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Falcons talk: Digital Managing Editor Matt Tabeek

Atlanta Falcons, left, line up for a play against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the first half of an NFL preseason football game, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

JACKSONVILLE – senior writer John Oehser each week during the 2019 regular season will speak with a writer or media member covering the Jaguars' opponent.

Up this week:

Atlanta Falcons digital managing editor Matt Tabeek on the Falcons' matchup with the Jaguars at Mercedes-Benz Stadium Sunday at 1 p.m.

Question: The Falcons have won four of six games and are 5-9 after a 1-7 start. This team had high hopes entering the season, but where does it stand entering Sunday?

Answer: They're 4-2 since the bye week and have won on the road against two of the top teams in the NFC – the New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers. They've been doing it with defense, and frankly that has been the biggest surprise of the season. No one saw the 1-7 start coming. They got off to slow starts and were outscored badly in the first half of games, then [Head Coach] Dan Quinn made some bold decisions and reshuffled his coaching staff. He's divvied out the play-calling. They're a different team and they have been getting it done with defense. The mindset now is to finish strong. They would like nothing better than to finish the season on a 6-2 run, especially the way they're doing it – with defense.

Q:As you mentioned, no one anticipated a 1-7 start for this team. What happened during that stretch?

A: There was just a lot of confusion on defense, for different reasons. There were turnovers. [Quarterback] Matt Ryan had an uncharacteristic game and there were special teams breakdowns and there were penalties. They found themselves playing from behind a lot. They made second-half adjustments, but it was often too little too late. They had some close games, and some heartbreaking games. They figured it out after the bye week and they've been 4-2 since. It's been a disappointing year, especially considering all the expectations. They felt like they had a lot of key pieces in places and a nice combination of veteran and key players. But this second half has been a pleasant surprise.

Q: People think of this offense as Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones. Is that accurate? What's the identity of the offense right now?

A: It is Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. For whatever reason, they just have not been able to get the running game going. Part of the problem this year has been the offensive line. They drafted two guys in the first round. [First-round rookie guard] Chris Lindstrom after getting injured (foot) in Week 1 is just now playing his second game after coming back. There has been some inconsistent play up front. It has led to problems with protection and problems with the run game. That has been one of the issues, the offensive line play.

Q: Defense has keyed the second-half turnaround. What has been the difference there?

A: They weren't getting any kind of pass rush early in the season whatsoever. In the second half of the season, they are doing a much better job of getting to the quarterback. [Defensive tackle] Grady Jarrett has been solid all season long. They're getting to the quarterback and they're also forcing more turnovers. Now one of the guys who was key to that turnaround – [cornerback] Desmond Trufant – is out for the year, and they also lost defensive end Takkarist McKinley for the year as well. They've tightened up scoring defense. They were allowing 31.3 points per game and in the last six games they're only giving up 19.2. They've gone from near the bottom of the league to Top 10 as far as points surrendered. It's only a six-game sample size, but they've tightened up. Guys like [defensive tackles] De'Vondre Campbell and Grady Jarrett have been playing really well.

Q:The Falcons are a fascinating story, and it seems a good finish would make the second half quite a success. Would victories in the last two games set things up moving forward?

A: Absolutely. The coaches and players were well-aware of the talk and the criticism and understood why. When you're 1-7, everyone gets it. The fact that they've turned it around and beaten the teams they have – and gone on the road and done it in hostile environments – speaks volumes. But it's just as important to play strong and finish strong against Jacksonville and Tampa Bay, two teams that on paper are even matchups. You have the same record as Jacksonville, but everyone's well aware of what Jacksonville just did. They just snapped a five-game skid and went into Oakland spoiled the Raiders' farewell party. This is the Falcons' last home game and if you don't win it there's that chance of deflating everything good that you've accomplished. There's pressure on this team to finish strong, certainly. These last two games are going to be huge for this team moving forward. It can turn out to be a feel-good story of they finish really strong and show that, 'Hey, that 6-2 is more of who we are than that 1-7 start.'''

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