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Keanu Neal and Deion Jones make the difference for Falcons’ pass defense

Atlanta’s pass defense statistically falls off a cliff without Keanu Neal and Deion Jones.

Wild Card Round - Atlanta Falcons v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Deion Jones and Keanu Neal suffered long-term injuries before the Falcons even got out of Week 1, last season. Neal was lost for the year, while Jones didn’t make his return until Week 11.

It doesn’t take an expert to tell you that these were two massive losses, and that the defense was crippled as a result. The point of this article is to tangibly showcase the difference Neal and Jones make — and just how bad the Falcons’ defense becomes when they leave the field — from a statistical standpoint.

NextGen Stats has the goods here.

The three-year sample size spans the entire career of both Neal and Jones — from 2016-2018. Opposing quarterbacks have a much easier time against Atlanta’s defense when they don’t have to deal with the incredible coverage skills of Jones at the second level; and opposing pass catchers have an easier time when they don’t have to worry about the sure-tackling, hard-hitting Neal over the middle of the field.

The 6.7 yards allowed per pass attempt isn’t elite by any stretch of the imagination, but it is completely respectable — it would’ve been the 12th-best mark in the NFL last season.

However, 7.5 yards allowed per pass attempt is atrocious, and that would’ve been the fifth-worst mark in the NFL in 2018.

For the record, the Falcons allowed 7.1 yards per passing attempt in 2018, which was the 10-worst figure in the league.

Completion percentage is a similar story — a 63.5% opposing completion percentage would’ve been the 11th-best figure in the NFL in 2018, while that 69.0% opposing completion percentage would’ve been the third-worst mark in the league in 2018. Conveniently, Atlanta’s actual 68.03% opposing completion percentage was third-worst last season.

As a result of the injuries, the difference in Atlanta’s passing defense between 2017 and 2018 was night and day. The Falcons possessed the 12th-best passing defense in the league in 2017, and capitulated into 27th place in 2018.

The last time Neal and Jones were on the field together, they were helping the Falcons contain Philadelphia’s passing attack to a meager 132 passing yards on 3.77 yards per attempt. The Eagles didn’t record a passing touchdown, and Deion Jones secured the lone interception.

The Atlanta Falcons go into 2019 with aspirations to make it back to the postseason and make a run at the Super Bowl. Keanu Neal and Deion Jones, hopefully fully healthy this time around, will be two of the most important players in pursuit of that endeavor.