Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan sent a subtle but stern message to this defense last week when he said no defender was playing at a high level.
"That was true," defensive tackle Corey Peters said. "The Saints game, we didn’t play very well on defense. We had a complete system failure in Cincinnati. ... But Tampa Bay may have been the best game that we’ve played as a team since I’ve been a Falcon."
The defense responded with four turnovers, three sacks, six tackles for losses and seven quarterback hits in a 56-14 win against Tampa Bay.
The defense doesn’t have to be spectacular, but it needs to be more consistent moving forward. The last game was a good start -- literally and figuratively.
A big part of the reason why the Falcons were able to apply much-needed pressure against the Buccaneers was because they set the tone early by stopping the run. On Tampa Bay’s very first offensive play, Nolan loaded up the box with William Moore flying down from his strong safety spot. At the snap, linebacker Joplo Bartu shot the gap and caused Bucs running back Bobby Rainey to alter his path. Defensive end Tyson Jackson absorbed a double team while nose tackle Paul Soliai won his one-on-one matchup and forced Rainey to make another sudden cut. The result was linebacker Paul Worrilow getting a free run up the middle to smash Rainey for just a 1-yard gain.
From there, everything just all seemed to click for a defense that was a sieve through the first two games.
So can the Falcons sustain their defensive intensity?
"It’s about energy, man, and we fed off the offense: The offense was moving the ball, and we were creating turnovers," cornerback Desmond Trufant said. "If we do that every week, we can blow teams out every week."
Nolan was rather vanilla with his defensive looks through the first two games. He was able to use different line combinations and overload the line of scrimmage in the last game, knowing the Buccaneers would have to pass the ball plenty after falling so far behind. Utilizing Peters and Malliciah Goodman more often as pass-rushers was a part of the revamped effort.
It would make sense for Nolan to continue to bring the pressure Sunday in Minnesota against rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, especially with running back Adrian Peterson out of the Vikings' lineup.
No matter how Nolan approaches the game, his players have to proceed with the same defensive intensity.
"The sky’s the limit with this defense," said safety Kemal Ishmael, who had a 23-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Buccaneers. "We have so much talent on this defense. ... It’s crazy how much talent we have. We just have to go out there and make the plays."