Free-agency money spent on Falcons’ defense paying off early in the season

FLOWERY BRANCH — Flush with cash this past offseason, the Falcons spent more than $130 million in free agency to improve the defense.

Through three games, it appears that most of that cash was well spent.

The defense created three turnovers in the win over the Panthers and rookie quarterback Bryce Young in the season opener. They slowed Green Bay’s Jordan Love in the fourth quarter the next week to allow the offense to come back.

In the 20-6 loss Sunday to the Lions, the defense had five consecutive stops, which allowed the offense time to find itself.

The Lions took a 13-3 lead with 1:53 left in the second quarter. The Falcons’ defense forced four consecutive punts and Jessie Bates III recorded his third interception of the season to force a fifth consecutive stop.

But the offense never could get moving to take advantage of the defensive stops.

Falcons coach Arthur Smith is not surprised by how quickly the defense appears to be coming together with the additions of veterans in linebacker Bud Dupree, defensive tackle David Onyemata, defensive end Calais Campbell, linebacker Kaden Elliss and Bates.

The Falcons spent $130.5 million – Bates ($64 million), Onyemata ($35 million), Elliss ($21.5 million), Campbell ($7 million) and Dupree ($3 million) – to improve their defense. The Falcons also signed cornerback Tre Flowers ($1.8 million). He’s been starting at right cornerback after Jeff Okudah, an offseason trade acquisition, sustained a foot injury last month.

“(We’ve) got some salty vets in there, right?” Smith said. “That’s what you’re relying on when you bring Bud in, David, Calais, Jessie, Kaden. The old analogy, that wasn’t their first rodeo on the road.”

Ryan Neilsen, a former defensive line coach, is the new defensive coordinator. Assistant head coach/defense Jerry Gray came over from the Packers.

“Sometimes that’s what the expectation is,” Smith said. “I had a lot of faith in the plan of why we wanted to bring some of the coaches that we brought in here, and it’s meshed together. Again, we have to play more as a total team.”

Getting the string of stops against the Packers and Lions is a promising steppingstone for the unit.

“That’s what you want,” Smith said. “Like last week, if you hold the ball for 36 minutes and have an efficient day, you’re not putting a lot of stress on the defense. (Against Detroit), I thought the defense held the line for a long time.”

If the offense could have pieced together a drive, the team could have put more pressure on the Lions. In 35 possessions, the offense has scored five touchdowns and seven field goals.

“What happens in an ugly game when you don’t steal that momentum and you have a chance to steal one or at least put some pressure on them, we didn’t do it,” Smith said. “Then, eventually, they got the momentum and got that touchdown late.”

Lions quarterback Jared Goff scored on a 3-yard touchdown run with 9:54 to play.

“I’m very pleased with (the defense),” Smith said. “There are some things that if you talk to those players – and that has to be all of our mindset – we all have to see what we can do better, but overall, it is comforting to know that the guys you brought in were the right guys.”

The Falcons want to pick up their pass rush. They have three sacks and 20 quarterback hits.

“It’s a new system,” linebacker Lorenzo Carter said. “A new defense. Guys are buying in. It’s different for some people, but we are starting to see the results. The work that we are putting in is paying off.”

Carter said the defense made in-game adjustments to slow the Packers and Lions.

“Just fixing the little things,” Carter said. “It’s not like we are getting beat on a lot of things. But the plays that we do get beat on, we take our time and make sure that we get those corrected. We have to keep fixing those things and eliminate explosives.”

The defense is looking forward to facing the Jaguars and quarterback Trevor Lawrence in London on Sunday.

“It will be different,” Carter said. “It will be exciting. Everybody is excited to get a chance to go play another game, especially since it’s in London. We get a chance to get away and just be one as a team. Come together and get a win.”

The Falcons are set to replace Troy Andersen, who was a second-round pick in 2022, at inside linebacker with Nate Landman. Andersen sustained a potentially season-ending torn pectoral muscle with 3:32 to play against the Lions.

He was carted off the field.

“They’ve got four or five great receivers,” Gray said of Jacksonville. “(Ex-Falcon Calvin) Ridley is doing a good job. I watched him against the Colts. Watched him against Houston. He can run. Then you see the other guys that are doing the same thing last year when you go to the run they made to (reach) the playoffs.”

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