The second half turnaround for the Atlanta Falcons last season was just enough to keep things largely intact across the board. A big component to that turnaround was a defense that held opponents to 18.6 points per game and forced 16 turnovers.
This offseason, free agency brought over edge rusher Dante Fowler Jr. and cornerback Darqueze Dennard. While the draft added an athletic corner out of Clemson (AJ Terrell) and an intriguing interior presence on the defensive line (Marlon Davidson). For the 2020 season, this defense will have to make a few more strides with a lot of guys who were here in 2019. With that in mind, let’s pick three predictions for the defense this season.
Defense will be top-12 in takeaways
I just mentioned briefly about the slight turnover renaissance by Falcons over the second half of the season, but they still ended the year ranked 19th in total takeaways. As a matter of fact, defensive takeaways have been unreliable for the Falcons during the Dan Quinn tenure. In each of the five seasons under Quinn, the Falcons defense were ranked 19th, 20th, 27th, 16th, and 16th in takeaways, despite DQ and company supposedly being all about the ball.
What can fuel the projected ascension? Check the staff on the sidelines. Newly named defensive coordinator Raheem Morris was the secondary coach in 2007 for a Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense that was third in the league in takeaways. When he became their head coach from 2009-2011, the team was ranked 10th and 13th in takeaways during his first two seasons on the job. Not to mention that the defense produced 90% of their turnovers last season after Morris took over the DC role. That emphasis on takeaways is likely to be a big piece of the defense this year, and with Damontae Kazee and Deion Jones, they have players with a history of generating them.
Keanu Neal will play a full 16-game season
Maybe this isn’t much of a prediction to some, or maybe it is to others. No matter how it is viewed, the Falcons defense can benefit greatly by having their wrecking ball for a full season, and I’m thinking it will happen.
You should know the story by now. Neal has only played in four total games the past two seasons combined as a result of a pair of season-ending injuries. The aftermath of both injuries was a Falcons defense that lacked aggressiveness and the physicality to put the brakes on opposing offenses.
The last (and only) time Neal played a full season was 2017, and that so happens to be his best season with 116 tackles, one interception, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and six pass deflections. It is no secret that having Neal on the field allows the Falcons to be a significantly better defense, and hopefully this is the year we get to see it.
Falcons defense will have three players with at least eight sacks
Here is a prediction that I will keep a closer eye on more than anything else. Simply because this has been an aspect that the Falcons have tried to find a sense of consistency for quite a while.
A total of 28 sacks last season resulted in the Falcons being ranked 29th in total sacks, with former linebacker Vic Beasley leading the team with eight. The ever reliable Grady Jarrett poured in another 7.5 sacks. Those two defenders garnered a little over half of the team’s sacks. Beasley was not retained in free agency this offseason, but the team turns to Fowler to take the reins and be a force in getting after the quarterback after a season where he posted double digit sacks.
Much is to be expected from 2017 first round pick Takk McKinley. Not having his fifth-year option picked up was a tactical move made by the Falcons front office and if McKinley can take that chip on his shoulder and capitalize on his potential, the team has themselves a nice chess piece.
I’m not predicting the Falcons to lead the league in sacks or even place themselves in the top ten for a defense. While that would be nice, this young defense has to march in a certain direction first. Seeing Fowler, McKinley and Jarrett set the tone for bringing down the quarterback would be a very welcome start.