Grading the Falcons: Defense, special teams lacking in 2021

Atlanta Falcons inside linebacker Foye Oluokun (54) prepares to play on defense during the second half against the New Orleans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Sunday, January 9, 2022, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz/Special to the AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz/Special to the AJC

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Atlanta Falcons inside linebacker Foye Oluokun (54) prepares to play on defense during the second half against the New Orleans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Sunday, January 9, 2022, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz/Special to the AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz/Special to the AJC

FLOWERY BRANCH – The Falcons’ re-tooled defense made steady progress over the season, going from atrocious to just barely decent, while the special teams ranked in the lower half of the 32-team NFL.

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The Falcons played their rookie defensive players in their positions except for second-round pick Richie Grant, who had trouble learning the defense at safety.

Without a dominant front and a mostly patch-work secondary, the Falcons finished in the bottom half of the league in all key categories: points allowed per game (27, 30th), yards allowed (364.4, 26th), passing yards allowed (232.5, 18th) and rushing yards allowed (131.9, 27th).

Grant played 275 defensive snaps (20%), mostly at nickel back and not at safety. Cornerback Darren Hall (282, 29%), defensive tackle Ta’Quon Graham (310, 36%) and outside linebacker Ade Ogundeji (527, 48%) all played, but without much distinction or impact.

“They played a lot,” general manager Terry Fontenot said. “You look at it, we were tops in the league in terms of the games they were active for and the amount of snaps they played not just on offense or defense, but also in the kicking game.”

ExploreA look back at the Falcons' offense in 2021 season

The Falcons are hopeful the experience will pay off in the future.

“They contributed a lot,” Fontenot said. “And that was our plan for them to come in and contribute, grow and develop. Obviously, rookies are going to, you’re going to take losses, and it’s not going to be perfect. There’s going to be some ups and downs.”

The offseason program, which starts in April, will be central to their development.

“So, we appreciate the fight that we got from that group,” Fontenot said. “We believe they’re wired the right way.”

Here’s a look at how the units performed:

DEFENSIVE LINE

With tackle Grady Jarrett as the centerpiece up front, the Falcons moved to a 3-4 defensive alignment in the 2021 season.

Jarrett played 865 defensive snaps and had 59 tackles, a sack and 17 pressures (hurries on knockdowns) on the quarterback. But he primarily was the lone producer on the line as injuries and COVID-19 cases had the Falcons shuttling players in and out of the lineup.

Jarrett, defensive end Jonathan Bullard and nose tackle Tyeler Davison worked together for most of training camp, but injuries and sickness held Bullard to nine games, four starts and only 224 defensive snaps (19.1%). Davison played in 12 games, made 11 starts and amassed 358 defensive snaps (30.6%).

Bullard finished with 21 tackles and Davison 30.

The defensive front didn’t help much in the pass rush. Only Jarrett and Marlon Davidson had a sack.

The Falcons also used veteran free agents Mike Pennel and Anthony Rush, who was the only true nose tackle on the roster.

Pennel played in 10 games for 250 defensive snaps and made 21 tackles.

Rush played in 10 games and made six starts. He played 251 defensive snaps and finished with 19 tackles.

Davidson, a former second-round pick, played in 11 games and made one start. He finished with 21 tackles.

Graham played in 13 games and made five starts. He finished with 15 tackles.

John Cominsky played in only four games.

Grade: D

LINEBACKERS

The Falcons’ rotation at outside linebacker did not produce much pressure on the quarterback, leaving inside linebackers Foye Oluokun and Deion Jones to do most of the heavy lifting.

Oluokun, a sixth-round draft pick from Yale in 2018, led the NFL in tackles, with 192. The team’s defensive signal-caller, Oluokun also had three interceptions, including a game-saving pick in the victory over Detroit.

Jones, a sixth-year pro from LSU, was productive, with 137 tackles, but he had 17 missed tackles (11%) and played with a chronic shoulder issue. Mykal Walker has flashed in limited duty at inside linebacker and appears ready to step in if the Falcons can’t re-sign Oluokun.

