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Should we believe the Falcons pass rush will improve in 2019?

Based on recent results, skepticism is warranted.

Atlanta Falcons v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

It’s time to talk about the pass rush! Specifically, do we have any reason to think it’ll improve in 2019?

Let’s tackle that loaded question with a little history. The Falcons were tied for 22nd in the NFL in sacks in 2018, putting up 37 largely on the backs of their four nominal starting defensive linemen, who combined to put up close to 75% of them. Here’s how that stacks up against recent years:

2018: 37 (22nd)

2017: 39 (16th)

2016: 34 (16th)

2015: 19 (32nd)

2014: 22 (30th)

2013: 32 (29th)

2012: 29 (28th)

Two things are abundantly clear by looking at these numbers: The Falcons have gotten a little better at rushing the passer over the last three seasons, but not enough to make them more than league average at doing so. They’re demonstrably better than they were in the utterly decimated late Mike Smith years and the first year of Quinn, but they’ve not yet cracked the 40 sack threshold. The number of pressures they achieve does not do much to lift them beyond this, and the team added exactly zero compelling pass rushers outside of Adrian Clayborn and John Cominsky, and the latter won’t likely be ready to contribute at a high level right away.

On the flip side, Vic Beasley had a career-worst year in 2018, Grady Jarrett missed a couple of games, Clayborn was in New England, and the secondary was an injured, ineffective mess for a large swath of the season. It’s not unreasonable to think that health will deliver better results, but we also have a baseline for what this pass rush looks like with Takk, Beasley, Clayborn, Jarrett, et al, and it’s not light years away from what we saw a year ago.

Given all that, the obvious answer is that you should approach this whole thing with skepticism. The Falcons are banking pretty heavily that drastically improved play in the secondary and better health for the defense generally are going to help the pass rush, and there’s something to that. They’re betting that better coaching from Dan Quinn and inevitable improvement from the players already on the team will help, and there’s something to that too. But we’re also well past the point where we can confidently say those improvements will be enough.

The reality is that the Falcons simply haven’t been able to produce a great pass rush in a long, long time, regardless of draft capital expended, coaches in charge of coaxing more out of the defensive line in particular and the larger defense more broadly, and so on and so forth. The best reason to believe they won’t do so this year is that they have repeatedly not done so in the decade-plus since Thomas Dimitroff arrived, and now entering a half-decade of Dan Quinn being at the helm of the defense. The indicators are as positive as they can be, but until the Falcons make major investments in their talent base at defensive end in particular or until the the defensive backfield is so good that guys have time to run or spin around offensive linemen to their heart’s content, this just isn’t going to be a league-leading pass rush. The Falcons can do better and should, especially at using their hyper-athletic linebackers to apply pressure, but skepticism should reign.

There’s growing talk (and research) that indicate that a great secondary is more important than a great pass rush in today’s NFL, which would help to explain why the Falcons drafted two cornerbacks and have generally poured a ton of resources into their coverage in recent years. Let’s hope that’s the prudent course and that an improved overall defense can lift this team up, because right now I don’t see the kind of magical pass rush improvement that would solve for weaknesses elsewhere. Let’s hope that this proves to be a career year for the likes of Takk and Beasley, and the kind of great defensive year we’ve all been hoping for since, what, the mid-2000s?