A day after looking at the offense, which has a decent chance of rebounding, we take a closer look at the projections for the defense, which can’t play much worse.
In the interest of not making this 3,000 words, I left off a small handful of guys who have had minimal contributions to this point, like John Cominsky and Blidi Wreh-Wilson. Hopefully both have real roles in the second half.
On to the projections!
Team defensive projections
Points Against: 500 (423 in 2018)
Yards Against: 6,072 (6,152 in 2018)
Interceptions: 4 (15 in 2018)
Sacks: 14 (37 in 2018)
Quarterback Hits: 58 (77 in 2018)
There is no way to sugarcoat this one: This defense has been awful and unlucky and an absolute slog to watch. They aren’t doing the fundamental things well, like communicating effectively and making tackles, and they’re also not making the splashy plays like sacks, turnovers, and fumble recoveries that you need to paper over big mistakes. When you’re plain bad and you’re not even fun bad, you deserve all the slings and arrows you’re getting. I guess the happy note here is that there’s virtually nowhere to go but up.
They are on track to allow 80 fewer yards than they did a year ago, but that’s not much of a consolation when they’re also on track to allow 77 more points. Yikes.
DT Grady Jarrett
2019: 88 tackles, 6.0 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, 14 quarterback hits, 4 forced fumbles
2018: 52 tackles, 6.0 sacks, 8 tackles for loss, 16 quarterback hits, 3 forced fumbles
Let’s start with the best defender of them all, a player once again enjoying a quietly terrific season despite the chaos and carnage around him. Jarrett is on track to be even more impactful than he was a year ago, winning matchups against his man (or more frequently, men) and making plays both against the run and against opposing quarterbacks. I’m sure he could do better, but that’s more theoretical than practical given how little help he’s received.
If the defense improves in the second half he has a real chance to blow by these numbers, but I’m not sure we can expect that.
DT Tyeler Davison
2019: 70 tackles. 2.0 sacks, 6 tackles for loss, 2 quarterback hits
2018: 23 tackles, 2.0 sacks, 2 tackles for loss, 3 quarterback hits
Davison has walked into a major role on the Falcons defense this year, and like Jarrett, he’s in line for numbers that track pretty well with last year. Atlanta’s likely to look hard at re-signing him next year regardless of who is coaching because he’s been rock solid against the run and at least useful on passing downs.
DT Jack Crawford
2019: 28 tackles, 2 quarterback hits
2018: 35 tackles, 6.0 sacks, 7 tackles for loss, 9 quarterback hits, 1 interception
Crawford might have had a bit of a 2016 Vic Beasley year in 2018, as he got six sacks on just 9 quarterback hits, but he was still one of the team’s most effective pass rushers in a down year. This year, he’s struggled to crack the rotation, and as a result he’s gotten to do very little.
With teams absolutely murdering the Falcons through the air, it’s sort of hard to believe that Crawford can’t get more playing time, no matter how well Davison has done stopping the run. He’s headed for free agency and it’s difficult to project whether he’ll be back given the likely impending coaching change, but it’s a shame for him to go out this way after such a fine 2018.
DE Takk McKinley
2019: 36 tackles, 1.0 sack, 8 tackles for loss, 16 quarterback hits
2018: 22 tackles, 7.0 sacks, 7 tackles for loss, 15 quarterback hits
Here’s the unlucky man in this group. You would expect Takk to have at least a couple of sacks with eight quarterback hits and one of the better defensive end win rates in the NFL, but instead he’s got just .5 sacks and a pretty sour fanbase scrutinizing every single one of his tweets. That’s deeply unfortunate, and it’s striking to see his quarterback hit projection so close to last year but his sack total on track to be so depressed.
Takk’s ability to get after the quarterback and at least hurry him has been noticeable on tape, so it should only be a matter of time before the sacks start showing up. That, of course, depends a bit on whether the abysmal coverage this team has been providing week after week changes or not, because quarterbacks are getting rid of the ball with incredible quickness thanks to blown coverages.
This isn’t to say that Takk couldn’t play better—he certainly can—but his luck also may change and he might pick up 5-6 sacks in the second half if it does.
DE Vic Beasley
2019: 38 tackles, 3.0 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, 10 quarterback hits, 2 pass deflections
2018: 20 tackles, 5.0 sacks, 7 tackles for loss, 8 quarterback hits, 3 pass deflections, 1 fumble recovery, 1 defensive touchdown
Over and over again, Beasley shows that he can get after the quarterback. It’s just rare and getting rarer seemingly with each passing season, which is why it’s extremely likely he plays elsewhere in 2020.
