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Comparing the Falcons 2021 defense to the 2020 edition

The defense is quietly a bit better, though not across the board.

Atlanta Falcons v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Yesterday, we took a quick look at how the Falcons were tracking on offense compared to last year, and it was not particularly encouraging. Today, we’ll repeat that exercise with the defense and see if things look any rosier.

Remember, there’s one additional game this year, which will skew numbers a bit. Let’s get into it.

Total defense

2021 pace: 465 points, 6,327 yards, 5.7 yards per play, 19 turnovers, 381 first downs allowed

2020: 414 points, 6,374 yards, 6.2 yards per play, 21 turnovers, 367 first downs allowed

Dean Pees frequently says he doesn’t care about yardage and scoring is what matters, so by his own definition, this team’s modest improvement in yards and yards per play is not all that important. Almost all of that has come on the side of the passing defense, as we’ll get into shortly.

Still, the fact that this team may allow fewer yards and fewer yards per play than they did a year ago despite a skeleton crew defensively and an additional game is somewhat encouraging. This team’s most glaring missed tackles stick out, but they’re not quite as much of a catastrophe in that regard as they were a year ago, and infusing this roster with more talent should allow them to build on these gains.

Atlanta’s defense was not particularly stingy a year ago and there’s a 17th game, but if the Falcons keep the pace they’re still going to blow by the points they allowed in 2020 by over 50, and they’ll have set a new franchise record for points allowed. You can and should hang some of that on a sluggish offense that has put this overtaxed defense on the field far too long, but the defense has been lackluster in the extreme in the red zone against quality offenses.

Pees has talked about taking time to implement his defense, and the hope will be that significant draft and free agent upgrades in tandem with a better comfort level for the coaching staff and roster alike will make a huge difference in 2022. Suffice to say that those who hoped Pees would be able to work miracles will exit 2021 with a sense of disappointment, even if there were plenty of individually encouraging performances, and getting him more talent will go a long way toward getting there.

Pass defense

2021 pace: 381 completions, 597 attempts, 4,192 yards, 33 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 6.8 net yards per attempt, 19 sacks, 225 first downs

2020: 425 completions, 625 attempts, 4,697 yards, 34 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 7.2 net yards per attempt, 29 sacks, 239 first downs

Consider that this pass rush is even more nonexistent than usual and the team’s strides in this regard actually look like something. Add in Deion Jones and Foye Oluokun having largely abysmal years in coverage and the secondary starts to look downright good, at the very least.

Jones and Oluokun are getting picked on by opposing passing games this year. Pro Football Reference credits the duo with a combined 886 yards and 5 touchdowns allowed on roughly 80% of passes completed, or roughly a quarter of all yards and a third of all scores allowed this year. Moreau is getting killed in the red zone—he’s allowed 7 touchdowns—but he’s also matched up against good receivers every week and has done a solid job otherwise for being the most targeted player on the roster. One of the reasons teams are having so much success attacking the Falcons on short passes through the air is because of their success against the team’s inside line backers, something the team will hope to fix in year two under Pees.

The lack of a pass rush is, as it has been forever, a glaring issue. There’s simply too much time most weeks for quarterbacks to pick apart this defense, which leads to some of the problems discussed above, and the Falcons are on pace to finish with under 20 sacks and pressure numbers that rank among the very worst in the entire NFL. It was always odd to me that some assumed Pees would be able to simply scheme this defense into a terrific pass rush given the lack of talent on hand, but certainly I expected some kind of improvement that we simply haven’t seen. Getting at least one impact pass rusher, if not multiple, has to rank among this team’s most urgent offseason priorities, and I’d like to see Pees be more aggressive about blitzing with more talent on hand in the secondary.

Still, to repeat myself, even modest strides with the pass rush being useless is something worth celebrating for this team. A.J. Terrell’s emergence, the flashes we’ve seen from young defenders like Adetokunbo Ogundeji, Jaylinn Hawkins and Darren Hall, and the likelihood that the defense has nowhere to go but up from here given the patchwork nature of the roster give me hope for 2022. A little hope is welcome given how grim the rest of these articles have been.

Run defense

2021 pace: 481 attempts, 2,045 yards, 18 touchdowns, 4.3 yards per attempt, 131 first downs

2020: 380 attempts, 1,677 yards, 15 touchdowns, 4.4 yards per attempt, 97 first downs

Oof. This is where things are less rosy. The Falcons have spun through configurations up front, reducing playing time for stalwarts like Tyeler Davison and giving more to free agent pickups like Mike Pennel and Anthony Rush, but on balance this has been a bad run defense, one that looks far worse than it did a year ago. It’s somewhat surprisingly not even a bottom 10 run defense in the NFL this year, but it has not been good.

That’s Atlanta losing the battle at the line of scrimmage, for sure, and that in turn is due to nobody outside of Grady Jarrett being particularly consistent or effective as a run defender. It’s also due to missed tackles and missed opportunities from the back half of the defense, which has put together one hell of a lowlight reel this year in ailing to take down ballcarriers. Teams have run because it works.

The most cynical outlook on the pass defense’s modest improvements is that it’s primarily due to teams gleefully running all over Atlanta this year as rushing attacks find their footing leaguewide. I choose a little optimism there, but the run defense is going to need personnel help and a lot of focus on the fundamentals to avoid being a major drag on the defense.

The defense has had some important improvements this year, and while none of the team’s young defenders have necessarily been standouts, almost every member of this draft class looks like they’ll be useful piece of the next quality Falcons defense. In addition, Pees and company have gotten quality work out of one-year signings like Fabian Moreau and Erik Harris, and that bodes well for their ability to squeeze good years out of the talent this team is hopefully set to add in the offseason.

It has been another tough year for the Falcons defense, one that doesn’t look like an improvement over 2020. There have been enough small gains and promising signs that I feel better about some sort of lift coming in 2022, but Atlanta will have to really nail their offseason to make that happen.