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A closer look: A stifling run defense for the Falcons

How did the Falcons shut down the Jets’ ground game?

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at New York Jets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

There were lingering questions about the Falcons’ defense. They were struggling to get off the field on third down and failing to generate consistent pressure. With the league being so pass-oriented, it’s easy to forget about the importance of stopping the run. Miami and New England ran for a combined 300 yards in the previous two games. The edge defenders weren’t setting the edge, while Dontari Poe was struggling to handle double teams. How were the Falcons going to respond against the Jets’ three-back rotation? Holding them to 43 yards on 22 carries serves as a pretty strong response.

I always rewatch the previous Falcons game and post GIFs on Twitter of the most impressive and disappointing plays. One specific player, positional group, or topic is excluded from the film review to be saved for this piece. Here are four excellent plays that showcases a stout performance.

First Quarter: 1st and 10 at NYJ 42

After Duke Riley suffered a torn meniscus against New England, it was unclear how the Falcons were going to adjust within the front seven. Kemal Ishmael is a capable replacement. Sean Weatherspoon was recently brought back. Both players looked ready to slide into the weakside (WILL) role. Neither player ended up claiming that spot. Ishmael only played four snaps, while Weatherspoon was inactive. They decided to use Vic Beasley as a strongside linebacker. After toying with the idea last year, it finally came to fruition. De’Vondre Campbell’s versatility allowed him to shift back to the weakside.

The personnel changes allowed Campbell to play more off the line of scrimmage. With better awareness and recognition of run designs, the second-year linebacker has shown tremendous improvement this season. He does a solid job navigating the stretch play to close down Matt Forte on the outside. Beasley provides a more physical presence at linebacker. Although he doesn’t directly affect the play, his power forces Austin Seferian-Jenkins backwards and gives Campbell a clear lane to make the tackle. Derrick Shelby shows good effort in chasing down Forte as well. This was the first of eight tackles for a loss.

Second Quarter: 3rd and 1 at NYJ 34

Grady Jarrett is at the forefront of the front seven’s success. His outstanding first step and upfield burst off the line of scrimmage gives interior linemen nightmares. Look at how quickly he gets inside over center Wesley Johnson. Jarrett’s smaller stature makes it difficult for centers to obtain leverage against him. What makes this huge stop even more impressive is how Jarrett stays low and immediately goes for the fullback’s ankles. Some linemen would aim higher, which leads to them possibly missing the tackle or allowing the ball carrier to get the essential one-yard. He makes the right decision.

Lawrence Thomas is a converted full back after playing defensive tackle at Michigan State. At 286 pounds, it’s a brilliant idea on paper to make him the primary ball carrier on short-yardage situations. Jarrett squashed those plans with his instant penetration. Beasley puts the finishing touches by preventing him from stretching the ball past the first down marker. Instead of looking to land a big hit, the 2016 sack king wraps up and holds onto Thomas’ arms. This is a very savvy play from Beasley to cap off a great moment for the Clemson connection. Desmond Trufant deserve praise for going airborne.

Second Quarter: 1st and 10 at ATL 43

One of the biggest reasons behind the Falcons’ playoff run last season was the defensive line’s improvement. After being maddeningly inconsistent for most of the season, they elevated their play during the six-game winning streak. Courtney Upshaw played a crucial role in their success. The versatile defensive lineman can be utilized in various ways. Although he is expected to play more inside, Upshaw can contribute off the edge in the base package.

His push gives Kelvin Beachum fits and forces Bilal Powell to make an instant adjustment. That allows Campbell to clean up for another tackle for loss. Campbell doesn’t take his eyes off Powell, which helps him stay patient before exploding to the ball. This is what you want to see from a young linebacker. Campbell possesses all the impressive physical traits that coaches want from a linebacker.

You want to see him start diagnosing runs and making instinctual plays. He is continuing to do it on a weekly basis. Jarrett violently disengaging from James Carpenter needs to be mentioned. After putting together outstanding performances against Detroit and Buffalo, he had been somewhat quiet over the past two games. The rising star played like his normal disruptive self.

Second Quarter: 1st and 10 at ATL 30

After not being quicker earlier, Johnson doesn’t want to commit the same mistake. He wants to get immediate leverage on Jarrett. One of Jarrett’s biggest assets is how he gets leverage and uses it to his advantage. It doesn’t take long for opposing linemen to recognize it. That can led to them over pursuing, which usually translates into them losing their balance.

Jarrett decides to slightly change it up and not drive low. He uses his hands to make Johnson look silly. With his lateral quickness, Jarrett is a unique specimen. You can only marvel at what he is done against the run. Keanu Neal puts a definitive finish on the run. The second-year safety has arguably been the Falcons’ best defensive player this season. How he finishes plays, handles assignments, and sets the tone makes him one of the more complete safeties in the league.