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Falcons take to the ground

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Falcons head coach Jim Mora inadvertently brought a
smile to some faces when he recently was quizzed about Atlanta's rushing
attack, which is ranked No. 1 in the NFL, but it's no joke that the Falcons
and their rookie coach were at home last week with a playoff bye. So after
averaging 167 rushing yards per game, the NFL's second-highest total since
1990 (trailing the 173.4 mark of the 2001 Steelers), Mora was asked if there
was a secret.

"You know, like (OL coach) Alex (Gibbs) will tell you," Mora told reporters
before catching himself and remembering that Gibbs almost never speaks to
the media, "he won't tell you guys, (but) he'll say all the time that all 11
have a piece of the puzzle in order for it to work."

So why hasn't it worked before?

Running backs Warrick Dunn (1,106 rushing yards) and T.J. Duckett (509), and quarterback Michael Vick (902) -- "DVD" to some, "Flash, Dash and Smash" to others -- were on this
team in 2003. So were offensive linemen Kevin Shaffer, Roberto Garza, Todd
McClure, Kynan Forney and Todd Weiner, fullback Justin Griffith, tight end Alge Crumpler
and wide receiver Peerless Price. In fact, the only new offensive starter in '04 was
split end Dez White.

So what gives?

Gibbs' system, that's what, and it hasn't hurt that Vick started 15 games
this season instead of four like he did last season. In February, Gibbs, the
longtime Broncos offensive line coach who had been in semi-retirement as a Denver
consultant, joined Mora after resisting overtures from the Giants and
Texans. Gibbs previously had worked with Mora in the late 1980s in San
Diego.

Mora promised that the Falcons would run the ball well, and he was right. The
team set a franchise record with a league-leading 2,672 yards, going over
200 yards rushing in six games.

Some observers point to Vick as a primary reason for all this. His 902
rushing yards, after all, were the third-most in NFL history for a
quarterback. And yes, Vick's 7.5-yards- per-carry rushing average led the
NFL and helped give the Falcons a league-best mark of 5.1 yards per carry,
but Duckett (4.9) and Dunn (4.2) didn't exactly kill the average.

But it starts with Gibbs and the way he teaches zone blocking, cut-blocking
away from his beloved stretch plays to reduce back-side pursuit and the
urgency he attaches to every player's responsibilities in the run game. Greg
Knapp may be the Falcons' offensive coordinator, but Gibbs runs the running
game.

"One, (the Falcons) have, if not the most outstanding, one of the most
outstanding line coaches ever in football," Seahawks head coach Mike
Holmgren said. "It makes perfect sense that Alex being there, that they are
a good rushing football team. Their blocking schemes are very difficult to
deal with, and wherever he's been, they've been good. I think that's the
main reason."

His players recognize how important Gibbs is as well.

"(Gibbs is) a coach who I think every team needs," Vick said. "A coach like
that to get the guys going, always in the middle of something yelling and
screaming."

Mora offered more detail on what Vick said.

"The receivers are extremely involved, obviously the tight end, the fullback
and then even the quarterback carrying out fakes and being a threat with the
ball or without the ball," Mora said.

Vick is uniquely skilled to be seen as a threat while making fakes, although
he's no Peyton Manning with his ball-handling skills. It also has helped
that center McClure, right guard Forney and right tackle Weiner started all 16 games, left guard
Garza the final 15 and left Shaffer missed just Week 2.

"I think it's important the guys that we have out there have been together
now for several years," Weiner said.

Gibbs wants almost everything done quickly in the running game; he doesn't
have the patience for runners who are too picky.

"With some teams they just tell you (ahead of time) to go get a linebacker,"

Fullback Stanley Pritchett said. "Here, it's a complicated scheme, and you've got
to keep reading the defensive linemen. Sometimes (it means blocking) a
safety, sometimes a linebacker, sometimes a defensive lineman. You have to
do it on the run. Everything happens real quick."

Just the way the coaching staff likes it.

"I think (the system) is probably good for a back who makes one cut and goes
... not necessarily a scatback behind the line of scrimmage ... not a lot of
jitter-step," Mora said.

It's not as if Atlanta hasn't had problems.

Running back coach Ollie Wilson has broken in three players in the past month after
Justin Griffith, who led fan Pro Bowl voting for NFC fullbacks, Pritchett
and George Layne were lost to season-ending injuries. Crumpler, who is
headed to the Pro Bowl as well, also missed the final two games with a knee
injury. His absence was better-tolerated, at least in the running game,
because Gibbs led a coaches' move in training camp to convert Eric Beverly
from left guard to a blocking tight end.

We're not finished. Dunn underwent season-ending surgery in '03 after tearing
a ligament in his left foot. That short-circuited his offseason regimen, and
he averaged just 2.8 yards per carry during the second quarter of the season
as leg ailments slowed him, and his legs grew weary because they were
undertrained. Duckett missed Weeks 15 and 16 after tearing cartilage in his
left knee.

Overall, however, it's the system that works, much as it did (and still does)
in Denver, where the Broncos routinely have been among the league's top
rushing teams.

The highlight of the season may have come in the game in which Duckett was
injured. He rushed 12 times for 65 yards and a franchise-record four
touchdowns in a 35-10 win over Oakland on Dec. 12, and Dunn added 103 yards
rushing on 25 carries. Dunn has been especially spry of late, rushing for
more than 100 yards in three of the Falcons' final four games, including
season highs of 134 and 132 yards in the 14th and 16th games of the season.
Duckett has returned, too, just in time for the playoffs.

"I am getting comfortable," Dunn said, "and I think the system fits me."

It fits the Falcons, too.

Matt Winkeljohn covers the Falcons for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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