FLOWERY BRANCH —
The Falcons will have you know that no great research went into improving their run defense, no secrets have been incorporated into their grimy work, and that when they seek to blunt former Georgia running back Nick Chubb on Sunday in Cleveland, the plan shall be simple.
Like, send a lot of dudes at the guy with the ball.
Start with numbers. In the Falcons’ six games before their bye, they allowed these rushing yards: 113-121-143-99-131-121. And eight touchdowns.
In defeating the Giants and standout running back Saquon Barkley and the Redskins and Adrian Peterson since, the Falcons have allowed 61 and 79 – even when counting a 22-yard scramble by Washington quarterback Alex Smith.
They were ranked in the mid-20s in the NFL against the run for what seemed forever, and after the past two games they’re No. 17, allowing a respectable 108.5 yards per game on the ground. Barkley rushed for 43 yards, and Peterson for 17.
Looking under the hat, maybe this is easy to explain.
“Everybody to the ball, that’s what we’re preaching right now,” free safety Demontae Kazee said. “There ain’t no one-man tackling, that’s what we preach every week now.”
There’s something to that, as the Falcons’ run defense has gone from looking as if it was waiting to catch ballcarriers upon their arrival to a unit that hunts them. They’re swarming.
It’s helped, too, that several young defenders have played enough that they better understand their assignments.
The minister of defense/emeritus seems pleased.
“We have been better over the last few weeks,” coach Dan Quinn said. “… It’s doing what we do better. Getting (tackle) Grady (Jarrett) back (after the bye, from a two-game injury absence), that certainly helps in the run game because of his physicality.
“We’re just starting to gain some confidence and chemistry in the run game. Our tackling has improved. We certainly aren’t relying on one guy to make it …”
The young guys have a better sense what’s going on.
With all the injuries the Falcons suffered early in the season as they lost the middle of their defense with strong safety Keanu Neal, middle linebacker Deion Jones and then Jarrett going down, a lot of new faces began getting a lot more snaps.
Duke Riley is a second-year guy, but he was new filling in for Jones, and weakside linebacker Foye Oluokun is a rookie. Jarrett’s primary replacement was rookie Deadrin Senat.
Oh, and when free safety Ricardo Allen went out for good in the third game, the Falcons were left with a unique Achilles injury.
Their on-field play-caller, the guy who better reads offensive formations than anybody else in uniform, was gone.
The rise of the run defense may actually be complex.
Time has healed some wounds, Kazee has become more comfortable reading and orchestrating, young players have become more familiar with their roles and there’s less static when they talk.
Ah, time and experience, the greatest of teachers.
“A bunch of new guys playing with each other,” Kazee said. “… Now we’ve got the communication down, so we can play faster.”
Take Oluokun, who led the Falcons with six tackles at Washington. He was fast to begin with, and now he’s playing faster.
“Just getting hats to the ball. We’ve had the emphasis ever since (the bye), just everybody giving max effort to get to the ball, and just getting comfortable with each other on the field and seeing calls come to life in practice,” Oluokun summarized.
Falcons fans will be familiar with Chubb, the 5-foot-11, 227-pound ram from Cedartown.
He’s averaging 5.4 yards per carry thanks in part to his 63-yard touchdown run against the Raiders back when he chiefly was a special-teams player (he had four tackles in that game).
He has blown up since running back Carlos Hyde was traded last month from the Browns to the Jaguars.
In his first six games, Chubb did not carry the ball more than three times in a game. Sans Hyde in three games since, he has carried 18, 18 and 22 times.
Duke Johnson plays a lot of running back for Cleveland, too, if you want to call it that.
He’s more much a receiving threat with 29 receptions to Chubb’s three (all in the past two games). Johnson, late of the Miami Hurricanes, has in three-plus seasons been targeted for 279 passes and caught 217. He has 282 career rushes, and just 23 in the first nine games for the Browns (2-6-1).
“Chubb’s been doing a great job for them, stepping up. They believe in him,” Jarrett said. “As far as Johnson, outside run, screen catcher. They do a good job complementing each other.”
In Oluokun’s view, “They have different kinds of runs kind of catered to them, I think. Chubb is more like in-the-box, downhill. Johnson likes to get out and bounce it a little more.”
Quinn is impressed by Chubb, whom the Browns drafted in the second round this year.
“The physicality … and you see the yards after contact, the 3-yard run that ended as an 8-yard run,” the coach said. “Although he’s a big back, when he gets out on the edge, he can get a burst and make it a long one. … He does have the speed to go.”
The Falcons don’t sack many quarterbacks, they’re not much for intercepting passes, and they’ve forced just one fumble all season – which they did not recover at Pittsburgh.
But that defense may have something to hang hats upon.
Yeah, it’s about hats – and all of them moving quickly toward the guy on the other team who has the ball.
“Kind of the same approach that we’ve been having as a defensive unit; just get a lot of hats to the football, and be gap disciplined,” Jarrett said.
“Hats to the ball,” the young linebacker said. “Eleven people stop the run. … When you’re working together instead of individually, it helps out.”