The disappointing nature of the 2018 season for the Falcons’ defense has been well-documented. Early-season injuries to core members of the unit exposed a lack of depth at some key spots, which led to some tough outings on Sundays last fall.
Not all was bad for Atlanta’s defense last season, however, as those injuries paved the way for some young players like Damontae Kazee and Foye Oluokun to shine in larger roles. The experience players such as those gained in 2018 should only strengthen the entire unit for the upcoming season.
But before the 2019 season arrives, let’s take a quick look back at the five best defensive performances the Falcons had in 2018.
5. Dec. 23 at Carolina Panthers
The degree of difficulty in this matchup was slightly lower for the Falcons as second-string quarterback Taylor Heinicke started the game in place of an injured Cam Newton and then sustained an injury of his own. Heinicke gutted out the injury, but Atlanta’s defense limited him to 274 passing yards on 53 attempts. The Falcons also proved opportunistic in this one, forcing four turnovers, including three interceptions off of Heinicke. Christian McCaffrey was the best offensive weapon for Carolina, finishing with 178 combined yards on the afternoon, but Atlanta stifled many of his teammates. Atlanta’s offensive efficiency and the defense’s ability to force turnovers turned this game into a second-half blowout and gave the Falcons a 24-10 victory.
4. Sep. 6 at Philadelphia Eagles
Atlanta’s starting defense didn’t remain intact for very long in 2018, but for the short time that all 11 starters were on the field together they looked impressive. In their season-opening loss to the Eagles, the Falcons allowed 18 points and just three points in the first half when the unit was fully manned. Philadelphia gained 232 total yards in this matchup, and Atlanta forced two turnovers and sacked Nick Foles twice. Two touchdown runs by Jay Ajayi in the second half proved the be the difference in this game, but the defense looked like a group capable of handling opposing offenses for much of the game. Deion Jones was especially effective in this one, earning a game-high nine tackles and intercepting Foles in the fourth quarter.
3. Nov. 4 at Washington Redskins
This was one of the most complete games the Falcons played in 2018, which is perhaps why it appears on both this list and the list of top five offensive performances as well. Atlanta’s defensive line pressured Alex Smith for much of the afternoon and managed to sack him three times. The Falcons jumped out to a quick lead, making the Redskins a more one-dimensional offense and Atlanta’s defense took advantage of that. Smith turned out to be the Redskins’ leading rusher, gaining 22 yards on a single scramble, and although the Falcons allowed 306 passing yards, they only resulted in 14 points. Washington averaged only 5.9 yards per pass attempt and couldn’t sustain drives against Atlanta, which limited the Redskins to 38 percent on third down.
2. Oct. 22 vs. New York Giants
The Saquon Barkley hype was real leading up to this “Monday Night Football” showdown between the Falcons and the Giants. Coming off of a game against the Eagles in which he carried the ball 13 times for 130 yards with a 50-yard touchdown, Barkley was one of the most exciting offensive players in the league. Atlanta’s run defense was a major problem given the injuries at key positions, and it seemed like Barkley could be in for yet another monster game. That wasn’t the case, however; Atlanta did an excellent job containing the rookie running back on the ground, holding him to 43 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. The Falcons sacked Eli Manning four times, including twice by Grady Jarrett, and limited the Giants to 41 percent on third downs. It wasn’t a dominant effort, but the Falcons’ defense stepped up to help the team emerge with a 23-20 victory.
1. Dec. 16 vs. Arizona Cardinals
Against a struggling Cardinals offense, the Falcons’ defense absolutely teed off. Atlanta sacked Arizona’s quarterbacks a combined seven times, generating a level of pass rush rarely seen. Outside of the Falcons’ 2017 win against the Dallas Cowboys in which Adrian Clayborn accounted for six of the team’s eight sacks, Atlanta had not recorded at least seven sacks since a 2005 game against the Minnesota Vikings when it had nine sacks. On top of that, the Falcons allowed a season-best 23 percent on third down and held the Cardinals to just 253 yards while also forcing three turnovers, including a 41-yard pick-six by Deion Jones. Grady Jarrett was also a standout player in this game, finishing with seven tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble.