For the second time in just three short weeks, the Falcons held off a ferocious comeback with a goal-line stand. This was not the case for the majority of last season when the ball had to be in Matt Ryan’s hand if it was close at the end of the game. That correlated with the Atlanta’s 27th ranked scoring defense, but around week 10 last season this group of young talented players began to turn the corner. With arguably the team’s best defensive player, Desmond Trufant, absent for the remainder of the season with an injury, a defense led by eight first and second year players did not allow over 20 points in the team’s last five games (Kansas City scored 29 points but 9 of them were accounted for by their defense and seven more on a fake punt).
They did not slow down in the playoffs either, punishing both Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers for four quarters. Neither game was close, and the defense left their mark with their incredible physicality throughout the playoffs. And who can forget how impressive this group looked during the first half of last year’s Super Bowl. Of course it is the second half of the Super Bowl that still has critics questioning this unit, and while the beginning of 2017 has had it’s ups and downs, the Falcons are already proving they can win relying on both their offense and defense.
The numbers so far in 2017 are already marginally better than 2016 with the Atlanta defense ranking 17th in both scoring and yardage through three weeks, and that includes two matchups against top flight offenses in Green Bay and Detroit. But more importantly, they look to be improving by one-percent each week they take the field.
The defense was mostly dominant in week one against the Bears. Until, of course, those Super Bowl ghosts showed up in the fourth quarter, and all of the sudden Mike Glennon was Tom Brady and the downtrodden group of Bears receivers looked oddly similar to Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. They allowed Glennon to march down the field not once but twice, and came just a dropped pass away from walking away losers in Chicago. There were a lot of positives defensively in week one, including the three sacks against an elite Bears offensive line, but the questions will remain until Atlanta can consistently get stops for four quarters.
On paper, week two looked to be the defense’s toughest test against Aaron Rodgers and a healthier group of bandits. However, both of Green Bay’s starting tackles missed the matchup and Jordy Nelson exited the game in the first quarter with an injury. Once again, Atlanta was able to face a shorthanded Green Bay offense, and once again, they made them pay. Rodgers was under duress throughout the contest. He was absolutely pummeled on several occasions by pass rushers like Takkarist McKinley and Vic Beasley Jr.. Atlanta jumped out to a 31-7 lead behind their high-powered offense, but also behind their physical defense that came up with two huge turnovers and a touchdown. Anyone mentioning the garbage time points Aaron Rodgers was able to accumulate to make the score respectable is just nitpicking, as the Falcons defense looked spectacular in week two.
But perhaps their most impressive performance came in week three against a confident Lions team on the road. In a game where the defense can really solely take responsibility for an incredible win. Take off the ten points Matt Ryan and the wide receivers spotted the Lions, and the Falcons only allowed 16 points and 324 yards to an explosive Lions offense on their home turf. But we are going to specifically focus on Detroit’s last three possessions, where Atlanta had to come up with four stops against one of the league’s most prolific fourth quarter quarterbacks.
The first possession came after Matt Ryan’s third interception that bounced off Muhammed Sanu’s hands and was returned 37 yards to the Detroit 45-yard line. With a short field and the Lions down by just four, they were unable to capitalize, as a key tackle for loss by Takkarist McKinley on second down forced the Lions into a three and out.
The Atlanta offense was able to move the chains a couple of times to get the ball off of their own goal line to swing field position, and the Falcons defense was able to come up with another three and out. Unfortunately and unusually, Matt Ryan and the offense were not able to kill the remainder of the clock, forcing the defense back onto the field for a third time in the final seven minutes.
This one, although, was no three and out. The Lions drove down the field with ease until they reached the redzone, where holding and offensive pass interference put Detroit in a huge 2 and 30 hole. This is where the Falcons came up with their third key stop. Stafford dropped back, looked deep left and flung a prayer that was intercepted by Robert Alford. It should have been game, but a phantom defensive hold was called on the other side of the field on Desmond Trufant.
The Lions would advance the ball to the one two plays later on a pass interference on Desmond Trufant in the end zone. This one definitely was a penalty on the pro-bowl corner, and Detroit had four downs or nineteen seconds to get the ball in the end zone. But once again, they could not. Atlanta came up with a terrific goal line stand that ended with Golden Tate being downed at the one on third down.
Last Sunday was an atypical day for the Atlanta offense. Matt Ryan threw multiple interceptions for the first time since November of 2015. They fell in a funk in the fourth quarter, and the defense, without two starters on the defensive line, came up huge for four quarters. The narrative of this game may be that the Falcons once again let Detroit roar back from behind, but do not be confused, this defense can be relied on to win games, and that was not the case a season ago.