Position-by-position analysis of the Falcons’ 2017 defense, special teams

Atlanta Falcons middle linebacker Deion Jones (45) intercepts a ball in the end zone in front of New Orleans Saints tight end Josh Hill (89) during the second half of an NFL football game in Atlanta.   (AP Photo/Danny Karnik, File)

Credit: Danny Karnik

Credit: Danny Karnik

Atlanta Falcons middle linebacker Deion Jones (45) intercepts a ball in the end zone in front of New Orleans Saints tight end Josh Hill (89) during the second half of an NFL football game in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Danny Karnik, File)

The Falcons improved immensely on defense during the 2017 season, while the special teams ranked in the bottom half of the NFL.

The defense improved from 27th to eighth in scoring defense, 25th to ninth in total yards, 17th to ninth in rushing yards and 28th to 12th in passing yards.

“I sensed we would improve defensively,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “I thought that would happen. I’ve never been one that’s big in terms of the rankings of stats and that. It’s scoring. It’s turnover margin.”

Well, the turnover margin slipped.

The Falcons were down from 22 takeaways to 16 in 2017. Overall, the turnover margin was minus-2, which ranked 19th in the league after being a plus-11 and ranking fourth in 2016.

Middle linebacker Deion Jones played a key role in the success of the defense.

“I’m really pleased with the development that he’s making,” Quinn said. “We really try to feature his speed. We like to match him up on running backs. We like to put him into the hooks in the zone, and he responds in that way.”

Despite the stellar play of kicker Matt Bryant, the Falcons’ special teams ranked 22nd in the league overall.

Here’s The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s position-by-position analysis of the Falcons’ 2017 defense and special teams:

Defensive linemen: Brooks Reed, Grady Jarrett, Dontari Poe, Adrian Clayborn, Derrick Shelby, Takkarist McKinley, Courtney Upshaw and Ahtyba Rubin.

The Falcons used a committee approach to register 39 sacks, which ranked 13th in the league. The Falcons had 34 sacks in 2016, which was 16th in the league.

Reed and Shelby were strong against the run and played key roles in the rotation.

Poe played last season on an incentive-laden contract, which had a base salary of $8 million. He bet on himself and had a solid season. He played 868 defensive snaps, the second highest on the team behind Jarrett’s 870. He also played eight snaps on offense.

The Falcons want to re-sign Poe, but there are four teams with more than $80 million in salary-cap room and could outbid the Falcons for his services.

Poe was the seventh-highest paid defensive tackle in the league. The Dolphins’ Ndamukong Suh is slated to be the highest paid defensive tackle, at $16.9 million next season.

Clayborn led the team in sacks with 10.5. He played 576 snaps, the third-highest total along the defensive line. He had the 21st highest base salary of defensive ends in the league. Reed ranked 17th, with a base salary of $4.1 million. Grade: B-plus

Linebackers: Deion Jones, Vic Beasley, DeVondre Campbell, Duke Riley, Sean Weatherspoon, Kemal Ishmael and LaRoy Reynolds.

Jones, who’s set to make his first Pro Bowl appearance, continued to blossom in his second season in the league. He was the Pro Bowl first alternate and replaced Carolina’s Luke Kuechly.

Jones led the Falcons in tackles with 138 and had three interceptions, including one to clinch a dramatic win over New Orleans.

The experiment to start Riley at weakside linebacker didn’t last long as the rookie missed too many tackles and ended the season as a reserve and special-teams player. Campbell had to go back to weakside linebacker and had a strong season.

Beasley was moved to strongside linebacker and his sack total dropped from 15.5 to five as he was required to drop more in coverage. He's returning to defensive end next season. Grade: A

Defensive backs: Desmond Trufant, Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen, Robert Alford, Brian Poole, Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Leon McFadden and Damontae Kazee.

Alford led the team with seven penalties. He had five holding calls and two pass-interference penalties. He had 75 nullified yards in penalties.

Alford broke up 20 passes, but had only one interception.

Trufant showed signs of slippage late in the season as he was beaten deep by New Orleans’ Ted Ginn and gave up big gainers to Los Angles Rams’ Robert Woods and Philadelphia’s Alshon Jeffery, who beat him on slant routes. He’ll need to have a bounce-back season in 2018 as teams are no longer afraid to throw to his side.

Poole continued to hold down the slot and showed some toughness as a blitzer. Jalen Collins, a former second-round pick, was lost to a suspension, then released and later was suspended again. Depth was a problem and will be addressed in the offseason.

Neal, who was also a late Pro Bowl addition, continued to grow and provided the defense with a physical presence. Allen was also solid as he took better angles to the ball. He's a restricted free agent and should receive a decent tender offer. Grade: B-minus

Special teams: Matt Bryant, Matt Bosher, Josh Harris and Andre Roberts.

Bryant will turn 43 on May 29, but showed no signs of slowing down. He was the Falcons’ key offensive weapon late in the season as the offense struggled in the red zone. The Falcons want to re-sign Bryant.

Bryant was the 11th-highest paid kicker in the league last season, at $1.45 million. Carolina’s Graham Gano and Dallas’ Dan Bailey were the top-paid kickers, at $3.2 million.

Bryant is in line for a big raise.

Bosher averaged 44.9 yards on 53 punts with a net average of 40.8 yards. He placed 19 punts down inside the 20-yard line.

Roberts was a steady returner, but committed several special-teams penalties.

Overall, the Falcons' special teams were sub-standard. They finished in the bottom half of the league (22nd) in Rick Gosselin's industry leading rankings.

The coverage units ranked 32nd (last) in kickoff coverage at 26.2 yards per return. Grade: C-minus