ATLANTA – Like clockwork, Rashad Johnson found a Matt Ryan pass to his liking.
The Cardinals' safety continued his stellar play against the Atlanta quarterback by picking off his fourth throw in the past three meetings on Sunday at the Georgia Dome, and he upped the ante by returning this one for a score.
Johnson read the eyes of Ryan early in the second quarter and broke on a pass near the end zone. He corralled the pass easily, broke to his right, cut back to his left and sprinted up the middle of the field 88
yards for a touchdown.
The play halted the Falcons' early-game momentum and brought the Cardinals to within 10. While they would make it a one-possession game before the half, the Falcons subsequently pulled away.
"I thought it was going to be a big spark, but it seemed like we never could wake up and get to the point where we could change the field position," Johnson said. "I think that's something we've to take more intensity and put more emphasis on as a defense. When we get them backed up inside their 20, on the 20, we've got to understand if we get a three-and-out there and they punt the ball, the offense gets the ball at the 45-, 50-yard line. Not allow them to get one or two first downs and then pin our guys deep."
The interception was Johnson's fourth, which now leads the team. Cornerback Jerraud Powers was initially given one in the first quarter but it was ruled incomplete on review. Ryan had been intercepted nine times in the two previous meeting between the teams, but it was the only turnover forced by the defense.
JULIO JONES EXCELS AGAINST PETERSON
Cornerback Patrick Peterson had played very impressively for the past month -- including in matchups against star wideouts Dez Bryant and Calvin Johnson -- but Julio Jones had his number on Sunday.
Atlanta's top weapon had 10 catches for a career-high 189 yards and a touchdown. Peterson talked earlier
in the week about getting the better of Jones in past games, so afterward, that was a topic of conversation for everyone.
"You better watch out when you call people out," Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. "You better be ready to play. If you're going to call him out, call him out, but don't give up a career day. It's OK to talk, just back it up."
"Supposedly, Pat said he won most of the battles between me and him," Jones said. "I just took it upon myself to get the proper rest and make sure my timing and everything was down with (quarterback) Matt (Ryan), and keep working."
Peterson took responsibility postgame.
"He won the match up today," Peterson said. "Cy Young winners give up home runs. At the end of the day, you have to bounce back.
"I feel I lost this game for my team, because I feel I didn't play a good ball game today. I believe if (Julio) didn't have those yards that he did have, the score would be a little different. The guys tell me, it's a team loss, but I still put this loss on my shoulders. That's the way I am. "
Jones had a 41-yard reception in the third quarter which led to a field goal and a 23-10 lead. Replays showed the pass was incomplete because one of Jones' feet landed out of bounds, and while Peterson lobbied the sideline to throw a challenge flag, Arians said the coaching staff couldn't see a replay quickly enough to initiate a review.
RUN DEFENSE GIVES UP 100
The Cardinals' defense has been known for its ability to hold opposing rushers to under 100 yards, but the streak was broken on Sunday by an unlikely source: Steven Jackson. The Falcons running back had only 501 yards through the first 11 games and averaged only 3.6 yards per carry heading into this one but finished with 18 carries for 101 yards.
"It hurts," nose tackle Dan Williams said. "We take pride in stopping the run. They came out to play and it was an old-fashioned butt-kicking."
Jackson became the first running back to surpass the century mark since 49ers running back Frank Gore had 101 on Oct. 13, 2013, a span of 21 games. Atlanta finished with 34 carries for 142 yards.
"If you don't stop the run, stuff starts to happen for that offense," linebacker Kevin Minter said. "That's pretty much how the game ended up going. They were doing so good in the run they could start getting us play-action. Stuff started working in the play-action and then they could get us back with the run."
ABRAHAM MAKES AN APPEARANCE
Linebacker John Abraham has been absent from the team facility since the early portion of the season after he suffered a season-ending concussion in the Week 1 win over the Chargers. The 2013 Pro Bowler was back with the team on the sidelines in Atlanta, where he played seven seasons with the Falcons.
Abraham's contract expires at the end of the season and he hasn't yet said if he plans to play somewhere next year.