The Falcons roster isn’t necessarily lacking talent because there are plenty of high-level players still in prominent roles for this team — Matt Ryan, Calvin Ridley, Grady Jarrett, etc. Still, the roster isn’t impressive by any stretch of the imagination unless you value extremely a top-heavy construction.
That isn’t to say it won’t change in the future, but the Falcons’ lack of depth at a number of position groups is concerning. The offense will only go as far as the offensive line and Matt Ryan take them; the same can’t be said for the defense. The defense will have to succeed by the sum of its parts, not any one player or position group — Ryan and offensive line.
Sure, Grady Jarrett is a premier player in this league, but he’s the only one. Deion Jones, A.J. Terrell, Foye Oluokun, and Dante Fowler are impressive players in their own right, but this defense will be competent because of 11 guys, not just a couple. Dean Pees’ defense relies on deception — showing Double-A Mug Front with Cover 2 behind it but dropping the walked-up linebackers and blitzing the safety or nickel back with Cover 1 or Cover 3 behind it.
Pees is notorious for using players interchangeably at multiple positions — safeties playing in the box, in the middle third, and in the slot; defensive linemen playing the 3-, 5-, and 7-technique. Tori McElhaney, a Falcons beat reporter, highlighted this important nuance of Pees’ system in a quote from the experienced defensive mind.
“Our corners learn how to play rolled up corner, they learn how to play half safety, they learn how to play the curl, they learn how to play the hook. They learn all the different spots in coverage,” Pees said. “… They have to know them all.”
“People don’t really know that if I have corner standing out there and runs back to the half field or now all of a sudden he’s a corner that’s blitzing or now he’s a corner and he’s playing the curl,” Pees said. “The offenses have to try and figure it out. It’s that conceptually.
The only way to do that is to have your best athletes on the field on any given play. I’ve illustrated this point with Mykal Walker in the past. His ability to play inside or outside linebacker is valuable because he can support the run, drop into coverage, and blitz the passer at either alignment. Walker obviously stands to benefit from one of Debo or Foye leaving, but the Pees would be wise to include as many packages with those three on the field because of their athletic versatility.
A 3-3-5 where all three linebackers moving around before the snap threatening to blitz or drop into coverage with Grady Jarrett, Dante Fowler, and depending on the situation, one of John Cominsky/Marlon Davidson/Steven Means/Jonathan Bullard/Jacob Tuioti-Mariner along the front would be difficult for opposing offensive lines to contain due to the athleticism at both levels.
The same can be said for the defensive backs. Safeties being able to play single high, deep half, quarters, in the box, in the slot, etc. makes it strenuous for the quarterback and offensive coordinator to identify who’s dropping into what coverage and if a possible blitz is coming. In the above quote from Pees, corners have to learn how to play multiple coverages because it gives Pees flexibility in his play call. Knowing the other positions’ responsibilities deepens the understanding of the scheme as a whole — weaknesses, strengths, etc.
Having the best athletes on the field will make this Dean Pees engine run much smoother, but the staff can only put those players out there if they can trust them. These Falcons defenders will have to have a firm grasp on the playbook to warrant playing time. Still, the point remains, having your best athletes on the field gives the defense the best shot of succeeding — anyone could tell you; it’s not rocket science.