There isn't a lot of concern around the Falcons' offense this season, but after surrendering two second-half leads in last year's playoffs, the defense has at least been a topic of conversation entering this season.
Facing off against the Ravens on Thursday night and an offense that fields Pro Bowl-caliber players, Atlanta's defense began to put some of those conversations to bed.
They gave up a big play in the first half, a 77-yard touchdown to Torrey Smith, so the defense knows it has got to continue to cut down on the big play, but in general the effort the unit left out on the field against the Ravens is something to build on.
"I think we played pretty good," cornerback Dominique Franks said after the 27-23 loss. "We got some turnovers on defense, but we also gave up some plays that we know we shouldn't have given up — plays that we cannot give up because we know what to do. But as a whole, I think we played pretty good."
The Falcons played heads-up football throughout the first half against the Super Bowl champs and it was never more evident than on Asante Samuel's near pick-six in the second quarter. Samuel came down with the interception at the Baltimore 35-yard line and began racing it back. He was brought down at the 2-yard line and fumbled in the process, but defensive tackle Peria Jerry was there to scoop up the loose ball.
With a very short field to work with, the Falcons offense scored a 2-yard touchdown on the first play after the turnover. Last season the Falcons scored 103 points on their 31 takeaways, the ninth-best performance in the league and an improvement there would be a big step for the 2013 defense.
The Ravens feature Ray Rice on offense, a talented dual-threat running back, but the Falcons defense stifled his attempts to impact the game in the first half. In total, Rice rushed four times for only five yards and the Ravens entire offense was limited to only 13 rushing yards in the first half. The Falcons did this with most of their starters and key contributors on the field and though the game got away from them in the fourth quarter with young players, there were lot of encouraging moments.
"I think they did a very good job on stopping the run," head coach Mike Smith said. "The statistics were certainly in our favor but again it's a 60-minute game. It's a four-quarter game and we're all playing to win. We didn't get that done (Thursday night), but I am encouraged that we were able to go through this evaluation process and see improvement from Week 1 to Week 2."
One of the key cogs in Thursday's run-stopping defense is a familiar face, but one that may be on the verge of a true breakout season. Defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux had three tackles in the game and two of them were of the tackle-for-loss variety. The first came late in the first quarter when he brought down Rice for a 5-yard loss. His second came before half time when he dropped Rice for a 4-yard loss on a second-and-2 situation, forcing a longer third down the Ravens weren't able to convert.
In 2012, Babineaux recorded 8.5 tackles for loss, the second-highest mark among all defensive tackles. It's nothing new for the DT, since 2005, his 49.5 tackles for loss are the most by any defensive tackle in football.
Babineaux's presence was big, but others were in the backfield as well. Akeem Dent, Charles Mitchell and emerging undrafted rookie linebacker Paul Worrilow added one each.
Worrilow was a bright spot among the younger players fighting for roster spots in the second half. He finished with another game leading the team in tackles, this time with six. He added a sack on the night as well.
The defense, however, wasn't just good against the run. The 77-yard touchdown play glares, but that aside, the Falcons shut down the Ravens offense. In the first quarter Baltimore only managed one first down and just two in the second quarter. Atlanta held the Ravens to a 1-for-5 conversion rate on third downs and allowed 131 yards of net offense in the first half.