Disclaimer: The majority of this post will be based on Pro Football Focus's grades of the team. I'm not the biggest advanced stats person, but it's like they say, if you can't beat them, join them. Or something.
According to Pro Football Focus, the Atlanta Falcons 2014 defense is not the worst defense in football through two weeks. That stigma belongs to the Pittsburgh Steelers, surprisingly. No one doubts what Dick LeBeau is capable of at 4,289 years old, but maybe the NFL has passed him by.
The Falcons, however, have the third worst defense, according to PFF.
The best? Perhaps surprisingly, it's the Miami Dolphins. Last Sunday's opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals, sits at a -2 overall. Just eyeballing it, that's around 20th in the league.
So what made our last opponent so tough to conquer? In spite of their -2 overall, they sport an 11.9 pass coverage grade. That's a full 2.7 points higher than anyone else (Carolina Panthers). The Bengals pass rush is dead last at -14.1. The Falcons, by comparison, are at -5.6. That's like sixth worst. The Bengals pass rush grade is a full five points worse than anyone else.
That can't possibly be right, right? I took a deeper look at their grades. One of their DL, Robert Geathers, has a -5.1 pass rush grade alone. Only three of their players have a pass rush grade higher than zero, and none of them have a pass rush grade that is greater than one.
...and that tore us a new one. Perhaps our biggest weakness is not a pass rush in our face, but a defense's ability to cover everyone? Did we know the Bengals were capable of such things prior to Sunday's game? Probably not; in fact, most thought it was a weakness of theirs. PFF suggests otherwise.
Combine that with the fact that our run blocking is one of the lowest in the league and it's easy to see why we would have struggled.
So after two weeks, we have a pretty good idea of who's off to a good start and who isn't. Using PFF's grades, I would like to suggest a starting defense that might actually not be so terrible. Further, allow me to suggest lineups in multiple defenses to get a better grasp of how our hybrid defense will change.
First, our 4-2-5 base big nickel defense that we seem to love. Let's take a look:
The first thing you'll probably notice is that I've replaced our two current starting linebackers with two guys who have been riding the pine. The Shembo pick is easy. He's been our best linebacker according to PFF and it's not even close. He's the only player on the entire defensive roster to have grades higher than zero in all three of PFF's major statistical categories. Put him in, Coach, he's ready to play!
Next you'll probably notice that I have Maponga next to him. We're playing with LBs that are more like hybrid strong safeties and they aren't stopping the run worth a darn. Worrilow's run defense grade is an abysmal -3.1. If we're only going to use two linebackers on early downs, they need to be run smashers.
Shembo? 6'2" 254. Maponga? 6'2" 265. Maponga is more of a pass rusher-type body, so that's why you would bring him inside on run downs (because that makes sense, right). His sole purpose on this defense is to GO FORWARD. If Maponga were to slim down a little he might make a good inside backer.
But to justify this with PFF grades, Shembo and Maponga have 22 and 13 run defense snaps, respectively, and both have a positive run defense grade. Maponga's probably came as a defensive end, but he's listed as an LB on PFF so we're going with it. Do not doubt the process!
The secondary is a hot mess. I went with the five chosen because there are literally no other options. Lowery has been nice in run support but everyone outside of Trufant and Alford have been a pass coverage disaster. That has to change or we're in for a long season. We have to lean on some part of this defense and right now, Trufant is literally the only accountable guy.
For the front four, these four are our best run stoppers. Yes, Babs is nowhere to be found on this list. His run stopping grade is awful, whereas his pass rush grade is pretty good. Goodman's pass rush grade is a .3 in 42 snaps. It's above average; I'll take it on early downs.
For as much as you all hate Biermann, he has a positive run defense grade overall. Considering teams probably know now we're made of swiss cheese on run D, we need all the help we can get. In this formation, all of our players with positive run defense grades are on the field. And right now, we desperately need that.
We already don't cover tight ends with nimble, 230-pound LBs. May as well not cover them with 250+ pound LBs and put a hurting on the enemy run game in the process.
Let's move on to a base 3-4. If we ever use it.
I really want to put Maponga back inside here, but I just don't think it would make sense. He's better suited on the outside unless we just don't have anywhere to put him like in the 4-2-5 nickel. I have him outside here. He'd be the strong side OLB. He's big, he's powerful, and he's a nice run support piece.
As you may have noticed, there are no Biermann or Worrilow in this formation. I tried to pick players who I thought could handle either situation but, given the grades, we have a couple of weak links. Peters came back and had a good game against the Bengals. I think he's a lock to play 3-4 strong side DE. Babs can do his thing on the weak side. Both ends are what I'd call "knifers", in that they both excel at knifing through inside gaps. Soliai clogs the middle as he has already done quite well this year.
Bartu is my main concern in this formation. Bartu and Worrilow are equal in pass rush, but Bartu is superior in run defense and pass coverage. He'll need to do both in this formation.
