While much of the conversation around the Falcons in the off-season focused on the offense and the loss of Kyle Shanahan, many Falcons fans were more interested to see how this young defense would come together. A strong run at the end of the 2016 season gave fans hope that this would no longer be a struggling unit in 2017. After all, if this defense could improve to even just league average, the burden on the offense (which was widely expected to regress) would be lessened considerably.
With that said, how has this defense looked so far in 2017? Let’s take a look at some key defensive rankings to paint the picture.
- Tied for 9th in sacks with 9 total
- Tied for 18th in sack percentage at 6.3%
- 11th in QB Rating allowed at 86.0
- 8th in yards per completion at 9.8
- 5th in TD percentage at 3.0%
- 10th in completion percentage at 62.2%
- 9th in rushing yards/game at 85.0
- 17th in points per game at 22.0
Keep in mind, the Falcons have now faced two quality starting QBs in Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford. It should be noted that the Packers were missing some key offensive starters in that game, so this is not a perfect comparison.
What do these stats tell us so far?
We’re getting after the QB better
The 9 sacks through 3 games is already outpacing last year and would leave us with 48 at the end of the year (a big improvement over 2017). The sack percentage seems somewhat “meh” but take this into account: we’ve faced two of the best QBs at extending plays (Rodgers, Stafford). This number could improve as we face more traditional pocket passers.
Additionally, the QB rating allowed and completion percentage shows that - at the very least - our defense is taking away passing options and/or making the opposing quarterback uncomfortable. This was without our best pass rusher - Vic Beasley - in the last game, too.
For a fan-base that has been pleading for an improved pass rush for a very long time, this is an extremely welcome improvement. Let’s hope it continues to trend upwards.
We’re forcing field goals instead of allowing touchdowns
The touchdown percentage is a very interesting one, since it shows that we’re doing a very good job of not allowing passing touchdowns. Combined with the middle of the pack ranking in points per game, you can see that this defense is doing a much better job of stopping teams in the red zone - an area they were quite bad in during the 2016 season.
The Lions game was the perfect embodiment of this. The defense only allowed one offensive touchdown all game, forcing the Lions to get the rest of their offensive points on four field goals (several of them 50+ yards out).
This is an improving defense, but not yet a great one
In total, the Falcons defense is clearly much better than it was last year. When you consider the opponents they’ve faced so far, the fast start is even more impressive. That said, this defense still has a tendency to give up tons of yards in the passing game to running backs and has been prone to going soft in the fourth quarter. They’ve also been hit with some bad penalties that have helped sustain drives for the other team.
These issues should be addressable, though, as the athletic talent is apparent in all three levels of this defense. They’re not getting beat because the offensive talent is better - they’re mostly getting beat due to mental mistakes. Those are far easier to correct.
Keep in mind, these rankings are only after 3 games, so the sample size is obviously small. However, fans who have watched the games can see that these rankings and statistics mostly hold up to what we’ve seen on the field. If this defense can continue to build on this strong start, and the offense can clean up some of their recent miscues, this could be a very dangerous team that few others in the NFL can match-up with.