Friday, January 22, 2010

The ALMOST All-Time Atlanta Falcons Defense

Defensive Tackle : Tony Casillas

Casillas was drafted in the first round of the 1986 draft by the Falcons. The team was switching to a 3-4 base defense, so they needed him to be their nose tackle. He responded with 111 tackles and a sack.

In the strike shortened 1987 season, he played nine contests and averaged eight tackles per game. After getting 111 tackles the next season, he exploded in the 1989 season with a whopping 152 tackles. It is a team record by a defensive lineman to this day.

He was injured much of the next year, appearing in nine games as a reserve. He joined the Dallas Cowboys in 1991 and was put in the starting lineup. His ability to collapse the middle allowed defensive ends Jim Jeffcoat, Charles Haley, and Tony Tolbert come off the edges hard and get to the quarterback easier.

He had a career best three sacks in 1992. Dallas would go on to win Super Bowl XXVII. The team repeated as champions the next year, and Casillas left the team after that year to join the New York Jets for the 1994 season.

In the two years he spent in New York, he dealt with injuries that caused him to miss eight games and only start 16 total. He then rejoined the Cowboys as a reserve for the 1996 season. It was the only season in his career he failed to record a sack. After starting in 14 games the next year, matching his career high total of three sacks, he retired.

Tony Casillas had 478 tackles with Atlanta, and it is the most ever by any Falcons defensive lineman. It also ranks fourth best overall by any Falcons defender. He may be the best defensive tackle the team has ever had.





Defensive Tackle : Moe Gardner


Gardner was drafted by the Falcons in the fourth round of the 1991 draft. He quickly worked his way into the starting lineup, and had had an impressive 96 tackles and three sacks playing nose tackle. He followed that up with 111 tackles and a career best 4.5 quarterback sacks.

The Falcons switched to a 4-3 base defense in 1993, so Gardner moved to the right defensive tackle slot and had a career high 128 tackles. His statistics dwindled over the next two seasons, but he was a steady force in the middle of Atlanta's defense. In the tenth game of the 1996 season, he was injured bad enough that it forced him to retire from the game.

The Falcons have had a lot of good defensive tackles in their history, yet only pass rush specialist Rod Coleman has made the Pro Bowl for the team once. There have been many players to come and go for the team at this position.

I chose Gardner because he had three special seasons where he was a huge force to be reckoned with. His 420 career tackles still ranks as the fifth most ever by a Falcons player.

Mike Lewis, Travis Hall, Shane Dronett, Rod Coleman, and the versatile Don Smith deserve mention.








Defensive End : Claude Humphrey


Humphrey was selected in the first round of the 1968 NFL Draft by the Falcons. He started right away for Atlanta and was named the NFL's Defensive Rookie Of The Year in. In 1976, Humphrey unofficially recorded a career high 15 quarterback sacks because sacks were not recognized by the NFL at that time. In addition Humphrey was named to the Pro Bowl six times between 1970-'74 and in 1977. He is the first Falcons defensive lineman to ever make the Pro Bowl.

He was long recognized as one of the best defensive ends in his era, but had played on some mediocre Falcons squads. The 1971 season was their first with a winning record. He retired from the Falcons with 12 games left on the 1978 schedule, saying he felt unappreciated.

He once lamented, "In 1969, the Vikings came to town and I scored the winning touchdown (on a fumble return), sacked the quarterback twice, and didn't even get a game ball. They gave the punter a game ball".

He would then be traded to the Philadelphia Eagles for two fourth round draft picks before the 1979 season. He chose the Eagles because Marion Campbell, who had been his head coach in Atlanta from 1974 to 1976, was the defensive coordinator of Philadelphia.

Humphrey said, "I just wanted to reunite with Marion and see if he couldn't help boost my career at that time."

It worked, because he led the team with 31 quarterback hurries and finished second in sacks in 1979. He recorded a team high 14.5 sacks the next year, helping the Eagles become NFC Champions and earn a ticket their first Super Bowl in the franchises history. He permanently retired after the 1981 season.

Humphrey was a consistent, and constant force. He had to deal with at least a double team on every snap of the ball. The opponents game plan, during his Atlanta years, was to try to contain him specifically.

He still managed to average 10 QB sacks a year, despite only have played four games in 1978. Many fans, during that era, missed out on his exploits due to the Falcons overall woes. The lack of publicity had him respected by his peers only, for the most part.

He is still the Falcons all-time sacks leader with 94.5, and his six Pro Bowls are the most in team history. His two First Team All-Pro nods are tied as the most in franchise history.

Claude Humphrey is a member of the Georgia Hall of Fame, the Atlanta Sports Hall of Fame, and the Tennessee Hall of Fame. Hopefully he will soon finally be put in the Pro Football Hall Of Fame and the Falcons Ring of Honor. He is the greatest defensive end in Falcons history.







