What in the World Happened to Atlanta’s Defense?

In 2016, the Falcons almost won a Super Bowl with a dominant offense and a young, improving defense that had more than enough to help Atlanta win it all (Their collapse in the Super Bowl was as much on the offense and decision making as the defense, if not more). In 2017, the offense took a step back with the departure of Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan, but the defense improved and led the team to a playoff victory against an explosive Rams Offense. Only a last-minute goal-line stand by Philadelphia a week later prevented a return to the NFC Championship game. It looked like the Falcons Defense was ready to become an elite unit in 2018 before being decimated by injuries. So, there was optimism that with a healthy defense in 2019, Atlanta would be a contender once again.

Of course, that’s not what has happened. Somehow, a promising and young defense has become one of the worst in the NFL, allowing 31 points per game through the first 6 games of the season (2nd most in the NFL). There are really no excuses here. The 2019 version of the Falcons Defense has been poor fundamentally and has shown a lack of discipline that is simply stunning. This reflects most poorly on Head Coach Dan Quinn, who took over as the defensive coordinator this season.

Last week against the Cardinals, many of Atlanta’s flaws were on display for all to see. Let’s start with the poor tackling. On this 3rd-and-goal, after stops on back to back running plays, Kyler Murray hit running back Chase Edmonds in the flat. Falcons linebacker Deion Jones was playing man coverage on Edmonds and was in position to make the tackle.

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

However, Jones broke down and hesitated instead of attacking Edmonds like an arrow through snow.


You can’t do that on the goal line and expect to keep a ball carrier out of the end zone. NFL games often come down to red zone efficiency on offense and defense. That play has to be made.

Next, take a look at the missed tackling on this 31-yard screen pass to Chase Edmonds. Cornerback Isaiah Oliver and defensive end Adrian Clayborn crashed into each other and completely missed the tackle. Also keep an eye on safety Kemal Ishmael and see the decision he made not to get outside of the lead blocker, which would have forced Edmonds back inside towards the rest of the defense.

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass


While some of that missed tackling can be attributed to a little bit of bad luck, so many defenders were too slow to react and passive in their execution. This was another play that should have been kept to a short gain. Instead, it turned into a big chunk play.

The lack of awareness and discipline has been an issue all season for the Falcons Defense. This has led to blown coverages and wide-open receivers.

On the snap before the above 31-yard catch and run, the Falcons turned a dump off pass into another 30-yard gain.


It’s tough to find a receiver that wide open in the NFL.

All sorts of bad took place on this play for Atlanta. The Falcons were playing cover-3 with safety Kemal Ishmael locking up on the slot receiver to his side, something they like to do and did do frequently throughout this game.

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

That left 3 underneath defenders to account for the 53 ½ yards that make up the width of an NFL field.

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

Something was off about the spacing of these underneath defenders, though. Perhaps it was the motion by the Cardinals and the failure to adjust due to poor communication in response by the Falcons. But look at this screen shot from right at the top of Kyler Murray’s drop.

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

At the top of the screen you have cornerback Damontae Kazee dropping into a zone where there were absolutely no receivers. Linebacker Deion Jones turned and ran to get to his zone after being sucked up due to the play action. It seemed that given the motion and the way Kemal Ishmael was playing the #2 receiver on the other side, the three underneath defenders should have been dropping more towards the bottom of the screen.

It didn’t help that linebacker De’Vondre Campbell turned and sprinted downfield to hunt down the deep over route coming his way.

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

That route should have been taken care of by any number of the corners or safeties in the secondary, depending on how exactly the Falcons teach it. Campbell likely panicked after being sucked up by the play-action and turned to hunt up any deep routes heading towards the vacated area behind him. Whatever the cause, this type of blown coverage can’t happen.

By the time the second half rolled around, I couldn’t stop hearing circus music in my head while watching the Falcons play defense. Here, you had some defenders playing man, some playing zone, and the motion once again causing issues for Atlanta.


Look at this screen shot at the top of Murray’s drop.

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

The Falcons had their only two cornerbacks on the same side of the field, despite the fact that there were not 2 wide receivers to that side. The circled defenders are so close they’re basically holding hands while accounting for the running back off of the play fake. Exactly how you draw it up during the week. A complete lack of everything here by the Falcons. Saying that the integrity of this coverage was compromised would be an understatement.

Atlanta certainly has the opportunity to improve on what looks like a lost season so far. The offense seems to finally be clicking again. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and defensive end Takkarist McKinley are playing at an all-pro level and both are in the top 10 in QB pressures for their positions. But the missed tackles and coverage breakdowns from the back-7 just cannot continue.

Matt Ryan isn’t getting any younger. With an above average offense and an owner anxious to win now, the Falcons don’t have time for another defensive rebuild. It is on Dan Quinn and the players they currently have to get this right before it’s too late. It won’t get any easier this coming Sunday against a Rams offense that consistently tests a defense’s discipline. Sometimes, though, tough challenges can lead to greater than expected efforts. Stepping up and correcting mistakes this Sunday would go a long way towards salvaging Atlanta’s 2019 season.

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