Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan was the toast of the town last season as the Falcons raced to an 8-0 record.
The unit got off the field on third downs, the pass rush was solid if not spectacular and the defense created turnovers by the bushel.
What a difference a year makes.
While injuries certainly have been a factor, the defense has underperformed through five games while using most of the same schemes they successfully executed in 2012 on their way to a 13-3 record and the NFC South title.
The defense ranks last in the NFL in third-down efficiency, allowing 33 of 66 conversions, has an anemic pass rush with 11 sacks (27th in the league) and hasn’t created many turnovers as the team has a minus-2 differential (tied for 22nd).
Over the bye week, Nolan and the defensive staff went searching for answers during an exhaustive film study.
“We have to eliminate some of our errors that we’re making,” Nolan said. “There are some technique things as well. But outside of that, you continue to (devise a) game plan each week. Hopefully, the game plans are really just a tool for the players to use to do a better job of executing on game day.”
There wasn’t just one thing that the defenders were coming up short on. It’s really been a mixed bag from the obvious missed tackles to blown assignments and soft pass coverage.
“The things that you look for is obviously how many mental errors are going through it and if it was technique,” Nolan said. “There is a little bit of both.”
Sometimes, the defenders were just beaten.
On the final drive against the Jets, linebacker Joplo Bartu had a chance to stop wide receiver Stephen Hill for a short gain, but he missed the tackle, and Hill went for a 9-yard gain.
A couple of plays later, defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux seemed to have running back Bilal Powell stopped in the backfield for a 5-yard loss. Powell squirted away and got a 4-yard gain.
“Some of it was just a matter of losing one-on-one battles, which gets put in the technique category,” Nolan said. “But that was an area where we were good early in the season (in 2012), then we were in the middle of the pack and then at the end we kind of fell off a little bit.”
Defensive tackle Corey Peters said the third-down inefficiency was quickly broached by the staff upon the players’ return from the bye week.
“We’re focusing on it and putting some emphasis on it,” Peters said. “On third downs in the game, we have to do a better job of executing.”
Defensive end Osi Umenyiora has four sacks, Peters ranks second on the team with two. Defensive tackle Peria Jerry is the only other lineman with a sack.
“We definitely feel like it’s our responsibility as a defensive line to get pressure on the quarterback and get sacks,” Peters said. “We’ve had some good sack days. I think it’s kind of been feast or famine. We can’t have that.”
Second-year defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi’s playing time increased after Kroy Biermann (Achilles surgery) was lost for the season Sept. 15. In college, Massaquoi had 19.5 sacks in 25 games at Troy. He’s looking for his first NFL sack.
“There’s no pressure,” he said. “I’ve done some good things, but obviously I have to be better.”
Massaquoi has been getting some good take-offs from the line of scrimmage on his rushes. He has to start finishing his rushes.
“I have to raise my standards up,” Massaquoi said. “Be able to race to that ball and be able to reach it.”
Nolan is determined to create some pressure if necessary.
“If you’re not getting it with four, you have to bring five and sometimes six people to get it done,” Nolan said.
The Falcons have created only four turnovers. Umenyiora, safety William Moore and cornerback Robert Alford each has one interception. Jerry has a fumble recovery. The Falcons have three interceptions and have lost three fumbles.
“I think there’s a number of factors that lead to takeaways,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “We’ve got to do a better job of attacking the football not only on the run plays, but when the ball is in the air.”