Atlanta surrendered a franchise-worst 6,108 yards last season.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) -- They've known what it means to be a laughingstock, the supposed first line of defense for a team that gave up yards at an alarming rate.
No one's laughing anymore.
Bolstered by a new scheme, a key free-agent signing and better depth, the Atlanta Falcons' front four is now recognized as one of the best in the NFL.
The numbers back it up. The Falcons led the league with 48 sacks and ranked eighth against the run -- a stunning turnaround for a team that surrendered a franchise-worst 6,108 yards just one season ago.
"It confirms to these guys that, 'Yeah, you are good,' " said defensive line coach Bill Johnson, who was a little choked up while pondering how much things have changed. "They've worked so hard, come through so much, going back to when everybody thought they were the worst in the league."
Patrick Kerney gets much of the notoriety, a Pro Bowl end who ranked fourth in the league with 13 sacks. But he's quick to point out that it's hardly a one-man show in the trenches.
Just take a look at tackle Rod Coleman, signed as a free agent after five seasons with the Oakland Raiders. Even though he missed three games recovering from injuries sustained in a car wreck, Coleman still managed 111/2 sacks, forced a team-high five fumbles and broke up six passes.
Most telling, the Falcons had only one sack in the games Coleman missed. He's a disruptive force in the middle of the line, often tying up several blockers and freeing up plenty of space for his teammates.
"The best thing about Rod is he came here from a different system, a different philosophy, and he bought in to what we wanted to do," Kerney said. "You've got to have four guys pushing the pocket together, not four guys rushing individually."
Led by Michael Vick and a resurgent defense, the Falcons won only the third division title in franchise history. After getting a first-round bye, they are playing host to the St. Louis Rams in an NFC playoff game Saturday night.
Kerney and Coleman are joined along the front four by end Brady Smith, who has six sacks, three forced fumbles, two recovered fumbles, and tackle Ed Jasper. His numbers are more modest because he missed the last four games of the regular season with a wrist injury.
The changes began shortly after Jim Mora was hired as coach and brought in Ed Donatell, formerly of Green Bay, as defensive coordinator.
The new staff quickly switched to the 4-3 scheme, which has definitely been a better fit for Kerney than the previous three-man front. He can rely on his speed and quickness to rush the quarterback from the outside, instead of matching up head-on with much bigger linemen.