The performance from the defense against the Raiders was easily the group’s best this season. The Las Vegas offense was essentially neutralized the entire game. I wrote, “The Raider’s drives ended (chronological order) in a turnover on downs, fumble, punt, field goal, punt, fumble (halftime), punt, a pick-six, field goal, fumble, fumble, punt, and punt.”, in an article detailing just how the dominant the defense was.
Through the first five games under Dan Quinn, the Atlanta defense allowed 32.2 points per game. Over the last six games under Raheem Morris, the defense is allowing only 20 points per game. Since making the head coaching change, Atlanta is 4-2 and has been a top-five defense by EPA. With that sample size, it is clear there has been a substantial difference in preparation and execution since firing Quinn.
Several things could have sparked this improvement. Morris being promoted brings a new voice as head coach, and Jeff Ulbrich being promoted to full-time defensive coordinator resulted in more scheme changes, specifically blitzing more often. To put it simply, the Falcons have implemented more press coverage and more pressure in the last six games compared to a prevent style defense in the first five.
The personnel usage has also varied between the first five games and the last six. Jacob Tuioti-Mariner experienced his first true break-out game after being brought in as an undrafted free agent in 2018. He has played at least 30% of the snaps in recent weeks and played a career-high 50% of defensive snaps against the Raiders. John Cominsky played a smaller percentage of snaps but still produced a sack on just 18 plays, and Marlon Davidson has taken snaps away from Tyeler Davison. It is astonishing that Cominsky, Steven Means, Allen Bailey, and Tuioti-Mariner all effectively apply pressure and stop the run with only one truly dominant defensive lineman in Grady Jarrett.
The defensive backs have settled into their new roles as well. Isaiah Oliver and Kendall Sheffield are splitting time after Oliver’s poor performances in the first five games. He looks much better in a part-time role, and Sheffield has been able to hold his own despite still clearly developing. With Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen healthy, they have turned back the clock and solidified the backend.
Could the upward trending defense surpass the offense as the focal point of the team? This question would have warranted complete ridicule just a week ago after a disheartening performance against the Saints. But now, it seems to be the lifeline of this team. The offense is still far superior to the defense on paper at full health, but the play on the field would suggest otherwise. This could come down to coaching. Ulbrich and Morris have done a far better job at motivating and cultivating a once lifeless defense. Whereas, Dirk Koetter is still exactly the same play-designer who cannot conjure up an effective system that schemes receivers open (instead of relying on winning one-on-ones), regularly runs the ball successfully, or involves running backs in the passing game.
As the team currently stands, the defense is performing better than the offense. What does that mean? Even though the offense has more talent on paper than the defense, the defense’s game-planning and execution are far superior to the offense. It means the defense, like the offense, is capable of competing at the highest of levels with the right coach and system in place, as Morris has demonstrated.
Can the defense improve further? Absolutely, with an exceptional defensive mind like Robert Saleh or Vic Fangio (if he was fired), a scheme tailored to the current roster, and additional personnel for depth would catapult this unit to the next level.
If the offense and defense had coordinators with systems in place to maximize the current talent, then the offense would have a higher ceiling. But I must reiterate this, as the team stands with their current offensive and defensive systems, the defense is becoming the backbone. The overreaction is that the defense is far and away superior to the offense. With a competent mind at the helm, this offense could produce numbers resembling the 2016 Super Bowl run that earned Matt Ryan an MVP and broke multiple league records. But the defense is showing similar tendencies, that with an improved scheme, they can outperform their talent.
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