Gonzalez, Peterson shine in Falcons debut

Atlanta has sixth season-opening win in seven years

Perhaps not perfect but surely far better than average, the Falcons opened their NFL season with style on Sunday at the Georgia Dome. Call it: “Real ball.”

The rebuilt defense came together — with a surprise starter — and tight end Tony Gonzalez, in his Atlanta debut, flashed his hall-of-fame hands to help the Falcons dismantle the Miami Dolphins 19-7 for their sixth season-opening win over the last seven seasons.

The defense, which has replaced five starters from last season’s unit, dominated the Dolphins, who needed a late-touchdown to prevent the shut out. Throughout the preseason, it was the same defensive unit’s shaky play that caused the most concern.

“They don’t have to worry about us,” cornerback Chris Houston said. “They said things about us in the preseason. But when it’s real ball, we play real ball.”

Just last September, the Falcons used a 34-21 season-opening win over Detroit to help catapult them to an 11-5 mark and a wildcard playoff berth. That they this time dominated a defending divisional champion in the Dolphins was more than significant. Quarterback Matt Ryan was harried but responded with a 22-for-36 showing, good for 229 yards and two touchdowns.

All of the new starters on defense made contributions.

Mike Peterson, taking over at Keith Brooking’s old weakside linebacker spot, was an immediate force. He caused a drive-stopping fumble with a thunderous hit on Miami tight end Anthony Fasano and later had an interception.

Rookie defensive tackle Peria Jerry, the team’s first round draft pick who was replacing Grady Jackson at nose tackle, had an assisted tackle and a quarterback hurry before leaving the game with a rib injury.

Linebacker Stephen Nicholas, taking over for Michael Boley at strongside linebacker, had six tackles.

Safety Thomas DeCoud, playing free safety while Erik Coleman slid over to Lawyer Milloy’s old strong safety spot, had two tackles and was solid in coverage.

The fifth replacement starter was the surprise. Brian Williams, who was picked up just six days before the opener, took a crash course before starting at left cornerback, where Domonique Foxworth has started last season.

The newcomer, whose name was still scrawled on tape above his locker most of the week, figured in one of the game’s biggest plays. His steady play also helped to settle down the young secondary.

It could not have been a full information overload for the new corner either, because Williams was coming from Jacksonville, where he played under Falcons coach Mike Smith while he was the defensive coordinator there.

“I felt like part of the team right away when I got here,” said Williams, who isn’t yet on a first-name basis with all of his new teammates.

But after Sunday, he should be soon. With the Falcons ahead 7-0 and the Dolphins driving, it was Williams who swept in to pick up the fumble caused by Peterson’s big hit. He returned it 53 yards.

The turnover led to a 36-yard Jason Elam field goal and a 10-0 halftime lead.

“I had a vertical route and I was just running to the ball,” Williams said. “Mike smacked him and the ball popped right into my hands.”

And as for all the fuss about the defense during training camp, Williams doesn’t understand it.

“I don’t know what happened in the preseason,” Williams said. “It looked good when I got here and it looked good today.”

The secondary received some help from a fierce pass rush. Kroy Biermann, the second-year man from Montana, had two sacks to go along with John Abraham’s two sacks. Biermann also forced a fumble on Miami’s opening drive.

“I think our defense was playing possum in the preseason,” fullback Ovie Mughelli said. “Today, they were lights out.”

With the Dolphins determined to stop running back Michael Turner, the offense needed its newest weapon.

While Miami was keying on Turner (65 yards in 22 carries), Gonzalez was able to get open for five catches for 73 yards and one touchdown. He went over the 11,000-yard mark for his career on a 20-yard touchdown pass that made it 16-0.

“It was great to see him wearing a black helmet with a bird out there,” Smith said.

Elam, who was an uncustomary 2-for-4 on field goal attempts, added a 50-yarder to make it 19-0.

The Dolphins scored with 3:22 left on a Chad Pennington 9-yard pass to Ricky Williams.

While the defensive showing was impressive, no one was ready to predict another trip to the playoffs, much less the franchise’s first back-to-back winning season.

“This is week one of a long journey,” Smith said.