On the stat sheet, the Falcons’ defense is at best average, but more likely slightly below average. Yet, while the stat sheet or the box score is indicative of what occurs during NFL games, they don’t capture what we actually see during the action.
That’s important as it pertains to Atlanta because the Falcons’ defense was prominently responsible for the team’s first win of the season against New York. With the offense struggling thus far in 2021 – and I mean really struggling – the defense has been something to latch onto.
How much stock should fans put into believing the defense can really become a strength, however, and what are the warning signs that this could be a mirage?
Why fans should trust this defensive improvement
Look no further than the defensive players who impacted the game for Atlanta on Sunday as reasons for hope. The Falcons were led by their star defenders and, more importantly, those who need to make that jump to high-quality starter.
Linebackers Foye Oluokun and Deion Jones, who have yet to really play their best ball, set the tone early and combined for 28 tackles, two tackles for a loss and a quarterback hurry. Grady Jarrett made the early play of the game, getting his first sack of the season and forcing the Giants to eventually settle for a field goal.
Those three gelling in the same game has been all Falcons fans could hope for previously with their defense, and perhaps it still is. But, crucially, Isaiah Oliver and Dante Fowler – two players under pressure to perform in 2021 – stepped up to lend a hand with pivotal plays of their own. Oliver had a great forced fumble and fumble recovery to end a Giants drive, and he added two pass defenses in arguably his best game as a Falcon. Fowler recorded his second sack of the season, a forced fumble and a savvy pass breakup at the line of scrimmage.
A good NFL defense can usually rely on a handful of players making consistent plays each week. Great defenses have that with maybe one or two game-changing defenders. If those five players can consistently perform the way they did Sunday, that’s a huge step forward. But there’s reason to hope for even more.
I mentioned Jones and Oluokun getting off to somewhat slow starts. How can that be? After all, they have the third-most tackles (58) among linebacker duos to start the season. That’s true, but there have been some atypical lapses in coverage between the two, and they haven’t been making plays as close to the line of scrimmage as we’ve come to expect.
Jones’s PFF coverage grade so far this season is a paltry 49.1, hence his lower overall grade of 56.2. The lowest Jones has finished in PFF coverage grade was 70.6 in 2020. A sign of a decline overall? Maybe. Consider this: Jones is on pace for the best PFF tackling grade and pass-rush grade of his career. If I’m betting on a decline or a slow start, I’d lean towards things really picking up.
The same can be said of pretty much all of the defenders who I’ve previously mentioned. Most peaked in the Giants game, with Jarrett and Oliver posting elite defensive grades. That points to coaching, scheme familiarity or shaking off the rust – perhaps all three – as reasons to believe the Falcons’ defensive players will continue to get better.
“We definitely stepped up,” defensive end Steven Means said. “We took a step, and it felt amazing, celebrating after the game. But also, after watching the tape we get the see the stuff we need to get better at. But also, we get to see that we did take a step. We’re heading in the right direction.”
Finally, new players like Duron Harmon and Erik Harris, who have played the fourth- and fifth-most snaps among Falcons defenders so far, look serviceable. That’s all they will need to be if the guys above show up week after week. They are veterans who haven’t given up many explosive pass plays, especially considering some of the receivers Atlanta has faced.
Oh, and I should mention A.J. Terrell, because he will end up becoming a factor this season.
Why fans should be side-eyeing the hype
Alright, calm down, guy. Hype? Yeah, hype is a loose word here, but it’s as close as fans have gotten for this defense in a while, or at least while the season wasn’t already lost.
But let’s go to the stats.
Atlanta is giving up 374 yards per game (19th in the league) and 5.87 yards per play (21st). Those are actually very positive given that the Falcons finished last year ranked 29th in both metrics; fans felt good about that unit’s end to the season. They have been fairly balanced against the run and the pass, allowing 118 rushing yards per game (19th) and 255 passing yards per game (17th).
In comparison to where this defense has been in recent years, those rankings feel like big improvements. In reality, the Falcons are still in the bottom half of the league, and they fare even worse on third down (23rd) and in the red zone (26th). To top it all off, the Falcons rank 30th in points per game allowed with 31.3.
That is all heavily skewed by the first two games, but how much stock should fans really put into a performance against an 0-3 Giants team whose offense has never really lived up to the sum of its parts?
Furthermore, there are some real red zone issues to clean up. Teams are scoring a touchdown on 72 percent of their trips to the red zone against Atlanta. Philadelphia and Tampa Bay scored touchdowns on seven of their combined eight red-zone trips against. According to Sharp Football Stats, teams have been successful on six of their nine run plays in the Falcons’ red zone, a clip of 67 percent that leaves Atlanta ranked 27th. The Falcons also rank 30th in opposing red-zone pass success rate, as teams are succeeding 70 percent of the time so far.
“You want to keep improving, especially down in the red zone, [I] thought we took a step there,” Arthur Smith said of his defense against New York. “The way we started the game wasn’t perfect, but we were able to get in there and make a play and make them kick a field goal. You just want to keep evolving, keep improving.”
An argument could be made that any marginal improvement for Atlanta’s red zone defense would have a ripple effect across the unit’s NFL rankings. That’s something that could absolutely happen, but defenses typically get an advantage down inside of the red zone where the area of the field compacts and Atlanta has failed there so far.
As inspiring as some of the individual performances were against the Giants, the collective production is still lagging. From a 10,000-foot view, there’s just nothing about this defense that jumps out as good-to-great, so it’s hard to believe the unit will be.
So, what, we should just be bummed again?
The caveat to my closing statement in the negative section is that some core players have begun to jump out as good-to-great. It’s still early, and these players are still learning a scheme and Dean Pees is learning them. Plus, who knows if young players like Ade Ogundeji and Marlon Davidson will establish themselves as factors in this defense? If they do, the difference could be considerable.
Perhaps the main takeaway is this: We’ve only seen three games, which is not nearly enough time to make a true conclusion. Don’t believe that, listen to Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees:
“You got to go through some stuff a little bit to learn the system. Sometimes, I get a little frustrated in people kind of just thinking that all this stuff is just automatically going to go out there and it’s going to go [great]. It never does. It takes a while for everybody to learn how to play your position.”
The overall stats are better than in previous years, but they are still below average. Stats can be changed though, and it’s the players who change them. Therefore, based on what we saw from Atlanta’s key core of defensive players on Sunday, and any marginal improvement that should be expected, the old narratives might not be around forever.