There is no argument that the Falcons would not be undefeated this year if it wasn't for the big strike, the screen pass, the threat of the running game and so much more of the offense.
However, without the defense stepping up, the 2012 season could look a lot like the 2011 season. Last season, there was so much talent and a kind of vulnerable success—the Falcons were a winning team that had areas that could be exploited by the right opponent.
There are three clear differences in the Falcons' defense this year that have transformed this team from a winner to a force that other teams fear.
The maturation of key players has caused them to take their skills to a new level. Thomas DeCoud and William Moore have started fast and gotten everyone's attention this year.
Dunta Robinson is playing at a vastly improved level from over the last few years.
Peria Jerry is making his presence known after some thought he would not develop.
The list of players being professional and raising their game reads like the roster.
A Better Understanding of the Defensive Scheme
The scheme is clear to the players and they understand it more fully than in the past.
This is apparent with the defensive backs because of the increase in their speed and smart positioning. Players are rarely caught out of place or taking bad angles.
The defensive line and the linebackers are moving and adjusting in an ever-changing array of tactics. I think the players like this because they are dictating to the offense more than they are just reacting to the offense.
Without a doubt, the scheme gets the best from the players.
Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan
Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has been brilliant in the way he has evaluated his players' talent. He did not come in and force anything on anyone. No, he took what he had and figured out how best to use them successfully.
He knew that the safeties would be better if they were clear on assignments and could play fast and tough.
Nolan knew that the defensive tackles on the team are probably as deep as any roster position on any team in the NFL.
Sometimes Nolan would go with an extra defensive tackle and one fewer defensive end.
It can even be unclear who is a lineman and who is a linebacker, or which safety is in the box, and if he will really be in coverage.
All of this is fun to watch, and is apparently hard to play against. The defense has really raised the quality of the entire Atlanta Falcons team.
With the Falcons' stellar offense, the defense doesn't have to be top in the league—but I think it has turned out better than expected.