Since the Falcons cut John Abraham following the 2012 season, the pass rush has been a constant issue. Throughout the 2013-2015 seasons, the team was among the worst in generating sacks and pressures. They hit rock bottom in 2015, compiling only 18 sacks over a 16 game season.
This was due to a number of reasons: poor drafting, ignoring the position in free agency, and little to no development of players already on the roster. It was a primary reason this team was in the gutter for several years, and contributed to Mike Smith’s firing.
When Dan Quinn arrived on the scene, he made fixing the pass rush a priority. In free agency, he brought in players like Adrian Clayborn and Dwight Freeney, who both are solid contributors. He also drafted a Clemson pass rusher named Vic Beasley in the first round of the 2015 draft.
After a slow, somewhat disappointing rookie year that saw Beasley generate only 4.5 sacks (which did lead the team), Beasley has finally begun to show steady improvement.
Over the past three weeks, Beasley has piled up 5.5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles. He’s terrorized RTs so badly that they had to be pulled from the game (Denver’s Ty Sambrailo). Teams are beginning to chip and double team him, which is a sure sign of respect for his abilities.
What has changed for Beasley since last season, and truthfully, the beginning of 2016? From my perspective, it appears to be his confidence and probably also his health.
Don’t forget that Beasley was dealing with a shoulder injury throughout most of the 2015 season and elected not to have surgery during the 2016 offseason. During the 2016 preseason, it still appeared that his shoulder was bothering him. He didn’t quite have the burst or ability to use his hands that he had flashed at times towards the end of 2015.
Over the last few weeks, Beasley looks completely healthy. He’s showing none of the signs of injury that plagued him earlier in his career. That has allowed him to rush the passer with reckless abandon, and that in turn has generated better, more consistent pressure.
The other aspect of his game that has truly improved is his confidence. This is harder to quantify, but coming from someone who watches a lot of football, it’s more of a general feeling from observing a player.
During periods of 2015 and the 2016 preseason, it appeared that Beasley didn’t trust certain aspects of his game. He didn’t rely on his speed—the most explosive and dangerous aspect of his game. Instead, he tried to execute a variety of pass rushing moves, most memorably a spin move that never worked.
While it’s never a bad thing to learn and perfect a repertoire of pass rushing moves, Beasley’s strength is always going to be his ridiculous speed and first-step quickness. He needed to rely and trust that his speed is too much for many RTs to handle. It appears, over the last three games, that he has learned that lesson.
In addition to honing and perfecting his speed rush, Beasley also has displayed an excellent instinct during his pass rush: going for the strip sack. He’s executed it with perfection, forcing fumbles on three of his 6.5 total sacks. Creating turnovers is one of the most dangerous things a defender can do, and Beasley is doing it consistently.
It is clear that Beasley is improving at a steady pace as a pass rusher, but he has also flashed ability in other areas of his game. He’s quick and agile enough to spy running QBs in the backfield. As a SLB in the base, he’s been good in run support and has even shown quality coverage ability when called upon. In short, he’s a versatile player that still has a lot of room to grow.
Several analysts and fans were quick to call Beasley a bust after a slow start to the 2016 season. Maybe Beasley heard them, as he has clearly turned it on over the past several weeks. While he hasn’t become an elite pass rushing player yet, his 6.5 sacks are good for 5th in the NFL. He’s on pace for 14.5 sacks over the season, which would be good for 2nd in Falcons team history.
Pass rushers take time to grow and adjust to the NFL game, particularly ones that have relied on their athleticism to win at the college level. For many, they may not become consistent, quality pass rushers until their third NFL season. Beasley is only part way through his second season, but it’s clear that he has a bright future ahead of him.