The Falcons Have A Plan For The Pass Rush, But Will It Work?

Chris Trotman

A switch to the 3-4 might be good for what ails the Falcons' pass rush.

The lack of an edge rusher is the first thing a disappointed Falcons fan is likely to point to with this draft, and it's true that the Falcons didn't come away with a day one starter to fill that role. It's tough to fault fans for looking at the current group of options off the edge and raising a hue and cry over it.

For all that, the Falcons do have a plan to fix the pass rush, a plan they executed on this offseason. It's not the first choice of the average fan and there's certainly no guarantee it will bear fruit in 2014, but I thought it was important to write about that plan for those who think the Falcons have been groping blindly through the offseason.

The plan can be summed up in three easy steps, which I'll outline here.

  1. Improve the size and toughness of your down linemen to better occupy blockers, improve the run defense and wear down opposing lines in a way a smaller, lighter line has not. See the acquisitions of Tyson Jackson, Paul Soliai and Ra'Shede Hageman.
  2. Make an obvious but oft-denied switch to a 3-4 base to take better advantage of your personnel. Maintain your hybrid fronts in sub-packages, but plan to utilize current 4-3 DEs as OLBs in the scheme, for example Kroy Biermann, Osi Umenyiora, and Jonathan Massaquoi.
  3. Draft a mess of linebackers to aid in that scheme transition, with a particular focus on adding a couple of late-round, intriguing edge rushing options. See Prince Shembo and Tyler Starr.
The idea here is simple enough. The Falcons are dedicating three linemen to the valiant cause of collapsing the pocket and keeping opposing linemen busy, ostensibly allowing linebackers, safeties and even cornerbacks to get in on the fun with a clear path to the quarterback. Guys like Mass and Osi—and potentially the rookies, Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow, too—will be asked to primarily run like hell in an attempt to get pressure. Lacking a truly elite edge rusher, the Falcons are looking to turn what looks like an average group on paper into an above average one simply by putting 900-something pounds of run-stopping, pocket-pushing linemen in front of them.

If you're looking to see an example of how this might work, consider the Saints. In 2012, they had a truly putrid 4-3 defense, one so bad it got Steve Spagnuolo fired. A year later, the team hired Rob Ryan and moved to a 3-4 base. Junior Galette, a former UDFA, went from 5 sacks in 2012 to 12 in 2013, and the team's defense improved so dramatically many accused Ryan of witchcraft. You can't reasonably anticipate that kind of turnaround for the Falcons, but the thought process here is fundamentally sound.

Viewed through this prism, the 2014 draft makes sense, even if you're not inclined to like it. The Falcons went for Ra'Shede Hageman because they believe he can be the Cameron Jordan-type 3-4 DE the team needs going forward. They drafted four linebackers because they don't have a ton of great fits on the roster at 3-4 OLB and ILB and are likely to purge the team of several fringe guys by the end of this offseason. The team spent the last six seasons trying to field a great defense in a traditional 4-3 with lighter tackles, and then by mixing up their fronts in an attempt to disguise weaknesses. They've concluded, at last, that they need a new approach.

Again, it's an open question whether this will work, and even the most optimistic among us can't really expect the Falcons to suddenly field a great defense in 2014. It could be that the Falcons' current options to rush the passer just can't get it done even when they're free of other responsibilities and given considerable beef to occupy blockers up front, in which case there's going to be a lot of disappointment and bitterness around this team for the second consecutive year.

It was time to make a change, either way. The Falcons haven't put much better than a league average defense on the field under Mike Smith and company, so a wholesale shift in the way the team looks at its pass rush and its front seven in general is both welcome and overdue. Let's hope it works out.

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