It’s been painful watching the Falcons’ defense in 2018, outside of a handful of competent performances—the Washington game and the season opener against Philadelphia are the two that come to mind. After losing Deion Jones, Keanu Neal, and Ricardo Allen in the span of a few weeks, the Falcons were scrambling to replace three of their most talented starters. But more than that, they would have to fill the leadership void left by their two most vocal players in Jones and Allen.
After watching Atlanta’s completely uninspired outing against the Browns, it’s clear that the team was unable to fill that void with the players in house. The team got so desperate that they even turned to free agent LB Bruce Carter to step in at one point. Many of us had hoped that other Falcons’ veterans would step up and answer the call: De’Vondre Campbell, Grady Jarrett, Desmond Trufant, and Robert Alford were all players that had the experience and passion to become the new field marshal of the defense. None ever did, which proves a fact that I think too few people really understand: not everyone is capable of being a leader.
Some people are born leaders. Others have to learn how to do it, but are certainly capable of it. Many more want to lead, but just aren’t cut out for it. There are a lot of different ways to be a leader, and I think the Falcons do have quite a few of those types of players. For instance, I believe Jarrett and Campbell are both good “#2s”—they aren’t the primary shot-caller, but they support the primary leader and bolster the players around them.
You need a healthy mix of leaders, “#2s”, and good old fashioned “soldiers”—I prefer that to the word “follower”, which makes everyone sound like lemmings—on your football team. It’s also how society functions, and humans are socially built to follow that system from a young age. The Falcons had all their top defensive leaders taken away, and the “#2s” simply couldn’t step up to the plate.
My guess is that, while each position group had a leader to go to—Campbell for the LBs, Jarrett for the DL, Kazee for the secondary—there wasn’t a unifying figure to bring the defense together. Allen and Jones were those figures, and with both of them gone, miscommunication and discord were rampant.
This is just my theory, of course, but player leadership is very important no matter what you believe. There’s only so much Quinn and the coaching staff can do to bring the team together—at the end of the day, the players need one of their own to turn to both on and off the field. If they don’t have it, you get sloppy and half-assed preparation—like what we saw against Cleveland.
Now, with Deion Jones poised to return in Week 11 against the Cowboys, we could finally see that void filled. His leadership might even be more valuable than his on-field talent, which is really saying something considering he is arguably the best MLB in the NFL. Jones has a proven track record of being a unifying figure on this defense, and I think his return will make a huge difference for the Falcons going forward.
The big question is, will Deion be enough? Atlanta seems to have found some serviceable fill-ins, with Kazee playing great in relief of Ricardo Allen and Sharrod Neasman providing solid play in place of Neal. We’ve also seen the emergence of rookie LB Foye Oluokun, who is still raw but clearly has the talent to be an NFL starter. Hell, even Duke Riley has been playing better as of late. Deion’s infusion of athleticism, tackling ability, and leadership in the middle of the defense could be the spark needed to turn this thing around.
The Falcons face a difficult road ahead, even with Deion back. At 4-5, the season sits on a knife’s edge: Atlanta can afford only one more loss out of the next seven games. It’s a tall order that will require more consistent play from both sides of the ball, and not taking any games lightly. Is it impossible? No, but it’s certainly unlikely—FiveThirtyEight has Atlanta with only a 21% chance of making the playoffs, and their best route probably runs through Carolina: get the sweep and see the Panthers lose two games to the Saints, and the Falcons could end up stealing their Wild Card slot.
Atlanta will need a few things to break their way and they’ll need to play nearly flawless football, but it could happen. Let’s see how Deion Jones’ return affects things—he could be a huge boost to this defense, or he could be too little, too late.