Cutting off Vikings at pass is Falcons' task; Atlanta secondary crams for toughest test tomorrow ; NFC championship game; NFL playoffs


ATLANTA -- Eugene Robinson couldn't sleep yesterday, so he crawled out of bed at about 5: 15 a.m. and popped a tape in the VCR.

It was like a horror film.

Robinson, the Atlanta Falcons' free safety, was watching the Minnesota Vikings' passing attack, which led the NFL this season with 4,492 yards and 41 touchdowns. It's one of the reasons the Atlanta defensive backs have been working overtime this week to prepare for tomorrow's game.

If the Falcons (15-2) are going to beat the Vikings (16-1) in the NFC championship game in the Metrodome, Atlanta must slow Minnesota's passing attack. Period.

It will not be easy, but Robinson and cornerback Ray Buchanan -- two of the Falcons' five Pro Bowl players -- might have the most daunting responsibilities.

Vikings rookie wide receiver Randy Moss caught 69 passes for 1,313 yards and 17 touchdowns, and receiver Cris Carter caught 78 passes for 1,011 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Buchanan will match up on whichever receiver is the more likely deep threat on a given play.

Robinson, a 14-year veteran who played in the last two Super Bowls with the Green Bay Packers, is the quarterback of the secondary. He changes coverages and must make sure teammates are in the right places.

But the Falcons also have to worry about other things.

"I'm watching [Minnesota quarterback] Randall Cunningham make one impromptu play after another," Robinson said. "I've been telling my guys, 'When he scrambles, if you think you're on your man, get one step closer.' This guy will throw a ball in any situation."

Atlanta defensive backs almost always talk among themselves, especially Robinson and Buchanan, who eat lunch together almost every day.

This week, they've been talking even more.

On Wednesday, Atlanta began installing its base defense, which will be used when Minnesota has two wide receivers.

Most of the season, Buchanan has been on the opposing team's best receiver. He'll guard both Moss and Carter, lining up more on the Falcons' right than left. Second-year man Michael Booker will be on the other side.

"I'm probably going to get a piece of both of them," said Buchanan, who had seven regular-season interceptions, second-most in the NFC.

"Wednesday, we were working on how to handle when they send somebody in motion or have multiple receivers on one side. I'm not going to give away secrets, though."

On Thursday, the Falcons' secondary worked on nickel and dime defenses for when the Vikings add receivers to the offense.

Those are the situations when Robinson makes the most changes in coverage.

"It's based on personnel, situations, down-and-distance, what I see the receivers setting up to do," he said. "I'll let a man know if he's playing man-to-man, zone deep third, zone short, zone press -- who's going to follow motion.

"Whether I'm tapping a hand or hitting a leg or tapping a helmet -- it's a signal to tell him to do something different than what he might have done."

On Friday, the Falcons worked on passing situations inside their 20-yard line.

Most people consider Moss the bigger deep threat, but at 6 feet 4, he has an advantage over the 5-9 Buchanan and the 6-2 Booker. Because of that, the Falcons will mix coverages more frequently.

When the Vikings have just two wide-outs, Buchanan will play man-to-man defense on his receiver, and the Falcons will play zone on the other side of the field.

They'll try to disguise some coverages before switching.

Buchanan said he and his teammates will not back down from the challenge.

"We always have respect for people, but we have faith in ourselves and each other," he said. "Cris is definitely better off the line; he's just been in the league longer. But Randy is an outstanding athlete, a fast, big guy who can run.

"Out there [on the field], everything you've been taught through the season, through your career, your gift, that's when it all comes into play. Coaches can't coach certain things that happen out on the field. You've just got to be an athlete and don't beat yourself [mentally]."

NFL playoffs

NFC championship game

Atlanta (15-2) at Minnesota (16-1)

When: Tomorrow, 12: 35 p.m. TV: Chs. 45, 5

Line: Vikings by 11

AFC championship game

New York Jets (13-4) at Denver (15-2)

When: Tomorrow, 4:05 p. m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9

Line: Broncos by 9

Super Bowl

When: Jan. 31, 6: 18 p.m.

Site: Pro Player Stadium, Miami

TV: Chs. 45, 5

Pub Date: 1/16/99

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