There are so many subtle things that happen in a football game that can change its outcome. One play in the first quarter can influence one later in the game, a play that turn out to be difference-maker. Against the Seahawks last week, the Falcons defense surrendered enough big plays to put the game out of reach. Moving forward, those kind of big plays have to be limited for the defense to give the team a chance to win.
Against Seattle, the defense allowed 297 yards on 10 plays, each for 13 yards or more. Seattle took advantage of Atlanta’s young defense and its inexperience to show looks on offense that were unscouted, plays the defense didn’t see in the week of preparation. With rookies at every level of the Atlanta defense, head coach Mike Smith said they’re going to be susceptible to big plays like they were last week.
“That’s a lot of rookies out there,” Smith said. “It’s encouraging to get them experience, to find out what they’re going to be capable of doing, but there are going to be mistakes that come with those snaps. We know that. That’s inevitable when you’re playing young players.”
The big plays against Seattle turned out to be the difference in the game. Those 297 big-play yards accounted for more than half of Seattle’s 490 yards on offense. Of the Seahawks’ 69 plays on offense, those 10 became the deciding factor. Defensive players can’t put a finger on the culprit this season, but second-year defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi said it’s on the players to make those plays.
“Coaches are calling the right plays,” Massaquoi said. “It’s up to us to go out there and execute. We’re in the right positions to make plays. We just have to go execute, go out there and play together as a team. Nobody really knows what it is. It can be frustrating, but we just have to continue to rally around one another and go out there and make plays.”
The unscouted looks from Seattle aren’t uncommon. Most defensive players agree that those kinds of looks happen frequently. When it’s happening, Smith said, players have to remember the basics of assignment defense.
“When you have unscouted looks, you have to go back to your base rules, the training camp rules,” Smith said. “They’re not always going to line up where you think they are. There are certain basic tenants and rules of every run play and every pass protection that we’ve got to make sure that we basically block our rules. You’re not always going to get guys lined up where you think they’re going to be.”
This season the Falcons defense ranks in a tie for third in the league with nine plays of 40 yards or more allowed. Massaquoi said explosive plays typically build off of previous plays and it’s not just a single down that produces a knockout punch, but young players have to be able to diagnose the plays and when they give up a big play, they have to learn from it. That’s a trait, Smith said, the rookies have demonstrated, an encouraging sign moving forward.
“They’ve got a short memory,” Smith said. “They go out, put the bad play behind them and move on to the next play. That’s going to be a great trait to have to be a successful football player in the NFL.”
Against the Bucs earlier this season, the defense allowed 197 yards on Tampa’s 10 biggest plays. A performance in line with that could be enough for the Falcons to get their third win of the season, but it’ll be up to the players to execute the game plan on the field, something they’ve not done at times this season.
“We’ve just got to go out and execute,” Massaquoi said. “There are no ifs, ands or buts. That’s it. Who is the more physical team and we have to be that on Sunday.”