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Not playing nice

More Falcons: Observations from Flowery Branch, Ga.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – On this Tuesday afternoon, Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Rod Coleman takes roll call.

Coleman points in one direction.

"Man, we've got (Edgerton) Hartwell back," he says.

Hartwell walks by, snickering.

"We've got those two defensive ends," says Coleman, nodding in the direction of Patrick Kerney and John Abraham.

"Some of the younger guys have a year under their belts, and you can't forget the two safeties. Woooo!"

Woooo?

A howl of satisfaction from someone who watched the much-celebrated Falcons' defense get turned inside-out with injuries and youthful mistakes in 2005?

We thought we saw a metaphor in last year's season opener when cornerback Kevin Mathis mixed it up with Eagles linebacker Jeremiah Trotter and Atlanta put the clamps on Philadelphia's trio of Donovan McNabb, Terrell Owens and Brian Westbrook. Maybe it was swagger. Or nastiness. Whatever it was, it proved as fragile as the defense's depth chart.

"There was something – it was there before the injuries," Hartwell said. "All of that changed when guys started going down and I popped my Achilles. All of a sudden, the linebackers are all playing out of position, and we're asking young guys to come in and play perfect.

"Guys had a couple of days to learn a new position and then they had to go out and perform. It wasn't [realistic]. We couldn't be that [nasty] type of team and keep that attitude when half the players are learning on the job."

With Hartwell's return and the additions of Abraham at defensive end and Lawyer Milloy and Chris Crocker at the safety spots, the Falcons have hit the reset button on last year's high expectations. And while it's too early to anoint this Atlanta defense as anything more than intriguing, the unit has a combination it didn't have last year – talent and depth.

With the signing of three-time Pro Bowler Abraham from the Jets, the two rookie starters who split time at defensive end – tackle Jonathan Babineaux, who started six games out of position, and end Chauncey Davis, who made five starts – have been moved back to supporting roles. And in the corps of linebackers, Hartwell allows the unit to realign, sliding Keith Brooking back into his natural weakside spot (rather than filling in for Hartwell in the middle) and moving Demorrio Williams into a backup role.

"It changes everything," Hartwell said. "Now we've got guys that have that experience, and we've put veterans back in front of them, plus the whole safety [spot] has been upgraded. We went and got guys that match my style of play. Milloy, Abraham – we've got guys who will smack you. A defense can't be nice, and we're not going to be nice. That's the great thing about our additions – not only can they play [but] they [also] can come down and get nasty with it."

The defensive talent extends beyond the veterans, too. Williams, who finished last season with 128 tackles, should continue to be an impact player on special teams. And starting strong side linebacker Michael Boley should make big strides after establishing himself as one of the league's best rookie linebackers in 2005.

Even this year's second-round pick – cornerback Jimmy Williams – has the talent to make an impact in the nickel package. As it stands, Williams will take over the spot opposite DeAngelo Hall in the nickel and allow Jason Webster to move inside. Eventually, Williams should push Webster for the starting spot.

"Best defense I've played on, and I don't say that just because I'm here now," Abraham said. "Look at it top to bottom. You've got three guys who can be Pro Bowlers on the line, Hartwell and Brooking, and then Milloy and DeAngelo Hall. And the chemistry is great. Sometimes you get the talent but not the chemistry, but we are already feeling it. And it's only been a few days."

Along with Hartwell, Milloy should help firm up Atlanta's defensive spine, which withered last season with Brooking playing out of position. The result was a run defense ranked 26th and a unit that couldn't force teams off the field on third down.

"That was frustrating. The injuries put a lot of guys in tough spots," Coleman said. "We were throwing inexperienced guys out there – on both sides of the ball – and just saying, 'Get it done.' You can't do that and win games. But now, with [Abraham] and Hartwell on the field, everything changes."

Particularly in third-down situations, which caused head coach Jim Mora to pull his hair out last season. Now he looks at a defense that could be one of the NFL's best, particularly in passing situations. No team in the league sports a better trio of pass rushers in the front four.

But that trio doesn't alter the same question that has been dogging the Falcons the last several years – whether there is enough girth at the front of the line to make an impact on the running game. Abraham was serviceable but not great against the run with the Jets, and it remains to be seen how he'll operate next to a pair of sub-300-pound defensive tackles.

"I don't know about first and second down," Mora said. "[But] in terms of being able to pressure the quarterback from three different positions with Patrick and John and Rod Coleman – those guys are all double-digit sack guys in their career and potentially this year – it gives you guys [rushing] from up the middle, right and left.

"I'm not saying we're going to be the Baltimore Ravens from a few years ago, or the Chicago Bears or the Saints from 1992 when we gave up 200 points or something. But we're going to be better."