Falcons’ third-down defense keys Dallas win

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Falcons yielded 377 yards on Sunday against Dallas and failed to force a turnover, yet somehow limited the Cowboys to 13 points, a season-low for the Atlanta defense.

The secret in the 19-13 victory that enabled the Falcons to improve to 8-0 was a phase a of the game that has bedeviled the Falcons at times during head coach Mike Smith’s five seasons: third-down efficiency.

Despite coming in with the NFL’s No. 7-ranked offense, including the No. 3 passing offense, Dallas converted only 3 of 10 third downs in the game (30 percent). If the Falcons could duplicate that percentage for the entire season, they would rank among the NFL’s best third-down defenses.

Houston owns the NFL’s best with opposing offenses converting only 26 percent against them; Buffalo has the NFL’s worst with offenses converting 46 percent of the time.

Last season in defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s fourth and final season in Atlanta, the Falcons tied for having the third-worst third-down defense in the league (46 percent). This year under Mike Nolan, they rank in the bottom 11 (41 percent), but Smith said that since the season opener at Kansas City they have improved.

Their third-down percentages are, in order, for their eight opponents: 69.0, 33.3, 45.0, 36.0, 11.0, 38.0, 46.0 and 30.0.

“We’ve done a nice job really since the first ballgame this year,” Smith said. “We got behind the 8 ball and weren’t very good and gave up way too many third downs and when you’re only talking about between 12 to 15 snaps a game, it takes a while to get your percentages where you would like them. I thought we did a nice job mixing up our coverages. We were disruptive to the quarterback for the most part. We did not do a good job containing him and in that drive where they scored the only touchdown of the game, we weren’t as good as we need to be.

“I think it’s all three areas: defensive line, linebackers and (defensive backs) working together.”

Smith cited Nolan’s prowess as a defensive coordinator, especially in the area of third-down efficiency. Last season when he worked as Miami’s defensive coordinator, Nolan’s unit tied for sixth-best in the NFL in third-down efficiency at 34 percent – this despite being on a 6-10 team with a low-performing offense, which puts pressure on a defense.

“As you guys know, I’ve stated many times coach Nolan thrives on getting you into third down,” Smith said. “That’s when, especially third-and-four or more, you’ve got the advantage on the defensive side.”

Smith noted that with its effectiveness on third down on Sunday, the Falcons kept Dallas off the scoreboard for a stretch of 43:21 from the first quarter until the fourth. The Falcons did that by forcing a failed 54-yard field goal try and then four straight punts.

Among the most impressive aspects of the performance was that it came without the Falcons’ top linebacker, Sean Weatherspoon, who sat with an injured ankle. Smith said the Falcons were hoping to get Weatherspoon back to practice by the end of the week – he did not practice at all last week and was ruled out last Thursday. Smith said the Falcons could make a decision by Thursday or Friday as to whether Weatherspoon will play on Sunday at New Orleans, but he also could be a game-time decision.

With Weatherspoon out, second-year linebacker Akeem Dent played 100 percent of the snaps for only the second time this season, which also represented only the second time in his career he did that.

The only other time this season that Dent played 100 percent of the snaps was in a 23-20 win over Oakland in which the Falcons allowed 353 yards passing. In that game, even though Dent was one of the two linebackers to play in nickel situations – a situation in which he had never played before – Smith said Dent played the “dime” linebacker, which allowed Weatherspoon to play the “mike” linebacker and make the signal calls.

On Sunday against Dallas, Dent wore the communicator in his helmet, played the “mike” linebacker in nickel situations for the first time and made the signal calls. Smith said only once during the game did Dent not get the Falcons into the defense that they wanted to be in. Dent’s seven tackles also tied him for the team lead on Sunday.

“I think Akeem Dent played his best game of season by far,” Smith said. “The thing I’m most proud of is how he handled the huddle. He was a signal-caller on our base defense and our sub defense and I thought he did a very nice job. He was very active…

“He did a very nice job — that’s not easy to really play your first full game at the ‘mike’ linebacker position on a Sunday night football game. I’m so pleased with the way he played. I think he’s really progressed in understanding of the fronts and his run fits.”

With New Orleans coming up on Sunday and a Saints’ offense that has flummoxed the Falcons for years, Dent could face an even greater test if Weatherspoon does not return.