The Atlanta Falcons defense: a symbol of hope, righteous fury, and a bend-but-don’t-break attitude ... or rather, that’s what we want it to be.
Last year, the Falcons defense was anything but a symbol of hope. At times, it was a symbol of, "It’s third-and-fifteen. How will we give up a 20 yard play this time?" The defense was rarely an asset to the Falcons. If anything, it inspired high blood pressure and rage amongst the fans.
That being said, the defense cannot go without earning some credit. Inspired efforts against the Jets, Bills, and Bucs allowed the Falcons to win their last three games to break the 44-year-old consecutive winning season curse. But that was last year. Let’s take a look at some of the new and old faces on the new, improved Falcons defense.
As many Falcons fans witnessed in the preseason, the defensive line has been solid. According to Football Outsiders, the Falcons had the second-best weighted run defense in the league in 2009, and it starts with these guys. The steady growth of end Kroy Biermann is a testament to the team’s steadfast approach of building through the draft and allowing the young players to grow and mature in both playing time and offseason workouts.
This group has a healthy mix of veterans and rookies who should all be able to compete for playing time this year. Look for veterans John Abraham, Jamaal Anderson, and Jon Babineaux to anchor the front four and pave the way to the opposing team’s quarterback.
I expect Abraham to return to his old self. The line rotation that Coach Smith wants to use will limit the amount of snaps that Abraham gets, but in turn, that will allow Abe to be fresh and get the most out of what physical ability he has left. I’m looking for Abe to break the ten-sack mark this year.
Biermann should also flirt with ten sacks this year. Kroy has improved every year he’s been with the Falcons, and has gotten at least one sack in every preseason game as of the Miami game. I think he’ll take the majority of passing downs opposite of Abraham for a solid pass rush on both ends.
Watch out for young tackles Jerry and Peters to make a splash. Jerry is coming back from injury and Peters is an all-around intelligent player. I see Jerry starting opposite of Babineaux and providing a very underrated push from the middle. My surprise prediction: Jamaal Anderson gets more than one sack this year. You heard me right.
The New Guys
The Falcons have placed an emphasis on rotating defensive lineman, and that style of defense has brought in several new faces to the team during the Smith/Dimitroff era. This year, the Falcons are getting young tackle Peria Jerry back from injury, and drafted tackle Corey Peters from Kentucky in a controversial, but effective pick. Peters has proven to be a smart player and has shown athleticism in limited action this preseason. I expect Jerry, Peters, and second-year end Lawrence Sidbury to become household names this season.
This is arguably the strength of the Falcons defense. The corps of Mike Peterson, Curtis Lofton, and Stephen Nicholas did an admirable job in 2009 defending both the run and the pass when called upon. Lofton, now in his third season at Mike linebacker, is the leader of the defense. He is stoic in nature, but is an absolute force against the run. His fierce style of play allows him to lead by example and not by mouth.
Mike Peterson was the starting Will for the Birds last year. Peterson is an aging veteran who, at this point in his career, can only be considered a band-aid at Will. With the addition of speedy rookie Sean Weatherspoon, the band-aid may be coming off in favor of Neosporin.
Versatile veteran Coy Wire is able to play any one of the three spots in case a starter goes down with injury, a valuable asset. I expect great things out of the linebackers this year, regardless of who is playing. This is a talented bunch that plays hard and has the ability to play both the run and the pass effectively.
The New Guys
There is only one new face, and that is first round draft pick Sean Weatherspoon. Spoon has quickly asserted himself as one of the favorites among some of the fans, and his energy and athletic ability have been welcomed with open arms by the team. He has the ability to play both Will and Sam, and should be getting significant playing time at one or both spots this year.
I expect Weatherspoon to be starting over Peterson before the bye week. There have been rumblings about Spoon starting over Nicholas, but I think Peterson no longer has the athletic ability to play as many snaps as he did last year, and Nicholas plays with a strong motor and does a solid job on the strong side. Look for Lofton to establish himself as a perennial Pro Bowl linebacker, and I expect more successful blitzes with the addition of the athletic Spoon. My surprise prediction: Weatherspoon will be Defensive Rookie of the Year if he’s starting by week four.
Last year, the defensive backfield was the glaring weakness of the Falcons, with emphasis placed on the cornerbacks. According to Football Outsiders, the Falcons ranked a putrid 27th in adjusted passing defense. Despite the depressing statistics, the emergence of Brent Grimes and Chris Owens as semi-legitimate defensive backs was a bright spot in an otherwise bleak series of burnt toast, stone necks, and hurricane-force whiffs.
Grimes had six interceptions last year, which was good for the fifth-highest total in the league. Despite his ball-hawking ability, Grimes' lack of size (legend has it he’s around 5-foot-6) negates the impact of his incredible athletic ability a bit. Chris Owens, a third-round pick last year, has emerged as the favorite to start opposite free-agent acquisition Dunta Robinson.
At safety, the Falcons are fairly stable. Thomas DeCoud, a rangy free safety with solid coverage and ball skills, is headed into his third season with the Falcons. After a relatively quiet rookie season, DeCoud exploded onto the scene in 2009 with three interceptions, two sacks, and two forced fumbles while starting every game at free safety. Erik Coleman is the current starter at strong safety. Coleman isn’t spectacular, but there are far worse options out there.
The Falcons are hoping second-year player William "C4" Moore can stay healthy so that he might be able to unseat Coleman for the strong safety spot.
At defensive back, I believe Robinson has something to prove. His last season with the Texans was largely defined by "Pay me Rick" even though his stats did not suggest that he deserved to be paid much of anything. I expect Dunta to rebound from his injury and shake off the doubters this season. The other side of the field is the bigger question, with an ongoing debate over whether Owens or Grimes will start there. I believe that Chris Owens should be the starter opposite Dunta in week one with Grimes playing the majority of the time at the ball-hawking nickel back slot. Look for all three of those guys to nab a few interceptions each this year.
And finally, at safety I think Moore will make a fine replacement for Coleman, however I don’t expect Moore to start this year unless Coleman plays terribly or has an injury. I expect DeCoud to have another season of improvement at free safety. Look for him to create his share of turnovers this year as well. My surprise prediction: The passing defense this year will be better than the run defense because of the DBs. You also heard that one right.
The New Guys
Every year of the Dimitroff era, the Falcons have made one big splash in free agency. This year, it was the acquisition of former Texans cornerback Dunta Robinson. Opinions around the community are mixed. As a rookie, Robinson blew the Texans away with six interceptions, three sacks, three forced fumbles, and nineteen passes defensed. Since his rookie season, his play has declined, so naturally there should be some concern. Robinson's impact remains to be seen, as he has yet to play a down for the Falcons.
Fifth-round pick Dominique Franks has shown he is a fierce hitter with some instinct. Watch out for Franks; he could be a sleeper this year for the defense. At safety, rookie Shann Schillinger, a sixth-round pick out of Montana, has shown he is plenty capable of playing safety at the NFL level.
The media has quietly talked about the Falcons' defense looking stronger and faster than it has in recent memory. I have to agree with them. Say what you want, the starting defense shut down Miami’s well-known rushing attack, and the secondary essentially made Brandon Marshall a non-factor for most of the night [Editor's note: Marshall had 51 yards in the half he played, but the Falcons were without two starters]. They looked like they were in mid-season form against Miami, and that’s reason enough to feel pretty good about the defense.
Fans have a reason to be excited about the 2010 Falcons. The defense has looked very promising already this year, and there’s no reason to expect that the trend won’t continue on into the regular season. If the Falcons stay healthy and stay fresh all year long, this season could provide the best overall defense the team has had in a long, long time.