If you ask any member of the New England Patriots about the Atlanta Falcons, they’ll say two things: 1) they’re super fast; 2) they swarm the ball carrier.
The first point is undeniable; The Falcons sacrificed weight and size in order to bring speed to the defense. For example, the Falcons starting rookie stand-up linebackers run a 4.58s and a 4.59s 40 yard dash as the third- and fourth-fastest rookie linebackers in the draft- but their average weight is a mere 227 pounds.
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels compared the Falcons defense to the Seattle Seahawks defense, noting there is “quite a bit of carry over” from head coach Dan Quinn, who served as the Seahawks defensive coordinator.
“The length at corner, the aggressive strong safety and the speed on defense in general,” McDaniels listed the similarities to the Seahawks defense. “The fact that they all run to the ball as well as any team that we’re going to play. It doesn’t matter what happens on the play, you’re going to have 11 guys chasing the guy with the ball. That’s impressive. That’s the sign of a team that is very well coached. There’s no question that they are.
“They hit and tackle very well. I’ve been impressed with a lot of the young guys too. Sometimes you get a young guy in the NFL and he can do some things and is very skilled and talented, but tackling has kind of become a lost art. It’s not a lost art on this defense. They run, they hit, they tackle, they wrap and they get you to the ground. It’s something that we’ve seen, noticed, studied and talked about for a week. For us to be able to make some yards after we have the ball in our hands, we’re going to have to do a lot of good work because they usually get the guy with the ball on the ground.”
For all of the similarities between the Seahawks and the Falcons defenses, there’s one major difference: tackling ability. No matter how much McDaniels pumps up the Falcons defense, the Falcons have struggled with bringing the ball carrier to the ground.
According to Pro Football Focus, the Falcons missed 136 tackles this season, ranked 2nd most in the NFL. They also allowed 2.89 yards after contact per rushing attempt, the worst mark in the league. The Falcons defenders might offer a lot of speed to get around the ball, but there appears to be a lot of wiggle room for the offensive player to pick up yardage.
The Seahawks rank in the top 8 of all Football Outsiders run defense rankings, including an impressive 3rd in open field tackling. The Falcons rank in the bottom half of the league in all the rankings, including 26th in stopping the ball carrier 5-10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
The Patriots are going to try and take advantage of the Falcons poor tackling by using LeGarrette Blount to pick up yardage between the tackles, while using players like Dion Lewis, James White, and Julian Edelman on quick outside passes to try and force a missed tackle to move the chains.