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Rebuilding Falcons defense can’t be held back by underachievers in 2022

It’s not only a lack of talent holding back the Falcons. High-priced players such as Dante Fowler and Deion Jones have played a critical part in the defense’s struggles on days like Sunday in buffalo.

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NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Buffalo Bills Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Facing one of the league’s high-octane offenses in Buffalo, the Falcons’ defense was expected to get torched through the air and gashed on the ground. It didn’t help they were missing multiple starters and contributing role players due to injuries and positive COVID tests. Although some of their success can be attributed to the blistering snowy weather disrupting Josh Allen’s rhythm, Dean Pees’ undermanned defense fought hard and managed to produce three turnovers.

Mother nature didn’t affect Foye Oluokun’s ability to deflect one of Josh Allen’s signature fastballs into Duron Harmon’s hands. That play was made from pure instincts and talent. The same can be said for Mykal Walker using his long arms to deflect a pass at the line of scrimmage that fell into the waiting arms of Oluokun. Those were memorable moments to help put the Falcons ahead in the most unexpected way possible.

Things eventually unraveled in the second half, as the defense was on the field for far too long. The offense’s inability to protect Matt Ryan and convert third downs (only converted one out of seven) put them in difficult scenarios. Buffalo ended up having 36 minutes of possession, which is a recipe for disaster when facing them. Allowing Allen and his plethora of playmakers to remain on the field longer usually leads to them generating explosive plays. They did so particularly on the ground with Allen, Devin Singletary, and Zach Moss combining for 233 yards.

With the awful conditions affecting Allen’s accuracy, the Bills did most of their damage on the ground in brutalizing the Falcons’ front. What was most noticeable during these successful runs was how two big-name defensive players were consistently out of position, not getting off blocks, and failing to make stops at the point of attack. Those two players happen to be two of the three most expensive defensive players on the team in Deion Jones and Dante Fowler.

Getting wrecked instead of game-wrecking

The Falcons had five defensive players entering the season with high expectations. Grady Jarrett, A.J. Terrell, Oluokun, Jones, and Fowler were the only defensive players on the roster with proven track records of production or enough tape where you could see them develop into difference makers.

Terrell isn’t simply a difference-maker. The 2020 first-round pick has blossomed into one of the best cornerbacks in the league. After struggling in the first two months of the season, Oluokun has elevated his game in recent weeks. Jarrett is having the worst season of his career by his lofty standards and status as one of the most disruptive defensive tackles in the league. That said, Jarrett still shows flashes of wrecking running plays and forcing quarterbacks to immediately escape the pocket. Those three players have either evolved or made positive weekly contributions. That’s something Jones nor Fowler can claim this year.

In a must-win game, both players repeatedly let down the defense with undisciplined plays and an inability to make open-field tackles. Missing tackles has been what Jones has done consistently the most this season. Per Pro Football Focus, the former Pro Bowler has the fourth-highest missed tackle rate among all linebackers. The player that was considered as the prototypical off-ball linebacker every team desired a few years ago has regressed into becoming a liability in year one under Pees.

Jones hasn’t been able to shadow quarterbacks and bring them down like he once did. Allen ran through him in the open field on a few occasions. The ability to make plays in space used to cover up his inability to take on blocks and make plays downhill as a run defender. That isn’t the case anymore. Jones isn’t making stops and gets taken out of his gap assignments far too often. Playing in a different role under a new defensive coordinator, which Jones is and has acknowledged, shouldn’t prevent a linebacker from making fundamental plays. The impressive, eye-opening plays aren’t just happening for Jones this year, and the plays you expect a standard off-ball linebacker to make aren’t happening for him either.

As Jones struggles to rediscover what made him one of the best linebackers in the league, Fowler is struggling to find balance as an edge defender. There doesn’t seem like a plan when he rushes off the edge. Fowler is capable of utilizing different moves and has shown it at times this season, but he just can’t properly set them up. An experienced player should be able to play with more control and awareness, but based on what I’ve seen, Fowler doesn’t play with any discipline.

Watching him as a free rusher jump towards Allen and get baited into a play fake so easily was alarming. Instead of setting the edge, he gave Allen a clear lane to connect with Stefon Diggs to convert on third down. Fowler played recklessly and cost the Falcons on numerous occasions against Buffalo. It wasn’t from passing situations either, although Fowler was also shaky when asked to spot drop.

From read options to power leads, Allen was able to gain big yardage on quarterback-designed runs. Most of them were directed towards Fowler, who either ran past the play or couldn’t make the necessary tackle because he took a bad angle. It was another example of an experienced, proven player not making fundamental plays you expect from a starter, and it was disappointing a week after his late pressure against Tim Boyle was so pivotal in the Lions game.

Action is needed

Big decisions will be made this off-season. Terry Fontenot won’t be able to continue restructuring contracts like he did last off-season. He has spoken openly about not wanting to restructure contracts, yet he had to in order to fill out the roster last season. As a result, Jones and Fowler had their contracts restructured in 2021. Neither player will have their deal done again, which will raise more questions about their future.

It should be fairly easy to move on from Fowler, who only has only a void year left on his deal, unless the team wants to bring him back. The Falcons have produced the fewest sacks and second-fewest pressures in the league, along with the third-worst third-down conversion percentage. Outside of the occasional strip-sack or big moment, Fowler hasn’t made much of an impact in Atlanta. It’s evident he needs a strong supporting cast around him as he did in Jacksonville and Los Angeles to be an effective situational edge rusher, and though it’s not his fault the Falcons can’t offer him that, they can’t and haven’t.

How to move forward with Jones is the bigger discussion. As frustrating as a player he has become, it would be difficult to move on from him. His dead cap is staggeringly high. His salary could turn away teams from trading for him to go along with his poor performances in 2021. The front office will also have to decide on re-signing Oluokun, who is bound to command a solid payday on the open market.

The two linebackers haven’t meshed well as a tandem. Given all the needs elsewhere on the roster, it wouldn’t make sense to start fresh at linebacker. One player will need to be kept and potentially paired with Walker, who has shown flashes but shouldn’t be handed a starting job in 2022. Jones hasn’t come close to playing up the level he played in 2017-2018, and it’s not at all clear whether he would do so if given another year in Atlanta. If Pees decides to come back next season, the team will likely do whatever it takes to trade Jones for a mid-round pick. Perhaps they’d do so to one of the Falcons’ old friends in Dallas, New York, or Los Angeles, who undoubtedly would be interested in reuniting with him.

The Falcons lead the league in snaps from pending free agents, according to Pro Football Focus. Signing several players to one-year deals is a significant reason. It’s a strong indicator of the challenges that lie ahead for the organization.

What they can’t afford to do any longer is depend on high-priced players that are more responsible for allowing big plays rather than producing big plays. Fowler and Jones haven’t come close to being the impact players they were expected to be since receiving massive contracts, and the organization needs to weigh their futures carefully as a result.

With Terrell cementing himself as a true franchise cornerstone, the front office will need to pursue and pinpoint players that are capable of being the best at their respective positions to join him on the defense. They can’t waste time hoping former stars rediscover their best form on major contracts to help improve a never-ending rebuilding defense. If the defense is going to be a respectable unit, they need their leaders to step up in big games, not be among the biggest liabilities on the field.