Expectations to start the 2016 season were exceptionally low for the Atlanta Falcons. Football prognosticators predicted Atlanta to finish anywhere from 4-12 to 8-8. No one expected the team that we have seen for ten weeks this season and no one saw the offensive production coming (32 points a game!), however, one area where many people guessed correctly was the defense.
Atlanta’s defense has excelled in some areas and really struggled in others, but most people agree that the Falcons defense is young, athletic, and inconsistent. We’re going to take a look at what this defense’s identity is, where they improved since last season, and where they still need to improve to become a good defensive unit.
Atlanta’s defensive identity
As everyone knows, Dan Quinn is working to build this Atlanta defense into Seattle 2.0: an aggressive, simplified, fast, and hard-hitting team that opponents don’t want to play against. That is obviously a lot easier said than done when you don’t have Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, or Michael Bennett on your roster, so Quinn’s job is not a quick one. Seattle has an identity as a defense that is “All about the ball” as they (Quinn and Pete Carroll) say and they do whatever they can to get to the ball—they are versatile, aggressive, and play without any sense of worry of what a mistake may do to their chances. They just play. This system is such that it allows players to react without thinking, thus making their job a lot easier.
Atlanta, though, is not quite there yet as a unit. They have some great pieces but they don’t foster an identity because they aren’t great at any particular part of the game. Desmond Trufant and the defensive backfield probably make up what most would consider to be the identity of this defense: a group with a lackluster defensive front seven, but a very talented back four that can cover almost any wide receiving corps in the NFL. The defensive line and linebacker units are getting better and have shown tremendous promise at times throughout the season, but they are not good enough to become the strength of the group.
This is where it gets fun to watch, though, and, I think, how you end up with a group like Seattle that is good at just about everything on the defensive side of the ball. All of these groups have shown flashes of being the best part of the defense, but they haven’t been consistent despite showing growth during the season. As I mentioned before, people see Atlanta’s defense and say three things: young, athletic, but inconsistent. When you have position groups that are all growing together as players and as students of a scheme, as time goes on and mistakes are made, you end up with a unit that knows how to play together and doesn’t really have any glaring weaknesses. That’s the future with Deion Jones, Keanu Neal, De’Vondre Campbell, Grady Jarrett, Vic Beasley, etc.—we have something to look forward to in the very near future. For now, though, I think Atlanta’s defense has an identity as a young group with great athleticism that is still learning how to play. That’s their identity through ten games this season.
Let’s compare them to last year’s group.
Improvements since last year
If I asked a panel of Falcons fans what the biggest shock was on the defensive side of the ball, good or bad, most would say the amount of sacks that the team has accrued so far this season. The second-most shocking thing for a certain segment of fans? That Vic Beasley was responsible for a good number of those sacks. Atlanta has 22 sacks on the season, a number that is good enough for 10th in the league and surpasses last season’s sack total by three, so to say that the pass rush has improved this year from last year would be a significant understatement. Dwight Freeney was a huge addition, Vic Beasley has not only grown in technique but also in strength and health, Adrian Clayborn has thrived at his more natural position at defensive end, and Grady Jarrett has finally given Atlanta an inside presence that they haven’t had in quite some time. When you put all of those pieces together you end up with a line that surpasses expectations and overshadows last year’s group by a wide margin—at least in the pass rushing department.
Another key improvement is in the overall athletic ability of the defense, specifically the linebackers. Paul Worrilow is a phenomenal worker and an intelligent player, but he does not have the athletic ability to be a starting linebacker in the NFL. Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell, and Strong Safety Keanu Neal have made it very difficult for teams to run outside the tackles or to do anything laterally. They fly to the ball and have become two of the best open-field tacklers on the team—another big issue for the Falcons last year. Jones and Neal are both within the top 30 in tackles in the NFL and, had Campbell not been injured, one could assume he wouldn’t be far behind based on his play the last few weeks.
The defense as a whole is faster and more athletic than it has been for years and the pass rush is as good as it has been since John Abraham left Atlanta. Is the defense totally improved? Not at all, but it has shown signs of getting there soon.
More work needs to be done
The biggest area of need for this team is in the middle of the defensive line: Jonathan Babineaux is getting older each year and Atlanta needs a complimentary piece to Jarrett. This would address the biggest issue I see in this defense: stopping the run. The Philadelphia Eagles proved that if you line up, run the ball on a regular, repetitive basis, you will get plenty of yardage, own the time of possession, and get enough to points to win games against Atlanta. In order for the Falcons to truly get to the point where they are the strongest unit of this team, they will have to get stronger in the middle so they can consistently stop the run.
Another position of need on defense is free safety. Ricardo Allen has done a serviceable job at that position but has shown multiple times this season that he may not be the man of the future to partner with Neal.
Both of these issues need to be addressed before we can talk about Atlanta as a legitimate super bowl threat, in my opinion. If you can’t stop the run, the playoffs will be incredibly difficult, and if one of your key positions on defense (especially in a cover 3 scheme like Quinn’s) is one of your weakest, your defense will consistently under-perform.
When you look at the unit as a whole, you see a lot of potential and a lot of improvement from previous years, but you also see a need for improvement in some key positions, as well as some growth from the young guys. When I look for an identity for the Falcons defense it’s their pure athleticism and potential, but it is slowly working towards a team that knocks the mess out of opposing players (I see you, young guys). Atlanta either needs to increase its turnover rate by a large margin, or they need to simply get better, grow in the system, and then watch that improvement come with time—I vote the latter.
The group is getting better. They look more comfortable with each passing week and they look more confident each week. With time, this will become one of the more entertaining groups to watch in the division, plus being one of the best defenses Atlanta has had in a while.