ATLANTA — So much for what was supposed to happen.
Michael Turner was contained and Matt Ryan was so-so.
The offense that was supposed to blow out the bulbs in the Georgia Dome scoreboard wobbled.
Meanwhile the defense, which was questioned in the media and skewered in the preseason, not only pulled its weight, it kept the team steady through long stretches of the Falcons’ 19-7 win Sunday.
"It felt good to come out and execute the way we did," second-year middle linebacker Curtis Lofton said. "We wanted to get out there and affect the quarterback. That’s what we did and it led to a lot of turnovers and ended up leading to some points for the offense."
The Falcons entered 2009 with five new starters and about twice as many question marks on defense. Offensively, everybody from last year’s 11-win team was back, and they added a Hall of Fame tight end.
It was supposed to be the recipe for high-scoring Sunday afternoons, but on the season’s first Sunday, not much that was supposed to happen actually did.
Other than John Abraham, the Falcons weren’t supposed to be able to rush the quarterback. But there they were in the Dolphins backfield and in Chad Pennington’s face.
They weren’t supposed to force turnovers, but Sunday they forced four.
Led by the revamped linebacker corps, the defense looked fast, aggressive and active.
Lofton posted a team-high 11 tackles, while newcomer on the outside Mike Peterson showed the flash in the open field Keith Brooking lost long ago.
"We just used all that (hype) as motivation," said Peterson, who had seven tackles and set up two scores with a forced fumble and an interception. "We try not to get caught in what people are saying, just use it as motivation and do our part."
Abraham was again the leader of the defensive front, but the good news for the Falcons was that unlike last year, he had help.
The defensive linemen tallied four sacks, four hurries and four tackles for a loss.
Second-year defensive end Kroy Biermann’s performance was probably the most noticeable as the former fifth-round pick had two sacks among his three tackles on defense, as well as a forced fumble and two big tackles on special teams.
"The turnovers are a big deal," Biermann said. "Any time the defense is getting turnovers, usually flying around, and you are usually making plays and helping out your offense. It’s a big thing."
And the offense needed the help Sunday.
Ryan’s numbers (22-for-36, two TDs, no interceptions) were fine — and if he were still a rookie, we’d probably say they were great. But the bar is set high for him in Year 2, and what the box score doesn’t show are the times he missed open receivers downfield, or when Tony Gonzalez snagged a too-high pass or turned a 5-yard completion into a 20-yard score.
He didn’t much help on the ground, as Turner was bottled up from the start, coming in just short of 3 yards per carry on 22 attempts.
A lot of the credit for the disjointed look of the Falcons offense goes to the Dolphins defense, a unit that ranked in the NFL’s top 10 last season. They committed to stopping the run, and turned their sack specialist (Joey Porter and Jason Taylor) loose on passing downs.
Even so, while this was the kind of game the Falcons struggled to win last season, Sunday’s game never really felt in doubt.
And because they won it in a way most onlookers didn’t think they could, it may have been the best possible way to start the season, no matter how it was supposed to happen.