Beasley’s had a better year overall in 2019 than his awful 2018, but it hasn’t translated into better production as a pass rusher. He’s on track for fewer hits, fewer hurries, and fewer sacks than he was just a year ago when the entire fanbase was ready to toss him overboard, and his still incredible closing speed isn’t availing him when he’s taken out of plays entirely, as he too often is. The Beasley era should have been so much brighter than this, and I’ll be forever bummed that this good, seemingly hard-working guy never turned into the elite player we hoped he’d be.
DE Adrian Clayborn
2019: 24 tackles, 2.0 sacks, 2 tackles for loss, 6 quarterback hits, 4 forced fumbles
2018: 11 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 3 tackles for loss, 13 quarterback hits, 1 forced fumble
Clayborn has done pretty much what you’d expect Clayborn to do, serving as a solid all-around player in his fairly limited opportunities thus far in 2019. I said over and over again that his meh production in 2018 with the Patriots was belied by typically solid play, as is evinced by his 13 quarterback hits, but with fewer opportunities on a lesser defense, Clay’s numbers again look mediocre. If the Falcons want a veteran bridge at defensive end again in 2019, they could do a lot worse, but I wouldn’t expect his role to grow in the second half of this season.
DE Allen Bailey
2019: 36 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 2 quarterback hits
2018: 38 tackles, 6.0 sacks, 5 tackles for loss, 10 quarterback hits, 2 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 1 defensive TD
I don’t know if it’s entirely scheme, if Bailey’s a declining player, or some combination of the two, but he’s been a pretty disappointing addition to the defense thus far in 2019. His numbers last year were among his career best but were not totally out of line with what he’d done in the past for the Chiefs, but the change of scenery to Atlanta seems to have done him no good at all. He’s been a relative non-factor as a pass rusher and has been the subject of fan ire for failing to live up to his reputation as a run-stopper, as well.
Bailey’s under contract for 2020—though the structure of his deal makes him easy to move on from—and I’d expect him to retain a prominent role in the defense going forward. Hopefully he can get on track and return to form by next season, at the very least. If not, the Falcons might want to stop signing former Chiefs defensive linemen.
2019: 120 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 2 quarterback hits, 2 pass deflections
2018: 53 tackles, 1.0 sack, 1 tackle for loss, 6 pass deflections, 2 interceptions, 1 forced fumble, 1 defensive TD
Deion Jones just hasn’t quite been Deion Jones this year. He’s been in the backfield making plays, but that trademark big play ability hasn’t been showing up and he’s been guilty of hesitation and occasional over-pursuit where we haven’t seen much of that in the past.
There were whispers from league insiders and members of Jones’ family on social media that he hurried back last year to try to help save the season, the kind of typically admirable thing that a killer teammate and player like Debo would try to do. You have to wonder if that’s impacting his play this year, and if it might be 2020 before we see a totally back-to-normal version of Jones.
He’s still a mighty useful player even in a down year, but there’s no question this defense isn’t going to be even good without Jones playing at a higher level. He’s such a critical piece of this D.
You'd expect Deion Jones to clean up these type of plays. A bit hesitant going to the ball and misses Carson. It doesn't help that other players can't get off blocks, but Jones should be bursting into the open lane to finish the play. pic.twitter.com/RLhXwLfQHU— Allen Strk (@Allen_Strk) October 31, 2019
LB De’Vondre Campbell
2019: 140 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 4 forced fumbles
2018: 94 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, 3 quarterback hits
In the past, Campbell has been the team’s most reliably physical linebacker and at least a pretty solid player in coverage, if not better. As the defense has largely sagged this year, Campbell has largely sagged too.
His terrific 2017 season might be an outlier, but I still think Campbell is a better player than the one we’ve seen this year. He’s on track to have to clean up a lot of mistakes—his projected tackle total would put him in Paul Worrilow territory as a guy who, if nothing else, has to bring down a lot of running backs and tight ends—but the coverage has been a problem and he’s gotten few opportunities to show off his value as a pass rusher. With a trip to the open market likely looming, this isn’t the season he or the Falcons wanted. Bit of a theme, here.
