The Falcons’ defense wasn’t great by any measuring stick in the first season under Dean Pees. However, the Falcons’ front office has been quite busy this offseason shopping bargain bin free agents, re-signing a couple of their key defenders, and bolstering that side of the ball through the draft. Terry Fontenot retooled the defense during his second offseason and actually provided a bit of hope. It isn’t going to suddenly become a respectable defense overnight, but it seems they’re headed in the right direction.
The most significant area of concern had to be the pass rush, which ranked dead last in sacks with 18. It has become quite the joke at this point that a couple of individuals totaled more than Atlanta’s defense as a whole — T.J. Watt (22.5) and Robert Quinn (18.5). To be fair, there weren’t any areas in which the unit was even average. And even though a team’s pass rush is a two-pronged attack — coverage and pressure — the Falcons’ defensive front was the more prominent issue.
The first-time general manager’s biggest offseason move on either side of the ball was extending Grady Jarrett, who has long been one of the most consistent defenders in the league. However, outside of that, the interior line was untouched, which I thought was one of Atlanta’s lesser-known needs.
Fontenot completely reshaped the EDGE group, though. The only returning member who saw significant playing time in the 2021 unit is Ade Ogundeji. He signed Lorenzo Carter, who has to be the assumed starter. Fontenot also doubled up in the draft by selecting Arnold Ebiketie and DeAngelo Malone. It might not even be an average pass rush, but it should be improved from a year ago, and the future seems to be in good hands.
The second level of the defense also experienced some turnover. Foye Oluokun, the unquestioned leader on that side of the ball, departed in free agency. Deion Jones‘ situation remains cloudy, so the linebacking core could look completely different in 2022. Fontenot selected Troy Andersen to be the position’s future and also signed a pair of veterans in Rashaan Evans and Nick Kwiatkoski. Atlanta still has Mykal Walker on the roster as well, so there really is no telling what the depth chart will look like.
The Falcons’ secondary is the biggest reason to be excited about this unit, but that depends entirely on the safety group. Last year, the Falcons relied on Erik Harris and Duron Harmon for much of the team’s snaps. And though some fans won’t believe it, Harris was actually decent for Pees; however, the same cannot be said for Harmon. Richie Grant rarely saw the field despite being a second-round pick, given his mental lapses. Jaylinn Hawkins also played sparingly but was undoubtedly more effective than Grant, which is reflected in their snap counts.
The Falcons need Grant and Hawkins to take significant strides forward this year if the defense is to improve dramatically, but I’ve always been high on Grant. If he can catch up mentally and Hawkins improves on last season, the safety tandem with Harris as the third man should be a halfway decent group.
I saved the best for last, though. The gem of the defense, and probably the team as a whole, is the cornerback unit. AJ Terrell has quickly risen to elite status after being named an All-Pro last season. Terry Fontenot went out and promptly signed Casey Hayward, who is by all accounts an upgrade over Fabian Moreau. However, the unsung hero of the defense could be Isaiah Oliver, who Fontenot re-signed to a one-year deal.
Oliver isn’t going to be named to the Pro Bowl or anything like that, but he plays the most critical position in Dean Pees’ defense and did so last year at an extremely high level before getting injured. He’s an excellent tackler with the ability to support the box, playing almost a safety-like role. Oliver’s got the length, size, willingness, and tackling ability to make a significant impact from the slot.
I said back in February of 2021 that a permanent move for Oliver to a safety-like role in the slot could prolong his career in Atlanta. The word “safety” has a negative connotation to it, but the reality is that Oliver is a nickel back through and through, which plays like both a safety and a cornerback. Slot or nickel backs are usually tasked with supporting the run and blitzing more than boundary corners due to their proximity to the ball, which is exactly where Oliver showed life in the latter half of 2020.
For the 13 weeks following Oliver’s injury, the Falcons had a revolving door at nickel, which Pees even stated himself. Richie Grant, Darren Hall, Avery Williams, and Erik Harris all took turns manning the slot, but none were as effective as Oliver. The defense as a whole suffered. Now, as Oliver rehabs from his season-ending injury, the Falcons are eager to have him back as the new-look defense takes shape. If Atlanta’s defense improves significantly this year, the obvious names the media will praise are Terrell, Carter, Jarrett, etc. However, Oliver will be the unsung hero.