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Falcons new-look secondary struggles against the Seahawks

While the retooled defensive line of the Falcons had an impressive debut in Week 1, the new-look secondary struggled from top to bottom against Russell Wilson and the Seahawks.

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the dust has settled on a disappointing Week 1 performance by the Falcons, it’s time to dive a little deeper into the issues the team experienced on Sunday. The offensive issues—misfires on 4th down, failure to convert in the red zone—have been pretty well covered, so I’ll turn my attention to the defense today. While there were some encouraging signs, things ultimately did not go well for Atlanta on opening day.

Let’s start with the positives. The defensive line looked downright dominant against the mediocre offensive line of the Seahawks. Russell Wilson was under pressure constantly, and the Falcons picked up 3 sacks. Takkarist McKinley looked lighter, faster, and more agile. Grady Jarrett looked as dominant as ever. Dante Fowler had a solid overall day, especially against the run. We also should expect to get rookie DT Marlon Davidson back into the lineup soon, which could make this unit even better.

The run defense, despite a rocky start, actually kept Seattle’s rushing attack in check. Carlos Hyde and Chris Carson combined for just 3.38 YPC. If you take away a 28-yard Russell Wilson scramble, the Falcons allowed just 56 yards on the ground. Against one of the NFL’s best rushing attacks, these are numbers to be proud of.

The big issues came against the pass, where Russell Wilson had a career day. Indeed, this was the best opening-day offensive performance of Wilson’s career and the highest-scoring opener for the Seahawks in decades. Upon re-watching the game, it’s obvious why Wilson had so much success despite the pressure constantly in his face: his receivers were generally wide open, with very few contested catches in the game.

That’s because the Falcons CBs struggled in a big way. Blidi Wreh-Wilson, with his 3 defensive snaps, led the way in PFF grades with a very average 62.9. In terms of the guys who actually played, however, the outlook was much bleaker.

Darqueze Dennard—the player we all had the most faith in due to his experience and high level of play in 2019—managed just a 50.8 grade and allowed a 100% completion rate before leaving the game with injury. Isaiah Oliver was second, with a 50.0 overall PFF grade. He allowed a marginally better 77.8% completion rate, but also missed a tackle and allowed a long TD to D.K. Metcalf. Rookie A.J. Terrell had a very rough first outing, with just a 43.4 overall PFF grade and a 100% completion rate allowed despite spending most of his snaps matched up against Seattle’s WR3, David Moore.

Now we shouldn’t discount that a lot of these struggles were probably due to the fact that Russell Wilson was absolutely on fire on Sunday. His accuracy was incredible in this game, and he managed to avoid and escape pressure at an extremely high level. Wilson once again showed why he’s one of the best QBs in the NFL, even behind a consistently shaky offensive line.

But that shouldn’t excuse the fact that Atlanta’s CBs barely even contested any catches in Week 1. They were constantly out of position and Seattle’s WRs created plentiful separation against both zone and man. Then, once Dennard left the game with injury and Ricardo Allen had to move down to the slot, things went from bad to worse. Allen posted an abysmal 29.8 (!!) PFF grade on his 25 snaps, which is extremely concerning for the effectiveness of the much-hyped 3-safety sets.

The good news is that two members of the safety rotation played quite well. Damontae Kazee—in a full-time starting role at FS—was one of the highest graded players on the defense, with a slightly above-average 68.8. Keanu Neal’s return was also a solid one, although he played only 82% of the defensive snaps. He put up a fairly average 62.9 overall PFF grade, which is an encouraging start after missing nearly the entire 2019 season to injury.

All in all, this wasn’t an unexpected outcome for Atlanta’s defense. This secondary had several new faces and had to deal with the loss of Kendall Sheffield—who may have been the preferred matchup option for D.K. Metcalf due to his speed—and then the loss of Dennard during the game. A.J. Terrell was making his first NFL start, and although he wasn’t great, nothing from this game should give you too much concern for his future.

There’s a lot of room for growth in this secondary, and the Falcons won’t be facing an elite QB and high-end WR duo every single week. If the pass rush can continue playing at a high level, they’ll also take some of the pressure off this unit against less mobile QBs (like Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Teddy Bridgewater). However, they face another stiff test this week against the Dallas Cowboys, who feature an ascending QB in Dak Prescott and perhaps the best WR trio in football in Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and rookie CeeDee Lamb.

Here’s to hoping that Week 1 was a simply a difficult trial-by-fire for Atlanta’s young CBs, and that they can make the necessary adjustments heading into a crucial Week 2 game. The margin for error is higher than ever in 2020 due to the addition of the 7th playoff seed, but falling into an 0-2 hole is still one of the most difficult places to be in the NFL.