Defensive End : John Zook


Zook was drafted in the fourth round of the 1969 draft by the Los Angeles Rams. The Rams soon traded him to the Philadelphia Eagles, who then traded him to the Falcons. Atlanta immediately put him in the starting lineup to bookend Falcons legend Claude Humphrey, and he intercepted two passes that rookie year.

He intercepted another ball the next season, and continued to be a force for Atlanta. In 1972, he scooped up a fumble and rumbled 37 yards for the only touchdown of his career.

Zook became the second Falcons defensive lineman to ever be named to a Pro Bowl in 1973. It was the only time in his career he garnered this award. He then intercepted the last pass of his career in 1974. He left the team after the 1975 season to join the Saint Louis Cardinals. He retired at the conclusion of the 1979 season.

His four interceptions are a Falcons record for a defensive lineman. Tackles and sacks were not recorded in his era, so the novice cannot truly understand his impact. Zook played with a non-stop motor and made opposing teams pay when they would double team Humphrey.

John Zook is one of the best defensive linemen to ever wear a Falcons uniform.

Jeff Merrow, Brady Smith, Lester Archambeau, Mike Gann, Rick Bryan, Chris Doleman, Jeff Yeates, Chuck Smith, and Patrick Kerney deserve mention.









Outside Linebacker : Greg Brezina


Brezina was drafted in the 11th round of the 1968 draft by the Falcons. He appeared in 11 games that year, and started in one. His play that year had Atlanta put him in the starting lineup the next year. He would start in every game that he played for the rest of his career from that point on.

He rewarded the Falcons with the move in 1969 by leading the NFL with a career best five fumble recoveries and an interception. He was named to his only Pro Bowl, becoming the second Falcon defender ever to attain this honor.

Brezina missed the entire 1970 season after a preseason injury, but rebounded in 1971 with three interceptions and fumble recoveries. After getting a career high four interceptions in 1975, he missed the last three games of his career the next year.

When he retired at the end of the 1979 season, his 12 career interceptions tied Tommy Nobis as the most ever by a linebacker in Falcons history. That record still stands today. His 14 fumble recoveries are still the most by any defender in team history.

Atlanta has had quite a few good outside linebackers in their history, but perhaps none are better than Greg Brezina. His 141 straight starts is an example of his greatness.







Middle Linebacker : Tommy Nobis


Nobis was the first draft pick ever by the expansion Atlanta Falcons in the 1966 NFL draft. He was also the first player chosen overall. He started right away for the Falcons, and was very busy on a new team that struggled to a 3-11 record. He set a Falcons record, that still stands today, when he amassed 294 tackles. It may be an NFL record, but that stat is unofficial and kept by individual teams.

He was named to his first Pro Bowl team, and was the 1966 NFL Rookie of the Year. He is the very first Falcon to ever be awarded either honor.

He intercepted the first three passes of his career the next season, and returned one for a touchdown. He was also selected to his second Pro Bowl team and his only First Team All-Pro honor. In 1968, he was named to his third Pro Bowl team, as the struggling Falcons went through a coaching change by hiring Hall of Famer Norm Van Brocklin after the third week of the season.

Nobis was injured in the fifth game of the following year, and missed the rest of the season. He came back in 1970 and was named to the Pro Bowl team. He then was injured in the fourth game of the following season, and missed the rest of the year. He would only miss two games for the rest of his career, retiring after the 1976 season.

He made his last Pro Bowl in 1972, and also scored the last touchdown of his career. The 1973 season would be the best record the Falcons had during Nobis' career. They went 9-5. Atlanta won 50 games in his eleven seasons.

His number was the first to be retired by the team, and he is a member of the Falcons' Ring of Honor, Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, and the Atlanta Sports Hall of Fame. He has also been named the NFL Man of the Year (Dodge and Vitalis), and Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. award, due to his work with the Special Olympics as a member of the Falcons front office and in his own foundation.

His five Pro Bowls is tied with five other players as the second most in team history. His 12 career interceptions is tied as the most ever by any Falcon linebacker. His 13 fumble recoveries is tied as the second most by any Falcons defender.

Tommy Nobis is on the NFL's All-1960s team, which is quite an accomplishment if you consider he didn't even play half of the decade.

It is truly astounding that 'Mr. Falcon' still has yet to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall Of Fame. His exclusion for all of these years belies that thought. Nobis epitomizes what a Hall Of Fame football player is supposed to symbolize. Both on and off the field. It is truly disgraceful, and disrespectful, that he is not in Canton.








Linebacker : Jessie Tuggle


Tuggle joined the Falcons as an undrafted rookie in 1987, and soon found himself starting at left inside linebacker after 1980 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Buddy Curry went down with a career ending injury.

