ATLANTA — Jason Snelling looked a little lethargic as he walked over to his locker.
No wonder. It was the first time all day he had slowed down.
The third-stringer was handed a leading role by Atlanta — and, man, was he up to the task. Snelling rushed for 129 yards, caught five passes and scored three touchdowns to power the Falcons to a 41-7 rout of the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.
Matt Ryan matched a career high with three touchdowns passes, but it was Snelling who really came through when Atlanta’s two leading backs, Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood, went out with injuries.
Snelling carried 24 times, scoring a pair of TDs. He also had a 19-yard score among his five receptions. In all, he totaled 186 yards for an offense that was looking to break loose after a sluggish preseason and failing to score a touchdown in Week 1.
“I’m a little tired,” said Snelling, managing a weak grin. “But that’s the way we prepare. Coach is always telling us to focus because we never know when our chance might come.”
Roddy White caught a 7-yard touchdown pass from Ryan that got the Falcons (1-1) rolling less than 5 minutes into the game. Ryan finished off Arizona (1-1) with a 12-yard TD to Brian Finneran early in the third quarter, set up by Derek Anderson’s second interception.
Even short-handed — receiver Michael Jenkins missed his second straight with a shoulder injury — the Falcons stepped up after being held to three field goals in a 15-9 overtime loss at Pittsburgh, a performance that was a bit troubling on the heels of the first-teamers managing only one touchdown in 13 possessions during the preseason.
“I could say I told you so,” tight end Tony Gonzalez said. “We spread the ball around pretty good today, and that’s what we needed. We needed to have that game today for our confidence, just to show everybody what we can do.”
Arizona had done some of its best work away from the desert, winning seven of its last nine road games. But the Cardinals were totally outmatched in this one other than Tim Hightower’s 80-yard touchdown, tied for the third-longest run in franchise history.
The Falcons finished with a 444-267 advantage in total yards, though they knew this wasn’t the same defense they faced in Week 1.
“I think Pittsburgh is a lot better defensively than the Arizona Cardinals,” White said bluntly.
Turner did some good work before he was sidelined by a groin injury in the second quarter. He piled up 75 yards on just nine carries — an 8.3-yard average — and looked much like the runner who ranked second in the NFL two years ago than the guy who managed just 42 yards against Pittsburgh.
Norwood left on a cart with a knee injury. Turner could have returned but there was no need to go back in with a big lead and Snelling running so well.
“That says a lot about the depth of our team,” coach Mike Smith said. “He’s just a darned good football player, not only running the football but catching the football.”
The Cardinals did their part to make Snelling look good.
“Anybody can fill in like that if the tackling isn’t there,” Darnell Dockett scoffed to a reporter. “Even you could.”
The Falcons defense wasn’t too shabby, other than the one big play. Christopher Owens had an interception, while William Moore and Dominique Franks both came up with their first career picks. First-round pick Sean Weatherspoon swooped in on Anderson for his first career sack, as well.
Anderson had a brutal day after leading a win at St. Louis in the first game of post-Kurt Warner era, going 17-of-31 for 161 yards. Max Hall took over at quarterback in the closing minutes and threw Arizona’s third interception of the day, which was returned by Franks to the Arizona 5. The Falcons finally backed off, having Ryan kneel four times.
The Cardinals couldn’t do anything right.
LaRod Stephens-Howling returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown, but a holding penalty on Dockett wiped it out. Then, with the Cardinals trailing 34-7, Stephens-Howling caught a kickoff deep in his own end zone, started to run it out, then tried to take a knee but had a toe on the goal line. He had to bring it out and got bowled over at the 2.
The frustration boiled over late in the game when Kerry Rhodes jumped up to complain about a call, bumped an official and was ejected.
“This was a wake-up call for us,” Larry Fitzgerald said. “The way we played today is not acceptable. We have a lot of changes to make on both offense and defense.”
NOTES: Hightower’s touchdown run equaled an 80-yarder by Paddy Driscoll in 1925, when the franchise was based in Chicago. The only longer runs also came when the team was in Chicago: John David Crow’s 83-yarder in 1958 and Elmer Angsman’s 82-yarder in 1949. ... The Cardinals were missing RB Beanie Wells (knee) and WR Early Doucet (groin). ... Moore was filling in for starting safety Erik Coleman, who was inactive because of a knee injury. ... The 6-foot-5 Finneran tried to dunk the ball over the goal posts after his touchdown but came up short. ... The Falcons converted 11 of 17 on third down. The Cardinals were 0 for 8.