The Falcons' 26-9 victory against the New Orleans Saints, in which Atlanta recorded a season-high six sacks, was a perfect display of how pass rush and pass coverage work hand in hand to great effect.
In the eight games leading up to their victory, the Falcons had struggled to pressure opposing quarterbacks. That inconsistency was both due to a lack of production in the front four as well as breakdowns in coverage on the back end.
Neither of those issues presented themselves on Sunday, and it resulted in the most complete defensive performance the Falcons have had all season.
Crucially, over half of Atlanta's sacks came on third or fourth down, helping the Falcons force the Saints' potent offense off the field.
Atlanta's first sack came on the Saints' first offensive drive of the game, when New Orleans had driven down to the Falcons' 2-yard line. On the play, Saints running back Alvin Kamara ran a fake orbit motion, which has become a popular play design among NFL offenses in recent seasons.
Falcons linebacker Deion Jones read the reverse fairly well and had a good angle on Kamara, but it ultimately didn't matter. Kamara slipped on the play, leaving Drew Brees to reset and look for another option. By then it's too late, however, as De'Vondre Campbell beat the Saints' fullback on a blitz and dropped Brees for a 9-yard loss.
Although this play largely was the result of Kamara losing his footing, the Falcons' coverage is really solid, and Brees likely wouldn't have had anywhere to go with the ball anyway. Even if he did complete the pass to Kamara, Jones would have likely at least had the opportunity to make the tackle.
The Falcons were particularly effective in employing man coverage against the Saints, and that played a role in Atlanta's second sack.
New Orleans ran a crossing pattern, which is often a way to beat man coverage as it forces defenders to navigate through traffic, and the Falcons covered it fairly well. On this third-and-4 play, it's likely that Michael Thomas, who was lined up alone to the right and ran a shallow cross to the left, was the primary read. For a moment, he looked to be open but Blidi Wreh-Wilson did an excellent job of closing quickly and forcing Brees to look for a deeper target.
Atlanta's third sack of the game again occurred inside of the red zone. As was the case with the second sack, the Falcons play great complementary defense to take away Brees's options.
It appears the Falcons are playing zone coverage down close to the end zone, and they completely blanketed the Saints' three primary receiving options on the play. No underneath outlet appeared for
Brees before Jarrett beat left guard Will Clapp and forced the Saints' quarterback to step up into the pocket where Vic Beasley was ready to clean up the sack.
Once Brees completed his drop back on the play-action pass no receiver was anywhere close to being open, giving the pass rush a few more seconds to beat their blockers. This play looks vastly different from the blown assignments that plagued the Falcons in their loss to the Seahawks.
The Falcons did an excellent job in forcing the Saints offense into third-and-long situations. New Orleans had to gain at least 5 yards on eight of its 13 third downs against Atlanta, tipping the advantage in the Falcons' favor and giving them a better chance of getting of the field. The Falcons capitalized on those opportunities, allowing the Saints to convert just three third downs.
Atlanta's fourth sack came on a third-and-14 and ended New Orleans' opening possession of the second half. The Falcons haven't always had success when rushing only three players, but they did on this play and it was absolutely the right situation to drop eight into coverage.
With eight man playing in concert together in zone coverage, no Saints receiver was able to find enough space downfield to get open. Having everything locked down on the back end, Jarrett was able to go to work and fight his way through three Saints linemen to get to Brees.
Jarrett continued to work his way through the right side of the Saints' line as Clapp and center Erik McCoy initially double-teamed him before passing him off to right guard Larry Warford. Jarrett eventually beat Warford, a two-time Pro Bowler, with a rip move and spun Brees to the ground.
Make no mistake, though, this was a coverage sack through and through.
Jarrett needed far less time to secure his next sack, the Falcons' fifth of the afternoon. On first down midway through the fourth quarter, the Saints leave Jarrett one on one against Clapp as McCoy helps Warford with a double team against Jack Crawford. This proves to be the wrong decision, as it often is when Jarrett is involved.
After taking a beat to let Clapp make the first move, Jarrett promptly swipes his hands away as easy as if the Saints' lineman were a practice dummy and is in the backfield before Brees can even survey the field.
This was not a coverage sack. This was all Jarrett.
Takk McKinley and Beasley are often the target of Falcons fans' ire when it comes to the lack of sack production the team has had this season, but they worked together perfectly to record Atlanta's sixth and final sack of the game on Sunday.
On fourth down with the ball near midfield, McKinley and Beasley lined up together on the right side of the Saints' offensive line. At the snap, McKinley did what he does best and exploded off the line like he had just been given Mel Gibson's speech from the movie "Braveheart." It takes everything for McCoy and Warford to simply slow him down, and that left the perfect opportunity for Beasley to run a stunt behind him and sack Brees, who never saw him coming. It's the effort of McKinley that makes this play work, and the Falcons play sound man defense behind the pass rush to prevent Brees from quickly dumping the ball off to a shallow crosser.
The Falcons had been seeking a defensive performance like they one they put together against the Saints all season. Now, if they are to continue winning games, they will need to have the same kind of effort that they displayed against the Saints.
We've seen the blueprint for what successful defense can look like, and it is a sight to behold when everything is working together.