When looking back on the 2015 season, one major improvement should always stand out: The defense overcame their lack of talent and made several strides. Dan Quinn faced a daunting task by trying to get the most out of a defense featuring aging veterans, flawed young players, and several rookies.
They still had their struggles, primarily from not generating a pass rush (19 sacks) to covering tight ends on a weekly basis. Safety play was inconsistent, as William Moore hasn't been reliable since signing a lucrative deal in 2013. That didn't completely prevent them from making highlight-reel plays and fourth quarter stops. It wouldn't have been possible to select five memorable defensive plays from the 2013 and 2014 seasons, but this time around, we've got something to hang our hats on. While major upgrades are still needed across the front seven, many players showed promising development. Here are the top five defensive plays from this season.
Metlife Stadium hasn't been very kind to the Falcons. During Matt Ryan's tenure in Atlanta, they haven't beaten the Giants away from home. From the offensive line crumbling on fourth down to the defense missing tackles, it has always been a frustrating experience. With Quinn as the new head coach and the Giants declining into a mediocre team, this seemed like the perfect time to end their dreaded streak. That didn't seem likely by facing a 20-10 deficit in the third quarter.
With the offense out of sorts, Eli Manning began to carve up the Falcons defense. A third consecutive season starting 1-1 seemed probable. Everything pointed towards the Giants taking a three-possession lead. On third-and-two at the eight-yard line, Manning didn't face immediate pressure and made multiple reads. After Odell Beckham and Larry Donnell were well covered on crossing routes, it seemed like the inconsistent quarterback began to panic. He missed a wide-open Preston Parker in the end zone. Parker's constant drops may have caused Manning to look elsewhere. It was still a poor decision, as no Falcon was going to make a play on the ball.
There is no denying that Atlanta was fortunate on this play. Biermann's relentless pursuit deserves recognition. The oft-criticized defensive end beat Marshall Newhouse with relative ease. Although this will be considered as a coverage sack, Biermann made a game-changing play. He never stopped moving against Newhouse, who seemed to quit. Manning was stripped from behind and Paul Soliai recovered the fumble. They never looked back as the Giants never came close to scoring again and Ryan led two scoring drives for a 24-20 win. Despite his shortcomings as a pass rusher, nobody should ever doubt Biermann's persistent motor.
Since John Abraham was abruptly released in 2013, no edge rusher has come remotely close to filling the all-time great's shoes. With declining veterans (Osi Umenyiora, Kroy Biermann) and mid-round draft picks (Jonathan Massaquoi, Stansly Maponga) struggling, an overhaul was needed immediately. After years of ignoring the pass-rushing woes, our prayers were finally answered when the front office finally invested a first-round pick in an explosive edge rusher. Beasley falling into Atlanta's desperate arms was a monumental coup.
While his rookie year was somewhat underwhelming, there was enough glimpses to make you confident about his development. Beasley's blistering first step gave tackles problems. If he continues to bulk up and refine his technique, Thomas Dimitroff will hit on a third consecutive first round pick.
This play comes from a game where the mammoth Dallas offensive line was bullying Atlanta. The beating was so severe that Quinn had to call a timeout and get in the defensive line's faces. It was an eye-opening moment to see actual fire from a Falcons head coach for the first time since Mike Smith got into it with DeAngelo Hall. While the defense proceeded to allow a touchdown on the following play, they responded by shutting out Dallas in the second half.
After rushing for 65 yards on two carries, Joseph Randle was held to 22 yards on twelve carries. That forced the game into Brandon Weeden's hands. With Devonta Freeman and Julio Jones essentially taking over, Weeden couldn't rely on check-downs and underneath throws to Jason Witten. He was going to make actual decisions that allowed Atlanta's pass rush more opportunities. Tyron Smith shut down Beasley, until the fourth quarter. That infamous first step was on display. As Beasley effectively used a rip move as well, the three-time Pro Bowl left tackle couldn't hang on for much longer. With Jonathan Babeinaux and O'Brien Schofield improvising a successful stunt, Doug Free was beaten on the play. Weeden was sacked on a third-and-three, which gave Atlanta's explosive offense (remember those days?) an opportunity to seal the game. For the first time in three seasons, a pass rush emerged in the fourth quarter. Beasley beating a premier left tackle was icing on the cake for this memorable moment.
