After looking at potential offseason moves the Falcons must make to improve their offense last week, it's time to take a look on the defensive side of the ball at some areas where the Falcons can improve in 2014.
One of the reasons for the Falcons disappointing 2013 season has been the struggles of their defense, which looked promising a year ago. In defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's first year in Atlanta in 2012, he helped create one of the league's more opportunistic groups, as the defense forced 31 turnovers, tying it for the fifth-best unit in the NFL.
This year, that has fallen to 29th-ranked with just 12 takeaways going into this weekend. That did get a boost from Sunday's win over the Washington Redskins, where the Falcons forced seven turnovers, matching the total from their previous seven games.
A major key for the Falcons' success over the years under head coach Mike Smith has been their positive turnover differential, ranking in the top five three times in Smith's first five seasons in Atlanta. They've built a reputation as a team that rarely shoots itself in the foot but will happily take advantage of mistakes made by opponents.
If the Falcons want to get back to their winning ways, they need to revert back to their previous style of play, and it will take improvements in all areas to tighten up several weak spots in their defense. The most distinct of those areas is up front.
Improving Pass Rush
Not only have the Falcons struggled to create turnovers on defense this year, but they've also been abysmal on third downs, as they sport the league's worst third-down defense (according to Team Rankings.com).
A big reason for that is because of the team's inability to create reliable pressure on third downs. Improvements made there can not only help get the defense off the field and give the ball back to what should be a more potent offensive attack in 2014 (with a healthy Julio Jones), but it could also lead to more takeaways.
More pressure on quarterbacks can lead to sack-strips and rushed throws that be can be picked off, helping the Falcons create more turnovers.
Thanks to the clarity of hindsight, the team's decision to let go of John Abraham and sign Osi Umenyiora was a mistake. While Umenyiora's 7.5 sacks look good on paper, it's not been overly impactful. Umenyiora ranks 40th among 4-3 defensive ends, according to Pro Football Focus' pass rush ratings. Meanwhile, Abraham has recorded 11 sacks in Arizona and currently ranks 11th among 3-4 outside linebackers, also according to Pro Football Focus' pass rush grades.
The Falcons need to make serious improvements to their pass rush by adding younger, better playmakers up front. They could be in prime position to snag a pass rusher like Jadeveon Clowney or Anthony Barr at the top of the draft, but it will take more than a coveted rookie. They need to pounce in free agency as well, where there is likely to be a strong class of veteran players including Michael Bennett, Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Michael Johnson and Greg Hardy.
The Falcons can't simply focus on their edge rush either, as they could use more help on the interior of the defensive line as well. Defensive tackles Corey Peters, Jonathan Babineaux and Peria Jerry are all impending free agents for the Falcons. Peters will be the priority re-signing, but he is a better run defender than pass rusher. If the Falcons let either Babineaux or Jerry walk, they will need to find replacements who can provide much-needed heat up the middle.
But adding a pass rusher won't be the only improvement the Falcons can make to the middle of their defense.
Tightening Up the Run Defense
Another area where the Falcons are near the bottom of the league rankings is in terms of their run defense. The Falcons will need to find ways to beef up their run defense this offseason.
Part of any improvement made by the Falcons run defense may come in the form of continued maturation of undrafted rookie linebacker Paul Worrilow. Since Worrilow replaced Akeem Dent at middle linebacker in Week 11, the Falcons run defense has allowed 139.8 rushing yards per game in the past five outings. That is a slight improvement over their previous five games, where they allowed 154.4 rushing yards per game.
That minor improvement still isn't good enough, and the Falcons hope that with a full offseason under his belt as the starter, Worrilow can make major strides to improve the unit.
But the Falcons can make bigger improvements by beefing up their defensive line's interior in the offseason. Corey Peters has been a solid nose tackle this year, but the team could use more help in their rotation. The Falcons have relied on too many snaps from Jerry, who Pro Football Focus grades as one of the weakest defensive tackles in the league against the run (he ranks 63rd out of 70 tackles). If Jerry walks in the offseason, finding a potential upgrade to bolster their front could go a long way to slow down opposing rushers.
It can also help keep blockers off Worrilow and fellow linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, whose return to the lineup has also had a hand in the recent improvement of the Falcons run defense. If both players can spend less time fending off second-level blocks from opposing offensive linemen, it could free them up to make more plays against the run and potentially create more turnovers.
And speaking of the Falcons linebackers, that leads to another improvement the team should look to make in terms of covering opposing tight ends.
Adding an Antidote to Jimmy Graham
If the Falcons want to return to the top of the NFC South, they will likely have to go through the rival New Orleans Saints. The Saints have dominated the Falcons in the Mike Smith era, sporting a 9-3 record over the past six seasons.
A big part of that over the past four seasons has been the presence of Jimmy Graham in the Saints lineup. When Graham has scored a touchdown, the Saints are 6-0 against the Falcons. When he has not, they are 0-1. Clearly, there is a correlation between Graham and the Saints' success.
Thus, it would behoove the Falcons to try to find a way to slow down Graham, a feat they have failed to do over the years. One option to accomplish that may be bolstering their linebacker corps with an athletic linebacker that can do a better job matching up with Graham. Joplo Bartu is more athletic than his Falcons predecessors but still may not be a good enough option to handle Graham.
The New England Patriots were one of the few teams that was able to keep Graham in check this season. They did so with the play of cornerback Aqib Talib, a physical 6'1" cornerback who shadowed Graham in their Week 6 win over the Saints.
The Falcons lack a corner with comparable size, with Desmond Trufant coming the closest at 6'. If they opt to get rid of Asante Samuel this offseason, it makes sense to replace him with a taller, more physical corner who can help them defend Graham.
Another method of trying to stall Graham may be making other changes in the Falcons secondary at safety.
Solidifying the Safety Play
The contract of Thomas DeCoud is structured so that the Falcons will have to make a decision this offseason on whether to keep or cut him. Part of DeCoud's 2014 base salary becomes guaranteed if he's on the team at the start of the new league year in March, and given his poor performance this year, it would make sense for the Falcons to move on.
After recording six interceptions a year ago on his way to the Pro Bowl, DeCoud has yet to pick off an opposing pass this season. That has contributed greatly to the Falcons' inability to create turnovers this season. Any potential replacement at free safety will be expected to be able to create those much-needed turnovers.
And if that player can also help the team better defend Graham, it will be a bonus. Finding a safety who is particularly adept at man coverage could be a smart player to target.
DeCoud has also been historically weak in run defense with a plethora of missed tackles over the years. So, there is also room for improvement in run defense if his potential replacement is a bit more consistent there.
In the end, the Falcons need help on their defense at all levels. If they can make the necessary upgrades, it should lead to a defensive turnaround in 2014. It starts up front with an improved pass rush and beefier run defense, and then trickles backwards to the other areas of the defense.
The positive for the Falcons is that young players like Worrilow and Trufant have emerged this year to potentially become solid pieces around which the Falcons can build their revamped and improved unit in the years to come. But that will begin this offseason with many of the upgrades I have outlined above.