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January 24, 2005 Edition > Section:  Sports

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Atlanta's One-Trick Pony Stumbles

BY SEAN LAHMAN
January 24, 2005

While the city of Philadelphia celebrates a first trip to the Super Bowl after three straight NFC Championship Game losses, the Atlanta Falcons are left to contemplate their own recurring story: Four years after drafting Michael Vick, they still haven't built an adequate team around their superstar quarterback.

When Vick is at his best, the Falcons seem unstoppable. He has a rocket for an arm and possesses the ability to throw with a laser like precision. When defenses try to pressure him, he can pass on the run better than anyone. When he scrambles, he's as elusive as any player in the league. If you talk to scouts or assistant coaches across the league, many will tell you that he is the most gifted athlete in the game today.

The problem, as we saw yesterday, is that when Vick is not at his best, the Falcons simply can't win. His one-man show was enough to make them an elite team in this year's mediocre NFC, but if the Falcons expect Vick to lead them back to the Super Bowl, they need to make some significant changes during the off-season.

Atlanta led the league in rushing yards this season, in no small part because of 902 yards from Vick himself. If he hadn't been resting on the sidelines for the last two regular season games, he very likely would have become the first NFL quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. But the real story of their success in the ground game this year was the arrival of offensive line guru Alex Gibbs.

Gibbs's zone blocking schemes helped the Denver Broncos field one of the league's best running games year after year, no matter who the primary running back happened to be. He brought the same approach to Atlanta, building a line around smaller, quicker players with good lateral movement. The Falcons linemen excel at creating cut-back lanes for the running back, and slashing runner Warrick Dunn became very productive in that system.

The Eagles, however, successfully shut down the Atlanta running game by playing nine or 10 defenders at the line of scrimmage. They used their front seven to plug the running lanes, with the defensive backs providing containment on the outside. Neither Vick nor Dunn were able to break through for a big run - the Falcons' longest run was just 13 yards. Worse, Vick's scrambling led him to lose more yards on sacks than he gained with his rushes (33 to 26).

Playing that many defenders in the box left the Eagles' secondary vulnerable to the passing game, but the Falcons simply don't have enough talent at wide receiver to mount much of an attack against a defense as good as Philadelphia's. Brian Finneran is a decent no. 3 receiver forced into a bigger role than he's capable of playing, Dez White is no more than a journeyman, and rookie Michael Clayton barely cracked the lineup. Atlanta's nominal top receiver, Peerless Price - whom the Falcons gave up a no. 1 draft pick to acquire - has been hugely disappointing. No team had fewer receptions or fewer yards by their wide receivers this season.

Most teams can contain this receiving corps with basic man coverage. For the Eagles, with three starters in the secondary going to the Pro Bowl, it was a piece of cake. The four Falcons wideouts combined for just five catches in the NFC title game, making it all too easy for Philadelphia's defense to focus on stopping the run.

As for excellent tight end Alge Crumpler, the Eagles were able to effectively contain him at the same time as they were stuffing the run. Until the Falcons acquire some receivers who can spread the defenses out and give Vick some targets down the field, they'll never be able to take advantage of his abilities as a passer.

It's also worth asking whether Vick is everything he's cracked up to be. He's never thrown for 3,000 yards, never completed 60% of his passes in a season, and in 43 games has just 36 touchdown passes versus 26 interceptions. If he's going to take his team to the next level, Vick will have to do what all of the great scramblers eventually did: Learn to stay in the pocket and throw the ball. Randall Cunningham and Steve Mc-Nair each won an MVP award when they stopped running the ball as much, and McNabb's first trip to the Super Bowl came after a season in which he ran the ball less than ever before.

The Falcons also need to improve on defense if they're going to become legitimate Super Bowl contenders. They made great strides this year, switching to a 4-3 alignment under defensive coordinator Ed Donatell. With agile ends Patrick Kerney and Brady Smith, and tackles Rod Coleman and Ed Jasper - both good penetrators who disrupt the middle of the line - Atlanta boasted a dominant front line, and led the league with 48 sacks.

Yet despite their ability to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, they finished 22nd in pass defense because of a secondary that was often overmatched. Yesterday Donovan McNabb burned them for a couple of long pass plays and threw for two touchdowns. That, in turn, placed even more pressure on Vick to put a lot of points on the board.

Winning 11 games, capturing your division title, and advancing to the conference championship game can't be viewed as a disappointing season. In falling short, though, the Falcons' shortcomings have been clearly highlighted. The team that ended their season - one that fell short for three years before finally building a complete team around its superstar quarterback - offers a blueprint for how the Falcons, too, can make the improvements necessary to get to the Super Bowl.

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