In recent NFL history, the track record for Super Bowl losers isn’t great. No loser has been able to make it back to the Super Bowl since the 1992-93 Bills, while the Super Bowl-winning Broncos, Patriots and Seahawks were able to make it back the next season in that same span. This year’s Falcons look poised to possibly change that.
A season ago, Atlanta rode one of the best offenses in recent memory almost all the way to a Super Bowl win. While much has been made of the Falcons’ regression on that side of the ball, not enough has been made of their similar uptick on the other side of the ball. This is a defense that just held the Rams to their third-lowest point total of the season (13 points) and has allowed only 16.3 points per game over their past six games. That stretch included the Rams, Saints (twice), Panthers, Vikings and Buccaneers. They’ve quietly evolved into a championship-level defense — and a more complete team than the Super Bowl runners-up of a season ago.
Let’s look at two big reasons:
Changes up front
The signing of Dontari Poe to a one-year, $8 million deal last offseason was met with mixed reactions. While Poe had once been one of the few every-down nose tackles, his play had slipped in recent seasons. For his performance this season, it’s still debatable whether he’s worth the money: He ranks No. 36 in PFF’s grades for interior defenders while maintaining the 18th-highest salary-cap hit at the position. But for the value he has brought to the Falcons’ defensive line, he has been a steal.
Last season, Atlanta was forced to use 305-pound defensive tackle Grady Jarrett at nose tackle on 34.6 percent of his defensive snaps, simply because others couldn’t get the job done. With Poe in the mix, that number has dropped to 19.8 percent. It’s no coincidence that, with more snaps at his natural three-technique defensive tackle position (a role ideal for Jarrett’s quickness and ability to penetrate to the backfield), Jarrett is having a career year. Jarrett went from 23 stops a season ago to 33 this year, and his PFF grade went from 79.7 to 87.2. Poe’s presence also closed the Falcons’ revolving door of average players at the other defensive tackle spot; he played 784 of a possible 1,048 snaps this season.
The interior solidification also coincided with an influx of talent on the edge. Adrian Clayborn finally looks healthy and is having his best season since his rookie year, even if you take away his six-sack performance against Dallas’s backup tackles. Rookie Takkarist McKinley has added some speed to the pass rush as well; he is 20th among 4-3 defensive ends in pass-rushing productivity.
Last year at this time, Desmond Trufant was rehabbing a torn pectoral muscle, and Deion Jones was learning on the fly as a rookie. This season, Trufant is the No. 17 cornerback in PFF grading, and Jones is the highest-graded coverage linebacker. The impact of a No. 1 cornerback on a defense can’t be understated. It’s not all about the interceptions or passes broken up, as the simple fact that teams that shy away from one side can be used to a defense’s advantage. Trufant allowed a reception this season for every 15.5 snaps he was in coverage, the 12th-best of any cornerback in the league. That’s bordering on Richard Sherman territory, which as we explained earlier this year was a big reason for Seattle’s defensive success over the years. The Seahawks were the originators of the Cover-3 scheme Dan Quinn brought to Atlanta.
Trufant’s impact still might not be as palpable as the improvement we’ve seen from Jones this season. The second-year linebacker is single-handedly capable of shutting down the middle of a defense as well as anything underneath. We saw it with his game-ending interception Thursday night in Week 14 against the Saints, and we saw it last week with his game-ending pass breakup on Rams wideout Sammy Watkins. His 10 combined pass breakups and interceptions are the most of any linebacker in the NFL, and his 23 coverage stops are third-most at the position. He covers more ground than any linebacker in the NFL, and that only makes throwing windows tighter for opposing QBs.
With a significantly improved defense, this is a team built to win a number of ways. While the results of a year ago haven’t been there offensively, the personnel is nearly identical to a season ago and capable of putting up 30-plus points on almost any defense. Combine that with a defense that all of a sudden doesn’t have any glaring weak spots, and the Falcons are as big of a threat as any team in the NFC to run the table.
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