I didn’t think there was a chance in the world that the Falcons defense would play as well as it did against the Peyton Manning led Broncos. Maybe I completely gave into all of the media hype surrounding that quarterback, and his past, but I thought the Falcons defense would get absolutely carved up. They certainly didn’t play as well late in the game as they gave up a couple long touchdown drives, but their hard work and good performance early put the Broncos in a hole that they never really recovered from.
The biggest reason for the Falcons defensive production improving is the addition of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. Nolan has always had a knack for turning middle of the road defenses into very solid units in his first season as DC, and that showed against Denver. The scheme that Nolan rolled out on Monday night was all about disguising the coverage, not tipping your hand as to who is dropping where in coverage, and showing nine men in the box. The corners had to keep the receivers from streaking down the field uncontested– they did that. The safeties had the freedom to move and disguise what they were supposed to do within the play, as long as when they dropped in coverage they hit their landmarks in time to protect the big play. The safeties performed admirably. And the linebackers were active. All of these things were crucial in Nolan’s defense. He has very precise and drawn up plays that he calls on defense, but he allows the players to move around at will, confusing opposing quarterbacks. Giving the defense freedom to execute controlled chaos is the name of the game, and Nolan looked like a genius early in the game.
The safeties were really the players of the game. Thomas DeCoud came down with an interception. He also was a solid tackler and provided solid pass coverage. And then there was William Moore. Moore had the game of his life last night. He lined up in the box and was able to drop into coverage to disrupt the deep passes. He lined up deep and used his speed to hit running backs really hard out of the backfield for little to no gain. He separated the receiver from the ball well, and obliterated Demaryius Thomas on what looked to be a certain touchdown pass. William Moore played the run exceptionally well, and also played fantastically as a last line of defense for the Falcons. This safety tandem is outstanding, and I think they can be a building block for this Atlanta D.
Talk about building blocks, we all know about what Sean Weatherspoon can do, and he did a really good job of relaying the play calls to the rest of the defense and getting the players in spots to make plays. He is also a good, athletic, and hard hitting player in his own right, a cornerst0ne type of defender. The other linebacker who looked great was Stephen Nicholas. The Falcons missed him for a lot of 2011, and what a player they missed. He was as sure a tackler as the Falcons had, he was able to weave between blockers to find the ball carrier, and showed an extremely high motor. He was also really good in pass coverage. Talk about an guy who plays at an outstandingly high level, and most Falcons fans including me didn’t really know what we were missing.
Two more points. Asante Samuel is a good defender, good at baiting the quarterback into bad throws. He didn’t bait Manning last night, and that made him about the only Falcons defender to not force him into bad throws. But one thing Samuel did bring was a really high level of physical play. I had no idea that Samuel could play as physical as he did last night. He delivered jarring hit after jarring hit, brought down ball carriers much bigger than he is, and came up and made the play in space. The same can be said for Dunta Robinson, who not only continued to play well from a physical standpoint, but also delivered excellent coverage play. Since the Falcons signed him a couple years ago, Robinson hasn’t brought much in the way of coverage, but tonight he showed how high his level of potential is. He did give up a touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas at the end of the first half, but he did his darnedest to prevent him from doing so. Throughout the ball game Robinson looked to be in outstanding position to make a play on the ball and not always simply concede the catch. Great play by those two corners, in addition to the backup corners and how well they played.
The Falcons defensive line as a unit played very well. There wasn’t any guy who played particularly well, and defensive ends John Abraham and Ray Edwards were super quiet. Neither registered a sack. However, they each attracted a blocker, John Abraham a chip from a running back, and the interior of the defensive line (Peria Jerry, Jonathan Babineaux, Vance Walker) and linebackers Weatherspoon and Nicholas picked up the slack by delivering pressure up the middle and at the minimum hitting Manning on nearly every play. The Falcons don’t need Abraham to be super productive statistically if he continues to draw attention, and the other players on the defense step up and continue the play the pass as well as the run extremely well.
What are your thoughts on the Falcons defensive performance?