Falcon's Defense on the rise.
Phillips has Falcons defense on the rise
By Vic Carucci
National Editor, NFL.com
Staying on top is hard work for Vick
GREENVILLE, S.C. (July 30, 2003) -- Every conversation about the Atlanta Falcons' chances of being a serious contender this season begins with the anticipation of bigger and better things from Michael Vick.
But the discussion can't end without a mention of the Falcons defense.
Last season, the unit made nice strides under the direction of Wade Phillips, in his first year as the Falcons' defensive coordinator. It finished second in the NFL with 39 takeaways, tied for fourth with 47 sacks, and was eighth in points allowed with 314. The point total is particularly impressive considering that the Falcons played in four overtime games.
Also impressive is the Falcons' defensive performance during playoff games against the Green Bay Packers and Philadelphia Eagles. The Falcons stunned the Packers in Lambeau Field largely because they were able to hold them to a mere touchdown. They also did a reasonably solid job in a 20-6 divisional loss in Philadelphia a week later.
With some help in the secondary and greater familiarity with Phillips' 3-4 scheme, Atlanta's defense figures to lend solid support to what should be stronger production from Vick and the rest of the offense.
"We came a long ways last year, certainly," Phillips said. "We're confident going into this year, I know that. In the playoffs, we played outstanding. The two games we played, against two good offensive teams, we really shut both of them down. That's what we've addressed with our guys."
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The Falcons defense has looked impressive through the early part of the team's Furman University training camp. Its members aren't the largest players around, but they are extremely fast and athletic -- qualities that help generate big plays.
"We've got to utilize our quickness," Phillips said. "We're not an overpowering defense."
At 6-foot-2 and 288 pounds, Ellis Johnson is small for a nose tackle. So is the other experienced player the Falcons have at the position -- 6-2, 293-pound Edward Jasper -- who has been out of action with a sore back. Therefore, the Falcons don't ask them to try and outmuscle opposing centers or try to tie up multiple interior blockers. They move them around and do a good deal of stunting.
The strength of the Falcons defense is the linebacking corps, led by Keith Brooking on the inside. He ranked second in the NFC last season with 110 tackles, 98 solo. At 5-11, fellow insider linebacker Chris Draft is relatively small, but he makes up for it with speed and aggressiveness.
Phillips likes to frequently include his linebackers in five-man rushes. That's because he has confidence in the coverage ability of his cornerbacks, Ray Buchanan and free-agent newcomer Tyrone Williams from Green Bay, as well as Tod McBride, another free-agent cornerback from the Packers who has been sidelined with a broken thumb, and second-round draft pick Bryan Scott from Penn State. Williams, McBride and Scott were acquired primarily because they are larger cornerbacks who are physical enough to match up with the increasing number of tall, strong receivers in the league.
Wade Phillips helped transformed Atlanta's defense into one of the league's best.
Phillips' creativity with his front seven as well as his attack-oriented philosophy has a lot to do with the Falcons' ability to pile up turnovers and sacks. "You can't do that playing base defense all the time," he said.
By utilizing the 3-4, which is making a strong comeback throughout the league, Phillips is convinced the Falcons are better able to do the zone blitzing that tends to be most effective against horizontal, West Coast-style passing teams. With four linebackers on the field, they are able to have enough defenders drop into coverage to replace those who are blitzing. And even if the blitzing doesn't generate sacks, it can throw off the all-important timing of the pass routes, which is the key to the West Coast's success.
"It allows you to attack their protection and make them throw it quicker than they want to," Phillips said.
But he is well aware that schemes don't guarantee success. The Falcons need their players to be disciplined in their responsibilities and continue to improve this summer.
"We've still got to keep from giving up big plays," Phillips said. "We've got to be sound. But we've got a real smart group. As they learned things last year, we got better and better. Now that they know those things going in, it really helps us.
"We've got some new people, but our core group, our front seven, is all there. They know what they're doing this year. It took about half a year last year to get to where we knew what our players could do and they knew what we wanted them to do."
If all goes according to Phillips' plan, by the start of the season they should be ready to provide the help Vick needs to make the Falcons a strong contender.
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