In the end, the Super Bowl revealed what had been evident for much of the 2016 season when Falcons faced opponents with elite offenses.
The Falcons were better on defense but not good enough.
Questionable strategy and poor offensive execution played a part in why the Falcons couldn’t stop the Patriots late. Those are reasons why the defense was on the field for 93 plays and, according to coach Dan Quinn, eventually succumbed to fatigue.
Yet the Patriots did score on their final five full possessions and the defense owns that no matter the circumstances.
“There’s a lot of room for more,” safety Ricardo Allen said. “To be up 25 points and give up 31 at the last bit, there’s a lot of room. Even if we would have won that game there would be room for improvement because we want to be dominant.”
The Falcons believe much of that improvement will happen as their young defensive players get better.
The Falcons started three rookies on defense this season: safety Keanu Neal and linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell. The Falcons actually started four rookies when counting cornerback back Brian Poole, who played 75 percent of the snaps this season as the “nickel” back.
All of those players, especially Neal and Jones, played better with experience.
“It started to slow down for us a little bit,” Jones said. “The beauty of it is we have a whole lot of room to grow. With the attitude that these guys have it’s definitely (possible).”
In addition to those rookies, the Falcons got productive seasons from two second-year players, edge pass rusher Vic Beasley and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. The Falcons also should get reinforcements from veteran defensive players under contract for 2017 who missed significant time with injuries in 2016: cornerback Desmond Trufant and defensive ends Derrick Shelby and Adrian Clayborn. All three players were out for the postseason.
Trufant probably is the Falcons’ best defensive player. The season-ending pectoral injury he suffered in Week 9 hurt the depth at what probably was their thinnest position. During the Super Bowl comeback Patriots quarterback Tom Brady targeted Poole and cornerback C.J. Goodwin, two rookies who weren’t expected to be among the top three cornerbacks entering training camp.
Even with Trufant out, the Falcons progressed defensively over the final half of the season.
“ “It was exciting to watch because I know that is going to make us stronger in the end,” Trufant said.
The Falcons will have to make decisions on whether to make an effort to retain two veteran defensive linemen, end Dwight Freeney and tackle Jonathan Babineaux.
Freeney, 36, was effective in spurts but appeared to wear down after a leg injury. Babineaux, 35, seemed to lose some of the quickness that has made him effective getting in the backfield over his career.
Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said the Falcons would look to improve their pass rush. That isn’t always simple to do because pass rushers are at a premium in the draft and on the free agent market.
Beasley made a big jump in production during his second pro season but was inconsistent, especially against better right tackles. In the Super Bowl Beasley recorded a single quarterback pressure on 54 rushes, according to Pro Football Focus.
Opponents increasingly “chipped” Beasley with blocks by tight ends and wide receivers. To counteract, the Falcons used Beasley in more line stunts but that strategy meant a longer route for him to the quarterback.
“You can put on some different ‘games’ but (if) their game plan is to take you out of the game there is not much you can do,” Beasley said.
What would help Beasley is for the Falcons to put an effective, consistent pass rusher at the opposite end. Even better for them i if they can also add depth at cornerback.
If the Falcons strengthen those two areas for 2017, and also see improvement from their young players, their defense may be good enough to hold leads against good opponents no matter the struggles of their offense.
“You’ve got to take the silver lining out of it,” Allen said. “No, you don’t want to lose that (Super Bowl lead) but man we’ve come a long way and we are not going to let this loss hold us back. We go forward every year. We know how to get there. We know what it takes. Now we’ve got to get that last part, finishing.