"Man, those Falcons look good this year!"
That's a common refrain of fans in Atlanta at the moment. But the Falcons have looked good for the past four years. Since the Mike Smith and Matt Ryan era began in 2008, they have posted records of 11-5, 9-7, 13-3 and 10-6, making the playoffs in three of those seasons.
Yet they still have not won a playoff game under Smith's leadership.
In sports, the wisdom of old often rules. One such maxim, often attributed to Paul "Bear" Bryant, says: "Offense sells tickets. Defense wins championships."
While that has not always proven to be true in the NFL, some teams are starting to trend in that direction, and the Falcons are one of them.
One of the earmarks of a great defense is its ability to create turnovers. It's equally as important to avoid them. The best teams do both, as measured by turnover differential.
The past three Super Bowl winners have finished the regular season in the top six in this category. The New York Giants were sixth last year. The Green Bay Packers were second in 2010, and the New Orleans Saints were third the year before that.
So it is a good sign that the Falcons are first in turnover differential after the first quarter of the season. Atlanta has scored a league-high 43 points off takeaways.
Last year, the Falcons were fourth in this category, forcing 29 turnovers. This year, after only four games, they have already forced 12. While this pace isn't historic—the San Diego Chargers hold that distinction, forcing 66 in 1961, the Falcons are on pace to finish with 48, which would be the most of any team over the past decade.
The Falcons have been flying high this season. While Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones and the rest of the offense has had a major role in winning each week, their 4-0 record can be attributed in large part to the spirited play of the defense.
Atlanta is also eighth in points allowed, giving up 19 per game. The Falcons' defense has also been one of the best against the pass, allowing a mere 207 passing yard per contest. That is a testament to the depth of the secondary and its ability to step up its play, despite losing one of its three starting cornerbacks, Brent Grimes, for the season with a torn Achilles tendon.
Everyone is familiar with the recognizable names on defense, guys like John Abraham, Jonathan Babineaux and Asante Samuel. But who are the other players who have rejuvenated the Falcons' defense?
Here they are.