Peterson brings force in Falcons debut

Anthony Fasano had the football and was in Mike Peterson’s vicinity. Sunday, that wasn’t a winning combination.

The Falcons’ new weakside linebacker made his introduction to the Dolphins tight end and to Atlanta by driving his helmet into Fasano’s midsection in a big second-quarter play. Out came the ball, right into the hands of cornerback Brian Williams, who was off on a 53-yard return.

“Every play we’re trying to cause a fumble,” Peterson said. “You try to run through the guy with the ball.”

Signed as a free agent from Jacksonville to provide leadership to the Falcons’ youthful defense and also to cause harm to ball carriers, Peterson fulfilled both tasks against the Dolphins. Peterson made seven tackles, forced a fumble and intercepted Miami quarterback Chad Pennington, handsome work against a Dolphins team that last season tied the NFL record for fewest turnovers in a season (13).

Perhaps of greater significance, the Falcons had four takeaways Sunday after totaling 18 in 2008.

“Mike had a good game,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said, “He was in on some crucial plays of the ballgame.”

Peterson’s forced fumble stopped a Miami drive that had reached the Falcons’ 16-yard line at the two-minute warning. A touchdown would have tied the game at 7. Instead, Peterson hammered Fasano and Williams’ fumble return set up a Falcons field goal for a 10-0 advantage.

Said Peterson, “You’ve got to play [linebacker] with a bad attitude and have bad intentions when you meet the ball carrier.”

In the third quarter, Miami was driving again when Pennington dropped back to pass and, under heavy pressure, threw to Fasano, not seeing Peterson in coverage. Peterson made the interception at the Falcons’ 41-yard line and was caught 39 yards later. The turnover led to a touchdown and a 16-0 lead.

Peterson and middle linebacker Curtis Lofton said that their position group was a crucial part of the Falcons game plan against Miami’s powerful running back tandem of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. Lofton (11 tackles), Peterson and strongside linebacker Stephen Nicholas (six) led the team in tackles.

As debuts go, Peterson had one to remember.

Compared to Jacksonville, “Everything felt different, from waking up to the drive (to the stadium),” Peterson said. “You’ve got to remember, I did it one way for six years in Jacksonville. [Sunday] was totally different, (such as) sleeping in a different bed the night before the game. Everything was different, but I loved it.”