FLOWERY BRANCH — The Atlanta Falcons were hands-on when it came to defending Drew Brees.
Good job, guys. Now do it again.
After a brilliant effort against the league's most prolific passer, the Falcons' secondary had little time to savor its accomplishment. Next up is Denver's Jay Cutler, who's thrown for more yards than anyone in the AFC.
"As defensive backs, we love that," cornerback Domonique Foxworth said Wednesday. "It's a boring game for us when they play smash-mouth, 1950s-style football."
Foxworth and his fellow defensive backs epitomize the Falcons as a whole — an overlooked group that has played far better than anyone outside the locker room was expecting. Atlanta (6-3) is one game out of first in the NFC South and right in the thick of playoff contention, just one season after going 4-12 in the midst of the Michael Vick debacle.
The secondary looked extremely vulnerable when the Falcons dealt away their best cornerback, two-time Pro Bowler DeAngelo Hall, to the Oakland Raiders. But the new regime, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith, cobbled together an effective unit build around 35-year-old strong safety Lawyer Milloy.
Second-year player Chris Houston held down one corner. Foxworth claimed Hall's old spot after being acquired just before the first game for a late-round draft pick. Erik Coleman was an obscure free-agent signee who's already paid big dividends at free safety. Chevis Jackson was drafted in the third round and immediately won the nickel back role.
Last week, they all played a major role in holding down Brees and the high-powered New Orleans Saints. Houston and Coleman both had interceptions. Jackson picked off one, too, and took it 95 yards for a touchdown. In all, the Falcons broke up a staggering 15 passes.
And Hall? He's already been released by the Raiders.
"When the offense is done, I usually sit down to get a break," fullback Ovie Mughelli said. "But I was standing up on the sideline. I wanted to see what the defense was going to do. Our defensive backs, from Chevis Jackson to Chris Houston, all of them, were just playing their butts off.
"People used to say that was the weak spot for our defense," he added. "Well, if that's our weak spot, we have one heck of a defense."
Foxworth is the biggest surprise. Few people noticed when the Falcons acquired him from Denver just five days before the season opener, but Dimitroff knew he was a former third-round pick who never had a chance to shine with the Broncos.
Champ Bailey was the star cornerback in Denver. By comparison, Foxworth looked like a failure.
"He's the guy out there," Foxworth said. "If you have any passes caught on you, it looks like you're not any good because they always match you up against that guy. It was difficult out there. I'm happy to be here."
Foxworth was inactive for the first game and played sparingly the next five weeks while Brent Grimes, an undrafted, first-year player, started at cornerback. During the bye week, Smith and his defensive staff decided Foxworth was finally ready to take over.
Against the Saints, he had his best game yet, breaking up three passes and showing a bit of the cocky flair that Hall used to exhibit in the secondary. He clearly not lacking in confidence.
"I don't think my talent was much of a secret around this league, to be honest with you," he said. "A number of teams wanted to trade for me."
The switch from Grimes to Foxworth has balanced out the secondary, taking some of the heat off the other guys.
"Adding Domonique gave us more of a veteran presence back there," Milloy said. "I don't really have to worry about his side of the ball too much."
Milloy is the unquestioned leader of the secondary, a fierce hitter who's just as passionate as he was when he entered the league 13 years ago. While a step or two slower than he was in his 20s, he makes up for it with positioning and experience — and no receiver wants to come across the middle when he's lurking nearby.
"It's getting fun now," Milloy said. "We definitely have a bend but don't break style of defense, especially when our offense is putting points on the board and running the ball."
The Falcons' overall numbers don't look all that impressive — they are 22nd overall in passing yards allowed — but the performance against Brees showed how numbers can be downright misleading. The New Orleans quarterback was just 12 of 24 for 128 yards through three quarters, but basically started throwing on every down after Atlanta scored in the opening minute of the fourth for a 27-6 lead.
Brees threw a staggering 34 passes in the final period, competing 19 of them for 294 yards and two touchdowns. His final numbers: 31 of 58 for 422 yards. But he was picked off twice in the fourth quarter, with Jackson taking his for the second-longest touchdown return in team history, and Brees' second TD came on the final play — a meaningless score.
"We did a good job of not letting him get off until the fourth quarter," defensive end John Abraham said. "But he's Drew Brees. What do you expect? I'll take the win over numbers any day."