The Falcons defense was hampered by injuries heading into Sunday's game against the Jets. One of the biggest hits to the team came on Tuesday when Isaiah Oliver was placed on Injured Reserve after suffering a knee injury to Washington.
Oliver seemed to be turning a corner and adjusting to defensive coordinator Dean Pees' scheme in his nickel cornerback role. As if that was not enough, then Erik Harris and Avery Williams were ruled out of Sunday's game.
Compare that to the Jets, who were coming off their first win against the Tennessee Titans, a playoff team last season. The Jets offense scored 20 points in the second half of that game, and rookie quarterback Zach Wilson looked like he was adjusting much better than he had been to the NFL.
Not to mention, the Falcons were coming off allowing 34 points in a loss to Washington and ranked last in the league in points allowed per game at 32.
It is safe to say, there was room for concern.
Still, the Falcons' secondary made plays, and the defensive line's consistent pressure led the Falcons to their second win of the season.
"I thought our defense played pretty well," coach Arthur Smith said postgame. "They knocked 'em back in the run game and made the plays they needed to."
In the Falcons' loss to Washington, the defensive line consistently put pressure on quarterback Taylor Heinicke, which caused erratic throws. In the fourth quarter, with 3:55 remaining, Dante Fowler hit Heinicke legs as he launched a ball in the endzone that stayed in the air for what seemed like forever. Instead of attacking the ball, Falcons defenders watched as Terry Mclaurin snagged the ball for a touchdown.
In a press conference during the week following the loss, defensive coordinator Dean Pees emphasized the importance of players in the secondary attacking the ball, comparing it to a basketball player attacking a rebound.
"You gotta go get it, so even if you miss it, it's like a rebound knocking it down," Pees said, motioning his hands like a rebounder. "We sometimes kinda baby it in… There's been some great defensive backs I've had; those guys really go attack the ball, and that's the thing we gotta do and we gotta do a better job of drilling it into them. They gotta go attack the ball, don't let it come to you, you gotta go to it… Sometimes we don't do that, and we don't make the pick."
Jaylinn Hawkins must have heard Pees' message loud and clear.
With 10:54 remaining in the second quarter and the Falcons dominating the Jets, leading 17-0, Hawkins broke quickly when Zach Wilson threw a pass to a throw to Keelan Cole. He launched all of his 6-foot-1 208-pound frame to snag his first career interception in his first start. Attacking the ball was probably an understatement there, as Hawkins executed what Pees had been preaching the week heading into the game.
For Hawkins, the team's standout defensive performance was brewing all week starting from practice.
"This week in practice, everybody went out there executed practice hard," Hawkins said. "Details was a big thing, coach put heavy emphasis on details this week. Having older guys, even though Erik is out, Erik is still a great leader helping us out and having Duron out there helping us out. He's a great leader as well, and we all just held each other accountable."
The Falcons front seven had a day, too. Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner both sacked Wilson and pressure from the rest of the group caused the rookie to make rushed passes. Their performance held the Jets to just 230 yards of total offense, the least the Falcons have allowed this season, and the first time they have held an opponent under 300 yards this year.
As the Falcons head into a much-needed bye week to get back to full health, their defensive performance against the Jets with multiple starters out is a sign of how good this defense can be when executing at a high level.