When faced with a crossroads during the 2021 offseason, the Falcons elected for an on-the-fly rebuild instead of a down-to-the-foundations overhaul. That approach netted Atlanta a 7-10 record, but there appears to be an opportunity to take advantage of a rapidly changing NFC South in 2022 if the Falcons can make smart moves.
There are changes that must be made on both sides of the ball, but to truly make another leap and seriously threaten for the postseason the Falcons have to address the defense.
Talent matters more on the defensive side of the ball
Our resident fence-holder at The Falcoholic put forth an eloquent argument last week as to why Atlanta should make offense the priority. But his very first assertion – that the league is geared towards offense – while true, is precisely why it’s the defense that matters more. In an era where quarterbacks entering the league have already blown past the 10,000 hours rule and rookie receiving records are now broken annually, the floor for offense has never been higher.
Defensively, however, schemes are inherently much more limited. Planning to attack something is far easier than developing contingencies to stop any potentiality. Therefore, talent plays a greater role on the defensive side of the ball, where a player’s instincts, elite athleticism or any other transcendent quality can often matter more than scheme. Transcendent players impact offenses as well, don’t get me wrong, it’s just that the game’s rules do favor offense and we’re still in a period of schematic evolution that benefits some players greatly.
Look no further than the last two Super Bowls as lessons into the impact that a collective group of talent on defense can do. The Buccaneers traded for Jason Pierre-Paul and signed Ndamukong Suh and Shaq Barrett in free agency during recent offseasons, and they hit on Devin White and some key parts in the secondary. That unit shut down Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City.
Los Angeles has been very aggressive in acquiring the likes of Jalen Ramsey and Von Miller to give them a true elite superstar at all three levels of defense. But for a blatantly missed pass interference call, that unit’s good performance against a scary offense would look excellent.
Atlanta’s defense was really. really bad last year
The Falcons had some quality individual plays throughout the course of the season from their defenders, which perhaps masked some of the grim truths that many metrics display. Yes, Foye Oluokun led the NFL with 192 combined tackles, but Atlanta ranked 17th in rush yards allowed per play and 29th in rush DVOA, per Football Outsiders. A.J. Terrell was arguably the best cornerback in the league and yet the Falcons ranked 23rd in pass yards allowed per play and 29th in pass DVOA. Defensively, a team has to have enough talent for that talent to really make an impact on the game, otherwise, teams can pick on available weak spots.
By far the worst aspect of the defense, however, remains the pass rush. Atlanta ranked dead last with 18 sacks in 2021, 11 fewer than the 31st-ranked Philadelphia Eagles. Dante Fowler led the way with 4.5 sacks and no other Falcons player netted more than two sacks on the season despite the addition of an extra game. Look, if you’re reading this then you likely already know how unproductive this team’s pass rush has been for the last while now, but it remains sobering.
Go against traditional thinking
The identity of this team may very well change drastically in the next two years. With Matt Ryan under center, the Falcons have been defined by their strengths on offense. Like it or not, the time when Ryan will no longer be Atlanta’s quarterback is coming, and that shakes everything up in a huge way. The Falcons may find that they’ve invested in maintaining a good offense only to lose its conductor. The common thinking right now is that it takes an elite quarterback helming a potent offense to win a Super Bowl. Yet Josh Allen played nearly a perfect postseason and went home without any final say in his team’s chances.
Instead, we’ve seen some of the NFL’s best offenses toppled by defenses in the sport’s biggest game the last few years. While an offensive arms race is underway, there is somewhat of a market inefficiency available to make smart additions on defense at reasonable costs. The Falcons built one of the best offenses the league has ever seen in 2016 but came up short because they couldn’t protect a 25-point lead. That’s unfortunately been the case in games many times throughout Ryan’s career, despite some excellent offenses.
In the biggest games, for better and worse, we’ve seen that defense is still immensely important. Let the rest of the league try to soup a part of their team that is already buoyed by league rules and developmental roots that stretch to high school. Atlanta should finally build a winning defense.