LB Foye Oluokun
2019: 22 tackles, 2 tackles for loss
2018: 91 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 2 quarterback hits, 1 pass deflection
Oluokun was a stone solid player as a rookie in 2019, but has gotten very little in the way of chances to prove himself this season. Maybe that changes a bit in the second half of the season, but given how many snaps Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell play and will likely continue to play, I’m not sure he’ll see a major spike. Disappointing.
CB Desmond Trufant
2019: 12 tackles, 5 interceptions, 10 pass deflections
2018: 66 tackles. 1.0 sack, 1 tackle for loss, 1 quarterback hit, 12 pass deflections
You don’t need me to tell you that Trufant isn’t likely to hit five interceptions on the season—he hasn’t yet in a single year in his career—but that’s about where he’s tracking after snagging two in five games in the first half of the season.
The problem is that I’m not sure what’s going to happen with Trufant at all in the second half. The Falcons appear to be intent on getting Kendall Sheffield and Isaiah Oliver all the playing time they can handle, which means Trufant may not get to be outside all the time. His return should still be a boost to a secondary that has struggled with big plays and blown coverages all year.
CB Isaiah Oliver
2019: 64 tackles, 12 pass deflections, 2 forced fumbles
2018: 23 tackles, 7 pass deflections, 1 interception
Oliver is finally starting to get his feet under him after a very rocky start to the year, though he’s still having his adventures in coverage. His physicality and improving awareness should help him have a better half, but that’s less likely to show up in the stats than on the tape. For his sake—and the sake of the Falcons, who have him under contract for two more seasons—I hope that improvement is real, sustained, and spectacular.
CB/S Damontae Kazee
2019: 66 tackles, 4 tackles for loss
2018: 82 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 10 pass deflections, 7 interceptions, 1 forced fumble
Kazee had an amazing 2018, tying for the lead league in interceptions and playing an aggressive, physical game as the team’s starting free safety. He had his coverage woes, sure, but he was a good player in that role.
We may see him back there going forward. The Falcons trotted him out there against the Seahawks, which is probably equal parts a tacit admission that things were not going swimmingly at cornerback and a desire to put the best coverage duo on the field with Kazee and Ricardo Allen. Kazee has seemingly had a role in many of the more memorable blown coverages this year, but it’s also difficult to know where communication is falling apart and how much blame to pin on him for it. Either way, the return to safety ought to be a positive for him, and hopefully he can turn in the kind of memorable second half he managed in 2018.
CB Kendall Sheffield
2019: 38 tackles, 2 forced fumbles
For a fourth round rookie who wasn’t really expected to contribute, Sheffield is killing it. If you remove that context entirely, Sheffield is mixing a handful of impressive plays with the kind of mediocre coverage that has defined this team’s secondary play to this point in 2019.
Sheffield is going to get all the chances he can handle in the second half, though, and has done enough to this point to deserve that longer look. The athleticism and talent is obvious, so consistency and experience will be the keys for him going forward. The only real question is whether he stays outside or not with Trufant coming back.
S Ricardo Allen
2019: 86 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 4 pass deflections
2018: 17 tackles, 1 interception, 3 pass deflections
As is the case with Deion Jones, it’s hard to know how much recovering from a major injury has held Allen back, but he hasn’t looked like quite the same player in 2019 either. I think we all hoped some of the communication issues and lapses on the back end would cease with Allen back on the field this year, but they’ve probably gotten worse.
For all that, I don’t know how much of the blame for this sideways season can really fall on Allen, who has still made his characteristic savvy plays downfield and seems a step ahead of most everyone else in the secondary. He hasn’t been stellar but he hasn’t been anywhere close to bad, and I’ll be interested to see how he adapts to playing Keanu Neal’s role the rest of the season if the Falcons keep him there.
S Kemal Ishmael
2019: 70 tackles, 4 tackles for loss
2018: 21 tackles, 1 fumble recovery, 1 pass deflection
Ishmael was pressed into duty because a string of injuries hit the Falcons, taking out Keanu Neal, J.J. Wilcox, and Jon Cyprien out for the year. Given that he was sort of an option of last resort, I thought he did a decent job. His coverage woes were not stunning but also crippling—the whole secondary is suffering from the same problem—and he’s still a useful player against the run. It’s not surprising that the Falcons are still looking to move on from him as a starter after a few games, though.
Ishmael isn’t likely to hit his projections because he’s not likely to play much in the second half, assuming the Falcons stick with a Kazee/Allen pairing at safety going forward. That likely means more special teams snaps, where he really thrives, but he continues to be a guy you can call on in a pinch.