Raheem Morris should get defensive coordinator consideration when the 2020 NFL season comes to an end.
The Atlanta Falcons’ 2020 season has long since been over but, as the performance in the Week 16 defeat to the Kansas City Chiefs illustrated, their defense has made great strides in recent weeks with interim head coach Raheem Morris at the helm.
Only a missed Younghoe Koo field goal prevented the Falcons from taking the defending Super Bowl champions to overtime in a 17-14 loss at Arrowhead Stadium in which Atlanta did an excellent job of frustrating Patrick Mahomes and an offense widely-regarded as the most explosive in the NFL.
The progress the Falcons have made on defense should boost optimism that, should they make the right general manager and head coach hires, they have the talent on both sides of the ball to enjoy a quick turnaround and emerge as contenders in the NFC.
While Morris appears unlikely to be appointed as the head coach to guide the Falcons back to prominence, the performance of the defense will help his cause in terms of him potentially landing a defensive coordinator position in this hiring cycle.
Mahomes made to look human
Only five quarterbacks, per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, fared worse than Mahomes in terms of Completion Percentage Above Expectation in Week 16. He completed just 54.5 percent of his passes when he was expected to connect on 62.5 percent of his throws.
The Falcons kept Mahomes out of rhythm despite pressuring him on just 19.6 percent of his dropbacks, per Pro Football Reference, indicating a strong performance from an often-maligned young secondary.
Isaiah Oliver, their 2018 second-round pick, played a starring role. His average depth of target of 12.4 yards was the highest of any defender in the game to be targeted as the nearest defender more than once, yet he allowed a passer rating of just 52.1 after allowing two catches for 10 yards on five targets.
Atlanta excelling on defense despite a lack of pressure lends further evidence to the argument that edge rusher is the primary need for the Falcons. However, pressuring the quarterback has not always been a problem for a unit that has picked up steam in recent weeks.
Brilliant since the bye
Mahomes is third in the NFL in Expected Points Allowed (EPA) per play among quarterbacks, according to data collected by Ben Baldwin of The Athletic, but finished the Week 16 encounter with an EPA per play of just 0.05.
The success Atlanta had against the Chiefs is reflective of their overall defensive performance since their Week 10 bye. Through Weeks 11 to 16, the Falcons are 10th in EPA per play allowed to opposing offenses.
They are 11th in dropback EPA allowed in that same span and have fared slightly better in terms of EPA allowed to opposing rushing attacks, in which they rank ninth from Week 11 to Week 16.
Atlanta’s performance in Football Outsiders DVOA defense reflects an impressive effort from Morris and his defense since he took the reins as interim head coach following the Falcons’ 0-5 start under Dan Quinn.
The Falcons are eighth in weighted DVOA on defense. Atlanta is sixth in DVOA against the run but 17th in pass defense DVOA.
That discrepancy may be partially explained by an inability to get home on pressures. Though they struggled to make life difficult for Mahomes, the Falcons rank 12th in the NFL in pressure rate, per Pro Football Reference, but are a mediocre 19th in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Sack Rate.
With defensive tackle Grady Jarrett within striking distance of recording 30 pressures for the season, it is clear the Falcons need pass rushers who can take advantage of the interior disruption he creates.
However, the Falcons can afford to be greatly encouraged by their defense’s ability to excel even when they do not get pressure and, if he does not stay with the team beyond Week 17, the progress Morris has overseen will stand as a significant feather in his cap as he goes in search of his next job.