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Ryan Nielsen’s resolute defense is setting a new standard in Atlanta

It’s been some time since the Falcons had a winning record and sat in first place in the NFC South after seven games. They couldn’t have done it without a stingy, relentless defensive unit.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

There is a fascinating correlation between the current Falcons’ team and the last Atlanta team to make the playoffs, all the way back in 2017. It was the last time they produced a credible defense. The offense was extremely talented, yet maddeningly inconsistent by frequently making self-inflicted mistakes and not converting enough red zone opportunities.

There were times when the defense had to carry the team in games, particularly in divisional battles, to get them into the playoffs with victories over New Orleans on Thursday night and Carolina in the season finale. While the offense did move the ball well last Sunday against Tampa Bay, the Falcons can’t prevail without another outstanding defensive performance.

What is different about the current Falcons’ defense is they are more well-rounded up front and consistently organized on the back end. As great as the 2017 Falcons defense was for long stretches of the season, they did get pushed around in the trenches and struggled to get off the field on third down.

They were a bit too dependent on individuals like Deion Jones, Keanu Neal, and Grady Jarrett to play at a Pro Bowl level every week. That’s not the case with the current defense. On all three levels of the defense, they play with tremendous awareness and technique to make stops all across the field. They are battle-tested and ready to battle at the point of attack every week.

Secondary perseveres and shines

A big divisional game on the road will lead to some form of adversity. As flawed as the Bucs are, they still have prolific talent in key positional areas. Look no further than what Mike Evans did in the first half and how efficient Chris Godwin has been for several seasons. For each setback—and they did exist—Nielsen’s defense remained solid and kept responding to every punch Tampa Bay delivered through the air or penalty caused.

As ESPN’s Michael Rothstein pointed out, the secondary committed six of the nine penalties by the Falcons, including three from A.J. Terrell. The corners had their moments of being over-aggressive or getting caught out of position. That didn’t rattle them in holding Tampa Bay to a mere three points in the second half, all of which came on the final drive.

After Terrell got beat on a 40-yard touchdown and penalized for getting too grabby on Evans, he settled down and broke up three passes. Jeff Okudah got too physical with Godwin, leading to a holding penalty on third down, but then responded with an impressive pass breakup and shoe-string tackle on the outside to prevent Rachaad White from turning the corner. When Dee Alford got penalized for careless pass interference on Trey Palmer after not flipping his hips fast enough, he played lockdown coverage near the goal line to help David Onyemata secure a massive third-down coverage sack.

When one player or unit stumbles, another player or unit picks them up and keeps the defense in a robust position to stop opposing offenses. It’s been the story for the Falcons all season. Two of the three Falcons’ sacks came on coverage sacks in the second half. As lethal as Evans and Godwin are, they were both limited due to terrific coverage on the back end. When Baker Mayfield tried to push the ball downfield to other pass catchers, he paid the price as Richie Grant closed in for a crucial interception.

The Falcons’ secondary was significantly tested against a quietly resurgent offense. After taking some lumps, they proved why they are becoming one of the better units in the league, with All-Pro caliber safety Jessie Bates as the master organizer. That substantial improvement has been a massive driving force behind this long-awaited defensive resurgence, and while I neglected to mention him in the first edition of this story, Jerry Gray deserves an enormous amount of credit for getting the most out of this group.

The blueprint starts up front

As is the case with almost all formidable defenses, they must be well-equipped in the trenches and possess composed finishers behind them. Many teams have explosive edge rushers, blistering three-tech defensive tackles, and athletic specimen linebackers with great coverage range. Besides Grady Jarrett still causing havoc as a three-tech, Nielsen’s unit doesn’t have any of those types of players within his personnel.

The Falcons’ defense is based around massive defensive linemen who are positionally savvy and aim to beat opposing offensive lines into submission. They bully teams against the run and wear them down on passing plays with their length and power. The linebackers play with excellent composure and embrace taking on all blocks to make key stops against the run.

The remarkable transformation of the Falcons’ defense has forced opposing offenses to become one-dimensional at times. Only Carolina and Detroit in the second half have managed to be productive on the ground against this stout front. The dominance they’ve shown against the run puts teams in unfavorable second and third-down situations. It also makes opposing red zone play calling more dependent on the quarterback, as the Falcons’ defense has only allowed one rushing touchdown all season, which came from a zone read designed for Jared Goff as Detroit essentially finished them off after an abysmal offensive showing.

For all the hope of young players emerging, there are times when you need veterans to add solidity to a defense. David Onyemata, Calais Campbell, and Bud Dupree have all been instrumental in shutting down opposing running games. They’ve all had flashes as pass rushers, contributing to the Falcons’ outstanding third-down success rate. Despite Tampa Bay getting the better of them on six of 12 occasions on Sunday, they still rank third in the league, allowing only 33% to be converted.

That is an astounding feat considering how much they’ve failed to get off the field in the past five seasons. Winning on early downs, along with Nielsen dialing up creative blitzes and designed pressures, limits offensive playcalling distribution and makes opponents unable to find a sustained rhythm.

The sturdy nature of the defensive line has extended to the starting linebacker tandem. Kaden Elliss and Nate Landman aren’t ultra-athletic, rangy linebackers who can make tremendous plays in coverage. Their main attributes consist of being positionally disciplined, dependable tacklers, and aggressive to close in on running gaps no matter the type of block they have to take on.

There is nothing finesse about either player. They both combined for a stop on third and one to force a three-and-out by shooting through both gaps, and that’s a testament to the physicality and intelligence they play with. As my colleague William McFadden highlighted in his piece, Landman has been a revelation since being inserted into the starting lineup. The fumble he forced was well-deserved for a player who has come in for Troy Andersen admirably.

Establishing the standard of relentlessness

Being able to stay organized and play fundamental football isn’t easy to maintain in a league where offenses tend to receive more advantages. While scoring hasn’t been this low in over a decade, not many teams can claim to have a reliable defense that can consistently make the opposition uncomfortable. The Falcons’ defense is forcing opposing offenses into unfavorable positions, from facing frequent third-and-longs to making them throw the ball 40 times or more because their running game simply can’t generate much production. Although the lack of edge rush has held them back from ascending higher, and they aren’t quite forcing enough turnovers, the defensive persistence to make continuous stops across the field at all three levels has been remarkable.

Nielsen deserves enormous praise for implementing his philosophy and crafting together an aggressive unit that rarely beats itself. While running more man coverages has been beneficial compared to previous defensive coordinators who preferred playing Cover 2 and 4 more often, Atlanta’s new favorite mastermind mixes up his zone coverages well to fluster quarterbacks. He dials up a wide variety of blitzes from different angles at opportune times to destroy drives. The Falcons’ defense used to be reactive in looking to capitalize off mistakes rather than being proactive and forcing them. That isn’t the case anymore.

This unit aims to impose its will with enforcers in the trenches, frustrate opponents with consistent open-field tackling underneath, and prevent explosive plays downfield with its talented secondary. That has largely been accomplished over the first seven games. If this continues, the defense will not only become a top-ten caliber unit. They will square off against a top-tier team in January, where the stakes couldn’t be higher, and will get to show how far they’ve come in the bright lights of the postseason.