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Atlanta’s defense is on pace to finish as one of the worst in the NFL yet again


Atlanta Falcons v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Earlier this week, we looked at the Falcons offense, which was on pace to improve more or less across the board from Dirk Koetter’s second first year running the offense. Now we take a closer look at the pace through six games for the defense, which is...not in that kind of shape.

A defense that was abysmal in the first half of 2019 and receovered in the second half of the season looks a lot better than what the Falcons have done to this point in 2020, which is somehow one of their worst paces in years. The last two games have been pointing in the right direction, which gives us some hope they won’t once again be one fo the very worst defenses in the league, but things look grim right now.

Let’s take another look.

Overall Defense

2020 Pace: 491 points, 6,459 total yards, 21 turnovers, 384 first downs allowed, 13 interceptions, 21 sacks, 88 penalties, 5,372 passing yards, 1,556 rushing yards

2019 Final: 399 points, 5,693 total yards, 19 turnovers, 330 first downs allowed, 12 interceptions, 28 sacks, 127 penalties, 3,918 passing yards, 1,775 rushing yards

There’s no way to sugarcoat this: The Falcons are on pace to be a truly abysmal defense. They are far more disciplined thus far in terms of penalties committed and the run defense is on pace to be slightly better overall, but that’s more than erased by the fact that the pass defense has been putrid and the lowest point total Atlanta’s allowed thus far is 23. They’re not getting as many sacks as they did last year, when we yelled about sacks all season, and teams are still finding it way too easy to move the ball through the air against them.

There are reasons to believe this pace won’t continue, among them the return of A.J. Terrell, impending return of Darqueze Dennard, and hopefully the return of Takk McKinley, all of whom should help this defense. The team is also trending in the right direction, having allowed 30+ points for the first four weeks and only 23 each of the past two weeks. That said, they’re not exactly a strong bet to suddenly morph into a quality unit, and they’re still likely to be worse than they were a year ago with some serious offensive firepower on the opposing slate.

Let’s look at the individual performers thus far and their pace. All stats are from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted, and I left off players who have played very minimal snaps because those projections did not seem entirely worth mathing out.

DE Takk McKinley

2020 Pace: 19 tackles, 3.0 sacks, 3 tackles for loss, 19 quarterback hits, 21 pressures, 3 pass deflections

2019 Final: 29 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 7 tackles for loss, 13 quarterback hits, 20 pressures

Takk’s only played three games thus far and injury continues to be his biggest obstacle to success. He’s looked really good in his limited action this year and is on pace to be at least as product as 2019 as a pass rusher, but that’s going to depend on how much he plays. If healthy, I think he’d smash last year’s numbers.

DE Dante Fowler Jr.

2020 Pace: 32 tackles, 3.0 sacks, 5 tackles for loss, 5 quarterback hits, 37 pressures, 3 forced fumbles

2019 Final: 58 tackles, 11.5 sacks, 16 tackles for loss, 16 quarterback hits, 35 pressures, 2 forced fumbles, 6 pass deflections

Fowler is credited with a team-leading 14 pressures as of today, and while that pressure has made a legitimate difference at times, you don’t have to do more than scan his other stats this year to understand he’s not getting home. Fowler averaged one quarterback hit and more than half a sack per game in 2019, but since joining the Falcons he’s managed just one sack. The pressure suggests he’s going to be more productive going forward in that regard, but obviously this is not what the team was hoping for when they signed him. He’ll likely need to pick up the pace significantly to ensure he’s here with the next regime.

DE Charles Harris

2020 Pace: 21 tackles, 5.0 sacks, 5 tackles for loss, 8 quarterback hits, 8 pressures

2019 Final: 23 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 3 tackles for loss, 6 quarterback hits, 7 pressures

Harris is a player the Falcons should probably consider re-signing Harris. He’s well on his way to the best season of his career thus far and is becoming a valuable rotational pass rusher with the change of scenery to Atlanta, something that almost never happens. He’ll be a key piece the rest of the way, especially with Takk McKinley banged up this year.

DE Steven Means

2020 Pace: 37 tackles, 0.0 sacks, 0 tackles for loss, 8 quarterback hits, 11 pressures

2019 Final: N/A

Means is one of the reserves I think has the best chance of sticking around under the next regime. He’s a rock solid run defender and does get pressure when given the opportunity to rush the passer, making him a valuable rotational piece, especially because he’s shown he can play inside and outside.

DE Allen Bailey

2020 Pace: 19 tackles, 3.0 sacks, 5 tackles for loss, 5 quarterback hits, 5 pressures

2019 Final: 26 tackles, 1.0 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, 2 quarterback hits, 3 pressures

Bailey would not need to do much to exceed his production a year ago, when he was largely ineffective as both a run defender and pass rusher. Thus far in 2020, he’s definitely looking sharper, with his effort against Minnesota easily his best game yet as a Falcon. I’m looking forward to seeing if he can build on that in the weeks ahead as he also makes his case to stay in 2020.

DE Jacob Tuioti-Mariner

2020 Pace: 21 tackles, 3 quarterback hits, 3 pass deflections, 3 fumble recoveries

2019 Final: 14 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 quarterback hit, 2 pressures, 1 forced fumble

Tuioti-Mariner is quietly a very useful player, someone who can play inside in a pinch, is rock solid against the run, and occasionally flashes as a pass rusher. If he’s the last guy in your rotation, you’re doing pretty well.

