In the waning moments of the game yesterday, while I was prowling around a frigid living room and barking at my television, the unlikeliness of the situation truly sunk in. These were the 2019 Falcons, the 1-7 team that had served up platters of empty platitudes and blown every chance they’d received in the first eight games of the season, absolutely dominating a 7-1 Saints team considered by many to be the best team in the NFL.
The Falcons finally dug deep enough to get there. The maddening thing about that win, which was as thorough a shellacking as the Falcons ever manage to put on the Sean Payton-led Saints, is that it feels like the ingredients for it were here for the past eight weeks. Watching the Falcons throw hot peppers and ground beef and tomatoes and beer into a crockpot and come up with two-week-old clam chowder for those first eight games will never, ever fail to rankle when I look back on this season.
There will be time to talk about how this team got here—I expect Dan Quinn to have a few interesting things to say about how the game was called and what kind of difference the bye made—but I think the pass rush in particular deserves to be called out. All season long, Grady Jarrett and company have slogged along, managing just seven sacks in eight games despite clearly being in the proximity of opposing quarterbacks and even hitting them, which created the perception that this pass rush was just putrid. While I wouldn’t argue they’ve been great up until this point, the collection of talent is similar (if not better) than it was a year ago in the front seven, leaving us to wonder how much blame needs to be pinned on the secondary.
We got our answer against the Saints. With the back end up of the defense holding up most of the day and Jeff Ulbrich having a good time out there calling the D, Atlanta’s pass rush finally had the kind of day we’ve been hoping for all year. De’Vondre Campbell drilled Brees early, Jarrett hit him all day long (5 QB hits and 2.5 sacks on the day), Vic Beasley was relentless, and Takk McKinley unfortunately only got close again, though I firmly believe he has big days ahead. In total, Atlanta picked up six sacks on the day, and they generally made Brees’ life miserable along the way. That brings them to 13 sacks on the season, which means they almost doubled the season total in a single game.
Is the the pass rush arriving or a happy day and nothing more? The Panthers are up next and they just allowed Kyle Allen to get sacked three times and hit nine times on 43 dropbacks against the Packers, so it’s not like it’s out of the question that they repeat the effort. The further the Falcons move away from having Dan Quinn in charge of the defense, the better they seem to fare, and they were already getting frustratingly close some weeks. If the secondary improvement is at all real—and they were at least a little better against Seattle, too—they should at least be far more effective in the second half. Sunday was a good reminder that this team is not a lifeless husk with no talent, and we needed that reminder.
Like everything else we saw today, though, this fine day for the pass rush is probably best celebrated and cherished with no real expectation that it’ll come again next Sunday. After the last eight games, it would be unfair to expect everything to change all at once.