CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Young Falcons defenders making sure you'll know who they are

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ATLANTA -- At 33, linebacker Mike Peterson is the oldest starter on the Atlanta Falcons' defense, the pops of a group of young, athletic players.

So I went to him with this question:

Do you think fans can name more than two players on your defense?

Veteran leader Mike Peterson knows the Falcons' D will get more credit as Atlanta keeps winning. (Getty Images)  
Veteran leader Mike Peterson knows the Falcons' D will get more credit as Atlanta keeps winning. (Getty Images)  
"If they're outside of Atlanta, they probably can't," Peterson said. "Recognition comes with winning. Recognition comes with playing good defense. At the end of the season, they'll be able to name more than one person."

What's wrong with starting to know them right now? It's time to become acquainted with those 11 players. Matt Ryan is a star in the making at quarterback, and the Falcons can run it and throw it on offense, but their 20-17 victory Sunday over the Green Bay Packers was about the defense as much as anything.

Yes, Ryan led the Falcons on a drive to the 47-yard game-winning field goal by Matt Bryant with nine seconds left, but it was the way the defense contained the explosive Green Bay offense that was the difference.

Using a three-man rush for much of the day, dropping eight into coverage, forced Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers to be patient and took away his big plays. The longest pass play was 35 yards, and it came on a flea-flicker.

Rodgers threw for 344 yards, but he also lost a fumble on a quarterback sneak from the 1 and he was forced to scramble 12 times for 51 yards because of the coverage. Take that yardage away, and the Packers ran it just 11 times for 26 yards.

"We heard all that stuff about being the weak link, the liability of the team," Peterson said. "We're slowly closing that book."

The Falcons started five players 25 or under on the defense Sunday. That's not counting rookie Sean Weatherspoon, who usually starts but is fighting back after a hamstring injury. He was still on the field a lot against the Packers.

When Weatherspoon returns in his normal spot, the Falcons defense will have two rookie starters, one in his second season (safety William Moore) and four in their third (end Kroy Biermann, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, safety Thomas DeCoud and corner Brent Grimes).

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"We're playing some pretty good defensive football," corner Dunta Robinson said. "We still haven't played the game we're looking for. We haven't played that game yet. That's a great offense we played, one that's been on fire. To hold that team to 17 points is huge."

The Packers came in averaging 25.7 points and had scored 76 in the past two games, with Rodgers throwing seven touchdown passes and no interceptions.

That's why slowing him was the strategy and making him be more patient was the key. The Packers used five-receiver sets much more against the Falcons than they had all season. That's why the Atlanta plan to drop eight and rush three was so effective.

"They're such a quick-throw team that it's hard to pressure them," DeCoud said. "We wanted to disrupt his timing. It's so hard to get to him anyway."

Said Robinson: "If we have to drop back into coverage, we have the guys in the back end to get it done."

They were helped by the Rodgers fumble at the goal line. The Packers drove from their 15 to the Falcons 1 before Rodgers fumbled the sneak and Peterson recovered in the end zone.

Atlanta took it and moved to a 10-3 lead before the half on a 4-yard touchdown pass from Ryan to Tony Gonzalez with 12 seconds left. Green Bay tied it at 10 on a 1-yard run by Rodgers before Atlanta took a 17-10 lead on Michael Turner's 1-yard run.

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The Packers' defense could not tackle Michael Turner (110 yards, one touchdown), which allowed Atlanta to win the time of possession battle. Green Bay had its chances, but a costly Aaron Rodgers fumble on Atlanta's 1 yard line and a turnover on downs in the Falcons' territory were the deciding factors.
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Atlanta Falcons
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The Falcons proved why they're one of, if not the, best team in the NFL. After giving up a game-tying score, the Falcons responded with a game-winning field goal. Atlanta is now 7-1 in games decided in either the fourth quarter or overtime.
By Jason Butt
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That set the stage for two big drives, one the Falcons defense won, the other it didn't. Faced with fourth-and-1 from the Falcons 41, Packers coach Mike McCarthy opted to go for it. Since the Packers had very little in terms of running, Rodgers tried to throw. In a rare change of strategy, the Falcons brought corner Brian Williams off the edge to force a quick throw that Greg Jennings couldn't pull in for a catch.

"That was a big stop there," Peterson said. "We switched up there, and it worked."

Rodgers got another chance on the next possession and this time he tied it. He moved the Packers from their own 10 and faced a fourth-and-goal from the 10 with just over a minute left. The Falcons opted to rush three again, giving Rodgers a ton of time to find Jordy Nelson in the corner of the end for a touchdown to tie it.

"It seemed like forever," Lofton said. "I kept looking around to see if guys were matched up and nobody was running loose. That's just him. That's him. He's going to extend plays and his guys are going to go get the ball. But you know what? He left a little too much time for our offense."

Thanks to a facemask penalty on the kickoff, Ryan only had to move the Falcons 31 yards to set up Bryant's game-winner. That kick gave Ryan a 19-1 record in games he has started at home.

Ryan and Turner and Roddy White and Gonzalez are names people know. But with this team 9-2 and owner of the best record in the NFC, it's time to get to know the guys on the other side of the ball.

Guys named Abraham and Peterson and DeCoud and Lofton and Grimes. They might not be household names to most, but they will be the difference in whether this team makes a real Super Bowl run.

Don't wait until then. It will be too late. They're getting better and they have a quarterback on the other side to bail them out when they don't get it done.

That quarterback is letting his hair grow, even though he really doesn't like the look.

"There's no way I'm cutting it," Ryan said. "I'm superstitious. We're on a streak. Not a chance I cut it."

"What if you don't lose until February?" I asked. "You'll look like Tom Brady."

"I hope it doesn't get that long, but I'm not cutting it," Ryan said.

The way his defense is improving, he might have Brady's German tourist look soon. That won't be good on Ryan's head, but I bet he'll take it.

"This defense won't be the reason we don't win," Lofton said.

Not anymore they won't be, even if you could win a lot of bar bets by naming just five of them.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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