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Nerdy Birds: Grady Jarrett, David Onyemata, Jessie Bates III lead Atlanta's attacking and aggressive defense

The Falcons are (essentially) a quarter of the way through the 2023 season. It’s been an up-and-down four games, but the team’s new-look defensive unit is on the rise.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- With four games in the rearview mirror, Atlanta is now 23.5% of the way through the season. We're a numbers-based crew here at Nerdy Birds and it would be inaccurate to say we've hit the quarter mark, but for all intents and purposes, we're a quarter of the way through the season. It's been an up-and-down four games for the Falcons but the team's new-look defensive unit is on the rise.

Atlanta boasts a top-10 scoring defense (averaging 19.3 points per game) for the first time since 2017 when the Falcons finished eighth in the NFL, allowing 19.7 points per game on average. Atlanta has allowed its fewest points per game average through four games since the 2012 season (19.0). There are a couple of driving factors behind that success. First, the Falcons are getting off the field.

Atlanta is tied for fourth in three-and-out drives with 40.9% of opposing possessions ending without a first down or a touchdown. The Falcons rank seventh in drives ending with three plays and a punt (25%). Opponents are averaging just 5.61 plays per drive, the 10th fewest in the NFL this season. The low play rate is thanks to Atlanta limiting opponents to a 67.6 down set conversion rate, which also ranks 10th in the league, and its eighth-ranked third-down defense (33.3%).

The Falcons ability to prevent teams from getting into drives and getting off of the field on third down has them sitting ninth in the NFL in points per drive allowed (1.59).

The other area that has played a major role in the defensive success, particularly when it comes to scoring, has been Atlanta's ability to stiffen up in the red zone. Atlanta's opponents are averaging 8.57 plays per scoring drive, meaning that the Falcons are forcing teams to drive the length of the field to come away with points. Even on drives when they don't get off the field early, the unit gives itself a chance when the field shortens by limiting explosive plays and making opponents earn every yard. Atlanta has only allowed 22.7% of its opponent's drives to reach the red zone, the eighth-best mark in the NFL this season.


While the Falcons rank ninth in points per drive, they vault to fifth when looking at drives that reach the red zone (3.70). That number might look high at first blush, but consider the league average red zone scoring efficiency or the rate at which teams score points (touchdown or field goal) in the red zone is 87%.

Meanwhile, the Falcons have only allowed points on 70% of red zone drives, which ranks third in the league.


Atlanta ranks fifth in the NFL in defensive red zone efficiency (40%), tied for eighth in red zone third down conversion rate (28.6%), and ninth in yards per play (2.2) and sack rate (12.5) when teams reach the red area.

The Falcons have allowed opponents to convert just 2-of-7 third downs in the red zone and 0-for-2 on fourth downs, limiting opponents to just seven total scores with four touchdowns and three field goals.


Atlanta is tied for fourth in defensive success rate (66.7%) in the red zone, which has helped the defense post the fifth-most defensive expected points added (10.16) and the third-best defensive EPA per play mark in the league.

Much of Atlanta's red zone success is owed to its ability to stop the run. The Falcons have been able to turn the challenging field position into an advantage by using the end line as an extra defensive boost. This has allowed the Falcons to play with light boxes as Atlanta's usage rate of loaded and heavy boxes, or boxes with more defenders than blockers or with eight or more defenders, has been among the lowest in the NFL.


It would seem logical that a team would use the end line as an extra defender and then move a player down into the box with regularity to stop the run. Atlanta has deployed a different strategy at times, packing the passing lanes with coverage players and stopping the run with seven defenders.

Despite playing with light boxes in the red zone, the Falcons have allowed just 26 yards on 19 red-zone carries, good for a measly 1.4 yards per carry average, according to Next Gen Stats. Atlanta leads the NFL with opponents posting -30 rush yards over expectation (-1.9 RYOE per carry), and ranks second in the percentage of runs exceeding expectations (6.3).

The Falcons also lead the NFL in defensive success rate on red-zone rush attempts (84.2%), first downs over expected (-3) and opponent EPA per carry (-0.57). Contact before the line of scrimmage has been a key to Atlanta's success against the run in the red zone, too, as the Falcons contact the ball carrier on 57.9% of rushes in that critical part of the field.

