Disclaimer: This list will not contain practice squad members, players who didn’t play a snap, or played so little it was impossible to grade them.
Looking back at the Falcon’s 2013 defense, it might seem to some as if the only way to improve is to blow it all up and start over. When taking a closer look at each individual’s performance, it becomes easier to see exactly why the defensive unit was such train wreck, and exactly who was to blame for it.
Osi Umenyiora: The second biggest free-agent acquisition during the offseason was Osi Umenyiora. The Falcons brought him in to replicate John Abraham’s production, but ultimately didn’t get what they paid for. Finishing the season with 7.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, and a defensive touchdown, Umenyiora didn’t have a spectacular season but it certainly wasn’t awful. Yet, he didn’t exactly live up to the expectations of fans and the front office.
Kroy Biermann: One of the most important pieces to defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s scheme was Kroy Biermann. Biermann is a versatile defensive end that often lined up as a linebacker to confuse offenses and generate more pressure on the quarterback. Biermann tore his achilles in Week 2, and the Falcons didn’t have anyone that could adequately replace his unique skill set.
Jonathan Massaquoi: A former fifth-round pick, Massaquoi grew slowly but surely in front of our eyes this season. He came on strong in the second half of the season with his stout run defense and pass rushing chops. Massaquoi’s best game against the Green Bay Packers with a six tackle, two sack performance. His best moment came while de-tattooing 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, in front of the whole world on Monday Night Football. Massaquoi finished the year with only four sacks, but he showed some potential and finished the season with Atlanta’s best pass rush productivity, according to Pro Football Focus.
Malliciah Goodman: A fourth-round rookie out of Clemson, Malliciah Goodman had a quiet first season in Flowery Branch. Originally known for his solid pass rush, but weak run stopping skills, Goodman displayed the exact opposite in 2013. He provided strong run support but struggled to get consistent pressure or quarterback hits, finishing with a grand total of zero sacks. Goodman needs to learn to seal the deal when getting to the quarterback. He has a lot of room to grow, and a good amount of upside.
Cliff Matthews: Matthews’ third year in the NFL saw him bulk up and earn some snaps at defensive tackle, but with little impact. He finished with zero sacks and 13 total tackles, but no other stats of note. He provided depth and versatility for the Falcons, but will probably be the first to go if and when Atlanta adds talent to the position.
Jonathan Babineaux: The "USS Babs" has always been an underrated, yet universally loved player by Falcon fans. Unfortunately, 2013 was not his best in red and black. Known for wreaking havoc in the opposing team’s backfield, Babineaux only finished with a single sack and didn’t offer much to help the team’s putrid run defense.
Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan uncharacteristically singled out Babineaux’s poor play when he stated, "He gets in the backfield as much as anybody I’ve ever been around. But damn, it’s only about half the time that he’s getting them down."A free agent this offseason, Babineaux stated that he wants to return to Atlanta. It’ll be up to the Falcons front office to decide if the 32 year old is worth keeping around.
Corey Peters: Another key free agent to be is young Corey Peters. At just 25 years old, he’s established himself as the best defensive lineman currently on the Falcons, though that’s not exactly the most challenging thing to achieve. Peters finished 2013 with five sacks, 46 total tackles, and had an all around solid year. Sadly, he suffered a torn achilles Week 16 against San Francisco. Although he will have a long offseason rehabbing, his injury could potentially make him more affordable for the Falcons to re-sign.
Peria Jerry: The 2009 former first-round pick from Ole Miss is not exactly what anyone would call a fan favorite. Peria Jerry tore up his knee early in his rookie season, and never showed the potential the Falcons brass initially saw in him. 2013 was somewhat of a decent year for Jerry, as he put up 3.5 sacks and recovered a fumble. Jerry showed flashes at times, but for the most part he was pushed around and was a big reason the interior defensive line was ineffective. A part of the trio of free agent defensive tackles for the Falcons, Jerry could, and should, find a new home in 2014.
Sean Weatherspoon: The unquestioned leader of D-block, "Spoon" had another disappointing season marred with injuries. Weatherspoon was placed on short-term IR early in the season, and upon his return, didn’t offer much resistance for opposing offenses. Aside from his highlight-reel 71-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Packers, Weatherspoon looked rusty and out of shape. That can be attributed to his injury, but Weatherspoon has always had a hard time staying healthy. ‘Spoon leaves much to be desired, as most Falcons fans know he has the talent and ability to be one of the best linebackers in the game; we’re all just waiting to see it.
Stephen Nicholas: After a disappointing 2012 playoff run, "Stevie Nicks" became somewhat of a punching bag for Falcons fans. Nicholas started the 2013 campaign off with an injury that set him back in training camp. Upon his return, he was relegated to backup duty due to the emergence of rookies Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu. Nicholas was released by the team early in the offseason, saving two million in much needed cap space.
Akeem Dent: Yet another Falcon linebacker hit by the injury bug, Akeem Dent was having a pretty decent season until spraining his right ankle early in the regular season. Although he was inconsistent, Dent flashed run stopping ability and was somewhat adept at rushing the passer. A former 3rd-round pick, Dent is a disappointment. He’ll need to show great improvement in 2014 if he wants any playing time going forward.
