Falcons’ Ta’Quon Graham helping with the dirty work

FLOWERY BRANCH – Falcons second-year defensive lineman Ta’Quon Graham is starting to make plays.

The Falcons (1-2) will need Graham’s stoutness when they face the rugged Cleveland Browns (2-1) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“Defensively, I think TQ Graham’s playing really well,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “A lot of subtle things. I think some of these pressures late (in the game Sunday against Seattle) affected the quarterback, and he kind of grinded out some rush, and that’s why you keep chipping away.”

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees said, “He’s been playing the run well. Learning the system. He’s been playing well.”

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The Falcons were looking for someone to help stabilize the interior of the defense alongside two-time Pro Bowler Grady Jarrett. Graham, who was taken in the fifth round out of Texas in 2021, has stepped forward.

You can’t tell what he’s doing from the stat book because he does a lot of the dirty work. He has to fight through double-teams. Stack up blockers so they can’t get to the linebackers. It’s pretty much the thankless job of the defense.

“I have a Pro Bowl guy ahead of me, see how he approaches the game,” Graham said of Jarrett. “I’ve just been slowly applying the things I learned from him and the other vets as well.”

Graham’s work early in the season has not gone unnoticed.

“Really just fundamentally, the way he’s taking on blocks, the little things, the technique things that matter in the run game,” Smith said. “Not get turned, not guessing, that’s what it comes down to – leverage, fundamentals, being able to play good combination blocks.”

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Browns quarterback Jacoby Brissett has noticed the play of the Falcons’ defense.”

“Dean Pees is doing a really good job with those guys,” Brissett told the Cleveland media Wednesday. “A lot of guys flying around, which if you know his style of defense, he loves that. A lot of guys making plays.

As a bonus, Graham has added to the Falcons’ pass rush. He leads the team with five quarterback hits.

“He had a couple pressures the other day (against Seattle) that don’t show up on the stat sheet as pretty as a sack, but he can affect the quarterback, too,” Smith said. “He’s taking a step, and in the obvious rush situations, so just pleased with where he’s trending.”

Graham, who’s 6-foot-4 and 307 pounds, has seven tackles. He has become a student of the pro game.

“Expecting what type of box you’ll get,” Graham said, offering an example of what he’s learning. “Who’s fitting the gaps around you. The freedom that you have to maybe make a play or two when you know you have people around you.”

He’s more aware of his teammates and what offensive lines are trying to accomplish.

“If you know where they are, you can maybe make a quick move and you have help, you can make that move more confidently,” Graham said.

Studying the opposition’s formations is key to getting pre-snap tips based off their alignment.

“Reading the offensive linemen’s splits and things like that,” said Graham, who also said that allows him to play faster and with more confidence.

Graham and the rest of the Falcons’ defenders are bracing for a big matchup with the Browns’ offensive line and running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.

“Honestly, it’s a big test, one of the best offensive lines in the league,” Graham said. “Arguably, maybe the best. This is the biggest test that we can have. This is another opportunity to go out there and prove we can do it. Prove that we are a talented (defensive) line as well.”

The Falcons have not had a running back go over 100 yards this season. In the opening game, Saints quarterback Taysom Hill finished with 81 yards rushing, the most allowed this season, and 57 came on one play.

Seattle’s Rashaad Penny rushed 14 times for 66 yards. The Falcons held Alvin Kamara (39 yards), Cam Akers (44) and Darrell Henderson (47) in check.

Overall, the Falcons are giving up 109.3 yards per game, which is tied for 15th out of 32 teams in the NFL.

“It starts with mentality,” Graham said. “They’ve got talented guys. We’ve got talented guys. We definitely have to respect that they have one of the best offensive lines. They’ve got arguably one of the two best backs in the league. I just feel like it starts with the mentality, and we just have to go out there and execute.”

Graham credits Jarrett with helping him get his quarterback hits.

“It definitely helps when they are double-teaming nine-seven (Grady Jarrett) out there,” Graham said. “I get a lot of one-on-ones out there. It’s definitely been helping me from that standpoint.”

Recognition also has been key for Graham.

“Just me recognizing that they might slide to Grady,” Graham said. “They might give Grady different looks. I pretty much know that I might get that guard one-on-one.”

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Atlanta Falcons 2022 NFL schedule

Sept. 11: Saints 27, Falcons 26

Sept. 18: Rams 31, Falcons 27

Sept. 25 Falcons 27, Seahawks 23

Oct. 2 vs. Cleveland, 1 p.m.

Oct. 9 at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.

Oct. 16 vs. San Francisco, 1 p.m.

Oct. 23 at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.

Oct. 30 vs. Carolina, 1 p.m.

Nov. 6 vs. Los Angeles Chargers, 1 p.m.

Nov. 10 at Carolina, 8:15 p.m.

Nov. 20 vs. Chicago, 1 p.m.

Nov. 27 at Washington, 1 p.m.

Dec. 4 vs. Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.

BYE WEEK

Dec. 18 at New Orleans, TBD

Dec. 24 at Baltimore, 1 p.m.

Jan. 1 vs. Arizona, 1 p.m.

Jan. 8 vs. Tampa Bay, TBD