Much of the ink spilled about the Falcons this season has focused on the team’s league-best offense, and for good reason. Atlanta has scored at least 43 points three times in 2016, compared to four instances combined from the NFL’s other 31 teams.
But an ascendant defense with several young standouts has also provided optimism, as well as a sense that this Falcons squad has the resiliency and toughness to finish strong in the second half of the season. In any case, players would do well to remember that Atlanta was 6-3 at this juncture in 2015, too.
Let’s review the key players who’ve guided the Falcons to where they are by handing out some midseason awards.
Offensive MVP — Matt Ryan
Julio Jones is already 30 yards away from his third straight 1,000-yard season. Alex Mack has brought a much-needed Pro Bowl pedigree to the offensive line. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combine to form the most dangerous, versatile tailback duo in the NFL.
But Atlanta’s offensive MVP must be Matt Ryan. He’s conducted the NFL’s most productive offense while setting a pace for 5,298 passing yards, 41 touchdowns and 9.5 yards per attempt. His 119.0 passer rating, if maintained, would rank as the best mark in a full season by anyone in his thirties. Yep, even better than Tom Brady’s vaunted 2007 season for the undefeated Patriots at age 30.
Just look at how Ryan’s career-best touchdown and interception rates compare to his previous outputs. This guy was no slouch before, either.
Ryan’s been incredibly consistent, and hasn’t had anything close to a bad game yet. The Falcons already clashed with two of the league’s most fearsome pass defenses in Denver and Seattle, with Ryan playing well in both contests. If he can do the same in Atlanta’s next two games against the Eagles and Cardinals — two more defenses that rank in the top 5 of pass defense DVOA — he’ll rightfully stake his claim as the NFL MVP frontrunner.
Defensive MVP — Vic Beasley Jr.
Vic Beasley is tied for fourth in the NFL with 7.5 sacks. The last time a Falcon finished in the top five of sacks was John Abraham in 2010. On top of that, Beasley’s three forced fumbles tie him for second in the league, behind only Oakland’s Bruce Irvin.
Many expected Irvin to sign with the Falcons last spring after the Atlanta native bizarrely declared as much in May 2015. Though that didn’t end up happening, the emergence of Beasley and contributions from veterans Adrian Clayborn and Dwight Freeney has provided a cheaper solution to the team’s pass-rush problems.
After posting 19 sacks during the entire 2015 campaign, the Falcons have collected 21 through nine games this year. That development has eased the pressure on the unit’s young secondary, which has been especially crucial given Desmond Trufant’s slight regression.
Biggest surprise — Grady Jarrett
Grady Jarrett has superseded Jonathan Babineaux as Atlanta’s top interior defensive lineman. His second and third sacks of the season recorded last Thursday against the Bucs were deserved given Jarrett’s 10 defensive hurries in nine games. That’s as many as noted sack artists Cameron Wake, Everson Griffen and Nick Perry — quite an accomplishment for a defensive tackle.
Jarrett’s big body (6-foot-1, 305 pounds) has also proved to be an effective plug for opponents’ run games in the trenches. It’s not his fault the linebackers behind him occasionally struggle to do their part and tackle the ball carrier.
The 2015 fifth-round pick has certainly developed much quicker than 2014 first-round pick Ra’Shede Hageman, who’s been a healthy scratch for several games. Fortunately, Jarrett has shown he has what it takes to be a building block for Dan Quinn’s defense.
Biggest disappointment — Jalen Collins
Rookie Deion Jones has quickly asserted himself in Atlanta’s starting linebacking corps this season. Fellow LSU product and second-round pick Jalen Collins, however, is still struggling to break out during his “sophomore” NFL campaign.
Collins earned his first extended run on defense last week after Desmond Trufant injured his shoulder. Before that, Collins had been limited to special teams since returning from a four-game suspension due to performance-enhancing drugs.
Though Collins acquitted himself well after taking over for Trufant against Tampa Bay, the first seven games were unquestionably disappointing for a guy whom Quinn reportedly didn’t even want to draft in 2015. There’s still time for Collins to turn his narrative around. His first huge test will likely come as a fill-in starter against the Eagles on Sunday.
Rookie of the year — Keanu Neal
Keanu Neal has lived up to his first-round draft pick pedigree. The free safety leads the Falcons in tackles (57) despite missing the first two games of the season, embodying the smash-mouth style Quinn has tried to instill in his defense.
The former Florida Gator has also been a turnover machine, forcing three fumbles and tallying two interceptions, both tied for the team-high mark.
Honorable mention goes to Jones, who’s second on the team in tackles (53) as the signal-caller for Atlanta’s defense. The undersized backer has trouble shedding run blockers, but has improved in that regard over the last couple weeks, per Pro Football Focus. He’s also racked up four passes defensed, three tackles for loss and two interceptions, even returning one of his picks 90 yards for a touchdown against New Orleans.
The arrival of these two has considerably brightened Atlanta’s prospects on the defensive side of the ball, both in the present and the future.