Jan. 3, 2009: The Falcons had lost to Arizona in Round 1 of the NFL playoffs. On the flight home, Thomas Dimitroff, the general manager who in 12 months had lifted a 4-12 team to an outrageous 11-5, knew what he had to do next.
The Falcons’ defense had been their undoing in the desert. Lawyer Milloy, the ancient safety, was culpable on two touchdown passes. Keith Brooking, the long-serving linebacker, was flummoxed on the third-and-16 reception that sealed the game. The D hadn’t been all that good that season — the Falcons were 24th among 32 NFL teams in total defense — but never was it as bad as in its final act.
In the main, the 2008 Falcons were able to scheme around defense liabilities, which were manifest and manifold. Going forward, Dimitroff knew scheming wouldn’t suffice. He could have taken half-measures — dump a few guys that offseason, a few more the next — but TD the GM isn’t one for caution. Speaking Sunday, Dimitroff said: “My personality is to nip things in the bud.”
He dumped three aging starters — Brooking, Milloy and the overstuffed Grady Jackson — plus Michael Boley, a gifted linebacker who hadn’t responded to his latest set of coaches. When Domonique Foxworth received an offer of $27 million over four seasons from Baltimore, Dimitroff declined to counter because he didn’t think Foxworth, who’d been the Falcons’ best defensive back that season, was worth that much.
So: Five starters gone. There was, inevitably, a shakedown period. The 2009 defense wasn’t an overnight sensation, but it got better as it went. (It finished 21st in team defense.) But the 2010 D, with injured 2009 draftees Peria Jerry and William Moore returning to health and the addition of the pricey free agent Dunta Robinson, figured to resemble Dimitroff’s grand design more closely. And it has.
The Falcons rank 16th in total defense, which measures yardage, but fifth in points yielded. And for all the hype directed toward the offense — five Pro Bowlers! — the case can be made that the defense has, over the second half of the season, been the more consistent unit.
The offense laid an egg Dec. 27, managing one touchdown and 14 first downs. (This against a Saints defense gashed Saturday for 41 Seattle points.) The Falcons’ D kept that game close enough to win, same as it had against Baltimore and Green Bay. Not since Oct. 24, when the Bengals scored 32 points in the Georgia Dome, has an opponent managed more than 24 against these Birds.
Now comes Green Bay again, this time with a berth in the NFC title game at stake. The imposing Packers managed 17 points in the first meeting, testimony to this reconstituted D. Here’s Dimitroff’s impression of what he wrought: ” To me it’s an athletic and fast and smart defense. I like where we are … I’ve been very impressed from the middle of the season to now.”
Back to the winter months of 2009. Dimitroff’s biggest gripe, borne out by the fleet Cardinals, was that his Falcons were too slow. “We had a very strong and definitive three-year plan to grow into being fast and urgent and disruptive on defense,” he said. And his defense now? “I believe we are very fast.”
And this has come without full-blown production from the tackle Jerry, the Falcons’ No. 1 pick in 2009, and the corner linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, this year’s top draftee. Dimitroff: “Peria is healing from his [knee] injury, and he’s being used more and more in the rotation. Right now he’s being used in the passing game, but our expectations as his leg gets better is that he’ll contribute in the running game.
“With Sean Weatherspoon, I was very encouraged with how he handled himself as a rookie. He seemed like a five-year man. Losing him was definitely a blow to his development, but he’s coming back — and he’s going to be very, very important down the stretch and into the playoffs. Those two are a very big part of our future.”
Regarding which: Of the Falcons’ 11 defensive starters, only two — end John Abraham and linebacker Mike Peterson — are older than 30. If this year’s team doesn’t win the Super Bowl, next year’s might. This isn’t a defense that can’t keep up, literally and figuratively. This defense, Dimitoff said, is one that “can compete against the upper-echelon teams in the league.”
That was always the plan. What we’ve seen, happily enough, is the plan coming together.
By Mark Bradley