Falcons defensive back Desmond Trufant talks about his interception and the team's defensive performance against Carolina. (Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC)

Whoever is calling plays, Falcons defense making them

Last week the Falcons went to New Orleans and dominated the Saints, who might be the NFC’s best team. The Falcons were even better Sunday against the Panthers, who are one of the NFC teams chasing a wild card. At least that’s how the Panthers looked until the Falcons came to town and beat them 29-3. 

» MORE: Dan Quinn’s expectations for defense

The Falcons (3-7) lost seven of their first eight games in large part because their defense was among the worst in the league. They’ve won two in a row because, suddenly, their defense is stout. The Falcons have allowed 15 points with no touchdowns (!) over the past 10 quarters. 

The defensive improvement correlates with Quinn ceding play-calling duties to assistants after beginning the season as coordinator. I still think it’s too simplistic to cite that as the main cause. There’s something different about the Falcons’ defense since the first half against Seattle and play calls can’t explain it. 

“We are running the same defenses,” Falcons cornerback Isaiah Oliver said “Nothing has changed. It’s just working better, honestly. Guys are communicating more. We are getting more urgent and getting to the ball quicker. 

“But in terms of the scheme? Everything is the same.” 

» ALSO: Matt Ryan 10th on all-time passing list

In other words, the Falcons now are playing the fast and physical style that Quinn tried to import from Seattle but has never quite delivered. I’m tempted to wave it away because it’s only been two-and-half games. The problem with that is I saw how bad the Falcons were over the first 7-1/2 games, and how good they’ve been since. 

A group that once went nearly five games without a sack has 11 in the past two. They sacked Carolina QB Kyle Allen five times. After forcing four turnovers in their first nine games, the Falcons had three before halftime at Carolina and another after. All of them were interceptions, which had gone missing for the Falcons over seven straight games. 

“We just went back to the basics,” Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant said. “Having fun, running and hitting. It’s showing.” 

Falcons coach Dan Quinn discusses the team's dominant performance in win over Panthers in Charlotte. (Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC)

The Panthers saw it. Maybe they just aren’t that good. They’d gone on a run with Allen, Cam Newton’s backup, but he’d started to show signs of fraying. The Falcons overwhelmed Carolina’s leaky line to get to Allen, who had the most meaningless 325 yards passing you’ll ever see. 

But the Falcons also beat a good New Orleans line to get to Drew Brees. And they bottled up Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, the NFL’s leading rusher, during the part of the game that mattered. That’s two weeks in a row that the Falcons negated the best thing the other team had doing. 

That second-half comeback against Seattle was the only indication over six weeks that the Falcons could play winning defense. It turns out that was the start of a trend. Since then, the Falcons have outscored foes by an aggregate 75-15. 

The points scored isn’t surprising for a team that employs Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. The points allowed is shocking for a team that, even after the victory at New Orleans, ranked tied for 29th in that category. 

“We saw a little bit of a shift in our second half against Seattle and we started to improve and come together,” Quinn said. 

Carolina didn’t score until it decided to kick a 31-yard field goal in the fourth quarter instead of trying to score a touchdown. The Panthers were down 26-0 by then. They’d gotten booed of the field at halftime, when they trailed 20-0. 

Three of Carolina’s six possession in the first half ended with interceptions. Linebacker De’Vondre Campbell snagged one during Carolina’s first series. When the Panthers got into scoring position for the first time, Trufant picked off Allen’s pass in the end zone. Carolina threatened to score again near the end of the first half but safety Ricardo Allen intercepted Allen’s throw at the three-yard line. 

Strong defense and Kenjon Barner’s 78-yard punt return TD allowed the Falcons to keep Carolina at arm’s length as their offense sputtered. Four first-half trips inside Carolina’s red zone netted just 13 points. The Falcons put away Carolina with Calvin Ridley’s TD catch on their first possession after halftime. 

Carolina had no chance to come back. Not with the Falcons suddenly playing great defense. The Falcons were so good that I looked at their schedule and started to wonder. ... 

They play three straight games at home. Next week they get the Bucs, who are 3-7 after losing at home Sunday to the Saints. After that it’s the Saints and the Panthers, opponents that the Falcons just dominated. Could the Falcons really go on a long winning streak? 

I don’t think so. Then again, I never would have thought the Falcons’ defense could be as good as it’s looked the past two weeks. 

“That’s the defense we expected to be playing from the start,” Oliver said. “It’s bittersweet because we know we have the potential to do it. We weren’t able to it for the first eight weeks of the season but now we are starting to figure out that we have it in us.” 

It doesn’t matter who’s calling the plays if the Falcons defense keep making them.

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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. 
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