Falcons counting on Dunn deal for lift against Eagles

Run production critical to keep Philadelphia's tough defense guessing

Nfl Playoffs

January 11, 2003|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Atlanta Falcons running back Warrick Dunn knows there is more to the ill wind that whistles through Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium in January than a nasty northeaster.

He knows first-hand about the Eagles' nasty January defense, which gave him fits the previous two postseasons while a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Outscored, 52-12, in two playoff losses, Dunn gained just 30 yards on 19 carries combined for a 1.6 average rush.

He'll try again tonight, this time with the Falcons (10-6-1), in an NFC divisional playoff game against the top-seeded and well-rested Eagles (12-4). The success of Dunn and rookie T.J. Duckett will play a major role in determining which team advances to next week's NFC championship game.

"It's going to be a lot of pressure for us just to establish the line of scrimmage this game and just control the clock," Dunn said.

The Eagles rank in the NFL's top 10 in virtually all of the important defensive categories. They're fourth in total yards, ninth defending the run, seventh defending the pass and second in scoring defense.

They play an attack-style of defense under coordinator Jim Johnson, collecting 56 sacks and 38 takeaways. What the Falcons have to avoid is falling behind early and watching the Eagles turn loose their pass rush against second-year quarterback Michael Vick.

To keep the Eagles' defense off balance, the Falcons will need to run the ball efficiently.

"The biggest thing is to give Mike enough time to see [receivers] open, and we've got to be able to run the ball," said Falcons coach Dan Reeves. "You just can't be one-dimensional and throw the ball against them and get behind. That's not the kind of game we want."

Vick insists there is more to the Falcons' offense than his breath-taking ad-libs out of the pocket.

"The biggest responsibility is to go out and do my part on offense - be the field general, get the guys in the right positions and make the right decisions," Vick said. "I do take a lot of responsibility for what goes on, but everybody has to come and play. It is not a one-man show here."

The Eagles attempted to sign Dunn as a free agent last offseason, but he opted for Atlanta. Still, his style as a slashing runner has not fared well against the Eagles. At 5 feet 9 and 180 pounds, he is not big enough to move the pile. Nor has he been quick enough to get outside on the Eagles.

But Johnson has seen a difference in Dunn this season.

"When he was with Tampa, he was more of an outside runner," Johnson said. "All of a sudden, with this offense, he's broken some big plays inside."

For all the attention heaped on Vick and the Eagles' returning quarterback, Donovan McNabb, the running game figures to set up both offenses.

Dunn punched up 927 yards for the Falcons this year. Duckett, a powerful 254-pounder, added 507, and Vick contributed 777 on an assortment of scrambles and quarterback draws. The Falcons ranked fourth in rush offense as a result.

The Eagles have allowed 4.3 yards per rush, just 20th best in the league. Of the three running backs who gained at least 100 yards against Philadelphia this season, two were scatback-types - Indianapolis' James Mungro (114 rush yards) and the New York Giants' Tiki Barber (203).

If the running game is a vital part of tonight's playoff, the Eagles will be happy to have McNabb back from a broken ankle. Running back Duce Staley averaged a weak 2.6 yards per carry in his past three games. McNabb's presence changes the dynamics, assuming he has his mobility.

"I want him to execute the offense just like he's been doing over the years," Eagles coach Andy Reid said of McNabb. "And probably be a little more mobile than he was in the Arizona game [when he broke his right ankle] and just be Donovan. That's all I need."

It's clear the Eagles anticipate a lift from having their leader back in the lineup.

"It's like the Bulls after [Michael] Jordan retired and came back," said Eagles tight end Chad Lewis. "They won three more [titles]. Donovan is that special person, player, everything rolled into one. He brings the best out of all of us."

NFL playoffs

Today's games

Pittsburgh (11-5-1) at Tennessee (11-5), 4:30 p.m. TV: 13, 9. Line: Tenn. by 4.

Atlanta (10-6-1) at Philadelphia (12-4), 8 p.m. TV: 45, 5. Line: Phila. by 7 1/2 . Tomorrow's games

San Francisco (11-6) at Tampa Bay (12-4), 1 p.m. TV: 45, 5. Line: Tampa by 6.

N.Y. Jets (10-7) at Oakland (11-5), 4:30 p.m. TV: 13, 9. Line: Oak. by 5 1/2 .

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