FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) – It’s easy to overlook defensive tackles. They’re the guys in the middle of the pile, locked in a sumo-like battle for position with a bunch of 300-pound offensive linemen.

In the midst of it all, Rod Coleman manages to stand out.

He has turned an anonymous position into one of prominence, helping transform the Atlanta Falcons’ once-laughable defense into one of the NFL’s best.

Last season, despite facing double- and triple-teaming on most plays, Coleman still made 111/2 sacks, ranking second among interior linemen even though he missed three games recovering from injuries sustained in a car wreck.

On Monday night, he was at it again.

Coleman sacked Donovan McNabb once and delivered a brutal hit on the Philadelphia star’s final pass attempt. The fourth-down throw fell harmlessly to the turf, far short of intended receiver Terrell Owens, clinching Atlanta’s 14-10 victory.

Through it all, Coleman plays with the hunger of someone just breaking into the league – understandable, because he’s never gotten much national attention.

Coleman was a fifth-round draft pick from an obscure school, East Carolina. He has yet to make the Pro Bowl, even though his 34 sacks over the last four years are the most for any inside lineman.

“I don’t expect to get any PR,” he said Wednesday. “I just try to go out and help my team win. That’s all I can control.”

But more and more, everyone is coming to an obvious conclusion: Coleman is one of the league’s most dominating and disruptive players at his position.

“He has great quickness,” said Seattle coach Mike Holmgren, whose team hosts the Falcons on Sunday. “For a guy his size, who has that quickness and those moves, it’s very, very difficult for an offensive lineman to handle him one-on-one.” Coleman’s impact on the outside helps free up things for ends Patrick Kerney and Brady Smith, as well as middle linebacker Ed Hartwell.

“I love Rod Coleman,” Hartwell said. “He’s a big man with all these little-man moves. He goes around guys, swims over them, whatever it takes.” You love to have a defensive lineman who is feared by the offense. That frees me up to come straight down the middle and take a guy’s head off.”

Coleman spent his first five seasons in Oakland, breaking through with an 11-sack performance in 2002 to help the Raiders reach the Super Bowl. Still, he was viewed as more of a situational player, starting only 21 of 60 games for the AFC team.

The Falcons recognized Coleman’s potential, signing him as a free agent last year and handing him a spot in the lineup. Exceeding all expectations, he was a player who forced offenses to account for him on every play, usually with extra blockers.

Despite all that attention, Coleman reached double-figure sacks for the second time in his career and produced plenty of other eye-opening plays. He forced five fumbles. He recovered a fumble. He broke up six passes. He returned an interception 39 yards for a touchdown.

“Without a doubt, Rod is an incredible pass rusher,” said Kerney, who led the Falcons with 13 sacks last season but didn’t have any in the three games Coleman missed. “He also has a great work ethic. He’s always trying to perfect his craft, look for those little nuances that will help him. He plays with a chip-on-his-shoulder mentality that is going to make him better in the future.”

The 6-foot-2, 285-pound Coleman might be considered a bit undersized for some teams, but he fits the Falcons’ scheme perfectly. Coach Jim Mora prefers faster, quicker players at all positions for an attacking style of defense.

“I’ve always been labeled the underdog from the time I was a kid,” Coleman said. “When I’m going against guys who are bigger than me, I try to embarrass them. That’s just me.”

Not that Coleman gets overmatched in battles of strength. He works low to the ground, using leverage to even the odds against players who might outweigh him by 30 or 40 pounds. For instance, the Eagles’ starting linemen averaged almost 331 pounds, but they struggled to contain Coleman in one-on-one schemes.

“I’ve been double-teamed and triple-teamed since I was in high school,” he said. “As long as someone makes the play, I’m fine. If they want to put two or three guys on me, that will free up my teammates to cause havoc.”

Perhaps the most striking indicator of Coleman’s value to the Atlanta defense was demonstrated in those three games he missed last season.

The Falcons led the league in sacks with 48, but managed only one while he was out. Also, they surrendered almost 35 points a game during his recovery, including an embarrassing 56-10 loss at Kansas City. With him, the average plummeted to just under 18 points.

Coleman shrugs off his impact and insists that he’s far from satisfied.

“I don’t feel like one of the best,” he said. “I’m still trying to prove myself.”

AP-ES-09-14-05 1829EDT

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