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Defensive fortitude proves to be Atlanta's way out of their losing streak

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After getting embarrassed by Jameis Winston and torched by Cam Newton, Atlanta's defense needed to respond against a dangerous Jaguars offense. They did just that with timely stops and making Jacksonville one-dimensional.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Responding from adversity is one of the chief ways you prove you're a good football team.  The Atlanta Falcons have been living on the edge for the majority of the season, but haven't been able to get there, with nine of their twelve games have ended by one-possession scores. Finishing has been one of Dan Quinn’s main slogans, and the Falcons haven't always finished.

With the offense lacking talent in several areas, low expectations have been placed on them for the rest of the season. The defense has generated most of the attention based on how pitiful their performance was against Carolina, so they needed to step up.

Daunting matchup on paper doesn't translate onto the field

Jacksonville’s resurgence to respectability has been crafted by their offense. From Blake Bortles’ productive season to Allen Robinson becoming a top ten receiver, they’ve quietly developed into one of the more efficient offenses in the league. Atlanta’s defense is currently composed of slow linebackers, inexperienced safeties, and no edge rushers. This seemed like a prime matchup for Jacksonville to exploit and continue their unlikely push towards first place in the AFC South.

Atlanta ended those dreams by stopping the run and forcing Bortles to make throws in tight windows. Holding Denard Robinson to two yards a carry made Jacksonville one-dimensional. That forced a shaky offensive line to block for Bortles, along with having to comply with the young quarterback’s tendency to hold onto the ball and take sacks. He erased those negative habits by checking it down more often yesterday and letting his playmakers make catches in traffic. Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee bailed him out on several occasions against Desmond Trufant out of all players.

Everyone knew Jacksonville was going to make their plays. Julius Thomas is the type of tight end that can run vertical routes and make catches in traffic against Quinn’s cover three system. It was about making stops, when it mattered most. The classic "bend, don’t break defense" that was moderately successful from 2008-2012, yet fans absolutely despise. Despite going up against the fourth worst defense on third downs, the Jaguars failed to convert on all eight third-down attempts. It was a major confidence booster for a defense that has struggled to generate pressure and cover the middle of the field.

Three defenders shone Sunday

Adrian Clayborn made his presence felt after being virtually a non-factor over the past month. Quinn continued his carousel of trying to find an edge rusher to complement Vic Beasley. Clayborn abused Luke Joeckel at times on pure power rushes. Vaughn McClure posted yesterday morning about the future of Clayborn and O’Brien Schofield. While both players gave mostly vague responses, Clayborn mentioned his appreciation for the city and the need to continue to play hard.

His inspired performance was evident yesterday, capped off by a sack on second-and-three during the game-sealing drive. The former first-round pick isn’t a prototypical edge rusher or defensive tackle. A lack of speed and athleticism hindered him as a full-time defensive end for Tampa Bay. His lack of size makes it easy for double-teams to overwhelm him on the inside. Clayborn has become a hybrid player that relies on pure speed and utilizing violent techniques. This won’t necessarily translate into becoming a permanent starter, but he can play a valuable role for any team. While it remains me to be seen if Atlanta should re-sign him (depending on price demands), Bortles was chased out the pocket or hit by Clayborn on several occasions.

Robert Alford and Justin Durant were other standouts. The injury-plagued linebacker showed his capabilities by making several stops in the running game, along with snuffing out multiple screens to Denard Robinson. Alford wasn’t targeted very often, which was indicative of Allen Hurns’ quiet game. Quinn changed his philosophy of keeping Trufant restricted to the left side. With Trufant shadowing Allen Robinson, Alford was mostly responsible for covering Hurns. If Hurns moved into the slot, he was matched up with Thomas on a few occasions. Alford had two passes defensed, which included the game-clinching pass breakup on Robinson. It was another consistent performance from the third-year cornerback. Despite noticeably struggling against Tennessee and Carolina this year, Alford has become one of the most dependable players on a defense searching for young playmakers.

Other receiving options finally step up

Repetitive mistakes have transpired over this losing streak from reckless turnovers to wasting opportunities in the red zone. Defenses have been successful running A-gap blitzes to get in Ryan’s face on a consistent basis. That has played a significant role behind so many passes being batted down at the line of scrimmage this year. While not every mistake was cleared up, the offense showed signs of improvement by finishing drives and converting key third-downs without being completely dependent of Julio Jones.

Roddy White and Justin Hardy made multiple key catches in the fourth quarter. Besides his rookie season, this has probably been the most difficult year of White’s career. No longer having the ability to make certain plays to coincide with not receiving many targets has to be difficult for any former stud wide receiver. White has been composed for the most part during this turbulent season. To see him still playing hard and making plays over the middle at 34 years old will be an everlasting memory for what appears to be his final season as a Falcon.

The current landscape of the Falcons offense won’t provide many explosive plays. With the receiving options being so limited, they remained persistent with Devonta Freeman. The box score doesn’t look pretty for the star running back, but Kyle Shanahan stayed committed to keeping the ball in his playmaker’s hands. A balance of 35 passes and 29 total rushes is the perfect recipe for the Falcons to end the season with a winning record. They aren’t built to throw 45-50 times and average 30 points a game. This is an offense that will have to grind teams out with methodical drives of ten plays or more.

Buzz for the future

While Atlanta’s playoff hopes are likely dead (Seattle isn’t losing at home to Case Keenum), the final two games have certainly boosted interest level following yesterday’s performance. The defense was flying to the ball against the run and created a fair amount of pressure as well. It was the type of response that coaches want to see out of a desperate team. Many analysts were questioning Atlanta’s effort following last week’s performance. A lack of personnel, not motivation has proven to be a far bigger issue.

The opportunity to end Carolina’s undefeated season seems like an insurmountable task. Not allowing three touchdowns in the first quarter and scoring an actual touchdown are two important steps towards posing a legitimate challenge. A strong performance would be another step in the right direction for a franchise searching for answers. Opportunistic turnovers such as Kemal Ishmael’s interception are going to be needed. Regardless of what transpires next Sunday, Atlanta can go into the off-season knowing that Quinn has gotten the most out of a defense filled with gaping holes. Now imagine this defense with multiple edge rushers and three-down linebackers?