Defensive reserves rise to occasion

ATLANTA -- So it figured, right, that an Atlanta Falcons defense that entered Sunday's game leading the NFL against the run would surrender more than its usual complement of 70.4 yards to a San Diego Chargers offense featuring tailback LaDainian Tomlinson?

That became even more obvious when the Falcons' best interior lineman, tackle Rod Coleman, was deactivated because of shoulder and knee injuries he sustained Saturday morning in a one-car accident. And so the predictable became self-fulfilling prophesy as the Falcons gave up nearly 35 percent more yardage on the ground than is its norm.

Of course, that still comes out to just 95 yards, an admirably piddling amount, given the brilliance of Tomlinson and, more notably, the anonymous nature of the front four with which the Falcons played much of the contest.

Chad Lavalais. Antwan Lake. Cleveland Pinkney and Junior Glymph, for gosh sakes! C,mon, be honest, ever heard of any of these guys?

The Chargers may not have heard of them, but certainly heard them on Sunday. And, truth be told, saw more of the four youngsters than they really wanted.

The injury to Coleman -- who has four sacks, has played run surprisingly well, and been an active catalyst who has contributed mightily to end Patrick Kerney's seven sacks -- forced an already undermanned Atlanta line to improvise. With the versatile Travis Hall also ailing, the Falcons were left with a bare-bones contingent, but the defense came up big even if there were times some players nearly had to be introduced to one another.

"There were guys who don't usually get a chance to play, who aren't out there very often, who made a lot of plays today," said Falcons standout weak-side 'backer Keith Brooking. "I mean, we had some combinations out there we've never had before, but we somehow found a way to make it work. My hat goes off to those young guys. They demonstrated how much heart this team really has."

Lavalais, a fifth-round draft pick, and Lake have garnered solid playing time as Atlanta coaches have worked hard to keep Coleman and fellow starting tackle Ed Jasper fresh. But the other two young linemen, Glymph and Pinkney, were strictly nondescript guys going into the game.

Plucked from the waiver wire just before the start of the regular season, Pinkney saw his first action of the year, after having been inactive for five contests. Glymph, signed to the practice squad after being released in early September, was elevated to the active roster because of the injuries to Hall and Coleman. Both were inserted in the first couple series for the Atlanta defense and neither embarrassed himself.

The four linemen, who joined regular starters Kerney, Jasper and Brady Smith, totaled seven tackles. Lavalais, in particular, played the run tough. And Glymph, the former Carson-Newman standout who entered the league as an undrafted free agent signed by the Green Bay Packers in the spring, recorded his first sack.

"Those kids," allowed Jasper, "grew (up) some today."

Not surprisingly, given the consistency with which it performed in the first five games of the season, the Atlanta defense took another collective step toward the next step in the maturity cycle with Sunday's victory. The unit not only limited Tomlinson, arguably the NFL's best pure runner, to 64 yards on 23 carries, but also throttled up a San Diego team that had scored 72 points the previous two weeks.

They did it, it should be noted, with a patchwork lineup that extended beyond the front four. In all, Atlanta was without four projected starters as Coleman, middle linebacker Chris Draft and cornerbacks DeAngelo Hall and Jason Webster did not start. For a defense whose depth was suspect in training camp, the Falcons have begun to develop relatively solid reserves, and Sunday only added to the bunch.

Among the regulars who did answer the bell Sunday afternoon, strong-side linebacker Matt Stewart, who had seven tackles and was impressive in short-yardage situations, had a game that was quietly excellent. Led by cornerback Kevin Mathis, with eight stops, six players had five tackles or more. As has become their trademark, the Falcons rallied to the ball and, for a sixth straight game did not allow an opponent more than 20 points.

"They're not all that fancy," said Chargers quarterback Drew Brees, who completed 23 of 31 passes for 227 yards. "But they hustle, they're very aggressive fighting through blocks and finding the ball, and they don't give up many cheap plays. They keep playing like that and people will find out who they are."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.