Grady Jarrett happy to be 2-0, but knows Falcons can’t slow down

Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (97) reacts after a play during an NFL football game against the New York Jets at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London, Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Luciano)

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Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (97) reacts after a play during an NFL football game against the New York Jets at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London, Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Luciano)

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FLOWERY BRANCH — His team is 2-0, he has a solid defensive line alongside him and the weather is cooling. Grady Jarrett probably can’t ask for much more.

“This is football weather,” Jarrett said Thursday as he stepped in front of reporters outside the locker room for his weekly media address. “Yes, sir.”

The dependable defensive tackle, in his ninth season with the Falcons out of Clemson, hasn’t been on a team that started the season 2-0 since 2017. That also was the last time he was on a team that had a winning record at any point in the season.

“It’s a good feeling,” Jarrett told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution after the media scrum dissipated. “But it’s just the beginning of the season. We’ve got a long way to go. I don’t want to spend too much time on it, but definitely happy to get off to a good start.”

The defensive line that Jarrett anchors has played a central role. Through two games, the Falcons stand third in the NFL in total defense at 252.5 yards allowed per game. While the Panthers and Packers could be two of the weaker offenses that the Falcons face this season, the Falcons held only one team last season under their current average in a game (Tampa Bay in the finale when the Buccaneers’ focus was on their coming playoff game).

Jarrett has three new linemen alongside him, all signed as free agents in the offseason – defensive end Calais Campbell, defensive tackle David Onyemata and edge rusher Bud Dupree. Jarrett takes obvious delight in Campbell, a six-time Pro Bowler in his 16th season who was the 2017 defensive player of the year and the 2019 Walter Payton man of the year. Jarrett likened Campbell to a big brother, a privilege not afforded many nine-year veterans.

“He’s been an awesome addition not only to myself but to this entire team,” Jarrett said. “I’m thankful to have him.”

Entering Sunday’s games, Onyemata is the highest-graded interior defensive lineman in the NFL by Pro Football Focus. Jarrett is 13th. The overall defense ranked 10th and the run defense fourth.

Jarrett’s defensive-line foursome was accountable in the game’s decisive moments Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. With about 7-1/2 minutes left in the game, Green Bay led 24-22 and was trying to burn clock and add to the lead. On second-and-5 from their 30, the Packers called for a run play up the middle. Dupree held his point against left tackle Yosh Nijman. Jarrett stood up right guard Jon Runyan and got a hand on running back AJ Dillon, helping keep him short of the first-down marker.

“That was a really, really big play, and the whole defense together worked well to make that happen,” Jarrett said.

On third-and-1, the Packers ran Dillon up the middle again. All four defensive linemen refused to budge, giving linebacker Nate Landman the room to crash the line and deny Dillon again.

“Another big-time play,” Jarrett said. “Everybody was where they were supposed to be, knocking the ball back.”

After short-circuiting on fourth-and-inches as quarterback Jordan Love somehow got the snap count wrong and false-started, the Packers punted. The Falcons took over and drove for Younghoe Koo’s game-winning field goal.

“It’s been great,” Onyemata said of playing next to Jarrett. “Just having an enforcer out there, just executing and doing our job at a high level, it’s a great feeling.”

The Falcons will be in Detroit on Sunday trying to move to 3-0 and advance closer to their first playoff appearance since 2017. It’s a heady time to be a fan, witnessing the plan of coach Arthur Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot materialize with each season, draft and free-agency period. Particularly with the assembly of young skill players on offense, the future of the team seems to be opening.

Even Jarrett sees his career path extending miles down the road. Asked about playing 10 seasons, he responded, “Ten? We’re just getting warmed up. The fun’s just starting.” (His goal is 15 seasons.)

But no one knows better than Jarrett, whose team’s record from 2018-22 was 32-50, the need to capitalize on all opportunities in the present.

That certainly includes Sunday’s matchup against the Lions. The Falcons were three-point underdogs as of Friday, but they look like they’ll benefit from some luck with injuries from Detroit. The Lions have placed two starters on injured reserve, and perhaps four more starters could be sidelined against the Falcons.

The Falcons, meanwhile, are in much better health. Linebacker Troy Andersen has been cleared to play after missing the Packers game in concussion protocol. Cornerback Jeff Okudah (foot) and running back Cordarrelle Patterson (thigh) were listed as questionable Friday.

It’s not as though returning to Atlanta at 2-1 would be some sort of insurmountable setback. But for the Falcons to miss a chance to earn a conference win on the road against a beleaguered opponent – or at least to give themselves every chance to do so – would be negligent. But a 2-1 record would put the Falcons in position to fall to .500 when they play defending AFC South-champion Jacksonville a week from Sunday in London and derail the momentum built in the first two weeks.

Jarrett’s mindset betrayed no such complacency.

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