|Tuesday, December 3
Updated: December 6, 9:20 AM ET
Under Phillips, Falcons defense is for real
By Greg Garber
The helmet-to-helmet storyline of Sunday's Atlanta-Tampa Bay tilt is the Falcons' irresistible Michael Vick versus the Buccaneers' immovable defense. Vick ran for more yards last week (173) than any quarterback since the merger and Tampa Bay has the NFL's top-ranked defense in terms of points and yards.
One subject that has flown well below the radar of hyperbole this week is the 8-3-1 Falcons' surprisingly effective defense. And that is just fine with the architect of that distinguished but utterly anonymous group.
Earlier this week, when a certain sports Web site was leading with a story about Vick -- Mr. Excitement, the headline read -- Wade Phillips called from his office in Flowery Branch, Ga. Exciting? That's not Phillips' style. Still, he was in a good mood after the Falcons beat the Minnesota Vikings in overtime, 30-24. Atlanta won when the quarterback broke off a ridiculous 46-yard run. Even a few days later, the highlight never gets old; like the Vikings, the nation's football fans have been blinded by Michael Dwayne Vick.
"You can be blinded very quickly -- especially if you look too long," Phillips said.
Isn't it frustrating to be constantly buried in his wake, especially when the defense is playing so well?
"Oh, no," Phillips said in his soft Texas accent. "That's good, that's good."
And while Vick has been spectacular, the defense has been just that -- good. With four games left in the regular season, it is possible that the play of the defense will be more instrumental than even Vick in the Falcons' increasingly realistic playoff hopes. Disregard the official statistics that place Atlanta No. 15 among the league's 32 teams on defense, a figure based on the Falcons' 326.8 yards allowed per game. Consider, instead, the bottom-line number of points allowed: 211.
After Tampa Bay (12.4 points per game), Philadelphia (15.6) and Indianapolis (17.2) comes Atlanta, with a tidy 17.6-point average. This, despite a schedule that has already featured the incendiary New Orleans Saints (twice) and the Green Bay Favres.
"We've got a pretty good group," Phillips said. "We get turnovers, we get sacks and pressure the passer. We don't give up many points. We play pretty well together and right now we're playing with so much confidence."
Turnovers? Only Green Bay (38) and Tampa Bay (31) have more takeaways than the Falcons (29). Sacks? Atlanta already has 39, or two more than all of last season. The Falcons' defense has been on the field an average of only 27 minutes and 51 seconds, second in the league.
If you follow the NFL, you know this is not exactly a fluke. This is Phillips' fifth defense in 25 years of coaching in the league: New Orleans (1981-85), Philadelphia (1986-88), Denver (1989-92) and Buffalo (1995-97). All of those defenses enjoyed success.
Phillips, the son of colorful Houston Oilers head coach Bum Phillips, was a head coach twice -- in Denver from 1993-94, where he was 16-17, and in Buffalo, from 1998-2000. His record there was 29-19, but he was inexplicably fired by owner Ralph Wilson and sat out the 2001 season.
Apparently, the Falcons' defense followed his example. Under defensive coordinator Don Blackmon, the Falcons were ranked No. 30 in defense and allowed 23.6 points per game. Despite an aggressive recruitment by the New York Giants, Reeves and the Falcons were able to sign Phillips in February. His three-year, $2 million deal makes him the second-highest paid assistant in the league.
Phillips' first move was predictable. He scrapped the Falcons' lumbering 4-3 in favor of the 3-4 that has been the signature of his career. Not only did it take advantage of the Falcons' speed at linebacker, but it was a move, Phillips insisted, dictated by numbers.
"We don't have many defensive linemen in the first place," he said. "We've got five guys right now and you need more like seven to make the 4-3 work. Plus, I've had some success in the 3-4. We can make the adjustments to fit the players.
"We've got some guys nobody knows that are making a lot of plays."
Brooking won the NFC's defensive player of the week award after the Nov. 17 game with the Saints. Defensive end Patrick Kerney had won the award two weeks earlier with a similarly muscular performance against the Ravens. On Nov. 24, defensive end Brady Smith became the third Falcons player to win the prize in a span of four weeks. Smith had a career-high 12 tackles and three sacks in a 41-0 victory over Carolina.
The only misstep in that streak came Nov. 10, when the Pittsburgh Steelers rolled up 645 yards of total offense -- the Falcons' worst effort in the franchise's 563 games. That Atlanta did not lose the game -- it was an overtime tie -- underscores the team's resilience.
Last week's winning effort at Minnesota is evidence that this young team continues to grow. While Vick got most of the credit, don't forget that the Vikings actually got the ball first in overtime.
During the kickoff, outside linebacker Sam Rogers told Brooking, "I'm about to abuse the guy who's trying to block me."
On second down, Rogers ripped through the line and sacked Daunte Culpepper. On third down, he slammed running back Moe Williams into Culpepper and then grabbed the 250-pound quarterback's collar with one hand and brought him down for another sack. The Vikings punted from their own 11-yard-line and two plays later Vick took it to the house.
The Falcons are unbeaten in their last eight games and haven't lost since Oct. 6, when the Bucs beat them at home, 20-6. Phillips, perhaps as much as Vick, could be the leading reason. And to think he spent last year at home in Texas watching his son Wesley, a senior, play quarterback for Texas-El Paso.
"We went to every game, home and away," Phillips said. "I got to see him some in high school (in Williamsville, N.Y., a suburb of Buffalo), but this was really neat. It was something I'd never have gotten to do if I was working. After his season was over I started to get itchy. I started watching the pro games more on TV. I knew I'd have the opportunity to come back to the NFL.
"I'm happy with the way things turned out. This was the best situation for me, really."
Greg Garber is a senior writer at ESPN.com.