FLOWERY BRANCH — First-year defensive coordinator Mike Nolan keeps putting the Atlanta Falcons in position to make big plays.
The Falcons' pass rush and coverage schemes have created 11 takeaways, tops in the NFL through the first three games.
With 14 years of experience in the league as a coordinator and four as a head coach, Nolan wants his defense to stay in attack mode until he tells the players to let up.
"You want them to have an attacking mindset whether if you are blitzing or not," Nolan said. "Even going after the ball is more of an offensive type of attitude rather than just tackling the ball carrier."
The approach has the Falcons scoring a league-best 40 points off their seven interceptions and four fumble recoveries.
Over the last two weeks, Atlanta held Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers to a combined 51.9 passer rating — an impressive number against a pair of the league's most prolific quarterbacks.
Manning was picked off on each of Denver's first three possessions as Nolan disguised coverages and had safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore float in spaces the four-time NFL MVP didn't expect based on the presnap look the Falcons had shown.
"It's basically one those systems that allows players to relax, and it's a defense built around your players' strengths," Moore said. "He plays to the strengths of individuals and what can we do best as individuals."
Last week at San Diego, the game turned in Atlanta's favor late in the second quarter when linebacker Sean Weatherspoon forced Ryan Mathews to fumble and DeCoud recovered at the Falcons 4-yard line.
The Atlanta offense followed with the perfect complement, a 17-play, 96-yard touchdown drive that gave the Falcons a 20-0 halftime lead.
"We're just trying to run to the football," Weatherspoon said. "Whenever the ball's out, guys are trying to get on it. Whenever the ball's in the air, you've got guys trying to take it away. We're doing a great job of that. We've just got to keep it up."
At home against Carolina (1-2) on Sunday, Atlanta (3-0) will face an offense that has eight giveaways, third most in the league.
Second-year Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, with six interceptions, might not look like the same player who was the 2011 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, but DeCoud insists the Falcons won't look at his recent struggles and play less aggressively.
"In this league, you can be humbled really fast," DeCoud said. "You've got to stay on top of your game and make sure you do the things each week to keep getting better."
DeCoud spent much of his offseason working on ball awareness and pursuit. It sounds simple, like the work of any defensive back, to "fly to the ball when it's in the air and make a play on the ball when it's in the air."
But Nolan impressed upon DeCoud and Moore the value of never giving up on a play, an approach that's helped them combine for five interceptions and one fumble recovery that led to 27 Atlanta points.
Linebacker Stephen Nicholas was a beneficiary, too, with an interception and a fumble recovery at Kansas City.
"I've worked on awareness for a lot of years," Nolan said, "the exact way that we are doing it."