Holloway: Falcons find new ways to win in opener
Falcons vs. Panthers
When: 1 p.m. Sunday
Where: Georgia Dome
On TV: FOX
ATLANTA — For one week at least, the Falcons answered all those questions about their defense.
There were never any doubts about Tony Gonzalez.
Atlanta’s new tight end hauled in a touchdown pass and became the 21st player in NFL history with 11,000 yards receiving, helping the Falcons beat the mistake-prone Miami Dolphins 19-7 Sunday.
Gonzalez caught five passes for a team-high 73 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown that was set up by Mike Peterson’s interception. He made the catch in the flats, cut to the inside while shoving away Yeremiah Bell with his left hand, picked up a nice block from Roddy White and waltzed into the end zone to join the 11,000-yard club.
The former college basketball player didn’t get a chance to dunk the ball over the goalposts.
"I was going for it, but my teammates were jumping all over me so I didn’t have time to get over there," Gonzalez said. "Plus, I was tired. I was just happy to get in the end zone."
The matchup between the two most surprising teams of 2008 wasn’t much of a game. The Falcons’ defense, highly suspect after letting go five starters and looking shaky during the preseason, came up with four turnovers and thoroughly shut down a team that won the AFC East after going 1-15 two years ago.
Peterson, the only prominent player signed by Atlanta on defense during the offseason, forced a fumble with a vicious hit and did a pretty good impression of Gonzalez on the interception, catching it with his fingertips and returning the ball 39 yards to set up Gonzalez’s first TD in Atlanta.
"I tell the guys all the time that I’ve got the best hands on the team, but they don’t believe me," Peterson said. "Maybe they’ll start believing me now."
Matt Ryan threw a pair of touchdown passes for the Falcons, who made the playoffs in 2008 after a quick rebuilding job from the Michael Vick debacle. They are off to a good start in their attempt to post consecutive winning seasons for the first time in the club’s 44-year history.
Peterson paid immediate dividends, flinging his 33-year-old body into Anthony Fasano after a catch late in the second quarter. Another newcomer, Brian Williams, who started at cornerback after being signed only a week ago, picked up the ball and ran 53 yards to set up Jason Elam’s 36-yard field goal, giving the Falcons a 10-0 halftime lead.
The defense came within 3:22 of a shutout, a quick retort to all the critics.
"We didn’t get caught up in all the stuff that’s said during the week," Peterson said. "We just used it as motivation."
Miami activated rookie quarterback Pat White and used him in a new version of the wildcat, without much success. He stopped for no gain the first time he attempted to run and overthrew Ted Ginn Jr. on a deep pass after the receiver beat two defenders.
"When the wildcat words, everybody loves it," quarterback Chad Pennington said. "When it doesn’t, everybody hates it."
Pennington finally got the Dolphins in the end zone with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Ricky Williams after a scoring toss to Fasano was taken away by a holding penalty. Pennington completed 21 of 29, but his throws accounted for only 176 yards. Ronnie Brown was held to 43 yards rushing, while Williams managed 39.
"They didn’t give us any deep shots," said Pennington, who was sacked four times. "You have to step up and make sure it doesn’t snowball. We let it snowball on us."
The Dolphins avoided their first shutout since Nov. 26, 2007, but did little to bolster faith in an offense that had five turnovers in a playoff loss to Baltimore last season.
Ryan faced some heavy pressure but still completed 22 of 36 for 229 yards, including a 1-yard touchdown to Ovie Mughelli that gave the Falcons a 7-0 lead in the second quarter.
About the only thing that didn’t go right for the Falcons was their kicking. Jason Elam, one of the NFL’s most reliable specialists, missed two field goals and an extra point — perhaps the worst day of his 17-year career. He did redeem himself a bit in the fourth, hitting from 50 yards.
NOTES: Backup DE Kroy Biermann had a big game for the Falcons. He came in on the second play, forced an early fumble and wound up with two sacks. John Abraham had Atlanta’s other two sacks, including one after running right over tackle Jake Long. ... Miami’s Greg Camarillo started at receiver ahead of Davone Bess but had only two catches for 20 yards. Bess led the Dolphins with seven receptions, but they accounted for just 57 yards. ... Elam missed only two field goals all of last season, and had ranked third in league history in extra point accuracy (641 of 644 before this year).