Atlanta Falcons Star Jessie Bates Eyes Top 5 Defense

Internal expectations are high for the Atlanta Falcons' defense in 2024.
Atlanta Falcons safety Jessie Bates III has high hopes for the team's defense in 2024.
Atlanta Falcons safety Jessie Bates III has high hopes for the team's defense in 2024. / Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Atlanta Falcons' defense is surrounded by as many questions as new faces in high places entering this fall.

Atlanta is coming off a substantially improved defensive effort in 2023 during which it finished No. 8 league-wide in passing yards allowed, No. 11 in total yards, No. 18 in scoring and No. 20 in run defense.

But the architecture of that unit - defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen - is gone, accepting the same role with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Calais Campbell and Bud Dupree, Atlanta's top two sack collectors from last season, signed elsewhere in free agency. Each position group has a new coach.

With change comes uncertainty - but Falcons safety Jessie Bates III, the unit's lone Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection last year, isn't letting the standard slip. Instead, Bates has set the bar even higher.

"Our goal for 2024 as a defense is to be top five in every single category," Bates said during OTAs. "That's the goal."

That mission works hand in hand with another: Winning games. Bates said he felt like last season, the Falcons put together good games but let up at the end.

From Weeks 9-15, the Falcons suffered defeats to the Minnesota Vikings, Arizona Cardinals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers. Each of the losses occurred after Atlanta's defense allowed scores inside the final minute.

The Falcons ultimately finished the season 7-10, two games behind the NFC South-winning Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Bates recognizes this, and he feels a sense of urgency to turn the tide in 2024.

"We let offenses score in critical situations, and I think that's where we have to get better as a defense - being able to close out games," Bates said.

Atlanta's defense, led by new coordinator Jimmy Lake, returns several key players from last season, starting in the secondary with Bates and cornerback A.J. Terrell. At linebacker, Kaden Elliss, Nate Landman and Troy Andersen form a trio that first-year head coach Raheem Morris creates an "awesome problem" to figure out who gets snaps.

On the defensive front, the Falcons have a stout interior line, headlined by Grady Jarrett and David Onyemata. During the four-loss stretch of last-minute heartbreaking, Jarrett watched from his couch, unavailable to play due to a season-ending ACL tear suffered in Week 8.

The Falcons are once again facing pass rush questions but are optimistic that outside linebacker Arnold Ebiketie, who had six sacks as a second-year pro in 2023, can take a step forward. The same applies for rising second-year defensive end Zach Harrison, who had three sacks and four tackles for loss in his final-three appearances as a rookie.

But while there's uncertainty rushing the passer and at starting spots next to both Bates and Terrell, there's little doubt in this: Atlanta expects to be playing from the lead often in 2024.

With an offense spearheaded by new quarterback Kirk Cousins, the Falcons are heavy favorites to win the NFC South. To deliver on the hype, their defense needs to do what it didn't last season: Finish.

"Having an elite quarterback like Kirk, we're going to put some points on the board," Bates said. "So, being able to defend the lead and take over a game as a defense is something we'll continue to harp on and get better at."

Daniel Flick


Daniel Flick is an accredited NFL writer for Sports Illustrated's FanNation. Daniel has provided boots-on-ground coverage at the NFL Combine and from the Atlanta Falcons' headquarters, among other destinations, and contributed to the annual Lindy's Sports Magazine ahead of the 2023 offseason. Daniel is a co-host on the 404TheFalcon podcast and previously wrote for the Around the Block Network and Georgia Sports Hospitality Media.