Why the Atlanta Falcons' defense is finally starting to settle in

Linebacker Steven Means and the Falcons' defense have done a better job on third down in recent weeks. Jim Dedmon/USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Steven Means doesn’t remember exactly when it happened, or what day or what week, only that it did. It was in the middle of a practice and the veteran outside linebacker had, for whatever reason, had enough.

He went to Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees and asked for a few minutes to address the team. He had a few things he needed to say to drive home to the guys he’d been playing with for the last half-year.

Means thinks his message, which contained “some choice words” after a decent defensive performance, began a change. Means felt they were already starting to figure things out but this, maybe, could accentuate the point.

“We just needed to all look at each other in the eyes at that moment,” Means said. “And say, ‘This is it. This is what we need, and let’s go do it.’"

The reasoning for Atlanta’s improved defensive play since giving up 43 points to the Dallas Cowboys on Nov. 14, where all but one score was allowed by the defense, is not as simple as one mid-practice meeting. It’s a bit deeper than that.

But it centers around the tenets of trusting the scheme Pees has been implementing since coming out of his second retirement in January, the players understanding their importance in staying to their roles in the scheme and feeling more comfortable playing in it each week.

“Every time we come into a meeting with Pees, there’s always something to learn,” cornerback A.J. Terrell said. “He’s always telling us how close we are, if we just get a detail down and just play as a unit. That was one of the keys, playing as a unit, and just playing as one.”

It’s not yet perfect. Not close. But it is starting to show improvement at a time where the Falcons need it -- four games to go, hanging on in the playoff race and needing to win out, or come close, to have a real chance.

Since the drubbing in Dallas, the Falcons’ defense has allowed more than 21 points just once, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Otherwise, it’s started to find itself. They’ve intercepted passes in four straight games, and after forcing eight turnovers in the first 10 games of the season, they have produced seven in the last four.

They’ve been effective getting off the field on third down and have performed better than anticipated based on defensive expected points added in three of the past four games after doing so just once in the first 10.

A lot of it has to do with how the Falcons have been playing. Means said the team has freelanced less and focused specifically on being in the right place at the right time every play.

It’s one of the things Pees appreciates most about Means. He trusts he won’t be in the wrong spot because he always knows the spot he’s supposed to be in. It’s part of why he has earned the playing time he has received. Because if everyone is in the spot they need to be in, there’s a better chance of a positive outcome.

“It takes a commitment by all 11, but there are a lot of unsung heroes and you want to show that,” coach Arthur Smith said. “You may see the one guy get the sack, but if one guy doesn’t take two, or he doesn’t sit there and set the game up, the sack may never happen. They may throw you one because of internal pressure in the pocket.

“It’s playing together, it’s everybody doing their job.”

It’s why when Smith says Pees “hasn’t even scratched the surface as far as the evolution of how much we’re going to put in eventually,” it’s believable. Pees has joked before he has a massive playbook. At one point this season, he felt like he put 30% in and had to pull back because it was too much.

“We’re not going to force things that maybe not fit our current personnel, and that’s not a knock on anybody," Smith said. "It’s just the way it goes. You’re constantly evaluating that."