Defense looks to get faster

It's no stretch to say the Falcons met their No. 1 offseason goal of becoming faster on defense. Free-agent acquisitions like Edgerton Hartwell and Ike Reese were essential. Both linebackers, along with strong-side starter Demorrio Williams, helped Atlanta turn a weak position into a strong suit.

Keith Brooking, the weak-side starter, is an elite player. You don't earn four straight invitations to the Pro Bowl without an impressive set of skills.

Adding Hartwell at middle linebacker was critical because coordinator Ed Donatell can unleash Brooking more often to blitz or drop into coverage. He's one of the league's fastest linebackers. Hartwell is the dominant run stuffer the Falcons have lacked since 1998, Jessie Tuggle's last great season.

Rookie linebackers Jordan Beck, a third-round draft pick, and Michael Boley, a fifth-rounder, are projected to play exclusively on special teams.

The line is younger and faster than last year's version. Ed Jasper, a great locker room presence, had little left to offer on the field. Releasing him was the right move. That decision made Chad Lavalais a starter, and it contributed to Rich McKay's choice of Jonathan Babineaux in the second round.

McKay, Atlanta's president and general manager, envisions Babineaux as the backup to Lavalais and "under" tackle Rod Coleman. A pass-rushing demon, Coleman reported regularly to the team's offseason conditioning program. He feels slighted by last season's Pro Bowl omission and wants to hold critics accountable.

To say Chauncey Davis can effectively replace Travis Hall, an Atlanta fixture from 1995-2004, is no reach, though the Falcons lose some versatility. Hall could play tackle and end. The team projects Davis as the backup to left end Patrick Kerney, whose work last year alongside Coleman was impressive.

McKay respects Brady Smith's pain threshold at right end. Coach Jim Mora gives veterans like Smith proper time to recover during the week by holding them out of practice. Such moves allow old players more time to heal. If Brandon Mitchell makes the team, the former Seahawk gives the Falcons an inside-outside replacement for Hall.

Other than left cornerback DeAngelo Hall, Atlanta lacks playmakers in the secondary. Hall could become the Falcons' answer to Champ Bailey, who can shut down his side of the field against many of Denver's opponents. Only Donatell's abundant zone coverage schemes will keep Hall from racking up high interception totals, but the coordinator does have the luxury of dropping Williams or Brooking into coverage to cut off crossing routes off or shut down screens. Doing so could free Hall to play more man-to-man.

Right cornerback Jason Webster and swingman Kevin Mathis have 15 combined years of experience. Both tackle well and work effectively in zones, but health is always a concern, particularly with Webster.

Aging safeties Keion Carpenter, Ronnie Heard and Rich Coady likely will battle for one roster spot and possibly a starting job. Free safety Bryan Scott is a lock to make the team even though he's not scheduled to return from offseason shoulder surgery until the season opener. Kevin McCadam, a liability in coverage, is so effective on special teams that the Falcons would keep him over Coady or possibly Heard.

As is the case with any punter under special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis, Toby Gowin will have a lot of directional attempts, so expect his gross average to take a hit. He's an upgrade over predecessor Chris Mohr, who lost his job with an excruciating performance in the NFC title game.

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