Sunday, January 31, 1999

Falcons birds of prey

Atlanta has ingredients for Super upset

The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Complete coverage from Associated Press
        MIAMI — Welcome to the Baby Boomer's Bowl.

        Denver meets Atlanta today in a nostalgia-fest making Super Bowl XXXIII the envy of all those radio stations playing the hits of the '60s, '70s, and '80s.

        While Shannon Sharpe and Ray Buchanan talk enough pre-game trash to conjure up memories of Joe Willie Namath and Fred “The Hammer,” Williamson, it's fitting Cher, K.C. and The Sunshine Band and Kiss are performing before the game.

        In this game, Broncos quarterback John Elway and his coach, Mike Shanahan, reprise their feud with Falcons coach Dan Reeves. Reeves and Elway dominated the AFC of the late '80s with three titles in four years before bitterly parting ways in the Mile High City.

        And on the 30th anniversary of the Super Bowl's biggest upset in this town when Namath's New York Jets beat the Baltimore Colts, the Falcons are hatching one that would be fairly huge.

        One of the reasons the “Dirty Birds,” could make this game into a chicken fight is because of a matchup that harkens back to the NFL of

        about 20 years ago. The Broncos' light, athletic offensive line is going against a Falcons' front four that is more speed and hustle than beef and brawn. It's quickness vs. quickness rather than 300-pounders vs. 300-pounders like the monster mashes of the last decade.

        Falcons safety Eugene Robinson played for the Packers last season and watched Green Bay's brawlers get outquicked and outconditioned by Denver's offensive line in the Broncos' upset fueled by the running of Terrell Davis. Davis returns with even more confidence as the first 2,000-yard rusher in Super Bowl history.

        “What was happening was their offensive line was that good,” said Robinson of last year. “They did a tremendous job of neutralizing us and that was the difference in the game ... We had Terrell Davis on the ropes with the migraine headache ... but our defense didn't step up the challenge.”

        The Falcons may be able to step up because they have quickness. They also held Davis to under 100 yards last season.

        Stopping Davis is foremost in the Falcons pulling an old-fashioned upset. Other factors:

        • The Falcons led the NFL with a turnover ratio of plus-20 in which they had the uncanny ability of forcing 25 fumbles, the only team with more than 20. If they can force two or three today, that might be enough.

        “We talk about (causing fumbles) all the time,” Robinson said. “We emphasize it. if you talk about it, it seems to happen.”

        • The best way to stop Denver's early onslaught (they outscored foes 300-141 in the first half) is to keep them off the field. And Atlanta can do it. They led the NFL in time of possession behind running back Jamal Anderson's record 410 carries. More than anyone, Reeves knows what Elway can do when he has the ball.

        “I've got tremendous respect for him. I don't relish the fact he's going to be on the other sideline,” Reeves said. “I think the best defense we can have is to try to do the best job offensively and keep them off the field and that is the only time I've ever seen John struggle is when he has been off the field.”

        • Get the Broncos out of their terrifying balance of offensive plays (525 runs to 516 passes) by bringing a safety up to the line for an eight-man front that focuses on stopping Davis and challenging the 37-year-old Elway to see if he has one big passing game left.

        “We won't go eight men up there all the time, not with Elway,” said Falcons defensive coordinator Rich Brooks. “We'll mix it up between seven- and eight-man fronts. Elway is still dangerous. He can still run. He's got plenty left. We've got to mix it up.”

        The Falcons get a changeup from playing the Vikings two weeks ago in the NFC title game.

        “It's a lot quicker,” said Falcons defensive tackle Travis Hall, comparing the Broncos' line to Minnesota. “You have lighter guys with a lot more speed. They take off quick. You have to try and get down quick. They get guys running and moving.”

        Brooks is stressing to his linemen and linebackers not to get their hands hung up on blocks because they have to stay in their lanes to stop Davis' vicious cutbacks. The key stat for Brooks is that Denver allowed the most runs of more than 20 yards and Atlanta allowed the fewest in the NFL this season. He says they must hold the big gashes to six or seven yards.

        Atlanta's swarming, one-gap, fly-to-the-ball style is in direct contrast to the Jets' stay-at-home, two-gap scheme. Davis ripped the Jets for 167 yards in the AFC championship, and the Falcons' scheme would seem more vulnerable to Davis than New York's.

        “No, I don't think it hurts us on the cutbacks,” Brooks disagreed. “That's one of the things that our backside people do a good job of. If you look at (defensive end) Chuck Smith, he makes as many tackles coming from the backside as he does at the point of attack. (Linebacker) Cornelius Bennett's the same way. And again, if those guys are going to run fast, you better have a safety or a cornerback there if it's going to wind all the way back, that they're sitting there waiting for it.”

        Reeves is concerned his team has talked too much for an underdog and has needlesly stirred the defending world champions. But in the end, he's sounding like the guy who unsuccessfully led the underdog Broncos into Super Bowls against the Giants, Redskins and 49ers all those years ago.

        “You have got to have respect for them,” Reeves said. “But we don't fear the Denver Broncos.”


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