Big plays on defense helping Falcons learn how to win games
ATLANTA (AP) — Grady Jarrett says the Atlanta Falcons’ defense hasn’t given up on what seemed to be a lost season.
The defense has played big roles in back-to-back wins to back up Jarrett’s claim. Now the defensive tackle says the turnaround must continue.
The Falcons were 0-5 when coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff were fired on Oct. 11. The record was bad enough. The way the Falcons reached 0-5 was worse, becoming the first team in NFL history to blow fourth-quarter leads of at least 15 points in successive losses to Dallas and Chicago.
Jarrett knows the blown leads gave the Falcons a reputation as a team that doesn’t know how to win. Look again.
The Falcons (3-6) have won three out of four under interim head coach Raheem Morris. Last Sunday’s 34-27 win over Denver provided another example of a big play on defense preserving a victory.
“We know the omen that followed us for the first half of the season and we just wanted to step up again,” Jarrett said. “The fact we did feels good and we just want to continue to carry that momentum the rest of the season.”
Jarrett’s pressure on Denver quarterback Drew Lock led to a key fourth-quarter interception by Ricardo Allen that helped deflate the Broncos’ comeback attempt.
After Atlanta’s secondary was depleted by injuries early in the season, the unit has recovered. Linebackers Deion Jones and Foye Oluokun are using their speed to create key plays and Jarrett’s push from the middle of the line is helping to make up for a lack of consistent pass rush from the edge.
Oluokun was NFC Defensive Player of the Week after having 10 tackles, his first career sack and a career-high four quarterback hits against Denver. He became the first Atlanta player to win the weekly honor on defense since Jarrett in Week 15 of 2018.
“We’re playing for each other,” Oluokun said. “I want to keep playing well and showing my effort and making plays and then everybody rise off of that.”
Morris, defensive coordinator before he became interim coach, has asked the Falcons to “impose our will” on opponents by making decisive late-game plays. Two weeks ago, cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson’s interception saved a 25-17 win at Carolina. Morris again could celebrate the defense’s clutch play against Denver.
“That’s what we’ve been talking about the whole year, how you win those games,” Morris said.
The defensive stops also drew praise from quarterback Matt Ryan.
“I saw guys step up defensively,” Ryan said. “ ... I think guys have gotten more comfortable in those situations, more confident, and it has shown.”
There is still much room for improvement on defense. The Falcons entered their bye with some ugly statistics.
They rank 28th with 410 yards allowed per game. They are one spot out of last place in pass defense and rank 23rd with their average of 27.9 points allowed.
A glaring weakness is the pass rush. Atlanta has only 14 sacks and no player has as many as three.
Defensive end Dante Fowler was showing signs of breaking out before missing the win over Denver with a hamstring injury. If Fowler can come out of the bye week healthy, energizing the pass rush, it’d be especially important the last two months when the Falcons have two games against Drew Brees and the Saints, two games against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers.
The Falcons will be underdogs against the NFC South’s top teams, as well as in a visit to Kansas City on Dec. 27. Jarrett insists it’s not too late for them to salvage their season.
“There is a huge chunk of the season still to play,” Jarrett said. “Everything we want is still ahead of us. We’ve put ourselves in position to still have success for this season still. We haven’t given up and we won’t give up and know we can be as good as we want to be.”
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