Falcons defense should be much improved in 2017

AP Photo/Gregory Payan

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The Atlanta Falcons’ 2016 offense was one of the best in the history of the NFL, averaging 33.8 points per game. The offense was a major factor in the Falcons reaching the Super Bowl. It should be just as strong this upcoming season if the team can adapt to new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.

The Falcons’ defense, however, was a different story. It took some time before the unit started playing like a playoff-caliber defense, much less a Super Bowl-caliber defense. Head coach Dan Quinn took over the defensive play-calling duties in the 12th game of the season, and the unit started playing with a fire Quinn had envisioned.

Even with a new defensive coordinator (promoting secondary coach Marquand Manuel after firing Richard Smith), the Falcons’ defense should be much better in the early stages of the 2017 season than it was last year. New roster additions should make the difference.

The Falcons finished the 2016 season in the lower half of most defensive statistics. Atlanta was 25th in yards allowed, 26th in defensive third-down percentage, 27th in points allowed, and tied for 30th in first downs allowed (last in first down passes allowed).

More first downs for the opposing team means more time on the field for the defense… but the unit got better as the 2016 campaign progressed.

After allowing an average of 28.9 points in the first eight games, the Falcons allowed just 21.9 in the second half of the season. Before the Super Bowl collapse, the Falcons allowed their first two playoff opponents an average of 20.5 points. They recorded 2.5 sacks and 2 turnovers per game.

The team didn’t rest in the offseason, adding two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Dontari Poe and (in the draft) taking defensive end rush specialist Takkarist McKinley.

The addition of these two players to a more experienced and confident group should pay dividends in 2017.

Poe is simply a beast. Linebacker Vic Beasley led the league in sacks in 2016, and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett had three sacks in the Super Bowl. Adding Poe, who not only commands double-teams but can get after the passer, gives the Falcons three guys who can rush the passer from their base defense.

Poe was available in free agency because he has battled injuries his last two seasons and played at a heavier weight than the Kansas City Chiefs likely wanted. However, Poe is motivated. Not only does he have a one-year “prove it” contract with the Falcons, but he also has weight clauses in the contract.

The former 11th pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Poe produced his best season in 2014, when he had 46 tackles and 6 sacks. He and the developing Jarrett give the Falcons a formidable push from the middle of their defense.

With McKinley, the Falcons add a relentless effort guy who will be perfect for the team in pass-rushing situations. McKinley will likely cut his teeth in sub packages and obvious passing situations this season. If end Adrian Clayborn comes back healthy, he would likely start and play at least in base.

McKinley attacks. He won’t try to overpower or be slick. He’ll run past the lineman and get in the backfield. Last year with UCLA, he had 18 tackles for losses with 10 sacks, and 36 percent of his tackles came within two yards of the line of scrimmage.

The Falcons’ defense should be in a much better position with its current roster. Atlanta won’t put tremendous pressure on its offense to always have to outscore opponents.