As we’ve been doing for several years now, we’ll break down the Pittsburgh Steelers’ opponent each week, telling you what to expect from a scheme and individual standpoint. This year, Jonathan Heitritter and I will cover the opposing team’s defense. I will focus on scheme, Jonathan on the players.
Continuing things with the Atlanta Falcons’ defense
ALEX’S SCHEME REPORT
FALCONS RUN DEFENSE
They’re allowing 4.4 yards per carry, just about average in the league entering the week. They’re a base 4-3 front but like many defenses this year, they’re far from a static personnel. Their ends can play with their hand up and they will use 5-2 fronts against heavy personnel groupings, two-back and 12/13 personnel looks. You can see examples below.
Their leading tackler is former first-round pick Rashaan Evans, who the Steelers strongly had an interest in when he came out of the draft but was ultimately taken ahead of them by the Tennessee Titans. He’s third in the NFL in tackles with a whopping 119 of them and, as you’d expect for a guy with that type of volume, is a three-down player. Safety Richie Grant is second on the team with 82 tackles. A physical box safety, those tackles are fourth-most among all NFL safeties.
It’s worth mentioning that despite playing 12 games this year, and they’ve yet to have a bye, the Falcons have missed only 37 tackles this season. That’s the third-fewest in football. They’re a simple and fundamental defense that tries to do the foundational things well and as the numbers show, they’re a strong tackling unit. Up front, DT Grady Jarrett has 44 tackles with a whopping 10 of them behind the line of scrimmage. They have allowed 36 runs of 10+ yards, tied for 17th in the league.
Schematically, there isn’t a ton to say about their run defense across the tape I watched. They do stack the box with heavy eight-man fronts and will sell out to stop the run against teams committed to it or ones who comes out in run-heavy personnel.
Moreso in Week 11 than Week 12, their linebackers responded to WR jet motion so there’s a good chance Matt Canada will continue to use pre-snap window dressing to try to create creases for their inside zone run game.
Some other defensive stats. They’re allowing 24.4 points per game, 25th in the NFL. But they’ve been better as of later, holding their opposition to 25 or fewer points in their last four games and they’ve done so in eight of their 12 games this season. Rarely are they allowing super crooked-looking numbers. They’ve only lost two games by more than one possession this year and have only won a single such game. Meaning, nine of their twelve games have been decided by one possession and eleven of the twelve have been decided by ten points or closer. Point is, they’re playing a ton of tight games and they’re better than their 5-7 record indicates.
Situationally, they have been poor. 47.2% on third down (30th) and 61.4% in red zone defense (24th).
Falcons’ Pass Defense
A group allowing a high completion rate, 68.1%, tied for 27th in the league. They’re also allowing a high YPA, 7.5 (tied 25th) and 18 passing scores (22nd). So the broad numbers don’t look promising for their pass defense. Some of that has to do with a lack of pressure, only 17 sacks, tied for 28th in the league. Despite that, they are getting their hands on the football with 10 interceptions, tied for 7th-most this year.
However, they have been burned a ton this season, giving up 45 completions of 20+ yards. That’s tied with the Steelers’ defense for the most in football. Seven of those have gone for 40+ yards, not as bad but in the bottom third of football.
Grady Jarrett leads the team with 5.5 sacks but no one here has any standout numbers. They are the least blitz-happy team in football, doing so just 14.1% of the time and their pressure rate is even worse than that. They generate pressure just 11% of the time, easily dead last and it’s not even close to the 31st spot.
Seven different Falcons have at least one interception while three players, Grant, LB Mykal Walker, and Jaylinn Hawkins (an underrated player out of Cal) have two picks.
Schematically, they are a base Cover 3 team. They’re not super old school with Country Cover 3, traditional spot dropping that doesn’t work well in today’s NFL, and underneath defenders will match and carry routes. But you’ll see a lot of single high looks and it’s one reason for the big plays they’ve allowed, putting their DBs in 1v1 situations outside the numbers.
The Falcons’ best DB is CB A.J. Terrell and they can play split coverages because of him. Against 3×1, they’re more likely to play a MEG technique – Man Everywhere He Goes – with Terrell locking up the backside X with some sort of match zone to the trips side. Watch an example below.
