FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Each week Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith presents his squad with a list of musts in the game plan -- things the Falcons must do if they are going to win.
Not surprisingly, one of them on Sunday was stopping Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson, the former 2,000-yard rusher.
The Falcons easily scratched that must off the to-do list in their 23-17 victory that helped them improve to 6-4, but the accomplishment was made all the more simple by what Smith said was by far the best performance of the season by defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux.
Babineaux, a seven-year pro who has long been the teams top interior defensive lineman, had offseason surgery on his shoulder and then injured himself in the season opener, partially tearing the MCL in his knee and also injuring his ankle. For defensive linemen who rely on being explosive off the ball to be effective, the injuries are seriously debilitating.
It has taken Babineaux time to regain his health and he showed when healthy and motivated -- his brother Jordan plays safety for the Titans -- that he can be a force to reckon with. On Sunday he had two tackles for loss, two quarterback hits and batted down two passes at the line of scrimmage.
In the first half, he helped to set the tone with both of those tackles-for-loss on Johnson, which totaled minus-7 yards as Atlanta built a 13-3 lead at intermission. Johnson finished with a season-low 13 yards on 12 carries.
I thought it was without a doubt his best performance of the season, Smith said on Monday. Jonathan was injured and it was an injury in the Chicago game and it was not just one body part, it was two body parts. He had a knee and an ankle, so he was dealing with two injuries instead of one. And he has slowly progressed through the season and I think hes played better and shown improvement each week, but this by far was his most impressive game with the penetration, the two tackles for losses, the batted balls, thats the Jonathan Babineaux that weve become accustomed to seeing play and its great timing for us right now to have Jonathan as healthy as hes been all season long.
Smith might have been alluding to the fact that the next two games on the schedule for the Falcons include ostensibly two of the games top rushers, Minnesotas Adrian Peterson and Houstons Arian Foster, who rank fifth and sixth, respectively, in the NFL in rushing yards per game (94.0 and 92.5). However, Peterson suffered a high-ankle sprain on Sunday in his teams 27-21 loss to Oakland and a media report indicated he will miss the Vikings game at Atlanta this coming Sunday.
Having a healthy and effective Babineaux will help the Falcons immensely against opposing rushing attacks no matter who is carrying the ball -- as Smith said. Babineaux was inactive for the three games after the season opener and did not return until Oct. 9 against Green Bay. He only has one sack (his career high was six in 2009) and he did not record that sack until Nov. 6 against Indianapolis.
Perhaps not coincidentally, when the Falcons faced Tampa Bay without Babineaux, the Buccaneers entered with the second-worst rushing offense in the NFL, yet pushed the Falcons around for 115 rushing yards.
Babineaux joked with reporters after Sundays game that he ate Frosted Flakes to give him energy and that he woke up on the right side of the bed.
Felt good to get back out there and dominate like Im supposed to and have fun out there, he said.
Babineaux said stopping the run is all about attitude.
Attitude up front, he said. Attitude with the linebackers in stopping the run. We take pride in it.
Attitude is important in terms of motivation, but Smith said the Falcons also are playing the scheme well. Cynically, some say that a highly ranked run defense can reveal a weak pass defense. While there might be some truth to that in reference to the Falcons they rank second in the NFL in rush defense, allowing just 85.4 yards per game, and 26th in pass defense -- it also was true that the Titans did neither well against them. Jake Locker finally got the Titans offense going when he relieved injured starter Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback with 2:57 left in the third quarter and the Falcons leading by 23-3.
We have been fitting the run fairly well, Smith said. I know that there have been times in weeks past, in years past, where you see obviously theres some gap integrity issues. I think across the board, our front seven and, when were bringing an eighth element into the run defense with one of our safeties, we are fitting it very well. It starts with gap integrity when youre trying to defend the run. And I think our guys have a very good understanding.
(Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder) and his staff have put together some really good gameplans in terms of what fronts we present and our guys have gone out and executed it. At the core of what we want to do each and every week -- nine out of ten times -- the first thing were going to say we have to do is stop the run and our guys have bought into it. And the front seven have done a real good job.
Babineaux said he thought the Falcons won the physical battle on both sides of the game.
I think so, he said. Its our duty week in and week out for D-linemen, O-linemen to take control up front and take control of the game and thats what we did today.
If they keep doing it, the Falcons path to the playoffs will be a lot clearer.