It wasn't pretty at times, but the Atlanta Falcons' defense came through when it mattered most during Sunday's 28-22 overtime victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
On the first play of overtime Deion Jones stepped in front of Jameis Winston's pass to Cameron Brate and took off for the game-winning, 27-yard pick-six that secured the fourth-straight win for Atlanta (7-9), which has now won six of its last eight games following the bye week. The biggest change in the second half of the season has been the Falcons' defense, which continued to look like an improved unit against the Buccaneers (7-9) on Sunday.
"Deion, we've put him in as many difficult matchups from a coverage standpoint as we could all year," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "… It's why the team wanted to make sure he was going to be with us for a long time, because you've got such a unique skillset. I think that proved itself today."
Atlanta allowed an average of 31.3 points per game – second-most in the league – prior to the bye week, but that average dropped to just 18.6 points during the second half of the season.
The final score is a bit misleading as an indicator of Atlanta's defensive performance on Sunday. On one hand, the unit shouldn't be docked for Devin White's 91-yard touchdown on a fumble recovery in the second quarter.
On the other hand, the Falcons were bailed out by three missed field goals. Tampa Bay kicker Matt Gay missed all three of his field goal attempts – from 49, 34 and 44 yards away.
The Falcons also gave up a number of explosive plays to the league's most explosive passing offense. Without top receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, Winston looked Breshad Perriman's way early and often. Perriman proved difficult to contain, catching five passes for 134 yards and one of Winston's two touchdown passes.
Notably, each of Perriman's catches went for 18 yards or more. He had receptions of 18, 24, 24, 31 and 37 yards against the Falcons, including an incredible touchdown late in the first half.
Perriman was held without a catch in the second half, but it's difficult to attribute that to adjustments made by the defense when Winston attempted just six passes after halftime. Instead, the Buccaneers turned to their run game and had some early success.
Ronald Jones carried the ball six times for 94 yards, an average of 15.7 yards per carry, in the third quarter, and it appeared the Buccaneers would salt the game away on the ground. Matt Gay's two missed field goals in the third quarter gave the Falcons time to adjust, however, and they did so in the fourth quarter.
Atlanta's defense kept its offense within striking distance during the final quarter of the game, giving up just one first down and 16 yards.
After a pair of blowout wins against the Saints and the Panthers after the bye week, the Falcons' games have been much more competitive down the stretch. More often than not in those games it was the defense that kept the games close and within reach for Atlanta, and Sunday was no different.
Perhaps the most telling stat for the Falcons' improved defensive play over the final eight games is their third-down conversion rate. Since the bye week, Atlanta has allowed a first down on third down just 25.8 percent of the time. To provide some context for that number, New England has by far the best third-down defense this season, allowing a first down 22.95 percent of the time; San Francisco is ranked second in the league with a 31.46-percent conversion rate.
It's a drastic turnaround on the most crucial down for Atlanta's defense. Prior to the bye week, the Falcons allowed opponents to convert on 53 percent of their third-down plays, the highest rate in the NFL.
Part of that turnaround should be attributed to secondary coach Raheem Morris, who was named the Falcons' defensive coordinator for next season on Friday. Prior to earning the coordinator job, Morris was given control of the defensive play-calling duties on third down and inside of the red zone coming out of the bye week. Opponents have scored a touchdown on 42.8 percent of their trips to the red zone after the bye compared to 68.7 percent during the first eight games.
Quinn has always wanted his defense to be one that creates turnovers, and over the second half of the season it's become one. After forcing just four turnovers in the first half, Atlanta has generated 16 takeaways.
"To win the turnover margin 3-1, that was going to be a big deal," Quinn said. "That space, to come all the way to the end and win it on a turnover, that's the kind of stuff that you look for."
Sundays' performance wasn't a flawless one, but against Winston and the Buccaneers' offense few defenses have dominated. However, the Falcons showed improvement throughout the game and made the plays when they needed to.
Morris more than earned his opportunity to coordinate Atlanta's defense next season, and the Falcons' walk-off win against the Buccaneers is yet another reason why.
Get an inside look at Atlanta Falcons vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers with top photos from the field at Raymond James Stadium in Week 17.