He split time with Joel Williams the next year, starting in eight games. He was still able to rack up 103 tackles and score a touchdown off of a fumble recovery. Atlanta handed him the job full time the rest of his career, and he missed just three starts over that time.

After getting 183 tackles in 1989, he had 201 tackles and a career high five quarterback sacks the next year. He also took a fumble 65 yards for a touchdown. He followed that up in 1991 with a career best 207 tackles, and scored again off of a fumble recovery. He also had his first career interception.

The 1992 season saw him finally get recognized as a Pro Bowler after somehow not being named in either of his two previous stellar seasons. He had 193 tackles, and interception, and he scored off a career long 69 yard fumble recovery.

After getting 185 tackles the next year, he returned to the Pro Bowl in 1994 after getting 93 tackles. The 1994 season was the last time he exceeded 100 tackles, when he had 111. He also had a career high three interceptions, the last of his career. One was returned for a touchdown, and he made the Pro Bowl again.

After making the Pro Bowl in 1997, he made his last Pro Bowl the next year. He also scored his last touchdown, which happened off of a fumble recovery. The Falcons would reach Super Bowl XXXIII, their only championship appearance in franchise history, but lost.

He had 3.5 sacks in 1999, but missed two games. After missing half of the 2000 season, he retired with a Falcons record of 1,640 tackles. His five fumble recoveries for touchdowns was an NFL record until Jason Taylor of the Miami Dolphins surpassed it by one in 2009.

His five Pro Bowls is tied with five other players as the second most in team history.

"The Hammer" has his jersey retired by the Falcons, and he is a member of the teams Ring of Honor.

Though Jessie Tuggle was a middle linebacker, I had to put him on this team. Tommy Nobis may be the best Falcon ever at that position, but Tuggle is right up there with him. I figured he could play the strong side outside linebacker on this team, being the ultimate team player that he was. He still has a shot at induction into the Pro Football Hall Of Fame.

Buddy Curry, Keith Brooking, Fulton Kuykendall, John Rade, Don Hansen, Joel Williams, and Al Richardson deserve mention.









Strong Safety : Ray Brown



Brown was drafted in the sixth round of the 1971 draft by the Falcons. He started 10 games at free safety in his rookie year, and intercepted three passes. He was moved over to strong safety the next season.

After getting two interceptions his first year at the position, he had six more in 1973. He then had a career high eight interceptions for 164 yards the next year, including a touchdown return on a career long 59 yard return.

He was moved back to free safety in 1974, and had four interceptions for 119 yards. He also scored the last touchdown of his career on a interception return. Atlanta then moved him back to strong safety in 1976, where he would stay the rest of his career.

After getting eight interceptions in 1976 and 1977, he joined the New Orleans Saints. He stayed with the Saints until 1980, intercepting a total of eight balls. He then retired, having started 131 of 137 games played. He started in every game that he played as a Falcon.

His 31 interceptions and 574 return yards with Atlanta is the second most ever, and the most ever by a Falcons safety. His two touchdowns off interceptions are the most ever by a Falcons safety, and is tied as the second most overall in team history.

Ray Brown was a versatile playmaker who always produced no matter where Atlanta played him. He may be the greatest safety in team history.

Ray Easterling deserves mention.










Free Safety : Scott Case



Case was drafted in the second round of the 1984 draft by the Falcons. He spent his rookie year playing mostly special teams, but was able to record the only safety of his career. He earned the starting job at strong safety in his second season. He started in 13 of the 14 games he played, and intercepted four passes.

Atlanta asked him to play cornerback in 1986, and he had four more swipes. After getting one more the next year, he had his best season in 1988. He led the NFL with a career best 10 interceptions. He was also named to his only Pro Bowl that year.

His 1989 was full of injuries, and he was able to only start in eight of the 14 games he played. He still was able to intercept two balls, but Atlanta decided to move him to free safety the next year. He stayed there the rest of his career.

From 1990 to 1993, Case gained a reputation as one of the hardest hitting free safeties in the league. He intercepted seven passes over that time, and racked up 557 tackles. He had a career best 170 tackles in 1990, an astonishing number for a free safety, and followed that up with 162 the next year. After starting in just three games in 1994, he joined the Dallas Cowboys the next year as a reserve. The Cowboys would go on to win Super Bowl XXX, then Case retired.

His 30 interceptions as a Falcon is tied as the third most ever in franchise history, and his 946 tackles are the second most ever by a Falcon. It is safe to say that the Falcons have never had another player who could excel at three defensive back positions the way Scott Case did.

Tom Pridemore deserves mention.









Cornerback : Rolland Lawrence



Lawrence joined the Falcons as an undrafted free agent in 1973. He had one interception his rookie year, as a reserve, where he took the ball 81 yards to set up a Falcons scoring opportunity.

