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Atlanta On Fire The Falcons are now much tougher birds, as the 49ers found out in losing a battle for the NFC West lead

Chuck Smith realized what was wrong with the Atlanta Falcons way
back in December 1996. After Atlanta had fallen to 3-12 with a
34-27 loss to the St. Louis Rams inside a half-empty Georgia
Dome, Smith, a defensive end, went public with his
observations--and his frustrations. First he threatened to quit
the Falcons. Then he ripped coach June Jones, who was spending
most of his time tinkering with Atlanta's run-and-shoot offense.
"We've got to focus on defense," Smith said. "We need a head
coach who is going to be a defensive man. Right now that's not
the case. Until we play defense, we will always be losers."

Atlanta thanked Smith for his insight by suspending him for the
last game of the season and fining him an undisclosed amount.
Two years later someone should consider starting a fund-raising
drive to help Smith recoup his lost money. On Sunday, playing in
a Georgia Dome that was sold out for the first time in three
years, the Falcons and their new and improved defense shut down
the San Francisco 49ers 31-19 to seize sole possession of first
place in the NFC West.

The win was the seventh consecutive at home for Atlanta. Now,
with six games to play and only one team left on their schedule
that has a winning record, the 8-2 Falcons are in position to
win their first division title since 1980. In their last 18
games they are 14-4, second only to the Denver Broncos during
that span, thanks to a nasty defense that is bringing more
attention to the city than Tom Wolfe is.

"For years here the defense was treated like a second-class
citizen," says Smith, a 1992 second-round draft pick from
Tennessee who has 19 1/2 sacks in his last 26 games. "Coaches
ignored us, practices had nothing to do with us, and during
games the mentality was, Can you guys just hold the opposition
long enough so our offense can rest? All I was trying to say
about that kind of attitude was, F--- that, man."

The minute Smith got the news he had been suspended, he packed a
bag and headed to the Philadelphia area. In addition to visiting
with family and friends, Smith hung out with his buddy Scottie
Pippen and some of the other Chicago Bulls, who were there to
play the 76ers. "I just needed to hang with some winners for a
change," says Smith. He also heard from several players around
the league who sympathized with his situation. "Now people are
looking back thinking, Damn, maybe Chuck Smith does know a
little something about football," says Smith. "The truth is
there are no secrets or gimmicks in this game. It's simple. You
either whip people's asses or you don't."

For proof just ask the 49ers, who going into Sunday's game had
won eight of their last nine meetings with the Falcons by an
average of almost 25 points. If this game was a showdown for
supremacy in the West, it was the Niners who flinched. They
endured a pounding at the hands of a defense that made them look
old and somewhat feeble. "Is this the end of an era?" said San
Francisco quarterback Steve Young after the game. "We've been at
this for 20 years, and you just decided this is the end of an era
in the last 32 minutes? No way. I don't think you want to make
too strong a statement."

The game tape will be a powerful enough statement. Young was
sacked four times and bullied into two turnovers. He was knocked
out of the game for two plays after releasing a pass in the
third quarter and spent much of the rest of the day running for
his life. San Francisco's other stars didn't fare much better.
Against Atlanta's second-ranked run defense (chart, page 52),
which held the New England Patriots to 18 yards rushing in a
41-10 win on Nov. 8, the 49ers' Garrison Hearst gained just 14
yards in the first half and 56 overall. Meanwhile, wideout Jerry
Rice dropped a couple of passes, including a sure touchdown in
the second quarter as free safety Eugene Robinson was bearing
down on him.

"We had been embarrassed so many times in this series by the
49ers, the theme this week was, It just has to stop," said
Falcons wideout Terance Mathis, who clinched the victory by
singeing rookie cornerback R.W. McQuarters on a 78-yard sideline
bomb with 2:51 remaining. "The bully has taken the lunch money
for the last time."

Added Atlanta defensive end Lester Archambeau, "We're all just
sick and tired of losing to the 49ers. They've always been fairly
arrogant and cocky, but what we've found is, if you knock their
offense around a bit, they start playing differently. It's just
human nature, I guess. Nobody likes pain."

