Falcons defensive end Takk McKinley flushes Carolina quarterback Cam Newton out of the pocket. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Any chance Falcons defense can overcome this injury curse?

The new Attitude Coach of the Falcons’ defense has it all together for Sunday’s win-or-fall-into-a-hole-deeper-than-Zen-Buddhism game at Pittsburgh.

Takk McKinley, whose three sacks against Cincinnati accounted for almost all the highlights on defense Sunday, has his laser sight set on Ben Roethlisberger. Although we’ll note here that the Steelers quarterback has at least one inch and a good 10 pounds on this particular rush end. Any prey that large is usually on some wildlife group’s protected list.  

“Big Ben is one of the best quarterbacks of all time, but he hasn’t seen Takk McKinley. That’s just me being honest. A great quarterback, I respect him, but he hasn’t seen me,” said McKinley, shifting effortlessly between third and first person.

Such confidence coming from within a defense that is 28th in the NFL in yards allowed and that is hemorrhaging points (30th in the league at 30.5 per game) is kind of cute. Gotta like such defiance in the face of adversity. McKinley would have made a great drummer aboard the Titanic.

And I’m guessing that somewhere along his 15 seasons Roethlisberger may have run into at least one or two pass rushers of McKinley’s stature.

Piece by piece, chamber by chamber, the heart of the Falcons’ defense has been cut out already this season. Once – just a month or so ago, although it seems much longer – this unit was looking to be an equal partner in a run to a hometown Super Bowl. Now it’s the sole, glaring cause of a 1-3 beginning.

Losing on average one key member a week probably isn’t sustainable. At this pace, the Falcons will be posting openings for defensive help on ZipRecruiter.com by mid-November.  

It’s not just the number of injuries, it’s the quality of player afflicted by them. This week it’s Grady Jackson (ankle), the soul of the D-line. Before, of course, down went linebacker Deion Jones and the leaders at the back end of the secondary, safeties Keanu Neal (knee) and Ricardo Allen (Achilles). These are the kind of injuries that seem almost tailored to create the most possible harm to a team, injuries the way they used to make them in the Old Testament. 

The problem with the “next man up” mantra that everyone around here adopts is that the next man up isn’t as good as the fellow he’s replacing. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be the next man up. 

In the short term, the Falcons can scrape by this week because the Steelers have an even more statistically weak defense. Their best running back has opted to keep himself in a dark cellar and age like fine wine for a bit. And no one’s talking “Brotherhood” around the Steelers camp these days.

Longer term, how can the Falcons get appreciably better on defense when there has been such a dire talent drain and they apparently are in no position to import significant help? How can lesser players produce greater results?

Their D coordinator, Marquand Manuel, pointed to halftime of last week’s game against the Bengals, when they decided just to simplify. The Falcons played far more man-to-man, and did stand up far better to Cincinnati than in the first half.

“Going forward I told the guys you can’t line up without talking to one person. It’s new guys talking to new guys. Guys who have more experience, we need them to talk more. And the guys that don’t have (experience), we need you to talk to the guys who have it,” Manuel said.

“You have to win every battle with details,” he said.

Said Falcons coach Dan Quinn, “I think you’ll see this group get better quickly.”

He bases this optimism on potential improvements in four areas: Communication; tackling; pass rush; and ball-hawking (creating turnovers). At least three of those areas could be immediately addressed if only all the Falcons best players weren’t getting gang tackled by orthopedists.   

It would be grand to believe linebacker De’Vondre Campbell when he assures, “It’s not anything that other teams are doing. It’s all us. So, if we get our stuff in order we’ll be just fine. 

“We got to be honest about the mistakes we’ve made so far and correct them and make sure they don’t continue to happen.”

Ah, if the Falcons could just get a litttttttle bit better on defense, the potency of their offense just might carry them from there. But it’s just so hard to envision any relief from this plague of injury. So hard to not already consider this season damned.  

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

About the Author

Steve Hummer
Steve Hummer
Steve Hummer writes sports features for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He covers a wide range of sports and topics.