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Analysis: How the defense has performed without lineman Grady Jarrett — and who has stepped up

For the last five games, the Falcons have been without defensive lineman Grady Jarrett really since they drafted him in 2015.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The Atlanta Falcons figured out how to fill the Grady Jarrett-sized hole in their defense.

Jarrett exited the Week 8 loss to the Tennessee Titans after taking just four defensive snaps due to a knee injury. The following Monday, Falcons head coach Arthur Smith announced the starting defensive lineman tore his ACL, prematurely ending his season.

"When those guys lose a guy like Grady, he's hard to replace," Falcons assistant head coach/defense Jerry Gray said. "We're trying to figure out hey, who's going to be the next guy, who's going to be the next guy. Then, all of a sudden, you need two guys to assume his role."

That's putting it simply. This hasn't been a simple swap, more so a group effort.

Because, really, this is about the first time the Falcons have been without Jarrett since was drafted in 2015. He had previously only ever been inactive for three games – one in 2015, two in 2018. Jarrett will miss triple that tally – nine games – by the time the Falcons' 2023 regular season concludes. He has already sat four, with five more on tap.

The numbers already show how much the loss has impacted the defense.

Here is a look at how Atlanta performed prior to Jarrett's injury:

Table inside Article
Game Rush Allowed Pass Allowed Sacks QB Hits
Week 1: ATL 24, CAR 10 154 127 2 8
Week 2: ATL 25, GRB 24 84 140 1 3
Week 3: DET 20, ATL 6 115 243 0 9
Week 4: JAX 23, ATL 7 105 195 2 7
Week 5: ATL 21, HOU 19 64 249 0 2
Week 6: WAS 24, ATL 16 72 121 5 10
Week 7: ATL 16, TAM 13 73 256 3 6
Averages 95.3 190.1 1.9 6.4

Jarrett finished with 23 tackles, eight quarterback hits and 1½ sacks in his eight starts.

Here is a look at how Atlanta has performed since Jarrett's injury:

NOTE: The Titans game is included in this chart because of how minimal Jarrett played.

Table inside Article
Game Rush Allowed Pass Allowed Sacks QB Hits
Week 8: TEN 28, ATL 23 149 226 2 11
Week 9: MIN 31, ATL 28 146 217 4 4
Week 10: ARI 25, ATL 23 122 230 2 2
Week 12: ATL 24, NOR 15 148 296 1 3
Week 13: ATL 13, NYJ 8 62 197 4 6
Averages 125.4 233.2 2.6 5.2

The averages prove that the Falcons are overall better when Jarrett is on the field. They went from allowing an average of 95.3 yards rushing and 190.1 yards passing per game in the first seven weeks. Those counts changed to 125.4 and 233.2, respectively, in the most recent five games.

On the bright side, the Falcons have been taking down opposing quarterbacks more frequently in recent weeks. Their average jumped from 1.9 to 2.6 sacks per game in the pre- and post-Jarrett periods.

"You see them getting in sync better and better," Smith said. "When those guys are rolling, at the end of the day, you can have the best scheme, but it's going to come down to some of the fundamentals."

While the statistics may vary in their messages, the defense really is starting to find its groove again. The Falcons haven't allowed a single touchdown in the last nine quarters, which stands as the longest active streak in the NFL. As a result, they're riding a two-game winning streak for the first time since the very start of the season, with a rematch on tap Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS) against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a team the Falcons beat earlier this year.

The best part, there are different players who are making their presence known more than ever amid Jarrett's absence.

"Once the guys got comfortable — hey, I'm a starter in the NFL — then all of a sudden you see the run game picks back up," Gray said. "Because it's always like that. The young guys have to be prepared to step up, and then sometimes they're not prepared and they kind of hurt you on Sunday. But once they get really prepared about what they should be doing, they see themselves as a starter."

And that's when the defense works well as a whole, with highlights all over.

Defensive lineman David Onyemata, who's new to the Falcons but not the NFL, had his first-ever double-digit tackles game in eight years of work during the Week 9 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. He recorded 10 tackles, in addition to a sack and forced fumble.

Outside linebacker Bud Dupree and Arnold Ebiketie have also really stepped up. Dupree, who's also new to the Falcons but not the NFL, had his first two-sack game in the Week 13 win over the New York Jets since 2020. Ebiketie, who's in his second season overall with the Falcons, has had one sack in four of the last five games and already has a team- and career-high 5.5 sacks as a result.

Some other names Smith specifically has praised include outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter and defensive linemen Calais Campbell, Albert Huggins, Kentavius Street, LaCale London, Ta'Quon Graham and Zach Harrison.

So, while Jarrett remains the heart of this Falcons defense, there are many other parts operating well enough to keep this beast running near full speed as he recovers.

"We have a big, physical defensive line," Smith said, "and they're playing well together."

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