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A lockdown defensive performance puts the Falcons back where they belong

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Another terrific showing in a high-profile matchup indicates that the Falcons defense is more than capable of taking over games.

Carolina Panthers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It has been a season filled of mystifying tendencies and traditions for the Atlanta Falcons. From committing unnecessary penalties to not scoring consistently in the red zone, the Falcons rarely make things look easy. Most of their games consist of prolonged struggles that make you question everything about the team. The offense’s inability to find a true rhythm remains as a concern. Whether it’s a bizarre turnover, drive-killing penalty, or low percentage play call, they are haunted by the same recurring mistakes. Other issues such as Dan Quinn’s time management have become problematic in recent weeks as well.

For all the frustration, there has been one major positive this season: The defense continues to deliver in marquee matchups.

It started in the first game held at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Aaron Rodgers was harassed all game long in what was Atlanta’s third win over Green Bay in a calendar year. They continued to bring the pain as Dak Prescott was sacked eight times during a massive morale-boosting win. Forcing two turnovers helped them survive the Russell Wilson experience for what now proved to be a season-changing victory. Both games against the Saints showed how good this defense can be. It all culminated into shutting down one of the most prolific quarterbacks in the league on Sunday in Week 17.

Defensive fortitude

Nearly three years ago, Quinn was hired to rebuild a horrific defense. It was an extremely flawed unit at practically every level. With the exception of Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, there were no long-term starting pieces on the roster. Picking up the pieces was going to take some time. By nailing countless draft picks and making shrewd signings on the defensive line, Quinn has assembled a top-ten caliber group.

There are three players evolving into bonafide stars. Grady Jarrett, Deion Jones, and Keanu Neal were all instrumental in the Falcons’ late season surge. What they offer as individual talents makes them such integral pieces to the fast and physical motto. Not many defensive tackles have a quicker first step than Jarrett. Jones is arguably the fastest linebacker in the league. When it comes to assessing true defensive enforcers at the safety position, Neal must be included in the conversation. Desmond Trufant used to be the closest thing to an elite player for a once-hapless Falcons defense. That has changed drastically over the past season.

Jarrett had another outstanding performance on Sunday. With Trai Turner unable to recover from a concussion, it left the star defensive tackle against an inexperienced Amini Silatolu. He eviscerated him on countless plays. Between blowing past Silatolu in the running game to making him look silly in pass protection, Jarrett couldn’t be contained at times. Ryan Kalil endured some punishment as well. A blistering arm-over move sent him face first into the turf. Jarrett is capable of embarrassing any interior lineman on his day. Carolina felt his wrath in the worst way. He filled up the stat sheet with three tackles for a loss, two hits, and one sack.

While Jarrett had an exploitable matchup, Jones and Neal were responsible for limiting two of Carolina’s most dangerous weapons. A good portion of Cam Newton’s success comes from throwing to Christian McCaffrey and Greg Olsen. They shredded Green Bay’s defense three weeks ago. Both players present matchup problems in a variety of ways. They were both non-factors on Sunday. McCaffrey was neutralized in the passing game. As Jones followed him across the field, Newton couldn’t make any high percentage throws. It forced him to take more chances downfield, which translated into three interceptions.

Neal was the recipient on one of those wayward throws. In a game where several players were getting rewarded for their efforts, nobody deserved an interception more than Neal. He covered Olsen for the majority of the game. Quinn used Neal to shadow the stellar tight end in the second game of his career last season. His plan worked again, as Olsen caught one pass on nine targets. Newton’s erratic play certainly played a factor. Several of his passes were high and wide. The second-year safety still deserves praise for covering him tight on each throw.

It was another all-around terrific defensive showing. With the offense struggling to break open a stout Panthers’ defense, they elevated their play at an opportune time. Robert Alford had his best game of the season. According to Pro Football Focus, Alford only allowed three receptions on nine targets with three passes defensed. After having two interceptions get taken away from him earlier in the season, it was great to see him get his first official interception. Vic Beasley earned a sack for the first time in nearly two months. That should prove to be a major confidence booster going into January.

Although they will need a total team effort to stop a high-powered Rams’ offense, the centerpiece of Quinn’s defense is evident at this stage of the season. He knows how valuable Jarrett, Jones, and Neal are to the team. For each player to be under 25 years old and play at such a high level is remarkable. They will be at the forefront of a potential deep playoff run.

Matt Ryan leaves no doubt

In what proved to be a topsy-turvy season, the reigning MVP played lights out when it mattered most. Steve Sarkisian had to lean on his arm, given the difficult matchup. Trying to establish a running game against the likes of Luke Kuechly and Kawann Short rarely works. Although the Falcons are at their best with a balanced attack, they needed to alter their game plan. It’s never ideal for Ryan to attempt more than 40 passes. On this occasion, a more aggressive approach was pivotal in their road to victory.

Ryan showed tremendous poise against Carolina’s frequent blitzes. When the pocket collapsed, he never took a wrong step. His pocket movement was sensational. There has been plenty of discussion about the regression in his numbers. What rarely gets mentioned is Ryan’s astute pocket presence. How a 32 year-old quarterback still finds ways to evolve speaks volumes about his work ethic.

Salute to the elder statesman

In a game where the Falcons couldn’t stop getting penalized on special teams, they still have one thing going for them in that department. Matt Bryant is as good as it gets. Since being signed in late 2009, the Atlanta legend has brought incredible stability to what can be viewed as an unstable position. Look no further than what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have endured in the past three seasons.

Bryant continues to deliver in high-pressured situations. His five field goals alleviated another week of frustrating red zone woes. When the Falcons couldn’t get in the red zone, Bryant didn’t flinch. He converted a 56-yard field goal to give the Falcons a two-possession lead. It was his eighth fifty-yard kick of the season, which is a career high for the reliable kicker. Quinn never shows any hesitation when calling on Bryant to convert a long field goal. You can see why after Sunday’s perfect display.

Looking Ahead

After facing an uphill battle, the Falcons prevailed against the NFL’s toughest schedule down the stretch. They are back in the playoffs, which is something no other NFC team can say from last season. Beating four of those teams set them apart in the playoff chase. Defeating New Orleans and Carolina showed their capabilities. There were some ugly elements to both victories. As frustrating as they may be to watch, it’s equally as frustrating for their opponents. The Falcons are one of the most difficult teams to prepare for and play against on both sides of the ball. There is no telling what this team can do in the playoffs. What we do know is that this team won't go out without a fight.