*A dominant physical performance on defense allowed the Atlanta Falcons to go on the road, force three turnovers and knock the Cleveland Browns off the ball. After a 20-10 victory and a 4-1 record, the Falcons' physical play is leaving opponents in its wake to get the season started. *
CLEVELAND –There were points in Sunday's 20-10 win over the Cleveland Browns when running back, Peyton Hillis, limped on and off the field between runs.
He entered the game after a week of struggling with a thigh injury and the Atlanta Falcons further dinged him up, slowing the emerging running back to 28 yards rushing and one big play, a 19-yard touchdown catch.
The technicalities of every week's game plan for Atlanta may change, but the coinciding theme for every game is to play a physical brand of football that wears down opponents mentally and physically.
That trademark was on display on Sunday as the Falcons took it to the Browns, knocking out their starting quarterback, Seneca Wallace, at the end of the first half on a John Abraham sack, his first of two on the day, and keeping Hillis under wraps.
The already hobbled Jake Delhomme, a quarterback Atlanta saw for seven seasons in Carolina, took over for Wallace and they dialed up the pressure.
"When Delhomme came in, we knew he wasn't that mobile, so I was trying to do a lot more bull rushes so he couldn't move out of the pocket and give him a harder chance to throw the ball," Abraham said following the game.
The pressure worked, forcing Delhomme to throw two interceptions and with the Cleveland running game stalling all Atlanta had to do was find an opportunity to make their own move against an equally feisty and physical defense.
After two Matt Bryant field goals, Atlanta took the lead for good in the third quarter when quarterback Matt Ryan found wide receiver Roddy White down the middle of the field for a 45-yard touchdown strike, giving Atlanta a 13-10 edge.
Then late in the fourth quarter, Atlanta made a play that summed up their effort and physical approach in search of a win against Cleveland.
With the Browns driving on their own 48, defensive end Kroy Biermann barreled through on third down unblocked, charging for Delhomme. As the quarterback back pedaled to pass, Biermann continued coming, arms raised and knocked down the throw.
The defensive end managed to catch the tipped pass and rumbled 41 yards for the game's final touchdown.
"It was probably one of the better individual efforts I've ever seen," Atlanta head coach Mike Smith said of the diving interception and resulting touchdown. "To knock that ball up in the air and to be able to get the ball basically right off the edge of the ground and then rumble in for a touchdown. That was a big turning point in the ball game."
It was the kind of game the Falcons expected, a trip against a Cleveland team that hadn't lost any game all season by more than a touchdown and was quickly getting a reputation, despite their record, as a deceptively hard-nosed team.
"It was a hard-fought game," Smith said. "I was really proud of the way our guys played. We knew we had to come in here and stop a really good running attack and they were very good against the run as well. We rushed for 165-plus yards and held them to 48, so we got that accomplished."
Both sides of the Atlanta ball played at a physically high level, forcing an inexperienced, yet well coached, Browns team into mistakes. Once Atlanta's offense provided some breathing room, the defense knew it was time to shut the door once and for all, after keeping them in the game all day.
"We did a great job up front, DBs (defensive backs), linebackers, everybody played well on defense," Abraham said. "I think that we know we've got to keep ourselves in games sometimes, this is one of those games. We knew it was going to be a hard fought game and I think we stayed consistent for the whole game. We gave up one or two plays here and there, but in all I think we played well."
With the win, Atlanta is now 4-1 on the season and more impressively 2-1 on the road, after going 3-5 away from the Georgia Dome last season. More impressive than simply winning on the road was the manner in which it came, pounding the Browns with a three sack day (defensive tackle Jamaal Anderson added the other), one forced and recovered fumble and two interceptions in a win that saw them hand out a little more beating than they received.
After the game, Ryan explained how Atlanta has repeatedly showed a strong will each week, winning in a variety of ways and taking victories from opponents with mental and physical exertion.
"I think there's a confidence in this team. Regardless of what the situation is, we're going to go out there and make it happen."