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What Happened to the Falcons Run Defense?: Looking at Pro Football Focus and the Film

What the numbers and the tape say about the Falcons' suddenly declining run defense.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Another week, another Falcons loss. While this loss was filled with the usual incompetence with the passing game and inconsistent rushing attack, a new monster reared its ugly head as the Falcons were trampled on the ground for 166 yards.

For the majority of the season, Atlanta has been stout on the ground, ranking near the top of the league in both opposing yards per carry and opposing rushing yards in total. However, the last two weeks have seen a rugged run defense play poorly. Adrian Peterson wore the Falcons defense down in the fourth quarter in Week 12 (which wasn't a total shock), but Charles Sims, Doug Martin, and even Jameis Winston were able to effectively move the ball on the ground in Week 13.

Pro Football Focus has phenomenal statistics for the Falcons (and every team in the league) this season. According to their grades, Justin Durant and Paul Worrilow have been the two worst players on the team that receive playing time. This isn't restricted to the defense either, as they've both been struggling immensely this season.

It's interesting that the Falcons have been able to dominate opposing rushing attacks this year with poor inside linebacker play. Paul Worrilow ranks 4th worst among inside linebackers NFL with 15 missed tackles and Justin Durant ranks 3rd worst among outside linebackers with 10 missed tackles, despite only playing 9 games.

What the film shows is strong defensive line play that has helped mitigate the atrocities at linebacker. Pro Football Focus agrees:

While the defensive line has shielded the linebackers to a degree, on Sunday the entire run defense was a mess. Poor tackling, undisciplined run fits, and slow reactions allowed the Buccaneers walk all over the Falcons. The following play is an example of all three issues.

The Buccaneers were running a misdirection play. What this means is that the offensive line is all blocking one directing while the running back takes the handoff in the opposite direction.

At the snap of the ball, things start to break down for the Falcons defense. O'Brien Schofield is tasked with holding the edge and making sure nothing gets outside of him, but with the bunch trips formation to his right it's an extremely difficult task.

In all honestly, this is a brilliant play design by offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to counteract the Falcons 4-3 Under front. The blocking scheme gave the Buccaneers offensive linemen and tight ends easy access to the second level of the defense.

When Doug Martin gets the ball, he already has a simple path to the second level. All he has to do is evade Robert Alford (which he did) and he's off to a one on one situation against Ricardo Allen in the open field. A difficult gap assignment for Schofield, sloppy tackling by Alford, and a great play call by Dirk Koetter caused a quick 15 yard gain in the first quarter.

The second big run was just a discombobulated mess. Jameis Winston brilliantly audibled to a draw play and the entire defense was caught off guard.

The battle begins in the trenches. Adrian Clayborn, who struggles against the run, is playing out his comfort zone at the 1-technique. This has to be a major part of the reason why Winston audibled to the draw. One of the team's weaker run defenders gets caught in a situation where he has to face a double team from Logan Mankins and Joe Hawley.

Pro Football Focus' scores regarding Durant and Worrilow show shortly after this. Worrilow bit hard on the pass block action from the offensive line and began to drop to his zone. When he realized it was a run, he never committed to one side of Joe Hawley; he stutters and ends up running wide around Hawley opening an even bigger crease for Charles Sims.

Durant's reaction wasn't as bad, but his own hesitation created time for Luke Stocker to locate him on the second level and seal him off from Sims.

Lastly, Ricardo Allen seriously whiffed on the tackle attempt. An open field tackles on a high caliber athlete is a tough deal, but as a starting caliber free safety on a team that prides itself on stopping the run he has to do better. He's lined up perfectly with Charles Sims; Allen forgets to bring his legs with him all the way through the tackle and ends up grabbing air.

All three levels of the defense were sloppy against the run against Tampa Bay. Hopefully, these past two games were just an anomaly on what's been an elite season stopping the run. The run defense has been one of the few bright spots amongst a disgusting slid, losing six games in a row.

There were three big runs on Sunday, the rest of Tampa Bay's rushing numbers came from consistent five yard runs that chipped away at the defense over the course of the game. The first two big runs are shown above, here's the last, unforgettable huge gain that needs no explanation.


It would certainly be nice if the defense could pick it back up this week against the Panthers. Cam Newton and Jonathan Stewart are a handful for any defense and offensive coordinator Mike Shula is one of the best in the business right now. If they don't get their act together, they're in store for a pummeling this Sunday.