Generally speaking, I thought the coaching staff did a masterful job getting the most out of its defense in 2017. You can quibble with some usage patterns—I certainly would say the team needed to get Takk McKinley more involved earlier in the year—but this defense improved by leaps and bounds.
One player who had a down year by 2016 standards was, perhaps inevitably, Vic Beasley. After leading the NFL in sacks with 15.5 a season ago, Beasley finished with just five in 2017. He was close on a handful of pressures and probably could have had eight or so, but some regression was expected, and we saw a ton.
You can find a bunch of legitimate reasons for that decline, including more difficult matchups, Beasley’s ongoing need to improve as a pass rusher, and near misses driving the number down. The most popular one, of course, was the fact that Beasley spent some real time at linebacker this year after Duke Riley went down.
The Falcons have had Beasley listed at linebacker his entire career, but in practice, he typically lined up at defensive end his first two years in the league. Down Riley, Atlanta experimented with Beasley at linebacker as a way to get him on the field more, and he played between 55%-75% of the defensive snaps from Weeks 6 through 13. Beasley snagged two sacks in his first two games, but only two over his next eleven games, before finishing the year with his fifth and final sack against Carolina. He did not get a ton of snaps at linebacker during that stretch, but he was playing more snaps and getting some time off the line of scrimmage, and it’s fair to argue that may have had an impact on his production.
Beasley could be a great strong side linebacker—he’s got the athleticism and instincts to be an asset in coverage and is a better tackler than he is given credit for—but the Falcons drafted him to be an elite pass rusher. Dan Quinn moving Beasley full-time to defensive end again is a move that will be popular with the fanbase and will hopefully help to boost his pass rushing production again in 2018. If not, with 2019 looming as a contract year, there’s going to need to be some conversations about where Beasley fits over the long haul.