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Success on third-down will be a telling sign for an emerging Falcons pass rush

After a second consecutive excellent performance by the defense, they deserve recognition. The signs of their success come from being stout on third down.

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Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

It has been almost a decade since the Falcons’ defensive line has been the main positive talking point through consecutive games, even in preseason. The pass rush once again shone through five drives in shutting out the Jets’ offense. Optimism is flowing following promising performances from Vic Beasley, Jonathan Babineaux, Adrian Clayborn, and more. It’s essential that the Falcons force opposing quarterbacks out of the pocket or force them to make quicker decisions instead of being comfortable by looking through their progressions.

Key Third Downs

While sacks are important, third down defense is one of the most vital stats for any defense. Over the past five seasons, Atlanta has been ranked within the top ten worst third down defenses. It started in 2009, as they were
ranked last in the league. Despite their playoff appearances between 2010-2012, they ranked no higher than 24th in third down defense from the 2010 season. The last two seasons have been obviously the most detrimental in the Matt Ryan-Thomas Dimitroff era. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Atlanta has ranked dead last over the past two seasons. No defense can thrive from allowing conversions on third-down at a rate of 46 percent.

Offenses have converted nearly every other third down situation against Mike Nolan’s hopeless unit. Obviously an adequate pass rush is needed to improve on third down. It also takes a group of solid linebackers that can fulfill their gaps and responsibilities. Justin Durant showcased that on Friday from sticking to his assignment and closing down Ryan Fitzpatrick to stop him short of the first down marker. A sturdy veteran like Durant should help Atlanta’s defense in getting off the field significantly. If the pass rush actually showed signs of life, it was Paul Worrilow or Joplo Bartu being targeted for easy completions by opposing quarterbacks last season.

It’s pretty alarming that Atlanta’s defense has struggled to get off the field with game-changing studs like John Abraham and Brent Grimes. These issues signify the meaning of having multiple capable pass rushers that can be utilized in various facets. Clayborn was labeled as the most intriguing free agent signing, considering his respectable production from playing on horrendous Tampa Bay defenses. With his size (listed between 275-280 pounds), he isn’t your prototypical four-tech defensive end. The extra weight and strength allows him to be effective as a three-tech lineman on third downs or general passing situations.

Dan Quinn's Impact

Dan Quinn has worked extensively with every pass rusher over the off-season. The idea of uniting Beasley, Clayborn, Babineaux, and O’Brien Schofield on third down has been strategized for some time now. On Friday, it was a showcase game for that unit through swarming Fitzpatrick on several third down situations. New York was just two for seven on third down, when the first-string defense was on the field. One of those conversions was from a holding penalty on Robert Alford.

Clayborn abused James Carpenter on multiple occasions, including a third down sack that sent the former Seahawk on his knees. The speed and viciousness of Clayborn has been showcased through working with Chuck Smith over the off-season. The long hours of dedicating his craft has translated to on-field production. Quinn seems to prefer Tyson Jackson on first down, due to his run stuffing qualities. When Fitzpatrick had time to throw and look through his progressions, it was usually Jackson, Kroy Biermann, or Grady Jarrett as the defensive ends.

The idea of utilizing natural defensive tackles on the edge has to restore dark memories from the past two seasons. Of course, it’s pre-season and coaches will obviously evaluate certain rotations and see what could possibly work. It would be wise to try playing Clayborn and Beasley as ends on first or second down. Would a major downgrade occur from a run stopping perspective by playing Clayborn on the edge? With Brooks Reed above him as a strong-side linebacker, setting the edge shouldn’t be a major concern for that side of the defense. Reed’s success comes from setting the edge and not missing open field tackles.

With Clayborn’s viciousness and versatility, Quinn can use him in various different methods. Playing him alongside Beasley has worked out greatly so far. Besides Babineaux, Atlanta’s defensive tackle rotation has featured players that had little to no pass-rushing ability. They were mainly run stuffers that looked to occupy space and take on double teams. Clayborn’s agility on the inside gave the Jets’ offensive line fits, as D’Brickshaw Ferguson had his hands full with Beasley.

The most endearing part of Beasley’s performance was his effectiveness from exploiting a bull rush. Skeptics were concerned about his size coming into the league. Besides having a rapid first-step, does Beasley have other attributes as an effective pass rusher? An improving bull-rush and a "John Abrahamesque" spin move look to be two major weapons in his arsenal. Speaking of making plays like Abraham, Beasley batted a pass down on third down to end his night on a high note.

What Lies Ahead

Many questions still remain unclear about Atlanta’s defensive line rotation. It will be interesting to see how many snaps occur between Jackson and Clayborn. Could Ra’Shede Hageman be utilized on third down? How about the other array of pass rushers? Stansly Maponga has emerged through contributing with two sacks in pre-season. Schofield had three hits on Friday as well. Similar to wide receiver, the amount of depth on the defensive line has become a revelation. The motive to not splurge out high-priced contracts, yet still be aggressive in making bargain deals seem to be paying off so far.