The Atlanta Falcons defense has put together one of the most-dominant two-game stretches of any unit this season, and it's a turnaround that likely nobody saw coming.
Prior to the Falcons' bye in Week 9, Atlanta's defense was one of the worst statistical units in the league and displayed a lack of communication and organization on the field. In their first eight weeks of the season, the Falcons allowed 31.25 points per game and 379.5 yards per game. Opponents converted 53 percent of their third-down opportunities and dominated time of possession, keeping the ball for 31:34 per game.
Against the New Orleans Saints and the Carolina Panthers, those numbers flipped dramatically. It's as though the Falcons underwent a sports movie montage during their bye week.
In their last two games, the Falcons have given up an average of six points and 328.5 yards. That's an improvement of nearly 25 points per game and 51 yards per game. Atlanta held the Saints and Panthers to a combined 19.2-percent conversion rate on third downs, getting its opponents off the field and giving their offense an average of four more minutes with the ball.
The turnaround seemingly began in the second half of the Falcons 27-20 loss against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 8. Trailing 24-0 at halftime, the Falcons outscored the Seahawks 20-3 in the second half, looking much more consistent on both sides of the ball. For those keeping track, that's 10 quarters in which the Falcons have held their opponents out of the end zone.
But as stunning as this turnaround has been, it's been a bit trickier to pinpoint any concrete reasons for the about-face. Perhaps the best place to start is that Atlanta seems to have moved players back into roles they are better suited to.
Damontae Kazee a center fielder once again
It's understandable why the Falcons wanted to begin the year with Damontae Kazee at nickel corner. After a breakout season at free safety, in which he tied for the NFL lead with seven interception, Kazee had demonstrated the instincts and the athleticism needed to succeed at this level.
The Falcons surely wanted to keep a player of Kazee's talent on the field, but with veteran leader Ricardo Allen returning at free safety and Pro Bowler Keanu Neal coming back at strong safety, the nickel spot was the role Atlanta had available. Kazee did not play poorly down close to the line of scrimmage, and he had plenty of positive moments, but he looks like the fearless playmaker we saw last season since moving back to the free safety role.
"Kazee being back in the middle of the field, he's a natural ball dude," Allen said. "He just knows how to get the ball. He likes to play fast, he likes to play loose. He's a guy that you don't want to put very many roles [on]. You don't want him thinking too much, because he's such a good ball dude that you don't want him overclouded, you don't want him tied into too many roles."
Translation: Kazee is a natural read-and-react defender who often puts himself in position to make plays. As a nickel corner, Kazee has more specific assignments and jobs to do. Atlanta first switched Kazee back to free safety for the Seattle game, and although the Falcons struggled defensively in the first half, things really began to gel after halftime.
While Kazee has the natural quickness and short-range burst to play against slot receivers, his football instincts are minimized to an extent as he gets closer to the line. The third-year safety is an excellent center fielder, capable of breaking on a pass quickly and providing support for Atlanta's cornerbacks.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn has often named Kazee among the Falcons' best tacklers, but it's his vision and speed that are two of his best traits against the run. When playing closer to the box, speed and vision can't often counteract the pure size and strength of an offensive lineman.
At 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, Kazee is simply at a disadvantage at the point of attack or while trying to set the edge. That's no fault of his own, but it overshadows some of his strengths. When he's able to diagnose the play in front of him, Kazee is incredibly quick to react and comes downhill eagerly.
It's also notable that after going without an interception for the first seven games, Kazee snagged his first one within three games of moving back to free safety. Kazee looks entirely more dangerous on the back end of the Falcons' defense, and it's a change that has been felt.
Ricardo Allen's versatility is remarkable
By moving Kazee back to free safety, the Falcons had to find somewhere to play Allen. The five-year veteran is among the most valuable players to Atlanta's defense because of his ability to diagnose plays before the snap and organize the unit. His absence on the field was notable last season, and the Falcons didn't want to take him off the field again.
Because Allen, who has coaching aspirations, understands every aspect of the Falcons' defense and how the pieces fit together, he was able to slide to strong safety. At 5-foot-9 and 186 pounds, Allen is even smaller than Kazee, but he believes his sense of where a play is headed helps him mitigate that disadvantage.
"Yeah I give up a little bit more power than a traditional strong safety," Allen said. "But, because my play recognition is high enough, I can beat people to the spot. If I've got to fight offensive linemen and I understand the run that might come out of the formation, I just beat them to the punch."
The strong safety in Atlanta's defense is often used as another box defender, akin to an extra linebacker. By placing Allen in this role, he's closer to the heart of the Falcons' defense and thus able to communicate more clearly and effectively.
This is likely among the reasons the defense has looked more in sync with one another and cleaned up the broken coverages that were common during the early portion of the season.