Red Zone Success Rate vs. Rushes

Table inside Article
Team RZ Success Rate
Atlanta 84.2%
New England 83.3%
Tennessee 76.9%
Detroit 75.0%
New Orleans 72.7%

Through four games, the Falcons defensive rebuild is trending upward. Offseason additions like Jessie Bates III, David Onyemata, Kaden Elliss and Calais Campbell have meshed well with stalwart veterans like Grady Jarrett and A.J. Terrell and a host of other young players. Together, they create a unit that has shown the ability to keep the team in games and stifle opponents in critical situations. The Falcons will look to build on its red-zone success to springboard the offense against the Texans in Week 5.

Speaking of the Texans, through four games, Houston ranks 31st in the NFL in red zone efficiency with just five touchdowns on 14 red zone drives. The Texans 92.9 red zone scoring efficiency ranks eighth in the league, but the team has only reached the red area on 33% of its offensive possessions.

Atlanta will look to keep the Texans out of the red zone altogether, but can be confident in its ability to keep them out of the end zone should the AFC South foe reach the final 20 yards of the field.

Attacking and aggressive

"Hard, tough, physical and aggressive," Falcons Defensive Coordinator Ryan Nielsen said when asked about his vision for this defense at his introductory press conference in February.

"Attack and aggressive" was a mantra Falcons fans heard throughout training camp in August. Four weeks in, while there's still room for improvement, Atlanta's defense has been all of the above.

As a whole, the Falcons rank fifth in the NFL in defensive success rate at 62.9%, trailing only Cleveland, Baltimore, New Orleans and Dallas. To put that into perspective, that's the highest defensive success rate Atlanta has had through four weeks since at least 2000, per TruMedia.

This year, the Falcons have found success keeping the ball in front of them, and then attacking and being aggressive when bringing down pass-catchers. Opposing quarterbacks have only attempted passes of 10-plus air yards in 29.4% of dropbacks – the seventh-fewest in the league this year. When attempting passes of 10 or more air yards, Atlanta's defense has limited quarterbacks to a 35.3 completion percentage, three touchdowns, and three interceptions for a 56.7 passer rating.

Additionally, the Falcons have limited opponents to six completions of 20-plus yards through four weeks – the third-fewest in the NFL and the fewest through four games by the Falcons since 2002.

With that, more than 70% of opposing quarterbacks' attempts this season have gone for less than 10 air yards per attempt.

Entering Week 5, no defense has had more success limiting yards after the catch than Atlanta, who leads the league with only 317 through four games.

On the other side, Houston's offense ranks second in the NFL with 577 total yards after the catch this season. Only Miami (644) has more. If Atlanta can continue to successfully contain receivers after the catch, it could go a long way to slowing down the league's fourth-best passing attack.


Grady's still got it

According to Next Gen Stats, Grady Jarrett is generating a positive pass rush on 62.8% of his rushes this season, his highest mark since 2018.

Jarrett has posted a team-high 11 quarterback pressures and a pressure rate of 10.4% this season. He's also recorded 12 stops or tackles at the line of scrimmage.

Bounce back

A.J. Terrell has allowed nine catches for 92 yards on 16 targets this season, bouncing back from surrendering eight touchdowns on 72 targets last season.

Terrell has also improved his coverage success rate, target EPA and receptions over expected.

No vacancy

Jessie Bates III has allowed zero receptions and has three interceptions when targeted 10+ yards downfield.

Since 2020, Bates has the third highest ball hawk rate, a Next Gen Stat for the percentage of targets when the defender makes a play on the ball with a pass defense or an interception.

Atlanta Falcons safety Jessie Bates III #3 during practice at Atlanta Falcons Training Facility in Flowery Branch, Ga. on Thursday, October 5, 2023. (Photo by Jay Bendlin/Atlanta Falcons)

En route to history

Bijan Robinson needs 53 yards from scrimmage on Sunday to surpass William Andrews (504) for the most yards from scrimmage through a player's first five career games in franchise history.

Take a look as the Atlanta Falcons put in the work in Flowery Branch for the game against the Washington Commanders.

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