Falcons’ ‘run-and-hit’ defenders respond in blowout win

It didn’t take long for Deion Jones show that the Falcons' defense would have much a different performance.

Having lost the first five games and ranking statistically as one of the NFL’s worst defenses, Jones made his presence felt early in Sunday’s 40-23 win over the Minnesota Vikings. On the first play from scrimmage, Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins faked a handoff and looked over the middle of the field to deliver a pass. Jones read the play from the jump and dropped deep enough into coverage in anticipation.

From there, Jones ran down the ball and recorded the first of three team interceptions, all of which took place in the first half.

ExplorePhotos: Falcons secure first win of season

“He threw it right to me,” Jones said. “It was a great opportunity to get a plus-one for the defense and to get the momentum started.”

The Falcons’ defense put forth a dominating performance, which hasn’t been the case in every other week of the season. The unit shut down Minnesota’s rushing attack. holding running back Alexander Mattison to only 26 yards on 10 carries. As a team, the Vikings totaled only 32 rushing yards. In addition to the defense’s quick start, the Falcons capitalized and jumped out to a 23-0 lead in the third quarter. This allowed for the defense to remain aggressive while turning the Vikings into a one-dimensional team.

And this time, in their first game since coach Dan Quinn’s dismissal, the Falcons did not experience a colossal collapse similarly seen in losses against the Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears. In both of those games, the Falcons gave up fourth-quarter leads of 15 points or more.

Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris said he challenged his “run-and-hit” leaders to not only make plays on the ball but to be sound in tackling and coverage. With three turnovers and two sacks, they did just that. Morris first credited the players for taking Thursday’s virtual practice away from the team facility, due to an assistant coach testing positive for COVID-19, as seriously as they did. He also said the Falcons' new-look coaching staff turned up the intensity toward the players in an attempt to make them feel uncomfortable at practice Wednesday and Friday.

With that, Morris saw the players respond.

“It helped me to realize that now they know what being uncomfortable is like,” Morris said. “It’s time to be comfortable being uncomfortable. It’s time to turn it up every single week.”

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The other two interceptions the Falcons recorded were just as impressive as the one Jones had. Rookie cornerback A.J. Terrell broke on a pass intended for receiver Justin Jefferson with less than six minutes remaining in the second quarter. Terrell dove low for the ball, and while he was unable to field it cleanly, he still was able to secure the ball between his knees before grabbing and tucking it away.

“I went in for the catch and the ball didn’t want to hit my hands, right?” Terrell said, smiling. “So, my legs were there and I tried to hold onto it before it hit the ground. And it went my way. The feeling is always great to get a forced turnover.”

The third interception came on the Vikings’ next possession in the second quarter, with defensive lineman Jacob Tuoti-Mariner hitting Cousins as he attempted a pass. That allowed the ball to float in the air and for linebacker Foye Oluokun to pick the pass off.

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Entering Sunday’s game, the Falcons were tied for 25th in the league with only two interceptions as a team. In addition to the uptick in turnovers, the Falcons held the Vikings to only three third-down conversions on 10 attempts. The Vikings didn’t score their first points until Jefferson caught an 11-yard touchdown with 6:25 left in the third quarter.

“We always preach the ball and a lot of guys are ball hunting,” Jones said. “We also need guys running, flying and hitting. The ball comes when you do that.”

In addition, the Falcons added a goal line stand when the Vikings were able to get the ball to the 1-yard line at the beginning of the second quarter. After two runs from the 2-yard line, Cousins play-faked and threw the ball to tight end Irv Smith Jr., with Jones knocking the ball out of his hands.

On fourth down from the 1, safety Keanu Neal stopped running back Mike Boone for a loss of a yard.

“That’s major,” Jones said. “We’ve been there before and to finally capitalize on it is awesome. It goes to show how tough we are that we were able to do it.”