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How unheralded young players have become the driving force behind the Falcons’ defensive rebuilding project

In a season, the Falcons desperately needed young defensive players to emerge on a rebuilding unit, it’s the players that weren’t highly touted showing promise in becoming potential long-term fits.

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Atlanta Falcons v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

When we were assessing the Falcons’ roster going into the season, it was impossible not to be concerned about the lack of proven defensive talent. The personnel group was filled with mostly underwhelming veterans on one-year deals and young prospects that weren’t exactly highly-regarded coming out of college. Barring something remarkable from Dean Pees with the drastic improvement of three or four players, it was going to be another season of quarterbacks feeling comfortable in the pocket and skill position players running wild in the open field.

It’s been that kind of season for the most part. Unfortunately for the Falcons, they simply can’t generate pressure and haven’t seen expected leaders (Deion Jones, Foye Oluokun) play at a high level. Still, not all has been lost in a difficult season.

Outside of A.J. Terrell solidifying himself as a top-tier corner and Grady Jarrett being disruptive, there has been improvement in a few key areas. The development is mainly coming from players that weren’t receiving much attention going into the season. These players have excelled in the past few weeks and proving themselves to be capable rotational assets.

While notable, talented prospects like Richie Grant and Mykal Walker have disappointed or not gotten major opportunities, there are players in the trenches and secondary that are helping the Falcons become more feisty and competitive in 2021.

Coming off the edge and eating inside

When your defense is last in the league in sacks and pressure generated per TruMedia, you know changes are required across the defensive line. Younger players need to be given more opportunities. That’s been the case in recent weeks, with Ade Ogundeji and Anthony Rush emerging as intriguing young options.

Ogundeji has been getting more playing time since October. It’s taken some time for him to start being more productive. His performance against Jaguars was outstanding, as The Falcoholic’s William McFadden highlighted him in a recent feature. What was even more impressive was his effort in run support, as Ogundeji had six tackles with three assists, according to Pro Football Focus.

The rookie edge rusher wasn’t the only standout in run defense. Rush has been making his presence felt since the Falcons’ most impressive win of the season against New Orleans. It’s been quite some time since the defense had a true space-eater. As big as Dontari Poe was, he was equally a disruptor as he was a space-eater.

Rush has all the makings of a traditional nose tackle, similar to the great Grady Jackson. The “mountain of a man” can be a disruptive force, as he sheds blocks and makes tackles in the backfield. Rush had a tremendous force fumble against Jacksonville, where he was swiped away the interior lineman and hit James Robinson perfectly to force a turnover. Rush is a fascinating player who should only continue to get more reps, particularly ahead of Tyeler Davison.

Young defensive backs are coming

One of the most frustrating aspects of the Falcons’ defense in past seasons has been how easily quarterbacks have been able to complete passes. The number high-percentage looks they were given left everyone befuddled. What happened to offenses having to earn yards? They didn’t have to fully earn them when playing Atlanta.

While opposing quarterbacks are nearly completing 70 percent of their passes against the Falcons, it’s coming more from growing pains or players not being in the right position rather than complete passiveness. That is slowly changing with two players bringing a much-needed edge to the secondary.

Jaylinn Hawkins has missed some time this season, yet no safety on the team has made more impressive individual plays. The second-year safety is the only player on the team with multiple interceptions. His closing speed is impressive when nullifying potential big gains on the ground and in the air. Erik Harris and Duron Harmon aren’t going to be the tone-setting or rangy safeties you want within your defense. Hawkins possesses the skillset to potentially be that player.

Another pressing need that could be addressed is at nickel corner, where Darren Hall shone against Jacksonville. With Chris Williamson being completely overmatched there, Hall was given an opportunity to play nickel corner and didn’t waste time making an impression. The rookie corner was consistently challenging passes and disrupting wide receivers’ routes. Despite being a bit too grabby at times, Hall didn’t look fazed at sliding inside in the slightest. He embraced the challenge and was rewarded with 26 snaps. There is no reason why those snaps shouldn’t increase going forward.

Looking ahead

Rebuilding a defense rarely happens in one year, especially when your organization is coping with severe cap restrictions. What the new regime can do is identify talent and build the roster from scratch. That’s what Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot have started to do. Ogundeji, Rush, and Hall are players they have pinpointed as potential valuable contributors. With Dean Pees’ assistance, Hawkins should only continue to raise his game.

There are going to be more growing pains, particularly with looming matchups against Tampa Bay and Buffalo. The most important thing for these young players is to compete and learn from playing against the best opposition. Ogundeji, Rush, Hall, and Hawkins have shown flashes in helping the Falcons be in the playoff discussion going into December. How they perform will play a major role in determining if the Falcons can defy the odds and play for the seventh seed in January.