FLOWERY BRANCH – Falcons outside linebacker Steven Means scooped up the loose ball and was running down the field against the Saints.
After 32 yards, he was tackled from behind and landed awkwardly on his knees. There wasn’t any major structural damage and Means, after a short-term stint on injured reserve, has returned to add a physical presence to the defense.
The Falcons (6-7) will need Means and the defense to continue to play well against the run when they face the 49ers (7-6) at 4:05 p.m. Sunday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
“I’ve a got great appreciation for Steven Means and what he does,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “We’ve got some really good veterans here. Steven Means is about as tough of a guy that I’ve been around and a really quality person, too. Really fun to work with Steven.”
Means, who played at Buffalo with Khalil Mack, has climbed up the rugged side of the NFL mountain after he was drafted by Tampa Bay in the fifth round of the 2012 draft. He has had trouble sticking with a team in the NFL and has played for five teams. He didn’t get his first NFL start until 2019 with the Falcons.
Means played in all 16 games for the first time in 2020 and made 11 starts. He finished with 643 defensive snaps (57%). Means has made 10 starts this season and has played 492 defensive snaps (72%).
Means does a lot of the dirty work, especially in the run game.
“We’ve got to make sure, No. 1, that we set firm and violent edges in the run game and pour the ball where it belongs,” Falcons outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino said. “And then it’s the effort part away from the play. That matters, right there.”
Setting firm and violent edges is Means’ specialty. He doesn’t let opposing runs get outside, he stands his ground and attacks the space outside of the opposing tackle.
His big play against the Saints showed his awareness away from the play after outside linebacker James Vaughters knocked the ball off of quarterback Trevor Siemian.
“We’re going to make some plays that maybe we’re not designed to make simply because we’re going to do our job early in the down, and late in the down we’re going to give championship effort,” Monachino said. “It takes all 11 of us to stop the run.”
Means helped the Falcons’ defense meet their rushing challenge against the Panthers on Sunday. After the Panthers rushed for 203 yards in the previous meeting Oct. 31, the Falcons held hem to 91 yards Sunday. Means had five tackles and played the read-pass-options plays near flawlessly. On one play, he leveled quarterback Cam Newton, who’d given up the ball to running back Chuba Hubbard.
“Instead of playing free, which is the way in which a lot of teams play,” Means said. “We’ve been focusing more on the technique parts of things and taking details, and doing it exactly right. We are making sure that we are focusing heavy on the details surrounding our job.”
The Falcons will face another stiff challenge from the San Francisco 49ers’ outside zone rushing attack. The 49ers average 123.9 yards rushing per game, which ranks eighth in the league.
Means knows the Falcons’ faint playoffs could improve drastically if they can slow the run and beat the 49ers.
“I haven’t been in this position since the Super Bowl back in ‘17 with Philly,” Means said. “To be able to go out there and know that everything is a playoff game, essentially, is dope.”
Means had 29 tackles, two tackles for losses, two quarterback hits and the fumble return for 32 yards. That’s no stat for setting the edge and keeping running plays contained.
One of the reasons that Means was retained was because he played in the Falcons’ new 3-4 defense when he was in Baltimore and impressed the coaches. He has seen the Falcons get a better understanding of what defensive coordinator Dean Pees is demanding.
“I know that it’s a lot,” Means said. “It’s complex. ... I think the way he built his scheme has been successful. He’s been pressing hard about getting his scheme played the way it was designed to be played.”
Since getting blown out 43-3 in Dallas on Nov. 14, the Falcons’ defense has made incremental strides.
“To be able to get to that point where we enter those playoffs and the atmosphere is out of this world and ones that are not used to it, it’s going to be a cool experience,” Means said. “But we just have to focus on one game at a time. So, whatever we have to do to get there.”
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Atlanta Falcons schedule and scores
Eagles 32, Falcons 6
Buccaneers 48, Falcons 25
Falcons 17, Giants 14
Washington 34, Falcons 30
Falcons 27, Jets 20
Falcons 30, Dolphins 28
Panthers 19, Falcons 13
Falcons 27, Saints 25
Cowboys 43, Falcons 3
Patriots 25, Falcons 0
Falcons 21, Jaguars 14
Next four games
Tampa Bay at Falcons, 1 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 5
Falcons at Carolina, 1 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 12
Falcons at San Francisco, 4:05 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 19
Detroit Lions at Falcons, 1 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 26