A year ago, the Falcons invested significant dollars and assets to improve their lackluster run defense, adding Tyson Jackson, Paul Soliai, and Ra'Shede Hageman to the team. Considering the Falcons were at best decent against ground games for the duration of the season, the offseason kind of looked like a bust.
Terrific run defense
In 2015 with a new coaching staff and some new additions to the linebacker corps, the run defense has been arguably the best in the NFL, limiting teams to a league-low 78.8 yards per game.The remarkable part of that is that the beefy fronts you would expect to stop the run well haven't been the primary fronts for Atlanta, with players like Vic Beasley, Jonathan Babineaux, and O'Brien Schofield doing much better than expected against some pretty terrific running backs. The effect has been to make opposing offenses pretty one-dimensional, which has been a huge boon (Houston, Washington, Philadelphia) and less impactful at other times (New Orleans, dangit). Considering the team has a stellar pair of cornerbacks and an aggressive pair of safeties, forcing most teams into passing all game is not a bad play.
The only problem, of course, has been that the short-to-intermediate passing game for opposing offenses simply hasn't been stopped, and that's served as a surrogate for the running game for nearly every one of Atlanta's opponents. The pass rush also hasn't been quite up to snuff for a team hellbent on making offenses pass more often.
It is amusing to see the Falcons prioritizing stopping the run and seeing it at least partially compensate for a lackluster pass rush, given that Mike Smith and his staff clearly were targeting the same goal in 2014. It's also nice to rank #1 in the NFL in something good, for a change.
What lies ahead
The Falcons are facing several teams that are heavily reliant on the run in the weeks ahead, which makes their success and their strategy pretty sound. The Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts are not teams built around the run, but the 49ers with Carlos Hyde, the Vikings with Adrian Peterson, and divisional opponents like the Panthers and Buccaneers do rely on strong ground games. The prospect of Teddy Bridgewater or Colin Kaepernick being forced to throw 35-40 times in a game is an appealing one for the Falcons.
If the Falcons iron out those dreaded "covering tight ends and running backs over the middle of the field" issues they've been prone to through six weeks of the season, the defense has a chance to truly excel in the second half of the season. The run defense, at least, should continue to shine.