DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LE Patrick Kerney, DT Rod Coleman, NT Chad Lavalais, RE Brady Smith. Backups -- DT Jonathan Babineaux, DE Chauncey Davis, DL Brandon Mitchell, DT Antwan Lake, DT Darrell Shropshire.
When the Bucs signed Simeon Rice and paired him with star DT Warren Sapp, McKay, the former Tampa Bay GM, knew that few opponents could hold off the right side of the D-line. McKay would like for the Kerney-Coleman tandem to cause equally imposing matchup problems, but that's impossible if Coleman continues to undermine his career by mixing alcohol with late-night rides in his SUV. From a football standpoint, Kerney earned his first Pro Bowl bid as he compiled 13 sacks in 13 games with Coleman in the lineup. Kerney had zero, however, in the three games Coleman missed. Babineaux might emerge as a star, but that's an unlikely occurrence this year. Coleman must put this latest incident, a July 15 arrest in DeKalb County, behind him and take out his frustration on opponents. He's an elite pass rusher at the position, but his skills against the run still need honing. Perhaps Lavalais, who worked as a prison guard before matriculating to LSU, can help. Lavalais is stout against the run, but inconsistent against the pass. Mitchell is versatile enough to play inside and outside. Smith never garners much attention, even in Atlanta, but he uses precise technique to beat left tackles, and his run skills are underrated.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB Keith Brooking, MLB Ed Hartwell, SLB Demorrio Williams. Backups -- Ike Reese, Jordan Beck, Michael Boley.
Brooking, a four-time Pro Bowl selection, finally was unleashed against the pass when coordinator Ed Donatell moved him from the middle to the weak side 16 months ago. Now that Hartwell commands the middle of the field, Brooking has more freedom to use his speed to disrupt routes, pound the quarterback and pursue the ball. With Chris Draft at his side last year, Brooking often had to stay closer in more of a zone setup to prevent opponents from exploiting midfield with cutback runs and crossing routes. Hartwell is like having a big tree trunk, though one with speed, to plug gaps. He's also faster than Draft, which should improve coverage on first- and second-down passing attempts, but the addition of Hartwell also allows Williams to drop occasionally into coverage if Donatell blitzes a safety or cornerback. Williams' speed in pursuit is considerable, and Reese brings versatility as he can play all three positions. Beck and Boley, respectively, are third- and fifth-round picks who are expected to play special teams and learn starters' responsibilities.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB DeAngelo Hall, RCB Jason Webster, FS Bryan Scott, SS Keion Carpenter. Backups -- CB Kevin Mathis, CB Allen Rossum, SS Ronnie Heard, FS Etric Pruitt, SS Kevin McCadam, FS Rich Coady.
Hall has a chance to become one of the league's stars, though zone calls might limit his number of chances at interceptions. The second-year corner has game-changing speed, and Williams' ability to drop back and help defend the pass as effectively as a safety might free Donatell to deploy Hall more occasionally in man-to-man coverage. Hall isn't just fast. He also has considerable jumping skills to defend receivers with a seven- or eight-inch height advantage.
Webster's problem lies not with his heart but with his body. The guy just can't stay healthy. If he could, the Falcons would have no concerns with defending the right sideline. Mathis had claimed the right-side job by the end of the season, but an ankle injury caused him to miss the NFC title loss at Philadelphia. Even without Terrell Owens, the Eagles still did what they wanted to the right side of the Atlanta secondary because Webster hurt too much to move efficiently.
Coach Jim Mora and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell intend to use Scott's smarts and ball-hawking savvy to their advantage as he moves to free safety. Unfortunately, a shoulder injury likely will keep Scott sidelined until the season opener. Pruitt has upside because he's fast, but the second-year veteran lacks experience. Keion Carpenter, Ronnie Heard and Rich Coady have each taken thousands of snaps, but each veteran is slow and brittle. Rossum plugs an occasional gap in Donatell's zones, but he owes his roster spot to special teams.
SPECIAL TEAMS: PR Allen Rossum, KR DeAndra Cobb, PK Todd Peterson, P Toby Gowin, LS Derek Rackley. Backups -- PR DeAngelo Hall, KR Rossum.
Coordinator Joe DeCamillis covets nothing more than leading the league in average field position to start a set of downs. Might not sound too thrilling to the casual fan of Vick or Brooking, but DeCamillis spends countless hours poring over tape to find the right matchup for his units. The preparation shows, though adding a demon like Reese could make the Falcons' coverage even better than last season, when they led the NFL in defending punts and finished sixth against kickoffs. Reese is now the undisputed leader of special teams following seven standout years with Philadelphia, the last as a Pro Bowl selection. Rossum enters his fourth season in Atlanta as the all-time franchise leader in punt returns. He has finished second in the NFL the last two years because he surprises opponents with his burst through seams and his ability to change direction quickly. DeCamillis likely will use Hall occasionally to spell Rossum or as a two-headed tandem on the same play. A three-man kickoff returning formation of Rossum, Hall and Michael Jenkins helped the Falcons beat St. Louis by 30 points in the second round of the playoffs. Peterson should give Atlanta a boost in accuracy, at least indoors, and inspire more confidence than predecessor Jay Feely. DeCamillis wants Gowin to become a directional punter, and the newcomer also will handle kickoffs.