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Lack of progression for key young players leaves the Falcons’ defense stagnant

With the Falcons defense in another rebuilding phase, they aren’t getting enough from the players the organization invested in to be leaders and productive starters.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

As in most cases, a rebuilding process is going to take time. There will be major setbacks. There will be learning experiences. There is going to be doubt about certain players on whether or not they are capable of being the players the organization envisioned them to be. That’s where the Atlanta Falcons find themselves in assessing their defense. Although no team has less money invested in their defense than the Falcons, they have used draft capital to improve at all three levels.

The results haven’t been enough at the moment. The Falcons lost one of their most promising and improved young defenders in Ta’Quon Graham, and other young players like Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Jaylinn Hawkins appear to be better fits as long-term reserves than full-time starters. For players who are healthy and expected to be major contributors, however, the results have been uneven.

On the defensive line, Arnold Ebiketie and Deangelo Malone haven’t created a notable difference off the edge, though both have had moments and Malone has not played much. At the linebacker position, Mykal Walker and Troy Andersen have been on the receiving end of big plays more often than making impressive stops. In the back end, Richie Grant’s play has regressed following a strong start to the season.

Despite playing relatively well, albeit against below-average offenses, the Falcons’ defense finds itself in the same position they were in last year. A unit filled with question marks due to young players not appearing to develop as the coaching staff anticipated they would.

Same old pass-rushing problems

The Falcons’ defensive line wasn’t going to magically become a formidable unit within one season. The expectation was it could only go up following a season where they ranked last in practically all major statistical categories involving pressuring the quarterback. Unfortunately, they have made minimal growth at best from last season’s horrific sack totals. They have gone exactly one spot up ahead of the lowly Chicago Bears. It’s been another season where quarterbacks are far too comfortable in the pocket.

To make matters worse, the best moments from the Falcons’ front in recent weeks that don’t involve Grady Jarrett have come from Lorenzo Carter and Rashaan Evans. Ebiketie did suffer a forearm injury in Week 12 against Washington. Despite missing some time, he wasn’t generating noticeable pressure against teams not starting a backup offensive tackle. His lack of an explosive first step was a concern for draft evaluators. For all his impressive technique and ability to generate power, his inability to bend across the edge and accelerate past tackles seems to be limiting his output and effectiveness in his first season.

Malone has only played more than 20 snaps one time this season, which happened against the Steelers. It was expected that he would need time to adjust to the pro level. There isn’t much criticism to be had for a player that is still developing pass-rushing moves. What’s disappointing is neither player has regularly excelled when depended upon or given opportunities. The same can be said for what’s taking place at the linebacker position.

A new wave of linebackers doesn’t solve questions

Although Evans is highly valued by the coaching staff after playing under Pees in Tennesee, he wasn’t supposed to become the most consistent linebacker on the roster. All the pieces were aligning for Walker to be that three-down leader. A plan was put in place for Andersen to receive significant snaps at some point to form an athletic, rangy pairing on passing downs. None of that has materialized for the long haul.

Instead, Walker has seen his snaps decline since the Falcons’ last-second defeat to the Chargers. A player who Pees trusted with the green dot to start the season isn’t a three-down linebacker anymore. There is a multitude of reasons behind Walker’s lack of progression, from playing with a lack of gap integrity in run defense to mental errors in coverage. After showing flashes in his first two seasons, one of the Thomas Dimitroff’s final draft picks hasn’t proven he can be a dependable above-average three-down linebacker to this point.

Nothing in Andersen’s play this season has suggested that either. While it would be nonsensical to write off a raw rookie linebacker, the former second-round pick has considerably regressed following a positive start to the season. His inability to process what’s transpiring in front of them has been problematic. Seeing him frequently a step behind in coverage doesn’t bode well for a player who was an athletic specimen coming out of college.

The fact that a steady yet limited linebacker has outplayed Walker must be frustrating for the coaching staff that had high expectations for him. Andersen’s regression in an expanded role after showing promise in his first few games adds further frustration to a group that needs high-end players to emerge. Both players will need to take major steps forward in the offseason, but particularly Andersen, who is expected to be a long-term starter.

Richie Grant’s play encapsulates it all

The Falcons started the season playing some of the most high-energy, invigorating football you can ask for. They made up for their talent limitations by playing with proper fundamentals, being positionally sound, and making timely plays. Grant was one of the main players who embodied all three of those positive traits. That has vanished over the past few games. Between missed tackles to blown coverages to failing to make his presence felt, Grant has reverted to his frustrating rookie ways.

In a recent roundtable, some writers felt the criticism for Grant was warranted. Others felt he hasn’t been utilized to the best of his ability. While Grant doesn’t possess the range of a standard deep-lying safety, the coaching staff should trust him to fill in when necessary. Unfortunately, that hasn’t always gone to plan, with his attempt to undercut a deep ball intended to the most explosive player on the Saints’ roster in Rashid Shaheed looking particularly ludicrous. An NFL starter can’t be making gambles like that, especially when covering the deep center half of the field. It’s those types of mistakes that ultimately cost a team in a close, intense divisional battle.

Grant’s recent issues can be linked in many ways to the likes of Ebiketie, Walker, and Andersen. These were players that started the season strong and helped push a team toward an upward trajectory. They have all been struggling for enough time now that questions will be asked of them as the Falcons’ playoff aspirations have essentially faded away. If this defense is going to end the season on a high note, they need their young core of players that were supposed to help build the defense back up to play at a much higher level, and their progress this coming summer will be worth watching closely.