During a timeout midway through the fourth quarter, before a San
Francisco rally fell short, Smith tilted his helmet back and
walked toward the Niners sideline, pounding his chest, pointing
his finger and talking trash. "We aren't a finesse team
anymore," he said afterward. "We are a team that likes to come
out and beat people up. What the country got to see is that
we're no fluke. The Falcons are legit."

Perhaps it's simply a coincidence, but Atlanta's first step
toward respectability came shortly after Smith's 1996 tirade.
Smith returned to the Falcons the next season, but Jones and the
chuck-and-duck offense didn't. In came former Broncos and New
York Giants coach Dan Reeves, who was also made Atlanta's
executive vice president of football operations.

"A lot of organizations have had so much success, they just
expect it," says Reeves. "This isn't an organization that has
expected it. So this experience has been tremendously satisfying
for me after the adversity I went through in New York. Until now
I don't think I ever really appreciated how difficult it is to
succeed in the NFL."

Since 1996 Reeves has replaced all but 15 players on the roster
while carefully healing the Falcons' emotional scars with
stability and professionalism. All the while he has repeated a
mantra: Control the clock, run the ball and, above all, play
good defense. "Ninety-six had to be the alltime low for this
franchise," says Mathis, a nine-year veteran who's in his fifth
season with Atlanta. "We had players who hated each other and
coaches who didn't care anymore. It was miserable. But a core
group of players fought through that, and now they are the heart
of this team. After being on the miserable side of things for so
long, we know it can all come back in an eye blink. That's why
we stick to Dan's plan."

CONTROL THE CLOCK. On Sunday the Falcons had a pair of 11-play
scoring drives, which gave them 14 drives this season of 10 plays
or more. They held the ball for nine more minutes than the 49ers
and now lead the league in time of possession.

Atlanta also remained deadly inside the red zone. Including
Jamal Anderson's two touchdown runs on Sunday, the Falcons have
scored 18 touchdowns and 10 field goals in 30 trips inside their
opponent's 20. Seemingly the only thing that could hold the
Atlanta attack back is its lack of depth. Despite having made
considerable progress, Atlanta's offense could be just one key
injury from a time-warp trip back to 1996.

RUN THE BALL. The 234-pound Anderson, a 1994 seventh-round draft
choice out of Utah, picked up 100 yards on 31 carries against
the 49ers. It was the seventh time this season he hit the
100-yard mark, and it put him over 1,000 yards for the third
year in a row. After the Falcons' front seven on defense, no one
epitomizes Atlanta's toughness more than Anderson--a hybrid big
back with excellent field vision, receiver's hands and a wicked
stiff arm.

ABOVE ALL, PLAY GOOD DEFENSE. Anderson was one of the
progenitors of the Falcons' trademark Dirty Bird touchdown
dance, but it's the defense that has the most reason to crow.
"When I got here, this team was about as low as you can get
defensively," says Reeves, "but we had a lot of players with a
tremendous amount of pride who had just become tired of being
talked about as lousy. They just wanted to do something about it.

"Talentwise I've had better defenses," adds Reeves, who has
played or coached in eight Super Bowls, "but as far as effort is
concerned, this defense has to rank up there with the best I've
been around."

Reeves's first step in rebuilding the defense was to hire former
Rams head coach Rich Brooks as his coordinator. Before Brooks
came on board, the Falcons had been through three defensive
heads in four seasons. This season, without having to learn a
new system, Atlanta defenders have been able to relax and react,
rather than constantly having to think on the field. (It doesn't
hurt, either, that they now get to work against a conventional
offense in practice every day.)

As a result the Falcons are flying to the ball with a kind of
abandon that has produced an NFL-best 17 fumble recoveries along
with eight interceptions and 29 sacks. Second-worst in the
league in turnover margin in 1996, with a minus-18 total,
Atlanta is second this year, at plus nine. "What we have is one
hungry defense," says Robinson, "and, man, this group needs to

Reeves's first significant free-agent signing was cornerback Ray
Buchanan, who came over from the Indianapolis Colts before the
1997 season. Last March the Falcons landed the 35-year-old
Robinson, who had spent the previous two seasons with the Green
Bay Packers. Confidence in this duo, and the emergence of
second-year cornerback Michael Booker, has allowed Brooks to mix
things up with his core of undersized but agile and crafty
linemen. On Sunday, Young rarely saw the same rush scheme or
coverage package on consecutive plays.

