FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Despite analytical data to the contrary, the Falcons believe they have laid the foundation for what will become a solid defense.
Also, the special-teams units had a breakthrough season in 2022 and signaled that they’ll be a major part of a turnaround as the Falcons will try to move on from their fifth consecutive losing season.
The defense didn’t finish in the top half of the league in any of the key categories: points allowed (22.7, 23rd), total yards allowed (362.1, 27th), passing yards allowed (231.9, 25th) and rushing yards allowed (130.2, 23rd)
Former defensive coordinator Dean Pees was pleased with how the unit performed over the final 10 games but knows that more talent is needed on that side of the ball for his successor.
“I certainly wouldn’t pass up a dynamic pass rusher or a dynamic defensive lineman, either,” Pees said. “If you’ve got a guy like a J.J. Watt or somebody like that who can also (rush the passer) or a guy like Aaron Donald, that can just wreck havoc inside, that’s the same. Everybody thinks outside pass rusher, but those two guys wreck havoc inside just as much.”
The Falcons finished with 21 sacks, which was 31st in the league. Chicago finished last with 20 sacks.
After playing with an NFL-record $88 million in dead salary-cap space in 2022, the Falcons will have some resources to improve the defense this offseason. The Falcons are projected to have $56.6 million in cap space by overthecap.com.
The Falcons also have eight draft picks, including five in what could be the top 115 picks. Also, they could receive an additional two compensatory picks for losing linebacker Foye Oluokun and wide receiver Russell Gage in free agency.
A lot of the free-agency/draft capital will be spent on building out the defense.
“You have two different facets that you’re dealing with. You’ve got the draft, and you’ve got free agency,” Pees said. “You should be able to do both. One side of it you can get in the draft and the other side in free agency. It’s not like you only got one choice.”
When the Falcons elected to move on from the previous regimes’ contracts, they were cash-strapped and resorted to signing veterans to one-year minimum or low-budget contracts.
“That’s the problem that (coach Arthur Smith) and (general manager) Terry (Fontenot) had in the last couple of years. You had one (option). It had to be the draft because you didn’t have any money to go get a free agent,” Pees said.
The Falcons’ defense had some bad luck with its personnel along the defensive line this season.
The mission before the season was to find someone to play alongside end Grady Jarrett in the 3-4 alignment, and they had high hopes for Vincent Taylor at nose guard. Taylor (6-foot-3, 311 pounds) was injured early in training camp with a ruptured Achilles and was out for the season.
The Falcons were hoping that either Marlon Davidson or Ta’Quon Graham would step forward at end. Davidson’s chronic left knee buckled, and he was released Oct. 25.
Graham was off to a promising start over 11 games before he sustained a knee injury and went on injured reserve.
“TQ was playing very well,” defensive line coach Gary Emanuel said. “He was improving from Year 1 to Year 2. Some of the stuff he was able to do pass rush-wise and (playing) the run with technique, obviously you missed that.”
Anthony Rush started the first four games at nose tackle, but the 361-pounder couldn’t keep his weight down and was released.
Timothy Horne, an undrafted rookie from Kansas State and Charlotte, stepped up to help at nose tackle and made five starts down the stretch.
Horne, 6-4 and 323 pounds, played 385 defensive snaps (34%) and had 27 tackles.
“Timmy Horne is a guy that didn’t get a lot of credit,” Smith said. “You want your draft class to do well, but also, too, you’ve got (undrafted) college free agents; that’s a big part of it. If they are better than your fifth-rounder, we’re going to play the better player. Timmy Horne played well.”
Jarrett, a captain, started all 17 games and led the team in sacks, with six. He also had 61 tackles, including 12 for loss, and 17 quarterback hits.
“Numbers don’t point to the impact that he’s truly had,” Pees said. “Grady has done a great job of being a leader. He’s one of the hardest-working guys that I’ve ever been around. He’s a complete competitor.”
The Falcons revamped their linebacker corps last season.
Rashaan Evans, a former No. 1 pick by the Titans, went on to lead the Falcons in tackles, with 159.
“Rashaan came in (and did) not miss a beat,” Pees said. “I love Rashaan; he was everything I knew I had in Tennessee. He was everything when he got here. I’m not the least bit disappointed in him. I’m very, very proud of him.”
Evans played on a one-year, $1.75 million contract.
Mykal Walker was steady and made 12 starts, but rookie Troy Andersen finished the season as the starter. He made five starts and finished with 69 tackles.
“He made plays for us,” linebackers coach Frank Bush said of Andersen. “We’re happy. The kid (did) a tremendous job.”
Andersen played 481 defensive snaps (43%) and 263 special-teams snaps.
“The kid is smart, but you have to get out and play,” Bush said. “There are things that happen in a pro football game that I can’t even begin to describe to him.”
Outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter had four sacks, 15 pressures and seven quarterback hits. Rookie Arnold Ebiketie had 2.5 sacks, 15 pressures and eight quarterback hits.
Carter, who played at Georgia and Norcross High, wants to return.
“Yeah, this is home,” said Carter, who played this season on a one-year, $3.5 million contract. “Of course, you know, I’m red and black all day. But we’re going to let that shake itself out. Hopefully, we’ll get some news, and I’ll get to stay home. But it was exciting just to make it through the year.”
Ebiketie was off to a strong start before he suffered a wrist/forearm injury.
“There were a lot of young guys out there getting experience,” Ebiketie said. “We can only go up from here. This time next year, the goal is to definitely be preparing for the playoffs.”
Without much pass-rush help from the defensive front, the Falcons’ secondary didn’t hold up well in coverage.
One of the key factors was losing right cornerback Casey Hayward, who sustained a shoulder injury after six games and was lost for the season.
Darren Hall didn’t hold up at right cornerback, and safety Jaylinn Hawkins also struggled at times in coverage. Richie Grant, in his first season at safety, was solid, while left cornerback A.J. Terrell and Isaiah Oliver played well.
Teams had a passer rating of 102 when throwing at Terrell, compared with a team-high 114 when passing at Hall.
Hayward was holding teams to an 80.7 passer rating.
Despite the numbers, Pees insisted that Terrell was playing at an elite level. Terrell had a 63.9 grade (D) from Pro Football Focus, in part because he gave up six touchdown catches.
Oliver, who was coming back from reconstructive knee surgery, returned to his nickel back slot. He started five games and played in 12. He spent some time at safety at the end of the season.
Hayward, a former Pro Bowl player, wants to return. He signed a two-year, $11 million deal last offseason.
“It’s going to depend on what they want to do, but I want to play one more year,” Hayward said. “That’s my ultimate goal, to play one more year. … This is a business, and I know how that goes. I’m from Georgia. I have a house here.”
The special-teams units finished 10th in the rankings compiled by longtime NFL writer Rick Gosselin and fifth in the DVOA special-teams ranking by Football Outsiders.
“Any opportunity that we get on the field to help out our offense and defense with field position, creating an extra possession or putting points on the board, that’s critical for us,” special-teams coordinator Marquice Williams said. “That’s what we look at day in and day out: What can we do to help our team?”
The special teams helped the Falcons defeat the Bears, Panthers and Cardinals. Kickoff returner Cordarrelle Patterson had a 103-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Bears. Kicker Younghoe Koo made game-winning field goals against the Panthers and the Cardinals.
The Falcons also had a blocked punt in the win over the Cardinals.
So, without the key special-teams plays, the Falcons may have gone 4-13.