NFC South Reporter
While much of the attention surrounding the Falcons this offseason has been around the potential of a running game built around rookie Bijan Robinson and the uncertainty of a young quarterback in Desmond Ridder, Atlanta’s upgraded defense might be the team’s best path to ending a five-year playoff drought.
The defense is where the Falcons have actively worked to add impact newcomers, with likely at least six new defensive starters, led by safety Jessie Bates and defensive linemen Calais Campbell and David Onyemata. Atlanta had ample cap space this spring to add talent for new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen, so there’s an expectation of improved play.
“We’ve invested heavily on that side of the football,” head coach Arthur Smith said during mandatory minicamp last month. “It’s important as you’re trying to have a complete team. … We feel good about our depth. The key is trying to stay healthy and keep developing guys. We’ve got a good mix of young guys, guys that have played a lot of significant snaps for us, and you hope that experience carries over.”
Atlanta’s defense was a study in extremes last year, ranking 31st in the NFL in first-half points allowed, but also ranking first in second-half points allowed, holding opponents to 7.9 points per game after halftime. The Falcons’ 7-10 record included eight losses by a single score — only the Raiders and Broncos had more, with nine each — and five losses by four points or fewer, matching the league high.
Many of those were games in which Atlanta’s defense struggled early, setting up comebacks that ultimately fell short. Down 28-3 to the Rams, the Falcons wound up losing 31-27; down 21-0 to the Bucs, they lost 21-15. A 10-point early deficit to the Steelers ended up a three-point loss, and a 14-point deficit to the Saints ended up another three-point loss.
So Atlanta was active in free agency, leading with Bates, who signed a four-year, $64 million deal after helping the Bengals win five playoff games in the past two seasons. Campbell, 36, adds a veteran presence up front — his next sack will be the 100th of his NFL career — as does former Steelers and Titans OLB Bud Dupree, 30, who has 46.5 career sacks.
Nielsen, 44, spent the past six years with the Saints, working as a co-coordinator last year, and he brought familiar faces with him. Former Saint Onyemata is now a key part of the defensive front alongside veteran Grady Jarrett, and linebacker Kaden Elliss also followed Nielsen to Atlanta after a breakout 2022 season with New Orleans.
“He’s a good teacher,” Smith said of his new coordinator. “That’s why we brought him here. We were excited to get Ryan. You want to make sure [players] are getting his intent. They seem to be, and hopefully that translates to camp. I’m very excited.”
In the division, Nielsen will go up against two first-time offensive coordinators in Tampa Bay’s Dave Canales and Carolina’s Thomas Brown, as well as a veteran in Saints OC Pete Carmichael, whom Nielsen saw every day in practice for the past six years.
Atlanta hasn’t had a record above .500 at any point in the past five seasons, and the early schedule will give the Falcons a chance to end that drought in September. Four of their first six opponents should have starting quarterbacks who enter the season with one or fewer career starts, beginning with Carolina and top overall pick Bryce Young in the season opener in Atlanta. The Falcons will likely face Green Bay’s Jordan Love, Houston rookie C.J. Stroud and Washington’s Sam Howell in those first six games, which could set the tone for the division after a closely bunched 2022 season in which all four teams finished within a single win of each other.
An improved defense, especially early in games, can help Atlanta on many levels. Playing from behind less would allow the Falcons to control the game more with what should be one of the NFL’s best running games. And that would put less pressure on an unproven quarterback like Ridder, who has only four career starts entering the new season himself.
Atlanta finished 23rd out of 32 NFL teams in scoring defense, and even if you set the bar reasonably low in seeking to finish in the top half of the league there, it would be a promising step forward for the Falcons. The last time they did that was 2017 — the last year they made the playoffs as well — and only one other NFL team (Raiders) has gone longer without finishing in the top half.
End that drought, and another more significant one could be ending as well.
Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.
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