Another win, another highlight reel play against the NFC East. The Falcons capitalized on playing the second worst division in football. It was never a smooth process, as all four wins featured fourth quarter comebacks. They finished off against Washington, which wasn't a pretty performance to say the least. Matt Ryan struggled all game by committing three turnovers. Julio Jones was banged up.
Devonta Freeman continued his streak of running all over defenses. His performance kept them afloat with his outstanding vision and ability to cut past defenders. Unfortunately, the defense faltered in crunch time by allowing 46 yards on four plays in 24 seconds. Soft zone coverage and miscommunication allowed Kirk Cousins to put Washington in field goal range. As overtime started, Cousins picked on Philip Adams and put the team near midfield. Were the undefeated Falcons really going to lose at home against a Redskins team without Jordan Reed and DeSean Jackson?
With pressure not getting there, Quinn realized that more blitzes were needed. Cousins struggled against pressure all season with a passer rating of 72.3, according to Pro Football Focus. Washington ran an empty backfield set by scattering five wide receivers. With Nate Stupar blitzing from the weak-side, there was a good chance for him to be unblocked. Vic Beasley and Adrian Clayborn executed a well-timed stunt to throw off the left side of Washington's offensive line. Stupar's pressure caused Cousins to panic like most young unathletic quarterbacks. He threw an errant pass to Ryan Grant, who was off balanced. Alford's excellent positioning allowed him to exploit a falling Grant to finish off the best game of his career. An impressive stat-line of two interceptions, two passes defensed, and a game-ending touchdown signified his third year leap into becoming a reliable cornerback.
Who could forget the circus around Philadelphia? From Chip Kelly's "brilliance" to ESPN hyping them up as a dark horse team in the NFC, Atlanta couldn't have been more of an afterthought in the first week. By taking 20-3 lead at halftime, skeptics were put on notice. As they held onto a 26-24 lead with 1:43 remaining, Quinn's defense was going to be already tested in a late-game situation
On third-and-eight, Sam Bradford started to press. Once Kelly designed plays to target the middle of the field, Bradford started to hit throws in stride. With Brooks Reed sidelined, Biermann was forced into playing more coverage. They repeatedly targeted him to nobody's surprise.
Bradford continuously targeted all of Atlanta's linebackers, as he looked for Jordan Matthews on a simple hitch route. Despite working with a clean pocket, the former first overall pick overthrew Matthews. The play was supposed to be an easy completion, as Paul Worrilow was a step behind per usual. Instead, Matthews couldn't reel in the high pass and Allen made an incredible adjustment to seal an impressive victory. This interception will be viewed as a fortunate break for the defense. That shouldn't discount their unbelievable first-half performance from constantly flying to the ball and generating pressure. After two years of disappointment, a statement win (at the time) concluded by a game-ending defensive stop showed that things were starting to slowly change in Atlanta.
The most bizarre outcomes can occur on any given week. Ryan Mallet can decide to start acting like a professional and lead Baltimore to an upset win over Pittsburgh. On the same week, Atlanta faced similar distant odds. Their season was basically over, while Carolina was two wins away from an undefeated season. It was only two weeks ago that they were taking pictures on the sidelines during a 38-0 win over the Falcons. This was the first time that a sense of pride was lost during Quinn's coaching tenure. Cam Newton led three drives that went for 80 yards or more. It was an embarrassing performance that gave fans no optimism going into the rematch.
Besides allowing an eleven play-80 yard drive to start the game, Atlanta's defense played their best game of the season. They were flying to the ball and didn't allow Newton to get comfortable. Justin Durant, Philip Adams, and Ra'Shede Hageman played their best games of the season. There were several other valuable contributors, but none other were bigger than Beasley. Quinn moved him to the left side alongside Jonathan Babineaux. That decision was possibly to exploit more favorable matchups.
Beasley started playing better in late November following a lull period between October and mid November, and he was getting past Carolina right tackle Mike Remmers repeatedly during the second half. He drew a holding penalty, along with creating three hurries. After two major blunders by the offense, Atlanta's defense was forced to make one more stop. Remmers couldn't gain leverage or handle Beasley's speed. With the first round pick utilizing a rip move with his right arm, he stripped a blindsided Newton and Clayborn recovered the fumble. It was another game-sealing stop by the defense. This moment exceeds Allen's interception based on the magnitude of this win and how the game ended on a sack. After years of waiting on a pass rush, Beasley's outstanding game showed more glimpses of him resurrecting Atlanta's pass rush. As Quinn put so eloquently, take a (expletive) picture.