"We're done rebuilding,'' says defensive end Patrick Kerney. "It's timefor championships now." The Falcons made the division's best off-seasonacquisition: defensive end John Abraham, in a draft-week trade with the Jets.The return of run-stopping linebacker Ed Hartwell, who missed the final 11games in '05 with a torn Achilles, and the free-agent signing of safety LawyerMilloy will also toughen the defense. Under new quarterbacks coach BillMusgrave, Michael Vick will prove once and for all that he can be a completequarterback.
One morning in training camp, with Kerney at left end and Abraham on the right,one or both of them got to Vick three times in a five-play sequence. Flustered,Vick slammed the ball to the ground, while Kerney, Abraham and Pro Bowldefensive tackle Rod Coleman celebrated. "I've never played with talentlike this," says Abraham, who spent six seasons with the Jets. "I can'ttell you how good it's going to feel to be out there." And Atlanta needsAbraham to stay out there; with New York he missed 25 games because ofinjuries. If Abraham is more durable this year, the Falcons' pass rush will bescary. Even without a strong right end in 2005, Kerney and Coleman combined for17 sacks.
Nice number, butAtlanta also allowed 129 rushing yards a game--most in the NFL--so doing abetter job of stopping the run is just as important as getting to the passermore often. Hartwell has to rediscover the form he showed in three seasons as astarter with the Ravens, when he averaged 10 tackles a game. As for Milloy, thequestion is, What does he have left? Buffalo gave up on the 32-year-old formerPro Bowl player because of his paltry big-play production: one sack, oneinterception, zero forced fumbles last year. Atlanta may be deluding itself inthinking it got the Milloy who helped the Patriots win their first SuperBowl.
And speaking ofdelusional.... At some point NFL fans and media have to stop wishing that Vickwill become a pocket passer and accept him for what he is: a runningquarterback. Coach Jim Mora must spend half his time with the media defendinghis quarterback. "I liken what Mike's going through to what Steve Youngwent through when he got to San Francisco," says Mora. "He couldn't doanything right. He ran around too much. Then Steve took the team to the SuperBowl, and all of a sudden he was a good quarterback."
After twopreseason games, what encouraged the Falcons most is that Vick was looking athis second and third options much more often than last year. To Vick thatdoesn't mean he'll cut down on his scrambling. "I actually think I may runa little more this year," Vick says, a revelation that Mora won't be crazyabout. "I'm not going to force it, and I am going to look for my receiversthe way I should. But I'm going to let my instincts take over."
Vick confessedafter last season that he didn't try his hardest in the final game--a 44--11loss to Carolina--and he still regrets it. "I remember sitting home, nightafter night in February, watching our games from last year," he says."I must've watched each one three, four times. It left me with a hunger toplay better than I ever have."
"Michael hasa chip on his shoulder about what happened last year," says general managerRich McKay, "and that's not all bad."
10 at Carolina
17 TAMPA BA
Y25 at New Orleans (M)
15 N.Y. GIANTS
29 at Cincinnati
5 at Detroit
19 at Baltimore
26 NEW ORLEANS
3 at Washington
10 at Tampa Bay
16 DALLAS (S)
31 at Philadelphia
(M) Monday (S)Saturday
Opponents' 2005 winning percentage
Games against playoff teams
AN OPPOSING TEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THE FALCONS
> I worryabout Michael Vick's protection at the tackle spots. Todd Weiner is a goodtechnical player but not overly strong, and Wayne Gandy is just a journeyman. Idon't see Vick staying in the pocket much with those guys blocking.
> A healthyJohn Abraham is as hard to block as Dwight Freeney.
> The onething Ashley Lelie was never comfortable doing in Denver was making thephysical catch over the middle. In this offense Lelie is going to have totoughen up to be a factor.
> What I kepthearing out of Atlanta's camp this summer is how many fights they had.Undisciplined teams fight a lot, and they don't win championships. Someonebetter teach DeAngelo Hall that being a good fighter doesn't make you a goodplayer.
They're lucky Jimmy Williams slipped to the second round. God doesn't make many6'2" guys who run 4.4 and cover.
The 2005first-rounder from UAB will have to make a big improvement over last year (29receptions, 15.4 yards per catch) to become a deep threat, but the Falcons haveshown such faith in White--whose off-season work included catching passes fromMichael Vick four days a week for three months--that at the start of the seasonAshley Lelie, acquired from Denver, will be the third receiver, and White willhave a chance to prove that he's the Man. Atlanta will be counting on him for60-plus catches.
JIM MORA (19--13 in NFL), third season with Atlanta
SACKS 3 1/2
SACKS 6 1/2
SACKS 2 1/2
SACKS 10 1/2
NFL RANK (RUSH/PASS/TOTAL)
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BOB ROSATO (VICK)
Vick promises to check his receiver options, but he trusts his instincts whenit's time to run.
HELMET PHOTOS BY DAVID N. BERKWITZ