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Summer fears are turning into fall realities for the Falcons defense

It was always going to be an uphill battle for the Falcons’ defense in 2021. With young players not emerging and veterans on one-year deals proving why their previous teams didn’t re-sign them, the lack of talent across the board is leaving them overmatched and helpless.

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NFL: Washington Football Team at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Picking up the pieces from the failures of a previous regime is always going to be a difficult process. That’s what Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot faced when being hired in their respective roles to rebuild the Atlanta Falcons. After several seasons of poor decision-making and baffling signings in free agency, the Falcons roster became depleted, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.

The organization had to improvise in difficult circumstances and bring in players with starting experience to fill specific needs on the defensive line and in the secondary. While they didn’t necessarily address those needs with potential long-term upgrades, they had to start somewhere and give Dean Pees something to work with as the new defensive coordinator.

What they gave Pees to work with looked highly questionable on paper. Signing Fabian Moreau, Erik Harris, and Duron Harmon to paper over cracks as one-year signings appeared to be their only route in revamping the secondary. Jonathan Bullard and Brandon Copeland were signed as rotational pieces to a below-average defensive line. These types of signings would be most suitable for a team that needed to add depth to a stabilized defense. It shouldn’t be for a team undergoing a major rebuild, yet the front office was left with no other choice.

They failed to add a capable edge rusher who can generate consistent pressure. They couldn’t find a legitimate starting cornerback opposite A.J. Terrell. They didn’t add a deep-lying free safety who has the range to make plays in coverage. The biggest positive in addressing a major personnel need was drafting Richie Grant in the second round as a potential long-term replacement for tone-setting strong safety Keanu Neal. Besides that, the Falcons’ defense looked bereft of talent in several key areas. The holes at edge rusher, cornerback, and safety were likely going to cost them games. That proved to be the case in Sunday’s disheartening defeat to Washington, in a game where the Falcons were the better team and had numerous opportunities to win convincingly.

Non-existent pass rush

Referring to the Falcons’ pass rush as non-existent has become the standard phrase over the years. They have only eclipsed 30+ sacks in a season five times since 2011. They haven’t produced 40+ sacks in a season in more than a decade. It’s a defense that has rarely taken over games with their front four suffocating opposing quarterbacks or running destructive blitzes to disrupt the opposition’s rhythm. By continuously missing on edge rushers in the draft and not making the right signings in free agency, all signs were indicating another long season of quarterbacks standing tall and confident in the pocket when facing Atlanta.

The addition of Pees provided a glimmer of hope that pressure can be generated by his propensity to blitz from a variety of different directions. So far, those blitzes haven’t translated into notable success. They also haven’t been used at a high rate. Per Josh Kendall at The Athletic, the Falcons have only blitzed on 19.6% of opposing quarterbacks’ dropbacks, which ranks 25th in the NFL. Considering the lack of edge rushers on the roster, it’s staggering for Pees not to dial up more double A-gap and safety blitzes. There haven’t been many schemed-up pressures from the front four either. It all seems rather vanilla from a defensive coordinator who built on his career on being able to strategize and outsmart opposing offenses.

For all the questions about Pees, the defensive line simply isn’t getting it done as a unit. They didn’t produce a single sack or hit on Taylor Heinicke. According to Pro Football Focus, the defensive line only generated seven pressures on 34 dropbacks. It wasn’t just a matter of not hitting Heinicke. They also left massive gaps in the rush lanes where Heinicke was able to scramble with ease. Dante Fowler continues to rush without a clear plan, even with his big moments this year. If he managed to exploit a favorable matchup to potentially earn a sack, he couldn’t wrap up Heinicke, which was evident on the remarkable second touchdown pass to Terry McLaurin.

Steven Means played 55 snaps, which is bizarre for a player whose best fit is a situational edge defender at best. The coaching staff’s decision to overly rely on him rather than give more opportunities to Ade Ogundeji and Brandon Copeland seems nonsensical. Deciding to put Feleipe Franks on the active roster for one play than use Jacob Tuioti-Mariner in the rotation is another personnel decision that should be questioned.

