For much of this season, it’s been difficult to take the Atlanta Falcons seriously. After a 3-0 start, they lost back-to-back home games to the Bills and Dolphins before getting thumped by the Patriots, by which time the hangover from 28-3 had reached the coffee-and-aspirin phase. Their offense, even with all that balance and firepower, often seemed stilted under new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. But after finishing the regular season by winning six of eight, here the Falcons are again, just two games from the Super Bowl, as road favorites with a road playoff victory already under their belts. And they’re doing it with defense.
With first-year coordinator Marquand Manuel calling the shots, the Falcons weren’t an especially stout defense for much of the year. They finished 19th in DVOA against the pass, and 20th against the run. They managed just 16 takeaways, which tied the lowly Texans for fifth fewest in the league, and which was only better than the Dolphins, Bengals, Raiders, and Browns—four teams that were nowhere close to making the playoffs.
But Atlanta’s defense did finish well, yielding 17 points or fewer in three of its last five games, while only allowing 100 rushing yards or more once in their final six outings. These games involved two matchups against the Saints (against whom the Falcons earned a split), and another against the Vikings (a 14-9 loss). Which meant last week’s wild-card game at the L.A. Rams was Atlanta’s fourth game in six against an offense that ranked in the top six in DVOA during the regular season.
There was potential for trouble. The Rams were the NFL’s highest-scoring team during the regular season, and the Falcons’ secondary had the highest passer rating allowed for any playoff team.
But Atlanta’s game plan, which it executed to near-perfection, was to contain running back Todd Gurley, who only happened to be the NFL’s leader in yards from scrimmage. Gurley also led the Rams in catches (64) during the regular season, and in addition to leading the entire NFL in yards after catch (811). Manuel had the Falcons load the box, lock down L.A.’s other targets with lots of man coverage, and limit Gurley’s big-play capability by tackling him in the open field. It worked.
Granted, a pair of fumbled punts gave the Falcons’ offense two short fields and led directly to 10 first-half points. And in the third quarter, Atlanta ripped off scoring drives that lasted 16 and 10 plays, which limited the Rams to just seven plays from scrimmage of their own. But when the Falcons’ D was on the field, it managed to keep Gurley in check: four catches for just 10 yards on 10 targets. And even though Gurley rushed for 101 yards on 14 carries, 59 of those yards came on two attempts. And by forcing Jared Goff to throw it away from his favorite target, Atlanta limited Goff to his second lowest completion percentage (53.3) and passer rating (77.9) this season.
The Falcons were excellent at limiting damage. More than once, cornerback Brian Poole made open-field tackles that prevented huge gains when the Rams got playmakers like Gurley and wideout Robert Woods the ball in space:
This is safety Keanu Neal doing more of the same to bring down Gurley for no gain:
The Falcons combined man-to-man with zone coverage, such as this man look with two deep safeties. Notice that everyone is covered. Inside linebacker Deion Jones shadowed Gurley out of the backfield, and cornerback Desmond Trufant was able to close quickly on wideout Cooper Kupp as soon as he saw Kupp break inside on a quick slant. Incomplete.
Here’s another one in which the throw went to Gurley in the flat, only to fall incomplete. This time, Atlanta left one safety high and went man against all three receivers, while leaving three linebackers in a zone underneath:
Here was a straight man look when Gurley stayed in to block. Cornerback Robert Alford—who had three passes defensed for the game—stuck Sammy Watkins, Trufant took Woods, Neale was right with tight end Tyler Higbee, and Poole stayed with Kupp downfield. Goff simply had nowhere to throw, and linebacker Vic Beasley got himself a coverage sack.
Next up for the Falcons is an Eagles offense that was as exciting as any in the league for much of the season, but that’s now sputtering and wheezing without injured quarterback Carson Wentz. Philly’s own defense is formidable enough to perhaps keep the Eagles afloat, but the Falcons look refreshed and ready to head back out into the night. One more win and they’ll be on the brink of a chance at true redemption.