In my preseason predictions, I had the New Orleans Saints winning the NFC South and theAtlanta Falcons missing the postseason. After watching almost every snap of Atlanta's 27-23 loss to the Miami Dolphins, I feel stronger than ever about that prediction. The biggest area that concerns me for this 1-2 Atlanta team is its defense. I have some concerns on the offensive side of the ball, but right now, the Falcons' biggest problem is that they don't have a playoff-caliber defense.
Can Atlanta fix that side of the ball?
Atlanta's defense is very well coached and usually very difficult for opposing quarterbacks to decipher. But on Sunday, they stayed in their base 4-3 look most of the game, utilizing little deception or pre-snap movement on most first and second downs. Part of the reason for this was that their jack-of-all-trades, Kroy Biermann, was unavailable and is out for the season. Ryan Tannehill and Miami's offense overall did struggle early in the game, and the Falcons were excellent with their blitz calls, including often bringing a defensive back as part of their blitz package. The blitzing often got home (5.5 sacks), and, several times, Tannehill didn't account for the free defensive back blitzer, which is usually on the quarterback. Miami's protection unit seemed to be quite confused in terms of its assignments when Atlanta chose to blitz. The Dolphins also attempted only 15 rushes in this game. While Lamar Miller broke a 49-yard run, on the other 14 attempts, Miami mustered just 2.9 yards per attempt, so there were some promising signs for the Falcons' defense.
Miami's defense looked tired at the end of the first half and their tackling was very poor, but their pass rush stepped up as the game went along and it became more of a challenge for Matt Ryanto move this Falcons offense. That put more pressure on the Falcons' defense, and that group was not up to the challenge against a very poised Tannehill. When Tannehill is able to accurately read and diagnose the defense before the snap, he is generally very precise with his throws and timing. In the second half against the Falcons' static fronts, Tannehill was far more successful and looked much more comfortable against Atlanta's blitzes.
In a league in which creating mismatches on both sides of the ball is of paramount importance, the biggest issue for the Falcons is a lack of overall talent and depth on the defensive side. Not only did the Falcons lose Biermann last week, but they also lost possibly their best defensive player, Sean Weatherspoon, for the season. This is a unit that is lacking playmakers and is also starting two rookie CBs in Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. While they played well the first two weeks, Trufant and Alford struggled as this game went on, and their inexperience showed on Miami's last drive. They played too far off of their receivers, consistently giving up underneath passes without enough resistance -- potentially because they were afraid of getting beat deep. They will get better with experience but could suffer more growing pains this season.
The Falcons are struggling to get pressure on opposing QBs without blitzing, and their linebackers really struggle in coverage against tight ends. Charles Clay had four catches for 40 yards, including a critical 21-yard gain into the red zone on Miami's game-winning drive. If they don't get Weatherspoon back, this will continue to be an area of weakness for Atlanta.
While the huge hit by Don Jones on punt coverage to jar the ball loose from Harry Douglas could have been the biggest play of the game, the Falcons' defense had many things going for it today but was unable once again to close out an opponent. The Saints are rolling, and the NFC is extremely competitive. Unless Atlanta finds a pass rush and improves vastly on the back end, this defense is the biggest reason the Falcons might be watching the playoffs from home this season.