Defense has them one win away from last year's total.
By ROGER MILLS
Published October 8, 2004
Despite his electric skills, ABC and ESPN chose to put Michael Vick and the Atlanta Falcons on only one nationally televised game this season.
Though fans across the country have to wait until a Saturday night game on Dec. 18 against Carolina to get an eyeful, the Falcons are wasting no time drawing attention to themselves.
Four games into the season, the Falcons are unbeaten.
They are one victory from equaling last season's victory total, winning with a team effort, running the ball better than any team in the league and playing magnificent defense.
All of this is happening while the 24-year-old Vick, who has been steady but not spectacular, continues to mature as a quarterback while learning a new system put in place this offseason.
"That's why you have to have a total team effort, and when we get that total team effort, it takes a lot off my shoulders, it takes a lot off the coaches' shoulders and things just run smoothly," Vick said in Atlanta. "If we continue to do that, the sky's the limit for this football team."
No one expects the Falcons to be 16-0 at season's end, but with wins over the 49ers, Rams, Cardinals and Panthers, they are proving that last year - 5-11 - means little now, and that success doesn't entirely depend on Vick.
"I think the thing that stands out most for us is that we lead the league in rushing yards (174) and are No. 2 (62.8) in yards allowed," said Rich McKay, the team's president and general manager. "We were 32nd on total defense last year and when last I checked, there were only 32 teams in the league."
When the Falcons hired Jim Mora as coach this offseason, the franchise made a commitment to a certain West Coast offensive hybrid and understood that Vick would require time to acclimate to it.
But Atlanta also recognized its glaring needs on defense and Mora brought in Packers defensive coordinator Ed Donatell. Entering Sunday's game against the Lions, Atlanta has not allowed a 100-yard rusher.
"Honestly, first and foremost, we are very pleased with the coaching staff," McKay said. "Aside from Jim, on defense we were able to switch from a 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 scheme and I think that has really helped our defensive ends."
It has helped defensive linemen Rod Coleman and Brady Smith, who have three sacks each, and it has been particularly beneficial to end Patrick Kerney.
Kerney, a 6-foot-5, 273-pounder from Virginia, leads the NFL with seven sacks and was named the NFC defensive player of the month for September. Last season, Kerney had 6.5 sacks.
"I'm going to sound like a broken record all year," said Kerney, now in his sixth season. "And the fact is, sacks are a team statistic and there's a lot more to a defensive lineman than just sacks. It's how you're playing the run, it's how you're affecting the passing game and none of that stuff happens if you don't have great coverage on the back end, and that's what we're getting."
Atlanta also is getting playmaking from offensive weapons other than Vick. Tight end Alge Crumpler (16 catches, 250 yards, one TD) and power back T.J. Duckett (24 carries for 121 yards and one TD) have been dependable. Running back Warrick Dunn, who frequently flashed big-play capability during his five seasons in Tampa Bay, has been good for at least one dynamic play a game.
"We are held accountable when it comes to making plays and every guy on this team understands that and so far we have been able to make them," Dunn said. "With (Vick) there, you can only defend so much."
Dunn, who has 299 yards on 69 carries with five touchdowns, said part of his early success is his recovery from the torn ligament in his left toe that forced him to miss the last five games of 2003.
"Right now, I'm playing as good as I ever have this early in the season," Dunn said. "A lot of the credit has to go to the coaching staff and the offensive line for putting me in the position to make those plays. I have to stay healthy. As long as I stay healthy, good things can happen."
Mora said Dunn has emerged as more than just a big playmaker.
"Warrick's a winner, a leader in his actions and in his words," Mora said. "His value goes way beyond football, it's about what he means in the locker room, in the community and to this franchise. When you put a team together, you're looking for more than raw talent. You're looking for the right character, the right chemistry. Warrick's all those things."
Still, the Falcons are where Vick takes them. Since his return from a broken leg late last season, Atlanta is 7-1. This season, Vick is 47 of 79 for 605 yards and two TDs and has 222 rushing yards.
"I know I learn something every day," Vick said. "My offensive coordinator (Greg Knapp) always tells me it's going to be two or three years before we finally get this system down. But we're learning on the fly and we're doing a great job of it. That's everybody keeping their poise and maintaining confidence throughout it all and believing in the system and believing in what we're doing."
McKay said one other ingredient for continued success is a commitment to ignore the record and standing on top of the NFC South.
"I know from my days in Tampa that it's better to fly under the radar than right through it," he said. "I know winning four games doesn't mean much unless you continue winning like that the rest of the way."