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Defense key to Falcons' resurgence to top of NFC South

The Falcons defense celebrates after Stephen Nicholas intercepts Cleveland Browns QB Jake Delhomme to seal Atlanta's 20-10 win over Cleveland on Sunday.
The Falcons defense celebrates after Stephen Nicholas intercepts Cleveland Browns QB Jake Delhomme to seal Atlanta's 20-10 win over Cleveland on Sunday.
(Getty Images/Matt Sullivan)

Kroy Biermann leaped, tipped the football, dove and caught it, got up and scored. The Predator had two sacks. Stephen Nicholas had a late interception to seal the Atlanta Falcons’ 20-10 win over the Cleveland Browns.

The Falcons defense is back with a vengeance this season.

“I think we’re meshing well,” Biermann told the team’s official website. “I think guys are trusting each other, we’re running our scheme and we’re doing good things.”

The Falcons defense is much improved this season and is the main reason why the Dirty Birds are perched atop the NFC South.

Atlanta has allowed a league-third best 14 points per game and is eighth against the rush and 19th against the pass through five games this season. Contrast that to last season when the team finished 10th against the run and fifth-worst in the league in passing situations.

Part of the reason for Atlanta’s success is the diversity of its D. Through five games, the team has picked off an opposing quarterback a league-leading 10 times. Nine different Falcons have come down with those INTs, with Biermann’s being the most athletic of all.

“I just happened to bat the ball, looked up and it was there, caught it and rolled up and took off,” Biermann said of his game-changing pick. “I wanted to score, I wanted to get it and I was fortunate to get it.”

Perhaps there is some luck involved, but you make your own breaks in this league with a combination of preparation and on-field skill. Former University of Georgia defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has been a master of deception, cloaking Atlanta’s defense to suffocate the opposition.

Coming into Sunday’s tilt against the Falcons, the Browns’ offensive line had allowed just four sacks and ripped open large enough holes to give downhill rusher Peyton Hillis back-to-back 100-yard rushing games.

Atlanta’s ferocious defense sacked the Cleveland quarterbacks three times, one of which forced Browns starter Seneca Wallace to the sideline for the rest of the game. They also limited Hillis to a season-low 28 yards on the ground.

“We talked about having a ‘party at the ball’ – getting to the football – and we wanted to make sure we could get as many hats on the ball carrier, regardless of who the ball carrier was,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “I thought the gameplan was executed extremely well, especially against the run.”

Atlanta’s party begins with the resurgence of defensive end John Abraham, who had a disappointing 5-1/2 sacks last season. The Predator worked hard in the offseason to get ready for 2010 and the hard work has paid off. He is back to his old form, recording four sacks in Atlanta’s first five games.

Abraham’s linemates haven’t been shabby either. Jonathan Babineaux has a pair of sacks. Biermann, who is dating “Tardy for the Party” singer and “Real Housewives of Atlanta” star Kim Zolciak, hasn’t been late for many QB feasts. He had three sacks in the preseason and another in the regular season. Even the long-missing Jamaal Anderson has downed an opposing QB behind the line of scrimmage this season.

Atlanta’s success is not just limited to its front four. Its secondary and linebacker corps are much improved this season.

Curtis Lofton leads the team with 37 tackles and has two sacks. When not bothered by ankle and knee injuries, rookie Sean Weatherspoon has looked much like a veteran, staying cool under pressure and not getting burned on many plays. While Weatherspoon’s primary backup, Stephen Nicholas has 22 tackles and notched his first career interception to seal the Falcons’ win over the Browns.

Lofton, Nicholas and Mike Peterson each have an interception this season.

The addition of Dunta Robinson at corner – a position where the Falcons were vastly undersized last year – has shored up a pass defense that was susceptible to the big play. Second-year player William Moore has been sensational ever since he replaced Erik Coleman at safety in Week 2. Moore is the lone Falcons defender to have two picks this season.

Experience has turned Brent Grimes and Thomas DeCoud into better football players in their third year in the league – a year veteran Tony Gonzalez says that players start to “get it.”

To a man, Atlanta’s defense hasn’t allowed a play over 20 yards over its last two games. But for Biermann, that’s not good enough.

“We’re still making mistakes though, that’s evident,” he said. “We have to get those corrected. We have to get hitting on all cylinders and get going. It’s good, we’re happy with what we’re doing, but there’s always room for improvement.”

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