The excellent Danny Kelly at The Ringer broke down the reasons behind the poor offensive play in the first week of the season, and explains why it might not just be a one week thing. A large part of his argument rests on declining offensive line play, but also on the rise of interior defensive linemen who aren’t just run stuffers, but pocket collapsers capable of rushing the quarterback effectively.
Conveniently, the Falcons have leaned into this trend, acquiring mega-draft steal Grady Jarrett in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL Draft, and adding Dontari Poe to further goose that interior pass rush. Both men are quick on their feet for 300-plus pounders and have shown a real ability to impact the quarterback, something that is going to pay dividends sooner than later. Poe actively led the team in pressures Sunday, so I’d say it’s already working.
Actually getting pressure on the interior is a very effective way to mess up a quarterback’s day, and even truly elite players like Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan suffer when a defensive tackle breaks through and gets in their faces. It’s legitimately disruptive, and it’s why Jarrett destroying his man in the Super Bowl led to three sacks and a lot of heartburn for Brady.
But even if you’re not the one closing out a sack or getting a hand in the quarterback’s face, you can make life easier for your compatriots on the edges by occupying multiple blockers and getting close enough to make a quarterback nervous, and potentially flush him out to your ends. Jarrett and Poe are such a conundrum for offensive lines because they’re so genuinely powerful and athletic that you either have to have tremendous guard and center play or you have to keep additional players in to help contain them, which limits your options on offense. I haven’t taken an in-depth second look at Sunday’s game film yet, but I’m betting when I go back and watch, Jarrett and Poe will be shown to have made a real difference for this Falcons pass rush, even if they didn’t show up on the stat sheet.
This was a trend that Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff missed out on when they signed Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson before the disastrous 2014 season, hoping to solidify their run defense. The run defense didn’t improve by leaps and bounds because of weaknesses elsewhere and some substandard performances by Jackson, and the team got basically nothing from a pass rushing perspective out of those two players, which combined with punchless ends led to a miserable year in that regard.
The Falcons are already seeing success rushing just four players. Once Takkarist McKinley gets up to speed, the Falcons will be able to send two quick, hyper-athletic ends and two quick, hyper-athletic defensive tackles after quarterbacks, with plenty of quality players to rotate in as those four need rest. That gives me hope that the burst of pass rushing productivity we saw on Sunday was not just a blip on the radar, but the start of something that could give the Falcons their highest sack and pressure totals in a decade.