LANDOVER, Md. — Robert Griffin III isn’t the type of quarterback to run out of bounds, and Sean Weatherspoon knew it. The Atlanta Falcons linebacker kept up the pursuit and went for the tackle. His upper body rammed into the helmet of the rookie who doesn’t shy from contact.
Griffin was down and done. A mild concussion, according to Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan. On a day in which the Falcons’ usually powerful offense was a bit out of sync, the defense had made a play that changed the game.
Matt Ryan went on to lead three scoring drives in the fourth quarter Sunday, scraping together enough points for a 24-17 win that gave the Falcons their first 5-0 start in franchise history.
“I felt like he was still turning upfield, so I was just trying to make a play,” Weatherspoon said. “Most quarterbacks would probably slide out of bounds or run out of bounds, but he’s a tough guy.”
And there was no dispute. It was a clean hit.
“It felt like a good play,” Weatherspoon said. “I think it gave us a little energy.”
The play turned a third-and-goal from the 3 to a fourth-and-goal from the 5 late in the third quarter. The Redskins kicked a field goal to take 10-7 lead, and Griffin’s replacement, fellow rookie Kirk Cousins, managed one big play in his NFL debut that put Washington in front one more time in the fourth quarter.
But, otherwise, the post-Griffin section of the game belonged to the Falcons. Julio Jones dexterously got both feet inbounds on an 18-yard catch just beyond the pylon. Matt Bryant stayed perfect on the year with a 53-yard field goal. Michael Turner ran 13 yards for the go-ahead score with 2:46 to play. The defense intercepted Cousins twice in the final two minutes.
The Falcons, mistakes and all, remain the only unbeaten team in the NFC.
“I don’t know why you want to ask me any questions,” Atlanta receiver Roddy White joked as he stood at his locker. “We stunk it up in early in the game.”
The Falcons didn’t score until the final minute of the first half, but Ryan kept throwing and throwing and throwing. He finished with 34 completions on 52 attempt for 345 yards with two touchdowns and one interception — a screen pass picked off by Washington linebacker Ryan Kerrigan and run back 28 yards for the game’s first score. Ryan also fumbled away a snap, Atlanta’s first lost fumble of the season.
Tony Gonzalez caught 13 passes for 123 yards and a touchdown. Jones had 10 receptions for 94 yards. White snagged four passes for 68 yards. Turner ran for 67 yards on 18 carries. Impressive numbers — until you remember that Washington has one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL.
“We were our own worst enemies in the first half,” Atlanta coach Mike Smith said.
The Redskins (2-3), losing their eighth consecutive home game, were meanwhile left to deal with an ironic wound. There was abundant concern that Griffin was susceptible to injury when he was taking hard hits while running option plays frequently in his first three games.
But Shanahan scaled back the option over the last two weeks. Griffin didn’t have a designed run play Sunday. He ended up getting hurt while scrambling because he couldn’t find an open receiver — something that every quarterback does.
Team spokesman Tony Wyllie said the Heisman Trophy winner was examined by an independent neurologist before being sent home from the stadium and will be evaluated again Monday. Griffin also got a cut on his chin.
“When he wasn’t really sure what the score was, what quarter it was, we knew he had a mild concussion,” Shanahan said.
Cousins, a fourth-round pick from Michigan State, went three-and-out in his first possession. Sav Rocca shanked the punt, and the Falcons drove 47 yards to take a 14-10 lead on Jones’ catch.
But Cousins put the Redskins ahead again about a minute later, when Santana Moss ran deep down the middle without a defender anywhere near him. The 77-yard pass made the score 17-14 early in the fourth quarter.
Ryan came back with two drives that gave the Falcons the win. Bryant’s field goal tied the game, and Turner’s run was the decisive score.
Cousins had two more chances to rally the Redskins, but Dunta Robinson and Thomas DeCoud picked him off to end Washington’s final two drives.
“With Robert not being in there, definitely allowed them to change up their scheme,” said Redskins running back Alfred Morris, who ran 115 yards on 18 carries. “They were flying downhill a lot faster. It definitely affected our running game. Once he wasn’t in anymore, they were just able to pin their ears back.”