Originally created 05/02/04

Falcons juggle linebackers



FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. - Remember how quickly the Atlanta Falcons reversed their decision to make Patrick Kerney an outside linebacker two years ago?

Wade Phillips fancied Kerney, a standout defensive end with 12 sacks in 2001, as the missing link in his 3-4 scheme, but lineman Shane Dronett's severe shoulder injury caused the former coordinator to capitulate before the first preseason game.

Keith Brooking's move from middle to weakside linebacker could be permanent as Phillips' replacement, Ed Donatell, switches the Falcons back to a basic 4-3 alignment.

At the same time, such experiments are the very reason NFL teams hold mandatory mini-camps, and Brooking could move back inside if Donatell, head coach Jim Mora and linebackers coach Chris Beake have second thoughts.

"On a lot of the running plays at the middle linebacker spot, you've got to stay backside, and it holds you back from using your speed and running to the football," Brooking said Saturday. "At the weak side, I'm covered up a little more in front of me. I've got d-linemen in front of me and I'm able to get over the top and run to the football more. That's where you make the big plays."

In 66 career starts, Brooking has averaged 9.3 tackles, but the 3-4 scheme rarely allowed him to pursue the quarterback. He combined for 6.5 sacks, two interceptions and 11 passes breakups while playing the middle of a 4-3 in a 37-game stretch that ended three years ago.

Moving to weakside in a 4-3 and switching jobs with Chris Draft should give Brooking a strong shot at his third straight Pro Bowl. Though his overall tackles might dwindle, Brooking, who had no sacks in 2002-03, won't mind as long as he disrupts the quarterback.

"The last couple of practices I feel like I'm getting better each and every rep I take," Brooking said. "It's something I'm comfortable with. I've played the position before. The terminology is different, but I've played this position before and I like it. I really do."

Mora has called weakside linebacker, which lines up opposite the side of the offensive line lacking a tight end, the most important position in this defense since he arrived as head coach four months ago. Julian Peterson played the position perfectly in 2003, Mora's fifth season as the 49ers' defensive coordinator - 11 pass breakups, seven sacks, two interceptions and 94 tackles. Brooking, by comparison, had 144 tackles, but he finished with no interceptions and no pass breakups.

After visiting with former Denver linebacker Ian Gold in early March, Mora hoped the Falcons could sign the unrestricted free agent and let him compete with weakside starter Chris Draft. Gold, who signed last week with Tampa Bay, refused to lower his price, and the Falcons began entertaining the idea of having Draft switch spots with Brooking.

"Keith is a real speedy guy," Mora said. "His No. 1 asset is speed. So that will allow him to come off the edge more, work in space a little bit more. Chris is kind of an anchor, and I mean that not in a physical sense, but in a mental sense. He's a guy who guys rally around, takes real command of the huddle, real command at the line-of-scrimmage and that position is meant to get information out. It plays to both of their strengths, so we're excited about the move."

As far as taking calls from coaches, Brooking will continue to lead the defensive huddle, and Draft will remain in charge of adjustments and strength calls.