Falcons helping out offense by getting defensive

In Thomas DeCoud’s locker is a shiny gold belt, akin to

something a heavyweight boxing champion might wear. The Atlanta

Falcons pass it around each week to the defensive back who does the

best job in a series of ball-catching drills.

From the next locker, Dunta Robinson eyes the gaudy prize.

”Thomas gets to brag for a week,” the cornerback said. ”Next

Tuesday, it won’t be in his locker. I haven’t won it yet, but

that’s soon to come.”

Even though it’s all in good fun, the belt does symbolize what

the Atlanta defense hopes to become.

The best.

Usually one of the league’s lowest-ranked units, the Falcons

have spent the past couple of years trying to upgrade their speed

and athleticism. Those efforts are clearly paying off.

Atlanta (3-1) has allowed just 15 points a game, which ranks

sixth in the NFL. The Falcons haven’t finished that low since their

1998 Super Bowl team gave up the fourth fewest.

They also have taken a huge chunk off their passing yards, which

was just what they had in mind landing Robinson as their major

free-agent acquisition of the offseason. He’s holding down one side

of the field, while 5-foot-9 Brent Grimes, who went undrafted out

of Division II and spent time in NFL Europa, has shown he belongs

in the big time at the other corner.

”We’ve got the right group of guys,” first-round pick Sean

Weatherspoon said. ”You can just feel it. Nobody resents anyone on

this defense. Even me, being a rookie, when I say, `Come on, guys,

let’s go,’ no one looks at me and says, `Hush up, rookie.’ You

definitely can sense that we mesh well together.”

Indeed, the Falcons have an intriguing mix on defense.

Linebacker Mike Peterson and end John Abraham have each been around

more than a decade. Players such as Robinson, safety Erik Coleman

and tackle Jonathan Babineux are right in their primes. The last

two drafts have produced Weatherspoon and 2009 top pick Peria

Jerry, who starts at tackle.

But the guys to really keep an eye on are in their third years:

Grimes, DeCoud at safety, end Kroy Biermann and middle linebacker

Curtis Lofton, who has quickly established himself as the leader of

the defense even though others have been around much longer.

”When guys are hitting that third and fourth year, that’s when

they start to become the players they’re supposed to be,” tight

end Tony Gonzalez said. ”If you can’t figure it out by year three

or four, more than likely you’re not going to figure it out. These

guys are starting to figure it out. They realize how good they can

be.”

Granted, the Falcons have benefited the first quarter of the

season by playing offensively challenged teams such as Arizona and

San Francisco. They also caught a break in Week 1 against the

Pittsburgh Steelers, who didn’t have suspended quarterback Ben

Roethlisberger.

But considering where Atlanta has been mired much of its

history, no one’s quibbling about the improvement shown so far.

Over the past decade, the Falcons have never finished higher

than 14th in yards allowed, and they’ve generally placed in the

bottom third of the league rankings. Last year, Atlanta was 21st in

total defense, largely because only four teams gave up more yards

through the air.

That’s why the Falcons gave Robinson, one of the league’s better

lockdown cornerbacks, a six-year contract that included about $22.5

million in guaranteed money. Robinson has yet to make an

interception, which isn’t surprising – teams rarely throw his

way.

But everyone else has gotten chances. Second-year safety William

Moore leads the teams with two interceptions. Grimes and DeCoud

each have one, as do Lofton and Peterson. Overall, the Falcons lead

the NFL with eight picks.

”It’s a combination of experience and chemistry,” DeCoud said.

”We’ve played with each other a couple of years now. It’s time to

cut loose and go make plays.”

Cleveland coach Eric Mangini, whose team faces the Falcons on

Sunday, is impressed with the guys up front.

”They are able to generate pressure with their front four,

generate pressure through their blitz packages and then they do a

nice job of creating some negative runs with the penetration and

the fast flow linebackers and that type of approach,” he said.

Coming in, everyone knew defense was the key to Atlanta’s

season.

Quarterback Matt Ryan leads an offense that is loaded with

weapons, including Gonzalez, running back Michael Turner and

receiver Roddy White. So it’s no surprise to see the Falcons ranked

among the top 10 in passing, rushing and total yards.

”Our offense is a high-powered, really good offense,” DeCoud

said. ”We felt like we needed to do everything we could on the

defense to carry our weight and not necessarily be a

weakness.”

For now, they’ll make do with that gold belt.

But if this keeps up, they all may get a prize at the end of the

season.

”We’re climbing that ladder to be the best, and that process is

lovely,” said Peterson, a 12-year veteran, breaking into a big

smile. ”I’m chasing that ring, man. I know my clock is

ticking.”

AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this

report.