Falcons looking for improvement on defense

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- It’s never wise to put too much stock in exhibition games, but no one was pleased with how the Falcons’ first-team defense performed Aug. 12 against the Lions.

The defense will be in the spotlight when the Falcons (1-0) face the New York Jets (1-0) at 8 p.m. Monday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., in their second exhibition game.

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The Falcons could have as many as seven new starters on defense, and coordinator Dean Pees is passionate about changing the image of a unit that finished 26th in the NFL in yards allowed last season and last in sacks. So, what happened against the Lions?

The Lions zipped down the field on their first drive with pass completions of 18, nine and 20 yards. The Falcons also gave up rushes of nine and seven yards and a 9-yard touchdown run.

“Did not like the first drive,” Pees said.

It’s early, but the Falcons’ defense needs to start showing a pulse soon.

I think we’ve got some great energy on this team,” said Ade Ogundeji, a promising second-year player. “A lot of guys are excited. I just think the vibe in (the locker room) is good. Last year, was new for not just rookies but everybody in the system. A lot of people are more confident in the system. The communication is better.”

Ogundeji is one of the four returning starters, along with defensive end Grady Jarrett, cornerback A.J. Terrell and safety Jaylinn Hawkins, who became a starter after Erik Harris was injured. The projected new opening-day starters are defensive end Taquon Graham, nose tackle Anthony Rush, outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter, inside linebackers Rashaan Evans and Mykal Walker, cornerback Casey Hayward and safety Richie Grant.

Hayward, a two-time Pro Bowler, signed to help improve the cornerback play opposite Terrell. The Falcons also must find a nickel back, as Isaiah Oliver is coming back from knee surgery and is spending some practice time at safety.

Hayward, who’s headed into his 11th NFL season, knows the Falcons played in a lot of close games last season. The Falcons were 7-10 overall last season and 7-2 in one-score games. When they stepped up in weight class and played tougher foes, they lost by margins of 26, 23, 40, 25, 13, 18, 14 and 10 points.

“If you can get to 10 (wins), with 17 games, you’re probably going to make the playoffs,” Hayward said. “We’ve got the talent, but we’ve got to put it all together into one accord. Everybody around the league is thinking the same thing.”

The Falcons believe they are putting in the work and the defense will come together.

“Everybody on this team has high expectations,” Hayward said. “Nobody doesn’t want to say we are not going to make the playoffs or try to win a division, even though this division is pretty tough. Everybody’s got the same mindset, to go out here and win games and win the division. That’s ultimately the goal, no matter what outsiders think.”

Rookie outside linebackers Arnold Ebiketie and DeAngelo Malone have shown some promise.

“I’m still learning,” Malone said. “I’m still getting better.”

Malone, a third-round draft pick, has impressed the veterans with his tenacity in practice.

“I’ve had that mindset since the age of 6, when I started playing football,” Malone said. “So, I do everything full speed.”

Malone, who played at Cedar Grove High and has a family full of Falcons fans, knows he was drafted to fix a long-standing problem.

“That’s the biggest goal, it’s all about getting to that quarterback,” Malone said. “We just have to get after the quarterback.”

The Falcons’ reserves did register a sack and had one nullified by penalty against the Lions.

“We just want to keep building upon that,” Malone said. “Just keep racking the sacks up.”

Despite how easily Detroit zipped down the field, Pees found some bright spots in the overall effort.

“(Lions coach) Dan Campbell’s teams are going to play physical,” Pees said. “He was a physical player. He coaches physical. They’re physical. I was concerned because we really haven’t hit out here.

“We did not have a lot of missed tackles. I think we had seven, maybe. ... I thought we stayed in there physically. I thought our guys hit, tried to hit, tried to play hard.”

-The AJC’s Michael Cunningham contributed to this article.

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