Falcons must fix coverage issues on defense

There wasn’t a Falcons defender within 10 yards of speedy Green Bay running back Aaron Jones.

How did he get left wide open?

It continued to happen throughout the game as Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers shredded the Falcons' beleaguered defense in a 30-16 Green Bay victory in front of the whole nation watching on “Monday Night Football.”

Two Falcons defenders went with the tight end and left Jones open for the Packers' first touchdown.

Green Bay tight end Robert Tonyan doubled his career touchdown output against the Falcons. He had only three touchdowns overall, but got loose for three against the Falcons.

Later in the second quarter, the visiting Falcons forced Green Bay into a fourth-and-2 from the 28, but they left three receivers open, all beyond the first-down marker.

Marquez Valdes-Scantling was open with two players covering him. Tonyan was open in the flat, and seldom-used wide receiver Malik Taylor was open for a 20-yard gain.

“When you have some guys out, of course that’s going to be a factor,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn of the broken coverages. “You’ve got to make sure that you can do less, but also at the same time, when you’re facing a quarterback like Rodgers you want to have some disguise that goes along with that.”

The Falcons have a rash of injuries it their secondary, and ESPN analyst Louis Riddick kept pleading with the Falcons coaches to simplify things. He wanted the Falcons to just drop back in zone, keep the ball in front of them and go tackle.

“Certainly, losing (safeties Damontae) Kazee and (Jaylinn) Hawkins early on, that was a factor for us, for sure,” Quinn said. “No doubt about it, execution comes before anything else.”

There are too many open receivers against the Falcons' defensive scheme.

“I think (Falcons defensive coordinator) Raheem (Morris) has done a great job with marrying in a couple of concepts that you don’t always see from this style of defense with, whether it’s some of the two-deep stuff that he’s been doing as well as giving you the same look and playing something different out of it,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. “He’s done a tremendous job with that.”

But the players have not done a good job with it. The lack of pass rush has exposed the defensive backups in coverage and allowed Dallas and Chicago to mount fourth-quarter rallies from 16 point and 15-point deficits.

Last season, when the Falcons started 1-7, there were trying to play multiple defenses. The team didn’t start winning until Morris moved to the defense and simplified things.

After wins over New Orleans (26-9) and the Panthers (29-3), the Falcons were set to face the Bucs on Nov. 24. Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians was asked about the Falcons' turnaround on defense.

“Just looking at those last two games, they look a little different than previous,” Arians said. “Less man-to-man. More zone coverage. The pass rush has been outstanding the last two games. It’s a good combination of coverage and pass rush.”

Why the Falcons have moved from the formula that helped them go 6-2 down the stretch last season is puzzling. They went back to the multiple fronts and tried to better disguise if they were in cover-3, cover-2, man-to-man or some man/zone combination.

The Falcons signed defensive end/linebacker Dante Fowler to a three-year, $45 million contract. Because he can play defensive end or linebacker, he makes the defense work.

However, Fowler and Takk McKinley, the other defensive end/linebacker, have been hurt. Fowler has an ankle injury, and McKinley missed most of the Dallas game and didn’t play against the Bears and Packers.

Fowler and McKinley have one sack each.

“That all works from the back to the front,” Fowler said. “From the front to the back. Teams I have been part of, they do their job on the back end, and we do our job on the front end. There were times out there (against the Packers) that he was sitting back there a little bit and we never got to him. Put that on us.”

With only seven sacks through four games, the Falcons are on pace to match their output (28) of last season.

“Keep rushing,” Fowler said. “Keep fighting. You never know when it’s going to be your moment. Just be ready to make the play when you have the opportunity.”

Charles Harris, who missed the first two games with an ankle injury, had a sack and a quarterback hit against Green Bay. He has two sacks. Over 41 games at Miami, the former first-round pick had 3.5 sacks total.

The Falcons did not re-sign their top two pass rushers from last season in Vic Beasley and Adrian Clayborn and replaced them with Fowler and Harris.

“Yeah, it was encouraging to see those flashes,” Fowler said. “I know that Charles got his sack. Grady (Jarrett) was out there making plays. He was in the backfield blowing up some plays. We just have to take some good things and roll them into next week and find better things that we can do to get the (win).”

Whatever defense the Falcons end up playing, they still have big goals for 2020.

“You’ve never out of the picture,” Fowler said. "It’s only the first quarter. It’s only four games. Be patient with us and good things will come out of the this.

“I feel like we are just kind of having some injuries, everybody is not playing, this is probably my first game actually feeling somewhat 95 to 100%, you know what I mean. It’s a long season. We just have to weather the storm, that’s all I have to say.”

Falcons' next four games

Panthers at Falcons at 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 11

Falcons at Vikings at 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18

Lions at Falcons at 1 p.m. Sunday Oct. 2

Falcons at Panthers at 8:20 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 29

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