When talking about the Falcons’ defense, the conversation usually shifts to one of two topics: the four rookies starting on defense, or Vic Beasley’s emergence. This is for good reason, of course—four rookies starting on a defense is a Super Bowl record, and Vic Beasley was the NFL’s sack leader this season with 15.5.
But those players really make up only a small fraction of the Falcons’ defense. There are many other contributors that have played important roles as well: FS Ricardo Allen, DE Dwight Freeney, and the CBs (Alford and Collins). But one position group, in particular, has been forgotten by the NFL at large—defensive tackle.
The Falcons’ DTs are a relatively unknown bunch. Grady Jarrett, last year’s 5th round pick, is perhaps the best known of the group. Jonathan Babineaux is the longest-tenured Falcon on the roster, but his play had diminished somewhat during the 2016 season. Tyson Jackson was a big FA signing several years back that has been mostly unimpressive.
The others are mostly rotational players. Ra’shede Hageman was a second-round pick that never developed into much of anything. Courtney Upshaw was brought in as a LB and converted to a DT/DE hybrid. Derrick Shelby and Adrian Clayborn both fulfilled the “Michael Bennett” role as DEs in base and DTs in nickel, but both ended up on IR. Ben Garland is a G/C that happens to play a little DT in a pinch. Joe Vellano was just brought up off the practice squad.
This uninspiring group was generally believed to be the weakest on the Falcons’ defense by fans and analysts alike. While that hasn’t changed, it isn’t because the DTs are awful—it’s because the rest of the defense has improved measurably.
Going into the game against New England, it’s clear that getting pressure on Tom Brady is key to disrupting the Patriots’ offense. While we’ve learned to expect pressure from Beasley and Freeney off the edges, we’ve seen a surprising jump in the play of the interior defensive line during the playoffs.
Grady Jarrett has quietly become one of the most consistent DTs in the league, capable of lining up at 3T or 1T nose and playing well against the run and pass. He’s often too much for slower guards or centers to handle, which has led to him receiving the bulk of the attention from the offensive line.
With Jarrett regularly seeing double-teams, the Falcons needed other interior linemen to step up. Little did they know that those contributions would come from two of the most dismissed players in the rotation: Ra’shede Hageman and Jonathan Babineaux.
Hageman came into the league with freakish athleticism and incredible size. He’s one of the strongest players in the NFL, and if he plays to his potential on every snap, Hageman is capable of dominating centers and smaller guards. Unfortunately, Hageman has had problems with motivation, and has been unable to consistently produce on the field.
That all changed against the Green Bay Packers. Hageman displayed to the world his unique combination of size, power, and speed, destroying the Packers’ interior line on multiple plays—including a sack of Aaron Rodgers and a TFL on a running back. This is the first time we had seen Hageman play at a high level for an entire game, and it was very impressive.
We’ve always known Hageman’s potential to become a dominant force on the defensive line. After being moved around from 5T DE to 3T DT and even a little 1T nose, Hageman appears to have finally found his most effective position at 3T/1T DT. If he can continue his impressive play this week against the Patriots, Hageman could have a huge impact on the game.
The other player that has “turned it on” in the playoffs has been Jonathan Babineaux. Babs has been a fan favorite for years and has generally played at a high level throughout his career. Throughout the bulk of the 2016 season, though, Babineaux seemed to have lost a step, and many speculated that he was simply nearing the end of his career.
Then, in Week 17 vs the Saints, Babineaux looked like his old self again. He was making plays and penetrating into the backfield with regularity. Babs continued his strong play against the Seahawks, and appears to have found new life for this playoff run. Having Babineaux back to playing at an average to above-average level again helps this defense immensely by giving the Falcons another quality rotational piece on the interior.
We all know the stakes in this game. Atlanta’s first ever Super Bowl victory is on the line. Having a defense bolstered by a newly energized and invigorated defensive tackle group could help the Falcons put interior pressure on Brady and shut down a dangerous running game.
Most of the expectations will be on Vic Beasley and Dwight Freeney to make Tom Brady’s day miserable on Sunday. However, it could be the play of Ra’shede Hageman, Grady Jarrett, and Jonathan Babineaux that makes all the difference.