Paul Worrilow: The second biggest rising star of the 2013 campaign was Paul Worrilow (or "Peter Wirrlywoo" if you're John Gruden). An undrafted free agent from Delaware, Worrilow exploded onto the scene when injuries took out incumbent starters Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas. Worrilow finished the season with an impressive, team-leading 127 tackles. It’s even more impressive considering he wasn’t supposed to make the team, let alone play significant snaps. His Fifa-like kick deflection set up a huge defensive touchdown that will live on in Falcons’ lore forever. Worrilow tied the franchise record of 19 tackles in a single game twice. That’s right, twice. Worrilow had as impressive of a rookie season for an undrafted player anyone could have imagined.
Joplo Bartu: Another UDFA of the 2013 class, rookie Joplo Bartu made the final roster after an impressive preseason, and only got better as the season went on. Hailing from Texas State, Bartu showed incredible closing speed, and a knack for making plays in the backfield. He has immense potential as a defender, and the Falcons should feel lucky no other team saw that prior to the draft. He and Worrilow should make for an impressive young linebacker duo for years to come.
Omar Gaither: Purely a depth signing, Omar Gaither unfortunately saw time on the field in 2013 due to injury, and looked completely lost for a veteran. He was blown up at the line of scrimmage multiple times, and looked like he shouldn’t be anywhere near an NFL field anytime soon.
Asante Samuel: 2013 was by far Samuel’s worst season as a Falcon. He missed the season opener and played the rest of the year nursing a deep thigh bruise. When Samuel was on the field, he looked nothing like the ball-hawking future Hall of Famer that he is. He consistently gave up big plays, and allowed an embarrassingly high passer rating when teams threw his way. Samuel lost his starting job in favor of rookie Robert Alford, and was subsequently released following the season. Samuel’s release saved the team 4.5 million in cap space, which they should undoubtedly use to upgrade the defense.
Desmond Trufant: The number one rising star of the 2013 season was easily Desmond Trufant. After getting repeatedly burned by Julio Jones and Roddy White in training camp, Trufant adapted quickly and turned in an outstanding rookie season. He finished the year with two interceptions and 17 passes defended, all while establishing himself as one of the best young corners in the league. Trufant was named the defensive rookie of the year by Pro Football Focus, and made the all-rookie teams of ESPN, NFL.com, and the Pro Football Writers of America.
Robert McClain: After a stellar 2012 campaign, the Falcons thought they may have found their long-term slot corner in Robert McClain. For whatever reason, he regressed in 2013. He didn’t notch a single interception, and swatted away only five passes. McClain was still a solid tackler as always, but had his troubles in coverage.
Robert Alford: The team’s second-round pick of the 2013 draft was Robert Alford. Many fans were scratching their heads after this pick following the selection of Trufant. Alford had them turning their heads all summer long with a strong training camp.Coming from the small school of Southeastern Louisiana, many believed Alford was a long way from contributing at the NFL level. He immediately proved the doubters wrong by picking off Saints’ quarterback Drew Brees in his very first NFL game. Alford later added an impressive interception against Carolina’s Cam Newton, showing his rare athleticism and ball skills with a tip-toe catch in the back of the end zone.
Alford had his struggles at times, as all rookies do, but for the most part showed that he will be a viable asset going forward. With the release of Samuel, Alford has all but locked up the starting job next to Trufant for the foreseeable future.
Dominique Franks: Franks provided depth and special teams value for the Falcons in 2013. He wasn’t asked to do too much in coverage thankfully, as he’s seen his struggles there before. Franks didn’t have any interceptions and only batted down one pass, but for the most part didn’t implode like the next guy on the list.
Thomas DeCoud: By far the worst player on the 2013 defense, Thomas DeCoud’s play made grown men and women cry almost every week. The only credit to give DeCoud is that he was consistent; consistently a train wreck. He blew coverages week in and week out, took bad angles, made embarrassing tackle attempts, and showed everyone exactly how not to play the safety position. A season removed from a Pro-Bowl berth, DeCoud’s fall from grace was catastrophic. There’s no way the team can go into 2014 with DeCoud as the starter.
William Moore: Compared to the guy he was playing next to, William Moore looked like an All-Pro. Realistically, he had a good but not great season. Seemingly every big hit Moore made was followed by a missed tackle. He had his fair share of dropped interceptions, as well as taking one away from Trufant by accidentally launching himself human-missile style into the rookie as he tried to make the catch. Moore was one of the very few playmakers on this defense, and he deserves credit for that. If he can cut down on the missed tackles and missed opportunities, he will find himself right back in the Pro-Bowl.
Zeke Motta: Called upon to due a concussion that knocked out DeCoud, Zeke Motta made his first NFL start against the Washington Redskins. He looked very solid as a run-stopping safety in the box, but was nearly as bad as DeCoud in coverage. A seventh-round pick, Motta wasn’t expected to come right in and dominate, but he looked capable and flashed some upside. If the Falcons do upgrade at safety during the offseason, a move to linebacker wouldn’t be out the question for the hard-hitting Notre Dame product.
Atlanta’s defense was crippled by injuries, and a lack of depth and experience made it hard for this young unit to compete at times. The defense as a whole will undoubtedly be improved with the expected influx of talent coming in the draft and free-agency, but for the 2013 season, this group was down right awful.
Overall Grade: D-
Coaching and Special Teams Grades and Analysis