FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Wade Phillips believes the Atlanta Falcons defense is better than the statistics show.
Phillips says he'll know more about his unit - especially the Falcons' run defense - after Sunday's game at Carolina.
Through the Falcons' 1-2 start, the defense has given up too many big plays, inflating the statistics and spoiling what players and coaches call an otherwise winning effort by the unit. But Phillips, the team's defensive coordinator, admits that other teams with losing records can similarly point with regret to a few big plays.
"There are a lot of people that can say that," Phillips said Wednesday. "We've had a lot of short runs and stops for losses and good, positive things. I think the stats are a little deceiving, but we'll find out with this (Carolina) team, which is probably the best running team with the best back we've played."
In a strong start for Carolina (2-0), Stephen Davis already has rushed for 253 yards. On Sunday he could become the first back in Panthers history to open the season with three straight 100-yard games.
In a 12-9 overtime victory at Tampa Bay two weeks ago, Davis rushed for 142 yards. That performance earned the respect of Atlanta's coaching staff, because Tampa Bay held the Falcons to 29 yards rushing in a 31-10 rout last week.
The Falcons rank 29th in the NFL in total defense and 26th against the run. Atlanta has given up more rushing touchdowns - five - than any team in the league.
Phillips successfully lobbied in the offseason for the Falcons to retain their top defensive linemen and linebackers from last year's playoff team. Ends Patrick Kerney and Brady Smith and nose tackle Ellis Johnson are productive pass-rushers. Middle linebackers Keith Brooking and Chris Draft and Ed Jasper, who shares time with Johnson at nose tackle, are the top run-stoppers.
With a healthy Travis Hall playing a bigger role in the rotation at end, Phillips is happy with the team's top five linemen in the 3-4 defense. There also is good depth at outside linebacker, especially with Keith Newman returning from an NFL suspension next week.
One bright spot early has been Johnson, who has two sacks and 15 tackles.
"I tell you what, Ellis Johnson cannot be stopped in the passing game," Brooking said. "He's either getting to the quarterback and getting a hit on him or putting pressure on him or getting a sack on every pass play, it seems like. He's unblockable. He's unbelievable."
Johnson says he gives himself good marks "pass-wise, yes, but as far as total game, no."
Said Johnson, who ranked second on the team with seven sacks last season: "I'm getting better, though. I'm just like this defense. We're not quite there yet but we're going to get there. ... I think we'll be a good defense."
Like Jasper (6-2, 293), Johnson (6-2, 288) is considered small for a nose tackle on a three-man line.
The lack of size prompted some observers to suggest the Falcons should add a nose tackle with more bulk to bolster the run defense. Phillips liked the players he had, and the only addition to the depth chart on the defensive line is rookie Demetrin Veal, who also looks more like an end than a tackle.
With the small but quick defensive front, the Falcons have given up an average of 135.3 yards rushing per game.
Phillips says the average should improve.
"Down after down, I think we're going to be able to play fine against the run," Phillips said before adding "but we're going to be challenged this week."