After denying first downs with three tackles on either third or fourth downs and racking up a game-high nine stops, Falcons strongside linebacker Michael Boley is starting to finally draw attention.
The fourth-year player already was Atlanta's most versatile defender, having been used at his normal spot, rush end and slot coverage defender, but now he's also registering the high-impact hits that round out the repertoire. Boley is second in the NFL with 28 tackles, one behind Tampa Bay's Barrett Ruud.
"It was one of those games where I seemed to be in the right place at the right time," said Boley, about his effort against Houston, which also included a forced fumble. "A big focus for me is leaving it all out there. I'd never been 0-3 before and it wasn't a good feeling. My mindset was to do whatever it takes to get a win."
Boley has started for most of the past three seasons, after being forced into action as a rookie and moving from weakside linebacker to the strong side, a position he'd never really played.
Including this season, Boley has 178 tackles, two forced fumbles, three sacks, two interceptions, 14 passes defended, three fumble recoveries and a blocked field goal. That's called stuffing the stat sheet.
"He's a playmaker," safety Lawyer Milloy said. "When you look at Michael, he's a physical specimen, a super athlete. At that position, he can run to the ball and he's big enough to make the hits. The last three years, he's been one of our top playmakers on defense. His future is so bright.
"I keep telling him to 'Keep doing what you're doing and everything is going to come to you individually and to us as a team.' "
Boley is a quiet, cerebral player who has balanced football with his personal life. Nearly two years ago, he gained full custody of his autistic son, Michael Jr., from a previous relationship and, with the help of his wife, has helped get him into programs where he is far more functional on a daily basis.
He has earned tremendous respect from his teammates to be able to deliver at such a high level in both aspects of his life.
"He probably did not get the recognition he deserved last year (90 tackles, three sacks, one forced fumble, three recoveries)," linebacker Keith Brooking said. "If he continues to play well, especially the way he has the past couple weeks, that will come."
— After allowing Carolina to churn out nearly 200 rushing yards, the Falcons held the Ahman Green-less Texans to 87 rushing yards. Playing a huge part in that was the linebackers being more aggressive getting into their run fits near the line of scrimmage.
"I don't know how many rushes they had but on 98 percent of the runs, we were great," linebacker Keith Brooking said after film study. "We had one run there in the first quarter where (Ron) Dayne gashed us and that had a little bit to do with someone not being in position because they schemed on us."
— QB Joey Harrington's 79.3 percent completion percentage against Houston was the fourth-highest total in franchise history. Steve Bartkowski had the three previous highs, ranging from 82.6 percent to 85.7 percent. Bartkowski never threw more than 28 passes in those games. Harrington completed 23 of 29.
— The Falcons have been focused on finishing games. Guess why? They have been outscored 30-9 in the fourth quarter.
— Coach Bobby Petrino gave players Monday off for the first time this season. That's because it was the first time in four games Atlanta won.
— The Falcons have been having a lot of success with their four-wide sets, especially using downfield routes early to set up crossing routes in the intermediate range.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
Rookie DT Trey Lewis was strong against the run in his first NFL start. Lewis opened in place of Rod Coleman/Jonathan Babineaux, who were out with knee injuries. Lewis played the three-technique tackle and finished with two tackles. More importantly, he kept bodies off MLB Keith Brooking, who had five tackles.
DTs Coleman (knee surgery) and Babineaux (stretched MCL) could be out this Sunday at Tennessee.
TB Artose Pinner had a season-high two carries for zero yards. One of his carries was for two, the other for negative yardage. The Falcons are using Pinner in short-yardage situations because of his compact build and strength.
RB Warrick Dunn has 13 receptions after four games. Last season, he had a career-low 22 for the season.
REPORT CARD VS. TEXANS
PASSING OFFENSE: B-plus -- For the second straight week, Joey Harrington was kept upright and he was highly efficient (23 of 29, 223 yards, two touchdowns). Harrington threw passes away instead of taking sacks and he had his best game checking down to hot receivers.
RUSHING OFFENSE: C -- Atlanta managed just 90 yards but Bobby Petrino actually stuck with the attack, calling for a season-high 30 runs. Though there was little reward, the commitment allowed for the play-action game to be slightly more successful.
PASS DEFENSE: C-plus -- Matt Schaub collected 317 yards as Houston, like Jacksonville two weeks earlier, attacked right cornerback Lewis Sanders. There is a chance Sanders could get replaced by rookie Chris Houston this week.
RUSH DEFENSE: B-minus -- Linebackers were far more aggressive filling gaps and tackles Grady Jackson and Trey Lewis were stout. Rookie Jamaal Anderson might not have a sack yet but he is a force against the run.
COACHING: B-plus -- Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer came up with a solid game plan knowing that Houston was minus key players. Petrino drew up some beautiful third-down conversion plays and he stuck with the running game, which opened up some passing lanes.