For practically the entirety of Matt Ryan's time at quarterback, the Atlanta Falcons have been a team defined by their offense. That won't likely change soon, but there's been a clear shift on the defensive side of the ball under interim head coach Raheem Morris.
The overall league rankings still show Atlanta near the bottom of the league in several key defensive statistics, but those who have been watching on a weekly basis have likely seen a unit that is playing differently than it did during the first five games of the season. With a little digging, the numbers bear that out as well.
|Defensive stat||First five games||Last seven games|
|Points allowed||32.2 (average)||20.1 (average)|
|Yards allowed||446 (average)||357 (average)|
|Third down percentage||43.3%||34.8%|
|Red zone percentage||75%||65%|
The Falcons have improved in virtually every main defensive metric over the last seven games. They've allowed fewer points and yards, increased their sacks and turnovers and proven to be more effective on third downs and in the red zone. Even more impressive is that they've given up multiple scores in a single quarter just three times over the last seven games (28 quarters) after giving up multiple scores in the same quarter nine times in the first five games (20 quarters).
While Morris and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich have been overseeing the defensive turnaround, attempting to implement a mindset that they can control football games and determine the outcome, Morris credits his players for making it happen.
"I don't know if a coach can actually implement that mindset," Morris said. "You can talk about it. We can preach it. We can make a poster. We can make T-shirts. We can write about it. We can do whatever we want to do as a coaching staff, but I really believe the guys who make that happen are Deion Jones, Foye Oluokun, A.J. Terrell, Grady Jarrett.
"I think those guys up front, those leaders, those guys that go out there and set a mentality to play as long as they need to for whatever amount of time is required in order to win the game and give up as few points as you need to in order to win the game."
For the most part, the same players have been on the field throughout the season, with the notable exception of Takk McKinley's departure. Players have complimented the coaching staff for putting them in position to best utilize their skills such as focusing safety Keanu Neal on patrolling the "kill zone" on the field where shorter routes are usually run.
Neal and Jones have rounded back into the form they showed as a destructive duo in 2017, but they've got help now. Terrell has truly emerged as an impact defender as both a tackler and a coverage player. Oluokun is becoming a more complete player, capable of blitzing the quarterback or tracking down running backs from sideline to sideline. Jarrett is still leading the defensive line, but he's getting assistance from players like Steven Means and Jacob-Tuioti Mariner, who have shown much improvement, and rookie linebacker Mykal Walker is proving to be an effective multi-faceted player.
Atlanta's offense has struggled recently, putting more onus on the defense to keep opponents from scoring. The Falcons have proved up to the challenge so far, allowing just 20 trips to the red zone the last seven games, matching their total from the first five games despite two extra contests. In their most recent game against the Saints, it was Atlanta's defense that proved resilient in the second half to allow the team to climb back and nearly knock off New Orleans in the fourth quarter.
That performance required mental and physical fortitude, as the Saints dominated time of possession, keeping the Falcons' defense on the field for 36 minutes and 54 seconds.
"I am expecting to play like that now," Oluokun said of the lengthy time on the field. "I think our defense has that mentality that if the offense does well that is a plus. I am expecting to go out there and play all game. I think it does well with our defense when we have adopted that mentality. We are not putting everything on the offense, and they can ball out."
The validity of Atlanta's defensive improvements will be determined during the final four games of the season. With matchups against the Los Angeles Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs and two against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Falcons have some of the league's top offenses remaining on the schedule.
Los Angeles and Kansas City are both top-10 offenses in terms of yardage, with the Chiefs leading the league in that category. The Chiefs also possess the second-highest scoring offense, averaging 30.8 points per game, and the Buccaneers rank sixth with an average of 28.7 points per game.
Atlanta has done a good job of setting the tone with its defense in its wins this season. Think back to the win against Minnesota, when the Falcons intercepted the ball on the first play of the game and didn't allow any points until the second half. Or their performance against the Raiders, when Atlanta set single-game highs in sacks and turnovers with five of each.
Now, the tests become tougher. If the players are truly focused on bringing a defensive mindset to light, they will have to do so against two former league MVPs and a player many believe could win Offensive Rookie of the Year.
"It's more about us than anything else, and we want to go out and play the other team's defense," Falcons secondary coach Joe Whitt Jr. said. "If the other team's defense goes out and causes four turnovers, we need to get five. I've been in games where we've lost games 7-3 and people come to me and say, 'Hey, y'all played a hell of a game, the offense didn't do [their part].' No, it's a team game. Our job is to make sure our team has more points than their team."