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Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the biggest weakness of the 2009 season for every team and explain how the franchise can address the issues. The series continues with the Falcons, who finished second in the NFC South (9-7) last season.
Biggest problem in 2009: A problematic pass defense
In 2009, the Atlanta Falcons put together their second straight non-losing season for the first time in franchise history. Quarterback Matt Ryan(notes) had a slight sophomore slump, but the acquisition of tight end Tony Gonzalez(notes) paid great dividends, and running back Michael Turner(notes) appears to be back in fighting shape after an injury-filled season. The offense is up and running, but the pass defense was a major issue last season. The defense ranked 25th in yards allowed per attempt at 7.5, and amassed a very disappointing 28 sacks (tied with the Seahawks and Buccaneers for 26th). John Abraham's sack total went from 5½ last year after a 16½-sack performance in 2008, but he ranked 12th last year with 25 quarterback hurries. Head coach Mike Smith believes that the team's subpar secondary led to a lack of coverage sacks, and likely had a great deal to do with all of Abraham's near-misses. Cornerback Chris Houston(notes) was a particular liability in coverage – Houston was traded to the Lions in the offseason, and the Falcons signed former Texans cornerback Dunta Robinson(notes) to a six-year, $57 million contact to address the coverage problems.
"We did not play the pass as well as we'd like," Smith said at the 2010 NFL scouting combine. "It's something that we definitely have to address. Statistically, we were not close to where we need to be or want to be. I think that's twofold. One, we address the pass rush, and No. 2, is that we improve our secondary play. I'm pleased with our young corners. Brent Grimes(notes) had six interceptions [last] season. Christopher Owens(notes) had an opportunity to play when our starter [Brian Williams(notes)] went down. I think that we have three young corners who can play and can continue to grow, but they are very, very young."
The good news is that the Falcons have drafted for success against the pass in recent years. This year's first-round linebacker Sean Weatherspoon(notes) is a solid pass rusher and has extensive experience in dropping back and covering, which ties into Smith's comments about effective defense being a matter of spacing his players out against more wide-open attacks. End Lawrence Sidbury(notes), last year's fourth-round pick, played in just 25 percent of the team's 2009 defensive snaps and is expected to do much more this season. The return of defensive tackle Peria Jerry(notes), Atlanta's 2009 first-round pick who missed the last 14 games of his rookie season with a torn ACL, should help with the inside push and will free up potential pass-rushers. Corey Peters(notes), the first of two third-round picks this year, can help in the same way (or step in if Jerryâs injuries prove prohibitive). William Moore(notes), a 2009 second-round safety, also missed most of his rookie year with a hamstring injury and looks good in his recovery.
The 2010 solution: Bring the house, with better help
When rushing three, four and five defenders, the Falcons allowed better-than-average efficiency, which spoke to all their defensive problems. But according to Football Outsiders' game-charting stats, that defense was at its best when sending six or more defenders on blitzes. That sounds like a risky strategy when your defensive backfield isn't getting the job done, but the opposite can be true – the more pressure you put on the quarterback, the harder it is for that quarterback to get anything done – if your rushers actually get there. Against such pressure, opposing quarterbacks completed just 50 percent of their passes (37 of 73) for 412 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions. With better coverage, future blitzes could be tremendously effective.
Atlanta's Week 11 overtime loss to the Giants illustrated the feast-or-famine nature of blitzing with bad coverage. Eli Manning(notes) faced six or more Falcons at the line on seven pass attempts and completed just three passes. However, he also walked away with one of his three TD passes against the Falcons blitz.
With 3:48 left in the first quarter, the Falcons brought six defenders for the first time all day (Fig. 1). The Giants went shotgun with three receivers, and Atlanta countered with a zone blitz out of a nickel defense. They had linebacker Curtis Lofton(notes) (50) lined up in the A-gap, but Lofton dropped into intermediate coverage as safety Thomas DeCoud(notes) (28) and linebacker Mike Peterson(notes) (53) rushed from the right side. The Giants picked Peterson up at the line, but only a great blitz pickup by running back Danny Ware(notes) (28) prevented DeCoud from taking Manning's head off. There was no sack, but a deflection of Manning's pass at the line by Peterson, who alertly moved inside after he was walled off at the edge, caused the ball to float harmlessly to the turf. This was a great example of how defenses with problems stopping the pass can use schematic creativity to overcome personnel deficits.
But with 12:16 left in the fourth quarter, Atlanta's red zone pressure got them in trouble, as did the defense's inability to cover the field horizontally. The Giants had the ball on the Falcons three-yard line, and they went with a real power formation – I-formation in the backfield, an extra right tackle and two tight ends (Fig. 2). The Falcons read run at the snap – two of the three linebackers bit on the run look right away before dropping back into the end zone. The Giants put together a nice play design for a run-heavy defense, sending fullback Madison Hedgecock(notes) off to the right on a pass route and halfback Ahmad Bradshaw(notes) staying behind to deal with any pressure. Atlanta had no provision to cover Hedgecock, most likely seeing him as a blocking option only, and there was too much focus on tight end Kevin Boss(notes). That's why the touchdown pass to Hedgecock was such an easy play.
Going forward, the Falcons will need to strike a balance between pressure and coverage. A more talented secondary will obviously help, but without consistent and effective pass-rush concepts, any cornerback or safety will get beaten.