Shortly after the Atlanta Falcons lost 30-23 to the New England Patriots Sunday night, attacks on the Falcons’ play-calling, their red-zone offense and their lack of a running game popped up aplenty in the media.
But for all the shortcomings on that side of the ball, problems on the defense—even though these issues aren’t as prevalent right now as those on offense—won’t get fixed as quickly.
When Steven Jackson returns from his hamstring injury, the Falcons’ running game will spike. When wide receiver Roddy White gets back to 100 percent healthy, he’ll add to the weapons available to offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. Once these things happen, the offense will leap forward.
Eventually quarterback Matt Ryan, who had a rough game Sunday, will lock back into the form that earned him the nickname “Matty Ice.” The play-calling should come around, and when all these personnel pieces fall into place, the Falcons problems scoring in the red zone should evaporate. Blowing early leads should go away. Atlanta, at that point, should start stringing wins together.
That is if the defense can step up.
Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s unit has its fair share of problems too. And these might not be as easy to fix.
Lack of a pass rush
When the Falcons got rid of defensive end John Abraham in the offseason and brought in Osi Umenyiora, there was a huge question about this team’s ability to get to the opposing quarterback.
Those worries were warranted.
The Falcons have just seven sacks through four games. Only three teams have fewer, and Umenyiora's modest output of two sacks leads the team.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) is a bit nicer with its pass-rush grade (-5.9). PFF lists Atlanta as the 22nd-ranked team in regard to getting after the quarterback. Their grading system also factors in quarterback pressures, hurries and hits.
A depleted linebacker corps
Linebackers Sean Weatherspoon and hybrid linebacker Kroy Biermann are both on injured reserve. Weatherspoon can come back later in the season, as he’s listed on short-term IR, but Biermann is done for the year.
Stephen Nicholas was injured in preseason action and has played just 15 snaps this season.
The Atlanta Falcons are having problems on both sides of the football. Which is the hardest unit to fix?
The only other starter from last season, Akeem Dent, has been a liability in pass coverage and was injured Sunday against the Patriots. He needed to helped off the field, as did undrafted rookie backup linebacker Paul Worrilow.
The only completely healthy linebackers (as far as has been reported) are undrafted rookie Joplo Bartu and recent free-agent signee Omar Gaither.
It will be a few days until news filters out through an injury report or an insider tip as to how badly Dent and Worrilow are injured. If either or both are to miss time, the Falcons will have to quickly search for some help at linebacker or be forced to run with Bartu, Nicholas and Gaither and zero backups—and that’s not realistic.
Asante Samuel’s absence
Hobbled with a thigh injury, Samuel's played only 62 snaps in the four games. Rookie Desmond Trufant and fourth-year corner Robert McClain have been starting at the corner positions, and rookie Robert Alford has been playing the nickel spot.
None of the three have played miserably nor have any thrived. Alford has one of Atlanta’s three interceptions this season, and according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he and Trufant have been Atlanta’s best cover corners. But Atlanta’s top two corners rank 46th in the NFL (Trufant) and 62nd (Alford), per PFF's metrics.
The Falcons' pass defense ranks 26th in the league and is giving up 301 yards passing per game. It needs back Samuel’s swagger and skill set.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.