PONTIAC, Mich. -- If new coach Dan Reeves is right, a conservative running attack and sounder defensive scheme will make the Atlanta Falcons a better road team than they have been in a long time.
The only certainty heading into today's season opener against the Detroit Lions at the Silverdome (1 p.m., Fox-54) is that the other way didn't work.
The Falcons threw the ball more than any other team in the NFL (by pass-to-run ratio) and played horrid defense under former coach June Jones. They won only five of 24 road games in three years; none against a team that finished with a winning record.
A change in philosophy, even to a throwback style of play, doesn't seem like such a bad thing.
"It's very difficult to throw the football on the road, because your tackles are at a tremendous disadvantage with the crowd noise," said Reeves, who opens as the Falcons' fourth head coach since 1989. "If you have to throw the ball when the defense knows you have to throw it, they pin their ears back, and that makes it very difficult on your pass protection in general.
"But if you're running the ball successfully, you can throw it when you want to. And then, if your defense holds them, that allows you to stay with the running game."
Running back Jamal Anderson, a 230-pounder who does his best running between the tackles, is the centerpiece of the new attack. Anderson ran for 1,059 yards on only 232 carries last year in the run-and-shoot offense, and he stands to get the ball at least 275 times this year.
No longer one of the NFL's best kept secrets, Anderson was picked by Sports Illustrated to win this year's rushing title. What the magazine doesn't realize, though, is that Anderson is so versatile Reeves will also use him in the slot to take advantage of his receiving abilities.
Another mitigating factor in how many carries Anderson gets is that rookie Byron Hanspard and former South Carolina standout Harold Green are too good to keep off the field, and both will share in the running responsibilities.
"The Falcons have great depth at that position - maybe as good as there is in the NFL," said Detroit coach Bobby Ross, the former Georgia Tech boss, who also debuts with his new team.
Anderson will be more of a workhorse in 1997, no matter where he is deployed.
He prepared for that role with a regimen of strenuous hikes through the snowcapped Wasatch Mountains near his off-season Utah home. Said to be in the best condition of his young career, the 1994 seventh-round pick out of Utah comes off a solid preseason in which he rushed for 141 yards on 31 carries in about six quarters.
"My goal is to be a premier player, and I'm ready to earn that distinction this year," Anderson said.
A ball-control offense is no good without a defense capable of keeping the team in games. This is where the Falcons run into trouble.
Questions abound about the unit that will try to stop the Lions' dangerous trio of running back Barry Sanders, quarterback Scott Mitchell and receiver Herman Moore. On paper or otherwise, Atlanta doesn't look very good on defense.
Reeves spent his first two draft picks on defensive players, taking Nebraska cornerback Michael Booker 11th overall and Indiana defensive tackle Nathan Davis 32nd. But neither is starting, and Davis, a major disappointment so far, may not even be activated.
The only significant upgrade is cornerback Ray Buchanan, a transition free agent signed away from Indianapolis.
Still, the defense may improve simply because it is gambling less under new coordinator Rich Brooks and because the offense is controlling the clock longer.
"I truly feel this is a better overall approach," said linebacker Jessie Tuggle. "When you look at us this year compared to last year, we've got an offense that can push the ball down the field. And the defense is capable of giving the ball back to the offense."
With two blue-collar style coaches on the sidelines in Reeves and Ross, today's game figures to be a matchup of Anderson and the redoubtable Sanders, the NFL rushing titlist two of the last three years.
Anderson won the competition last year at the Silverdome, running for 103 yards and three touchdowns to Sanders' 86 yards and no scores. But the Lions prevailed, 28-24.
"I love playing in the big games on the road like the Jacksonvilles and the Detroits, where the crowd's all fired up," Anderson said. "That's what's football is all about - playing in front of a sellout crowd, having to concentrate. You watch for the ball to move and when it moves you go."
Past Falcon teams usually went backward.
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