FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan typically is brutally honest. Such was the case Wednesday when he was asked to single out a defense player who has performed at a high level through two games.
"We don't have anybody on defense, to this point, that's playing at a high level," Nolan said. "I think they all would say that they want to play better than they've played. Some have played better than others, don't get me wrong. But I think, to a man, I think they would think, 'Hey, I want to play a little bit better than that, at least.'"
The Falcons enter Thursday night's NFC South game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ranked last in the league in four defensive categories: yards per game (472), yards per play (6.79), passing yards per play (9.62), and sacks per pass attempt (0.0). They ranked 29th out of 32 teams in third-down percentage defense, allowing opponents to convert 51.85 percent of the time. And the Falcons rank 26th against the run, allowing 154.5 rushing yards per game.
Although Nolan didn't mention him specifically, cornerback Desmond Trufant certainly appears to be performing at a high level. One opposing coach said this about Trufant: "He knows how to play, and he knows how to irritate receivers. He really stands out to me. The other guy [Robert Alford] is a pretty good player, too. But No. 21 is the guy I look at because he has pretty good technique."
Two players who haven't played up to standard have been outside linebackers Jonathan Massaquoi and Kroy Biermann. Massaquoi hasn't taken that next step as a pass-rusher just yet, and neither Massaquoi nor Biermann has been effective against the run. Most of the big runs surrendered have come from opposing running backs bouncing outside rather than up the middle against big nose tackle Paul Soliai and defensive end Tyson Jackson.
"Well, their job -- some of the time but not all of the time -- is to set the edges," Nolan said of Massaquoi and Biermann. "We gave up the edge in the game the other day far too many times. It's not just their jobs. Sometimes, it's the safety's and the corner's job, as well. But, that would be one of their jobs as far as the run goes.
"Outside of that, sometimes they have an interior responsibility; maybe not all the way inside, but the next gap inside to the exterior. That's where the outside 'backer would be. For example, if there's a safety outside of them or a corner, they would be inside of them there."
The defense, as a whole, has to put together a strong run-stopping effort Thursday night against Tampa Bay's Bobby Rainey, who rushed for 163 yards and had three touchdowns (two rushing, one receiving) against the Falcons last season. Rainey had 144 rushing yards against St. Louis last week.
As far as the pass rush goes, no sacks and one quarterback hit through two games tells the story for the Falcons. Nolan expected his outside linebackers to contribute more with the rush by now. Osi Umenyiora hasn't fared well as the designated pass-rusher, either.
"Obviously the pass rush is an area where those players, whether it's [Massaquoi] or [Stansly] Maponga or anyone that plays the end pass-rusher, we need to get more production out of that," Nolan said.
"As was obvious our first two games, we've had low production. We've got to get our production up. We've got to come up with plays. We can't have people on the screen jumping over the top of us, or a guy catching the ball right over the middle and us not making the tackle."