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Dominant defensive display keeps the Falcons astonishing midseason resurgence going

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A defense most known for being a weekly punchline is now shutting down opposing offenses entirely.

Atlanta Falcons v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

There are countless statistics that showcase how incredible the Falcons have played over the past eight quarters. You can start with how they’ve produced double the amount of interceptions against the Panthers (four) as they did in the first nine games of the season (two). It goes on with their defense recording more sacks in the last two games combined (eleven) than they did in the first eight games of the season (seven). How about not allowing a touchdown in eight straight quarters?

Emphasizing shutting down two divisional opponents, let alone doing it on the road, needs to be pointed out as well.

For the first time since 2010, the Falcons won two consecutive road games by double-digit points. They have done it in the most unexpected circumstances, against two teams with winning records (previously in Carolina’s case). How Dan Quinn’s team has responded following the bye week is simply remarkable. What looked like a hapless defense is now generating consistent pressure, frequently challenging passes, and getting off the field on third down. They’ve also started to create turnovers, which has been a long time coming.

The decision to put Jeff Ulbrich and Raheem Morris in featured defensive coaching roles has worked wonders. It’s proven Quinn is not only capable of making adjustments, but also willing to be adaptable and admit his faults.

Defensive destruction

The tone of the game was set on Carolina’s first drive. It only took three plays for the defense to make their mark. As Takkarist McKinley ripped past Taylor Moton, Kyle Allen panicked and tried to avoid the sack. His attempted throw landed into the hands of De’Vondre Campbell. That was the start of a four interception, five sack, and ten hit masterpiece.

Allen’s ball security issues are well documented. His tendency of taking chances in tight areas, along with an overall lack of awareness gives defenses opportunities to make big plays. Those opportunities came often for a secondary that hasn’t produced many takeaways this season.

Desmond Trufant, Ricardo Allen, and Damontae Kazee capitalized on those opportunities. While both starting safeties had early Christmas gifts delivered to them by Kyle Allen’s horrendous decision making, Trufant made an astute play in baiting the scrutinized quarterback into throwing an errant pass. The former Pro Bowler made his return and didn’t waste time making a major impact. By reclaiming his spot on the left, it allowed Kendall Sheffield to gain much-needed experience in the slot. His impressive play made the decision to shift Kazee back to free safety smoother. The versatile defender is at his best in a deep safety role, where he can read the opposing quarterback’s eyes and make plays across the field with his range. It became evident that he wasn’t comfortable covering slot receivers. Putting him back where he excelled last season is proving to be one of the most wisest personnel moves.

Kazee isn’t the only young player elevating his game in recent weeks. After a dreadful start to his career as a full-time starter, Isaiah Oliver has started to establish himself as a capable corner. The every week tradition of him blowing a zone coverage assignment or committing a careless penalty isn’t transpiring anymore. Instead, Oliver is playing with better awareness and using his long arms in an efficient manner. His pass breakup on a deep ball to D.J. Moore showcased how much he’s coming along in recent weeks. Remaining patient with him has been another smart decision, especially when it would have been easy to bench him.

The young players Quinn showed faith in are starting to play at a high level. McKinley finally got his well-deserved sack following weeks of nearly getting one. For all the work he put into becoming technically more proficient, his sack came off a pure bull rush. McKinley is starting to apply more tools to his arsenal. By becoming better with his hands and not depending on his raw strength, it has resulted in generating more pressure. The sacks haven’t necessarily came in bunches for him. What the pressure has done is help the defense get off the field on third down, create turnover opportunities, and open space for players like Vic Beasley to exploit. It’s been a frustrating season for the enigmatic defensive lineman. These past few weeks have been encouraging steps in his development.

What makes this blowout even more significant is that Grady Jarrett didn’t have a big impact on the game. The outstanding interior tackle had a relatively quiet game by his high standards. McKinley, Beasley, and Adrian Clayborn were the players rattling Allen on every drive. Clayborn had another strong performance with two sacks and three hits. Increasing his snap count is another shrewd decision made on the coaching staff’s part. His relentless motor, sheer explosiveness, and frightening power makes him a threat at all times. Rookie left tackle Greg Little learned the hard way when trying to block him. The defense’s success isn’t solely predicated on how young players develop. Veterans like Clayborn must continue causing havoc to assure their recent success becomes the new standard.

Coaching staff shows growth

With the exception of Adam Gase, no head coach has received more criticism this season than Quinn. Analysts, journalists, and fans were claiming he should have been fired in October. A “state of the union” type of press conference had to be made by Arthur Blank to address the speculation about Quinn’s future. That’s how low things had become in Atlanta. Opposing players were labeling his scheme as basic and predictable. Opposing coaching staffs were scheming open explosive plays at will. One of the league’s more respectable head coaches was becoming a laughing stock across the league.

The idea that Quinn doesn’t know what he is doing has quickly changed. He accepted that being the defensive play caller was proving to be too overwhelming for him. His willingness to use multiple respected coaches to facilitate change across the defense was needed. For someone who is widely considered for being too stubborn for his own good, the fiery head coach made the necessary alterations to help improve an underachieving defense. It’s translated into two outstanding victories where the defense has made significant strides in several areas.

The communication and pre-snap organization is noticeably better. There haven’t been many explosive plays allowed nor complete coverage busts. Defenders are making open-field tackles, which has been vital in containing dynamic playmakers like Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara. The constant penalties that plagued them earlier in the season didn’t occur in their recent victories. Forcing the Panthers to go two for 14 on third down is another notable statistic, especially when considering the Falcons were allowing more than 50 percent of third downs to be converted. Quinn had to do something coming off the bye to keep his job for the rest of the season. The adjustments that were made have translated onto the field in securing his job status for the remainder of the season.

Matt Ryan stands tall

Lost in the defense’s sensational performance was Ryan having arguably his best game of the season. After struggling to find his rhythm against New Orleans, the franchise quarterback looked as composed as ever. He was more willing to take shots downfield. Instead of overly pressing, Ryan surveyed the field and remained patient. His lone touchdown pass to Calvin Ridley was a prime example of it. Carolina’s defense is known for rattling quarterbacks with their various blitzes and coverage looks. They never took Ryan off his game.

When the Panthers managed to hit Ryan, they couldn’t prevent him from hitting a receiver in stride. Ridley and Julio Jones were on the receiving end of throws that went for 30 yards or more. How Ryan stood tall in the pocket and lofted picture-perfect throws downfield was a sight to behold. It was his first outdoors game of the season, which raised some concern coming into the game due to the narrative of him struggling outdoors. There was nothing stopping the former MVP from connecting with his two star wide receivers time and time again. For all the excitement about the defense’s dominance, it can’t be discounted how well Ryan played against an above-average unit.

Looking Ahead

After a memorable two-game road trip, the Falcons are playing at home for the first time in nearly a month. It comes at an opportune time facing a Tampa Bay team in complete disarray. The NFC South matchups are coming fast with a Thanksgiving rematch against New Orleans on the horizon. For a team out of the playoff picture, there is genuine excitement about Quinn’s team. Can they continue to maintain this level of play for the remainder of the season? That’ll be something for a team that has gone from struggling to stay competitive in games to blowing out the opposition.