Finally, like many defenses have done this year, the Falcons will play a DL head up over center as a zero-tech and then run games and stunts off it. Makes it harder for the center to slide and help and creates a lot of 2v2 situations for the defense to stunt. The Falcons also play a lot of one-man down amoeba fronts and like to get linebackers and guys on their feet on third down. The Saints did this with success against Pittsburgh so the Steelers must prove they’re better.
Jonathan’s Individual Report
The Steelers got a much-needed win on Monday Night Football, defeating the Indianapolis Colts to improve to 4-7 on the season. Pittsburgh will attempt to battle one step closer back to .500 as they travel to Atlanta on a short week to face the Falcons who have exceeded the low expectations that were placed on them to start the season. Granted, the roster still needs a lot of work and the passing game is statistically worse than Pittsburgh’s but Atlanta has several key players on both sides of the football along with various supporting contributors that make this team a stingy unit.
In terms of defense, the Falcons rank 28th in the league in total yards allowed, 28th in passing yards allowed, and 21st in rushing yards allowed. They are 25th in the NFL in total points allowed and are continuing to go through an overhaul in terms of personnel as the franchise ushers in a new regime under the guidance of HC Arthur Smith and GM Terry Fontenot.
The Falcons don’t have many star players on the roster, but they do have one of the best defensive linemen in the league in #97 Grady Jarrett. Jarrett has been one of the most disruptive interior defenders in the league since entering the NFL back in 2017 as a fifth-round draft pick, routinely giving opposing offensive lines fits with his burst off the snap, his hand usage, and his relentless pursuit of the football. He’s on pace to record the most sacks of his career this season, posting 5.5 along with 10 TFLs. Jarrett has a motor that never stops, making him priority No.1 for Pittsburgh’s OL.
Joining Jarrett on the defensive line for Atlanta are a bunch of role players that have been thrust into bigger roles due to a lack of overall depth/talent up front. #95 Ta’Quon Graham is listed as the other starting base defensive end, having 34 total stops on the season with a forced fumble and fumble recovery, but has yet to register a sack. Steelers fans will recognize the name #98 Abdullah Anderson who had a cup of coffee with the Steelers in training camp a while back and currently plays as the team’s starting DT, starting three contests this season with 21 total stops, two TFLs, and a sack to his credit.
#93 Timmy Horne also provides depth for the Falcons along the defensive line along with #79 Jalen Dalton and #92 Matt Dickerson who is the most experienced backup of the group but has started zero games in his four-year NFL career and has only managed one TFL and zero sacks during that timeframe.
The Falcons have been desperately searching for an answer at edge rusher for the last several years, lacking a game-wreaker at that position since John Abraham terrorized opposing offenses. They hope to have found a potential solution in the draft this past offseason, selecting #47 Arnold Ebiketie in the second round. Ebiketie was one of the best pass rushers in the draft out of Penn State, displaying a varied pass rush skill set paired with the size and athleticism to boot.
He technically has started only one game for Atlanta, but has shown promise in his rookie season, posting 2.5 sacks, three TFLs, and a forced fumble. He uses his length well to overwhelm OTs, having the long arms to fend off blocks in his pursuit of the QB.
#9 Lorenzo Carter signed with the Falcons this offseason as their other big addition at EDGE. After playing his first four seasons with the Giants, Carter is putting together one of his best seasons statistically, posting 38 total stops, five TFLs, 3.5 sacks, two PBUs, and an INT returned for a TD. Carter has never exceeded five sacks in a season, but he is a sound run defender and possesses the length (6’6″, 255lb) and athleticism to be a problem in coverage, having the ability to drop into space and tip passes at the LOS.
#92 Adetokunbo Ogundeji is the player that Ebiketie rotates in for and is the listed starter on the Falcons depth chart. He is a bigger EDGE, standing 6’4″, 268lb, and does his best work as an edge setter against the run. He can provide a decent power rush off the edge, but only has two sacks in 22 starts, being more of a run stopper than a pass rusher. Atlanta also has rookie #51 DeAngelo Malone who Pittsburgh showed a fair amount of interest in during the pre-draft process working in as a rotational pass rusher, using more speed and quickness around the edge to pressure opposing QBs. Malone has one sack on the season, having played roughly 20% of the defensive snaps.
