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The Falcons defense took small but important steps forward in 2017

Compared to 2016, the Falcons defense was less opportunistic but more solid.

NFL: FEB 05 Super Bowl LI - Falcons v Patriots

When we looked at the Falcons offense, it was clear that there was regression across the board in 2017 compared to 2016. That’s what you expect when you’re following up one of the great offensive performances in team history, and certainly we foresaw some kind of regression this year on that side of the ball. We figured defensive improvement would rescue the Falcons if things got bad.

In many ways, it did. The Falcons allowed nearly 500 fewer yards on the season and 30 fewer points, which was enough to keep them in some close games and ultimately win them a handful. The Falcons didn’t really catch fire defensively until the final few weeks of the season, and even then they were carved up by Jameis Winston and company. It is very obvious that this defense has not yet hit its ceiling yet, which bodes well for the future.

Unlike the offense, though, there is not one clear, compelling narrative with this 2017 defense. They were better in counting stats but less efficient, allowing teams to score more points per drive and allowing them to stay on the field longer, ultimately costing the offense opportunities. A lot of that was driven by a turnover rate that was significantly lower than it was a year ago, but it was also caused by a run defense that was just barely better than 2016 (until, again, the last month of the season) and a unit that allowed the same number of first downs as in 2016 despite being on the field for fewer drives.

But if there was no truly amazing improvements, there were plenty of steps forward. The secondary did excellent work throughout the year slowing opposing passing games, including two stellar efforts against Drew Brees and the Saints. The team got far more sacks and got more consistent pressure than in years past. And the way things started to click at the end of the year, it’s not hard to imagine this defense being truly scary to play in 2018 if they can just nail one more offseason. We’re getting very close to seeing the defense Dan Quinn and Marquand Manuel clearly envision here, and hopefully Manuel will remain in Atlanta long enough to see it happen.

Below, you’ll see the comparisons. I’m a big believer in this defense, and I hope they’ll prove their worth even more here in the postseason.

Falcons Defense 2017 vs. 2016

Category 2017 2016
Category 2017 2016
Total Yardage 5094 5562
Points 315 345
Passing Yardage 3429 3882
Rushing Yardage 1665 1680
First Downs 197 197
Penalty Yards 918 848
Drive Time 2:57 2:39
Plays Per Drive 6.3 5.9
Points Per Drive 1.84 1.94
Drive Scoring % 36 34.3
Turnover % 9.1 13.4

The key, in my mind, has been the emergence of some truly great young players. Takkarist McKinley was a terrific rookie who just needs another offseason before he starts transforming some of his pressures into sacks. Grady Jarrett emerged into a true star this year, tying for the league lead for tackles for loss among defensive tackles and putting up four sacks. And Deion Jones, Keanu Neal, and De’Vdonre Campbell all took steps forward this season, cementing this as one of the fastest and most physical units in football. Add in consistently quality performances from the rest of the secondary, including Desmond Trufant, the opportunistic Robert Alford, and the quietly stellar Ricardo Allen, and you’ve got yourself a real defense. That defensive line rotation isn’t bad, either.

Keeping this unit together over the long haul will be tricky with all the big contracts coming up, but even if they returned this exact group of players a year from now, I’d be bullish on further improvement.