FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees was asked about how his defensive rookies fared in their first professional seasons during this Thursday press conference. He was candid and honest in his assessment, which started as evaluation of specific players and morphed into a commentary on the defense as a whole.
"I think all of [the rookies] have done well," Pees said. "Is there anyone who has played great? I haven't coached great, either. None of us have done great or we wouldn't have six wins. But I think they have all done well as rookies. They have all developed. They have all gotten better. That's what you're asking for. Are they better now than at the beginning of the season? I think you can see that.
"I think that's indicative of the defense. I think you would say the defense is playing better than it did at the beginning of the season. We're playing the same guys. I think they've al improved, both the rookies and the defense in general."
That's hard to argue, especially using the only stat Pees cares about: points.
The Falcons have allowed 21 points or fewer in five consecutive games. That's putting your team in position to win, plain and simple.
They're No. 28 in total defense and No. 23 in scoring. That's still not good. They don't make enough game-altering plays in the pass rush or picking passes off down the field. But they are really good on critical downs.
And, as Pees put it, heading down a positive path improving the defensive culture in Atlanta.
They are better defensively than they were last year. They're better now than at the start of the season, heading into an offseason where they'll have more resources to add true impact players in the draft and free agency.
"If we were playing the same as we were at the beginning of the year or last year, then I would say it hasn't gone like expected," Pees said. "In my eyes, we're playing a lot better than we played in the first half of the year – a lot better. We're trending in the right direction. Isn't that what you want?
"If it's not trending at all, that's not what you want. If it's trending in the wrong direction, that's bad. I think it's trending in the right direction and, when that's the case, you have the culture. I love the way the guys play and the way our guys prepare. That's part of the culture. We have guys who take it seriously. It means a lot to them. They practice hard and play hard. Do our guys have the most ability? Maybe not, but are you playing hard? You have to be smart, tough and know what to do. They are doing that."
Pees likes guys who always give great effort. He's accurate to say they're not the most talented defense, with just Grady Jarrett and A.J. Terrell as established, upper-tier players. They're not quite deep enough and not talented enough to win matchups required to dominate games. That's where the additional offseason assets come in. And, if you can insert more talent into a defensive culture centered on smarts, toughness and effort, then you're on to something.
"When you get that plus you've got a guy with great ability, you've got a Pro Bowler or Hall of Famer," Pees said. "I have no complaints about these guys. We're heading in the right direction."
Grady Jarrett said the proper tone was set early in the offseason, even before Pees held a training camp press conference where he said mediocrity will no longer be acceptable around here. That may have been a public sentiment he had privately expressed for some time. Are they a dominant defense? No. But the mindset is right.
"That's a standard he set early in the offseason," Jarrett said on Thursday. "He talked about how Atlanta has been known as an offensive team for a long time, and he has a passion towards changing that. When people think about Atlanta, he wants them to think about a strong, physical defense. We're definitely trending towards that."
Seeing point totals stay low has been key to that optimism. So has recent red zone play – they're ranked 13th over all preventing touchdowns inside the 20, third over the last three games -- and finding ways to get the important stops to keep games close.
It's not lost on Jarrett that the Falcons haven't won enough of games lately, coming up short on too many comeback attempts. The defensive improvement can't be ignored.
"That's not saying anything bad about the offense. That's trying to improve on defense and focusing on what we can control, and that's getting better week in and week out," Jarrett said. "That's what we have done, especially during this latter part of the season. No matter who the opponent was, we showed up and worked to put our best foot forward."
"There are definitely things we can be better at, but you'd be blind to say that you don't see improvements and that you don't see the way we're playing. On top of the play calls and the execution, it's about the style. Even if we don't get the job done, we're trying our best. That's the encouraging thing about the standard set by the coaching staff and the leadership group."
The guys put in the work in Flowery Branch to prepare for this week's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, presented by Gatorade.