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Do the Falcons have a bigger secondary problem than we think?

Injuries cast a pall on the future, but we shouldn’t overlook 2019 performance.

NFL: DEC 29 Falcons at Buccaneers Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Falcons enjoyed a defensive turnaround in the second half of the 2019 season that was genuinely striking.

At, Cynthia Fredlund looked at some of the biggest underperformers on NFL teams in 2019. The final choice on her list was the Falcons secondary, which is an interesting choice on paper given the second half turnaround but makes a lot more sense when you read the reasoning.

Essentially, the separation receivers achieved against this defense remained consistent throughout the year, suggesting that the secondary did not make the strides we thought they did in the second half.

Here’s the relevant passage:

Did the secondary really step it up in the back half of the season? Well, interceptions can be misleading. Over these same time periods, Atlanta went from notching just seven sacks in the first eight games to 21 over the final eight. Using computer vision, my measurements show that the uptick in disruptions (monitoring the 5-foot halo around the quarterback) went from 9.8 percent of opposing dropbacks to 34.9 percent. Meanwhile, the pass catcher separation allowed stayed pretty similar throughout the whole season. So it appears that the positive difference in the second half of the season came from the front of the defense, not the back. And going through the film with two NFL coaches further supported this notion.

The Falcons will be aware of this, of course. That’s part of the reason they are talking up addressing the secondary early, after all, and there are legitimate concerns at cornerback and safety that should not be completely ignored.

What went wrong

Start with Isaiah Oliver. He did improve as the season ground on, but he finished the year with the 2nd-highest number of yards allowed on the 11th-highest number of targets, even if quarterbacks’ completion percentage against him was just 117th in the league. Considering the number of targets and receptions, he actually did a good job limiting the damage on yards after the catch, but it took him a long time to get comfortable enough to slow down the onslaught through the air, and teams are going to be picking on him in 2020 until he proves he’s better.

Those numbers aren’t significantly worse than those put up by Desmond Trufant and Kendall Sheffield, except in terms of volume, though Sheffield did an impressive job of limiting the damage after the catch. The only truly spectacular work done at cornerback this past year was by (who else) Blidi Wreh-Wilson, whose 45.5% completion percentage against was the third-best in the NFL, and who continues to play like a high-end option in limited opportunities.

Safety was fine. Kazee fared pretty well except for coverage confusion, while Allen was his usual solid self except for in the red zone, where he tied for the team lead with 5 touchdowns allowed. The reality is that teams passed a lot against the Falcons and found quite a bit of success doing so, as the team ranked 22nd in passing yards allowed and 23rd in touchdowns, but there wasn’t just one player to pin that on.

Thanks to a combination of scheme and lack of elite talent, the Falcons are taking a risk of more early season struggles in 2020 if they run it back in the secondary. That’s supported by the data, it’s supported by the eye test, and it’s one of the reasons Atlanta’s so keen to add players to the secondary.

Why you shouldn’t panic

That said, we risk making too much of this, given the circumstances. Blown coverages early in the year thanks to nightmarish communication in the secondary have a heavy impact on the final stat lines, Dan Quinn and company’s defense does allow for short receptions with an emphasis on making a quick stop, Trufant missed significant time with injury, and Oliver and Sheffield were young players learning on the job.

Cornerback isn’t my biggest concern, in other words. Safety is rapidly becoming one of my biggest concerns, though.

The secondary was also without Keanu Neal for most of the year, and when Neal was playing he was not his usual self. While the Falcons will certainly hope Neal returns and returns to form this year, he and Ricardo Allen (now expected to be sidelined for “months” following a surgery) are both going to come into the year with a fairly significant recent injury history, leaving Kazee as the only established player at the position who appears to be totally healthy. Given that all three are free agents at the end of this year, it’s safe to say the Falcons need a safety and are likely to prioritize one.

Still, the bigger problem will come if the Falcons once again don’t improve up front. If the defensive turnaround was keyed by an improved pass rush, the fact that Vic Beasley, Adrian Clayborn, Tyeler Davison, Jack Crawford, and De’Vondre Campbell are all free agents with no immediate replacements on the roster is a more alarming problem than a young secondary growing on the job. Let’s hope they don’t lose sight of that.