The Falcons, as they often have in the Matt Ryan and Julio Jones era, came into the year with sky-high expectations from not only themselves but the media as well. Several talking heads pegged Atlanta as the class of the NFC after returning many stars from injury over the offseason. But in what has been one of the most peculiar starts in NFL history, the Falcons lifelessly limped 1-7 into their bye week. Defensively, coverage and pressure on the quarterback were optional for six straight games, as they often left for the locker room at halftime behind down by double digits. However, the NFL is a league controlled by parity – where the difference from being a stepping stone and a contender can be a few minor tweaks and some confidence – and have the Falcons ever found their swagger back.
Over the past two weeks, Atlanta has looked like a team full of worldbeaters. This was a defensive unit that could not stop ANYONE. There was miscommunication, blown coverages, and very little pressure applied to opposing quarterbacks. Steve Smith began calling the Falcons the “get right” team, saying whatever you’re doing wrong this season will be fixed after playing Atlanta. He was specifically referring to the Falcons defense, who were making it incredibly easy for opponents to move the ball. And then, something happened.
I’m not sure what exactly it was. Perhaps Dan Quinn completely removing himself from playcalling duties and focusing more on the defensive line is what flipped the switch, but it’s hard to image there isn’t more to it. The Falcons did switch Damontae Kazee back to his more natural safety position, and Kendall Sheffield has given the defense a tremendous boost in the starting lineup. Desmond Trufant also returned this past week and recorded an interception, but what’s been the most noticeable part of this turnaround has been the once absent pass-rushing turning into the most ferocious in the league overnight.
Yesterday, the Falcons might have made Kyle Allen re-evaluate his career path. The backup man has done a phenomenal job filling in for Cam Newton all season, but nobody likes to be beaten up profusely. Atlanta racked up five sacks for 55 total yards, pressuring him several other times, which led to four interceptions – double the number of interceptions the Falcons had forced all season coming into Sunday.
If I had to narrow it down, you could attribute the newfound Falcons pass rush to two things: One, Raheem Morris has clearly made an impact in the secondary. There have been few – if any – blown assignments, which means way less easy, quick throws for first downs. That’s given more time for this pass rush, which isn’t as bad as things may have led them to look and to get after the quarterback. They’ve made the most of it, more than doubling their season sack total in the past two weeks against the Saints and Panthers.
Another key component to their success: Dan Quinn has to be given some credit for his work with the group. Reports suggest he has been primarily focused on the defensive line since handing over the playcalling duties, and I don’t think it is a coincidence that this unit has found some pep in their step. Even Vic Beasley looks like a real player out there, and I didn’t think I’d say that this season, or possibly ever again. Takk has been applying pressure; Adrian Clayborn took a few sips from the fountain of youth. The pass rush looked to be the Falcons #1 priority heading into next year’s draft (and it probably still is) but these past two weeks suggest maybe they aren’t as far off as we may have thought.
The results have been a defense that has looked more like the Patriots of late. They suffocated the explosive offense of the Saints in their own building, holding them to nine measly points on only three field goals. It was the first time New Orleans did not score a touchdown at home since 2005 – before Drew Brees had arrived. They mauled Kyle Allen in Carolina, recording more interceptions than they allowed points. One week may be an aberration, but doing this in back-to-back games on the road against two teams in playoff contention is no fluke. This pass rush and defense as a whole has figured itself out, and Atlanta is looking like a legitimate contender in the NFC again. It’s too bad they have probably dug themselves into too deep of a hole to recover from.