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Atlanta on Fire
David Fleming
November 23, 1998
The Falcons are now much tougher birds, as the 49ers found out in losing a battle for the NFC West lead
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November 23, 1998

Atlanta On Fire

The Falcons are now much tougher birds, as the 49ers found out in losing a battle for the NFC West lead

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Chuck Smith realized what was wrong with the Atlanta Falcons way back in December 1996. After Atlanta had fallen to 3-12 with a 34-27 loss to the St. Louis Rams inside a half-empty Georgia Dome, Smith, a defensive end, went public with his observations—and his frustrations. First he threatened to quit the Falcons. Then he ripped coach June Jones, who was spending most of his time tinkering with Atlanta's run-and-shoot offense. "We've got to focus on defense," Smith said. "We need a head coach who is going to be a defensive man. Right now that's not the case. Until we play defense, we will always be losers."

Atlanta thanked Smith for his insight by suspending him for the last game of the season and fining him an undisclosed amount. Two years later someone should consider starting a fund-raising drive to help Smith recoup his lost money. On Sunday, playing in a Georgia Dome that was sold out for the first time in three years, the Falcons and their new and improved defense shut down the San Francisco 49ers 31-19 to seize sole possession of first place in the NFC West.

The win was the seventh consecutive at home for Atlanta. Now, with six games to play and only one team left on their schedule that has a winning record, the 8-2 Falcons are in position to win their first division tide since 1980. In their last 18 games they are 14-4, second only to the Denver Broncos during that span, thanks to a nasty defense that is bringing more attention to the city than Tom Wolfe is.

"For years here the defense was treated like a second-class citizen," says Smith, a 1992 second-round draft pick from Tennessee who has 19½ sacks in his last 26 games. "Coaches ignored us, practices had nothing to do with us, and during games the mentality was, Can you guys just hold the opposition long enough so our offense can rest? All I was trying to say about that kind of attitude was, F—- that, man."

The minute Smith got the news he had been suspended, he packed a bag and headed to the Philadelphia area. In addition to visiting with family and friends, Smith hung out with his buddy Scottie Pippen and some of the other Chicago Bulls, who were there to play the 76ers. "I just needed to hang with some winners for a change," says Smith. He also heard from several players around the league who sympathized with his situation. "Now people are looking back thinking, Damn, maybe Chuck Smith does know a little something about football," says Smith. "The truth is there are no secrets or gimmicks in this game. It's simple. You either whip people's asses or you don't."

For proof just ask the 49ers, who going into Sunday's game had won eight of their last nine meetings with the Falcons by an average of almost 25 points. If this game was a showdown for supremacy in the West, it was the Niners who flinched. They endured a pounding at the hands of a defense that made them look old and somewhat feeble. "Is this the end of an era?" said San Francisco quarterback Steve Young after the game. "We've been at this for 20 years, and you just decided this is the end of an era in the last 32 minutes? No way. I don't think you want to make too strong a statement."

The game tape will be a powerful enough statement. Young was sacked four times and bullied into two turnovers. He was knocked out of the game for two plays after releasing a pass in the third quarter and spent much of the rest of the day running for his life. San Francisco's other stars didn't fare much better. Against Atlanta's second-ranked run defense (chart, page 52), which held the New England Patriots to 18 yards rushing in a 41-10 win on Nov. 8, the 49ers' Garrison Hearst gained just 14 yards in the first half and 56 overall. Meanwhile, wideout Jerry Rice dropped a couple of passes, including a sure touchdown in the second quarter as free safety Eugene Robinson was bearing down on him.

"We had been embarrassed so many times in this series by the 49ers, the theme this week was, It just has to stop," said Falcons wideout Terance Mathis, who clinched the victory by singeing rookie cornerback R.W. McQuarters on a 78-yard sideline bomb with 2:51 remaining. "The bully has taken the lunch money for the last time."

Added Atlanta defensive end Lester Archambeau, "We're all just sick and tired of losing to the 49ers. They've always been fairly arrogant and cocky, but what we've found is, if you knock their offense around a bit, they start playing differently. It's just human nature, I guess. Nobody likes pain."

During a timeout midway through the fourth quarter, before a San Francisco rally fell short, Smith tilted his helmet back and walked toward the Niners sideline, pounding his chest, pointing his finger and talking trash. "We aren't a finesse team anymore," he said afterward. "We are a team that likes to come out and beat people up. What the country got to see is that we're no fluke. The Falcons are legit."

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