Falcons’ defense relying strictly on the returns of the injured

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The Falcons didn’t have much money to throw around this offseason, and that’s never been Thomas Dimitroff’s style, but they did have a little to spend on patching up a few of their holes. Immediately, they addressed the offensive line, signing guards Jamon Brown and James Carpenter to multi-year deals.

The guard play was abysmal on both sides a year ago – so the deals for Brown and Carpenter weren’t met with many complaints. However, they were forced to pinch pennies for the remainder of free agency, limiting them to aging veterans who were willing to take contracts for $4 million or less. Where things get controversial is how the Falcons approached the draft following their free agent acquisitions.

Atlanta drafted ANOTHER offensive guard with the #14 pick in Chris Lindstrom. I’m all for taking the player that the general manager feels the most comfortable with, and Lindstrom should be a substantial upgrade over both Brown and Carpenter, but investing that much capital into a position that is far from the most valuable on the field rightfully raises eyebrows.

Then, the Falcons tripled-down on the offensive line by trading their second and third round picks for the rights to Kaleb McGary – an offensive tackle out of Washington. Offensive tackle was a position that had to be addressed during the draft. Ty Sambrailo was not going to cut it by himself. If McGary turns into a stalwart on the offensive line; nobody will be able to boo-hoo that decision – no matter who wants to look at it as a reach today. Still, with free agency and three rounds of the draft complete, the Falcons had yet to address their porous defensive line and their defense in general.

Atlanta did add some defensive depth pieces in the back-half of the draft. They also signed Tyeler Davison and Adrian Clayborn to one-year deals to sure up their defensive line, but those aren’t the upgrades this unit desperately needed. The Falcons sent a bold message this offseason, blaming all of their defensive woes on their injured stars.

It’s not an unfathomable position to take. By week four – Atlanta’s defense had lost Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, and Ricardo Allen to Injured Reserve. Only Jones was able to return, and by the time he did, it was too late. Those are three cornerstones that cannot be replaced.

Like Chris Lindstrom, Neal was viewed as a laughable reach when the Falcons took him in the first round. The former Gator is the only one chuckling now, as he reached the Pro-Bowl in just his second season. The importance of his physical nature and versatility at the back-end of the defense cannot be understated.

Deion Jones is from the same class as Neal and made his first Pro-Bowl the same year. The two have been the primary reasons Atlanta’s defense made the jump from a bottom feeder into the top ten in such a short time. Before the injury, Jones was already among the top linebackers in the game and on a path to becoming the best.

Allen won’t get the same recognition from the public as a Keanu Neal or Deion Jones. His jersey sales aren’t quite as high, but he’s an incredibly valuable piece to Atlanta’s secondary. His instincts and leadership at the free safety spot were sorely missed after he went down with an Achilles injury against the Saints. This is the quarterback of the Falcons defense.

Any unit that loses three of their top players is going to suffer; which why the Falcons saw their D fall from 9th to 28th in total defense. Though, injuries are not the only thing to blame for the drop-off. 

The Falcons defensive line was a bumbling mess. Grady Jarrett is about the only piece worth mentioning, as he’s become one of the league’s brightest young defensive tackles. Beyond him, Jack Crawford became the team’s second-best threat across the line, and that’s not an ideal situation for any team.

Vic Beasley is back for one more year after his worst season as a pro. He was non-existent on the field despite playing the most snaps of any defensive lineman. The Falcons 2017 first-round selection, Takk McKinley was better than Beasley but not by much. It’s fair to wonder if the UCLA product will ever be a consistent pass rushing force. And the depth – well there was none.

An atrocious defensive line is why the Falcons ranked 25th at stopping the run and gave up nearly five yards per carry. Keanu Neal and Deion Jones weren’t going to add to the Falcons 22nd ranked sack total. These pass rushers and run stoppers brought little to the table, and all the Falcons are adding to it is Adrian Clayborn, Tyeler Davison, John Cominsky, and a Dan Quinn promise that he is going to be more hands-on with this group.

Atlanta is counting strictly on two things to fix what was among the worst defenses in the league a year ago: the return of their injured leaders and Dan Quinn’s expertise as he takes over the defensive coordinator role. The front office better be right; because another season of sub-par defense might cost them their job.

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