Falcons lay it on the line

Football: Atlanta's defensive line may be unheralded, but it figures to play a large role in determining the outcome of Super Bowl XXXIII.

January 28, 1999|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

MIAMI -- Here's a little trivia quiz to see if you're up to speed on Super Bowl XXXIII.

Do you know what role Smith, Hall, Dronett and Archambeau will play in the game?

Time's up.

No, they're not an NFL law firm suing unauthorized T-shirt makers.

They make up the Atlanta Falcons' defensive line that is likely to make or break the team's bid to upset the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl.

Ends Chuck Smith and Lester Archambeau and tackles Travis Hall and Shane Dronett are the four defensive starters who whipped the Minnesota Vikings' big offensive line in the NFC title game and now will take on the same task against Denver's small but quick offensive line.

But the four players have gotten little notice outside of Atlanta. None of them has been in a Pro Bowl. One was suspended two years ago for knocking his coach. Another has played for both teams in the game.

Nobody will confuse them with the Purple People Eaters, the Fearsome Foursome or the Steel Curtain.

They did give themselves a nickname -- the Bomb Squad -- but it didn't get much notice. They don't have T-shirts or anything like that to promote the nickname. In the program for the NFC title game, Hall's name was listed as Hill.

Even coach Dan Reeves routinely mispronounces Dronett's name in his Georgia drawl. Reeves calls him "Droe-nay" even though it's pronounced "Droe-net."

"When the head coach calls your name, you let him call you whatever you want," Archambeau said with a grin.

"Our defensive line has been in the same position our team has been all year," Hall said. "We've been fighting and scratching for a little bit of respect and recognition. Our opportunities are ahead of us. People will find out how good our defensive line is."

Defensive coordinator Rich Brooks has molded a unit that plays good gap-control defense and stays in their lanes to avoid giving up big plays.

Brooks said, "If you had taken a script into a producer in Hollywood and given them the scenario of the Atlanta Falcons, he'd laugh you out of the office. This is good TV stuff. And, boy, did we give them a game up in Minnesota -- the TV audience. What a game."

A year ago, Denver won the Super Bowl because its offensive line dominated the Green Bay defensive line. The Falcons figure that's not going to happen to them.

"The key to this game is the war in the trenches," Dronett said.

Dronett was first drafted by Reeves in Denver. After a 14-tackle season in 1995, the Broncos didn't re-sign him so the Falcons did. He asked the Falcons to cut him after an 0-5 start in 1996 because he felt he didn't fit in. The Lions picked him up and cut him in training camp last year. Reeves was in Atlanta by then and gave him a second chance and he has made the most of it.

He was forced into a starting role after Atlanta lost Dan Owens to the Lions and the Falcons failed to sign another big-name defensive lineman.

Dronett said, "I'm just lucky to finally get a chance to prove myself. If I wasn't going to be out there this year, I was pretty much going to be a backup forever. It took a lot of work. I had to adjust to a lot of things and focus on technique. Everything paid off in a big way."

They started giving clues last year that they were improving even though the Falcons started out 0-5.

They held both Terrell Davis and Barry Sanders under 100 yards rushing -- Sanders got 33 in the second game and Davis 79 in the fifth game -- and they insist they're going to stop Davis again.

"Our intention is to hold Terrell under 100, just like we did before," Smith said.

The secret of their success is simple hard work. Smith got suspended for a game by former coach June Jones by saying the team needed a defensive-minded coach. Smith was tired of practicing against the run-and-shoot offense all the time.

Now Smith plays the style he likes.

"When people talk about our front four, they say we're dirty. But the reason why is because if the ball is not on the ground, we're going to knock the heck out of somebody. If the running back is not down, we're going to hit him. If the ball is thrown downfield, we're going to run down there and try to hit somebody and make a play," Smith said.

He added, "People nowadays call hustling and working hard playing dirty because everybody now is used to big-time prima donnas in our game. A lot of big-time rushers -- I'm not saying any names -- when they rush, they don't run downfield to try to help."

They not only plan to stop Davis, they plan to get him to fumble.

"If you get hit hard enough and your equilibrium tells your arms to let the ball go, you'll let the ball go. You'll drop it. There's no superhuman person. There's no one invincible in this game," Smith said.

Pub Date: 1/28/99

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