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The state of the Falcons defense after 10 games

We take a deeper dive into Atlanta’s defense, how it got here, and what things look like in the future.

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Find a more historic duo than the Falcons and a struggling defense. Short of a few flirtations with competency in the past 15 years, the defense has been a consistent problem. Different coaches have filtered through Atlanta the last few decades, usually criticizing the what the last coach did, and confident instead that they would buck the trend.

That success rate so far is 0%.

This time, that coach is Dean Pees, who provided a memorable offseason proclamation.

“We’re changing the culture around this dadgum place. It’s not going to be mediocre. It’s not going to be average. It’s not going to be in the bottom half of the league like it’s been 15 out of the last 20 years. I’m sick of that crap. We gotta take charge, and it ain’t gonna be anyone else to do it but us. I’m tired of everybody telling us how bad we are, because after a while you start believing them.”

That quote was probably premature from Pees, who may have just needed to rally the troops. He should know that progress isn’t easy, especially from a bad 2021 defense which lost talent. The cupboard has been close to bare thanks to a long series of misses by the former regime. Even the hits the team couldn’t afford to keep thanks to bad cap management.

Past defensive failures

Certain positions can be damn hard to fill. That is evidenced by Atlanta’s decade-long search for a pass rusher, with the hole left by Jon Abraham miraculously still unfilled. The Falcons struck out on two first-round rushers in Vic Beasley and Takkarist McKinley, and failed to find even rotational quality players elsewhere in the draft or even in big-name free agents like Dante Fowler.

Few coaches can scheme around a lack of edge rushers. It helps if there’s talent elsewhere. But for each Grady Jarrett and AJ Terrell, there are multiple players like Marlon Davidson, Kendall Sheffield, John Cominsky and Deadrin Senat. The few hits were mismanaged or priced out of Atlanta, like Foye Oluokun and De’Vondre Campbell.

2022 defense — still bad

The 2022 stats show all of that. Atlanta is near or at the bottom of the league in every category imaginable. The defense has the most yards allowed allowed in the league, the 8th most passing touchdowns allowed, and the 5th most points allowed, thanks in part to Atlanta’s bye week occurring this week, Atlanta has faced the most plays in the league. However, looking at rates accounting for the extra game, Atlanta is still allowing 5th highest yards per play allowed, 3rd highest net yards per attempt, and a league-worst percentage of drives ending in points.

Still, signs for optimism

The good news? The Falcons are middle of the pack in rush yards per attempt allowed and takeaways. Perhaps what isn’t captured by the stats is improvement at important times. Pees, a more old school coach with prior stints with the Patriots and Ravens, seems to be a fan of the bend don’t break mentality. The defense has made plays when needed, just not every time it is needed. The problem makes sense, considering Atlanta’s notable defensive contracts go from Grady Jarrett ($50 million) down to Casey Hayward ($11 million) to Lorenzo Carter ($3.5 million).

The defense is looking better than 2021 and 2020, which were admittedly two disastrous seasons. This is helped by a few young, improving players. As expected, a lot of the heavy lifting is done by Terrell and Jarrett. Arnold Ebiketie looks like the real deal 10 games into his rookie season, showing fantastic explosion on the edge.

Rookie Troy Andersen is another up-and-coming player — the physical freak that Dan Quinn so frequently failed to turn into a consistent contributor. He’s still playing hot and cold, which itself has been impressive for such a raw rookie only a handful of games into his professional career. 2nd-year safety Richie Grant is having quite the sophomore season and looks to be a young part of hopefully the team’s future core. Ta’Quon Graham, Darren Hall and Dee Alford have been decent contributors, likely to become very quality depth in the future.

What the future holds

The Falcons have certainly been in this spot multiple times: a bad defense with a young core looking to turn around Atlanta’s bad defense. The problem is that progress in the NFL is rarely a steady pace. A few injuries, a few players who start to struggle, some shuffled coaches and you are back at the start yet again.

Looking at what we have in front of us, I think Dean Pees is a good coach. I think some Terry Fontenot has been doing a good job at acquiring defenders (in particular, a few late-round or undrafted contributors). I think a lot of the young players are showing good talent. The Falcons may be at the bottom but the arrow is definitely pointing up.