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Analysis: Strong Falcons run defense faces new challenge in Titans running backs

The Falcons defense is No. 1 in the NFL in fewest rushing touchdowns allowed with just one through seven games.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Only one player has managed to beat the Atlanta Falcons defense on foot and make it safely into the end zone.

That's right. The Falcons have allowed only one rushing touchdown through seven games. That makes Atlanta's defense No. 1 in the NFL when it comes to fewest rushing touchdowns allowed.

Otherwise, the Falcons have given up 11 passing touchdowns. There has also been an interception return for a touchdown, but that's on the offense.

"I think the run defense is doing a great job," Falcons assistant head coach/defense Jerry Gray said. "Sometimes we play with a light box, and that means there's not enough guys in there so somebody else has to two-gap. They're doing a fantastic job, the D-linemen and the linebackers. They're actually doing that for us to stop the explosive passes. Then, when you get to the red zone, now we get other guys in there. So, I think (the success is) a combination of both the red zone and the D-line."

The Falcons defense has held opponents to a 7-of-18 (38.9%) red-zone conversion rate, which ranks fifth in the league.

Six of those conversions were passing touchdowns. Another was that sole rushing touchdown.

The singular victor, by the way, was Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff, with a 3-yard rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter of his team's victory over the Falcons in Week 3.

Overall, the Falcons have limited opponents to an average of 95.3 rushing yards per game, ranking the defense No. 8 in the statistical category. So far, their best and worst games, respectively, have been Week 5 when Atlanta held the Houston Texans to 64 rushing yards, and Week 1 when Atlanta gave up 154 rushing yards to the Carolina Panthers. The Falcons still won in both cases.


Atlanta's next challenge is the Tennessee Titans (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET at Nissan Stadium). Five of Tennessee's eight touchdowns this season have come on the ground. The Titans offense is averaging 110.3 rushing yards per game, checking in at No. 19 nationally.

"The first thing is that we've got to stop Derrick Henry," Gray said. "He's a really good running back. He can run the ball. And people don't understand that he's a big powerful man, but he gets strong as the game goes on. You'll see him stop at 2, 3, 4 (yards) and then, all of a sudden, it'll be 60 (yards). Like, man, how did that happen? Well, you got to keep tackling."

Henry is 6-foot-3 and 247 pounds. He's the Titans' leading rusher with 98 carries for 425 yards and three touchdowns in six games. That cranks out to an average of 70.8 yards per game and 4.3 yards per carry.

Tennessee also has rookie Tyjae Spears, who already has 31 carries for 171 yards and touchdown behind Henry. Spears is much smaller than Henry at 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds. He's also a lot younger as a 22-year-old in his first season, while Henry is 29 and in his eighth go-around.

"You can see that they use (Spears)," Gray said. "They put him in as a third-down back right now. Henry gets in sometimes, but Spears, he's a dangerous guy in the backfield. He does a really good job. They run the ball with him, they throw the ball to him, and stuff like that."

So, while the Falcons defense has been defending the run well, the Titans present new challenges. The combination of Henry and Spears could be a 1-2 punch. But even without Spears, Henry has proven to pack a punch on his own.

Almost literally. Henry's stiff arm is notorious. Gray has told his defenders the key is to go low and get underneath it.

"We've seen him throw a lot of guys out of the club," Gray said. "You don't want to be on tape doing that."

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