The Falcons desperately need to find solutions to generate pressure. How certain players are performing, along with how the coaching staff’s inability to properly utilize them, played a significant role in Washington being able to march down the field without any resistance.

Fabian Moreau isn’t cutting it as a starter

This was teased as a revenge game for the former third-round pick. After four seasons in Washington, he signed with the Falcons and earned a starting job opposite Terrell. Moreau didn’t come in with much buzz as a player. It’s easy to detect why from watching him struggle in coverage. What was most alarming about his dreadful performance against Washington came from being yards away in coverage while being consistently targeted.

McLaurin had a field day against him, which was to be expected given how good McLaurin is. For Curtis Samuel and Adam Humphries to create immediate separation had to be infuriating for the coaching staff. His inability to jam at the line of scrimmage and change direction with fluidity leaves him yards away from the play on far too many occasions in coverage.

His rough performance should raise questions about his status as a starter going forward. The biggest question is who is capable of actually replacing him? Isaiah Oliver has clearly found his niche as a slot corner. Kendall Sheffield is close to returning from a serious injury, but he is coming off a disastrous 2020 season. T.J. Green doesn’t possess the speed to last on the outside. Avery Williams looked sluggish at times in the slot in his first extended action on defense, while fourth-round pick Darren Hall can’t get on the field.

There were huge concerns about who on the roster could develop into a steady number two corner. It doesn’t seem like that player is currently on the roster. Moreau will likely get more opportunities to prove himself as the best and most proven option available. If quarterbacks continue to target him and he doesn’t come close to making plays on the ball, the coaching staff still can’t hesitate to replace him in the starting lineup.

Safeties under fire

Until Grant can cement his place in the starting lineup, the expectations at safety were hoping for steady play at best. Harris and Harmon are two savvy veterans with years of experience. What they don’t have in athleticism and speed can be somewhat made up for with instincts and intelligence. That optimism hasn’t come to fruition.

Some of the issues can be attributed to Pees opting to play more Cover 2. Some of the biggest plays allowed this season have come from them playing Cover 2. Look no further than McLaurin’s first touchdown with Harris arriving late on his assignment. The Falcons simply don’t have the personnel to be consistently effective at playing Cover 2. They don’t have a rangy, deep-lying safety or ball-hawking safety that has the closing speed to make plays in coverage.

Both Harris and Harmon were culprits on multiple big passing plays. To make matters worse, they couldn’t capitalize on errant throws from Heinicke. Both safeties should have had routine interceptions. Not being able to make standard plays allowed Washington to pull off their comeback victory.

Harris and Harmon weren’t expected to be difference-makers. They were expected to bring discipline to a young group and make standard plays that you’d expect from a starting-caliber safety. Neither player did that against Washington, which gave Heinicke extra opportunities to make plays. The Falcons are one of only two teams without an interception after four games. Both safeties are partly at fault for that and must play better going forward to get a disjointed secondary back on track.

Looking Ahead

As much as the franchise wants to compete now, it seems only a matter of time before the team will have to start evaluating their players for the future. Players such as Grant, Ogundeji, Hall, and Mykal Walker will have to play more prominent roles in the coming weeks. Some can argue that they should be receiving more playing time now.

The coaching staff has decided to rely on veterans so far, which has been predictably unsuccessful. Not having threatening edge rushers, dependable cornerbacks outside of Terrell, and playmaking safeties will put your defense at a major disadvantage. That’s the harsh reality for the Falcons. How this can be turned into a positive is the growth of younger defensive players. That will require the coaching staff to have the belief in them as starters or key rotational pieces. For the sake of the Falcons’ long-term future, they must start using the younger players sooner rather than later. Otherwise, this lost season will leave the team further behind in attempting to build a solidified, productive defense.