ATLANTA — Grady Jarrett said the Atlanta Falcons' defense hasn't given up on what seemed to be a lost season.
That unit played big roles in back-to-back wins to back up Jarrett's claim, but the sixth-year defensive tackle also knows the turnaround must continue because the team dug such a deep hole over the first month-plus of this season.
The Falcons were 0-5 when coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff were fired on Oct. 11. The record was bad enough. The way the Falcons got there was worse as they became the first team in NFL history to blow fourth-quarter leads of at least 15 points in successive losses, falling to the Dallas Cowboys and the Chicago Bears.
Jarrett, who is from nearby Conyers, is aware those collapses added to the Falcons' reputation as a franchise that doesn't know how to win. Every blown lead is a reminder of Super Bowl LI in February 2017, when Atlanta was up by 25 points in the third quarter before losing 34-28 in overtime to the New England Patriots.
Now, though, the Falcons (3-6) have won three out of four games under interim head coach Raheem Morris, with the lone loss in that stretch owing to Atlanta scoring a late touchdown — when a field goal would have been enough — that gave the Detroit Lions enough time to rally on Oct. 25. Last Sunday's 34-27 home win against the Denver Broncos provided another example of a big play on defense preserving a victory.
"We know the omen that followed us for the first half of the season, and we just wanted to step up again," said Jarrett, a fifth-round draft pick out of Clemson in 2015 who was a Pro Bowl selection for the first time last season. "The fact we did feels good, and we just want to continue to carry that momentum the rest of the season."
Jarrett's pressure on Denver quarterback Drew Lock led to a key fourth-quarter interception by Ricardo Allen that helped deflate the Broncos' comeback attempt.
Atlanta's secondary, depleted by injuries early in the season, has recovered. Linebackers Deion Jones and Foye Oluokun are using their speed to create key plays. Jarrett's push from the middle of the line is helping to make up for a lack of consistent pass rush from the edge.
Oluokun, a third-year pro, was selected as NFC defensive player of the week after having 10 tackles, his first sack as an NFL player and a career-high four quarterback hits against Denver. He became the first Atlanta player to receive the honor since Jarrett in Week 15 of 2018.
"We're playing for each other," Oluokun said. "I want to keep playing well and showing my effort and making plays and then everybody rise off of that."
Morris, defensive coordinator before he became interim coach, has asked the Falcons to "impose our will" on opponents by making decisive plays late in games. No clutch performance was needed in his first game in charge, a 40-23 victory at Minnesota on Oct. 18 in which the Falcons led the Vikings 23-0 early in the second half. But 11 days later, cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson's interception saved a 25-17 road win against the Carolina Panthers, Atlanta's first NFC South victory of the season.
Morris again could celebrate the defense's clutch play against Denver.
"That's what we've been talking about the whole year, how you win those games," the coach said.
The defensive stops also drew praise from quarterback Matt Ryan, who has led dozens of comebacks in his 13 seasons with the Falcons but lately has needed more help protecting advantages.
"I saw guys step up defensively," Ryan said. " I think guys have gotten more comfortable in those situations, more confident, and it has shown."
There is still much room for improvement on defense. Atlanta, which is off this week, has some ugly statistics on that side of the ball when it comes to per-game averages. The Falcons rank 23rd in the 32-team league in points allowed (27.9), 28th in yards allowed (410) and 31st in pass defense (310.3 yards).
A glaring weakness is the pass rush: Atlanta has only 14 sacks, and no Falcon has as many as three.
Defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., one of the big acquisitions for the team in the offseason, was showing signs of breaking out before missing last weekend's game with a hamstring injury. If Fowler can come out of the open date healthy, energizing the pass rush, it could make a difference in a challenging stretch.
Atlanta still has four division games remaining, and they're against teams led by quarterbacks who rank among the most successful in NFL history. The Falcons visit Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, Nov. 22, before hosting the rematch on Dec. 6, and Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers come to Atlanta on Dec. 20 before a regular-season finale in Florida on Jan. 3.
Atlanta also hosts the Las Vegas Raiders on Nov. 29, with the other two regular-season games road trips to face the Los Angeles Chargers on Dec. 13 and the Kansas City Chiefs — led by dynamic quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the reigning Super Bowl MVP — on Dec. 27.
Because the hole was so big, so is the hill the Falcons must climb to have any chance of making the playoffs.
Jarrett insists it's not too late.
"There is a huge chunk of the season still to play," Jarrett said. "Everything we want is still ahead of us. We've put ourselves in position to still have success for this season still. We haven't given up, and we won't give up and know we can be as good as we want to be."