ATLANTA -- They still are wearing disguises -- lots of them -- but the days of the Atlanta Falcons masquerading as a team capable of going deep into the postseason might be ready to end.
If you saw Atlanta's defense in Monday night’s 27-21 win against the Denver Broncos at the Georgia Dome, you probably didn't recognize it. It looked nothing like the Atlanta defense that spent the previous four seasons without establishing any sort of true identity.
The Falcons have an identity now under new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. They're aggressive, they've got swagger, and, most important of all, the defense is capable of winning a game on a night when the offense never fully hit its stride.
The Falcons intercepted Peyton Manning on his first three drives, the first time in his career Manning has opened a game with three straight interceptions.
"It all came down to disguising things," said safety William Moore, who played what easily was the best game of his career.
Moore set up Atlanta's first touchdown with an interception and came up with a critical sack in the fourth quarter to help ice the game.
Let's begin with Moore's interception because that set the tone for the game. It started with a disguise. On Denver's third play of the game, Moore started off lining up at middle linebacker. As the ball was snapped, he quickly became a safety, dropping fast into coverage.
Moore picked off Manning’s pass at the Denver 34-yard line and returned it to the 1-yard line to set up Michael Turner's touchdown three plays later.
"It all comes down to looks," Moore said. "You can't show your hand to Peyton Manning, or he'll eat you alive."
The Falcons threw all sorts of looks at Manning, and he threw all sorts of uncharacteristic passes. They went almost all game with only two linebackers, sometimes only one, on the field. They lined up defensive backs at linebacker, sometimes dropping them into coverage and sometimes having them blitz.
Safety Thomas DeCoud picked off Manning on Denver's second drive, and cornerback Robert McClain, who played only briefly while a couple of corners were banged up, came up with the first interception of his career on Denver's third drive.
"We were able to disguise our coverages pretty well," Atlanta coach Mike Smith said.
That’s an understatement. The Falcons (2-0) left a certain Hall of Famer looking hopelessly confused. That’s because the Falcons looked nothing like the play-not-to-lose defense they were under former coordinator Brian VanGorder. Under his watch, the Falcons played plenty of Cover 2 and always seemed to be on their heels.
There’s nothing laid-back about Nolan’s defense. Outside linebackers Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas were all over the field, and the Falcons kept decent pressure on Manning. But it wasn't just Manning who was off balance.
Denver running back Knowshon Moreno lost a fumble near the end of the first quarter. Nicholas forced it and Weatherspoon recovered it as the Falcons finished the first quarter with four turnovers.
"It’s Peyton Manning," DeCoud said. “We weren't expecting to get three or four turnovers right off the bat."
It turned out to be a very fortunate thing that the Falcons got those early turnovers because their offense wasn't nearly as explosive as the defense. The Falcons managed only a touchdown and a field goal after the three Manning interceptions. They got only a field goal after the Moreno fumble. The offense seemed to go conservative at a time it could have been blowing the Broncos out of the building. Turner looked slow as he finished with 42 yards on 17 carries, and 15 of those yards came on a run late in the fourth quarter.
Wide receiver Julio Jones, who looked so good in the season opener, dropped several catchable passes and finished with four catches for 14 yards. Quarterback Matt Ryan (24-of-36 for 219 yards with two touchdowns), receiver Roddy White (eight catches for 102 yards and a touchdown) and tight end Tony Gonzalez (seven catches for 70 yards and a touchdown) were the bright spots for an offense that wasn’t nearly as good as it could have been.
But that's why the Falcons should take plenty of optimism out of this one. You look at their offensive talent and you know they'll usually be more productive on that side of the ball.
The defense? That's another story.
This is an entirely new defensive scheme and a whole different attitude. If the Atlanta defense can go out and almost single-handedly beat Manning, the Falcons should be able to win a lot more games and they won't have to do it with only offense.
They suddenly have a defensive swagger.
"Hopefully, we made a big statement around the league," Moore said. "We went out and played an excellent game against the best quarterback in the league. If we have that [swagger] all season, it's going to be a great season."
If the Falcons play defense like this all season, they could be more than the winning team they've been in the Ryan/Smith era. They could have an explosive offense and an explosive defense, and that -- at long last -- could take them a long way in the postseason.