Inside Tori's Notebook: Defensive stands missing offensive answers four games into 2023

At what point do you begin to worry about defensive morale? Arthur Smith said the Falcons have the right people in place to make sure there is no splintering. 

Inside Tori's Notebook is a weekly series where Tori McElhaney re-opens her game notebook to look back at her notes, questions and observations from the Falcons' most recent game. Tori breaks down her thoughts and gives her analysis on what happened and why it's notable.

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JET LAGGED -- It was the the third quarter of the Falcons' Sunday loss to the Jaguars in London when I wrote down one very specific question in my notebook.

"How do you evaluate defensive morale at this point?"

I wrote this question down to remind myself to ask head coach Arthur Smith about it postgame. It came to mind when the Falcons defense came up with a key stop on the Jaguars' opening drive of the second half. The offense had done its job to open the third quarter, marching down the field productively to get on the board with a Drake London touchdown.

(The question became more important in my mind, though, when those six points were tracking to become the only touchdown the Falcons had scored in two games' time).

Following the touchdown, the Falcons defense did its job, too. After Jacksonville earned a couple first downs, the defense locked down around midfield at Wembley Stadium. Calais Campbell and Jessie Bates III stepped up to take down Jags running back Travis Etienne for no gain on a first-down run. Then Dee Alford dropped Tim Jones for a loss of one on second down before the Falcons brought pressure on third-and-long to force an errant throw from Trevor Lawrence that brought up fourth down. When Jacksonville was punting the ball back to the Falcons, they had a 17-7 lead with 7 minutes, 24 seconds left in the third quarter. In that moment, I remember tweeting: "If Atlanta scores on this drive, we've got ourselves a game in London."

Up until that point, the game was all Jacksonville Jaguars on the prowl. To borrow words of Smith, the Falcons needed a "counter punch" (the term he used after the Detroit loss) or a "jump start" (the term he used after the Jaguars loss). This next drive could be it, I remember thinking. But it wasn't. Instead, after five positive plays, one of which was a 21-yard run by Bijan Robinson, the Falcons were going backwards, again. Tyler Allgeier was dropped for a loss of four on first down. Then came an incomplete pass, only to be followed by a false start which backed the Falcons up even further. They were punting two plays later.

The defense would hit the field again and they would hold the Jaguars to a field goal, but after a long drive that pushed the game into the fourth quarter, the 20-7 score with 10:36 to go in the game felt like a incline too steep to climb.

I say all of that to say this: The Falcons defensive players are setting the offense up. They're doing their part more often than not in the last two games. They're consistently getting the ball back in the hands of the offense with minimal damage done. Have they been perfect? No. They've given up explosives they'd definitely prefer to have back. They've whiffed on a few would-be sacks and allowed the quarterback to leak out for larger chunks than they would like, too. But when push comes to shove -- when the Falcons need a play made -- the defense has made it.

I went back and charted the drives of the last two games where I felt like the defense came up with a key stop. Here is summary of those drives and the response of the offense when the ball got back into their hands.

IN DETROIT

Q1 (0-0): Lions opening drive starts at their own 14-yard line: Falcons defense forces a three-and-out. Offense gets the ball at their own 12 yard line. Four plays later, Desmond Ridder is sacked on second and third down. Falcons punt. No points.

Q3 (DET 13-3): Lions opening drive of the second half starts on their own 25. They go three-and-out. Falcons offense drives down field but stalls out before the red zone. Younghoe Koo misses a 47-yard field goal. No points.

Q3 (DET 13-3): After the Falcons defense earns consecutive stops with no points scored by the offense, the Lions start their final drive of the third quarter on their own 18-yard line: Jessie Bates III intercepts Jared Goff on the third play of the drive, giving the ball back to Atlanta on the Detroit 43-yard line at the start of the fourth quarter. Four plays later, the Falcons turn the ball over on downs. No points.

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IN LONDON (vs. Jacksonville)

Q1 (0-0): The Jaguars opening drive starts on their own 25-yard line: A six-play drive stalls out and the Jaguars are forced to punt the ball away. Falcons take over on their own 7-yard line and go three-and-out. No points.

Q2 (JAX 10-0): The Jaguars first drive of the second quarter starts at their own 19-yard line: Falcons defense forces a three-and-out. Atlanta's offense gets the ball back on its own 13-yard line. They productively pick up 42 yards and are moving the chains when Ridder throws an interception. It is returned 61 yards for a touchdown. No points (for the offense), seven points given up.

Q2 (JAX 17-0): On the very next play, Ridder throws another interception. The Jaguars take over on the Atlanta 16-yard line: The defense comes up with a significant red-zone stand. On fourth down, Grady Jarrett and David Onyemata split a sack to get the turnover on downs, giving the ball back to the offense with no further damage done. The Atlanta offense gets the ball back with just over two minutes to go in the half. After a false start to begin the drive, putting them back on their own 7-yard line, the Falcons do get a little momentum, earning a first down. They stall on their next set of downs, though, punting back to Jacksonville with just over a minute to go in the half. No points.

--

It's this type of context that backs up why I thought the question regarding concern over defensive morale was warranted at this point. There are moments in the last two games where the defense has seemingly done its job, one way or another, only for there to be no answer of points scored offensively.

Here is Smith's answer to that question in full:

"I think you look at yourself as a team (to see) if you have the right guys. We're frustrated. There will be times, again, when it's going to flip the other way. If you've got a real team, you understand that. You have that perspective. I think internally, yeah, everybody will be frustrated after a loss. When you have the right guys and the right minds, they're going to understand, hey, let's not let them get early momentum; make the play on the sack. Don't let a busted coverage, a guy leak out on a cover. Those are things you look at in reality. If you have the wrong guys it's easy to splinter and ride the rollercoaster. We got the right guys in there and we know we got to get back to work and jump start and get this thing rolling, get back on the winning track."

It's at this point when what Smith said is tested. After two games of key stops defensively and a lackluster offensive response, the natural tendency is to splinter. The defense in Atlanta deserved more than what it has gotten from this offense in the last two games.

Trust goes both ways, even when things are difficult. Through four games this season, the Falcons offense can trust that this defense is going to find ways to keep the hope of a Falcons win alive. Through the last two losses, though, can we say the Falcons defense can trust the offense to find a way to put points on the board to threaten a win? No. With the last two games as evidence, we can't. Not yet.

The Atlanta Falcons arrive in London at Wembley Stadium to face off the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 4, presented by Wells Fargo.

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