Halfway through the season the Falcons aren’t half bad on defense. If that seems like faint praise, you should have seen them before.
Defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel warned us after two Pro Bowl starters from last season, linebacker Deion Jones and safety Keanu Neal, went to injured reserve after the first game.
“Next man up” sounds nice in theory. Manuel offered a dose of reality.
“I sat here after that first Philly game and I said we had some devastating blows, and that’s what they were,” Manuel said. “I don’t think that anyone really listened to me when I said we are going back to training-camp mode. I said that, (took) a lot of heat for it. But it was not just that we had young guys, but we had new guys.
“New voices. Guys that weren’t even in our training camp.”
The second training camp seems to be over for Manuel’s charges. After a month of bad defense, the Falcons (4-4) go to Cleveland on Sunday with a unit that no longer is a liability. It’s doubtful that will change against Cleveland’s poor offense, quarterbacked by rookie Baker Mayfield.
There’s renewed optimism surrounding the Falcons’ defense. That’s not just because it’s playing better, with Sunday’s 38-14 victory at Washington as the high point. It’s also because reinforcements are arriving.
Last week the Falcons saw defensive tackle Grady Jarrett return from injury and wreck Washington’s interior line. This week they added free agent Bruce Irvin. According to Pro Football Focus, Irwin was a more efficient pass rusher in eight games with the Raiders than any of his new teammates. Jones has returned to practice and is eligible to play next week against the Cowboys.
The Falcons usually can depend on their offense to play at a high level. Now they can legitimately expect their defense to carry its weight, which isn’t as heavy.
“We are starting to come together as a unit,” said veteran defensive tackle Jack Crawford, among the defenders to raise their play. “We are coming together more in practice. Grady coming back helped. We’ve peaked as far as where we were at (earlier) this year. We’ve come a long way, but we’ve got a long way to go.”
At least the Falcons can see a path to being good on defense. The Falcons were adequate on defense in a victory over the Panthers in Week 2, then struggled to get any stops while losing their next three games.
Excluding kneel-downs, the Saints, Bengals and Steelers combined to score on 19 of 30 drives, including 15 touchdowns. During that span the Falcons forced only eight punts and two turnovers. It seemed the story of the 2018 Falcons would be injuries derailing a potentially promising season.
The Falcons were undermanned and some of their veterans were in disarray. Defensive backs Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford and Brian Poole weren’t playing up to their usual standards. The pass rush was inconsistent, with Vic Beasley Jr. gone missing.
Things began to change against Tampa Bay. The Falcons were very good on defense through three quarters as the offense sputtered. The Falcons hung on because the defense made key stops -- if just barely -- and it was the first time you could say that unit won a game.
The defense was better against the Giants: four punts forced in eight full New York possessions, plus a goal-line stand. The Falcons shut down Washington early, then went wild once they got a big lead.
“You see the Tampa game, boom, that happened,” Manuel said. “You watched New York — told you about red-zone defense. And then you go consistently stop Adrian Peterson to two yards per carry, when we couldn’t stop the run (before). You take your hat off to the guys.”
Even with Irwin and their improving health, the Falcons aren’t likely to be great on defense over a long period. They don’t have to be. The defense must be considered as part of a whole, working in concert with the offense and special teams to produce winning football.
We’ve seen how that works. It’s easy to forget that the 2016 Falcons, the NFC champions, weren’t great on defense.
That season the Falcons ranked 25th in yards allowed per game, 27th in points and tied for fourth in takeaways. After eight games the 2018 Falcons ranked 28th in yards allowed, 29th in points and tied for 13th in takeaways.
You can draw a line from the lack of turnovers this season to Neal and Jones playing in one game each.
The Falcons have forced one fumble in eight games. Neal, a punishing tackler, forced five in 2016.
Passes defended are a good proxy for interception chances. Jones had 11 passes defended in 2016, second-most on the team. He had two in this season’s opener, which still is tied for the most among the team’s linebackers, though Jones hasn’t played in seven weeks.
By the end of the 2016 season, the Falcons had improved enough on defense to support a great offense on the way to the Super Bowl. That’s not likely to happen again this season. This offense can’t match that all-time great production, and the defense won’t be getting back Neal or safety Ricardo Allen.
Then again, after those first five weeks, who thought the Falcons had a chance to play halfway good defense this season? It should only get better from here.
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