Under a new coaching staff, there are endless questions about the landscape of the Atlanta Falcons. Both lines have immense pressure to improve following two consecutive horrific seasons. Positions such as free safety and nickel corner lack stability. The explosive trio of Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, and Antone Smith aren't ideal fits for short-yardage and goal-line situations. While concerns linger over several new players, one particular linebacker will be watched closely in a potential make or break year.
A History of Rising Up
Paul Worrilow has risen above challenges throughout his entire life. From being a walk-on at Delaware to being signed as an undrafted free agent by the Falcons in 2013, the inspiring linebacker has overcome drastic obstacles. This latest obstacle comes from validating himself as a starting-caliber linebacker. This is no ordinary circumstance, as the third-year player was expected to anchor a defense that lacked difference makers within their front seven.Sean Weatherspoon only playing seven out a possible 32 games certainly made things more difficult. Worrilow was already being groomed as a centerpiece going into his second year. With no ambition to upgrade the linebacker corps, the coaching staff positioned him to either sink or swim.
In a matter of two months, it had become evident that Worrilow was as overwhelmed along with fellow undrafted linebacker Joplo Bartu. The 2012 All-American struggled at the point of attack against full backs. At the second level,his inability to get off blocks led to conceding more rushing yards. Offenses averaged over six yards per play against the Falcons' defense. That is beyond inexcusable, especially for a team playing in the worst division throughout the past decade.
Run Support Woes
Despite leading Atlanta in tackles, Worrilow wasn't a difference maker in run support. His tendency of taking bad angles left players such as Dwight Lowery and William Moore chasing down running backs far too often. When the coaching staff played Jonathan Babineaux or Malliciah Goodman on the edge, they weren't quick enough to close down swifter running backs. The linebackers needed to be capable of making sideline-to-sideline plays. Worrilow was incapable of fulfilling that obligation last season.
The unsettling part about last season was that run support wasn't even his biggest issue. Mike Nolan's defense was structured around him to handle full coverage duties. That left him overmatched once again against blistering running backs and athletic tight ends. Worrilow was listed within the bottom five for linebackers in coverageaccording to Pro Football Focus.
It's no secret that the organization's poor personnel decisions left Worrilow adrift. The lack of speed across the entire defense, along with no semblance of a pass-rush placed him in dire situations. The idea of thrusting a middle linebacker (without any support on the outside) into such a significant role after starting nine games in 2014 was senseless. It's promising to see a player make tackles and be around the ball. That doesn't justify starting him without any competition for one of the most important positions in the sport. It correlates with Levine Toilolo being handed the starting tight end position last season.
A Brighter Today and Tomorrow
Dan Quinn has brought much-needed depth and competition to the defense. While no linebacker was acquired to compete with Worrilow, they signed multiple linebackers to keep him from being completely isolated on passing situations. Justin Durant has impressed throughout preseason. Although his snaps have been limited, Brooks Reedwill be vital in run support. These players will help shield Worrilow's lack of range. Durant can cover space in a hurry, especially on screen passes.
The revamped defense has propelled Worrilow into making more plays. He has shown improvement from getting off blocks in run support. His tackle on third-and-one last Saturday showcased excellent awareness. Not to mention, Worrilow continues to show better gap discipline and coverage awareness.
After only recording three pass breakups last season, the third-year linebacker has already two pass breakups in preseason. Brief moments such as closing down LaMichael James on a check-down throw from Matt Mooreshowcases vital improvement. If it weren't for a holding penalty on Robert Alford, Worrilow would have been credited for a pass breakup on Bilal Powell last week.
Opposing quarterbacks completed check-downs that went for positive yardage consistently last season. Six to eight yard completions occurred on a weekly basis without any resistance. Worrilow needs to continue closing down running backs in order for the pass rush to be unleashed on third downs. Through three games, the hard work that coaches constantly praise him of has been rewarded. Besides Adrian Clayborn, no other Falcon has been more efficient than him according to Pro Football Focus.
The Bottom Line
Nobody is expecting him to develop into the next Bobby Wagner. Despite fulfilling that role within Quinn's scheme, fans generally want to see all-around improvement. Third-year leaps are a common occurrence. That belief hasn't transpired for Atlanta over the past two seasons, as high-round draft picks (Peter Konz, Lamar Holmes) have faltered.
It will take multiple seasons for Quinn to fully renovate last year's shattered defense. Some holdovers with heavy contracts (Tyson Jackson, Paul Soliai) will be allowed to prove themselves. Other players such as Worrilow will likely be given one season to prove their worth. Players were challenged to have the best off-season of their respective career. Through making open-field tackles, breaking up passes, and getting off blocks, Worrilow has responded well to that challenge. The relentless overachiever seems poised to silence critics by certifying himself in Quinn's long-term plans.