After Further Review: Falcons’ poor run defense overshadowed something important

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The Falcons allowed 172 yards on the ground in their season-opening loss to the Minnesota Vikings. That is far too high a number for a defense with playoff aspirations, and the Vikings’ ability to get explosive plays through their run game allowed them to dictate much of the action.

And yet, although the Falcons’ run defense was far below the team’s standard, the interior of the defensive line was quite possibly the top-performing group for Atlanta on Sunday. When people think about the success or failure of a defense against the run, they most often think about the big defenders up front.

That wasn’t the problem for the Falcons against the Vikings.

Atlanta did have issues stopping interior runs last season, and the team made some quiet moves this offseason that appear to be paying off in a big way. Just from looking at the stat sheet, however, you might not realize it.

Let’s start with Grady Jarrett, who looked like the best player on the field for the Falcons on Sunday. Jarrett has always been effective as both a pass rusher and a run defender, but he seemed to be operating at an even higher level than usual against the Vikings.

“We've known about Grady, but to see him take another step this off-season and where he's starting this season, I think that goes a lot to the work that he put in even when he wasn't here; the unseen grind,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said.

Jarrett finished with five tackles against the Vikings – tied with Deion Jones and Foye Oluokun for third-most on the team – and he also had the Falcons’ only sack and forced fumble.

Early in the second quarter, Jarrett derailed a Minnesota drive by blowing past left guard Pat Elflein in the blink of an eye to drop Vikings running back Alexander Mattison for a 4-yard loss.

On the Vikings’ next drive, Jarrett again beats Elflein with a swim move to stop Dalvin Cook for no gain. This was often the result when the Vikings decided to test the middle of Atlanta’s defensive line. Minnesota ran the ball up the middle 12 times on Sunday and it averaged only 2.6 yards per carry when it did so, compared to the 10.7 yards per carry the Vikings averaged on runs off the left and right ends.

That inability to find space was largely due to the interior players winning their one-on-one matchups as Jarrett did against Elflein.

Jarrett very nearly swings the entire feel of the game on the second play of the second half when he flies into the backfield to strip the ball from quarterback Kirk Cousins. Had the Falcons recovered the ball, the offense would have been set up right around the 20-yard line with a good opportunity to score their first points of the game.

The success of the defensive line’s interior may have been led by Jarrett, but the contributions of Allen Bailey and Tyeler Davison – two new faces within the unit – were crucial.

After allowing two early touchdowns, Atlanta’s defense settled in and began to play better, and both Bailey and Davison had roles in making that happen. Davison led all Falcons defenders with eight tackles, including one tackle for a loss. And Bailey earned three tackles, including one for a loss, in his debut for Atlanta.

During his time with the New Orleans Saints, Davison earned a reputation as a solid run defender, and he delivered on that reputation against Minnesota. The Falcons appeared to be operating out of more of a 3-4 look up front as both Vic Beasley and Takk McKinley were standing edge defenders throughout the game. This meant that Davison was often used as a true nose tackle while Jarrett and Bailey worked against Minnesota’s guards.

As the anchor of the defensive line, Davison was very active and showed off some surprising quickness.

“Inside I was pleased,” Quinn said. “I think you guys saw what I had been talking about, about how strong and stout Ty [Davison] was.”

Bailey didn’t have as many plays as Davison, but he was no less important for Atlanta on the inside. The Vikings ran a lot of outside zone plays, requiring the Falcons to either make plays in the backfield before Minnesota’s backs could stretch the defense or pursue down the line of scrimmage to make the tackle.

While Jarrett and Davison showed their prowess in knifing into the backfield, Bailey was really good at following the play and making the tackle before the backs to get to the second level.

Was Atlanta’s run defense acceptable on Sunday? Not at all. But the overall performance of the group shouldn’t necessarily overshadow what was the clear improvement of a problem area for the Falcons last season.

When discussing what the Falcons need to clean up against the run, start with setting the edge and plays like this:

The Falcons have enough athletes on their defense to contain the outside plays that decimated them in Week 1. What should have fans excited moving forward is that Atlanta appears to have improved its run defense between the tackles, which was an issue in 2018 and will be very important on Sunday against a Philadelphia Eagles offense that is very good at the line of scrimmage.

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