FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – On a day when the Atlanta Falcons scored their fewest points of the season – they still managed 24 – they owed their victory on Sunday over Washington mainly to their defense, which had one of its best performance of the season, if not its best.
With quarterback Matt Ryan having spotted the Redskins a 7-0 lead with an interception returned for a touchdown, the Falcons’ defense held the Redskins to 10 points (an effort furthered by Billy Cundiff’s miss of a 31-yard field goal) in helping the Falcons improve to 5-0. Washington totaled 316 yards offense – the Falcons defense’s second-lowest total of the season – and 77 of them came as a result of a blown coverage on Santana Moss’s touchdown reception from Kirk Cousins.
So while the Falcons’ defense has some glaring weaknesses, notably its play against the run, it has excelled in other areas. Primarily, the Falcons remained plus-10 in turnover differential, tying them for the league lead in that department with New England, with two interceptions in the final two minutes (one by Dunta Robinson, one by Thomas DeCoud, his fourth) to seal victory.
After Sunday, a few other areas are starting to look better. One is scoring defense. The Falcons have allowed 18.6 points per game, which ranks eighth in the NFL.
The other is third-down efficiency, which has often proved a sore spot in head coach Mike Smith’s five seasons. While tied for 21st in the NFL at 42 percent, the Falcons have improved in that area and excelled at it on Sunday. The Falcons stopped the Redskins on their first eight third downs of the game and Washington converted only on its ninth — on the 77-yard touchdown – for an 11-percent conversion rate for the game.
“We did a nice job on third down yesterday,” Smith said. “Through the season, it’s not the way we’ve we wanted it to be…Yesterday I thought we had a really good, tight plan for third down. I thought we did a nice job on first and second down, as well.”
As the Falcons continue to try to stay atop the NFC, Smith said his first concern that came to mind is the run defense, which has ranked among the NFL’s worst. The Falcons have allowed every opponent this season to rush for more than 100 yards and rank 27th in the league in that category.
At halftime on Sunday, Washington’s Alfred Morris had 10 carries for 86 yards but finished with only 115 yards on 18 carries.
Part of the reason why the Falcons have allowed so many yards rushing is their preference for nickel defense (two linebackers, five defensive backs) instead of their base (three linebackers, four defensive backs). Regardless, second-year middle linebacker Akeem Dent, a first-year starter, appears to be struggling. At times on Sunday, he overran the ball-carrier, taking himself out of position, and made a lunging tackle from behind after a decent-sized gain.
So far this season, Dent has played between 1 percent of the defensive snaps (against Denver) to a high of 55 percent Sunday – the only game in which he has played a majority of the snaps. Dent ranks 12th on the team in tackles with five solo and four assists for nine combined – a ratio of one tackle per every 10 snaps.
In comparison, the other two starting linebackers have higher ratios of tackles-to-snaps. Stephen Nicholas and Sean Weatherspoon rank first and second on the team, respectively, in tackles. Nicholas has 38 in 299 snaps for a ratio of one every 7.9 snaps and Weatherspoon has 37 in 311 snaps for a ratio of one every 8.4. Furthermore, the middle linebacker should be the chief run-stopper, as opposed to the outside ‘backers.
During his tenure when performance has lagged at certain positions, Smith has not hesitated to hold an open competition in midseason. He did it on the offensive line last season, replacing Garrett Reynolds at right guard with reserve center Joe Hawley, and this season, replacing nickel back Dominique Franks with Robert McClain.
Smith did not answer directly when asked if he would do that at middle linebacker, but he said the Falcons would examine all of their options, including personnel, in defending the run. The Falcons only carry five linebackers. The other two are Robert James, who plays on the outside, and aging veteran Mike Peterson, who can play the middle and replaced Dent during the preseason when Dent suffered a concussion.
The Falcons also have the option of trying out a linebacker and signing him from the outside, a move they are tend to be tight-lipped about. Those workouts for potential players traditionally occur on Tuesdays.
“We didn’t fit the run well,” Smith said, using his term for filling gaps and defending the run. “We didn’t, basically, take the blockers on on our terms. Our path to the ball and tackling wasn’t what it needed to be. We do have a rotation in the defensive line. Not so much with the linebackers. We only have five linebackers on our roster, so it kind of limits us in terms of that.
“We’re going to look at everything in terms of scheme, in terms of players and who’s playing and who’s not playing because I think it’s something we definitely have to fix.”
Fortunately, this coming Sunday might not represent an urgent situation when the Falcons host Oakland (1-3) at the Georgia Dome. While Raiders running back Darren McFadden has ranked among the NFL’s best in recent seasons, he has rushed for only 201 yards in four games on 57 carries, 3.5 yards per carry. At 60.8 yards per game, the Raiders own the league’s worst rushing offense.