ATLANTA (AP) — A renewed sense of optimism for Atlanta Falcons’ defense is generating a new hope for the Falcons’ season that seemed lost following a 1-4 start.
The overall defensive statistics are still ugly, but two straight wins and improved play from fill-in starters combined to leave Falcons coach Dan Quinn upbeat during the team’s bye week.
“Let’s call it like it is, we hadn’t performed to the level that we wanted to defensively,” Quinn said Tuesday. “But this past week I really felt a shift take place. The guys that now have been playing together for a few weeks, I saw them rise to the occasion in that regard.”
Following the off week, the Falcons play at Washington on Nov. 4, followed by another road game at Cleveland.
For a team with six players on injured reserve, including three defensive starters, improved health is especially important for the Falcons (3-4). Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett had two sacks in Monday night’s 23-20 win over the New York Giants after missing two weeks with an ankle injury.
“Getting Grady back out there is huge,” said wide receiver Julio Jones. “He’s a leader. What he brings to the defensive line and his energy is huge.”
Jarrett says the Falcons, only two years removed from their 2016 Super Bowl season, can still make a third straight playoff appearance.
“We understand that everything we want is still ahead of us,” Jarrett said. “We are going to approach it that way. We are not going to let one win stay on our mind too long, and we are not going to let a loss stay on our mind. … We have a long way to go and we are a group of tough guys that won’t give up.”
Rookie linebacker Foye Oluokun, gaining confidence and experience in his fill-in starter’s role after Deion Jones was placed on IR, had six stops against the Giants. Second-year defensive end Takk McKinley added a sack, giving him a team-leading 5 ½ for the year.
Atlanta gave up only two field goals through three quarters before allowing two fourth-quarter touchdowns to the Giants.
“It’s good. You always want to go into the bye week with a win,” said cornerback Desmond Trufant. “The last two weeks we got a win, so we just have to keep grinding the momentum and get healthy.”
It has been a rough first half of the season for Atlanta, especially on defense.
The Falcons are giving up 419.4 yards and 30.3 points per game, the third-highest averages in the league. Only Tampa Bay (32.7) and San Francisco (31.1) have allowed more points per game through seven weeks.
Before the spree of injuries, the defense was on the rise after allowing only 19.7 points per game last season.
The heart of the unit was ripped apart by injuries this season. Jones and safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen were placed on injured reserve in the first month of the season.
As new starters have become more comfortable in their roles, other players have healed. Jarrett and backup end Derrick Shelby, who had been out since Week 2 with a groin injury, returned against the Giants.
“Our ability to swarm to the ball felt different in this game,” said Quinn of the win over the Giants. “I thought it was one of the better performances by the defensive line overall, run game and pass rush. If we can make sure we stay true to our style, I think that’s a big thing.”
The Falcons placed right guard Brandon Fusco on injured reserve on Wednesday. Offensive guard Andy Levitre and running back Devonta Freeman also are on IR.
Jones (foot) and Freeman (groin) may return in the second half of the season, though Freeman may be a long shot.
Quinn said Jones, sidelined since the opening week, “is meeting all the markers” and “making terrific progress.” Even so, Quinn also said “We’ve still got a ways to go” before having the linebacker back on the field.
The Falcons are in last place in the NFC South, but Trufant says there is still time to make a playoff run.
“We always felt we were still in it regardless of how we started,” Trufant said. “We just had to get some momentum and find out what works for us and keep moving. There’s a lot of ball left and we can still do a lot of damage out there.”
By CHARLES ODUM, AP Sports Writer