An offense led by Matt Ryan was expected to be the Atlanta Falcons’ biggest strength heading into the season, but the defense has had just as much to do with their fast start.
Seeking their first four-game winning streak in six years, the Falcons look for another solid defensive effort Sunday when they visit a Cleveland Browns team expecting to have Jake Delhomme back at quarterback.
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Led by Ryan, running back Michael Turner, receiver Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta (3-1) ranks sixth in the NFL in total offense (389.3 yards) and ninth in scoring (23.3 points).
Ryan drove the Falcons 68 yards to set up Matt Bryant’s 43-yard field goal with 2 seconds remaining in last Sunday’s 16-14 victory over San Francisco. That drive started at their own 7-yard line after White chased down 49ers cornerback Nate Clements and knocked the ball loose as he tackled him from behind following the interception of a pass by Ryan.
“We’ve got lots of things that we’ve got to correct, but we’re 3-1 through the first quarter of the season,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said.
One area that doesn’t need a lot of fixing is the defense. Atlanta leads the NFL with eight interceptions and has allowed an average of 15.0 points, sixth-best in the league.
The Falcons surrendered a season-low 262 yards against the 49ers and have forced three turnovers in each game of their winning streak. They haven’t won four straight since 2004, when they last won the NFC South.
“We understand that our offense is a high-powered, really good offense,” safety Thomas 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.”
The defense now looks to shut down a Cleveland team that could have Delhomme back after he badly sprained his right ankle in the season opener. The Browns (1-3) started backup Seneca Wallace in the last three games.
Cleveland coach Eric Mangini said Delhomme, who passed for 589 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions in two games against the Falcons last season with Carolina, will start this week if he’s healthy.
Wallace led the Browns to their first victory, a 23-20 win over defending AFC North champion Cincinnati last Sunday, after the team blew fourth-quarter leads in losing their first three games by a total of 12 points.
“This does nothing but guarantee that we are not going 0-16,” linebacker Scott Fujita said. “It feels great to get the first win. We put a lot of time to get that win, but you can’t blow it out of proportion.
“We should’ve won the first three games. That’s the bottom line. Now we have to find a way to build on this and get things moving in the right direction.”
That might mean continuing to hand the ball off to workhorse Peyton Hillis, who has suddenly emerged as one of the NFL’s most punishing running backs.
After rushing for 144 yards and a touchdown against a stout Baltimore defense in Week 3, Hillis ran for 102 yards and a score against the Bengals. Cleveland leaned on Hillis heavily down the stretch Sunday to help run the final 4:41 off the clock.
If he plays, the 250-pound bruiser now looks to batter an Atlanta defense that ranks 11th in the NFL against the run (96.3 yards). Hillis had limited participation in practice Thursday, and was later added to Cleveland’s injury report with an unspecified thigh injury.
Smith expects a tough challenge trying to stop Hillis
“He’s a big, strong back and we’re going to have to put our pads on,” Smith said. “I told the guys today it’s going to be a two-chinstrap game, there’s no doubt about it. Everybody needs to pack an extra one because it will be a physical football game.”
Hillis, who has scored a rushing touchdown in each of the first four games to become the first Browns back to do that since Greg Pruitt had five in a row in 1975, faced the Falcons two years ago, while with Denver. He ran for 44 yards and two TDs on 10 carries.
This is the first meeting between these teams since Cleveland’s 17-13 win in 2006.
The Browns are 10-2 all-time against the Falcons and have won four straight in Cleveland since a 31-14 loss in 1971.