The steak dinner was exceptional, and the view, overlooking intricate landscaping in the backyard, wasn't bad either. All-Pro linebacker Keith Brooking had been invited to the home of Falcons owner Arthur Blank, and it was time to get to the point of this mid-February visit. Brooking's contract with Atlanta had expired, the unrestricted free-agent signing period was fast approaching, and the five-year veteran wanted to have a man-to-man talk with Blank. No agents. No salary-cap gurus. Just the two of them.
Brooking, generally regarded as one of the best players in the league at his position, was looking to deliver a simple and heartfelt message to Blank: All he wanted was a fair deal and the chance to finish his career in Atlanta. He had grown up in the area, starred at Georgia Tech and been the first-round pick of the Falcons in the 1998 draft. " Atlanta is in my heart," he says. "This is where I've always wanted to be."
A few days later the Falcons signed Brooking to a seven-year, $41 million contract that included a $10.5 million bonus—the third-richest deal for a linebacker in the NFL. Some six months later it looks like the smartest move the team made in the off-season. With quarterback Michael Vick sidelined for at least four games with a fractured right fibula, the Falcons need the defense to carry a bigger share of the load until their offensive catalyst returns.
More specifically, the team needs Brooking to set the tone. Often referred to as a throwback for his aggressive, no-nonsense approach, his fiery temperament is in evidence even in practice. (At Georgia Tech he got kicked out of practice after hitting quarterback Joe Hamilton.) At 6'2" and 245 pounds Brooking has the speed to run down ballcarriers all over the field, the instincts to blitz effectively and the quickness to shadow backs and tight ends in pass coverage. "Keith doesn't just make a lot of tackles," says fellow linebacker Chris Draft. "He makes plays when they count."
"People don't understand the subtle ways he helps our defense," says defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. "We were fourth in the league in sacks last year. When we blitzed, we never had to worry about leaving Keith in single coverage, because he can cover just about anybody."
After playing middle linebacker in a 4-3 set in his first three years in the pros, Brooking made a seamless transition to Phillips's 3-4 in 2001, leading the Falcons with 127 tackles from his inside position. His teammates, however, were slower to make the adjustment. In training camp last year Phillips simplified his schemes, running only a handful of fronts and coverages until the players became more comfortable with his system. Though the Falcons ranked only 19th in total defense, they finished second in the league in takeaways (39) and were eighth in points allowed. In their two playoff games they held the Packers and the Eagles to seven and 13 points, respectively. "At the end of last season," Brooking says, "I don't think anybody was playing better than our defense was, except for Tampa Bay."
The strength of the defense remains concentrated in the front seven. Ends Patrick Kerney and Brady Smith are hard-driving pass rushers, and the 5'11", 232-pound Draft had the best season of his four-year career. The secondary is questionable, with a pair of free-agent pickups—former Packers cornerback Tyrone Williams and former Bengals safety Cory Hall—now in the mix. Most important, 11-year veteran corner Ray Buchanan has to rebound from a miserable 2002, during which he missed four games for violating the league's policy on steroids and related substances.
Even before Vick was injured, the defense believed it had to do more. "We want to take the pressure off Mike because he might not have that magical season everyone is expecting," Buchanan said in July. "The key is to shut down teams and give [the offense] good field position because we don't want to put him in situations where he has to win the game by himself."
"We're only going to get better," Brooking vows. One high-profile player is down, but another is ready to take charge.
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