All the pieces have aligned for the Atlanta Falcons to make the playoffs. Who would have imagined putting that sentence together in November? Yet with a sharp-minded head coach and young playmakers emerging to build a real identity, the team expected to win four games at most this season already has four wins and is sitting in first place in the NFC South.
For all the well-deserved praise and optimism, this team still has its glaring flaws and concerns. It starts on the defensive side of the ball with two consecutive horrific performances. Obviously, A.J. Terrell’s absence was going to be problematic for a young secondary already without dependable veteran Casey Heyward. That said, it’s hard to find many positives when assessing the unit’s recent play.
Grady Jarrett is having his best season in 2019. There’s no disputing his consistently outstanding play. Arnold Ebiketie, Dee Alford, Ta’Quon Graham, and Troy Andersen have played relatively well. Excluding last week’s rough showing, Richie Grant is putting together a solid season. That’s about it for the positives.
It was going to be expected this unit was going to struggle. No team in the league has less money allocated to their defense than the Falcons. Major improvement likely isn’t going to take place until 2023. That said, here are ways the Falcons’ defense can improve with what they have to improve their chances of a playoff spot in January.
More production from the edge rushers
It wouldn’t be a Falcons season without needing more from the edge rushing group. No matter the personnel and no matter how minimal the expectations, they still manage to leave you wanting more. This is a young, relatively unproven group of players. The organization opted to take two players in the draft, along with giving Lorenzo Carter an opportunity following his solid contributions with the Giants. This personnel group wasn’t going to terrorize opposing fronts. They still could be providing more upfront.
Per Pro Football Focus, only Arnold Ebiketie is close to 20 total pressures between sacks, hits, and hurries. He is managing to generate decent pressure but hasn’t been able to secure the finishes an edge rusher desires. While Carter has been strong against the run and made an extraordinary play in coverage last week, he isn’t offering enough juice in his role given that he is playing significant snaps. With Ade Ogundeji offering little and DeAngelo Malone still not receiving many snaps, quarterbacks don’t have much to be concerned about when dropping back from the outside.
It’s going to take a sizeable leap from Ebiketie for this group to substantially improve, especially given the lack of talent on the interior. He possesses the most complete skill set as an edge rusher to be a consistent difference-maker. From his hand usage to crafty moves, it’s clear a dangerous pass rusher is there. It’s a matter of putting the pieces together and starting to convert pressure into sacks. Running more twists with Carter could allow him to use his tremendous athleticism in better ways. There is plenty that can be done to potentially get more production from Malone as well, starting with giving him more chances. Coaching can surely make a difference.
Dean Pees’ usage of personnel and designed blitzes
As much respect as he commands, it’s hard to watch Pees’ defense and declare he is getting the most out of them. There are many instances where the defense alignment is too predicated on not letting plays behind them while allowing teams to pick up chunk plays underneath without any resistance. Although Rashaan Evans got a key sack on a delayed blitz against Carolina, there are far too many occasions where his blitz designs are easily detected.
There is no denying several players need to step up, but they also need to be put in the position to create and prevent big plays. Mykal Walker showed flashes of causing havoc as a blitzer over the course of the first two seasons. Why isn’t he being utilized more in that aspect? Ogundeji hasn’t done much to set the edge against the run, let alone generate pressure. How does he continue to get pass-rushing snaps over promising rookie Malone while that’s true?
Those are only a few gripes in what has become a frustrating defense to observe in recent weeks. Tom Brady had a field day checking it down in acres of space with the linebackers playing ten yards away from the line of scrimmage. P.J. Walker was able to stand firmly in the pocket for the majority of the game. There isn’t much aggressiveness with this defense. They are far more fixated on being guarded in preventing teams from producing big plays than being creative to affect opposing game plans. At some point, there needs to be a stronger balance between being positionally sound and taking aggressive chances to disrupt quarterbacks, given that those long drives are turning into scores, regardless.
Mykal Walker has to play at a high level more consistently
Before the game against Carolina, the title would have stated Walker needs to play better. Thankfully for the defense’s sake, Walker played relatively well last Sunday. He handled his coverage assignments and didn’t make too many mistakes in run defense. Outside of two missed tackles, Walker wasn’t directly responsible for the numerous defensive blunders. Considering his role in the defense, he must bear some of the responsibility for the rough day against Carolina.
Pees chose Walker to wear the green dot on his helmet. That made him responsible for handling the play calls, which is a significant step up for a third-year player with minimal starting experience, and is a sign of the coaching staff’s trust in him. The former fourth-round pick started the season strong, making memorable plays against the Saints and Rams. His performances started to go downhill after the Browns ran all over the Falcons’ defense. Walker was out of position on several runs and missed three tackles in an all-around rough game for the Falcons’ defensive front.
He didn’t fare much better against Tampa Bay or Cincinnati, where there were multiple coverage busts on his part. For someone who showcased excellent range and instincts in flashes over his first two seasons, it’s difficult to watch a player with high expectations to make crucial mental errors leading to big plays. Walker possesses the ability to be a terrific three-down linebacker making sideline-to-sideline plays, and we’ve seen him do it enough in stretches to know that. It’s a matter of playing more consistently by not being caught out of position in coverage and playing with better gap integrity. Cutting out the mistakes would do wonders for his game, and would also help solidify a defense that is clearly a work in progress.
A return to late 2020-2021 form for Isaiah Oliver
Every player is going to need to get back into game form coming off a torn Achilles, and that’s going to take time. That injury was a significant setback for Oliver, who was starting to play at a high level in 2021 after an encouraging finish to the 2020 season. Raheem Morris’ decision to move him into the slot proved to be the perfect position for him. Oliver’s ability to disrupt slot receivers with his long arms and use his frame to make plays made a difference on a defense in dire need of difference-makers. Similar to Brian Poole, Oliver’s surefire tackling provided solidity in limiting potential big plays.
While Oliver has needed time to acclimate back to playing nickel corner, the time is now for him to get back to being a steady cover corner and consistently making tackles in the open field. After a decent first game back against San Francisco, Oliver has struggled quite a bit in his natural role. His four missed tackles against Carolina played a major part in the defense’s abysmal performance.
With A.J. Terrell likely missing the next two games and Casey Hayward out indefinitely, the secondary needs his steady play more than ever. What makes Oliver’s role more valuable is the trust Dean Pees instills in him. By playing nickel back, he is making many calls for the defense. It’s an interesting setup to have a corner handle that responsibility compared to past seasons when Ricardo Allen took command of that role. Oliver needs to get his back to his best for the secondary to make up for the devastating losses and then play at a high level when both starting corners are back.