Oakland Raiders (1-3) at Atlanta Falcons (5-0)
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FLOWERY BRANCH — When the Atlanta Falcons gather in the meeting room at the beginning of each week, they can always count on coach Mike Smith jotting one thing on the board.
Smith has made that a priority during his five years as coach, and the Falcons are sure following his lead this season. Atlanta is 5-0 for the first time in franchise history and, not so coincidentally, has a plus-10 edge in turnovers, tied with New England for the best mark in the league.
The safeties are leading the way. Thomas DeCoud has four interceptions, while William Moore has chipped in with two picks. Both give credit to new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, saying he has done a good job of disguising coverages and allowing everyone to play to their strengths.
"Go get the ball," Moore said Wednesday. "The ball is the most important thing on the field."
The Falcons have already nine interceptions and five fumble recoveries. The offense, meanwhile, has turned it over just four times — three interceptions by Matt Ryan, plus a fumbled snap by the quarterback in last week's victory over Washington.
"When you talk about turnovers, you really want to talk about the turnover ratio," Smith said. "It's interactive. It's one of the stats that offense, defense and special teams all contribute to. Not only are we creating turnovers, we're not turning the ball
The Falcons had a more passive approach on defense under previous coordinator Brian VanGorder, but that has certainly changed since Nolan arrived. He's willing to take some chances — even get burned from time to time — if it puts his guys in position to make game-changing plays of their own. In a league that keeps tilting more and more in favor of the offense, turnovers have become the most effective way to swing the momentum.
"We have an offensive mentality in terms of what we're doing defensively," Smith said. "We're attacking the football."
The Oakland Raiders (1-3), who visit the Georgia Dome on Sunday, are certainly mindful of the Falcons' ball-hogging ways.
"They do an outstanding job of keying the quarterback, of seeing the quarterback's eyes," said first-year coach Dennis Allen, whose team has as many turnovers as it has caused. "They play extremely fast. They play full speed on every play. They understand where the ball is going. They do a nice job of route recognition. Plus, they get a little pressure on the quarterback, which speeds up the process for them. They're doing an outstanding job of taking the ball away. We've got to be aware of that."
This is nothing new for Atlanta, which also ranked among the top 10 in turnover margin the last two seasons.
But it's clear the Falcons are more intent on taking the ball away, running all sorts of blitzes and stunts rather than being content to sit back in zone coverage — a change in philosophy that made even more sense after Brent Grimes, perhaps the best defender in a trio of high-priced cornerbacks, went down with a season-ending injury in Week 1.
Another of those cornerbacks, Dunta Robinson, might be thriving more than anyone in the new system.
Last week, he had one of two interceptions in the closing minutes (DeCoud nabbed the other) to clinch the 24-17 victory over the Redskins. But Robinson is doing a lot more than just dropping back in coverage. He's blitzing. He's coming up to provide support against the run. He's having his best overall season since joining the Falcons in 2010.
"I'm a football player first," said Robinson, who ranks fourth on the team with 27 tackles. "(Nolan) is allowing me to play football. He's allowing me to be part of the run game. He's allowing me to blitz at times. I'm not just a cover corner. I'm not just a guy who sits outside and doesn't have any action all day. I like to get involved in the game. He's doing a great job of getting me involved early in the game. Once that happens, I feel like I can make any play."
Don't forget the guys in the trenches, either.
As Allen said, the Falcons have been getting good pressure on the quarterback, ranking 12th in the league with 13 sacks.
No surprise their defensive backs are playing so well.
"Everything starts up front," linebacker Mike Peterson said. "That's why the guys on the back end have been getting those picks. Apparently, I need to remind those guys on the back end that they can't do their job unless the guys on the front end do theirs."