The Falcons obviously prioritized defense this offseason after team owner Arthur Blank made clear he wanted to see opposing quarterbacks such as Brees and Brady under duress more often. The additions of free-agent pass-rusher Dante Fowler Jr., first-round cornerback A.J. Terrell and second-round defensive lineman Marlon Davidson could be just the players the Falcons need to take another step on defense after vast improvements in the second half of 2019.
"It’s the whole package," coach Dan Quinn said of the defense coming together. “Starting all the way back into the winter and adding a guy like Fowler on the first piece of it. And then you take the next step and you go through the draft, so adding a guy like A.J. who has outside stuff, and Marlon who has inside stuff.
“One of the fun parts about that and some of these new guys meeting one another, they’re all an extension of each other. Marlon gets the push, A.J. gets the interception. A.J. locks him down, Marlon gets the sack. Having guys that understand that connection, understand that extension of one another ... these are really impactful, team guys."
The Falcons will rely heavily on quarterback Matt Ryan & Co. to put up points in what could potentially be a high-powered offense again. However, the Falcons won’t accomplish their ultimate goal of qualifying for the revised seven-team NFC playoff field if the defense surrenders 31 points per game, as it did through a 1-7 start last season.
The makeover started with new defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, the guy who ignited the turnaround last season when he moved from coaching the wide receivers to calling the defensive plays on third down and in the red zone. Morris is known for his intelligence and ability to relate to players. The Falcons need those qualities to the fullest during this challenging offseason, as Morris attempts to accelerate the growth of the rookies without practice-field work due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Change is needed up front for the Falcons, who have generated pressure on a league-worst 23% of dropbacks over the past two seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information. They chose not to re-sign one-time sack champ Vic Beasley Jr., who joined the Tennessee Titans. Now the onus falls on Fowler, a former third overall pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars who had 11.5 sacks with the Los Angles Rams last season. The Falcons have a potentially formidable rush group consisting of Fowler off one edge, disruptive Pro Bowler Grady Jarrett and the rookie Davidson inside, and Takk McKinley off the other edge (if McKinley shakes off inconsistency and shoulder issues).
A coach who has been around Fowler in previous years said he is a "b---- to stop" when it comes to running stunts to the inside. Interior pressure will be imperative against veterans such as Brees and Brady, who are accustomed to stepping up to avoid edge rushers.
There will be challenges up and down the schedule, including six teams that ranked in the top 10 in scoring last year while averaging 23.5 or more points per game. But it all comes back to how the Falcons fare against Brees, Brady, and now Teddy Bridgewater for Carolina in the NFC South. Brady was 6-0 against the Falcons -- including Super Bowl LI -- during his time with the New England Patriots. In those games, he threw for 13 touchdowns and just two interceptions while completing 152 of 222 passes for 1,908 yards. The Falcons have sacked Brady 11 times on 235 dropbacks.
Brees is 19-9 all-time against the Falcons as a Saint, but just 4-4 over the last four seasons. He’s thrown 53 touchdowns with 26 interceptions against Atlanta while completing 749 of 1,098 attempts for 8,468 yards. The Falcons have sacked him 36 times in 1,138 dropbacks. Six of those sacks came in last year’s stunning 26-9 road win over the Saints, pressure that included blitzing linebackers off the right edge, successful stunts that created sacks inside and outstanding zone coverage that made Brees hold the ball longer.
"When you’re defending Brees and Brady, I would say one of the first things you have to accomplish defensively is not give them the full 40 seconds to read your defense before the snap because otherwise, they know everything about the play before they snap the ball," said one NFL defensive coordinator. “In a perfect world, they don’t know what you’re in so when they snap the ball, they’ve got 3 to 5 seconds to get it done. Their efficiency is very, very high."
That’s not to say the 42-year-old Brady and 41-year-old Brees are flawless at this stage of their careers.
“I would say Drew, at this part of his career, he’s very horizontal with his attack," the coordinator said. “There’s not the vertical stretch like there once was. He can still throw the thing at about 30 yards, but he doesn’t have really the same vertical ball.
“Brady’s simply not mobile. If you do get the inside pressure in the pocket, he cannot extend plays on the outside. If you destroy the pocket on Brady, at least you have a chance. Brees will run bootlegs and stuff like that still, but you won’t see Tom ever bootleg."
Marlon Davidson's NFL draft profile
Marlon Davidson's highlights at Auburn show a defensive end who has power, explosiveness and versatility.
If the Falcons can generate a consistent pass rush against Brees, Brady and other opposing quarterbacks, it will ease the pressure on a young cornerback group that includes third-year player Isaiah Oliver, second-year player Kendall Sheffield and Terrell. Last season, the Falcons allowed 9.5 yards per attempt to wide receivers, second-worst in the NFL.
Sheffield, touted as a potential No. 1 corner because of his blazing speed, is more valuable because he can cover outside or move inside in the nickel, and teams have attacked the Falcons with top receivers such as Michael Thomas out of the slot in recent years. The Falcons already said Terrell will come in to play outside, and Oliver’s skill set and movement is best suited to play outside.
Morris actually has a good problem with a surplus of defensive backs. Besides the three corners, he has three starting safeties in Ricardo Allen, Damontae Kazee and Keanu Neal -- provided Neal is fully recovered from an Achilles tear. Neal has played more down in the box, while Kazee has settled in at free safety. Allen is a team captain and a guy who can identify offensive plays before they even happen, so he needs to be out there. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Falcons play more of the traditional dime packages with six defensive backs.
The sideline-to-sideline play of middle linebacker Deion Jones is a crucial element to the entire equation. Jones has shown the ability to play at an elite level, particularly against Brees (three interceptions). The Falcons could miss what De'Vondre Campbell, now with the Arizona Cardinals, brought to the linebackers, especially when it comes to covering tight ends such as Tampa Bay’s Rob Gronkowski. But the Falcons might have to rely on Foye Oluokun or Neal to handle those coverage duties now.
Regardless of how much practice time the Falcons have before the actual start of the season, the rookies Terrell and Davidson will have to grow up quickly in the defense. The Falcons need their contributions now, not projections for how they’ll contribute in the future.
“Those are both very good players," said one NFL defensive coordinator of Terrell and Davidson. “I wasn’t hoping the Falcons would take those two guys, to be honest with you."