The number of areas where the Atlanta Falcons, the 2016 NFC Champions, proved to be the worst team in the league were few and far between. But one of those rare areas was their league worst red-zone defense, allowing opponents to convert 71.6 of their trips inside the 20-yard line into touchdowns a year ago.
If there was one area of the Falcons roster considered objectively bad and perhaps their greatest vulnerability, it would have been their red-zone defense. That comes in spite of the obvious improvement the Falcons made over the second half of the 2016 season.
Head coach Dan Quinn took over play-calling duties from defensive coordinator Richard Smith beginning in Week 13 against the Kansas City Chiefs last year. Over the eight-game span helmed by Quinn that culminated in a Super Bowl appearance, the Falcons defense improved. After allowing 27.4 points in the first 11 games of the 2016 season, the Falcons allowed just 22.4 in the final eight, including the postseason.
They also managed to create far more turnovers, finishing plus-13 in turnover margin over the final eight games versus the plus-three they were for the first 11 games.
Yet the red-zone defense only showed marginal improvement down the stretch. In the final eight games of the year, the Falcons allowed touchdowns on 66.7 percent of their opponents’ red-zone trips. During the first 11 games that number was 75 percent.
Albeit a slight improvement, 67 percent still would have ranked among the league’s worst red-zone defenses last year, as the Cleveland Browns ranked 29th with the same percentage allowed throughout the entire season.
A much healthier percentage would have been 50 percent or better, a rate achieved by the team just five times throughout 2016. Those occurences came against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the season opener, Denver Broncos, Philadelphia Eagles, Carolina Panthers (in Week 16) and Seattle Seahawks during the playoffs.
While going back in looking at those five performances to evaluate what went right for the Falcons red-zone defense, it was somewhat disheartening to discover that a lot of it was due to subpar play from the opposing quarterbacks. The Falcons were able to take advantage of mistakes by rookie passers like Paxton Lynch and Carson Wentz against the Broncos and Eagles, respectively. They also benefited from the scattershot accuracy from veteran quarterback Cam Newton in the late-season matchup against the Panthers.
Yet those occurrences bring up an important issue when it comes to red-zone success or failure: quarterback play. There is a fairly strong correlation between teams that are successful converting red-zone opportunities into touchdowns and those with solid quarterback play when things become confined.
Seven of the teams that finished in the top 10 in red-zone efficiency last year also finished in the top 10 in terms of quarterback rating inside the red zone. And the three exceptions finished 11th, 12th and 14th, respectively.
So one could conclude that in order to become stingier in the red zone on defense, a team must do a better job affecting the quarterback. And few teams did that worse than the Falcons a year ago.
Falcons Failed to Affect the Quarterback in the Red Zone
The Falcons only collected one sack on 97 pass plays in the red zone in 2016, with only the Dallas Cowboys having a lower sack rate thanks to having just one sack on 98 pass plays.
However what is noteworthy is that the Falcons, at least when using defensive passer rating as the metric, weren’t altogether bad in the red zone last season. Their defensive passer rating inside their own 20-yard line was 93.6, which actually ranked 13th best in the entire league. Part of that owes to defenders in the secondary making plays on the ball, as the team had three interceptions in the red zone, tied for the second-highest total around the league.
So one could argue that the Falcons could easily make a significant leap in terms of their red-zone defense if they get better performances up front. Which speaks to why the team invested so much in their defensive front seven during the offseason by signing free-agent defensive linemen Dontari Poe and Jack Crawford as well as using their first two 2017 draft picks on defensive end Takk McKinley and outside linebacker Duke Riley.
Poe is the headliner in that group, coming from a Kansas City Chiefs defense that was among the league’s best in terms of getting red-zone stops a year ago. The Falcons are optimistic that Poe was the catalyst for that success and his presence rubs off in a positive way here in Atlanta.
Discovering how much Poe and the others can help the Falcons red-zone defense in 2017 required extensive review of the All-22 from a season ago.
