QBs will feel even more heat from the Falcons

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Depending upon your station in life, chances are you never forget the first really big, defining moment of your career.

A pilot probably can describe for you his first takeoff and landing. A politician likely can deliver the opening line of his first speech. No doubt even the most veteran surgeon will remember closing up his first patient.

And an NFL defensive lineman can regale an audience by talking, often times incessantly, about his first career sack.

And so it was on Thursday, as the Atlanta Falcons prepared for their first training camp practice, that right end John Abraham, acquired from the New York Jets in a blockbuster trade this spring, reveled in recalling his late-game takedown of Drew Bledsoe in the second outing of his 2000 rookie season, to help preserve the Jets' 20-19 victory over the New England Patriots. And defensive "under" tackle Rod Coleman's eyes all but sparkled as he spoke of his first sack, against Tim Couch in 2000, his second season in the league.

Good thing that, when it comes to strolling down Sack Lane, the Falcons' two standout linemen can walk such a straight and steady path. Because in 2006, they and left end Patrick Kerney, who arguably comprise the league's best three-man band of quarterback tormentors, might well challenge the capacity of their own personal memory banks in terms of cataloguing sacks.

"I get scared just thinking about it," said Abraham, a classic weakside rusher with great upfield explosion, and a guy who represents a very sizeable piece of the Atlanta pass-rush puzzle. "I mean, Pat might go and get a sack. And then Rod will get one. And then, the next thing you know, the pressure's on me to get one, too. This could be a really scary situation."

Yeah, but it ought to be opposing quarterbacks doing the most fretting about what could be the league's most dominating pass rush. While the Falcons' linemen might have superb recall of all their sack moments, quarterbacks might pray for selective amnesia when they're exiting the field after facing the kind of heat the Atlanta front figures to bring this season.

Since 1990, there have been only six NFL defenses that had three players who each registered double-digit sacks. And only three of those teams -- the San Francisco 49ers in 1996 and 1997 and the New Orleans Saints of 2000 -- had three lineman who posted 10 or more sacks. It will be surprising if Abraham, Kerney and Coleman don't join that elite group in 2006.

"There's no doubt that every one of those guys can get 10 [sacks] or more," said former Falcons end Chuck Smith, the second-leading sacker in franchise history, now a radio analyst, and still a keen observer of the art of the quarterback kill. "First off, they've each got a signature pass-rush move, and that's really rare in the league anymore. The NFL is full of a bunch of young guys now and all they know about sacking the quarterback comes off the zone blitz. They've never developed a trademark technique. These three guys -- whether it's Rod with the 'double-slap' move or Pat with the 'slap-rip-hump,' they've all got a maneuver that they've made their own. They're old-school. They all know how to get to the quarterback."

And they get there often.

Among the three of them, the Falcons' linemen have 157½ career sacks, and each has posted at least three seasons of 10 or more sacks. Atlanta owner Arthur Blank, a marketing maven who has revived a once-moribund franchise, better get his public relations people busy on a nickname for the pass rush group, because the chances are pretty good the Falcons' front line will merit one by season's end.

There is some irony to the fact that a defense that performed so miserably against the run in 2005, when the Falcons statistically ranked 26th in the NFL versus the ground game and surrendered an average of 128.9 yards per outing, would work so hard to improve its pass rush. Truth be told, stopping the run remains the most pressing imperative for the Atlanta defense this season and even the guys who make their living by knocking the quarterback flat understand that.

Well, sort of, it seems.

"They don't pay ends for playing the run great," said Abraham, who signed a six-year, $45 million contract as part of the trade that brought him here. "But you can't ignore it."

General manager Rich McKay and coach Jim Mora are concerned about the defense's inability to get off the field last season. Atlanta surrendered 319 first downs in 2005, the seventh most in the league, and the defense was on the field for an average of 30 minutes, 2 seconds last season. Although Brady Smith was never viewed as much more than a decent player, his early-season foot injury forced the coaches to jerry-rig the right end spot, and the trickle-down effect was enormous.

And so while McKay and Mora sought in the offseason to rectify the run-game woes -- adding safeties Chris Crocker and Lawyer Milloy should dramatically upgrade a position from which Atlanta didn't get even routine plays a year ago and the return to health of middle linebacker Ed Hartwell should help -- they also focused on acquiring a big-time right end. And there wasn't anyone on the market more big-time than Abraham, a multiple Pro Bowl performer whose relationship with the Jets had grown fractious.

"People just drove the ball on us last year," said McKay, who orchestrated the creative three-way deal that cost the Falcons their first-round pick in this year's draft, but brought Abraham in return. "We just couldn't knock offenses off the field on third down. We were scrambling at right end, playing a rookie tackle out there [Jonathan Babineaux] and it affected our pass rush. And so we started taking risks to try to get to the quarterback and I've been around long enough to know that's a bad recipe. You can't win when you're forced to gamble so many resources on getting to the quarterback. And so we said, 'What can we do to get back to being able to get a pass rush with just our front four?' And getting [Abraham] was the answer."

A six-year veteran, Abraham is a prototype upfield rusher. But his classic style represents just one element of what is a nice mix for the Falcons' front four. Kerney, although often overlooked outside of Atlanta, is one of the NFL's best left ends, a tenacious rusher with better quickness than he's credited as having. And Coleman, a superb one-gap player who just has an innate feel for slipping blocks and creating havoc with lightning-quick penetration, is the rare interior player who can compress the pocket from the inside.

"Even I don't know how I do it sometimes," allowed Coleman, who has led NFL interior linemen in sacks in three of the past four seasons. "I mean, sometimes it's spacing, the room you have to operate, being able to just beat the guard across from you. But I know this: Whatever it is, it got a little bit easier when they brought [Abraham] in here. Getting him, to go along with [Kerney], now that's exciting."

"These three guys -- whether it's Rod with the 'double-slap' move or Pat with the 'slap-rip-hump,' they've all got a maneuver that they've made their own. They're old-school. They all know how to get to the quarterback."
Former Falcons DE Chuck Smith

Sackers, of course, are excitable guys by nature. Like a thunderous dunk in basketball, the sack is an emotional Kodak moment that can result in an entire roll-full of pretty pictures. It gets the crowd into a game, helps get the defense off the field, and relegates an opponent's offense to at least temporary failure.

"Because of the momentum it creates, it's a game-changing play," Coleman said. "You get a sack and, while you're standing on your sideline being congratulated, you look across the field and the quarterback is arguing with his offensive linemen, or the coach is screaming at the quarterback for not getting rid of the ball. It kind of uplifts one team and [deflates] another."

And as Abraham suggested, when referring to the potential intramural competition between the Falcons' pass rushers, guys who rush the quarterback feed off each other. One defender records a sack and everyone wants in on the act. It's like tossing chum in the water near a swarm of hungry sharks.

What the Atlanta triad pass rushers must divine now, through camp and the preseason, is how to approach their prey. A pass rush is a more synergistic thing than most people realize, and a lot of elements come into play. The spring mini-camps, without pads, might allow players to hone their pass-rush moves, but they don't allow for the kind of melding process necessary to get everyone in synch. Abraham doesn't know yet, for instance, how Coleman will move, or set up a move, on a "T-E" call. Coleman doesn't have a feel for how Abraham will react if the guard slides out to double-team him.

But all of that, they acknowledged, will come. And so will the sacks.

"Nothing against the guys with whom I played in New York," Abraham said, "but I never really had a pass rusher inside of me like Rod. And I'm sure he's never had two ends like me and Kerney on either side of him. It's going to be fun, believe me, a lot of fun. We're going to create a lot of [disruption]."

And, probably, a lot more memories, too.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.