This Falcons defense is getting better and more cohesive as the weeks progress, but they still have quite a ways to go. Some things can't be rushed, but rapid progress is preferred and would certainly help this team be more competitive late in tight games.
There were plenty of opportunities to close the Washington Football Team out defensively during Week 4. All of them were missed.
Taking advantage of them, and creating more chances to create havoc, will be key moving forward. That's true on a team-wide level, and on an individual basis.
That got us thinking: which player could help improve this defense in a hurry?
Seems like a good topic for this week's Great Debate.
Scott Bair and Tori McElhaney will pick a player, justify it and spend what's left of the word count talking serious trash.
So, let's get started. Tori, who you got? Which player can really help the Falcons crank things up defensively?
McElhaney: I've said this a few times but I'll say it again: I have been fairly pleased by what I have seen from Dante Fowler through four games this season. And even in saying that, I think there is room for continued production from the edge rusher. Fowler is a half step, a millisecond away from coming up with a big tackle or sack. I tend to believe that if someone is so close time and time again that it's not a matter of if they get home, it's when.
We all know what Fowler's 2020 season was, and we all know what the offseason pay cut meant. I think there could have been many opportunities for Fowler to lay low. But that's not what we're seeing him do. He's playing 72 percent of the defensive snaps this year compared to 56 percent of all defensive snaps last year.
Talking to Fowler before the season started, I remember him saying he feels as healthy as he's felt going into a season in a while. I think his injuries in 2020 flew under the radar and we were never really made aware of how much those injuries held him back. I'm not saying Fowler's two strip sacks this year are a byproduct of him being at 100 percent physically, but that's also not... not.. what I am saying. You know?
One more point I will make on Fowler (because, Scott, I know you're going to bring up your chosen player's PFF scores) is that Fowler is no longer in the red in any PFF categories, outside of his coverage grade which I can live with. Through the first four games of the season, Fowler has a defensive grade of 71.4. In 2020, that score was 49.9, the worst season grade of his career.
I say all of this to say this: Fowler has the potential to be a catalyst for this defense in 2021. I think we've already seen flashes of that. And when defenses have to account for Fowler, it opens the door for Grady Jarrett on the interior. So, if Fowler continues to progress, he's someone I can see being a reason the defense produces more as a unit.
So, I've made my argument, who do you have?
Bair: Interesting choice with Dante. He's a player which so much potential, with quickness and agility to create trouble in the backfield. If he starts getting sacks and helping create takeaways – this is going to be hard to say – you might be right.
Key word, though: might.
I know for certain that Deion Jones can lift this defense on his shoulders and carry it by expanding his role to be a more regular part of the pass rush. We know Jones can do it all from his interior linebacker position. He's a sideline-to-sideline player who can cover. As he proved last year, he can also get after the quarterback as a blitzer. He was impactful doing that in 2020, albeit in a different scheme, with 4.5 sacks, six quarterback hits and 19 total pressures, per Pro Football Focus. All that came on 61 blitzes, ranking fourth among inside linebackers in pressure productivity, which accounts for all pressures and is weighted towards sacks.
While he hasn't come forward at the same clip, his efficiency is basically the same. He's fourth (again) in pass-rush productivity this season, with an even higher score.
I say all that to say this: the Falcons need an impactful blitzer as a fifth (or sixth) players getting after the quarterback when Dean Pees dials up a pressure. While that could come from anywhere, slot cornerback Isaiah Oliver was often the guy coming forward. He's now out for the year and pressure might come from different locations. It's no lock that Avery Williams or Fabian Moreau or whomever plays inside can do with Oliver did.
We know that Jones can, and there's coverage ability at linebacker and safety to fill gaps created by him attacking the quarterback at key points. Jones is already impactful player. Letting him loose as a regular blitzer could crank up this defense and make it more dangerous, even if Fowler and Jarrett do their thing up front.
So, we've made our primary arguments and will let the fans decide who's right here .Hint: it's me.
Any honorable mentions, here, Tori? Anybody else you think could help the defense get better fast?
McElhaney: My honorable mention is Jaylinn Hawkins. We've seen his snap count essentially increase week in and week out, and I think he's turning into the player the Falcons saw him being when they drafted him last year.
I really believe we're going to see him play a much bigger role this Sunday than in any game previously. Erik Harris left Sunday's game with a calf injury. He didn't practice on Wednesday and that puts his status for Sunday's game in question. If he can't go, I am looking forward to seeing what Hawkins can do in his place.
Hawkins was known for being a ball hawk in college. He had 10 interceptions with Cal. The pressure is on this Falcons secondary to come up with picks after last week's performance. If Hawkins can get his hands on a ball, that could allow this defense to make a jump in productivity. We'll see, though.
Who's your honorable mention? You wanna stick with the secondary?
Bair: I sure do, though on the outside over the interior. We all know A.J. Terrell is a shutdown-type corner. That shouldn't change during a year where I think he's really going to establish himself. One issue with that: quarterbacks can avoid Terrell by simply throwing the other way.
That means Fabian Moreau needs to be strong on the other side, with the tight coverage and ball skills to handle the targets headed his direction. He was solid against Tampa Bay and the New York Giants. PFF numbers suggest he struggled some against Philadelphia and Washington, his former team. He allowed five catches for 80 yards and a touchdown on seven targets against the Football Team, while Terrell was targeted twice and allowed a two-yard catch.
That right there proves my point. If Moreau is going to be targeted a bunch, he must be buttoned up on his end. If he can be steady and difficult to complete passes against, this defense can be far tougher against the pass.
Falcons Final Whistle | A Postgame Podcast
Break down the hottest topics surrounding the Atlanta Falcons and how they can impact the team's success with Atlanta Falcons Insiders Scott Bair, Tori McElhaney and Kris Rhim. Like and subscribe to join us for the lively debate on Falcons Final Whistle.
Welcome to Falcons Final Whistle – an Atlanta Falcons football postgame podcast during the season that shifts gears in the offseason to answer a pressing question about the team's future each week through free agency, the NFL Draft and the offseason program.