Buchanan and Robinson also added a swagger to the defense that
helped reignite the careers of players like Smith, Archambeau
(eight sacks this season) and linebackers Cornelius Bennett and
Jessie Tuggle. "The first thing we had to do was change our
losing mentality," says Brooks. "We'd have one bad play, and
everyone would look like, Here we go again."

On Sunday, with Atlanta leading 7-0 near the end of the first
half, the 49ers drove to the Falcons' 11, but the defense
stiffened, shutting San Francisco down with ferocious pressure
at the line on five consecutive plays, culminating in Rice's
drop in the end zone. The Niners settled for a field goal. "I
looked Jerry in the eye, so he knew I was coming hard," said
Robinson. "I guess that was enough." (Against a pass defense
that ranks last in the league, Rice did catch 10 balls for a
season-high 169 yards and a touchdown, but afterward he
admitted, "I didn't make the play. I am taking the blame for
that. I let this team down.")

With 54 seconds left in the third quarter and Atlanta clinging
to a 10-6 lead, Buchanan intercepted a floater intended for San
Francisco tight end Greg Clark and weaved 34 yards to the one.
Three plays later Anderson scored his second touchdown. On the
49ers' next series Young coughed up the ball at his own 15 after
being bent almost in half by defensive tackle Shane Dronett.
Smith tried unsuccessfully to pick up the bouncing ball before
Tuggle, the defense's only Pro Bowl player in 1997, fell on it
near the goal line and rolled into the end zone for a touchdown.
In 56 seconds the Falcons' defense had stretched a 10-6 lead to
24-6 and shifted the balance of power in the NFC West.

Tuggle's touchdown was the defense's fifth of the season. Signed
by Atlanta as a rookie free agent in 1987, Tuggle is the NFL's
alltime leader in fumbles returned for touchdowns, with five.
Still, that's only one touchdown dance every 36 games and his
first since the advent of the Dirty Bird, which may explain why
he struggled to do it after scoring. Perhaps he can work on it
with Reeves, who has promised to do the dance "all the way down
Main Street" should the Falcons reach the Super Bowl.

With a defense this opportunistic, it's a shame that downtown
Atlanta has no Main Street.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS ROUGH STUFF Anderson punished Darnell Walker and the Niners with his seventh 100-yard rushing performance of the season. [Jamal Anderson running with football through arms of Darnell Walker]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS GOTCHA! Smith, who is second on the Falcons with 7 1/2 sacks, had one of Atlanta's four takedowns of the battered Young. [Chuck Smith sacking Steve Young]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS [Atlanta Falcons player tackling Garrison Hearst]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS FLYING HIGH Buchanan's third-quarter interception set up the touchdown that gave Atlanta some breathing room. [Ray Buchanan intercepting football intended for Greg Clark]

In the Running

Much of Atlanta's success over the past two seasons can be
attributed to an ability to stop the run, as the Falcons did in
limiting the 49ers' Garrison Hearst (above) to 56 yards on
Sunday. The year before coach Dan Reeves and defensive
coordinator Rich Brooks arrived, the Falcons ranked 26th in the
NFL in rushing defense. This season they're second in that
department and tied for first in fewest rushing first downs
allowed. Only the Jets' Curtis Martin, who ran for 101 yards in
a 28-3 New York win on Oct. 25, has gained as many as 60 yards
against Atlanta. Here's how the Falcons have improved against
the rush.

1996 6.4 T-16 127.6 26 4.3 28
1997 4.8 2 104.1 8 4.1 19
1998 3.7 T-1 76.5 2 3.4 3

"The theme this week was, It just has to stop," said Mathis. "The
bully has taken the lunch money for the last time."

"As far as effort is concerned, this defense has to rank up there
with the best I've been around," says Reeves.