|Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images|
|Despite the team's youthful makeover on defense, the Falcons brought in 33-year-old linebacker Mike Peterson to usher along the process of reshaping the unit.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Listen to Mike Peterson talk for about 30 seconds and you'll hear why he's fitting in so nicely -- and quickly -- with the Atlanta Falcons.
"It's a process," Peterson said.
Ah, the old "process" line. If you've followed Mike Smith since he took over as coach of the Falcons last year, you've heard the word at least several hundred times. Around Atlanta, there are smiles and shrugs from fans, media and even some players whenever Smith drops "process" into a sentence.
It sounds nice and you can't really question that Smith is onto something with what he's done with the Falcons, but what does this vague term he seems to live by really mean?
Ask Peterson, because he speaks the language better than anyone else. He actually understands and totally believes in what Smith is saying. He bought into the process long before the rest of the Falcons first heard of it. He bought into it early in the process.
From the day Peterson first met Smith, he's lived the process. They came together back in 2003 in Jacksonville, where Peterson had just joined the Jaguars as a linebacker from the Indianapolis Colts and Smith was the new defensive coordinator for new coach Jack Del Rio.
"He's been talking about 'the process' ever since I met him," Peterson said. "It's simple, really. It just means he's never satisfied. He's always trying to build something more."
Building something more might explain why Smith brought Peterson to Atlanta as a free agent in the offseason. Smith's first season with the Falcons was a success by any measure. The Falcons went 11-5 and made the playoffs in a season where few expected them to win more than a handful of games.
But Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff were very realistic about what happened last year. They knew they spent their first season building an offense and had gotten by with a patchwork defense that was aging and spent much of last year overachieving.
They were winning games with players who didn't really fit Smith's defensive scheme and guys who were on the downside of their careers. That's why they let linebacker Keith Brooking, defensive tackle Grady Jackson, safety Lawyer Milloy and linebacker Michael Boley go in the offseason.
|Dale Zanine/US Presswire|
|First-rounder Peria Jerry is just one of many young first-time starters on defense.|
They wanted to get younger and that's why they drafted defensive tackle Peria Jerry in the first round and cleared the way for young players such as linebacker Stephen Nicholas to step into the lineup. But they also realized they needed someone to usher the process along.
That's where Peterson came in. At 33, he's not young, but he fits Smith's defense. More important, he's basically the one running Smith's defense. He's the guy who had an interception and returned it 39 yards last week and he's the guy who was the unquestioned leader as a defense that looked very suspect in the preseason came within about three minutes of shutting out the Miami Dolphins.
"What does the preseason really mean?" Peterson said. "Yeah, I know people were worrying about our defense, but I never was. The points people were putting on the board on us in the preseason didn't matter. We were working on our craft and we had a lot of new guys. We were working on the defense as a whole and that's a process."
As well as Atlanta's defense played against the Dolphins, Peterson said the process is far from complete. The Falcons have five new defensive starters from last year. Jerry is starting at defensive tackle, Nicholas at strongside linebacker, second-year pro Thomas DeCoud at safety and Brian Williams, another player with deep ties to Smith, is starting at cornerback after the Falcons decided that their cluster of young defensive backs wasn't quite ready.
And Peterson is starting at weakside linebacker after spending his time in Jacksonville at middle linebacker.
"I went to Jacksonville and they asked me to move into the middle," Peterson said. "I played the outside in Indianapolis and that's what I like best. I'm happy to be back on the outside."
But, in a way, Peterson is firmly in the middle of this defense, especially the linebacker corps. The Falcons want Curtis Lofton at middle linebacker, where he showed great promise as a rookie. They're making Lofton into an every-down player this year and they have high hopes for Nicholas, who was a backup in his first two seasons.
The development of those two young linebackers is a key part of Smith's process and Peterson has taken it upon himself to speed things along. If you saw the Falcons in training camp, you saw Peterson continually offering advice to Lofton and Nicholas.
"The talent is there with both of them," Peterson said. "It's just a matter of time for them to take their game to the next level. The point I tried to get across to them is that this is our craft and you have to keep working at it. They've grasped that and you can see it. I got lucky to come to a team with young guys that want to learn and want to be the best. I tell them what I know and I sit back and watch them like a proud father."
But Peterson's work is far from done. A good showing against Miami doesn't mean the defense has arrived completely. This defense is still forming its identity.
"It starts with a defense that stops the run because that's the most important thing," Peterson said. "After that, we're going to be aggressive. We're going to have 11 guys flying to ball with bad intentions. On paper, it can be a really good defense. But paper doesn't mean anything. We have to go out and do it. We've set goals for this defense and I'm not going to share them publicly. But I'll tell you this much: The goals are really high. I promise you that."
Everyone knows about Atlanta's offense with Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, Roddy White and now Tony Gonzalez. But Peterson said, as the season goes on, people will know plenty about Atlanta's defense.
"The proof really is in the pudding with Coach Smith," Peterson said. "Look at what he's done with this team already and look at what he's doing with the defense now. You'll see it all come together. It really is a process."