The Falcons' defensive braintrust was supposed to have fixed all of the team’s problems last season when they went 6-2 over the last eight games.
Falcons assistant coaches Jeff Ulbrich and Joe Whitt Jr. addressed some of the unit’s issues as they are preparing to face the Green Bay Packers (3-0) at 8:15 p.m. Monday at Lambeau Field.
“I think last season our struggles and ultimately our success were really learning our team and finding out exactly what we do best and what each individual does best and then tailoring the defense to that,” said Ulbrich, the assistant head coach/linebackers. "So, I think we’re in the process of that.
“I think in the last two games we’ve seen glimpses of that and moments of that. Now, it’s consistency. It’s finish. It’s the details. It’s situational football.”
With two horrific fourth-quarter collapses, the unit is giving up 36 points per game, which is the highest average in the NFL, and are set to the play the Packers, who lead the league in scoring at 40.7 points per game.
“I’m excited about showing our fans, and really showing our guys to themselves that they are capable of being a very good defense,” Ulbrich said.
The Falcons are giving up 463.3 yards, which ranks 31st in the league and 350.3 yards passing, which ranks 31st in the league.
The Falcons have been hit by injuries on all levels of the defense, which has made it more difficult for them to function.
Along the defensive line, defensive ends Takk McKinley and Charles Harris have missed games. Defensive tackle Marlon Davidson, who was drafted in the second round to provide some bulk, made his debut in the Chicago game.
Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett left the Chicago game with a hip injury and defensive end Dante Fowler, the big offseason free-agency acquisition, has been playing with an ankle injury.
With all of the injuries and lack of continuity, the Falcons haven’t been able to mount a consistent pass rush up front and are looking for help from linebackers.
“Deion (Jones) is playing at a very high level right now from a coverage standpoint,” Ulbrich said. “He’s playing the run probably better than he has in a long time. His leadership is growing.”
Overall, though, Ulbrich has not been pleased.
“It’s not, for a total-unit standpoint, it’s not where we want to be,” Ulbrich said.
The linebacking group has had to play rookie Mykal Walker after Foye Oluokun went down with a hamstring injury early in the Dallas game in Week 2. The Falcons didn’t have enough money to re-sign DeVondre Campbell, the team’s leading tackler over the past two seasons. They drafted rookie Walker in the fourth round, and he’s had to play early.
“Mykal he’s going to have bumps in the road, he’s going to have hiccups,” Ulbrich said. “There are going to be growing pains. There are with every rookie.”
The Falcons see some game-to-game improvement.
“I feel like he took some promising steps this last game,” Ulbrich said. “He showed the ability to tackle. He showed the ability to set an edge. Play at the line of scrimmage and play off the ball.”
The Falcons have veteran linebacker LaRoy Reynolds, and Edmond Robinson played against Chicago, but returned to the practice squad Monday.
“It’s been awesome having LaRoy (Reynolds) here just from an energy perspective,” Ulbrich said. “He elevates the entire team. When he goes in there, not only does he elevate with his attitude and his demeanor, but with his play. He’s physical. He’ll strike you.”
The secondary, which figured to be a strength with improved play, has struggled.
“On the back end, the main issue is we haven’t turned the ball over enough,” said Whitt, who officially is the secondary/defensive pass-game coordinator. "We haven’t held vertical control or kept explosives down. That’s what we have to do. If we can eliminate those explosive (plays) first, people aren’t scoring on us.
“But when we give them opportunity to make 20-yard plus plays, that gives the offense the opportunity to get in the end zone.”
The Falcons gave up seven plays for 20 yards or more against the Bears, including a 45-yard run by quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. The other six were pass plays of 37, 29, 29, 28, 22 and 20 yards.
They gave up seven pass plays of 20 yards or more against Dallas and four against Seattle over the previous two games.
With A.J. Terrell on the reserve/COVID-19 list and Darqueze Dennard on injured reserve, the Falcons will have to juggle some players around in the secondary.
“We talk about the whole room being prepared,” Whitt said. “This is the NFL. Everybody has to be ready. We are not paid to go out there and play well. We’re paid to go win.”
Whitt formerly coached for the Green Bay Packers and knows quarterback Aaron Rodgers well.
“Their offense is rolling,” Whitt said. “Watching the film of them, they are as good as any offense in the league. It’s going to take everybody. It’s going to take the guys up front, giving a little extra rush. It’s going to take us to make sure that we hold our coverage on the backside to give those guys (time) to rush.”
The Falcons believe the talent on the defense is not reflective of their 0-3 record.
“I don’t think so at all, but ultimately you are what your record is,” Ulbrich said. “So, we have to prove otherwise.”
The Falcons believe they can fix the defense again.
“We love our fans,” Ulbrich said. “We love their support. But if we are going to become the team that we’re capable of becoming, it’s going to take us. To point the finger, to push blame, that’s not going to help. I think that we’ve got a group of guys that are committed to that.”
The Bow Tie Chronicles Podcasts:
Can be found on Google, iTunes and TuneIn
For more content about the Atlanta Falcons
Follow me on Twitter @DorlandoAJC
On Facebook at Atlanta Falcons News Now
Atlanta Falcons coverage on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Have a question? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Falcons' next four games
Falcons at Green Bay Packers, at 8:15 p.m. Monday, Oct. 5
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. 25