How the Falcons defense became a top-10 unit that's now bordering on elite

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – After a late-season surge to clinch a playoff berth for what could be another Super Bowl run, Atlanta’s defense – not its high-powered offense -- is garnering much of the attention. And following a closer look at the numbers, it appears that the praise is well deserved.

In short, the Falcons defense is playing better than perhaps anyone anticipated. After 16 regular-season games, the Falcons finished as a top-10 unit in both total and scoring defense, showing improvement against both the run and the pass.

In fact, it looks as though they’re one missing ingredient away from becoming one of the NFL’s elite units.

The Falcons’ defense showed drastic improvement in nearly every major category during the 2017 season with several players emerging as legitimate stars. To help illustrate just how big the jump was, let’s compare the Falcons’ defensive stats from 2016 and 2017.

Stat 2016 2017
Yards/game 371.2 (NFL rank: 25th) 318.4 (9th)
Rushing yards/game 104.5 (17th) 104.1 (9th)
Passing yards/game 266.7 (28th) 214.3 (12th)
3rd down percentage 41.78% (26th) 38.27% (16th)
Red zone percentage 72.73% (32nd) 45.83% (5th)
Sacks 34 (t-16th) 39 (t-13)
Turnovers 22 (16th) 16 (t-27th)
Points/game 25.4 (27th) 19.7 (8th)

Teams running more, gaining less

At first glance, however, it appears that Atlanta showed only marginal improvement against the run in 2017. But this is where numbers can tend to be a little misleading on the surface. When diving a little deeper, those stats reveal a bit more.

Because of the Falcons’ high-powered offense in 2016, teams were more often than not left playing catch-up. This means Atlanta’s opponents were often forced to abandon the run or, at the very least, become more pass-oriented as they tried to keep up with the Falcons.

The number of rush attempts by the Falcons’ opponents in 2016 and 2017 show that difference. Last year, teams ran the ball a total of 370 times for 1,672 yards and 15 touchdowns. This year, teams ran the ball 402 times against the Falcons for 1,665 yards and nine touchdowns.

Despite seeing over an entire game’s-worth of additional rush attempts – the average number of carries per game against the Falcons in 2017 was 25 – Atlanta held opponents to both fewer yards and touchdowns.

Additionally, the Falcons showed even further improvement in that area over the second half of the season.

Since allowing a season-high 201 rushing yards to the Panthers in Week 9, the Falcons have given up just 93.6 yards per game on the ground over the second half of the season. In their last six games, only one team – Minnesota – has gained more than 100 rushing yards.

More pass rushers, more sacks

Run defense is just one area in which the Falcons have shown growth on that side of the ball.

The emergence of rookie Takkarist McKinley and a resurgence from Adrian Clayborn have helped Atlanta increase their sack total, despite Vic Beasley’s duties pulling him into other key roles and away from primary pass-rushing responsibility.

With a full season from Desmond Trufant as well as improvement from second-year defensive backs Keanu Neal and Brian Poole, the Falcons made a drastic leap against the pass. Another factor that has played into that is the disruption that defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and his fellow pass-rushers have created at the line of scrimmage.

Watching the Falcons’ defense this season has often resulted in a display of complementary pieces that move around seamlessly and shut down openings before they have a chance to materialize.

It’s exactly what coach Dan Quinn envisioned when saying the wanted a “fast and physical” approach to his Falcons defense.

Wanted: More takeaways

The lone number that has not improved is the number of takeaways the defense has created, something Quinn has lamented all season long. It’s been an area of emphasis for the team, and it’s undoubtedly the mindset Quinn and his staff wants the unit to have.

While the number has been down this season, that’s actually another reason for optimism moving forward. Without automatic, drive-stopping plays, the Falcons are finding other ways to get opposing offenses off the field.

There’s no reason to believe the turnovers won’t come in the future, and that could be the missing piece this defense needs to become one of the NFL’s top groups.

Without a string of ill-timed penalties, the number of turnovers the Falcons generated would be much closer to their total from last season. Atlanta had five interceptions negated by a penalty from another defender, which was just three less than their total number of picks on the season.

Now, even with those five additional interceptions the Falcons wouldn’t have been near the top of the pack in total turnovers created, but they would have posted even better numbers in the other defensive metrics, giving up 131 fewer yards and 14 fewer points if the interceptions had not been negated.

Those totals may seem small, but it’s the little, incremental changes that take a defense from being a top-10 unit to being in the top five.

Quinn has worked to help the defense create more takeaways, and we’ve seen progress in that area with the Falcons forcing four interceptions in their past two games.

Given the speed Atlanta has brought to the defensive side of the ball and the vast improvement from young players like Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell, Jarrett and Neal, this unit has quickly moved to the upper echelon of NFL defenses. If the Falcons’ defenders can start getting their hands on the football, this group will become something truly special.

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