FLOWERY BRANCH — Falcons coach Mike Smith hopes his defense is finally starting to understand how to create takeaways.
Despite being eliminated from playoff contention in a Week 11 home loss to New Orleans, Atlanta has four interceptions and eight fumble recoveries in three games since.
Strong safety William Moore, rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant and defensive lineman Jonathan Babineaux were the top catalysts in helping the Falcons recover five fumbles and pick off two passes in Sunday's 27-26 win over Washington.
Smith, though, stopped short Monday of praising the defense too much, particularly considering that the Falcons are still too susceptible to mistakes.
Atlanta began the game ranked fourth-worst in NFL turnover margin, and the abundance of what Smith calls explosive plays had contributed to a fourth-worst ranking in average points allowed.
"The first (point of emphasis) is winning the turnover battle and the second one is winning the explosive battle," Smith said. "You put those two things together, and it's the toxic differential that you look at. More times than not, the teams that are in the top 12, most of those teams are in the playoffs."
Since losing last month to the Saints, Atlanta has allowed 21 plays of 15 or more yards.
Smith said he's not too surprised considering how many young players are on the field at the same time. Five rookies started on defense against the Redskins, but even the most experienced rookies — Trufant and cornerback Robert Alford — struggled at times.
Though he batted down a potentially devastating two-point conversion pass on the Redskins' final play and intercepted Kirk Cousins earlier in the fourth quarter, Trufant had a major gaffe on Pierre Garcon's 53-yard touchdown reception in the second.
Trufant had already been flagged for holding Garcon on the play before Garcon beat him to the ball.
"If you're getting beat on a double cut and you're going to hold the defender, make sure you hold him good where he doesn't still get a chance to catch the football," Smith said. "You take the 5-yard penalty on the defense."
Earlier in the second, Alford gave up Aldrick Robinson's 62-yard reception, but rookie free safety Zeke Motta missed an assignment and never had a chance to help over the top.
And in the first, the defense used poor alignment and technique to give up a 37-yard run to Alfred Morris and 23-yard touchdown catch by Fred Davis on the next snap.
"They're all learning opportunities for our guys," Smith said. "As a coach, you want to have those positive learning situations. We've had too many negative learning situations in this ballgame and the entire season."
When Atlanta (4-10) visits San Francisco (10-4) next Monday, the defense will face a tough challenge. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick has struggled with completion percentage this season, but he played well in Sunday's win over Tampa Bay and has some of the league's top playmakers in running back Frank Gore, receiver Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis.
Babineaux, who recovered two fumbles against Washington, believes the defense can build on its performance against the 49ers.
"I think the defense stepped up big by creating as many turnovers as we did which put the offense in the best position to score points," Babineaux said. "We have to continue to press forward and find ways to win out the schedule."
NOTES: Smith indicated that LB Sean Weatherspoon should be able to practice this week despite leaving in the fourth quarter and not returning against the Redskins. ... FS Thomas DeCoud, who missed the game, is still in the NFL's concussion protocol and has not been cleared to return to practice.