Falcons’ defense steps up to stay undefeated

ATLANTA — To the right side of the Falcons’ locker room, in the short corner, there is life.

There is an energy, a cluster of defensive backs each talking over one another. They are an enthusiastic bunch, as players on winning football teams are wont to be, reveling in jokes made funnier via victory. The laughter grows louder with every win.

It’s been building for eight weeks.

In the midst of the Falcons’ 8-0 run and their multifaceted offense’s production — tight end Tony Gonzalez calls it the “P.Y.P. offense, pick your poison” — Atlanta’s defense is quietly rising to the challenge every week. Until the game ends. That’s when the secondary’s station begins to buzz once more.

“That’s how champions do, you know?” veteran cornerback Asante Samuel (somewhat rhetorically) asked media members following the team’s 19-13 victory over the Dallas Cowboys. “You step on the field, you step on the practice field, as a champion. And we play with confidence and swag and that’s what I think it’s about.”

In the early portion of the season, turnovers were the unit’s storyline. The team forced 17 through the first six games — one of the best marks in the NFL. No offense was safe. Pro Bowl quarterbacks and rookies alike were pressured into making mistakes.

Then, things changed.

“It’s kind of the anatomy of a season. If you come out fast and make a lot of plays, that’ll make other teams’ offenses more conservative whereas you kinda have to adjust your game and then just play solid football because they’re not gonna take those chances,” said safety Thomas DeCoud, who has four interceptions this campaign. “When you’re leading the NFL in turnovers as a defense, it’s definitely something that weighs on an opposing offense’s mind.

“I think people have been less susceptible to trying us.”

Atlanta’s defense has not forced a turnover in its last two outings now.

Strangely enough, those games came against Tony Romo and Michael Vick, two of the league’s notorious turnover machines. Through seven weeks, Romo led the NFL with 13 interceptions. He did not throw a single pick against Atlanta, ending up with a respectable 25-of-35 passing for 321 yards and a touchdown Sunday evening.

But while the highlight moments have disappeared, DeCoud and his teammates have locked down in other areas. 

Dallas was held to just three third-down conversions on 10 attempts Sunday night. In the process, the Falcons held the league’s third-ranked passing attack (299.1 yards per game) to just 13 points. Dallas also went 0-for-2 in the redzone, settling instead for field goals, three-point consolation prizes that are rarely going to beat Matt Ryan’s offense.

If it’s fundamentals, they are working. If it’s patience, that’s working, too.

What isn’t working in Atlanta right now might be the shorter answer.

“We gotta become better finishers on defense,” cornerback Dunta Robinson said. “If we get off the field right there (in the fourth quarter), our offense was hot. The outcome is still a win, but it’s closer than it should have been. … When you have a team down, what is it, 16-6, you’ve gotta get off the field.”

Atlanta’s offense, on the flip side, has been the one to finish games — kicking two game-winning field goals, for example — so Robinson may have a point about sharing the load. But this is also a unit that has now overcome Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, Michael Vick and Tony Romo. Sure, not every one of those quarterbacks (or the talent surrounding them) leads an elite-level offense, but the threat is present nonetheless.

Atlanta remained undefeated Sunday night in the Georgia Dome primarily due to its defense for once. As Ryan slowly dissected the Cowboys’ offense, the defense bought time.

On a night when the team’s best linebacker, Sean Weatherspoon, was held out due to an ankle injury, there was little panic. Even when starting nose tackle Peria Jerry was sidelined and corner Asante Samuel exited (briefly) with a neck injury, the Falcons continued to make stand after stand against Romo and his talented set of receivers. The 13 Dallas points were the second-fewest the Falcons have allowed in a game this season.

It’s par for the course by now. 

Even when those cherished turnovers aren’t coming, Atlanta is slowly beginning to look like a team built for winning in the playoffs, inside or out.

“You’d like to be a team that turns it over and I felt like we had two turnovers there in the first half. One was a dropped interception and then we had a penalty on the turnover as well,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “You’re going to win in a lot of different ways. The League is so close each and every week, 56 to 60 percent of the games are eight points or less. That’s the way it’s going to be and you have to play for 60 minutes.”

In other words: Finish.

So far, so good.