Defense has been quiet key for Falcons

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

ATLANTA -- If you look at the numbers, Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw for 422 yards Sunday. If you look at reality, it might have been one of the most meaningless 400-yard games in NFL history.

The fact is the Atlanta Falcons shut down the league's most prolific offense in a 34-20 victory against the Saints at the Georgia Dome.

Forget rookie quarterback Matt Ryan (248 passing yards and two touchdowns) and running back Michael Turner (97 rushing yards and a touchdown) for just a minute.

There's another reason why the 6-3 Falcons are the NFL's most surprising team. The unsung story is the defense. It, like everything else with the Falcons these days, is far better than anybody expected.

"You've just got to remember, in the end, defense wins championships. That's the bottom line,'' said veteran safety Lawyer Milloy.

As one of the few people in Atlanta with a Super Bowl ring (he won one with New England), Milloy is more than qualified to talk about the evolution of the Falcons defense.

"I like the way we're progressing as a defense,'' Milloy said.

Words like "progressing'' and "a process'' are buzzwords for the Falcons these days. Coach Mike Smith frequently talks about "the process'' and, once again on Sunday, he refused to talk about anything beyond the next game.

But the Falcons are in a playoff race and their defense is a huge part of that. What the defense did against the Saints might have been more impressive than what it did a week earlier in a shutout of the Oakland Raiders.

For most of the first half, the Falcons made Brees and the Saints look a lot like the Raiders. Brees threw for only 112 yards and was intercepted once. That gave Ryan, Turner and the rest of Atlanta's offense a chance to build a 17-6 halftime lead.

The most impressive thing was the way the Falcons did it.

"One of our goals every week is to impose our will on the opponents,'' running back Jerious Norwood said. "I think that's exactly what the defense did today.''

Smith has a defensive background, and he and defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder came up with a game plan that imposed heavily on the Saints (4-5). Smith and Van Gorder tried something new and it worked.

"You watch the film and opposing teams weren't really disrupting them coming off the line of scrimmage,'' linebacker Keith Brooking said.

The Falcons made it a priority to disrupt New Orleans' receivers and knock them off their routes. That helped limit the Saints to only two field goals in the first half. They did have an opportunity for another, but coach Sean Payton elected to go for it on a fourth-and-3 at the Atlanta 28-yard line with 59 seconds remaining in the half.

That's when cornerback Chris Houston made what was, to that moment, the biggest play of his career. Houston jumped in and batted down a Brees pass intended for Lance Moore on a play that made a huge statement for Atlanta's defense.

"Almost all passes were contested,'' Smith said. "There were very few where they had open receivers.''

Atlanta's defense set the tone for the entire game on the first play after the opening kickoff. Brees made one the few bad decisions he's made all season, throwing into double coverage on a deep route to Devery Henderson. Safety Erik Coleman intercepted the pass.

Brees put up some big numbers (including two touchdowns) in the second half, but it didn't really matter. Atlanta's defense still made plays when it mattered most. Rookie cornerback Chevis Jackson, who got increased playing time because of an injury to Brent Grimes, picked off a Brees pass and returned it 95 yards for a touchdown with 1:17 left in the game.

Houston might have eclipsed his first-half heroics by intercepting a pass in the end zone to kill a New Orleans drive with 4:29 left.

"We accepted the challenge,'' Milloy said. "I think everybody in the secondary knows their role and everybody played their part.''

That's kind of been the story of the Atlanta defense all season. Aside from veteran defensive end John Abraham, who recorded his 11th sack of the season, Atlanta doesn't have many big names on defense.

But the Falcons are making a name for themselves. They're doing it with a secondary that proved itself against New Orleans, a group of linebackers (rookie Curtis Lofton, Michael Boley and Brooking) who might be one of the league's best-kept secrets and Abraham's pass rushing up front.

Aside from the sack, Abraham put consistent pressure on Brees, knocking him down several times. Perhaps the only thing the Atlanta defense doesn't have yet is a playmaker -- beyond Abraham -- in the front seven. But that's a minor detail at this point. Everything else has fallen into place perfectly for this defense.