DT Grady Jarrett

2020 Pace: 59 tackles, 7.0 sacks, 13 tackles for loss, 21 quarterback hits, 27 pressures, 3 fumble recoveries

2019 Final: 69 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, 16 quarterback hits, 26 pressures, 2 forced fumbles

Despite the lousiness happening all around him, Jarrett’s 2020 is tracking very favorably with 2019, the best season of his career to this point. He’s on pace for fewer tackles and sacks, but more tackles for loss, pressures, and quarterback hits. There simply isn’t a better player on this defense, and there aren’t more than a small handful of better defensive tackles in football today. I love watching him play football, and we at least know if things gel around him, he’ll likely be even more effective.

DT Tyeler Davison

2020 Pace: 15 tackles, 3 pressures

2019 Final: 55 tackles, 1.0 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, 2 quarterback hits, 4 pressures, 1 fumble recovery

Davison is a one-dimensional player, by and large, and when he’s an active and disruptive run defender that’s just fine. That’s why the Falcons paid him, after all. It’s just that thus far in in 2020, Davison has been somewhat of a non-factor all around. It’ll be interesting to see if Allen Bailey stepping into a larger role was something that was due to the Falcons leading by a lot against Minnesota or a sign that he’ll be stealing more snaps from Davison.

Unless he picks up the pace, Davison is looking like an obvious cap casualty next year.

DT John Cominsky

2020 Pace: 24 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 3 quarterback hits, 11 pressures, 3 fumble recoveries

2019 Final: 11 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, 3 pressures, 2 pass deflections

Cominsky is now going to miss some time thanks to his placement on the reserve/COVID-19 list, but he was having a productive season as a rotational defensive tackle before that. We’ll see if he blossoms into the pass rushing force Dan Quinn suggested he could be as early as his rookie season, but it bodes well that he’s been disruptive in his playing time and has been a solid run defender as well.

LB Deion Jones

2020 Pace: 109 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 8 tackles for loss, 5 quarterback hits, 8 pressures, 3 interceptions, 11 pass deflections

2019 Final: 110 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 4 quarterback hits, 5 pressures, 1 interception, 5 pass deflections, 1 fumble recovery

Debo’s on pace to best many of his marks a year ago, but he’s really only played up to his usual standards in the last couple of games, with the Minnesota game being by far his best of the season. Jones is such a stellar athlete and capable playmaker that it would not astonish me if he bested some of these marks, but he’ll need to start consistently playing at a high level to get there. Don’t bet against him, and if he gets going and stays going it’ll help the defense avoid blowing by their already shaky 2019

LB Foye Oluokun

2020 Pace: 107 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 5 quarterback hits, 3 interceptions, 3 pass deflections, 8 forced fumbles

2019 Final: 62 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble

I’m finding it a bit incredible that Oluokun is not credited with a single pressure in 2020 (and wasn’t in 2019, either), but we’ll roll past that for the moment. He’s been excellent more or less across the board in 2020, and is on pace to put together an impressive season alongside Jones, one where he’d be on track to cause 11 turnovers all by himself. He’s blossoming into a high-quality starter, and there may be even brighter days ahead if he continues his growth.

LB Mykal Walker

2020 Pace: 53 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 3 quarter back hits, 5 pressures, 3 forced fumbles

2019 Final: N/A

Walker’s looked very solid for a rookie thus far, as he’s made some nice plays against the run and a couple of heads up plays in coverage. He’ll be a backup for the near term but does have the potential to be a starter down the line. Either way, he’s a key contributor in the early going.

LB LaRoy Reynolds

2020 Pace: 13 tackles, 3 pass deflections

2019 Final: N/A

Reynolds is a key special teams contributor and occasional contributor on defense, just like he was during his first stint in Atlanta.

CB A.J. Terrell

2020 Pace: 53 tackles, 3 interceptions, 3 pass deflections, 3 tackles for loss, 3 quarterback hits, 3 pressures

2019 Final: N/A

Terrell is showing early signs of being a playmaker and a potential shutdown cornerback. That’s probably getting ahead of things, but he has looked really good and has been around the ball when he needs to be. Tough not to be bullish about his future.

CB Isaiah Oliver

2020 Pace: 91 tackles, 13 pass deflections, 5 tackles for loss

2019 Final: 62 tackles, 11 pass deflections, 1 forced fumble, 1 quarterback hit

Oliver is one of the most frustrating players on the roster this year. He excels at getting his hand on the ball and delivering big hits, but he’s also been the victim of some of the biggest passing plays of the year and missed at least one huge interception opportunity. He’ll keep knocking down passes and tackling, but we’ll hope he puts it all together the rest of the way.

CB Kendall Sheffield

2020 Pace: 48 tackles, 5 pass deflections

2019 Final: 46 tackles, 3 pass deflections, 1 forced fumble

Sheffield is getting a ton of work and will likely fly by these projections with enough time. Like Oliver, he has real talent but has yet to put it all together, but this coaching staff loves him and will give him the time to potentially grow into a long-term starter opposite Terrell.

S Keanu Neal

2020 Pace: 93 tackles, 8 tackles for loss

2019 Final: 14 tackles, 1 quarterback hit

It’s good to see Neal back and healthy, and he seems to be getting better by the week. The big hits are a welcome part of this defense, but the next regime is going to be interested in seeing how his coverage looks the rest of the way. Thus far that’s been a mixed bag.

S Ricardo Allen

2020 Pace: 19 tackles, 3 pass deflections

2019 Final: 85 tackles, 2 interceptions, 8 pass deflections, 4 tackles for loss

Allen has played more sparingly this year than in the past, though with Damontae Kazee’s season-ending injury I’d expect that to change. We all know that he’s a capable, well-rounded player who will probably do a lot more statistically than his projection to this point suggests.

S Jaylinn Hawkins

2020 Pace: 24 tackles

2019 Final: N/A

Hawkins may well get a shot at starting in the near future, given the number of expiring contracts on this team, but he hasn’t had many chances thus far. Once he’s healthy, we’ll see if he gets more run.