Falcons' run defense faces stiff challenge

Falcons' run defense faces stiff challenge

FLOWERY BRANCH - Demorrio Williams and Michael Boley are eager to prove their legitimacy against one of the NFL's all-time great running backs.

The question is simple: If you can't stop Aaron Stecker, how do you hope to contain Curtis Martin?

An answer would come quickly in a fantasy draft. Martin leads all active players with 13,799 rushing yards. He and Barry Sanders, inductee of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004, are the only players in NFL history to 1,000 yards in each of their first 10 seasons.

Martin usually needs about half a season to produce what Stecker, a backup for all but five of 76 games, has in his career.

"It seems like every week you come across another great running back," Boley said. "If you look at what we've faced so far, (Philadelphia's Bryan) Westbrook, (Seattle's) Shaun Alexander, (Buffalo's Willis) McGahee, that's pretty good competition. We just have to stay in our gaps and not try to do too much."

Achieving that goal looked impossible last week in San Antonio. In fact, watching Stecker and Antowain Smith pounded out 174 yards and two touchdowns together on 18 carries was simply alarming. Those are kinds of numbers fans might expect from New Orleans' No. 1 running back, Deuce McAllister, but his season ended with a torn knee ligament.

Williams, a second-year linebacker with the Atlanta Falcons, and Boley, a rookie making his first career start, occasionally joined four-time Pro Bowl selection Keith Brooking in missing assignments or allowing the Saints to lure them into thinking they would pass instead of run.

"Teams are good at disguising looks in this league," Williams said. "I know I can do a better job of recognizing tendencies, but the same pretty much goes for our whole defense. We have to do a better job playing together as a unit for everything to work."

Ultimately, the Falcons (4-2) won for the third time in four games as Brooking, Williams and Boley each started at a new position. Williams held the strongside job _ lining up opposite the tight end _ for the first five games, but he moved to weakside to accommodate Boley.

Brooking has held the weakside spot since head coach Jim Mora, coordinator Ed Donatell and position coach Chris Beake arrived last year, but the season-ending injury two weeks ago to middle linebacker Ed Hartwell, Atlanta's marquee free-agent acquisition in March, necessitated changes in the lineup.

The Falcons had worked Boley behind Brooking in preseason, during which time they had Hartwell and rookie Jordan Beck, a third-round draft choice, healthy. Beck underwent season-ending foot surgery in August.

As reporters asked coaches and players this week to pinpoint the source of Atlanta's falling 11 spots to 28th in run defense. Mora was quick to respond that everyone _ not just one segment of the defense _ was responsible for the ease with the Saints gained 456 total yards, 211 of them on the ground.

The defensive line and safeties Bryan Scott and Keion Carpenter, in particular, must improve their pre-snap communication. Alignment, technique, gap control, and swarming together on tackles all need improvement, but Mora knows the significant difference between understanding what's happening on film and responding to it effectively on the field.

"We've had too many plays where one guy out of those 11 is off just a little bit, and it looks ugly," Mora said. "We understand how to get them fixed. That's one thing. Getting them fixed is another. We're working towards it. With the coaching staff we have and the players we have, we're going to get it fixed. That doesn't mean every run is going to be for no gain. They might pop one out of there once in a while, but consistently we've got to be able to stop the run better."

Martin, who helped New York earn a wildcard berth last season, is coming off his first 100-yard performance of the 2005, but the Jets (2-4) proved in last week's 27-17 loss at Buffalo that they have several unsolved issues on offense.

Vinny Testaverde, at 41, was retired when New York head coach Herman Edwards called after his top two quarterbacks, Chad Pennington and Jay Fiedler, were injured. Testaverde's lack of mobility is a concern, but his career-long difficulty with reading defenses and mixed coverages was a problem last week.

The burden on Martin, therefore, could be strong against the Falcons and potentially troublesome now that starting center Kevin Mawae, a six-time Pro Bowl player, was lost for the season last week with a torn triceps. Left guard Pete Kendall moved in as his replacement, but Jonathan Goodwin, who takes Kendall's former job, has traditionally underperformed and failed to meet expectations.

Right guard Brandon Moore is the only starter on the line who holds the same job from a year ago. The coaching staff had New York's tackles change positions before the season started as Jason Fabini went to the right and first-year starter Adrian Jones went to the left.

Mora, however, knows Martin is good enough to accommodate whatever changes he has in front of him.

"He is a great player," Mora said. "He has been durable, and he hasn't missed a lot of games. He has excellent vision. He can run it up inside and break it to the outside. He has the speed to go the distance. He has hands. He has always had a good offensive line in front of him, and a good fullback. I think that he would tell you that too. He has quietly become one of the best in the league statistically. He is a heck of a threat for us."

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