He earned the starting job the next year, and picked off one pass. In 1975, he set career high marks with nine interceptions for 163 yards. He took one interception 87 yards for a touchdown. The Sporting News and UPI named him First Team All-Conference.

Atlanta asked him to be their return specialist in 1976. He led the NFL with a career high 54 punt returns for 372 yards. He also returned a career high 21 kickoff returns for 521 yards. He had six interceptions the next year.

In 1977, Lawrence picked off seven balls and was named to the Pro Bowl team. He was also named First Team All-Pro, becoming the first Falcons defensive back to ever accomplish both honors together in one season. He also found time to return 51 punts and return the last kickoff of his career.

He would then intercept six passes in each of the next two seasons. The 1980 was his final year, where he picked off three passes. His career total of 39 interception are still the most in Falcons history. He also recovered 13 fumbles in his career, which is the most ever by any Falcons cornerback, and the tied as the second most be any Falcons defender ever.

Rolland Lawrence was a top flight cornerback who was given the assignment to cover the oppositions best wide receiver the Falcons faced week to week. He may not have gotten the accolades he so richly deserved throughout his career, but opponents who played against him will tell you that he was an excellent player. He is probably the best cornerback in Falcons history.








Cornerback : Ken Reaves


Reaves was drafted in the fourth round of the 1966 draft by the expansion Falcons. He spent his rookie year as an extra defensive back, but did manage an interception. He earned the starting left cornerback job the next year, and stayed there the rest of his Falcons career.

He responded that first year with a career best seven interceptions for 153 yards. The 1968 season saw him intercept one pass, but it went for a team record 90 yard touchdown. This record stood until 1981, and is still the third longest in team history.

Reaves made more Falcons history in 1969 by becoming the first Atlanta defensive back ever to make the Pro Bowl after getting three interceptions. He then had 17 over the next four years before joining the New Orleans Saints in 1974.

The Saints moved him to strong safety, then traded him after four games to the Saint Louis Cardinals. He finished the year with one interception for 57 yards. He stayed with the Cardinals three more years as their starting strong safety, getting seven interceptions total. He retired after the 1977 season.

His 29 interceptions for 439 yards as a Falcon still ranks the fifth most in team history. He excelled on the Falcons during a time the fledgling club struggled to gain their identity as they struggled for a few victories.

There are few cornerbacks in Falcons history as good as Ken Reaves was.

Bobby Butler, Ray Buchanan, Tom Hayes, Kenny Johnson, Elbert Shelley, who went to the Pro Bowl four times as a special teams player, and Ashley Ambrose deserve mention.









Punter : John James


James was signed as an undrafted rookie by the Falcons in 1972. He quickly became one of the busiest punters in the NFL. He led the league in punt attempts and yardage in 1974. He then began a Pro Bowl streak in 1975 that lasted three years.

After leading the league with a career long 75 yard punt that year, he led in punts attempts and yardage from 1976 to 1978. He averaged 105 punts per year over that time, peaking at 109 attempts in 1979. After 249 punts over the next three years, he joined the Detroit Lions in 1982. He played two games with Detroit, then was released. He joined the Houston Oilers for the final six games and stayed with them until the end of the 1984 season before retiring.

No other Falcons punter has ever gone to the Pro Bowl. He owns virtually every team punting record there is to own. There is no Falcons punter greater than John James.







Punt Returner : Allen Rossum


Rossum was drafted in the third round of the 1998 draft by the Philadelphia Eagles.He stayed two years with them, but managed to score his first touchdown and get his first sack. He joined the Green Bay Packers in 2000, and played two years with them. He scored off both a kickoff and punt return with the Packers.

Atlanta signed him in 2002, and he scored off of a kick return. He led the NFL with 545 punt return yards the next year, averaging a career high 14 yards per return. One return went 72 yards for a score.

Rossum made his only Pro Bowl in 2004. He had 457 punt return yards, a 12.4 per return average, and scored off a career long 75 yard return. He also had 1,291 kickoff return yards on a career best 62 attempts, had his last career sack, and had the only two interceptions of his career.

He left the Falcons at the end of 2006, then joined the Pittsburgh Steelers. He scored one touchdown off a kickoff return that year, then signed with the San Francisco 49ers for the 2008 season. He had an NFL leading kickoff return for a touchdown that year of 104 yards. San Francisco also spotted Rossum on offense a few times. He caught his first career pass, and also carried the ball one yard for a touchdown.

After playing three games for the 49ers the next year, he was cut. He signed with the Dallas Cowboys in 2009, where he got hurt the first time he touched the ball.

Allen Rossum owns the Falcons team records for the most kickoff and punt return attempts and yards gained. His two punt returns for touchdowns is tied as the most in Falcons history. He may be their greatest overall return specialist ever.

Tim Dwight, Eric Metcalf, and Billy "White Shoes" Johnson deserve mention.

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