The Atlanta Falcons got better on defense as the season wore on, and they’ve added Dontari Poe to an already formidable group up front. In theory, a run defense that ranked 21st in the NFL in yards allowed and allowed the fifth-most rushing first downs and most rushing touchdowns should be demonstrably better. Yet it’s one of the few truly huge concerns for Atlanta heading into next year.
Part of that is simply due to opponents. The Falcons draw the Dallas Cowboys and Ezekiel Elliott, a tough test for any team, plus Jordan Howard and the Bears, Jay Ajayi and the Dolphins, Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray with the Vikings, and so on. The Falcons have the personnel to have at least a solid run defense, but it was less than excellent a year ago, and there’s quite a few difficult matchups on that slate.
Unfortunately, the NFC South promises to be a late and daunting challenge in that regard.
We’ll set the Buccaneers aside for the moment, because their running back depth chart is uninspiring beyond Doug Martin, and we’re not yet ready to declare that he’s back based on some June hype about his physique and running in shorts. New Orleans and Carolina are very different stories, however.
A year ago, Mark Ingram carried the ball 35 times for 180 yards and a touchdown, or over five yards per carry. He’s a strong, smart runner who the Falcons have struggled to contain at times, and we’ll hope that Poe and improvement from a young front seven will help contain him.
The greatest favor the Saints could have done the Falcons is to sign Adrian Peterson, who figures to rob Ingram of carries and is far from a sure bet to return to his pre-2016 form. If Peterson can look like he did earlier in his career, the Saints could have a truly lethal ground game that will be extremely difficult for the Falcons to contain. If he doesn’t—and that’s a strong bet—they’ll still be a team the Falcons need to be wary of.
Rookie Alvin Kamara is a shifty runner who figures to be involved in the passing game, as well, though I don’t expect him to have a huge role in his first year with the team.
We all know Jonathan Stewart well, and he can be a problem even as he ages. Injury has sapped him of both playing time and some of his effectiveness—he only saw the Falcons once last year—but he’s still a dangerous back.
The addition of Christian McCaffrey, one of the most dynamic players in college football, doesn’t make Carolina any easier to tackle. McCaffrey will be a factor in the passing game, but he’s also a deceptively physical runner with the speed and agility to leave defenders in the dust. Add in Cam Newton, who can and does run right through contact, and you’ve got a genuine challenge.
Again, none of this would seem particularly relevant if the Falcons didn’t scuffle so much against the run a year ago. We’re expecting improvement from the defense across the board, but it seems likely that given the composition of the team, we’ll see an elite pass defense before an elite run defense.
The Falcons will be tested early and often this season, but during that late, critical stretch against the NFC South, we’ll get to see what their run defense is really made of. Let’s hope they’re up to the challenge.