1]

POS. PVR REC. YARDS TDs
WR 42 94 1,252 9

ALGE CRUMPLER

POS. PVR REC. YARDS TDs
TE 171 36 455 5

BOB WHITFIELD

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS. STARTS
LT 6'5" 310 lbs. 16 16

TRAVIS CLARIDGE

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS. STARTS
LG 6'5" 300 lbs. 16 16

TODD MCCLURE

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS. STARTS
C 6'1" 286 lbs. 16 16

KYNAN FORNEY

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS. STARTS
RG 6'2" 305 lbs. 14 12

TODD WEINER

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS. STARTS
RT 6'4" 297 lbs. 16 15

BRIAN FINNERAN

POS. PVR REC. YARDS TDs
WR 128 56 838 6

DEFENSE

RE BRADY SMITH 39 tackles 6 1/2 sacks
NT ELLIS JOHNSON 27 tackles 7 sacks
LE PATRICK KERNEY 58 tackles 10 1/2 sacks
OLB MATT STEWART 53 tackles 3 sacks
ILB CHRIS DRAFT 64 tackles 3 1/2 sacks
ILB KEITH BROOKING 140 tackles 2 int.
OLB SAM ROGERS 41 tackles 6 1/2 sacks
CB TYRONE WILLIAMS[1] 69 tackles 1 int.
SS CORY HALL[1] 58 tackles 1 int.
FS KEION CARPENTER 49 tackles 4 int.
CB RAY BUCHANAN 47 tackles 2 int.

SPECIAL TEAMS PVR

K JAY FEELY 124 42/43 XPS 32/40 FGS 138 PTS.
PR ALLEN ROSSUM 431 24 RET. 12.0 AVG. 0 TDS
KR ALLEN ROSSUM 431 53 RET. 22.0 AVG. 1 TD
P CHRIS MOHR 67 PUNTS 41.9 AVG.

[1] New acquisition
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 89)

"Duckett is a load when he gets going, but the key to their
backfield is Warrick Dunn."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)