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Falcons staying grounded amid early-season success

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Wide receiver Roddy White, one of the most experienced players on the the Atlanta Falcons, believes it's not a coincidence his team is 4-1 and tied for the best record in the NFL.

Over the past three seasons, which dates back to the hiring of coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff, White has seen the systematic placement of certain players at each position group that has had a trickle-down effect of success.

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White, as he should, leads the receivers. Matt Ryan's got the QB room. Michael Turner's the top dog among running backs. Tight end Tony Gonzalez, c'mon.

Third-year defensive end Kroy Bierman and second-year nose tackle Peria Jerry have invigorated fellow linemates John Abraham and Jonathan Babineaux.

Linebackers Curtis Lofton and rookie Shaun Weatherspoon have injected some personality into that group, and newly acquired cornerback Dunta Robinson has offered up some swagger that every other player in the secondary has picked off.

"Those guys are very confident football players, and they've bred confidence into their positions," said White, in his sixth season with the Falcons. "It continues to grow. We're just doing a good job of getting guys ready to play and we go into games feeling as if we're going to win. We feel as if we've got one of the better football teams in the league."

They do.

Coach Smith helped build teams the same way in Baltimore and Jacksonville. Dimitroff is part of the Bill Belichick posse, where formulating a nucleus that will produce and teach newcomers the Patriot Way is the mold. Inside the Falcons headquarters are personnel men who worked for the Colts, Patriots and Ravens, among others.

"All the great franchises have had a tremendous amount of symmetry between the owner, general manager and the head coach," Falcons owner Arthur Blank said. "We have that here. Thomas and Smitty see football the same way."

The blending of this personnel is what White said has allowed the Falcons to get through some of the developments of the season thus far, such as having the poise to defeat New Orleans and San Francisco on last-second field goals.

The defense also has pretty much carried the Falcons, which is surprising because of the offensive firepower that Blank is paying for. Six starters have three or fewer years of experience, yet they are allowing just 14 points per game and lead the NFL with 10 interceptions -- by nine players. Robinson isn't among those with a pick, in large part because teams aren't targeting him, Smith said.

That youth, paired with the work ethic and production of Abraham, linebacker Mike Peterson and Robinson, has spurred some much-needed energy and playmaking into a team that struggled last season, especially against the pass.

Offensively, the Falcons rank second in rushing (148 yards per game) as Michael Turner has regained his form (84 yards per game) and Jason Snelling has backed him up with some serious punch.

Atlanta has thrown the ball adequately (221.4 yards per game) but not like it wants to. White says things should improve in that area this week with wideout Michael Jenkins (shoulder) making his season debut against the Eagles on Sunday. That will allow Harry Douglas to move back into the slot.

"Every week teams have been doing a good job trying to stop us," White said. "In the Cleveland game, they were doubling and tripling Tony (Gonzalez). They do the same thing to me. Guys have to step up and make plays, especially on passing downs."

There is also no hiding from this: Atlanta's schedule has been gracious, at least in terms of opposing quarterbacks -- save for the Saints' Drew Brees. Atlanta lost to the Steelers with Dennis Dixon, then won vs. Arizona's Derek Anderson (since benched for rookie Max Hall), Brees, San Francisco's Alex Smith, and Cleveland's Seneca Wallace.

Up next will be Philly's Kevin Kolb (or Michael Vick, who is a long shot), then Cincinnati's Carson Palmer.

Things seem to be stacking up in the Falcons' favor, but not if you ask them.

"If we don't win games in November and December, all this stuff we're doing now won't matter," Bierman said.

Ready to play?

If Pro Bowl wide receiver Vincent Jackson ends his holdout and returns to San Diego, if for nothing else to gain the needed tenure to hit unrestricted free agency in the offseason, could he contribute? Based on what's gone on with Brett Favre and Darrelle Revis, maybe not.

Favre and Revis, who mean more to the Vikings and Jets, respectively, than Jackson does to the Chargers, are battling injuries that could be related to them missing some offseason workouts and most of training camp.

The tendinitis in Favre's elbow isn't going away and he's hinted that it has affected his accuracy and is marginalizing his practice workload. Revis has been bothered by a hamstring injury, has missed game time and likely will miss more after playing -- and not at a high level -- Monday night.

Their time away from football looks like a weekend off compared to Jackson's hiatus. We all know football players need to get into football shape. Even if Jackson returned this week he might not get into the condition he needs to be in to play at a high level and help.

I spoke to Norv Turner recently regarding offensive tackle Marcus McNeill, who signed a five-year extension on Wednesday after holding out. I asked the Chargers coach about McNeill's ability to get in shape and avoid an injury like Revis' hamstring. Turner said interior linemen aren't nearly as susceptible to those types of injuries as skilled players are because the space where they compete is so small.

So McNeill and New England's Logan Mankins, if he ends his holdout, might be able to offer something. Not saying that Jackson wouldn't, but Revis and Favre are examples 1 and 1A as to what could be in store.

A reason why Phillips is safe

Cowboys coach Wade Phillips isn't going to get canned during the season in large part because he's also Dallas' defensive coordinator -- and he is very good at that part of his job.

If Phillips was to get fired midstream, the Cowboys might find someone in-house who can get players to be a tad more organized and disciplined, but there is nobody in that building who can scheme, game plan or adjust like Phillips.

And if/when he does get bounced after the season, he'll be the most desired defensive coordinator on the market.

Week 6 picks

This week, I like the Packers, Chargers, Patriots, Steelers, Texans, Giants, Falcons, Bears, Buccaneers, Jets, 49ers, Vikings, Colts, Titans. (Last week: 5-9)

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