Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson and the other defensive backs were often in Matt Ryan's throwing lanes on Saturday.
The Cardinals lost three of their top five defensive backs to free agency this offseason, leaving some to wonder whether a perennially solid secondary would take a step back.
If Saturday night's preseason game is any indication, the group could actually be better.
The Cardinals faced a tough test against the Falcons, who boast the league's reigning MVP at quarterback and arguably the game's best receiver, but made Matt Ryan and Julio Jones look ordinary. The Falcons' starters didn't score, as Ryan finished just 4-of-11 for 36 yards with an interception while Jones didn't catch a pass in limited action.
While all the preseason caveats apply, it was an encouraging showing in the starting secondary's final action before the regular season.
"I was pretty pleased with the way we played as a defense, especially in the back end," cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "I thought we played the deep balls really well."
The Cardinals had to regroup after safety Tony Jefferson, cornerback Marcus Cooper and safety D.J. Swearinger departed this offseason, but others have stepped up.
Safety Tyrann Mathieu has fully recovered from his torn ACL in 2015, as evidenced by his interception on the first play of the game on a tipped pass by linebacker Karlos Dansby. It was Mathieu's second interception in as many games this preseason.
"Turning the ball over on the first play is obviously not what you want to do," Ryan said. "We just never really got into a rhythm offensively. That's something we would've liked to have done in that first quarter of work, but we didn't."
Peterson continues to play at an elite level – he caught and then dropped an interception on a deep pass intended for Taylor Gabriel -- while safety Tyvon Branch has excelled in two straight preseason games, showing a burst that was missing last year.
"He's healthy," coach Bruce Arians said. "He had those double hernias last year that set him back, but he's healthy."
Branch took a paycut this offseason to stay with the Cardinals, and his role seemed very much in doubt. However, he's been a starter throughout camp and looks to be a fixture heading into the year. Branch said the return to full health has been key, as has a position change.
"Being back at strong safety, that makes a big difference, too," he said. "I'm more comfortable being a safety than playing the nickel. Now that Ty's healthy, it frees me up to play the position I naturally play. It's easier to play faster when you're playing your natural position."
The Cardinals' starting defensive backs caught as many downfield passes as they allowed to Ryan, as a Mohamed Sanu 10-yarder was the only reception by a wideout or tight end. Ryan's other three completions were throws to running backs. The Cardinals' defensive backs almost exceeded Atlanta's total.
"I thought overall they played really solid," Arians said. "Ty had a chance to get another one, Pat had one. That's three picks we should have had."
There's no guarantee the Cardinals secondary dominates this year. Mathieu and Branch have been injury-prone throughout their careers, while cornerback Justin Bethel must prove he can handle the starting position vacated by Cooper.
But the secondary passed a tough test on Saturday, shutting down an offense that the Falcons rode to the Super Bowl a season ago.
"We have a great mixture of young guys and old guys, with Brandon (Williams) and Budda (Baker) coming along," Branch said. "Me, Pat, Ty and (safety Antoine Bethea), we've played a lot of football. Everything's starting to jell together. We have a nice feel for each other. We know where everyone wants to be, and it's starting to work out well for us."
Images from the fourth preseason game on Saturday night