The Falcons jettisoned multi-year starter Deion Jones to the Browns in a salary dump earlier this year but felt confident doing so having brought in #54 Rashaan Evans this offseason. Many Steelers fans were hoping Evans would end up in Black and Gold coming out of Alabama, but the Titans selected him prior to their pick. Evans has been a stabilizing force at off-ball linebacker for Atlanta this season, ranking third in the league with 119 total tackles through 12 games. Evans also has five TFLs, a sack, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, and four PBUs as a player that does his best work coming downhill shooting gaps as a run defender with some juice as a pass rusher when sent on the blitz.
Starting beside Evans at LB is #3 Mykal Walker who has become a full-time starter in his third season with the team. Walker is near the top of the tackle board as well, posting 93 total stops along with four TFLs, a sack, six PBUs, and two INTs. Walker is more skilled in pass coverage than Evans, having a better feel for dropping in zone and more consistently runs with backs and TEs in man coverage. He may not be considered one of the best at his position, but Walker contributes in all phases as a key member of the Falcons’ defense.
Rookie #44 Troy Andersen has seen a fair amount of run as one of the first guys to rotate in at off-ball LB for Atlanta. He has started one game and has registered 44 total stops and three TFLs. Atlanta also has #53 Nick Kwiatkoski who has played sparingly since signing with the team along with special teamer Nate Landman.
Atlanta’s other star player on defense is CB #24 AJ Terrell. The selection of Terrell at the 16th overall back in 2020 left many scratching their heads after the rookie struggled to find his footing. However, Terrell has been one of the better CBs in the league since then, possessing the speed, quickness, length, and height to effectively challenge receivers on the outside. He posted three picks and 16 PBUs last season but has seen his play trail off a bit in 2022, being a hot-and-cold player. Quick route runners often put Terrell in a bind, especially if asked to move inside and cover from the slot.
Opposite Terrell at CB is ##34 Darren Hall who was drafted last year in the fourth round out of San Diego State. Hall has started six games in his second season and has been a viable run defender at the corner spot, posting 34 stops and a TFL to go along with a forced fumble and fumble recovery. He has the height and length you look for in an outside CB but has yet to record an INT in his career.
#26 Isaiah Oliver also plays a fair number of snaps for the Falcons in the secondary but has seen those snaps drop every season. He is a bigger corner that can challenge jump ball receivers but can struggle to keep up with speed or quickness, allowing nearly a 78% completion percentage according to Pro Football Reference. #37 DeAundre Alford sprinkles in for Atlanta at CB, playing 25% of the snaps and has a pick in limited action. #28 Mike Ford also gets some run as a backup/special teams player along with #27 Rashad Fenton, who was traded to Atlanta from Kansas City and started against Carolina after seeing plenty of playing time for the Chiefs the past three seasons.
The Falcons invested second-round draft capital into #27 Richie Grant in the 2021 NFL Draft, and the investment has been paying dividends in Grant’s second season with the team. Grant has become one of the team’s starting safeties while playing a fair amount in the nickel like he did back in college, moving all over the defensive backfield. He has been asked to contribute a fair amount in run defense, posting 82 tackles thus far in 2022, but also has seven PBUs and two INTs on the season as well. Grant does his best work when allowed to come off the ball in zone and make plays when freed up in coverage.
Starting beside Grant at safety is #32 Jaylinn Hawkins. Hawkins primarily plays strong safety for the Falcons and normally rotates down near the box as a contributor in run defense while occupying space over the middle of the field in zone coverage. He has 62 tackles thus far on the season and has also picked off two passes and recovered a fumble for a scoop-and-score TD. Hawkins has no issue sticking his nose in the fray as a tackler but does well playing off batted balls over the middle of the field. #23 Erik Harris also sees some action at safety for Atlanta, but has only played 33 defensive snaps this season after being a starter last season with Hawkins taking on the starting job.