To win in the NFL these days, it's no secret that you need a mobile and accurate quarterback, an inside-outside running game, a physical and athletic offensive line, dependable receivers (including at least one game- breaker), a defensive front that scares the bejeebers out of an offensive coordinator and a secondary that doesn't get burned more than once a game.
Based on four weeks of play, you could argue that the Falcons fit that profile better than any other team in the league. At the very least they would be in the discussion with the Patriots, the Eagles and the Seahawks.
Atlanta is 4--0 and has a two-game lead in the NFC South following a 27--10 backyard brawl of a win over the defending NFC-champion Panthers on Sunday, and the Falcons play the Lions and the Chargers at home the next two games. Strange things happen every NFL season--remember last year when Minnesota missed the playoffs after starting 6--0--but the way Atlanta is playing, it's hard to imagine this team's not reaching the postseason if its key personnel stay healthy.
The offense--especially running back Warrick Dunn and tight end Alge Crumpler, who have taken on more work as quarterback Michael Vick learns the West Coast system--has been good enough. But most of the credit for the team's early success goes to an imposing defense. "We rule the South!" shouted one of the jubilant defenders as they left the field on Sunday.
Here are the three main reasons why Atlanta is unbeaten.
1. The switch from a 3--4 defense to a 4--3 suits the personnel better. Stuck playing over huge tackles on a unit that ranked last in the league last year, 273-pound end Patrick Kerney got beaten up in the 3--4 by linemen who were often 40 pounds heavier. Now playing on the edge with two tackles occupying inside traffic, the quick and athletic Kerney has a league-high seven sacks. (He had 61/2 all of last year.) With Kerney and fellow end Brady Smith (three sacks) keying the outside rush, Atlanta rotates seven linemen and has been stingy against the run (3.0 yards per carry).
2. Atlanta landed the perfect undertackle in Rod Coleman. When defensive-minded Jim Mora took over as coach, he didn't have that penetrating, pass-rushing tackle vital to making his scheme work. So at the outset of free agency, Mora and new defensive coordinator Ed Donatell zeroed in on Coleman, who had spent the last five seasons with the Raiders. One obstacle: Coleman, who grew up a Giants fan in Philadelphia, wanted to sign with New York. On the second day of free agency he was at Giants Stadium preparing to shake hands on a deal when his agent called to tell him not to sign anything before he talked to the Falcons. "We got into a cussing match on the phone," Coleman says. "He told me to get to Atlanta. I told him, 'If you screw this up, I'll kick your ass.'" That night Coleman got a two-hour sales pitch over dinner from owner Arthur Blank, plus more money (six years, $27.8 million) than the Giants had offered.
The Falcons wanted Coleman to shed some of his 305 pounds; this season he's playing at 285. "And he hasn't lost any of his strength," Mora says. On at least four occasions in a Sept. 26 game against Arizona, the Cardinals blocked Coleman with three interior linemen. Says Kerney, "Rod's been a blessing for me."
3. The passion of Mora and the attacking style of Donatell rub off on this impressionable group of players. Enthusiasm pours out of Mora; the Donatell contribution is less obvious but just as important. "He brings out the best in us," Pro Bowl linebacker Keith Brooking says. "He's figured out what we all do well, and he's playing a lot of guys at the right spots."
Donatell's an interesting story himself. After building an opportunistic defense as the coordinator in Green Bay--over the last three seasons combined, the Packers had more takeaways, 116, than any other team--Donatell was the scapegoat for allowing the Eagles to convert a last-ditch, fourth-and-26 play in an NFC divisional playoff game last January. (The Eagles went on to tie the game, then won in overtime.) He was fired later that week. "There is no question in my mind I'd still be the defensive coordinator in Green Bay if that play never happened," says Donatell. "That was a real disappointment. But the way I look at it now, I was kicked in the rear end with a golden horseshoe. This has been a great place to land."
On Sunday the Falcons forced three turnovers, the biggest of which came early in the fourth quarter. Brooking and nickelback Aaron Beasley blitzed through the same gap on the left side of the offensive line. Brooking was blocked, but Beasley came flying at quarterback Jake Delhomme, who floated a pass into the hands of cornerback Kevin Mathis. He sprinted 35 yards untouched for a TD that gave Atlanta a 20--10 lead. "Jake never saw me," said Mathis, "and the blitz played out perfectly. It was almost too easy."
That's how things look to players on good teams.