Young Defense Is Key to Atlanta Falcons Avoiding One-and-Done in the Playoffs

Gary DavenportNFL AnalystJanuary 9, 2017

SEATTLE, WA - OCTOBER 16:  Running back C.J. Spiller #28 of the Seattle Seahawks rushes against the Atlanta Falcons at CenturyLink Field on October 16, 2016 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

A prolific passing game under MVP candidate Matt Ryan propelled the Atlanta Falcons to the No. 2 seed in the NFC.

Those achievements are nice and all, but they won't mean much if this year's Falcons team is closer to the 2010 version that got rolled by the Green Bay Packers and less like the 2012 edition that beat the Seattle Seahawks on their way to the NFC Championship Game.

While the offense has been the story of the season for the Falcons, their talented but inexperienced defense will determine whether they move on.

It's those same Seahawks the Falcons will face Saturday in the divisional round in what could be the last game ever at the Georgia Dome after Seattle blasted the Detroit Lions 26-6 on Saturday night.

The teams met back in Week 6 in the Emerald City, with the Seahawks prevailing 26-24 in a wild affair that saw the Falcons come storming back from a 17-3 halftime deficit with three third-quarter touchdowns before coughing up the lead themselves.

Yes, there was a questionable non-call late that would have put the Falcons in position to possibly kick a game-winning field goal.

Richard Sherman covering Julio Jones.
Richard Sherman covering Julio Jones.Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

 

But that non-call had little to do with Seattle's peeling off nine unanswered points in the final quarter. Against a Seattle team that's more playoff-tested than anyone in the NFC bracket, the Atlanta defense has to play better.

A quick glance at the defensive stats doesn't inspire optimism. The Falcons rank 25th in total defense (371.2 yards per game) and 27th in scoring defense (25.4 points per game). Both rankings are down from last season.

But those numbers don't tell the whole story. In 2015, the Falcons were dead last with 19 sacks. They ranked 27th in the league in turnover differential. This year, they've nearly doubled their sack total (34) and rank in the NFL's top five in give-take ratio.

A youth movement on Atlanta's defense has keyed that increase.

First-round safety Keanu Neal piled up 106 tackles and forced five fumbles, tops among rookies. Second-round linebacker Deion Jones led all rookies in tackles with 108 and returned two interceptions for touchdowns. Second-year pass-rusher Vic Beasley is the NFL's sack king in 2016 with 15.5.

 

Head coach Dan Quinn said his young defense hasn't been perfect, but he lauded its speed, physicality and athleticism—traits his attacking 4-3 defense requires, per Michael Cunningham of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

We are certainly getting closer to that. The speed, the physicality, we are certainly looking for that at all times. I've been especially impressed by the guys who play down by the line of scrimmage—that's Neal, that's Jones—the physicality and the speed that they play with. They have a real knack for the football.

If Jones and Neal have been good, Beasley has been fantastic. After a quiet rookie season, the former Clemson star went bananas in year two, leading the league in both sacks and forced fumbles.

Beasley has been such a force as a pass-rusher this season that teammate Dwight Freeney thinks he's worthy of consideration for Defensive Player of the Year, per Jonathan Jones of Sports Illustrated:

He's leading in sacks. Sacks are the hardest thing to get in the National Football League on defense. Harder than interceptions. On interceptions, they don't throw you the ball 40 times a day, so you don't fail 40 times a game. You fail as a pass-rusher 99 percent of the time. If you get one then you had a great day. He's having a helluva season.

Beasley probably won't win the award. Like the rest of Atlanta's defense, there's bad mixed in with the good. While Beasley has been phenomenal rushing the passer, he's struggled in run support, ranking 88th among edge defenders at Pro Football Focus.

Atlanta's strength on defense is also a weakness. While its youth and speed has led to big plays, its inexperience has also meant an alarming number of blown assignments and missed tackles.

The combination was evident in Week 6. Atlanta allowed only 72 rushing yards but gave up three scores on the ground. Russell Wilson didn't throw a touchdown pass and ran for just seven yards, but he was still able to lead his team back for a win...

On one leg. He has both now.

Russell Wilson (left) and Matt Ryan
Russell Wilson (left) and Matt RyanJonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

 

Jones, Neal and fellow rookie De'Vondre Campbell are going to need to play fast but disciplined football, both against the run and in coverage against the likes of tight end Jimmy Graham.

Stopping the run will be paramount. It's something the Lions had no success doing in the wild-card round; tailback Thomas Rawls gashed Detroit's defense early and often en route to 161 rushing yards and a touchdown on 27 carries.

If you let the Seahawks pile up 177 yards on the ground, as Detroit did, you aren't going to win.

While Graham led Seattle in receiving in the first meeting with Atlanta, it was Doug Baldwin's show against the Lions. Paul Richardson may have gotten the accolades for his circus touchdown catch, but Baldwin keyed the Seattle passing attack, reeling in 11 passes for 104 yards and a score.

Letting Wilson's favorite target run wild like that is another way to ensure getting beat.

That isn't all. Wilson's ability to hurt defenses with his legs wasn't a factor against the Lions, but that doesn't mean it won't be next week. And this Wilson is a much tougher matchup than the hobbled version the Falcons saw earlier in the season.

There are any number of ways the Seahawks can hurt you and any number of things that can go wrong for the Falcons. Beasley needs to create pressure but maintain his rush lane and keep Wilson from getting outside. Jones and Campbell are going to need to recognize plays quickly and get to the point of attack without biting on play fakes.

Neal and an Atlanta secondary missing its best coverage corner in Desmond Trufant are going to need one of their best efforts of the season.

None of this is meant to be a harbinger of impending doom. The Seahawks are a different team on the road than at home. Their last two road trips east resulted in losses in which Seattle was outscored 52-15.

As Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner told the Associated Press (via the Atlanta Journal-Constitution), the Seahawks have matchup problems of their own against Atlanta's top-ranked offense.

"We're expecting a fight," Wagner said. "They're going to come in rested. They're going to be hungry, but we're hungry, too. We're going to come out and give 'em everything we got."

We know the Falcons will move the ball and put points on the board. They've done that all season. The Atlanta offense has been the engine that put the team on top of its division and into the playoffs.

But the old axiom "defense wins championships" rings as true in today's high-flying NFL as it ever has. Just ask the Seahawks, who rode theirs to a win in Super Bowl XLVIII. While Atlanta's defense may not be as good as Seattle's, its improvement as the season rolled on has been a bigger part of the Falcons' success in 2016 than many realize.

For their season to continue, that young defense needs to grow up in a hurry. If it can pull that off—if Atlanta's defense can make a couple of big plays and get a few timely stopsthe Falcons could be headed somewhere they haven't been in nearly two decades.

        

Gary Davenport is an NFL analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter: @IDPSharks.