DETROIT — An Atlanta Falcons defense with a new coordinator and an influx of free-agent talent has made strides in many areas through three games of the 2023 season. Getting the opposing quarterback on the ground is not one of them.
On Sunday, it burned them for the first time as Detroit quarterback Jared Goff led the Lions to a 20-6 victory at Ford Field and handed the Falcons their first loss of the season.
“They got seven sacks. We got zero,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said in summation. “We hit Goff a few times, but it clearly affected our quarterback.”
It did not affect Goff. He had the 12th-highest time to throw (2.66 seconds) of his two-plus-year career in Detroit, according to TruMedia, and finished 22-for-33 for 243 yards with one touchdown and one interception. The Falcons’ three sacks this season rank 28th in the league through Sunday’s games.
“We had a lot of four-man rush, which is where I feel like we should be at our best,” Falcons defensive lineman Calais Campbell said. “I feel like we got close so many times, but Goff did a good job. You have to give him his respect. He made good reads, got the ball to his playmakers. The times he did hold it, he made us pay.”
The Falcons, who hit Goff nine times, blitzed on 48.1 percent of Green Bay’s dropbacks last week but only 23.5 percent Sunday, according to TruMedia, and that was against a Detroit offensive line that came in missing two starters because of injury and lost two more during the game. The Lions finished the game with Colby Sorsdal at right tackle; he was their fourth option at the position heading into the season.
“We rushed a lot of four, that’s pretty much it. Mano v. mano. It’s basically just, ‘Win your matchups,’” Falcons defensive end Bud Dupree said. “We just have to pick it up more, make as many plays as we possibly can up front. More guys have to get off blocks.”
.@GradyJarrett coming through!
📺 FOX | NFL+ pic.twitter.com/jFPjLOq975
— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) September 24, 2023
Goff did most of his damage in the first half when he was 15-for-21 for 188 yards and a touchdown and the Lions built a 13-3 lead. An Atlanta defense that entered the game trying to avoid surrendering explosive plays to the Lions gave up four pass plays of 19 or more yards in the second quarter alone.
“We have to find a way to start faster,” cornerback Tre Flowers said. “We can’t give up explosives as a secondary, myself included. Just clean up things. If we start fast, the offense is going to do their thing, and we’re going to win games.”
Schultz: Desmond Ridder’s performance shows Falcons still have a quarterback problem
One of those plays was a 45-yard touchdown to rookie tight end Sam LaPorta that Smith said “gave them a little bit of life early.” LaPorta finished the day with eight catches for 84 yards. (Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts has nine catches for 100 yards this season.)
Goff “did a great job today,” Falcons safety Richie Grant said. “He took what we gave him and he made us pay on a couple plays. They have good receivers and a good receiving corps and they took advantage of what we gave them. We got a couple hits on him, but that’s a vet quarterback and if you give him time, he’s definitely going to take advantage of it. Definitely some things we need to get fixed, but that was a good team and they played good ball today. They came with it and they took advantage of all our missed opportunities.”
The Falcons juggled their secondary throughout the game. With cornerback Jeff Okudah playing his first game in Detroit since the Lions traded him for a fifth-round pick this offseason, Atlanta started Flowers at cornerback but also worked in Mike Hughes and Okudah there.
“It definitely felt good to be back after being away from game action for so long. I think it’s something I can build on for next week,” Okudah said. “Obviously I didn’t have a preseason, so they didn’t want me to go from OTAs to 70 plays. We had a plan early on and followed that plan.”
Okudah, who was the No. 3 pick in the 2020 draft, played exclusively on third downs. He missed the first two games of the season with a foot injury.
“Honestly, it just felt good to see the guys you built a relationship with over the years,” he said. “It was no hard feelings, just a lot of love in the air.”
Falcons safety Jessie Bates made his third interception of the season in the third quarter, which ties him for the NFL lead. That came in the third quarter, by which time the Falcons defense seemed to have a better handle on the Lions’ attack.
“Today was a tough matchup. They came out and did some things that we had to adjust to. They made it hard on us,” Campbell said. “They played really good football. A team like this, coming off a loss, you knew they were going to come in locked in.”
The Falcons want Jeff Okudah to focus on health, winning, not revenge on the Lions
After allowing 6.7 yards per play and 8.9 yards per attempt in the first half, Atlanta’s defense allowed 4.6 yards per play in the second half. Campbell, a 16-year veteran, took that as a sign that the defense is on the right track.
“I don’t think we need to change too much,” he said. “We just need to keep sawing wood. This is still fairly new for everybody. It’s definitely one of those things where you can’t expect to be at your best right away. We’re going to continue to get better.”
In three games under new coordinator Ryan Nielsen, the Falcons have allowed 18 points per game, which is the eighth fewest in the league.
“I think we have a really talented defense,” Campbell said. “I think we have a really good scheme. I think we have the right players to go out there and execute it. I think it comes down to making plays when they are there for us. You know it’s going to come. I think just keep sawing wood. I don’t think we need to press. There was a lot of good football out there today. We just have to find a way to make more plays to give us a chance to win the ballgame.”
(Photo: Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)
“The Football 100,” the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Preorder it here.