FLOWERY BRANCH — Not long after they first met, Mike Peterson pulled Jonathan Babineaux aside.
Peterson wanted his new teammate to know the Falcons had hired the right man at the right time.
“He’s a man of his word,” said Babineaux, Atlanta’s fifth-year defensive tackle. “He gets after guys, and when he says he’s going to be there, he’s going to be there.”
Thanks to the play of Peterson at weakside linebacker, the Falcons have one less concern heading into their bye week at 2-1.
An 11th-year veteran in his first full NFC season, Peterson has two forced fumbles, three passes defended, 21 tackles and an interception he returned 39 yards.
Not bad for a 33-year-old whose best days were allegedly behind him.
“I probably surprise you guys more than I surprise myself because I knew I could still play football, man,” Peterson said. “If I don’t know nothing else, I know I can play football, but I never get comfortable with my game. I’m always trying to be the best.”
In a Week 1 win over Miami, Peterson hit Anthony Fasano hard enough to make the Dolphins tight end lose a fumble that cornerback Brian Williams returned 53 yards. Later in the game, Peterson intercepted Chad Pennington.
Helping Atlanta beat Carolina the next week, Peterson returned a blocked punt nine yards in the first quarter and jarred the ball loose from running back DeAngelo Williams in the third.
Those four plays led to three touchdowns and a field goal for the Falcons.
“Having a linebacker who’s up there and ready to get after guys, he still has it even though he’s had plus years in the league,” Babineaux said. “It’s just fun to be out there with him.”
Nobody on the Atlanta sideline smiled much in last week’s 26-10 loss at New England, and Peterson was hardly pleased to line up opposite running back Fred Taylor, his former longtime teammate in Jacksonville.
Babineaux blamed himself for letting the Patriots’ blockers double up the tackles and collapse the interior line. Not surprisingly, Taylor had plenty of room to run, finishing with 105 yards and an 8-yard touchdown on 21 carries despite not entering the game until the second quarter.
This was no way for Taylor to treat a pal like Peterson, particularly two guys instrumental in helping the Florida Gators win so many Southeastern Conference games in the mid-1990s.
“Nah, it didn’t make it any easier,” Peterson said of their friendship. “I knew Fred still had something in the tank, man, you know? We had a chance to bump heads a little bit, but he got the win, so he definitely came out on top. But we just take it and learn, man.”
Atlanta signed Peterson, who spent his first 10 seasons in the AFC, to a two-year, $6.5 million contract early in free agency six months ago.
Reunited with coach Mike Smith, his former defensive coordinator in Jacksonville, Peterson has justified the Falcons’ front office decision to let Keith Brooking leave for Dallas.
But that was hardly the case before Week 1. Peterson heard the rumblings that his career was all but finished after his fallout last year with Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio.
Pectoral and hand injuries led to season-ending surgeries, and Peterson also missed Jacksonville’s 2007 postseason run.
In Atlanta, Peterson has filled the void left by the departure of Brooking, who played for the Falcons 11 years and made five Pro Bowls. Peterson mentors middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, a 2008 second-year draft pick whose 38 tackles trail only the 43 posted by Washington’s London Fletcher.
“Our unit is coming along,” Peterson said. “The good thing about it is it’s early in the year. We’ve got a good chance, going into our bye week, to see where we’re at.”
Babineaux was disappointed the line didn’t play better even though Atlanta was playing its first game since rookie nose tackle Peria Jerry, a first-round draft pick, suffered a season-ending knee injury.
“I think our technique wasn’t as sound as we want it to be, and that’s why we couldn’t get off the field sometimes,” Babineaux said. “I’m glad we got a bye week to look at the film and to adjust and get better.”
Peterson insists the Falcons will have their mistakes corrected when they return in Week 5 with a trip to San Francisco.
“I don’t think we took a step back against New England,” he said. “We didn’t win the game, but it’ll make us get better as a unit.”