For a second consecutive season, a veteran coordinator has transformed his new defensive unit into a ballhawking unit that fueled a quick start.
Atlanta's Mike Nolan is following in the cleats of Wade Phillips, who took over the NFL's 30th-ranked defense last year and immediately shaved 149 points off Houston's season total en route to an AFC South title.
The Falcons allowed an average of 22 points per game last season and head coach Mike Smith replaced both coordinators after a 24-2 road loss to the Giants in the wild-card playoff round.
Under Nolan's sharp direction, the Falcons have forced 11 turnovers in a 3-0 getaway, yielding 16 points per game.
"Mike's a very positive coach,'' Smith said Friday from his Flowery Branch office. "He's not a screamer, he's a teacher. Mike's very cerebral and he makes it fun.''
Even with cornerback Brent Grimes out for the year with a torn Achilles, the Falcons have been extraordinarily opportunistic on defense.
Nolan is bringing out the best in players such as former USF linebacker Stephen Nicholas, defensive tackle Peria Jerry and safeties William Moore and Thomas DeCoud, all former Atlanta draft choices.
Outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, a first-round pick in 2010, is playing at a Pro Bowl level as the Falcons head into today's home matchup against the Panthers with a two-game lead atop the NFC South.
"Stephen is doing a really good job for us after battling through some injury issues the last few years,'' Smith said. "A lot of guys who have been here for a while have really matured under Mike's coaching.''
Before Phillips arrived in Houston, the Texans had won 38 games in five years under head coach Gary Kubiak, who was on shaky ground with owner Bob McNair. When Phillips turned his playmakers loose in 2011, Houston's takeaways soared from 18 to 27 as the Texans went 10-6, despite a Week 10 foot injury that sidelined quarterback Matt Schaub.
Smith averaged 11 wins in his first four seasons with the Falcons, but owner Arthur Blank demands playoff victories and Smith is still seeking his first.
In some ways, Atlanta has the look of the 2009 New Orleans Saints, who produced 39 takeaways and boasted a prolific passing attack on their way to a Super Bowl title. The Falcons have turned the ball over only once in three weeks and that plus-10 differential easily leads the league.
A week ago, coming off a Monday night game, Atlanta flew out to San Diego and thrashed the previously unbeaten Chargers 27-3.
Matt Ryan may be the top-rated quarterback in the league, but it is Nolan's dynamic defense that has made the critical difference. Nolan and Smith worked together in Baltimore a decade ago and Smith realized a new defensive voice was needed in Atlanta.
"Mike Nolan's a heck of a football coach … and he's even a better person,'' Smith said. "We didn't want to make wholesale changes in our scheme, but together we put together the 2012 defensive playbook of the Atlanta Falcons. He puts together a tight, succinct game plan.''
Nolan, 47, is less emotional than his predecessor, Brian VanGorder.
"I think everyone has to coach in his own style,'' Nolan told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "There was a time when I screamed more. It's no different than raising your kids and you get frustrated by everything. I think when you know how to parent is when you become a grandparent. Coaching is a little bit the same way. As you get older, you say less and let them play more.''