Atlanta Falcons Q1 Review: Linebackers & Safeties

Falcons Linebackers
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Falcons have the week off, and I’m taking advantage of the downtime to review the team’s performance over the first quarter of the season. Today I’ll be looking at the Falcons defense, the linebackers and safeties specifically. Feel free to get caught up on anything you’ve missed below.

Linebacker Was Supposed to Be a Competitive Advantage

There weren’t many position groups for the 2021 Falcons defense you could single out as strengths to start the year. The lone exception was at off-ball linebacker. Deion Jones has established himself as a playmaker, despite consecutive lackluster seasons.

Additionally, Foye Oluokun emerged as a rare bright spot from the 2020 season. Even Mykal Walker flashed in the few opportunities he was as a rookie. There was an argument to be made that Atlanta had one of the best off-ball linebacker groups in the NFL. It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

Falling Short of the Hype

Despite the high expectations, this linebacker corps hasn’t lived up to their potential. Missed tackles, blown assignments, and breakdowns in coverage have plagued the duo. The grades and stats from PFF paint a crystal clear picture.

PFF Grades

per PFF

PFF Stats

per PFF

Looking for Deion to Recapture the Magic

Despite a reputation for being an excellent coverage linebacker Deion Jones has struggled so far. PFF lists him as allowing a reception on 95.5% of his targets. Granted, the Falcons defense has leaned heavily on zone coverage, essentially conceding short throws. This strategy works if the defenders can rally to the ball and make the stop. Unfortunately, this hasn’t quite panned out for the Falcons so far. Jones has the second-highest total of YAC allowed in the NFL.

The Falcons coaches moved Deion Jones to WILL over the offseason to, in part, take pressure off of him in the run game. Jones is incredibly athletic, but playing through contact isn’t a strength, and any measures to free him up to have a clear path to the ball carrier should create an advantage. Sounds great in theory, but it hasn’t generated results either.

Jones isn’t near the top of the league in missed tackles, but a missed tackle percentage of 11.4% is less than ideal. After reviewing the film, that number might be even higher if he hit his assignments against the run. As we established in the defensive line review, the Falcons defense has allowed one of the highest rushing success rates in the NFL.

Part of the issue is blown assignments, a trend for Jones. It’s hard to tell if it’s attributable to confusion about the scheme, or whether he’s trying to play hero ball. Either way, unless Jones can play more disciplined football, it’s hard to envision this defense taking a step forward.

Foye Adjusting to the Middle

The same criticisms can be leveled at Foye Oluokun. He hasn’t been as undisciplined as Jones, but there are “oh no” moments on the tape for him too. He’s had similar struggles in coverage, though he has been targeted less and hasn’t allowed nearly as many yards after the catch. The most consistent issue I’ve seen from Foye so far is his struggle to get proper depth when tasked with covering the deep third in Tampa 2. This issue was particularly evident against the Bucs in week 2. Tom Brady routinely attacked the area behind Foye for significant gains.

They Haven’t Been Done Any Favors

We can explain away some of these issues for the linebackers. Their teammates aren’t doing them any favors, and it makes life difficult for them. Foye’s tendency to be slow in his drops in coverage may be due to the lack of trust he has in the line to bottle up the threat of a run on play-action.

Both Oluokun and Jones are finding themselves in positions where they have to take on offensive linemen because the defensive tackles can’t hold up against double teams. The entire defense must work in concert to be effective, and breakdowns on the line can make it impossible for linebackers to succeed.  

There is a learning curve associated with learning Dean Pees’ defense to consider as well. Both Deion and Foye are learning new positions in an unfamiliar defense that asks a lot from them. It takes time to learn the system, as Dean Pees made abundantly clear in a press conference earlier this season. I suspect we’ll see a better unit as the season progresses. 

Up and Down Play From the Safeties

The Falcons completely rebuilt their safety room over the offseason, parting ways with long-time starters in Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen, and Demontae Kazee. NFL journeymen Duron Harmon, and Erik Harris, were brought in on one-year rental deals to stabilize the position in the short term. It’s been a mixed bag so far, but there are a few glimmers of hope from this bunch.

Falcons Safety Stats

Harris and Harmon Keep the Seat Warm

I was guardedly optimistic about the signing of Duron Harmon in the offseason. Aside from a rocky year in Detroit, Harmon has been a steady presence in the defensive backfield for his entire career. No one will mistake him for an all-pro, but the Falcons defense hasn’t had consistency at safety in years. Unfortunately, things haven’t worked out quite as well as I’d envisioned.

Harmon is allowing a career-high 72.7% completion rate when targeted and has surrendered 13.4 yards per reception. Those aren’t the worst numbers in the NFL, but they are comfortably in the bottom third. If PFF grading is your thing, Harmon ranks 76th of 85 qualifying safeties with an overall grade of 49.5.

Despite the terrible grades and stats, I haven’t seen him get routinely slaughtered on tape like Damontae Kazee or Ricardo Allen were over the last few years. He looks slow to react at times and out of position more often than a veteran of his stature should, but I expect him to clean up the mental mistakes as the season progresses.

Harris Surprises Early

Erik Harris, on the other hand, has been a PFF darling so far. He was ranked 7th of 85 qualifying safeties before his recent injury with a 73.3 overall grade. Were it not for a pair of dropped interceptions, he’d likely be ranked even higher. The former Raider is giving up receptions at a slightly slower clip than Harmon, but he’s been more active as a blitzer and against the run, which buoys his grading.

I had meager expectations for Harris, and all things considered, he’s far exceeded them. He’s lived up to the expectations I had for Harmon. He’s been a steady presence, even if he’s given up a few plays downfield. 

A Youth Movement at Safety for the Falcons Defense?

Though we all expected Richie Grant to figure into the picture at safety, he hasn’t received any regular-season snaps at the position. He did find his way to the field against the Jets, but he was used as a nickel corner. It shouldn’t come as a shock, that was the role he played in the preseason. It will be interesting to see how the coaches deploy him as the season progresses.

Jaylinn Hawkins is the only other player to log any snaps at safety, per PFF’s charting. In week five, he earned his first start in relief of the injured Erik Harris and made the most of the opportunity. He graded out as one of the best players on the field. Snagging an errant pass from Zac Wilson boosted his grade significantly, but there wasn’t any drop off with him in the lineup otherwise.

It was clear the coaching staff was high on him in training camp, and he is one of the few younger players they’ve found ways to incorporate from week to week. It appears Erik Harris remains limited coming out of the bye, so Hawkins may get another opportunity to secure more snaps moving forward. 

Falcons Defense Keeping an Eye on the Future

The chances of Erik Harris and Duron Harmon returning in 2022 aren’t incredibly high. Much will depend on the development of Hawkins and Grant. However, with many empty roster spots looming, the faster younger players can step up, the better. Harris’s injury, in that regard, might be a blessing in disguise.

The biggest looming question is whether we can expect to see Grant move into a safety role this year. There are a lot of moving parts that will come into play there. Can Darren Hall or Avery Williams step in to replace Isaiah Oliver? Can Grant get the playbook down enough to earn the snaps?

It seems that Harmon and Harris are dependable enough to avoid a complete implosion on the back end, but it would be hugely beneficial if someone could step forward as a playmaker. Hawkins’s lone interception is one of only three turnovers from the defense through five games. With several good offenses on the horizon, the Falcons defense needs more from their safeties.

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