At this point, most Falcons fans have faith that our offense will score points. As the top offense in the league that has been succeeding without Julio Jones recently, faith in Matt Ryan and company is as high as it has been. The same can’t be said about this young Falcons defense. However, this defense has looked better - on paper - since the bye week. They allowed 19 points to the Cardinals, 13 offensive points to the Chiefs and 13 and 14 points to the Rams and 49ers. Is this a unit that is quietly improving, or is there more to the story here?
Against the run
Over this four game stretch, the Falcons defense has given up 392 rushing yards with 4 rushing TDs. Those yards came on 79 attempts, which nets to a very poor 5.0 average. If you were hoping to see improvement against the run, I have bad news for you. In 3 of the four games, the opposing team was able to rush for more than 100 yards, with only the Cardinals being held under the century mark.
Granted, in the Rams and 49ers games, the Falcons defense arguably backed-off by the time the fourth quarter came around. Indeed, the Rams scored their 14 points in garbage time. However, after re-watching the games, it was clear that all of these teams were having success running the ball early and often. It was only when they moved away from the run that the Falcons defense was able to get off the field.
Against the pass
The defense has been ok against the pass, but it’s still not a great story. They gave up 977 yards in the air with 5 TDs and 3 INTs. Those yards came on 144 attempts, which ends up being about 6.8 yards/attempt, which is not terrible.
You also have to take into account who the defense was facing. Carson Palmer is having a poor year. Alex Smith is a classic game manager (who threw for 270 yards against us). Jared Goff is a lost rookie in the worst offense in the league, while Colin Kaepernick plays behind an offensive line made of cheese curds and boiled potatoes.
On the flip side, the Rams and 49ers put a lot of numbers on the board in junk time when the game was well out of reach, so that should definitely be taken into consideration. These numbers aren’t great, but they aren’t a disaster either. That’s not a resounding endorsement, but the reality is probably that this pass defense is simply mediocre, not god-awful.
Other factors to consider
The Falcons defensive success recently comes down to two things: sacks and turnovers. In those four games, the Falcons have 8 sacks, 5 fumbles recovered and 3 interceptions. Several of those sacks were what I call “drive killers” and those fumbles were obviously crucial in ending drives as well. If you’re looking for something that this defense has done well recently, it’s been rushing the passer and generating turnovers.
It’s easy to forget that the Falcons have lost several key players to injury on defense. Desmond Trufant was lost before the bye, and Derrick Shelby long before that. Adrian Clayborn went down in the Cardinals game and hasn’t been back since. We also played without Jalen Collins against the 49ers. These are important guys who wouldn’t have made this a great defense, but certainly would have made it better than it is.
Simply put, this Falcons defense is not a good unit by any stretch. Teams have no problems running against this unit and they are still beat consistently by passes to tight ends and running backs. However, the pass rush has definitely come along and the players are becoming more opportunistic against lesser competition, forcing critical turnovers and getting drive-killing sacks at key times.
The core of a good defense is here, but there is still work to be done to make it a decent unit in 2017. As for the rest of this year, if this defense is going to have any success, it will probably be due to the pass rush and generating turnovers. Otherwise, we’ll need our offense to put a ton of points on the board to have a shot at winning.
Any hopes for a dramatic defensive improvement should be suspended until the 2017 season. This defense is still a poor one, even if some signs of improvement are there.