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Atlanta's 'D' is for Donatell

Friday, January 21, 2005

The coordinator has bounced back nicely after getting sacked by the Packers.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) -- Ed Donatell gives his whistle a toot, glances down at his cheat sheet to see what's next on the practice agenda, then wades into the middle of the Atlanta Falcons defense to pass along a few even-toned words of instruction and encouragement.
He certainly doesn't look like someone who's still haunted by fourth-and-26.
"That's all such a distant memory for me," Donatell said. "It couldn't have worked any better."
He returns to Philadelphia on Sunday for the NFC championship game, insisting that he's gotten over the seminal play of his coaching career. No need to look back when you can keep looking forward.
One play
Donatell landed on his feet as Atlanta's defensive coordinator, overseeing a remarkable turnaround by a unit that surrendered a franchise record for yards in 2003. Now, he's one victory away from the Super Bowl -- with only the Eagles standing in the way.
It was just more than a year ago that Donatell was running Green Bay's defense in the playoffs. The Packers held a 17-14 lead at Philadelphia with the clock winding down, and three consecutive blitzes left the Eagles in a seemingly impossible situation: fourth-and-26 from their own 26.
At that point, Donatell abandoned the blitz and called a four-across zone -- two cornerbacks and two safeties spread deep, each responsible for one-fourth of the field. There were two more defensive backs in shorter zones, plus two linebackers.
Donatell still thinks it was the right call, but a confluence of breakdowns gave the Eagles a chance to pull off a miracle.
First, rookie linebacker Nick Barnett made a huge mistake by moving forward instead of backpedaling, which left a gap in the middle of the field. Receiver Freddie Mitchell found the opening and ran past one of the dime backs, Bhawoh Jue. The safeties, Marques Anderson and Darren Sharper, dropped back too far.
Donovan McNabb delivered the pass to Mitchell for a 28-yard gain. The Eagles drove into position for David Akers' tying field goal, then won 20-17 in overtime.
Donatell lost his job five days later.
Turnaround in Atlanta
Donatell quickly landed a job with the Falcons' new coach, Jim Mora. Mora was more impressed with Donatell's entire body of work, such as the Packers leading the league in takeaways in 2002.
"Ed's not a guy that lays the blame on anyone's feet. He said, 'I should have coached it better,' " Mora said. "I think you get a real taste of Ed's integrity when you hear that answer."
Falcons defensive end Patrick Kerney wasn't the least bit concerned when he heard Donatell would be part of the new staff in Atlanta.
"My first reaction was hearing the success they had had up in Green Bay on defense over the long term," Kerney said. "I knew right away if they were going to let him go over that one play, their loss would be our gain."
Donatell's impact on the Atlanta defense was remarkable. With only two new starters, the Falcons led the league in sacks, ranked eighth against the run, cut their yards from the previous season by 901, and allowed 85 fewer points.