FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Falcons defense didn't play well enough last week against the Cincinnati Bengals. That was clear looking at numbers important to this defense.
Allowing 35 points is too many. Giving up eight explosive pass plays of 20-plus yards is too much. A 64-percent third-down conversion rate is too high. Failing to take the ball away, beyond a turnover on downs, isn't going to fly.
There were several contributing factors to an outlier performance, but we'll focus first on two. Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow was a combination of ice and fire – cool under pressure and red-hot delivering accurate, in-stride passes to top-tier skill players adept creating yards after the catch.
The Bengals also caught the Falcons on a bad day. Casey Hayward was placed on injured reserve early in the week. A.J. Terrell was ruled out shortly after a first-quarter hamstring injury. Dee Alford was already out with a hamstring issue of his own. And then Jaylinn Hawkins was taken out to be evaluated for a concussion.
It's tough to catch a team like the Bengals in such a state, but it's no excuse for a poor performance.
What was the primary cause? Facing the Bengals buzzsaw while beating beat-up or something else?
"It's both," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said in a Thursday press conference. "A.J. going down certainly didn't help things, but at the same time I have to do a better job of coaching and not putting guys in harm's way. We had a tough time matching up against them. ...but you have to learn to adapt."
It was a bit of a perfect storm, something hard to replicate considering the quality of talent between Ja'Marr Chase, Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins and an upper-tier quarterback in Burrow, and the injuries that set back the secondary.
The Falcons have been a good team preventing both yards after the catch and explosive plays. In fact, entering the Bengals game, they led the league in plays generating 1 yard or less after the catch.
We all the Falcons don't get a do over. Their response is all that matters now.
"We didn't play well in Cincinnati," cornerback Isaiah Oliver said. "Now, what are we gonna do about it?"
Oliver believes a good performance comes from locking back in on the basics, focusing on fundamentals and playing together over pressing to make plays.
As Grady Jarrett said, "don't let one performance beat you twice."
Pees has been around the block a bit, and even some of his best teams got flat beat. That doesn't mean those units were bad. They just had a bad day at the office.
"This isn't my first rodeo," Pees said. "This isn't my first time I've gotten my you-know-what handed to me."
Pees showed his defense some examples of bad performances by good teams he coached in the past. His Baltimore Ravens were 5-1 – they went on to win the Super Bowl – and then got beat 44-13 by Houston. In 2017, the Ravens allowed 10 total points in the first two games and then got beat 44-7 by Jacksonville.
"Every team gets beat; it's about how you bounce back," Pees said. "Now we're going to need to see maturity, by getting right back on the horse and going again."
Pees thought his unit's youth showed up in some situations, where players let things linger a little too long from play to play, after something bad happens. Fixing that issue, Pees, says, comes with experience. The Falcons must be more consistent letting bad plays go. Can they be even keeled between games, letting one game go and responding well to the new challenge of the next opponent?
That will be key Sunday against the Carolina Panthers.
"When you're up in life or down in life, you've got to keep going," defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. "You can't dwell on the past. You have to make a decision to go forward, and I feel like we've taken that step. … Everything we want is still ahead of us, so I wouldn't expect us to be down over what happened last week."
While the Panthers present a new challenge, the Falcons must focus inward.
"We have to worry about us and doing the things we do well, playing hard and playing physical," Pees said. "We need to execute. A lot of times it's more about us. You have to account for the other team and their good players, but what it all comes down to how we handle things and how we play. To me, it's all about us."
While the Bengals are firmly in the rearview, the injury situation hasn't cleared up. Some availabilities remain up in the air, but it's clear that the defensive backfield is in the midst of an injury run. They could face Carolina with safety Richie Grant and slot cornerback Isaiah Oliver as the only regulars on the field. Jaylinn Hawkins has been ruled out, Casey Hayward's on injured reserve and while A.J. Terrell's availability remains unknown, he didn't practice Wednesday or Thursday.
That means the Falcons will depend on reserves to play well moving forward, but this isn't asking someone to step up in an instant. Pees and the Falcons plan for these occurrences, which is why you saw Dean Marlowe get some extended playing time in Week 2. Dee Alford played a significant stretch in Week 4 and got a big pick to close the Browns out. Cornell Armstrong was thrust into action last week as a practice squad elevation, but all of those guys will be better for the experience.
The Falcons are constantly preparing reserves for big moments, with peer-to-peer coaching on the field and in the meeting rooms. These guys are getting schooled outside the spotlight, to prepare for moments when their number is inevitably called upon.
"[Against San Francisco], when had three guys go down one after the other," Marlowe said. "You never know when it's going to be your moment, so you always have to stay ready. I think we do a good job here of preparing each other for those moments. There's a lot of trust that, no matter who's in the lineup, those guys are going to play well."
Take a look as the team puts in the work in Flowery Branch to prepare for this week's game against the Carolina Panthers.
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