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3 Up, 3 Down: Atlanta’s best defensive players are showing out

Keeping track of which Falcons are rising and falling throughout the 2021 season

Atlanta Falcons v New York Giants Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Atlanta got its first win! It wasn’t the most inspiring performance on the offensive side of the ball, but the Falcons pulled everything together in the fourth quarter to overcome the lowly New York Giants. If this is a season of progress, then Sunday should be viewed as a step in the right direction.

Nowhere was that more apparent than on the defensive side of the ball. New York was able to move the ball in fits and starts, but at various points of the game Atlanta executed a beautiful bend-don’t-break strategy. Two promising drives for the Giants were suffocated in scoring territory, and the Falcons allowed just one touchdown after entering Sunday with the worst scoring defense in the league.

It’s clear there is still some work to be done with this team, but it’s easier to address the shortcomings knowing that the outcome was still in Atlanta’s favor. So, let’s get to it.

3 Up

DT Grady Jarrett

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at New York Giants Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

We’re going to set aside the Daniel Jones 2-point conversion for a second, Grady Jarrett is yet again kicking off a promising season. His early sack of Jones in the first quarter prevented a potential Giants touchdown and altered some momentum. Jarrett finished with four tackles, two quarterback hurries, a sack and a tackle for a loss.

It must be pointed out, however, that Jarrett continues to do this while being essentially the lone threat on Atlanta’s defensive line. Perhaps that will change, as Dante Fowler and others are showing some growth, but entering this game that was undoubtedly the case. Jarrett is working his way into becoming an all-time Falcon, so it’s great to see him starting the 2021 season well.

RB Cordarrelle Patterson

Atlanta Falcons v New York Giants Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

There may not be a more defining or useful player for the Falcons so far than Cordarrelle Patterson. The journeyman special teams ace has transformed into a real offensive threat, and perhaps the offensive threat for Atlanta through three games. He led the team with 82 receiving yards on Sunday, including a key grab that helped put the Falcons in position to win the game.

On top of that, Patterson’s 20 rushing yards helped him reach the century mark in total yards on Sunday. If Patterson was a character in a stat-based video game, his savviness would be a 10/10. He routinely makes the smart play, and it’s clear what made him a success as a returner is being utilized to full effect in Arthur Smith’s offense.

LBs Foye Oluokun & Deion Jones

Atlanta Falcons v New York Giants Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

The defense was the headline unit for Atlanta on Sunday and a lot of that had to do with the play of its top linebackers. Therefore, it would be unfair to single out just one. Foye Oluokun set the tone for Atlanta early one with a tackle of Daniel Jones that sparked some extra-curricular activities, and Deion Jones was all over the field tracking down Giants players.

Overall, I think it was Oluokun who had the better afternoon, as he really looked to be on his game, but the duo combined for 27 tackles and two tackles for a loss. On a day when the defense is undoubtedly responsible for the victory, it was Atlanta’s inside linebackers who led the way.

3 Down

CB T.J. Green

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at New York Giants Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

T.J. Green was put in a tough spot early in the season. After transitioning from safety to cornerback, he was then forced into significant action against an offense with a talented group of receivers. It must be noted that injuries severely depleted New York’s bevy of receivers, but Green was still taken advantage of a few times. He gave up the longest play of the game, a 38-yard reception to a Giants practice squad player and was pancaked on a long Saquon Barkley run.

Still, Green finished with eight tackles – third-most on the team – and a pass breakup. This should be taken as only a slight dip in stock, because I still think Green has shown enough to warrant support going forward.

TE Kyle Pitts

Atlanta Falcons v New York Giants Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

By absolutely no means should this be taken as a slight to Kyle Pitts. It’s become very clear that, for whatever reason, this offense isn’t making Pitts a priority. When he was involved on Sunday, great things happened. His 25-yard catch on second down late in the fourth quarter literally moved them into position to win the game. Pitts also nearly came down with a one-handed touchdown catch on a highly thrown ball while being interfered with.

It’s clear that he’s special, but the offensive game plan appears to be handling him with kid gloves. I choose to believe there’s a good reason for it—whether coverage, comfort level, or gameflow—but with each passing game, that belief dwindles. At some point, you have to let the unicorn loose.

As an aside, here’s an explanation from Arthur Smith after the game: “We try to get all our guys involved. Because he didn’t touch the ball early, doesn’t mean he wasn’t called. Those are really surface narratives, but when you come up and the games on the line, they change it up and (Falcons Quarterback) Matt (Ryan) found him when we needed to, so I was happy to see that.”

TE Hayden Hurst

Atlanta Falcons v New York Giants Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Without Russell Gage and Frank Darby, the expectation was that the Falcons would use their bevy of tight ends and running backs to bolster the passing game. That happened out of the backfield, but the tight ends were missing in action. I mentioned above Pitts’s low usage rate – three targets, two catches and 35 yards – but Hayden Hurst saw just one target that he didn’t catch. Lee Smith, by contrast, had three targets for 7 yards and a touchdown. If the team didn’t yet fully trust Pitts, wouldn’t Hurst be the focal point at the tight end spot?

Instead, neither tight end has really been consistently impactful in Arthur Smith’s offense so far. While Pitts holds the promise of the future, his fellow starter is supposed to be delivering in the here and now, so this was a much more harmful showing for Hurst’s future prospects. He needs to be taking advantage of the opportunity in front of him. This could be the result of how Smith is approaching Sundays, but Hurst isn’t transcending the game plan and his tight-end-coach-turned-head-coach isn’t helping him.