Watching the Falcons this weekend and for a half of football it seemed the Falcons just may be able to hold even good offenses in some sort of check to give our potent offense a chance to out score opponents. Then came the 3rd quarter and quickly it was questioned is the defense is really going to struggle this season against teams with weapons on the outside? What’s been a little more surprising has been the amount of slippage in the rush defense for the Falcons. While the loss of Neal and Jones were certainly going to hurt, the fall off in the ability to stop the opposing teams run game was not expected to be this sharp considering the relatively healthy defensive line. So is this going to be an issue all season long or is there something the Falcons can do to help stop the bleeding?
Let’s start by taking a look at the pass defense the first 5 weeks of the season. In this area the Falcons have held up surprisingly well with the loss of Jones and Allen who play critical roles in pass coverage for the Falcons. Jones is heavily relied upon to cover backs out the backfield whereas Allen is the last stop in our defense and is key in keeping big plays to a minimum. The loss of Jones has been the biggest issue thus far. On Sunday, James Conner had 4 short passes/screens that totaled 78 yards of offense. On the Steelers 4th play of the game they ran 3 hitches with the TE and RB and Oluokun just doesn’t have the recognition to understand no one is behind him and read the QB to the RB.
Even worse was the tackling on Conner. Every big play seemed to have at least 2 missed tackles or would of been stopped. While Jones misses some tackles too, he does a good enough job wrapping and stopping the runner so even when he doesn’t necessarily get the tackle, he has stopped the players momentum giving the defense time to swarm. I’ve also written before about Jones ability to move in the open field allows him to get a jump on many of these routes. To be fair Oluokun is a rookie and will get better as time goes on, and it certainly helps when Neal is there to help polish off runners behind you. These are luxuries the Falcons just don’t have this season. Combine the learning curve with the young safeties and LB’s with the growth of Duke Riley (stunted last season due to injury), and it is a case of “if it isn’t one thing, its another”. Riley is still struggling to wrap up at times, and also struggling to get his head around on the deep seam routes against better TE’s.
As you can see in the above, this is a case of simply not getting his head around back to the ball. If Riley get’s his head around the contact most likely doesn’t draw a flag. This is very similar to what we seen out of Campbell early in his career. So I’m sure the hope is that this will get cleaned up with more playing time.
The rush defense is suffering from the injury to Neal. In week 1 against the Eagles, the Falcons held up really well on run defense. There were a couple plays that generated most the yardage, but outside those coupe plays they kept the run game in check. Against Carolina, the defense again held up really well most the night. Then the loss of Jones and Neal was official and the defense has fallen off a cliff. They’re giving up nearly 5yds / carry, 125yds / game, and given up 2 TD’s / game since those injuries. A large chunk of this is missing the sure tackling of guys like Neal and Allen. Another part of it, is the speed and reaction time of the MLB beating the RB to the hole.
Takk has struggled to make an impact in the run game like he has the pass game, and the DT play has been sub-par to start the year. The Falcons DL has not been completely health in any game since the Eagles having players battling nagging injuries. However, I’m sure Quinn expected more from this line this year than we’ve seen thus far. Ultimately, the line has had it’s moments and this is an area that should begin to correct itself more as the season progresses.
This isn’t necessarily in regards to defense but something the Falcons need to fix desperately. Too many times under Quinn have the Falcons had punts or FG’s blocked. The blocking on special teams has had too many lapses which further put the defense in a bad position.
So the question is can it be fixed? Yes. For 1 the play against the Bengals to lose the game was simply bad communication and recognition on rookie Oliver. He played to close on the shallow route from the RB and should of been back another 3-4 yards to cut off that route and force a tougher throw. Most James Conner’s big runs were simply lack of tackling on defense from the young guys. This doesn’t mean the Falcons won’t still give up plays. When you lose as many key starters as they have on defense, then you will not be able to reach peak level of play. However there are plenty of mistakes that aren’t simply a lack of talent. It’s a lack of disciplined play and a lack of experience of how to play in the NFL. These young players just went through one of the toughest trial by fire for opposing QB’s you will find. Brees, Big Ben, and Dalton are all seasoned veterans who know how to take advantage of the little intricacies in the game and combine that will bad tackling and mental errors and you will certainly give up a lot of points. Quinn will use this film to give the young guys a crash course and if Quinn’s history is a sign of long term trends, then these mistakes will clear up as the season progresses.
Add Jones back next month and there is a slim chance the Falcons can still fight there way back to the wild card picture with the schedule lightening up over the next 5 weeks. Let’s just hope the OL can adjust and give Ryan a cleaner pocket and running lanes to help this defense. Rushing the ball 19 times for 62yds is not going to help the defense improve, and the offenses ability to dictate the tempo of the game may be the ultimate decider if the defense has a fighting chance.