ATLANTA– The Atlanta Falcons pledged to get younger and faster on defense in the offseason -- and they did -- but in their impressive season-opening defensive performance in a 19-7 win over the Miami Dolphins at the Georgia Dome, the thirty-somethings were the ones who made most of the big plays.
Thirty-one-year-old defensive end John Abrahamproduced two sacks, 33-year-old linebacker Mike Petersonforced a fumble that ended a Dolphins' drive in the red zone and also intercepted a pass, and 30-year-old corner back Brian Williamsreturned a fumble 53 yards to set up a Falcons' field goal.
Not to be completely outdone by his elders, second-year defensive end Kroy Biermannnotched a career-high two sacks and forced a fumble and second-year linebacker Curtis Loftonalso forced a fumble and led the team with 11 tackles.
In the end, an all-around team performance led to a showing that few saw coming: The Falcons kept the Dolphins scoreless until the final 3:21 of regulation, forced four turnovers and held Miami to 259 total yards.
In comparison, when the Falcons ranked 24th overall in total yards last season, they allowed 348.2 per game and they earned the 11th best scoring defense in the NFL by yielding 20.3 points per game. So, one game into the season -- against a quality opponent -- the Falcons are ahead on both counts.
Head Coach Mike Smithcautioned that it was only the first game of the season, but nonetheless improvement is improvement -- especially measured against a preseason that alarmed many.
"I don't put a whole lot of stock in what happens in the preseason," said Smith, whose background comes as a defensive coordinator, most recently at Jacksonville before the Falcons hired him away to start last season.
"This is a young group of players that haven't spent a whole lot of time together. They will continue to get better. I thought as a coaching staff they did a great job. [Defensive Coordinator] Brian VanGorderand his staff did a great job putting the game plan together. And I think they'll continue to get better. But I want to say it again: We have a lot of things we can improve on. This is just week one."
A number of reasons might explain why the defense played so much better in the season opener than the in the preseason. For one, the veterans like Abraham and Peterson appeared to find a higher gear -- Abraham recorded one sack on a highlight-reel play by bowling over Dolphins Pro-Bowl tackle Jake Long and sacking Chad Pennington in one motion.
The presence of Williams, signed the day after Jacksonville cut him one week ago today, who started at corner is another.
He also lined up against an inside receiver in the Falcons' nickel packages. Smith said he thought Williams "made some significant plays in the ballgame."
Finally -- and perhaps most significantly -- the Falcons did little game-planning during the preseason and, quite the to the contrary, put some players in more difficult situations to see how they reacted so the staff could better evaluate them. On Sunday, the game plan had few flaws.
"It's preseason, I've been saying that the whole time," said Peterson, who ranked second on the team with seven tackles. "I can't take a whole lot from it. We're just going out and playing [base] defense. Once the season starts, you study the opponent you're playing, study their scheme."
Williams wasn't around for the preseason, but his familiarity with the defense that Smith ran at Jacksonville -- and with having the same defensive backs coach in Alvin Reynoldsat Jacksonville as he does with the Falcons -- made it easy for the team to start Williams despite the short amount of time he's been with the team.
"We came to a comfort level with Brian understanding our scheme," Smith said. "He's familiar with what we've done in the past and we felt it was the best opportunity for him to play."
Williams credited the defensive line's play.
"For our defensive line to come out and get sacks, it just made things easy for us on the back end," he said.
Biermann, who recorded two sacks during the final preseason game, followed that up now that it counts. His sack in the first quarter forced a fumble, which was recovered by Jonathan Babineaux, and another in the third quarter on third down caused Miami to punt.
Biermann said he has learned a lot from Abraham, one of the NFL's best pass rushers.
"He's always giving me pointers and helping me along," Biermann said. "Even throughout last year he was a tremendous impact on me. He knows what he's doing. I try to learn as much as I can from him."
In the end, Peterson, one of the defense's leaders, graded the team only a B or B-. Only a shutout, he said, deserves an A.
As Smith said, there is a lot that can be corrected.
MORE FROM THE FALCONS-DOLPHINS GAME:
- GAMEDAY LIVE:Complete game coverage from AF.com
- GAME CENTER:Stats and more from NFL.com
- GAME FEATURE:Falcons defense steps up in Week 1 win
- FROM THE BLOG:Notes from the game in J. Michael Moore's blog
- FIRST TAKE:Head Coach Mike Smith | Ryan | Gonzalez | Biermann | Peterson
- NFL NETWORK:Highlights and interviews from NFL Network
- INTERVIEWS:Locker room interviews and more Falcons-Dolphins video
- GAME NOTES:Offcial game notes from the Georgia Dome press box
- PHOTOS:Images from the Falcons season-opening win
- QUOTABLE:Quotes from Falcons coaches and players | Dolphins
- INACTIVES:Inactive players and starters from Sunday's game
- BOARDS:Talk about the game with other fans on FalconsLIFE