Falcons linebackers bond before they deliver the wallop

Flowery Branch — The bonding process started over chicken wings and watching film.

Mike Peterson had a plan for the Falcons’ revamped linebacker unit.

“I’m the older guy so a lot of that falls on my shoulders, pulling the guys together,” Peterson said. “It’s the simple things, like, ‘Hey, let’s go eat wings together’ or ‘Watch tape together.’ That’s how you start building that relationship.”

With Peterson at weakside linebacker, Curtis Lofton in the middle and Stephen Nicholas at strongside, the new unit delivered a strong first impression in the season-opening 19-7 win over Miami on Sunday.

But for Peterson, an 11-year veteran who came over as a free agent from Jacksonville, it’s a little more than just football.

“When we break it down, we break it down as family,” Peterson said. “It’s a little bigger than just being my teammate. I have to trust you as well as you have to be able to trust me. It’s deeper than that.”

So the unit’s outings for food and the time invested together over the offseason has led to the bond that Peterson was trying to create.

“Once you build that trust with a guy, that’s when you don’t really want to let a guy down,” Peterson said. “They don’t want to let Mike down. Just like I don’t want to let Steve down.”

They even look at each other’s as brothers.

“It’s like you are playing next to your brother,” Lofton said. “We got Grand Daddy Brother [Peterson] over there. I’ve got Big Brother Steve and I’m Little Bro.”

The players took to Peterson’s style right away.

“When ‘Mike Pete’ came in, he brought a lot of leadership,” Nicholas said. “We have just been building the relationships and trust since.”

In the Falcons’ bend-but-not-break defense last season, the safeties usually led the team in tackles. Lawyer Milloy and Erik Coleman were often left to clean up on unfinished tackles and wound up second and third on the team in overall tackles.

Sunday, Lofton, Peterson and Nicholas were the leading tacklers against the Dolphins and helped create three of Miami’s four turnovers.

“We’d like to keep those tackles in front of our safeties,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “That’s a definite. Unless you are putting the safeties in the box, you definitely don’t want your safeties to be your leading tacklers.”

The Falcons have stressed speed and aggressiveness in revamping their defense.

“We had a lot of production from the linebackers,” Lofton said. “That’s what you need. We started to step up.”

Lofton had a hand in one of the biggest plays of the game. He held up Miami tight end Anthony Fasano, who’d caught a pass and was fighting for extra yards. Peterson came in to finish off Fasano with a bone-rattling hit that knocked out the football. Cornerback Brian Williams recovered it and returned it 53 yards.

“I saw that he was still up. That’s when you can kind of explode on a guy,” Peterson said.

The wings and film sessions have taken the trio to a strong beginning of what they want to be a new style of play.

“As a defense you want to play with intensity and nastiness,” Lofton said. “Whenever somebody gets the ball, we want to run right through them and get the ball up off of them.”