The growing belief surrounding the Atlanta Falcons’ defensive rise was exciting for numerous reasons. They hired a defensive coach from its biggest rival to change the landscape of a unit in desperate need of an identity. Adding stellar talent and capable veterans in free agency created optimism that they could be a competent unit after five seasons of below-average to appalling performance. They surpassed that so far in becoming a solid defense with some great games, with Jessie Bates and David Onyemata playing at exceptional levels.
Unheralded players like Dee Alford and Nate Landman had emerged as dependable starters. Most importantly, the defensive line finally had plenty of experience, intriguing versatility, and overwhelming power. It provided much-needed assistance for the one-man army at the heart of the defensive line.
Seeing Grady Jarrett have credible support around him for the first time since 2017 was one of the most refreshing aspects of this defensive progression. More one-on-one matchups were being created for him. When he took on double teams, there were more times than not, someone like Calais Campbell or Kaden Elliss would swarm in to make a stop for a minimal gain.
While the pass rush remains largely lackluster, the pressure of Jarrett having to create without any capable talent around him no longer exists. An advanced, creative scheme with upgraded talent around him relieved the former Pro Bowler of having to be the focal point of the opposition’s attention on every snap.
An All-Time Franchise Great
For Jarrett not to get to enjoy being in the trenches for a full season with the most talented Falcons’ defense since 2017 is heartbreaking. This is a player who has been playing at a high level for numerous lost seasons for the franchise, giving everything he has in different roles.
They have asked him to line up off the edge in 2020 to provide a spark. They have used him as a one-gap nose tackle in 2016 and 2021 to compensate for a lack of depth. No matter how dire the situation was up front, he stepped up to the challenge every time and took pride in going to battle, knowing it was likely going to be a long day for the defense.
Jarrett had only missed three games in nine seasons before tearing his ACL. His commitment to being a leader and representing a franchise in total despair at times over the last five seasons is a testament to how much of a true professional he is. His work in the Atlanta community over the years is a testament to how great of a man he is.
This is someone who has always held himself up to a high standard and never once asked to play elsewhere when it was understandable for him to pursue playing for a team that was ready to compete for a championship. The former fifth-round pick remained dedicated, ferocious, and persistent in terms of being a great player and helping the team win games by any means.
A Painful Void
His absence was immediately felt in Atlanta’s ugly defeat to Tennessee. The defensive line wasn’t getting anywhere near the same amount of penetration. Bodies were being pushed around more frequently than in any game outside of the season opener against Carolina. It was one of the few games where the opposing team averaged more than four yards per carry. Some of it can be attributed to Derrick Henry’s greatness. There’s still no denying not having their dynamic defensive stalwart in there left a gaping hole that simply can’t be replaced.
Jarrett will be greatly missed for a defense coming off its worst performance of the season. While this hasn’t been one of Jarrett’s more prolific seasons, he’s still had those signature high-impact moments, from a pivotal fourth stop against the Panthers to terrorizing the Lions at times. Not many defensive tackles are capable of wrecking a play before it even begins to materialize. The chaos he creates with a blistering first step and violent hands causes opposing offensive lines all sorts of fits.
His longevity as a disruptive, commanding force is remarkable when considering the amount of punishment a defensive tackle endures. Combining that with the fact that the Falcons have had among the most talent-deficient defensive fronts in the league for the past five seasons before this season makes what Jarrett has done even more impressive. He established himself as a top-tier player with little to no support after his third season in the league. He put himself in the same conversation with elite players like Chris Jones, Fletcher Cox, and Cameron Heyward during his peak years from 2017 to 2020.
Adjusting, Not Replacing
That’s got to be the motto for the Falcons’ defense to recover from a season-altering injury like this. They lost their way against the Titans by being undisciplined and sluggish. The urgency, organization, and sound fundamental play were lacking across the entire unit. This is a defense that still possesses plenty of talent. There is also a decent possibility high-level talent could be acquired before the end of today’s trade deadline. As dark of a moment this is for the franchise, they have the pieces to achieve their season goal of making the playoffs.
It will take time to adjust without one of the most beloved, consistent players in franchise history. As well as Onyemata and Campbell have played, they aren’t explosive players who can generate instant penetration. While LaCale London has shown promise along with newly-acquired Kentavius Street, neither player can be expected to split double teams and produce highlight-reel tackles for a loss. It will come down to playing with solid gap integrity and using the power they possess to wear down offensive lines. As long as the tackling that occurred in Tennessee isn’t replicated, they can hold their own against the run.
That said, Jarrett is the second most valuable defensive player on the team behind Bates. His skillset creates a variety of mismatches. His relentless motor to make stops sideline-to-sideline is incredibly valuable. His explosiveness has carried a defensive line that still lacks speed after all these years. It’s difficult to digest how much he’ll be missed as a player and leader. Bates knows his voice will still be there for the team to provide wisdom and valuable inspiration.
The defense is facing real adversity for the first time all season after several impressive performances and staying relatively healthy outside of Troy Andersen’s season-ending injury. They have no time to fret with two favorable matchups coming up. As soul-crushing as it is for Jarrett not to be out there after years of hoping to play on a capable defense, it’s on the players, Nielsen, Jerry Gray, and all the other influential defensive figures, to remain united in moving forward and bringing playoff football back to Atlanta without one of the faces of the franchise.