Cover 9@9: Falcons’ defense needs to step up

1. The no-spin zone: The Falcons’ defense could receive a boost this week with the return of cornerback A.J. Terrell, who has missed the past three games and played only eight snaps in the game before that (Cincinnati), after injuring his hamstring against San Francisco on Oct. 16.

He’s had five weeks of therapy, and the hamstring usually takes four to six weeks, so it is reasonable for coach Arthur Smith to be hopeful about Terrell’s possible return to practice Wednesday.

ExploreBears’ Justin Fields returns home to face Falcons

The Falcons’ defense ranks 31st in the NFL in yards allowed at 399.5. They rank last (32nd) in passing yards allowed and 18th in rushing yards allowed (119.4 yards per game). The Falcons rank 27th in points allowed (25) and 29th on third-down conversions (46.62%).

The Falcons are set to play the Bears, who rank No. 1 in rushing offense, on Sunday. Then they play the Washington Commanders, who improved to 5-5 with their victory over the Eagles on Monday night. Then they face the Steelers (3-6) on Dec. 4 before getting to their bye week.

If the Falcons can run the table before the bye week and climb to 7-6, this playoff talk will be legitimized and blessed by the football gods.

To do that, the defense must stop the run against the Bears, and they’ll need Terrell back by the Washington game because they’ll need an answer for wide receiver Terry McLaurin. The Steelers look like easy pickings these days.

Smith has noted on a few occasions that the Patriots reached the Super Bowl with the 31st-ranked defense in yards allowed. They lost to the Giants in Super Bowl 46.

The Patriots were a clear outlier.

Before all of the pass-happy rule changes, a top-10 or an outlier top-16 defense was needed to reach the Super Bowl in the “defense wins championships” era.

We checked the 40 defenses to reach the Super Bowl over the past 20 seasons, and 15 of 40 (.375) did not finish in the top half of the league in yards allowed.

The Super Bowl 52 Patriots ranked 29th. The Super Bowl 46 Giants ranked 27th, the Super Bowl 44 Saints ranked 25th and the Super Bowl 51 Falcons ranked 25th.

But the Saints and the Falcons both had the No. 1 scoring offense during their Super Bowl runs.

Last season, the Rams ranked 17th in yards allowed and the Bengals 18th.

In scoring defense over the past 20 Super Bowls, only nine of 40 defenses (22.5%) were not ranked in the top half of the league.

The Cardinals, who played in Super Bowl 43, had the worst-ranked scoring defense (28th), and the Falcons had the second-worst scoring defense (27th) over the past 20 Super Bowls.

For the Falcons to get moving, they can cling to the 2011 Patriots and their outlier 31st ranking or start stopping teams.

The Falcons also need to get their points down from 25 per game and try to make a leap into the top half of the league.

2. Falcons passed on Justin Fields: The Falcons heavily scouted the quarterbacks eligible for the 2021 NFL draft.

Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Trey Lance went with the first three picks. The Falcons held the fourth pick and passed on Ohio State’s Justin Fields and Alabama’s Mac Jones. The Falcons elected to take Florida tight end Kyle Pitts.

Fields, who also played at Harrison High and Georgia, went 11th overall to the Bears.

The Falcons (4-6) are set to host Fields and the Bears (3-7) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

3. Bears studied Ravens: After studying how the Baltimore Ravens use quarterback Lamar Jackson, the Bears have unlocked a nice offensive plan for Fields, who leads the league in rushing first downs, with 48.

He’s rushed for 325 yards and three touchdowns in the Bears’ past two games.

“I have been so pumped watching it,” said former NFL quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, an Amazon Prime “Thursday Night Football” analyst. “I didn’t know. I had no idea he was that athletic, that he was that good of a runner.”

Fields has completed 122 of 207 passes (58.9%) for 1,489 yards and 12 touchdowns and thrown seven interceptions. He has a passer rating of 86.4. He tossed a costly interception that was returned for a touchdown in the Bears’ 31-30 loss to the Lions on Sunday.

Fitzpatrick said a lot of young quarterbacks resort to scrambling because of the uncertainty of reading defenses.

“There are a lot of athletic quarterbacks coming into the league, and it’s part of their game,” Fitzpatrick said. “You see as guys get older maybe less scrambling and maybe more getting out of the pocket to make big plays down the field. We have been so happy with the offense in Chicago the last (few) weeks and with what it looks like.”

With Fields leading the way, the Bears rank No. 1 in rushing offense, at 201.7 yards per game.

“He’s different, his second system he’s already been in, in the NFL,” Smith said. “I think a lot of times people are so quick to judge one way or the other. There’s a lot of things that have to go into it for a guy to be very successful.”

Fields went 2-8 as a starter in his rookie season, and coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace were fired. Pace now is a senior personnel executive with the Falcons.

“I think what the Bears have done, is they’ve found an identity, they have a formula right now. You see what the numbers are running the football as well as anybody,” Smith said. “He’s a huge part of that. Whether it’s designed runs or you get into a game like New England when they get those third downs, and he was able to break those tackles, he’s a hard guy to bring down.”