Breaking Down the All-22 of the Falcons Red-Zone Defense in 2016
In going back and looking at several red-zone plays against the Falcons defense in 13 different games, roughly 70 percent of all their red-zone snaps, I saw a mixed bag of problems. But one thing was clear, the bad outweighed the good.
Reducing the Falcons’ red-zone woes to one systemic problem last year is difficult since the team seemed to be routinely plagued by a multitude of issues: poor run defense, ineffective pass rush, missed tackles, coverage breakdowns, questionable play-calling and poor communication. Essentially the Falcons checked all the boxes of things not to do in order to consistently get stops in the red zone a season ago.
However it does seem that some of those issues could have been mitigated with stronger play up front. Obviously good run defense and an effective pass rush start up front. But additionally coverage breakdowns can be reduced with stronger play up front. After all, it’s easier to mask poor coverage with effective pressure than vice versa.
But in going back and looking at the All-22, it wasn’t all bad. Let’s first examine several plays early in the season that showcase both good and bad performances of the Falcons’ red-zone defense in their Monday Night performance against the New Orleans Saints in Week Four.
This first play shows the Falcons giving up a touchdown to Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas on a rub/pick route. However later in the game, the Falcons were able to capitalize on the Saints by giving them a similar look and baiting quarterback Drew Brees, resulting in a 90-yard interception returned for a touchdown by linebacker Deion Jones. That is a mark of a solid coaching adjustment by the Falcons:
However the play-calling in that Saints game wasn’t always superb. There was a series in the third quarter where the Falcons made a baffling decision with their defensive line alignment, creating a massive hole for the Saints to easily exploit in converting on a run up the middle to fullback John Kuhn:
This play illustrates another common issue that the Falcons faced throughout the 2016 season, which was the ability of opposing teams to spread them out with multiple-wide-receiver sets. This often led to the Falcons being exploited against the run in the red zone.
Opponents Exploited Falcons in Red Zone By Spreading Field
In re-watching the film, one of the things that became clear was just how much opposing teams used their “11” personnel and other “spread” formations against the Falcons as they inched towards the goal line. That might seem counterintuitive to some, as one might suspect opposing teams would prefer to use “beefier” personnel groupings with more tight ends or blockers to try and ram the ball down the defense’s throats. However upon further contemplation, it’s not so counterintuitive.
One of the problems teams face when they get into the red zone is the shrinking size of the field. Defenders don’t have to cover as much space in the red zone as they do elsewhere in the field. NFL teams can often counter this by trying to spread defenses out as much as possible with three and four-wide receiver sets. Last season, 63.1 percent of all plays inside the red zone had personnel groupings that featured three or more wide receivers. That’s not far below the 66.8 percent of plays featuring multiple wide outs on all plays regardless of positioning on the field.
Teams are usually compelled to counter this strategy by bringing an extra cornerback on the field with their nickel defense, typically with a linebacker being substituted in exchange. This leaves defenses sporting softer fronts with only six defenders in the box, made up of four defensive linemen and only two linebackers.
Offenses now can at the least break even in regards to the numbers game, often having six eligible blockers (five offensive lineman and a tight end) to block each defender. If a run is executed properly, it should lead to larger gains as the above touchdown to Kuhn shows.
This is why it’s so important for a sound red-zone defense to win along the line of scrimmage, where athletic defensive linemen are put in more advantageous situations than undersized linebackers are against blockers.
Yet that aforementioned inability to win up front was one of the biggest reasons why the Falcons struggled throughout last season, not just in the red zone but all over the field on defense.
It’s also worth noting that the data suggests that opposing offenses opted to spread out the Falcons defense much more than most other defenses.In fact 80.3 percent of plays inside the red zone against the Falcons defense featured three or more wide receivers, which is significantly higher than the league average. That likely was specifically designed to exploit the team’s ineffective pass rush.
