The Falcons set out in the offseason to improve the Falcons' pass defense. They brought in Asante Samuel to do just that and in the preseason the three-headed monster at cornerback of Samuel, Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes was expected to be fearsome. An injury took Grimes out of the equation after Week 1, but the Falcons continued to defend the pass well.
They started out the season with a flurry of takeaways, striking fear into opposing quarterbacks. In the first three weeks of the season, the Falcons had seven interceptions and the plan appeared to be working. Safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore were holding the deep field down and Samuel and Robinson were holding the sides at cornerback. Newcomer Robert McClain began to emerge as the season has progressed to be a pleasant surprise in coverage at the nickel corner position.
The aggressive approach on defense didn't just mean interceptions either. They were averaging just over one forced fumble per game in the first six weeks of the season.
Then something happened. The turnovers stopped.
In the five weeks since the bye week, the Falcons have forced two turnovers, one interception and one forced fumble.
The drop in turnovers forced came around the same time the league began to realize the Falcons, a strong defense against the run in previous seasons, weren't playing at previous levels. A weakness seemed to appear and as happens in the NFL, teams looked to exploit it.
"If I was the offense and there was a secondary that was getting a lot of turnovers, forced fumbles or interceptions, and the defense's Achilles' heel at the time is running the ball, of course you're going to stick to running the ball and only pass the ball when you definitely have to," DeCoud said. "It's just limiting the playmakers. If you're the offense and the DBs are playing well and the defense isn't playing the run well, you're going to stick to the run."
Last time out against the Saints, the defense forced an interception, but the Saints were able to run the ball well enough to stay balanced. New Orleans moved the ball to the tune of 148 rushing yards and 298 passing yards. They mixed things up and tight end Jimmy Graham had a big day, catching seven passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns.
"They found those holes and sat down in them and were able to make completions," DeCoud said. "I think if we can match guys tight and make sure we get pressure on the quarterback things can work out in our favor."
Most of the players on defense believe things are improving in their run defense and they're beginning to find some of the answers there that escaped them earlier in the season. As that part of their game comes around, they believe they can get back to their aggressive and stingy ways on defense. Holding last week's running back, Tampa's Doug Martin, to 50 yards on the ground was a good step and a positive sign.
Against New Orleans this week, they feel like they're in better position to be more balanced as a defense and find takeaways that may have escaped this in the previous contest. Against a high-powered Saints attack, takeaways will be game changers.
"I think the past couple of games we've picked (our run defense) up," DeCoud said. "I think now offenses have to pick their poison. We as DBs will have the opportunity to get more plays on the ball and get more action in the backend. Our front seven is playing some good football right now so now offenses will have to pick their poison."