Atlanta's defense preserves 21-19 win over *****

By MATT WINKELJOHN
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 09/12/04


SAN FRANCISCO There's a long way to go, but the Falcons may not experience more fun this season than on the NFL's first Sunday.

If your definition of fun is nearly losing, that is.

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You might think there's nothing traipsing into your house of horrors, and converting it into a fun house, and for the senior Falcon, reserve defensive lineman Travis Hall, maybe you'd be right.

He's been around since 1994, or three years after the Falcons last won here before beating the ***** 21-19.

But to end a 10-game losing streak in 3Com Park, the Falcons had to endure a few goblins popping out of closets in a terrifying fourth quarter that saw the game come down to one play. Good thing defensive tackle Rod Coleman swatted down the *****' two-point attempt with 40 seconds left.

No wonder Hall was still spooked. Some habits die real hard.

"This is huge," he said. "I've been here 10 years, and I haven't seen a victory here until today. It was weird because, I don't know what to say. We've gone through so many blowouts. I, I, I, I really don't know what to say. I'm just stumped with what to say."

Leave that to Jim Mora. He sure enjoyed his first game as a head coach, returning to steal from his former employers, who outgained his team 359 yards to 227, and converted five of their final six third-down tries as Atlanta was good on just one of 11.

"When we recovered the onsides kick [after the 'Niners pulled to within two], and I knew that we could clock it [run out the clock], I went over to [offensive coordinator Greg] Knapp," Mora said.

"And he said, 'You get away from me. It's not over yet.' But I knew it was over, and it felt good. You try to keep your wits about you. We're supposed to win."

Uh, yeah.

But after controlling the game for three quarters with defense, the sun-burned Falcons had to sweat in a cool, stiff wind.

They led 14-6 going to the final period, thanks to quarterback Michael Vick (13 of 22, 163 yards) connecting on his first five passes, including a 16-yard touchdown pass to tight end Alge Crumpler in the first quarter.

Crumpler caught a quick, "smoke," pass at the right sideline, and followed the advice of a friend while making mincemeant of Pro Bowl safety Tony Parrish.

"My college roommate, Marcus Cormier [who went by the last name of Jones at the University of North Carolina], got on my [butt] about my stiff-arm," Crumpler said. "Actually, he text-messaged me before [a preseason] game, and said to work on my stiff-arm because it would get me three more yards per catch."

Try 14 more yards.

The ground game pitched in early, too, as Warrick Dunn (18 carries, 63 yards, two touchdowns) paced a rushing attack that accrued 55 of its 95 yards in the first period.

Shortly after Dunn's 2-yard scoring run with 6:17 left in the second quarter gave Atlanta a 14-0 lead, the offense left early for the return trip to Atlanta.

The third quarter was bumbling and boring, but it set up serious drama, as San Francisco quarterback Tim Rattay came off the bench and went Play Station.

He was out most of the second and third quarters after a blow to the head, and with a wrenched throwing shoulder. But he returned to complete 13 of 22 passes for 131 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter alone.

Rattay's one big mistake in the quarter was quite costly.

His only third-down failure in the period came when he threw on third-and-goal from the 3-yard line to the end zone.

Running back Kevan Barlow was open in the deep right corner, but Rattay aimed for wide receiver Curtis Conway in the front corner.

Barlow was open, though, because reserve cornerback Aaron Beasley came off him. Then, he stepped in front of the throw, and weaved his way to an 85-yard return, putting the ball at the San Francisco 14.

"I knew they weren't going to throw a fade to the running back," said Beasley, a nine-year veteran signed in April to a one-year, minimum-value contract. "I saw the end zone. My mind could see it, but my legs wouldn't carry me."

Fortunately, Dunn scored two plays later on a 9-yard run, busting a tackle for a 21-6 lead with 8:57 left.

Atlanta would need those points.

San Francisco's next two drives went for 74 and 62 yards, ending in touchdowns.

"They spread us out, and hit some good plays," said defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, whose blitzes suddenly stopped working.

The second score, a 16-yarder to leaping tight end Eric Johnson, left some folks jittery, and it should've. On the two-point try attempt, wide receiver Brandon Lloyd appeared to be open.

But Coleman, whose sack earlier knocked out Rattay, wiggled his right hand loose while engaged with a blocker, and reached back. Plunk!

"We saw Rattay got them down the field with quick stuff, over the middle," Coleman said. "So I figured they would try that again. I was able to get into the passing lane, and knock it down. It was huge. Huge, man. That's the first time the Falcons have done that in years."

See, even a player who's brand new to the team knows what Sunday meant.

Hall knows what it meant for Mora, too. He could tell before the game, when the head coach approached every player during warmups, and either slapped him on the helmet, the back, the butt, or shook his hand.

"He was excited, but I don't know if he was fired up more before or after," Hall said. "It will get this team off to the right start. When you get the first win in this league, it makes such a big difference. Now, we just got to start piling wins on."