Ask Atlanta: Replacing Deion not easy

Thursday, August 3rd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Falcons invest in Buchanan, Ambrose at corner

GREENVILLE, S.C. – The Cowboys will find out in 2000 how difficult it is to replace Deion Sanders. They may want to confer with the Atlanta Falcons when the two teams meet in Japan on Saturday night.

Sanders became a perennial Pro Bowl cornerback at a young age for the Falcons but left in free agency in 1994. He won Super Bowls in each of his next two seasons at San Francisco and Dallas, and the Falcons slid into a decade-long coverage funk.

Atlanta finished in the bottom third of the NFL in pass defense in five consecutive post-Deion seasons. The Falcons completely unraveled in 1995, when they finished 30th in pass coverage, then unraveled a bit more in 1996, when their cornerbacks combined to intercept just one pass.

Over the years, the Falcons tried to replace Sanders with high draft picks (Michael Booker), low draft picks (Darnell Walker), big-money free agents (Ray Buchanan) and little-money free agents (Ronnie Bradford). But they remained a dart board for quarterbacks.

The Falcons hope all that changes in 2000. They have been pleased with Buchanan since signing him as a free agent in 1997. But one man can't do it all – not even Deion – and the Falcons finally feel they have two with the addition of veteran free-agent Ashley Ambrose.

"I've been thumping the table my three years here to get two really good corners," said Falcons defensive coordinator Rich Brooks. "This is the best I've felt heading into a season here. I think these guys are both among the better cover corners in the game."

With $37 million in talent at those two spots, the Falcons feel they can line up and play with the best passing teams in football. And two of them already compete against the Falcons in the NFC West – defending Super Bowl champion St. Louis and Carolina.

Ambrose and Buchanan are best friends and former teammates. The last time they started together – at Indianapolis in 1995 – the Colts reached the 1995 AFC title game. The Falcons signed Buchanan away from Indianapolis in 1997, giving him a four-year, $13 million contract. They signed Ambrose away from his hometown New Orleans Saints this spring, giving him a five-year, $24.1 million deal.

Buchanan has intercepted more passes in the last three years than any player in the NFL (16) and went to his first Pro Bowl in 1998. Ambrose isn't far behind Buchanan with 11 interceptions the last three years.

So bring on the Rams.

"When you have two good corners, it makes Rich's job a lot easier," Buchanan said. "He can be more creative and blitz more. We don't have to play as much vanilla defense."

Vanilla is not Buchanan's favorite flavor. With only one quality corner, Brooks was forced to call defenses with one arm tied behind his back. He was compensating for the other corner, which put Buchanan in tight spots every play, every game.

Brooks would roll coverage the other way to provide safety help and double teams for Bradford, Booker or whomever was lined up on the other side. Brooks also would give Buchanan the opposition's best receiver all day, all over the field. Without help. That wears on even the best of covermen, and Buchanan's play slipped in 1999.

But Ambrose won't need all that help. He entered the NFL as a second-round draft pick in 1992. He intercepted a league runner-up eight passes in his first season with the Cincinnati Bengals in 1996 and six more in his first season with the Saints in 1999.

"Not only does Ashley have good physical skills, he has an intuitive feel for receivers," Brooks said. "He reads their idiosyncrasies on cuts and moves. He looks like he's running some of the routes out there with the receivers – boom, all of a sudden, he's there.''

Ambrose and Buchanan give Atlanta potentially its best set of corners since 1991-92 when Sanders and Tim McKyer lined up there. The Falcons can leave Ambrose on the right side and Buchanan on the left against all offensive formations. They won't have to flip-flop them for matchup purposes like they have in past seasons.

Buchanan can settle into one spot, and that should help him regain his Pro Bowl form. If opponents throw away from Buchanan as they have in the past, Ambrose will be in a position to pad his interception totals and maybe garner enough attention for his first Pro Bowl berth.

"People will have a harder time deciding where to attack us than in the past," Brooks said.

Ambrose arrives at the right time because the Falcons wouldn't have been able to give their corners as much help this season, even if Brooks wanted to. Atlanta lost starting defensive ends Chuck Smith and Lester Archambeau in free agency, which cost the Falcons two of their top three pass rushers. Smith had 10 sacks in 1999 and Archambeau 51/2.

The Falcons have plugged two young ends (Patrick Kerney and Brady Smith) without histories as pass rushers into those spots. So Brooks will need to give the pass rush help with blitzes from linebackers and safeties. The cornerbacks often will be left to fend for themselves.

"We can be more aggressive and do some things that we couldn't do if we didn't have Ambrose," Falcons coach Dan Reeves said.

So after six years, the Falcons hope they can finally ask, "Deion who?"