"He has always been a good communicator," Quinn said. "He studies so hard that he is able to relay information and guys trust it. To see him make plays on the ball, that is a big deal. To trust yourself and say, 'Hey, I am going to take my shot right now to go make a play.' He has got all of the traits to do it and to see him play closer to the line where he had more opportunities to do that."
Atlanta has largely been in the lead in games since moving Allen to strong safety, so it remains to be seen how he will fare when an opponent is running the ball more frequently. But an added benefit of having two free safeties – in spirit, if not in name – on the field is the extra range of coverage. What strong safeties provide against the run, they often give up a little in coverage - at least in certain matchups.
Allen's range in coverage is still really good, and he's quicker to react than opposing quarterbacks might expect. As Allen explained, this makes it more difficult for an opponent pre-snap, because the Falcons have multiple players who could fill any role after the ball is snapped. This was on display frequently against the Panthers.
Kendall Sheffield solid in the slot
A quick note on rookie Kendall Sheffield, who also helped make Kazee's transition back to free safety possible. Sheffield, a 5-foot-10, 212-pound speedster, has better size to operate in the slot, and he has more than enough speed to close on receivers in short range. For more on what Sheffield brings to the Falcons, check out this piece.
Fast forward to the 1:34 mark in the tweet below to see some clips of Sheffield against the Saints. He has very good play recognition and an understanding of the situation. His tackle against Saints utility man Taysom Hill early in the game near the goal line was an impressive example of his ability to fight through blocks and make a play.
Pass rush combinations that work
The improvement in the secondary has undoubtedly helped the Falcons' pass rush, and vice versa. By more effectively jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage and working conjointly more often in zone coverage, the Falcons' coverage defenders are giving the pass rush just a bit more time.
"We are just doing it at all levels," Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant said. "The defensive line is rushing. The linebackers are hitting and covering. The backend, we're covering and tackling in space. We are just doing what we practice. What the game plan is, we just execute. Playing with energy and having fun. You can see it out there. It's starting to come together for us."
Lately, however, Atlanta's pass rush hasn't necessarily needed that extra time. With 11 sacks in their last two games, the Falcons have taken the quarterback down four more times than they did in the entire eight games prior to the bye week.
A team's pass rush can be a bit more susceptible to the natural ebbs and flows of an NFL season, because, even when factoring twists and stunts, it's often a one-on-one matchup without much help. The Falcons, in their last two games, seem to have found a couple of winning combination along their defensive line.
The Falcons recorded seven sacks in the first eight weeks of the season, and they used five different combinations of players on the front line to record a sack during that time. That doesn't point a single unit of pass rushers consistently getting the quarterback on the ground. Since the bye week, they've found a couple of combinations that have worked tremendously.
Atlanta has still deployed five different combinations of pass rushers on their path to recording 11 sacks during the last two games, but eight of those sacks have come courtesy of two different sets of personnel. The Falcons have five sacks since the bye week when the combination of Adrian Clayborn, Grady Jarrett, Takk McKinley and Vic Beasley are on the field together. They also have three sacks when Jack Crawford is in there alongside Clayborn, Jarrett and Beasley.
Like a basketball team needs to know which five players to have on the court in the closing minutes of a game, an NFL team needs to know which collection of players to have on the field on passing downs. Those guys are beginning to emerge for Atlanta.
Whatever Raheem Morris has done is working
There was one other notable adjustment that occurred before the start of the second half of the season: Raheem Morris moved from coaching the wide receivers to coaching the secondary. Now, he's been very elusive when asked to discuss what he's changed since taking over that unit, saying that he isn't able to compare anything before the switch was made because he doesn't know what they were doing.
Well, maybe it doesn't matter what was being done before Morris arrived, because whatever he's doing now is working out very well.
Morris is a confident and energetic coach who relates well to his players in addition to demanding a lot from them. He is not afraid to hold those under his watch accountable, and he seeks to leave no stone unturned in his preparation for an opponent, asking his players to do the same. That preparation leading up to the game, allows Atlanta's defensive backs to focus solely on playing on Sundays.
"You always tell your guys, 'My job is done from Monday till Sunday,'" Morris said. "'And then, on Sunday, when we go and we break that individual part, I enjoy watching you guys play the game. And then I can, in watching you guys enjoy it, I can help out where I can help out.'"
Notably, Morris has begun to call the defensive plays on third down and inside of the red zone. As we just discussed, the Falcons' pass rush has found remarkable consistency in the past two weeks. Eight of the team's 11 sacks since they bye have come on third and fourth down, meaning Morris has been the maestro leading the way.
The Falcons have moved some players and coaches around in recent weeks. That shuffle, which includes putting players in roles that appear more comfortable to them and giving Morris an opportunity to work in an area of major expertise, has resulted in the Falcons playing one of the best two-game stretches of defense in franchise history.