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Game Preview: Falcons defense tougher than rankings indicate

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The Patriots hit the road for the third consecutive week to go to another place where they have historically had trouble. This trip to Atlanta comes on the heels of the team's first road win of the year two weeks ago in Indianapolis and immediately after a disappointing loss in Denver when the team twice held 10-point leads only to see them dissipate. 

It won't get much easier against the Falcons at the Georgia Dome where New England is   0-2 lifetime. For the second straight trip to Atlanta, the Patriots are without quarterback Drew Bledsoe and will continue to rely on backup Tom Brady. The last time the Patriots visited Atlanta, Scott Zolak subbed for the injured Bledsoe.

If the Patriots are going to have success against the Falcons, they will have to do it through the air against one of the league's worst pass defenses. Heading into their bye week last week, the Falcons ranked 31st in the league against the pass, allowing 267.2 passing yards per game.

That is surprising considering that cornerbacks Ashley Ambrose and Ray Buchanan are both of Pro Bowl quality. Buchanan leads Atlanta with two interceptions among the team's seven total. Buchanan also lobbied for the team to sign Ambrose in the offseason as the two are best friends, but the combination hasn't worked out that well. 

In fact, the defensive backs felt they were playing too passively in the zone coverages that Head Coach Dan Reeves asked them to play and in the last game — a 20-13 win at New Orleans against the Saints — they played more man-to-man coverage and had better success in a fine defensive effort against one of their division s top teams. In fact, the team's season-high five sacks in New Orleans was mostly due to stellar coverage. The secondary features an inexperienced starter in strong safety Gerald McBurrows, who the team felt enough confidence in to release veteran Marty Carter a couple of weeks back.

Heading into the season, the secondary was supposed to be the strength of the defense, but through most of six games, that wasn't the case. 

The best player on the defense is middle linebacker Keith Brooking, the team's former first-round pick. The club felt so strongly about Brooking this year that it basically forced veteran linebacker Jessie Tuggle into retirement to make room for Brooking in the middle of the defense. He has not disappointed. He is fast, hits hard and has tremendous instincts and may be cut from the same cloth as Bears standout linebacker Brian Urlacher. Brooking was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week after his standout Week Six performance in his team's upset win over the Saints. In that game, he had 12 tackles, two passes defensed and a sack while helping to keep Ricky Williams in check. He has had tackle totals of 15, 14, 11, 12 and 12 in five of six games, proving that he is all over the field.

The Falcons unheralded defensive line is helping Brooking go sideline to sideline in the same manner Zach Thomas does so in Miami. New defensive line coach Bill Johnson is teaching a gap control system that lets the linebackers make the plays if the linemen can keep them clean. So far, they have done a respectable job against the run, allowing 102 yards per game, which ranks 14th in the league for a defense that ranks 27th overall.

There aren't many pass rushers in this group as Patrick Kerney leads the team with 4.5 sacks, but with Patriots left tackle Matt Light possibly out with an injury and Grant Williams filling in, look for the Falcons to bring some extra heat to Brady's blind side. Right defensive end Brady Smith is second on the team with 3 sacks. 

Overall, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady should have time to throw in this game, but that won't matter if the Falcons do a solid job in coverage, as the Broncos did last week against the Patriots when they intercepted Brady four times in the second half. Brady didn't have a ton of pressure on any of the four turnovers, but the Broncos had the Patriots receivers covered on the plays and also did an excellent job taking away the big play. 

If Terry Glenn returns to the lineup, the Patriots instantly become tougher to stop through the air and could take advantage of nickel back Conrad Hamilton, who will have a tough time handling Troy Brown in the slot.

Players To Watch

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Chandler not ready to step aside 

In his sixth stop in the NFL, Chris Chandler finally found a home. Three of his former teams have changed locations, but he has planted roots in Atlanta.

In his second season with the Falcons, Chandler and Head Coach Dan Reeves made professional football important in Georgia. With an improbable run to the Super Bowl, the Falcons, led by this journeyman quarterback who somehow elevated his game to Pro Bowl caliber, were the fastest rising team in football.

Now three seasons removed from the title game loss, Chandler is a 14-year veteran holding the fort until the future of the franchise, No. 1 draft pick Michael Vick, is ready to take the reins. Of course, Chandler isn't quite ready to give up the job just yet.

Atlanta lost running back Jamal Anderson for the second time in three years. The team's top three wide receivers, Tony Martin, Terance Mathis and former Patriot Shawn Jefferson, were all banged up heading into Week Seven. Despite the rash of injuries to the skill positions, a common problem for the Falcons since the Super Bowl season, Chandler has put together a solid season.  

In six starts, he completed 82-of-128 attempts (64.1 percent) for 1,181 yards and nine touchdowns. He also had six interceptions, but three of those came in his only bad showing of the season, a 31-3 loss to the upstart Chicago Bears.

Chandler's solid play is a major reason the Falcons have exceeded the preseason expectations of most prognosticators. With a 3-3 record that included two tight losses to San Francisco (both in overtime) the Falcons are not an opponent that can be taken lightly.

While not posing the obvious threat of some bigger name quarterbacks around the league, Chandler has proven himself a winner. He's not prone to mental breakdowns or careless mistakes. New England's defense needs to be on its game, or Chandler's experience could do them in.

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Eye on the Game: Leonard Meyers

Getting an early jump on his NFL game days should come as no surprise for rookie cornerback Leonard Myers. Each Sunday, many hours before kickoff, he is up and moving to get himself prepped for the game.

"The day of a game, I'll get up at 6 or 7 o'clock in the morning, go down to the weight room and hop on a stationary bike," Myers said. "I try to get myself a light workout in to get the blood flowing. Then I come back upstairs and relax and clear my head."

After finishing his mental preparation, Myers makes sure he keeps himself loose. He has made himself a big contributor on special teams and in the sub packages on defense. To maintain his productivity, he has to keep his body from tightening up.

"Just before the team is set to go out for the pregame drills I will go back down and get in another quick workout," Myers said. "I'll work my abs, do some push-ups and do some stretching out on my own before going to the field. It's important to make sure my body feels like it is loose and ready to go."

His progress has come along smoothly enough for Head Coach Bill Belichick to say recently that Myers was the best rookie defensive back the coach has had since Antonio Langham joined Cleveland in 1994. Myers tried to model himself after the many veterans that join him in the Patriots secondary, saying he sees himself as a sponge trying to soak up any information possible.

Myers' goal is to bring an old-school mentality to his game. He treats the job seriously, but has fun playing the game. He draws his attitude in part from the music that gets him going on Sundays.

"During the day I will also listen to some old school, classic music like the Isley Brothers," Myers said. "That kind of music gets me ready to go out there and have some fun. Their music gets me going."

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