Falcons head coach Dan Quinn talks about the team's preparations, including changes on the defensive roster, ahead of the home opener against Carolina Panthers. (Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter)

Injuries hurt Falcons defense, but the schedule might help

I thought this would be the season coach Dan Quinn fields a great defense for the Falcons. They’ve been adding draft talent to that unit for three years, and now experience and Quinn’s knack for squeezing production would be the ingredients that finally make them elite. 

But now maybe the two most talented Falcons defenders are on injured reserve. Safety Keanu Neal is out for the season, while the Falcons say linebacker Deon Jones still could return this season. The Falcons’ relatively good luck with injuries over the past two seasons has run out. 

It can be difficult to isolate the impact of any one player (other than the quarterback) because football is such an interconnected game. But it’s hard to believe the Falcons can be great on defense without two Pro Bowl talents who embodied the defensive style that Quinn favors. There’s always the chance the offense reaches its vast potential one of these days, but optimism about that took a hit with the debacle in Philadelphia. 

If you are looking for silver linings, the Falcons will face several opponents that are projected to be mediocre or worse on offense. Here are Football Outsiders preseason projections for offensive Defensive-adjusted Value Over Average.

Opponent Off. DVOA
projection rank
Panthers 27
Saints 3
Bengals 18
Steelers 1
Bucs 21
Giants 25
Washington 10
Browns 23
Cowboys 6
Ravens 24
Packers 4
Cardinals 26

 Source: Football Outsiders

The Panthers, this week’s Falcons opponent, are not formidable with the ball — their two touchdowns drives against Dallas in Week 1 went for 35 yards and 58 yards. The Saints (Week 3) will always be a good offensive threat — as long as Drew Brees is quarterback, but after improving dramatically on defense last year that unit looked suspect again in the Week 1 home loss to the Bucs. 

Cincinnati (Week 4) may have a decent offense. The Steelers (Week 5) are weakened by LeVeon Bell’s holdout and committed six turnovers while scoring 21 points during their Week 1 tie against the Browns. 

After that, the Falcons will face three potentially bad offensive teams in three of the next four games: Bucs, Giants and Browns. Washington (Week 9) may be pretty good on offense, but the jury is out on its defense. The Cowboys (Week 11) are like the Falcons in that they are still trying to produce on offense like their talent suggests they should (and Jones could be back by then). 

Falcons linebacker Deion Jones is on injured reserve.
Photo: John Spink / jspink@ajc.com

The last four Falcons opponents include just one team, the Packers, who we are certain will be good on offense (assuming Aaron Rodgers’ knee holds up). The Falcons finish with the Cardinals, Panthers and Buccaneers. 

These are only projections. The Football Outsiders statistical predictions include lots of variables (detailed here), but there always will be some unexpected developments, and luck always plays a role. FO’s Aaron Schatz notes that offensive performance tends to be easier to predict than defensive performance, but it’s inevitable that some of the projections are off. 

And I’m not trying to downplay the injuries to Jones and Neal. Jones is a sideline-to-sideline playmaker and very good in coverage. Neal is a physical “box” safety. They are near-perfect players for Quinn’s preferred style. 

As noted, Quinn and his staff have a track record for developing unsung defensive players into solid contributors. But there will be a significant drop-off in talent and experience from Jones and Neal to the next men up. 

Still, there could be enough middling-to-bad offensive teams on the Falcons’ schedule to mitigate their absences. If the Falcons figure out how to score points in the red zone, maybe they can play good-enough defense against this schedule and still make it to the playoffs.

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About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010.