This wild-card weekend, the Falcons defense will be up against a different kind of opponent than it saw during last year’s playoffs. Last January and February, the Falcons took on Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, and Tom Brady. On Saturday against Los Angeles, Atlanta will see something that it never encountered during its Super Bowl run: a dominant running game. With a different front to focus on, Atlanta will need new stars to emerge.
The Falcons’ run defense this season was slightly better than last year—from 25th in the league in adjusted run defense to 19th—and it improved mightily down the stretch. Atlanta hasn’t given up more than 90 yards on the ground since December 3 despite facing Christian McCaffrey, and Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram (twice). But containing Todd Gurley is another story.
Since December 3, Gurley hasn’t rushed for fewer than 96 rushing yards in a game, and he’s averaged 197 yards from scrimmage. Gurley led the league in yards from scrimmage (2,093) and non-passing touchdowns (19) this season, and he’s even found his way into the MVP conversation. Beyond Gurley, the Rams’ run game as a whole has improved under new head coach Sean McVay. Gurley had just 11 more carries in 2017, but he picked up nearly 50 percent more rushing yards and more than doubled his touchdown total from 2016—and that increase in production is a direct result of L.A.’s massive improvement on the offensive line.
This past offseason, the Rams splurged on veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth and center John Sullivan in free agency to bolster their core of right tackle Rob Havenstein and guards Rodger Saffold and Jamon Brown. That group, working within McVay’s system, has rejuvenated L.A.’s run blocking. According to Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards metric, the Rams were the league’s fourth-worst run-blocking group in 2016, but finished 2017 as the third-best. To combat that upgraded offensive line, Atlanta’s defense will need its household names and its less-celebrated players to work in tandem.
Vic Beasley, veteran Adrian Clayborn, and rookie Takk McKinley are the Falcons defenders that make headlines (and send viral tweets), but they are primarily pass rushers that struggle on run defense. Against the Rams, they will focus on trying to collapse the pocket and creating chaos around Jared Goff on dropbacks, and setting the edge and bouncing Gurley to the next defender on handoffs. Falcons coach Dan Quinn has the luxury of deploying Beasley, Clayborn, and McKinley as situational pass rushers because defensive ends Brooks Reed and Derrick Shelby are two of the top eight edge defenders by run-stop percentage. Here’s Reed in Week 17, staying home on contain and helping to take down Panthers receiver Kaelin Clay in the open field on Panthers receiver Kaelin Clay.
And here is Shelby in Week 10 beating Cowboys tackle La’el Collins to take down Alfred Morris along the line of scrimmage.
Derrick Shelby shut down the run. No gain pic.twitter.com/emVJbxaIkl— Carlton (@SlopingGiraffe) November 12, 2017
Shelby and Reed playing a disciplined game will be critical to impeding the Rams’ offensive line, though they’ll also need help from the guys in the middle. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett has quietly had an excellent season and is tied for the 14th among interior defenders in run-stop percentage, according to Pro Football Focus. Despite being undersized for his position, Jarrett has consistently played well against the run and is known to shoot the gap, get into the backfield quickly, and rack up tackles for loss. Justis Mosqueda of Setting the Edge highlighted a series of excellent plays Jarrett made against Buffalo in Week 4:
Grady Jarrett with an inside swim for a TFL. Don't let one soul ever lecture you about "small" defensive tackles pic.twitter.com/4oOjqghSGU— Justis Mosqueda (@JuMosq) October 3, 2017
In addition to wreaking havoc in the backfield, Jarrett has good balance and is difficult to move, which will be crucial to disrupting the Rams’ line and Gurley, whom Jarrett has experience against.
“Coming out [of] the combine I was asked who [was] the best player you ever felt like you played against in college,” Jarrett said this week. “And I always said Todd.”
Along with Jarrett, the other interior defender who’ll play a major role in stopping Gurley is Dontari Poe, who signed a one-year, $8 million deal with the Falcons this past offseason to become their run stuffer. Poe hasn’t been quite the mauler that Jarrett has this season, though he has excellent physical tools and is able to pressure the passer without compromising run defense. Together, Poe and Jarrett will have to eat space and knock Rams’ linemen off their paths, all in an effort to keep Gurley from doing things like this:
Todd Gurley has 3 TDs and 144 rushing yards at half.— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) December 17, 2017
Including this 57-yard touchdown pic.twitter.com/VFLOH1BCe7
Falcons defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel may be able to help the defensive line by dialing up blitzes, but even that carries risk. The Rams—just like the Falcons’ offense last season—are excellent at burning that kind of aggressiveness with screens.
Stopping a force of nature like Gurley, who is more Mad Max big rig than man, will require discipline, patience, and a little bit of luck for Atlanta’s front seven. The Falcons defense faces a new challenge in L.A., and they’ll need old and new heroes to step up and throw the Rams’ world-beating run game off of its axis.