This is NOT the Falcons' S.B. team of 1998-'99

It's hard to believe the Falcons made the Super Bowl three seasons ago. Since then, Pro Bowl running back Jamal Anderson tore the ACL in both of his knees – he hurt the left knee two games into this season – and the team was 15-29 up through Dec. 9. That included a 5-11 and 4-12 finish the past two seasons. But after 12 games, they were surprisingly 6-6 and had a chance for a Wild Card.

 

Atlanta's offense revolved around Anderson. Now it revolves around second-year man Maurice Smith, who heads up the run-first operation and had shown signs of potential, especially with a 148-yard game vs. the Cowboys. But the line blocking has hampered Atlanta's overall offensive productivity all season.

The founder of Home Depot recently bought the Falcons for $545 million. Fifty-eight-year-old coach Dan Reeves still remains committed to the team, especially with No. 1 pick Michael Vick waiting for his chance to start while Chris Chandler's career winds down.

 

Falcons on offense

The Falcons are a two-back team with fullback Bob Christian lead-blocking for Maurice Smith. Christian carries the ball about twice a game, averaging 8.9 yards. Occasionally, Atlanta will go to a one-back set and use two tight ends – starter Reggie Kelly and backup Alge Crumpler – on either side of the line. Crumpler is more of the pass-catching threat.

 The single-back runner is usually Rodney Thomas. He offers an effective change-up to Smith with his speed and cutback ability. The Atlanta ground game was ranked 12th in the NFL, averaging 115.1 yards per game after Week 13. Thomas

The rushing attack is very physical. If the Buffalo defense comes out and doesn't feel like taking big hits, it could suffer another beating such as the one given to them by the 49ers. Atlanta doesn't do anything particularly sexy, it just tries to out-physical the opponent.

The passing game was ranked 23rd, mostly because the line-blocking has been heinous – worse than the Bills, if you can believe that. Atlanta quarterbacks had been sacked 48 times (Buffalo was fifth worst at 42 sacks) and the line recently gave up nine sacks to the Saints Dec. 9.

The Falcons start rookie Kynan Forney at right guard and he had been susceptible to pass blocking problems. Rookie Robert Garza rotates at left guard with Bob Hallen. Garza is playing out of position because he's more of a natural center.

Tony Martin and Terance Mathis are the Falcons' starting receivers. Martin and Mathis are fast, but neither are as good as they once were. Martin broke a clavicle early in the season and missed time, promoting Shawn Jefferson to the starting lineup. Rookie Brian Finneran had a six-catch, 92-yard game vs. the Saints Dec. 9 and may get more time.

Chris Chandler was having a mediocre year – 12 touchdown passes to 11 interceptions. He had been banged up recently with a sprained left ankle and knee, but missed no time.

Key Matchup: Bills DTs vs. Falcons interior line. Atlanta has been rotating the interior linemen with two rookies and it has not been met with much success. The team is still giving up sacks by the boatload. This could help Phil Hansen, when he's inside, plus rookie Tyrone Robertson, Ron Edwards and second-year man Leif Larsen.

How to beat the Falcons' offense: Pass rush. The Falcons line has had a myriad of problems pass protecting for the quarterbacks. Buffalo's defensive coordinator Jerry Gray should simply exploit the weakness as much as possible. Everybody else has. It's that simple.

 

Offensive player to watch

RB 43 Maurice Smith

Ht.: 6'2" Wt.: 236

Maurice Smith has been waiting for his chance behind Jamal Anderson. Now it is here. So is an opportunity for Smith to take over as Atlanta's featured back of now and the future.

Like Anderson, Smith is a big and bruising back who fits Atlanta's offensive philosophy well. He has surprising straight-line speed for such a big back, which makes him a threat to excel in the system if he can hold up to the pounding. He was tied for fifth among NFL running backs with six runs of 20-plus yards or more. Smith recently sprained his right ankle and discovered torn cartilage in his right knee, but he vowed to play through it. There was talk of him missing the Dec. 16 game vs. the Colts.

 

Falcons on defense

The 28th defensive ranking won't intimidate many opponents, but the Falcons do some things well, such as rush the quarterback. Atlanta was eighth in sacks per pass attempt with a sack every 12 times the quarterback drops back to throw. Much of that can be attributed to left end Patrick Kerney's penetration from the edge.

Right end Brady Smith has battled back problems, but hadn't missed a start through 12 games. Falcons starting tackles Travis Hall and Shane Dronett are solid.

But even with the pass rush, the Falcons are best against the run. And that partly had to do with the unit's strength at linebacker, led by fourth-year player Keith Brooking, who is emerging as a star in the middle. The Falcons also have received good production from weakside linebacker Chris Draft, but he has been hampered recently by a toe injury. Draft should be back for the Bills game, however.

But Brooking is the man to behold with a non-stop motor that thirsts to make plays in a manner similar to Miami's Zach Thomas. Everywhere you look when a Falcon is making a tackle, and the guy usually making it is Brooking.

The leaders of the secondary, as usual, are cornerbacks Ray Buchanan and Ashley Ambrose, who make up one of the finest tandems at that position in the NFL. Ambrose suffered a shin contusion vs. The Saints Dec. 9 and may be replaced by Darrick Vaughan. Safeties Marty Carter and Ronnie Bradford are the players who need to step up to allow this unit to play at a higher level.

The Falcons were ranked 13th with 13 interceptions. Buchanan and Ambrose each had three, with Brooking second with two.

What this unit needs most to succeed is to find a way to stop opponents on third down. The Falcons ranked last in the NFL after Week 13, allowing opponents to convert 73 of 154 opportunities (47 percent), which is absolutely horrible.


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