Falcons Red-Zone Pass Rush Unreliable, But Effective In 2016
But there were multiple instances last year where the Falcons defense was able to win up front to help bolster their red-zone defense. Two prominent instances came against the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round of the playoffs, where defensive Brooks Reed seemingly single-handedly elevated the Falcons red-zone defense with effective pressure.
Here are two examples of excellent plays by Reed in that game:
Now here’s what happened on the ensuing play where fellow Falcons defensive end Dwight Freeney subbed in for Reed:
Those above plays marked times where the Falcons were able to thwart the Seahawks offense thanks to pressure creating opportunities for the defense. Even though Wilson still had a chance to throw a touchdown on the last example, his throw was rushed and inaccurate thanks to the corralling influences of Freeney and Jonathan Babineaux.
On the same note, one of the few times the Falcons slowed down the New England Patriots offense in the red zone during Super Bowl 51 came thanks to pressure created by defensive tackle Grady Jarrett in one of his three sacks in that game:
There were times last year where the Falcons created pressure early in a red-zone series, but were unable to finish. Here’s an example of one such series from the Broncos game:
However the Broncos realizing that missed opportunity by their young quarterback on the previous play, opt for running the same basic play on the ensuing down:
Then on the very next play, an inability to make the proper adjustment thanks poor communication costs the Falcons a stop:
That series represented one of the times where the Falcons youth, inexperienced and poor communication came back to bite them in the red zone despite a promising start due to effective play up front by the defensive line.
Jalen Collins and Falcons Secondary Must Improve Awareness
Those weren’t the only instances where questionable awareness hurt the Falcons defense. Another instance came against the Patriots in the Super Bowl, where second-year cornerback Jalen Collins got exposed multiple times thanks to questionable awareness and poor angles on the ball. The first play happens late in the third quarter:
Later in the fourth quarter, Collins is caught sleeping on a series after the Patriots run similar plays on consecutive downs:
On the next play:
In defense of Collins, by the point the Patriots had reached the red zone on the latter set of plays, he had played close to 70 snaps on defense. That’s slightly more than a full game’s worth and likely fatigue had started to tax him of his mental sharpness.
However the above plays against the Patriots as well as the aforementioned ones against the Broncos are examples of the Falcons youth and inexperience getting the better of them. The Falcons were extremely young on that side of the ball a year ago and hopefully the growing pains the unit collectively experienced will help them take the necessary steps in 2017 to improve.
Yet regardless of their youth, there were far too many times last year where the Falcons’ proved “soft” up front, directly causing their ineffectiveness in the red zone. On 23 runs inside the five-yard line the Falcons gave up 13 touchdowns for a rate of 56.5 percent, the fifth worst in the league a year ago.
No game exemplified the team’s struggles in the trenches than their worst loss of the season, a 24-15 beatdown at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 10. That game saw the Falcons give up 208 yards on the ground.
Eagles Line Dominated the Falcons In the Trenches
Here is a series of plays against the Eagles that is very representative of the opposing offensive line bulldozing the Falcons defensive line:
These three plays are strong illustrations of how poorly at times the Falcons defensive tackles handled their run fits throughout 2016, but also signifies the struggles of the Falcons’ undersized linebackers in taking on offensive linemen at the point of attack.
Falcons middle linebacker Deion Jones especially was inconsistent at this aspect and was only further accentuated thanks to how relatively little he weighed throughout his rookie season. That is an issue that Jones hopes to correct this year by bulking up to 235 pounds.
But the presence of a player like Poe should also benefit Jones in that regard. As the nose tackle for the Chiefs, Poe regularly took on and absorbed double teams from offensive linemen. Poe’s massive presence in the middle should help keep Falcons linebackers like Jones cleaner than the team’s tackles did a year ago, freeing him up to make more plays.
Here is an example of Poe’s ability to eat up blocks for the Chiefs last year in the red zone:
But even still, the above play illustrates the need for the individual linebacker to still have to win his blocks. But defeating a block from a 250-pound fullback like Kuhn is much less of a challenge for Jones than it would be facing down a 318-pound guard like Evans.
