The Falcons Are Going From Turnstile To Fortress

Yesterday, I talked a little bit about how Eric Weems has flown under the radar in 2011. You know what else we haven't talked about all that much? The slow but steady emergence of the defense. 

The Falcons are a good-to-great team on that side of the ball thus far in 2011. I know that seems hard to believe when you watch this cornerback make a dumb mistake or that linebacker fail to wrap up on a tackle, but this is a team that has taken huge strides over the last four seasons without getting a lot of credit for it.

Don't believe me? Look at the rankings according to NFL.com first.

Total yardage: 14th
Total points/points per game: 15th
Interceptions: 12th
Fumbles: 11th
Sacks: 27th

You'll note that the Falcons are near the middle of the pack in everything except sacks, which we'll discuss a little later. In 2010, despite being near the top of the league in turnovers, they were 28th in the league in points allowed per game and 16th in yards per game.

But let's look at Football Outsiders:

Weighted Defense Rank: 7th
Rank Against Pass: 11th
Rank Against Rush: 3rd
Overall Rank: 5th

Intriguing, no? The guys at FO use a system that studies every play of the season (or so they claim) and compares a player and team's performance against an average baseline they establish by doing so. The level of sophistication and diligence here is high, so I'm inclined to trust FO's numbers.

By looking at these side-by-side, you get the picture of a defense that is average-to-above average by traditional measurements and really good by the more newfangled ones. For all the criticism lobbed at guys like Dunta Robinson, Peria Jerry and Stephen Nicholas—some of which is undoubtedly justified—the Falcons have quietly built a D to be proud of.

This confirms that the Falcons' problems have more more closely aligned with the sporadic offensive struggles—FO has the Falcons as 15th overall there—and a crippling combination of bad playcalling, mistakes and poor execution than anything going on with the defense. It also confirms what I've suspected all season long: If the Falcons ever stop shooting themselves in the foot with a shotgun, they're going to be a mighty tough team to beat.

After the jump, we'll touch briefly on two areas the D can improve in.

There's only two readily identifiable weaknesses, unless you want to get into a huge debate about the soft zone. That merits its own discussion.

The Pass Rush

This is where NFL.com and FO agree. The Falcons have been terrible at getting after the quarterback.

NFL.com has them at 27th with 15 sacks. FO has them at 29th with 13. By either measure, the Falcons have been lousy at finishing on the pass rush. Your eyes alone will tell you that they've also been bad at getting any kind of sustained pressure, the kind that forces a quarterback to rush a throw or let loose with a wobbly toss as he's brought to the ground.

I mentioned this yesterday, but this is an area in which the Falcons have to improve. It's a testament to the strength of the secondary and linebackers that the Falcons don't have a truly dismal pass defense, given the lack of support they're getting up front. With John Abraham, Jonathan Babineaux and Ray Edwards on the line, among others, it's absolutely inexcusable that the Falcons aren't getting it done.

I'd like to see the linebackers rushing a bit more and Brian Van Gorder trying something new to get his guys into the backfield. The status quo sucks.

The Power Rush

The Falcons are one of the best run-stopping teams in the league. They're allowed the fourth-fewest yardage and have shut down some of the league's fastest, most talented backs. As we're lobbing criticism at the pass rush, it's worth noting that these guys are barricades when a back comes rumbling up.

Well, almost. As it turns out, the Falcons are dismal in power situations. Football Outsiders has them ranked 31st overall with an 82% conversion rate. Even if you're not a fan of the newfangled stats kids these days like to use, you have to admit power situations are simple and elegant. It's any time a back successfully converts on third or fourth down from less than two yards to a first down or touchdown.

Part of that is due to the Falcons having quick, mobile guys up front. Part of that is probably due to the way the Falcons choose to line up in those situations. Any way you slice it, it's an area in need of improvement.

Weigh in on the defense and this post in the comments, if you would.

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