I originally had Osi over Mass at weak side OLB but once I realized that Osi was strictly a pass rusher and not an all-around OLB, I changed my mind. Osi's pass rush grade per snap is better than Mass's, but Osi's run support has been awful and he hasn't been asked to cover anybody. Massaqoui has, and he's been alright at it with a -.4 grade across 16 coverage snaps. Meh, but we'll take it.
Let's move on to the base 4-3, not that we ever actually run that.
Babs and Peters will definitely be rotating in that particular spot. I think Soliai is worth having. He's no Grady Jackson but he will draw a double almost every time.
Much to the chagrin of some people here, Biermann is back in the lineup. It's in part due to his familiarity with the 4-3 in Atlanta, but also because part of his negative grade comes from his pass coverage. Of his -5.2 grade, 2 of that is in pass coverage. We complain about dropping particular players into coverage, but at Biermann's age and with his injury history, why are we dropping him of all people into coverage?!
I refer back to his positive run defense grade and the fact that Mass's pass rush grade per snap is worse than Biermann's. Yep, you read that right. Since I can't predict the future, this is what we're going with now.
I have Maponga back in the OLB spot at the strong side. Bartu is lighter and faster; we'll leave him and Shembo to cover people over the middle. Maponga would once again be the hammer that stops the run. Between him and Shembo, it should make for a good run stopping tandem. Our interior OL should be excellent at stopping the run. Maponga can hammer anything off guard or tackle on his side, and Bartu just needs to get in the way until Lowery shows up.
Bartu is also a pretty good blitzer. He has a good first step and had 5 sacks last year. Honestly, you could probably just keep this group together on all three downs.
Finally, let's go to our 4-2-5 Big Nickel on passing downs.
It should come as no surprise that Shembo once again finds himself on the list. With a defense that has largely been terrible, any player who can establish himself with a positive grade on PFF on this defense must be doing something right.
I like Bartu in this situation more than Maponga because I think Bartu has a better chance of catching up to a tight end than Maponga does. I still don't like that both Bartu and Worrilow are 230 pounds but we've gotta make it work.
I think Peters rotates with Soliai in this situation. I really want Peters and Babs on the line at the same time but Soliai is so important to drawing a double team away from our ends that I feel like he gets the nod. IF they start doubling our end(s), we should substitute Peters in to have a double knifing tackle tandem. They'll start doubling that real quick.
No Massaqoui in this formation may raise some eyebrows, but both Maponga and Goodman have proven to be better pass rushers. In 42 pass rushing snaps, Goodman has a .3 pass rush grade. In 10 pass rushing snaps, Mass has a -.8 grade. Yuck.
Maponga is in the same boat as Mass. He only has 7 pass rushing snaps to his name, but only has a -.1 grade. No matter which way you multiply it, he's just the best 4 down DE we have left, IF you believe PFF.
If you step away from the PFF grades for a moment, you might notice that the defensive lineup given isn't really a bad idea at all. Biermann, for as much as people hate him, is a serviceable early down defensive end. Maponga is somewhat of a tweener anyway. He's big and athletic enough to play linebacker. His athleticism at least presents the opportunity to play linebacker in nickel sets.
Soliai continues to be a solid free agent pickup. He should be our 0-tech. Babs has had good times rushing the passer but not stopping the run. I don't need to tell you how good Peters is. Goodman was somewhat of a project last year. He's bulked up and grown into a solid strong side DE. He was more of a run stopper anyway.
Shembo needs to start. We gave Worrilow and Bartu their lumps last year. Shembo looked good in the preseason and he's looked good in his limited playing time this year. He needs to play. He's big enough to play inside. Worrilow and Bartu are not. Patrick Willis is 10 pounds of solid muscle heavier than both of them.
Maponga is a little too big to play linebacker in the 4-2-5 but considering how bad we are at guarding tight ends, we may as well put someone that 1) we know can't cover them and adjust from there or 2) can give a much more powerful jam at the line than what we're already trotting out there.
Bartu is simply a "best of the rest" player. I think he'd do better in a stand-up rusher role, but he's all we've got. I actually wonder how good Nate Stupar is at LB. He had an amazing open field tackle on special teams on Sunday.
Hageman isn't ready for NFL football yet. I think he's getting doubled at the line and he can't handle it on run downs. It's hard to ask a project rookie to come in and shed NFL blocks his first season. I believe he'll grow into something fierce in time.
Mass is the other OLB in the 3-4 because the team values his versatility. He hasn't really done a whole lot with it but when you have Hammer Maponga on one side, the other side has to be able to do a little bit of everything, most notably drop into coverage and stop the run, both of which Mass has done better than rush the passer. At one time, this was Biermann's role. Given Biermann's struggles, age, and injury history, I think that torch has been passed to Massoqoui.
Your thoughts on this defense? Could PFF's grades through two weeks potentially give us a way to field a better defense?
Not taking into account PFF's grades, are those lineups feasible in your mind?
I'll be around all morning, so let's talk defense!