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Analysis: How late-game struggles have kept the Falcons defense from 'being special' 

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The Falcons have been involved in several close contests this season but have come up on the losing side more regularly in recent weeks.

It's what the Falcons feel is keeping their top-15 defense from reaching an elite tier.

"We've just got to be a little more disciplined in crucial situations," defensive lineman Calais Campbell said. "This defense, man, we're so close to being so good. This defense is so close to being special."

In the Falcons last three losses, the defense gave up a go-ahead, game-winning drive. Those losses include Week 9 to the Minnesota Vikings (31-28), Week 10 to the Arizona Cardinals (25-23) and Week 14 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (29-25).

Defense helped keep the Falcons competitive for three quarters in those instances, but struggled to finish in the fourth. In all three games, the offense gained the lead with just a few minutes left to play but the defense couldn't hang on. The Vikings and Bucs scored touchdowns in the final minute, and the Cardinals kicked a field goal as time expired.

Here's some of what's happening statistically in those fourth quarters:

Table inside Article
Game Q4 Rush Yards % in Q4 Q4 Pass Yards % in Q4 Q4 Net Yards % in Q4
Week 9, Vikings 47 32.2 62 28.6 109 30
Week 10, Cardinals 40 32.8 30 13 70 19.9
Week 14, Bucs 72 48.6 56 39.4 128 44.1
TOTAL/AVG 159 38.2 148 27 307 30.5

A key figure to keep in mind is one-third.

According to the numbers, over 30% of the rushing yards allowed in the entire game in each of those contests came in the fourth quarter. The passing yards percentages, aside from the loss in Arizona, which featured quick-footed Kyler Murray at quarterback in his first start of the season, shows a similar trend.

Atlanta currently ranks ninth in fourth-quarter yardage allowed in the NFL. Almost one-third of the Falcons total yards allowed in the fourth quarter came in those three games alone, through Week 14.

The worst output came against the Buccaneers, as Atlanta gave up almost half of the Bucs rushing total (48.6%) and net yards (44.1%) in the fourth quarter. The Falcons allowed 128 total yards in the final 15 minutes, the most they've allowed this season.

Meanwhile, the Falcons offense has been hot all season in the fourth quarter, where they've scored 50% of their total touchdowns. Atlanta had a higher time of possession in the fourth against the Cardinals and Vikings and held the ball for at least six minutes in all three — meaning they didn't continually punt the ball away allowing their opponents to stack up yardage.

There are necessary caveats to address, though. The Falcons had several players out with injury in all phases of the defense from the front line to the secondary against Tampa Bay. Atlanta has allowed over 100 net fourth-quarter yards in only three games, including performances against the Vikings and Bucs. The New Orleans Saints win in Week 12 was the third. The Falcons defense allowed the Saints to get in the red zone five times overall, including one in the fourth quarter, but New Orleans was stopped short of a touchdown each time.

So, it's not an unfixable situation for the Falcons defense but it points to a downward trend nonetheless.

Another Falcons defensive leader, safety Jessie Bates III, echoed Campbell's sentiments on the defense needing to improve in crunch time.

Bates acknowledged that it's a lot of pressure to play in those situations, but the entire defense needs to have a mentality of "I want to make this final play," to gain back the confidence in those crucial moments.

"I always say this: You don't need to play perfect," Bates said, "but in critical situations, you got to be damn near perfect."

Take a look as the Atlanta Falcons put in the work in Flowery Branch for the game against the Carolina Panthers.

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