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A young Falcons defense reaches new heights against the Packers

After showing promise against below average and inconsistent offenses, the Falcons’ defense validated their improvement against an all-time great quarterback.

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NFL: NFC Championship-Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Following countless impeccable performances from both starting quarterbacks, the attention in this game was focused on the Falcons’ and Packers’ QBs and offenses. A shootout was inevitable between two prolific units. Aaron Rodgers has carried a decimated Packers’ team behind a stout offensive line. Matt Ryan’s career season and outstanding supporting cast elevated the Falcons into the limelight as the most feared offense in the league. As The Ringer’s Robert Mays infamously stated, the scoreboard was bound to explode in the Georgia Dome’s final game.

The Falcons’ defense had other ideas, based on their superb performance. They slowed down a player, who was deemed unstoppable (and rightfully deserved the praise). Rodgers threw for 362 yards and four touchdowns against an elite Giants defense without his favorite wide receiver Jordy Nelson. He made several jaw-dropping throws in a thrilling victory over Dallas. After lighting the Georgia Dome on fire six years ago, everyone anticipated another memorable performance. A defense filled with first and second year players didn’t allow it.

Secondary responds with a statement game

There were some questions about this young secondary following last Saturday’s victory over Seattle. The defensive line abused an overmatched offensive line and forced Russell Wilson into several inaccurate throws. It mitigated some major coverage busts that could have translated into big plays. Wilson missed Doug Baldwin on multiple occasions as well. With the front four facing a far superior offensive line and Rodgers playing at an extraordinary level, the odds were stacked against a secondary without a true leader.

They responded with one of their most impressive performances of the season. Robert Alford’s steady play continued with three pass breakups. When Nelson made a big play, it usually transpired when someone else covered him. Alford played physical and didn’t let the star wide receiver get comfortable. He is always prone to committing a frustrating penalty or miscue. Other than those blunders, Alford has developed into one of their more consistent defensive players.

Jalen Collins’ emergence deserves more recognition. The former second round pick looked extremely raw and struggled to change direction against faster wide receivers in his rookie season. Besides allowing Nelson to get behind him on a corner route, he didn’t allow any other significant plays. Collins has looked more fluid in man coverage. That allows him to utilize his long arms and make plays on the ball, which he did with one pass breakup and a near interception.

Dan Quinn constantly talks about Collins’ length and active hands. It was proven on a colossal forced fumble, where he stripped Aaron Ripkowski and recovered his fine work. The defense forced 13 takeaways in their last seven games, but a friendly schedule left some skepticism. To force two turnovers against one of the most productive offenses in the league erases significant doubt. Quinn has built an opportunistic defense with several unique pieces.

Surprising pass rush

Nothing was more surprising than seeing the defensive line harass Rodgers. According to Pro Football Focus, Green Bay’s offensive line only allowed pressure on 29 percent of his drop backs this season. The Falcons generated pressure on a whopping 40 percent of their passing plays. That stat is even more impressive, considering Vic Beasley was mostly subdued and Brooks Reed failed to create much pressure. It was a collective effort combined with well-designed blitzes.

Quinn added some new wrinkles to frustrate Rodgers. Deion Jones rarely blitzed this season, due to his value in coverage. They decided to run an A-Gap blitz with their explosive middle linebacker. To call this on third down was risky, yet it worked brilliantly. Brian Poole found success blitzing from the right side. After drilling Wilson last week, Poole started earning a reputation for being a hard hitter. He enhanced it with multiple crushing hits on Rodgers.

While blitzing certainly helped, Quinn prefers relying on his front four. Ra’Shede Hageman’s breakout game couldn’t have occurred at a better time. The enigmatic defensive lineman produced three tackles for a loss and one sack. Since moving back inside, Hageman has played considerably better. He put Corey Linsley on his back in devastating fashion. That sack ended up forcing Rodgers into throwing a desperate heave, which fell into Ricardo Allen’s hands.

Dwight Freeney played one of his better games as a Falcon. According to Nathan Jahnke, the legendary edge rusher produced six pressures. To gives a top-tier tackle like David Bakhtiari problems is very impressive. Not many left tackles are better in pass protection. Between Freeney’s success and Tyson Jackson’s first ever sack as a Falcon, the defensive line exceeded expectations. As Beasley said, they never doubted themselves. Their self-belief showed by making a terrific offensive line look average.

Can’t keep Julio Jones down

As the running game was mostly ineffective, Ryan took complete control. He outdueled Aaron Rodgers in their first thrilling encounter. This was a more commanding performance based on how well the offensive line played. According to Pro Football Focus, Ryan was only pressured on 11 of 40 dropbacks. That allowed him to find his favorite wide receiver on a consistent basis.

Whenever doubt starts entering your mind about Jones’ health status, he ends up destroying an opposing secondary. The superstar wide receiver didn’t look healthy in a one-catch performance against New Orleans on Monday night football. Six days later, he puts up 300 yards on Carolina. Jones looked like his usual explosive self. As Ladarius Gunter attempted to hold on for dear life, Jones wouldn’t be stopped. When Gunter couldn’t hold onto Jones, he found himself in another zip code. Jones played like a man on a mission.

His routes looked as sharp as ever. Making ridiculous catches over the middle didn’t shake him either. Kyle Shanahan did an excellent job moving him around to avoid facing constant bracket coverage. It was one of his most complete performances ever, which is saying something. How Bill Belichick devises a gameplan to contain Jones is going to be fascinating.

Looking Ahead

There were plenty of encouraging signs following yesterday’s victory. The offense managed to put together a dominant performance, despite committing several mistakes that went unpunished. Not even five dropped passes, two botched snaps, and multiple pre-snap penalties kept them from scoring over 40 points. New England can’t stop this offensive juggernaut, especially with Shanahan calling his likely final game as offensive coordinator.

It will be on this defense to prevent another elite quarterback from scoring over 30 points. They have managed to improve without Desmond Trufant, Adrian Clayborn, Derrick Shelby, Sean Weatherspoon, and Kemal Ishmael. With young players developing rapidly and Quinn’s philosophy coming together, they are more than capable of finishing this dream season as Super Bowl champions.