FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Falcons’ bountiful harvest of sacks last season definitely will require some getting used to. But that’s a good problem to have for Atlanta.
Not only did linebacker Vic Beasley lead the NFL with 15 ½ sacks, but the team finished with 34, good for 16th across the league. In the previous two seasons before 2016, the Falcons managed just 41 total sacks combined and never finished higher than 30th in the NFL.
With success comes the added pressure of not only replicating and growing from that jump in sacks, but having offensive coordinators specifically game plan to stop Atlanta’s pass rush. New defensive line coach Bryant Young has been thinking about this.
“That’s possible, because there’s always protections that can either ID the Mike [middle linebacker] or slide to a certain guy,” said Young when asked if offensive lines will shift next season toward Beasley. But Young has a solution.
“When you have guys that are able to put pressure on different areas of the line, you can’t slide the protection all the time to one guy. We’re hoping to have some balance there with the understanding that that may happen at times where they slide to a guy.”
Note to Dontari Poe, Grady Jarrett, Takk McKinley and the plethora of linemen along Atlanta’s beefed-up defensive front. Brooks Reed, Ra’Shede Hageman, Jack Crawford, Adrian Clayborn, Courtney Upshaw, Derrick Shelby… everyone’s going to be responsible in keeping teams from doubling up Beasley.
The Falcons moved up in the first round to grab McKinley, the defensive end from UCLA that’s supposed to offer the yin to Beasley’s yang on the other side of the defense. But Young, Dan Quinn and the rest of Atlanta’s defensive coaching staff know that having McKinley will be an improvement, but it’s not the total answer.
Jarrett had a field day in Houston during Super Bowl 51. His three sacks were somewhat of a coming out party for the young defensive tackle. By adding Poe to help Jarrett in the middle of the defensive line, it’s conceivable to imagine many more games in 2017 for Jarrett like the big game from February.
But don’t count Poe out from the pass-rush party. Young said that their new moose in the middle will be on the field for three downs; playing against the run and during pass-rush opportunities. Poe’s new contract has incentives for weight loss, which could make the 6-foot-3 defensive tackle that played at 346 pounds last season lighter and more agile.
“We want him to be as efficient as possible,” said Young on the team asking Poe to drop weight. “The way we play the game, I think, allows for you to be in the best possible shape you can, and you want to be in the best possible shape you can. Weight wise, we want to make sure when we look at each guy, they’re where they need to be. He’s a guy that has an opportunity to do that.”
Take into consideration a healthy Shelby, who was having considerable success before a torn Achilles sent him to the Injured Reserve list. He’ll be back and leaned on in Falcons’ attack mode.
Atlanta utilizes a lot of substitutions along the defensive line. The Falcons mix and match fronts in a Quinn-versus-the-world chess match that allows guys like a former first-round edge rusher in Clayborn to rush from the three- or five-technique against an offense guard. That’s crazy unfair to the offensive line.
Beasley will be looked on to lead this team in sacks again in 2017, possibly even stand atop the NFL rankings. But his ability to copy success from last season won’t just happen because of his maturation and the addition of another edge rusher like McKinley. The entire defensive line – coming at the opposing quarterback from multiple areas – will be looked on to pin its ears back and rush the passer.