WHILE INSTALLINGhis Cover 2 scheme last year, coach Mike Smith showed tape of the defenses hehad coordinated in Jacksonville the five seasons previous. What stood out mostto middle linebacker Curtis Lofton was the man playing his position, MikePeterson. "He was always going downhill, smashing somebody and makingplays," says the 6-foot, 248-pound Oklahoma product, who was Atlanta'sfourth-leading tackler as a rookie in 2008. "I was just like, Man, this guyis good."
Since the Falconssigned Peterson to a two-year, $6.5 million deal in March, Lofton has been ableto learn directly from the 11-year pro. Peterson, who thrived under Smith'sdirection in Jacksonville, will now line up on the outside—where he alightedhis first four years in the league, with Indianapolis—to accommodate Lofton andbuttress Atlanta's porous run defense.
In meetingsPeterson sits next to Lofton and patiently fields his numerous questions."He wants to know what I'm looking at before the play and as it's goingon," says Peterson, who also helps by translating the scheme's jargon.
Peterson'saddition is just part of the makeover for a Falcons defense that jettisonedfive starters after finishing as the league's eighth-worst unit against the runand ninth-worst overall. Atlanta drafted seven defensive players in April, mostnotably Peria Jerry, a 6'2", 294-pound tackle from Ole Miss at No. 24, whois expected to start immediately. (Rookies William Moore, a safety, andLawrence Sidbury, a defensive end, will rotate in as well.) The holdoverspromoted to starting spots include free safety Thomas DeCoud, outsidelinebacker Stephen Nicholas, and cornerback Brent Grimes.
Overall thechanges will make the Atlanta D more athletic but considerably lessexperienced. To compensate, the unit spent extra time in camp going overassignments in an effort to curb freelancing. "Last year there'd be timeswhen a guy didn't trust the scheme and would try to make a play on his owninstead of holding his gap where the defense is designed for someone else tomake a play," says strong safety Erik Coleman. "I've got to trust thatif I stay outside on this run support, the 'backer's going to be inside to makethe tackle."
If any linebackercan be trusted to be where he's supposed to, it's Peterson. He not only hasunwavering faith in the scheme—he's racked up nearly 1,000 career tackles inthe system—but is also a big believer in Smith, to whom he is fiercely loyal.After Smith left Jacksonville to take the job in Atlanta, Peterson fell out offavor with the Jaguars coaching staff. His muscle-flexing sack celebration in aWeek 9 loss to the Bengals that dropped the Jags to 3--5 led to a clash withcoach Jack Del Rio; after that game Del Rio scolded Peterson and other playersfor their efforts, and made it clear he didn't want to hear any backtalk fromthem. When the linebacker fired back at Del Rio anyway, the coach banished himfrom the team facility for two days, fined him $10,000 for insubordination andbenched him the following week against Detroit.
Now reunited withSmith and in an environment where he feels his input is not just welcome butsought after, Peterson is eager to put that episode behind him. His goodcitizenship shows in the mentoring role he is playing with his young teammates.In Lofton he sees a talent who—with a little nudging—could help carry Atlantadeeper into the playoffs than their wild-card appearance last year.
"He's a youngguy who's willing to listen, and that lets you know he wants to be a goodballplayer," Peterson says. "I tell him all the time that to be one ofthe top linebackers, you've got to be able to do everything: play the run, playthe pass. And he can do it. It's just a matter of pulling it out of him andmaking sure he does it on a consistent basis."
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
11--5 in NFL, second season with Falcons
Backup RB JerousNorwood (95 att yards; 6 total TDs) in integral to the offense; veteran WRMarty Booker signed in August.
LB Jamie Winborn,a free-agent pickup, started 11 games for the Broncos in '08 and led them with95 tackles, but he will come off the bench for Atlanta.
(R) Rookie: College statistics
TTD: Total touchdowns
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2008 RECORD 11--5
NFL RANK (Rush > Pass > Total)
OFFENSE 2 > 14 > 6
DEFENSE 25 > 21 > 24
27 at New England
11 at San Francisco
25 at Dallas
2 at New Orleans (M)
15 at Carolina
22 at N.Y. Giants
29 TAMPA BAY
13 NEW ORLEANS
20 at N.Y. Jets
3 at Tampa Bay
NFL Rank: 4
Opponents' 2008 winning percentage: .588
Games against playoff teams: 5
Atlanta's surprising 11--5 record in '08 can be attributed in part to afavorable last-place schedule and four games against the lightweight AFC West.Heightened expectations in '09 may be difficult to satisfy, with 14 gamesagainst teams that were .500 or better. Matt Ryan, who hasn't thrown in coldweather since college, gets two late-season games at windy Giants Stadium.
Matt Ryan, Quarterback
MATT RYAN ranked sixth in the NFC in passing yards(3,440) and quarterback rating (87.7%) on the way to being named OffensiveRookie of the Year in 2008, and it figures that the franchise passer will havean even better season now that he has his feet under him. Literally. Ryan spentmost of the off-season sharpening his footwork, adjusting the pace and depth ofhis drop-backs in an effort to get better in sync with receivers Roddy White,Michael Jenkins and All-Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez, whom Atlanta acquired fromKansas City in April for a second-round draft pick.
"They all move at such different speeds," Ryansays. "The speed and the rhythm of my drops are affected as much by theroute as who's running it. This year I feel like I've gotten much better at[knowing] what those guys do and the role my feet play in helping them get theball in the right spot."
When it comes to throwing to Gonzalez in particular,Ryan is finding that he has slack with which to work. "He makes me a muchbetter quarterback because he just catches every ball that comes his way,"says Ryan, adding that the tape he screened of Gonzalez shortly before theeight-time All-Pro came to the team didn't do his new tight end justice."He's way better than advertised."
KIM KLEMENT/US PRESSWIRE
TEACHER'S PET The development of Lofton (left) will speed up under Peterson's tutelage.