FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. - Youthful enthusiasm and raw talent was good enough for Patrick Kerney to get his foot into the National Football League. To stay there, however, required something extra.
Now four games deep into his new role as the starting left defensive end for the Atlanta Falcons, the first-round draft pick from 1999 finally understands the secret to success. He understands it takes more than ability, speed and strength.
"You have to focus," the 6-foot-5, 272-pounder from the University of Virginia said. "You have to pay attention to all the minor details. It's the little things that make a difference in this league. It's the little things that are the difference between winning and losing."
If Kerney understands that message, can the rest of the Atlanta defense also learn before Sunday night's game at Philadelphia?
"We've got to get better execution up front," said Atlanta coach Dan Reeves. "We've got to get the job done. We just don't have enough people doing the right things at the right time."
The Falcons (2-2) were in good shape to keep the Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams under control last Sunday. But the Rams managed three big plays on offense -- touchdown completions of 80, 66 and 85 yards -- to turn an upset bid into a 41-20 loss.
The Rams came into the game averaging a league-best 506 total yards. Atlanta held the high-powered offense to 395 yards -- 111 less than their average -- but 231 of them came on three long scoring plays. An afternoon of hard work was lost in three mental lapses.
"I thought defensively, except for the big plays, we did a good job. You can't win with (three) big plays that we gave up on defense. You can have a great game and all of a sudden give up big plays like that. It's all negated. We've just got to get those things corrected."
Philadelphia (2-2) doesn't pose the same kind of threats as St. Louis. The best game quarterback Donovan McNabb has ever had during his two seasons as a professional is 222 passing yards -- nine yards fewer than St. Louis had on just three plays.
The Eagles are ranked 24th of 31 National Football League teams in total offense. But like most teams in the league, Philadelphia has been a mental mistake or two by the defense from having a breakout performance.
Kerney has concentrated on the little things since the Falcons decided not to re-sign Chuck Smith during the off-season. With Smith gone, Kerney knew he would inherit the starting job on defense. It's been a struggle, but the second-year player finally has found a comfort level.
"My goal is to get a little better every week," he said. "I had a rotten start in preseason, and I didn't play well against San Francisco (in the season-opener).
"I've learned to pay attention to the details. Look at last week's game: We played well the entire game, but three plays made the difference. You have to focus. That's why teams care about that tenth-of-a-second in the 40-yard dash times. That tenth-of-a-second makes a difference. It's the difference of being in position to make the play or being a half step away.
"I definitely have more confidence now than I had a couple weeks ago. This team put a lot of faith in me and I want to reward them for that. I want to show them I was worth it."
All three long touchdowns Sunday came against Atlanta's high-profile cornerbacks, Ashley Ambrose and Ray Buchanan. The 80-yarder came on a deflection to Torry Holt that caught Ambrose out of position. The other two scores came when Holt and Isaac Bruce both ran past the coverage applied by Ambrose and Buchanan, respectively.
"You've just got to have respect for the kind of speed they have," Reeves said. "You've got to give them a little more cushion. You've got to keep them in front of you because they have the ability to go deep. You can't have those kinds of breakdowns."
Linebacker Keith Brooking is frustrated that Atlanta's defense is so close to being formidable, and yet mentally oblivious on a handful of plays that make a difference.
"There were lots of excuses in the first couple weeks," he said. "But if you're looking for excuses, you're going to lose. I know people think I'm crazy, but we were better than the Rams. They took advantage of three mistakes and turned them into touchdowns. That's the difference in the ballgame.
"We can't feel sorry for ourselves. We just have to work harder to eliminate those last few mistakes. We can't have any mistakes."
A matter of paying attention to minor details.
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com