FLOWERY BRANCH (TNS) — One of the takeaways from last season for the Atlanta Falcons was that the defense improved immensely under veteran defensive coordinator Richard Smith.
The Falcons went from the bottom of the NFL in nearly every meaningful category to respectability. The unit, which is aiming to get faster in 2016, finished last season ranked 16th in the league in yards allowed (347.6 yard per game. They also were 14th in points allowed (21.6 per game). In 2014, they were 32nd and 27th respectively.
Smith knows that there’s still more to accomplish. The Falcons slipped one spot to last in the league in sacks with 19 and were 27th in the league in third-down efficiency (42.93 percent), which actually was an improvement from 32nd (47 percent) in 2014.
Through the offseason program and the halfway point of OTAs, Smith has been impressed with the unit.
“Our defense looks much improved from over a year ago right now,” Smith said. “We are making more plays on the ball. The reason being, I think from a veteran standpoint, they have been in our system for another year. They understand what we are doing.
“Also, I think with some of the new faces that we have on the team, we look much faster than we did a year ago, right now.”
While Smith is pleased, he was quick to add that the unit has a long way to go.
The Falcons stressed getting faster and added three speedy defenders in the draft in safety Keanu Neal, linebacker Deion Jones and linebacker De’Vondre Campbell.
Neal, the 17th pick in the NFL draft, is set to take over the strong safety position created by the release of William Moore.
The revamping of the linebacker corps was a top priority after the Falcons finished 8-8 last season.
“We have much better speed at the position,” Smith said “The young guys that we have drafted in terms of Campbell and Jones, really upgrade us from an athletic standpoint and a speed. They have been working extremely hard and I’m proud of their progress so far.”
Perhaps the biggest position change this offseason was defensive end Vic Beasley moving to strongside linebacker in the 4-3 defense. He’ll still rush from defensive end in the nickel (five defensive backs) defense.
“Vic is doing a great job,” Smith said.
Defensive line coach Bryan Cox believes the move is good for Beasley, who at 233 pounds last season was battling 300-pound linemen on a regular basis.
“It will give him an opportunity to not have to wrestle with the offensive linemen where he’s giving away a lot of weight on every play,” Cox said. “It’s a good change of pace when you can have him at that position and bring him down on the line.”
Cox and the Falcons remain high on Beasley’s pass-rush ability.
“When you look at the tape (from last season) he had quite a bit of quarterback hits and quarterback pressures,” Cox said. “We just have to figure out and find a way to turn some of those into sacks, and his numbers will be fine.”
Smith believes that Neal will help with the coverage of tight ends.
“He’s got the ability to cover,” Smith said. “He has the ability to be able to blitz. We have him lined up at the (linebacker) position. He’s got size, length, and speed, so I think we have better matchup on tight ends than we had a year ago.”
Smith has heard about the team’s pass rush ad nauseam. Smith said the defense is spending 80 percent of its time this offseason working on improving that sink hole in the defense.
“We’ve devoted a majority of our time (to the) pass rush,” Smith said. “If you were going to say that we worked 80 percent pass rush on a daily basis in terms of technique and fundamentals and about 20 percent in terms of run defense, right now (that would be accurate). That was an area where we were a little bit deficient a year ago. We are working very hard in that particular area right now.”
Veteran defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux believes the defense can make strides in 2016.
“This defense is meant for us to go out there and make plays,” Babineaux said. “When the plays are presented to us we have to make the most of them. This defense allows us to run and get after guys.”
Cornerback Desmond Trufant, who went to the Pro Bowl last season, sees the unit coming together.
“It’s like night and day out there from last season,” Trufant said. “There’s no thinking out there. We are just communicating and seeing things before they happen. We are playing a lot faster, definitely.”
Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said Smith’s staff is working hard to make corrections.
“They do a great job of scouting ourselves,” Weatherspoon said. “The coaches are tuned into what we did last year. They are helping us with new tools in order to get better at those defenses. It’s something that’s helped us so far. You can actually see it out there.”
Smith also points out that it’s the offseason, and nobody has put on their shoulder pads yet.
“Right now, we are real pleased,” Smith said.