As for the outside linebackers, Dante Fowler led the team with 4.5 sacks. After an injury-plagued 2020, Fowler restructured his contract with the Falcons with a heavy dose of incentives. He would have earned an extra $1 million if he reached five sacks.

The Falcons have high hopes for Ogundeji, but he failed to make many splash plays. He finished with one sack in 11 starts.

The defense finished last in the NFL in sacks, with only 18, and also last in sacks per pass attempt ratio (3.12%).

The Steelers (55), Vikings (51), Rams (50), Bears (49) and 49ers and Dolphins (48) were the top six teams with the most sacks, and all doubled the Falcons’ output. Actually, there were 18 other teams with at least twice as many sacks as the Falcons.

Oluokun, who played at Yale, finished a four-year, $2.6 million deal that averaged $651,657 annually.

“One for me, where I feel like I could be successful,” Oluokun said on what he’d look for in a team in free agency. “... I don’t just want to go where they offer me money, and I’m not going to be successful in the scheme. I want to go where I’m going to be successful and we can end up winning games.”

Grade: D

SECONDARY

The Falcons opened the season with new starters in three of the five key secondary positions.

A.J. Terrell retained the left cornerback position, and Isaiah Oliver kept the nickel back spot that he slid into in 2020.

The Falcons gave up 232.5 yards passing per game, which ranked 18th in the NFL.

Fabian Moreau took over at right cornerback, Duron Harmon at strong safety and Erik Harris at free safety. Jaylinn Hawkins, saw significant time at free safety, at first splitting time and then taking over after Harris was lost for the season.

Harris was the weakest link in the secondary. He made 64 tackles, but he missed 11 tackles and had the highest missed-tackle percentage (14.7%) on the team.

Overall, opposing quarterbacks had a 97.4 passer rating against the Falcons.

“The thing that we just really have to develop in the offseason and before next year is the ability to rush the passer and not always have to pressure to do it,” Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “And No. 2 is to be able to play man coverage better in the back end. It’s kind of a twofold thing, if you don’t get to the quarterback that means a secondary is hung out there forever, and that’s not good.”

Grade: C-minus

SPECIAL TEAMS

Falcons rookie wide receiver Frank Darby offered some confessions of a special-teams gunner.

He contributed on special teams, as he played 126 snaps (53%). He received his welcome-to-the-NFL moment in the exhibition season against Cleveland.

“My first time running down on kick return, I’m trying to get my number,” Darby said. “Boom! He ran right through me. Oh my God. He ran right through me and made the tackle. I looked at the sidelines, wow, this is treacherous. They are coming down fighting mad and ready to go.”

The talkative Darby had nothing to say.

“Just get up, put your head down Frank and walk to the sideline,” Darby said. “There’s nothing to talk about. This is a man’s game.”

Darby, who was drafted in the sixth round (187th overall) out of Arizona State, learned his lessons fast. By the ninth game, he was a regular on the coverage units.

“It’s been fun, though,” Darby said. “I won some matchups, too.”

Fullback Keith Smith was the leader in special-teams tackles with eight. Linebacker Mykal Walker, Pro Bowl long snapper Josh Harris and cornerback Avery Williams, all had seven special-teams tackles.

Featuring kicker Younghoe Koo and Harris, the Falcons’ special-teams units finished ranked 23rd overall in the annual special-teams rankings compiled by longtime NFL writer Rick Gosselin for the past 43 years.

The league’s 32 teams are ranked in 22 kicking-game categories and assigned points according to their standing – one for best, 32 for worst. The Ravens compiled 241.5 points to finish first and 30.5 better than the runner-up Indianapolis Colts at 272.

The Saints (299.5) finished fifth overall and were the top NFC South team.

The Falcons had 408.5 points and were the second NFC South team, followed by Carolina (428.5, 28th) and Tampa Bay (429, 29th).

The Falcons ranked in the top five in two of the 22 categories. They finished third in field-goal percentage with 93.1% and tied for first in extra-point percentage at 100%. The Saints were last at 81.5% in extra-point.

Grade: C-minus

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