Fields also is getting better at extending plays and breaking down defenses.

“You certainly see his confidence growing,” Smith said. “He’s strong, ... and he’s probably the strongest guy they’ve got in the backfield, taking into account the running backs.”

4. Falcons’ run defense dips 10 spots: Fields will challenge the Falcons’ run defense.

After giving up 232 yards rushing to the Panthers, the Falcons dropped 11 spots, from the eighth-ranked run defense to 18th, at 119.4 yards per game.

“So, he’s doing a nice job, and we’ve got to make sure we tackle well,” Smith said. “We’ve got to clearly stop the run, not just him, but their traditional runs as well.”

5. Monsters of Midway retooling: After trading defensive end Robert Quinn and linebacker Roquan Smith, the Bears’ defense has gotten younger.

Jack Sanborn, an undrafted rookie from Wisconsin, is starting. He led them with 12 tackles against the Lions.

Defensive tackle Justin Jones, a former South Cobb High and N.C. State standout, starts along with rookie defensive end Dominique Robinson, who made his first start against the Lions.

Robinson was a fifth-round pick from Miami (Ohio) who had a strong Senior Bowl.

“They play hard like you’d expect from a (Bears coach) Matt Eberflus defense,” Smith said. “All of his defenses (play hard). They did (when Eberflus was defensive coordinator) in Indianapolis. They’ve been in a lot of close games as well, and those guys have been fighting up front.”

Bears safeties Eddie Jackson and rookie Jaquan Brisker anchor the secondary. Jackson leads the Bears in tackles with 70 and has four interceptions. The two-time Pro Bowl player and one-time All-Pro has 10 career forced fumbles.

The hard-hitting Brisker was taken in the second round (48th overall) and ranks second on the team with 62 tackles and has an interception.

“He does a good job of reading the quarterback’s eyes,” Smith said of Jackson. “He’s got experience. He’s got instincts playing deep, and that’s why he’s been a productive player in the NFL.”

The Bears have lost six of their past seven games. The lone win was a 33-14 victory at New England on Oct. 24.

6. Series history: This will be the 29th meeting. The Bears lead the series 15-13.

The Bears won the last meeting 30-26 on Sept. 27, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Falcons blew a 26-10 lead. Nick Foles came off the bench and tossed three fourth-quarter touchdown passes to rally the Bears to victory. The Falcons dropped to 0-3, and Dan Quinn would be fired after two more losses.

7. Power rankings: The Bucs are ranked 14th in the power rankings compiled by the33rdteam.com.

The Falcons are ranked 23rd, followed by Panthers at 28th and the Saints at 31st.

The Bears are ranked 27th.

8. Tale of the tape: Here’s how the Falcons and Bears match up statistically:

2022 season rankings

Falcons / Bears

23.2 (12) Pts/Game 21.7 (19)

317.2 (27) Tot Off. 329.8 (21)

160.4 (4) Net Rush Yds/Game 201.7 (1)

156.8 (30) Net Pass Yds/Game 128.1 (32)

29:41 (19) Poss Avg. 30:13 (15t)

25.0 (27) Opp Pts/Game 24.7 (26)

399.5 (31) Opp Tot Off. 345.4 (15)

119.4 (18) Opp Rush Yds/Game 142.0 (28)

280.1 (32) Opp Pass Yds/Game 230.4 (10)

0 (14t) Turnover Differential 0 (14t)

9. Depth chart: Here’s a look at the Falcons’ depth chart:

OFFENSE

QB – Marcus Mariota, Desmond Ridder

RB – Cordarrelle Patterson, Tyler Allgeier, Caleb Huntley, Avery Williams

FB – Keith Smith

WR – Drake London, Bryan Edwards

TE – Kyle Pitts, Parker Hesse, Anthony Firkser, MyCole Pruitt, Feleipe Franks

LT – Jake Matthews, Chuma Edoga

LG – Colby Gossett, Chuma Edoga

C – Drew Dalman

RG – Chris Lindstrom

RT – Kaleb McGary, Germain Ifedi

WR – Olamide Zaccheaus, KhaDarel Hodge, Damiere Byrd

DEFENSE

OLB – Lorenzo Carter, DeAngelo Malone

DE – Grady Jarrett, Timothy Horne

NT – Abdullah Anderson, Timothy Horne

DE – Ta’Quon Graham, Matt Dickerson

OLB – Ade Ogundeji, Arnold Ebiketie

ILB – Rashaan Evans, Nick Kwiatkoski

ILB – Mykal Walker, Troy Andersen, Nathan Landman

CB – A.J. Terrell, Isaiah Oliver, Mike Ford, Rashad Fenton

FS – Jaylinn Hawkins, Jovante Moffatt

SS – Richie Grant, Erik Harris

CB – Darren Hall, Dee Alford, Cornell Armstrong

SPECIAL TEAMS

K – Younghoe Koo

P/H – Bradley Pinion

LS – Liam McCullough

KR – Avery Williams