The Rams dictated Cincinnati’s offensive game plan in the Super Bowl on Sunday. Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow had to pass quicker than ever because LA’s pass rushers were coming. The Rams couldn’t run against Cincinnati’s stout front. The Bengals smothered Matthew Stafford’s targets until MVP Cooper Kupp finally broke through to lift the Rams to victory.
The Rams played great defense all season. The Bengals did it throughout the playoffs. Watching them slug it out on Sunday got me to thinking about the last time the Falcons played championship-level defense. I had to go all the way back to the middle of the Mike Smith era.
From 2010 to ‘12, the Falcons ranked ninth, fifth and ninth in the Football Outsiders efficiency metric (adjusted for opponent and situation). Those Falcons teams were fifth, 18th and fifth in points allowed. They could stop everybody except Aaron Rodgers, who buried them on the way to winning the 2011 Super Bowl.
Since then, the Falcons have struggled to stop anybody. They ranked 26th or worse in adjusted defensive efficiency in four of the past nine seasons and never better than 14th. The Falcons were 25th or worse in points allowed five times over that span, with one season better than 14th.
It’s been a long time since the Falcons fielded a defense that can win them games from week to week. For years, the idea has been that the Falcons would compensate for so-so defense with better offense. That plan began when they traded a bushel of draft picks to get Julio Jones as Matt Ryan’s top target.
Ultimately, that plan failed. The Falcons collapsed in the 2013 NFC title game and 2017 Super Bowl when their offense stopped scoring and their defense couldn’t get stops. Jones forced his way out before last season. Ryan is in the twilight of his career. The days of believing the Falcons could win more shootouts than not are over.
Now it’s time for coach Arthur Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot to get serious about building a great defense after their predecessors tried (belatedly) and couldn’t do it. Smith and Fontenot will have more ways to do it in Year 2. The Falcons own four of the first 73 picks in the next draft and project to have more salary-cap room.
Smith’s background is in offense. Fontenot came from the Saints, who built a good defense for one final run with Drew Brees while he still had something left. Fontenot’s first draft pick was the highest for the Falcons since Ryan went third in 2008. He used it on tight end Kyle Pitts.
Smith and Fontenot should focus more of their resources on the defense. That side of the ball still is important in this era of spread-out offenses and rules that prioritize scoring points. You’ve got to get stops when it’s hard. Otherwise, you end up like the Smith/Quinn Falcons.
The Falcons made it to the 2017 Super Bowl with a defense ranked 19th in adjusted efficiency and 27th in points allowed. All it took was an all-time great offense. Those Falcons were among three of 12 teams to play in the past six Super Bowls that weren’t top 10 in either category. The 2019 Rams and 2022 Bengals were the others.
A great quarterback still gives a team the chance to win big. But we just saw a Super Bowl with Stafford (pretty good) and Burrow (very young) behind center. Both the Bengals and Rams went through great QBs to make it to the Super Bowl. In the AFC title game, Patrick Mahomes led the Chiefs to just one field goal over Kansas City’s final eight drives. In an NFC divisional game, the Rams were so good against Tom Brady early that they withstood his comeback attempt late (Stafford, to his credit, was better).
The No. 1 issue for the Falcons is their eventual transition from Ryan to the next quarterback. His successor will already have Pitts in place. By then the Falcons will (hopefully, finally, please) have a competent offensive line. The Falcons can also ease the transition to a new QB by reconstructing a defense that’s bottomed out. That happened largely in part because opposing quarterbacks rarely get pressured on dropbacks.
The Falcons were competent defensively in Dan Quinn’s final season as coach. They ranked 14th in adjusted efficiency, 19th in points and 15th in pass-rush pressure rate. That was with coordinator (and later interim coach) Raheem Morris. Rams coach Sean McVay hired Morris to run his defense, and a good group got even better.
Smith lured Dean Pees out of retirement to be his defensive coordinator. The Falcons slipped to 30th in adjusted defensive efficiency, 29th in points and 32nd in quarterback pressure rate. They’d lost some experienced starters, especially in the secondary. Those players weren’t so good that it explains how the Falcons’ defense went from decent to terrible in one year.
The Falcons cited growing pains. When Pees got the job, he boasted that his guys would blitz from all over the field. He eventually scaled down that plan. Pees had never run a defense as bad as this season’s Falcons. Over 13 previous seasons as coordinator, his units had been no worse than 22nd in efficiency and 24th in points. Those years were outliers: Pees’ other units ranged from pretty good to great.
It’s doubtful that Pees lost his touch during the year he sat out. The Titans were third and 12th in points allowed with him as coordinator in 2018 and 2019. It’s more likely that Pees needs better players who also fit his aggressive style of play. That means more guys who can rush the passer and cover pass targets.
There’s an ongoing debate about which element is more important for pass defense. The Falcons will have an opportunity to go either way. The draft is said to be deep with edge rushers and cornerbacks. It can be hard to figure how the free-agent market will go, but it appears there should be options at both positions that the Falcons can squeeze in their cap space.
I’d lean toward edge rusher. The Falcons have a good, young cornerback with A.J. Terrell. Isaiah Oliver once looked like a draft bust but found his niche last season before getting hurt. The Falcons can use more defenders who can cover. Good edge rushers are a bigger need. OK, the Falcons need pretty much everything, but make that priority 1-A along with fixing the offensive line.
The Falcons haven’t had a consistent pass rusher since John Abraham (Vic Beasley’s flash in the pan doesn’t count). Abraham played on the last great Falcons defense. That group also was good in the secondary: Asante Samuel, Dunta Robinson, Thomas DeCoud and William Moore. All of those guys were out of the league by 2016.
It’s been that long since the Falcons sent out a fearsome defense. Smith and Fontenot should do what they can to get back to that. Sunday’s Super Bowl showed how it could pay off.
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