One of the few times that the Falcons defense did create a stop in the red zone against the Eagles unsurprisingly came thanks to penetration by the defensive line, only further illustrating the importance of steadier play up front leading to success:
As some might say, “disruption is production,” particularly when it comes to defensive-line play. The Eagles game clearly showed that the Falcons defensive line wasn’t sturdy enough to hold up at the point of attack against the Eagles offensive line. Ironically it was an offensive lineman in Garland that made the most noteworthy positive play for the defensive front. Garland served double duty last year as key reserve at defensive tackle, particularly in goal-line sets, but also was the team’s top reserve at both guard and center on offense.
Fortunately the Falcons may not have to be as reliant on Garland to make key stops in 2017 thanks to the improved rotation. The additions of Poe and Crawford, as well as the healthy return of Derrick Shelby should bolster the defensive interior.
But not only will the Falcons need to be more disruptive in order to beef up their run defense, they also need to be more disruptive when it comes to pressuring the quarterback. That’s another arena where Poe could provide a significant boost as well, as evidenced by his performance against the Falcons a year ago.
Poe Was a Red-Zone Force Versus Falcons in 2016
Poe made a significant impact in that Falcons loss to the Chiefs, creating pressure on two critical plays that led to the Falcons offense having one of its worst performances all year in the red zone.
Another red-zone stop came thanks to Poe working over Chester once more:
Those two pressures by Poe arguably took eight combined points off the board for the Falcons in a game that they ultimately lost by one point.
Poe won’t single-handedly elevate the Falcons defense, but his presence should provide a big boost once the field constricts near the goal line.
But the Falcons will need many of their young players to grow this year and be better able to make the necessary plays to make stops.
Youth Will Help Falcons Red-Zone Defense Grow in 2017
Jarrett showed throughout the year his potential to be disruptive up the middle, and the added presence of Poe should allow him more opportunities to win one-on-one blocks as he showed in the Super Bowl.
None of Vic Beasley’s 15.5 sacks last year came in the red zone, although there were many instances where he created pressure to flush quarterbacks or hurry throws. However if the Falcons want to go from ranking at the bottom of in terms of affecting the quarterback in the red zone, they will need their leading pass-rusher to make more stops.
As the anchor in the middle of the defense the Falcons will also need to expect more out of Jones. The beefier defensive front should help keep him cleaner, but there still will be numerous instances where he’ll have to take on and defeat offensive linemen at the point of attack. The added bulk will help, but he will have to be far more aggressive in those instances if he hopes to improve there.
The Falcons also need to get better play on the back end from corners like Collins. Recent quotes from new Falcons defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel suggests that Collins is by no means a foregone conclusion to fill the role as the team’s third cornerback behind starters Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant.
However that decision could be up to whether Collins polishes up his game to play with better awareness to be better able to make the plays he’s capable of making.
The Falcons are wagering largely on the boost provided by veterans like Poe as well as the development of young defenders the team has acquired in recent years to upgrade the league’s worst red-zone defense from a year ago.
It’s a far from a risky gamble, but a necessary one, if the team hopes to counter any potential regression from the offense this upcoming season. If the Falcons are going to be put in a position to win more lower-scoring affairs in 2017, then it’s critical that the defense is stingier in regards to giving up points in the red zone.
Half of the Falcons’ six losses in 2016 came by three points or less, suggesting that just one more red-zone stop, turning a single touchdown into a field goal could’ve potentially won the Falcons the game. And of course just one more red-zone stop in the team’s six-point, overtime loss to the Patriots in the Super Bowl could have dramatically shifted the result of that game in the Falcons’ favor.
Therefore one could easily conclude that the most notable Achilles heel of the Falcons from last year wound up costing them immortality in the end. Avoiding a repeat of that conclusion could very well rest on just how much improvement the team shows in the red zone this season.