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When It's All Said, It's Dunn

Falcons' Smallish Runner Is a Big Part of the Offense

By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 20, 2005; Page D01

It isn't clear whether he's the first "D" or the second "D" in the Atlanta Falcons' "DVD" attack, but one thing is indisputable.

In his eighth NFL season, Warrick Dunn feels reborn. "I feel young," Dunn giddily said a few minutes after rushing for 142 yards in the Falcons' 47-17 victory over the St. Louis Rams last Saturday night in a playoff game that put the Falcons in the NFC championship game Sunday against Philadelphia.

"He ran for 1,100 yards and really if you look at his season, they kind of sneaked up on you," said Coach Jim Mora Jr. of Warrick Dunn, above. (David Zalubowski -- AP)

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Dunn, who left the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the Falcons before the 2002 season, scored on touchdown runs of 62 and 19 yards on successive series in the first half, essentially sealing the victory for the Falcons and sending them to Philadelphia.

The performance underscored a season in which Dunn teamed with quarterback Michael Vick and running back T.J. Duckett for a three-pronged attack that led the NFL in rushing with 2,671 yards. Dunn, who turned 30 on Jan. 5, was the leader with 1,106 yards and nine touchdowns, beating out Vick (902 yards) with three 100-yard games in his final four regular season starts. Duckett finished with 509 yards on 104 carries.

Going into the playoffs, Dunn, who started all 16 games for the first time in his career, told his coaches he'd never felt better and wanted the football as much as they were willing to give it to him.

"I'm not tired," he told reporters before the Rams game. "You're not going to wear me out. Just give it to me and I'm going to make it happen."

Dunn has played the Eagles in Philadelphia in the playoffs three times and has never come away a winner. He believes if the Falcons are going to make it happen Sunday, they'll need a big day passing, no matter what the weather brings. At the moment, it is possible that there will be snow and temperatures in the 20s for the 3 p.m. game at Lincoln Financial Field.

"For us to be really successful, we have to throw the ball better," he said yesterday. "That would back the safeties up and then you can continue to run. . . . Mike knows that. The receivers know that. This may be the game where they have their breakout. . . . I'm sure they are going to hit us in the mouth a lot. I don't think it's just going to come down to our running game. It's going to be whether our offense makes plays on their defense at key times in the game, and can our defense make plays and hold them.

"The thing with Philadelphia is you have to slow them down early, make it a game. Take it to the second half and hopefully you can make a play. But if they get on top of you, they'll blitz you a lot and put you in situations you're not comfortable with."

In the past, some of Dunn's coaches have not been entirely comfortable making him their workhorse back, especially at the professional level. He's only 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds, and conventional wisdom has always been that too many carries would translate into too many injuries. In his first five years with Tampa Bay, Dunn shared the running load with 260-pound fullback Mike Alstott, but managed two 1,000-yard seasons.

In Atlanta, he also competes for carries with Vick and Duckett, who weighs 255 pounds and scored eight touchdowns this season. Dunn, like Duckett, does some of his best work between the tackles despite his size, but is also quick to the outside and an excellent receiver, especially on screen passes, with 29 receptions for 294 yards.

"He ran for 1,100 yards and really if you look at his season, they kind of sneaked up on you," said his coach, Jim Mora Jr. "They kind of sneaked up on me. It just seemed like it was a quiet 1,000 yards."

But Dunn has never been a flashy running back, going back to his days as an all-American at Florida State. The Bucs made him their first-round pick, the 12th overall player selected in the 1997 draft, and he left three years ago as a free agent when the Falcons offered him $28 million, including a $6.5 million signing bonus.

"When I have a 100-yard game and have a great game, it's not talked about much," Dunn said. "But when you have other backs who have been out there a lot and have been expected to do it, they're more glorified. As long as the people around me know, I'm good with it. But it is frustrating at times."

The Falcons' rushing success also starts up front with a solid offensive line coached by Alex Gibbs, who constructed Super Bowl championship lines in Denver in the John Elway era.

"Ours is a stretch and cut scheme and I know we have the offense to do that," said Mora, primarily a defensive specialist. "We have the runners to run it and the key element is bringing in a guy like Alex, who just understands so completely. He's figured out a way to block the eighth guy. When a defense has eight guys in the box and they're supposed to have one more than you do, he finds a way to get the eighth guy. I don't know how, but he does."

Having a slasher like Dunn to accelerate past potential tacklers certainly helps. Vick's ability to fool defensive players who are uncertain whether he'll pass or dash out of the pocket piles up more rushing yards. And Duckett's ability to simply run over tacklers for extra yards merely completes the package.

"And our screen game is also working," Mora said this week. "Everyone knows where they fit in and we're a diverse offense. You have to defend the whole field when you play us and every time Mike touches the ball, he affects the play just by the threat that he is either running, throwing or carrying out a fake."

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