Ever since the Falcons drafted Matt Ryan with the 3rd overall pick in the 2008 draft, the Falcons offense has been able to carry a consistently suspect defense. Atlanta has managed to finish in the top half of the league in total offense in every season Matt Ryan has been under center. Even last season, with the Falcons failing to win 7 games, Matt Ryan was able to put together a Pro-Bowl year and lead a top 10 offense in the NFL. On the other end of the spectrum has lied the Falcons defense since 2008. The Atlanta defense has only finished in the top 15 once in the last seven seasons, and that came in 2011 when the Falcons defense finished 12th. The last two seasons, the offense has not been able to overcome the errors of one of the worst defenses in the NFL. However, since the arrival of Dan Quinn, the improvements have started to show and this Falcons defense might be able to turn Atlanta back into Super Bowl contenders once again.
While Dan Quinn has been able to lead top-tier defenses at both the University of Florida and at Seattle, he had a lot of help from some terrific head coaches and situations. Dan Quinn is no magician, however, he is one of the best defensive minds in the game. He will not be able to turn this defense into Seattle’s overnight, but the NFL is a league known for its cutthroat nature and massive amounts of turnover. Just look at how quickly the Falcons came to rise in 2008. Coming of a dismal 4-12 season, Matt Ryan and Mike Smith led the Falcons back to the playoffs with 11 wins in their first year with the organization. The next four seasons the Falcons featured a winning record, including coming plays short of the franchise’s second Super Bowl berth in 2012. Easy come easy go: the Falcons fell off just as quickly in 2013 losing 13 games. The struggles continued into the 2014 season, and as a result, Atlanta fired head coach Mike Smith.
Atlanta’s first-team defense has already shown signs of improvement in the opening preseason games. Sure, they may have feasted on two of the worst offenses in the league, but in the past few seasons the Falcons have let quarterbacks like Geno Smith and Brian Hoyer articulate game winning drives at the end of the games. Atlanta caused Marcus Mariota fits in their opening game versus the Titans. On his first drive, he was intercepted by newly acquired linebacker Justin Durant. On his second drive, Mariota fumbled and it was recovered by Paul Worrilow who returned it for a touchdown. For the the first time in seemingly ages, the Falcons defense gave an opposing offense fits.
The first team defense got right back after it in the second preseason against the New York Jets. Ryan Fitzpatrick got the start for Gang Green, as Geno Smith will miss the first part of the regular season with a broken jaw. Fitzpatrick is likely a tougher task to handle than Smith, but Atlanta forced the Jets to punt on their first 5 posessions. The defense was constantly in the backfield and generating pressure. Vic Beasley and the rest of the defensive line seem to have a different nature about them this year. They have been determined to apply pressure on the quarterback whenever they are on the field.
While the opening quarters have been spectacular for Atlanta’s defense, the latter quarters have not be as successful. In both games the second and third units have not been up to par. They let both the Titans and the Jets back into the games and made countless mistakes. Quinn will have to work over the time he is here in developing quality depth. Injuries happen and the next guy in line has to step up. Nobody had more depth on the defensive side of the ball then Seattle did last year, and that is something Quinn will look to establish in Atlanta in the coming years.
The opening game quarters of the first two pre-season games is a very small sample size, but Atlanta is already doing things that they were not last year. The 2014 Falcons defense finished dead last in total defense. The line failed to create penetration, linebackers missed tackles and the secondary blew coverage after coverage. It did not matter who was under center for the opposing team, he was going to be in for a big day against the Falcons defense, but the days of making Teddy Bridgewater looking like Johnny Unitas are over.
While it is definitely a stretch to think the Falcons defense will be a top-5 defense this season, it is not a stretch to think the Falcons can become Super Bowl contenders again if the defense can become formidable. The Falcons should feature a high flying offense under first-year offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and the rest of the Falcons offense has looked fantastic in the preseason, and there are no signs of anything slowing them down. If the Falcons defense can get to the middle of the pack, 10 wins in 2015 will be a guarantee.