FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- It wasn't a specific discussion or overarching change that recentered the Atlanta Falcons defense during the team's bye week last month.
"It's just urgency," edge rusher Lorenzo Carter said. "It's a sense of urgency and a sense of we've got to get it done. It shows in games like this, where we keep them out of the end, different sudden changes, it doesn't matter, we're ready to play."
It was a collective understanding from the defense of what happened before the bye -- three straight losses in close games allowing over 350 yards and giving up big plays at the end -- was no longer acceptable.
Even though they still allowed 444 yards to the New Orleans Saints in Week 12, the defense has carried Atlanta of late and has not allowed a touchdown in its last nine quarters. The unit looks much like it did at the beginning of the season, when Atlanta allowed under 325 yards passing in five of its first six games.
"It came down to us," edge rusher Arnold Ebiketie said. "Understanding who we were as a defense."
That means taking advantage of turnovers and playing fast, aggressive defense. The Falcons have six straight games with at least one turnover and five combined turnovers forced in the past two weeks.
Safety Jessie Bates III has been a catalyst, with interceptions in back-to-back weeks, showing why he's become one of the NFL's most valuable free agent signings of the last cycle and invaluable to the culture transition of Atlanta's defense.
"He worked his tail off, he did what he was supposed to do and now they see him as a leader," assistant head coach Jerry Gray said. "And now, he can go in and tell them, 'Hey, let's go do this and this,' which you're never going to walk in a building and say, 'I'm the leader.' It doesn't happen like that."
Bates and defensive end Calais Campbell, along with stalwart Grady Jarrett, were able to quickly build a foundation of success for younger players throughout the defense. Bates became a massive part of it in the secondary, an industrial strength safety pin in the back holding it all together. Jarrett is currently out for the season with a torn ACL.
It's been the defense which has put the Falcons, along with playing in a poor division, at the precipice of the playoffs. If the Falcons keep winning -- including Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a key divisional game -- they will win the NFC South and host a playoff game for the first time since 2016 and the first time ever at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
To secure that, the Falcons need more from their offense, a unit which has had its inconsistencies throughout the season. The Falcons had a three-game stretch of over 400 yards of offense (going 2-1 in those games) in October. Since then, Atlanta has vacillated between good offensive days (28 points and 370 yards in a loss to Minnesota; 24 defensive-aided points and 396 yards in a win over New Orleans) and bad ones (254 yards of offense and 23 points in a loss to Arizona and 13 points and 194 yards in a win over the Jets).
"It would be one thing if we had 12 games where it's been nothing but 130 yards. I get it," Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. "Yeah, we're striving for more. I won't go too much more into it because it's going to sound like excuses, but at the end of the day we have to continue to work and get that, because that's what we're shooting for."
Atlanta's offense, at points, has felt like it's been close. When the Falcons moved the ball, turnovers stymied possessions. When the run game has worked, the passing game has been suspect. When the Falcons passed well, the run game wasn't as efficient as it had been.
"That's one of the biggest challenges," tight end Jonnu Smith said. "Everybody's good in this league. The difference is consistency." While the Falcons' defense has improved, the offense lacks 'consistency'