Originally created 09/19/06

Falcons' defense is key to strong start

ATLANTA - Two games. Two wins. No touchdowns allowed.

Nothing to get too excited about.

That's Falcons coach Jim Mora's take anyway. His team is 2-0, with both wins coming against NFC South rivals that swept Atlanta a season ago. The offense is moving the ball at will, and his defense has transformed itself from a sieve to a dike.

Yet Mora offers little optimism. Not even the cautious kind.

"We are trying to become a good team," he said after Sunday's win against Tampa Bay. "We did some good things, but there are a lot of things we can improve on."

Improvement in the defense hardly seems possible. The Falcons have allowed 105 yards rushing - in two games combined.

They held Tampa Bay, which features 2005 NFC Rookie of the Year Carnell Williams in its backfield, to 40 yards. Carolina, which averaged 105 yards rushing in 2005, rushed for 65 yards in the season opener.

Those numbers are from a Falcons defensive unit playing without key starters. Middle linebacker Ed Hartwell missed both games because of a knee injury. Defensive end John Abraham sat out the Tampa Bay win with a groin injury.

"This game is about confidence," linebacker Keith Brooking said. "When you build that confidence and you have success - and I'm not talking about one week or two weeks, but backing it up week after week and building that defensive swagger or confidence - that can take you so far in this league."

The Falcons have been so stingy that nose tackle Grady Jackson said it's time fans and media stopped bringing up last year, when Atlanta ranked 26th out of 32 teams against the run.

"That was last year; this is a new defense," said Jackson, the 345-pound run stuffer. "I'm just trying to make myself known, make this defense known."

The challenge of facing two division rivals to open the season sharpened the team's focus coming out of training camp, cornerback DeAngelo Hall said.

"By winning the first two weeks, it gives us something to build on," he said.

Hartwell and Abraham should return soon, but the defense's play in their absence is encouraging. Injuries to key defensive starters last year - defensive end Brady Smith and Hartwell in particular - derailed their playoff hopes.

Things are looking good this year. Brooking credits additions of Jackson and safeties Chris Crocker and Lawyer Milloy for the newfound defensive strength.

"There are so many additions to our football team who are making a difference," Brooking said.

Reach Adam Van Brimmer at (404) 589-8424 or adam.vanbrimmer@morris.com.


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