Following a season-ending biceps injury in 2017, Jack Crawford was as motivated as ever going into the 2018 season. It was time for him to elevate himself in an expanded role. With the departures of Adrian Clayborn and Dontari Poe, Dan Quinn was going to be more reliant on Crawford. The former Cowboy was excited to play in Quinn’s aggressive defensive scheme. In the first part of our interview, he spoke highly about the overall system. Crawford was also enthusiastic about having the opportunity to play primarily as an interior pass rusher.
Comfort and production
“I played on the interior quite a bit in Dallas,” Crawford said. “Honestly, I had more success playing there. The plan was for me to actually play there all along. Due to certain injuries in 2015-2016, I had to move back outside. I always felt comfortable rushing from the inside. I had more success lining up in the middle. From watching tape, I believe Quinn saw what I’m capable of in that role.”
“He saw that from playing on the inside, I sometimes have an advantage with my speed. Some of these offensive linemen aren’t used to playing against a certain level of speed. They aren’t used to blocking players who can get off the ball instantly. He saw what I could bring to the table. He saw that I was comfortable in the role. I’m happy he saw it that way because I do enjoy playing on the inside more. It’s where I can do the most damage.”
Most people weren’t sure what exact role Crawford was going to play in Atlanta. He was never big enough to be a three-down interior tackle. The defense appeared to be set on the edge with Vic Beasley, Takkarist McKinley, Derrick Shelby, and Brooks Reed. Clayborn’s ability to play multiple positions made fans curious about where Crawford was going to fit into the rotation. After making an impact during preseason and showing promise in 2017, it was clear that Crawford needed to be utilized as an interior pass rusher. That is the place, where he can use his attributes and make a major impact.
“It comes down to some of my personal advantages,” Crawford stated. “Some of the guards struggle to adjust to my quickness. Offensive linemen in general are struggling to adapt to the speed of the game. You see how the league is going, where defensive ends are becoming smaller. Speed is such a huge factor, whether you are coming off the edge or looking to burst from the inside. There is a lot of speed in this league. The thing is not many people can really improve their speed. It’s almost something you are born with. Once you have it, you have it. You either have it or don’t have it in most instances.”
“As a defensive end, I was slightly bigger in which my speed wasn’t an advantage for me. Moving inside put me in a better spot. I can put on a little bit of weight, but I can still be fast enough to where I have an advantage against offensive guards. That helps me hone in on how I can attack them. On the inside, it’s a chess game. You set up moves. You find out what your strengths are and what their weaknesses are. It helps you get the matchup you want. I try to set moves up and time them at the right time. It’s obviously hard. A ten-sack season is considered a great season. That means the percentage of success is relatively low. You just have to recognize your strengths and put the effort in to make your mark in this league.”
A career year
Applying his biggest assets to the field and continuing to work relentlessly proved to be the recipe for success. Crawford produced a career high six sacks, along with 22 quarterback hurries. Four of his sacks came during the Falcons’ three-game winning streak. The versatile defensive lineman started showing flashes in early October. By late October-early November, he developed into one of the most consistent pass rushers on the team. That led to him receiving a considerable amount of praise from coaches, analysts, journalists, and fans. To get such recognition after seven years of playing in the NFL is gratifying. That’s how Crawford felt, especially when more players were acknowledging his improvement.
“I definitely saw a jump when it came to people appreciating my performances,” Crawford said. “You could obviously see my jump from a production standpoint. As the year went on, I made certain breakthroughs. I started to learn how to use my own tricks a little bit more. That was evident from watching film on myself. 2018 was the year where I got the most feedback from offensive and defensive linemen around the league.”
“They were telling me that I was having a good season. They mentioned things that stood out from watching me on tape. In the past, I would receive praise here and there. It was much more common this past season. It was something that happened fairly regularly. I felt that I earned a lot more respect last season. Becoming a real impact player was something that I always knew I was capable of. I didn’t necessarily surprise myself. Between my overall growth as a player and the coaches that helped me along the way, I took a big jump in my game. Everything came together for me to show what I’m about.”
Despite enduring multiple brutal defeats, Crawford isn’t shy about discussing those particular losses. He took something away from losses against the Eagles, Saints, and Steelers. Between playing against championship-caliber teams and coping with the loss of several key defensive players, there were obviously some difficult moments in 2018. Those games made Crawford stronger from a mental standpoint. He used those early season defeats as not only fuel, but as learning experiences to improve as an all-around player.
“That Philadelphia game was so crazy,” Crawford said laughing. “We had to wait inside for a half hour because of the thunderstorm. That game did teach me something valuable going forward. When you are on the field, there’s no thinking. It’s kind of hard to explain. You pick things up and learn how to use your skills better. You learn how to set things up better. You learn how to get more information from the offense. These are things I recognized. Things started changing for me around the first Saints game. In the Saints game, it was just something that I picked up on. It was towards the end of the second half. I made a couple of plays after that, which helped me start picking up things differently.”
“That game helped me become more aware as a player. It helped me take another step forward from a pass-rushing standpoint. I also remember the first game against Tampa Bay, where I took another jump. I believe that’s when everything started clicking. Grady (Jarrett) was injured, so there was more responsibility on me. Having more reps helped me get more comfortable in that position. I think everyone knows the Steelers game was rough. They’re one of the toughest teams to play against. It’s hard to pick up on what they do schematically as a defensive lineman. There are a lot of corrections I could have made in that game. I didn’t let it get me down though. The very next game against Tampa Bay helped me take another step. Taking the confidence from that game and building off it throughout the season was big. As the season went on, my confidence grew. For a defensive lineman, having that confidence is major on every snap.”
What lies ahead
Expectations remain high in Atlanta. As the season slowly approaches, anticipation is growing within the organization. Crawford is encouraged by how everything is coming along defensively. One of the most positive things to come out of the off-season is Clayborn’s return to the team. The former first round pick briefly played alongside Crawford in 2017. They were both influential in victories over Green Bay and Detroit. Based on Clayborn’s capabilities and past experiences, Crawford couldn’t be happier to see the veteran pass rusher back in Atlanta.
“He is one of the pass rushers I really enjoy watching on tape,” Crawford said. “I really took a lot out of watching him closely. Adrian (Clayborn) plays with a ton of energy. It’s all high effort with him. You can tell from watching him that he doesn’t play cautiously. He’ll take chances. He plays with an attitude that you have to respect. Playing with him for a bit in 2017 was a cool experience.”
“It’s impossible not to get along with him. He’s a great, humble guy. Winning is the only thing that truly matters to him. It’s awesome to see him back with the team. When I saw they signed him back, I was pumped. In this league, you see players come and go. It’s a shame because we’re such a tight group. You lose teammates and it sucks, but then you gain new teammates and it’s cool. You don’t always know if the new teammates will gel with the team. One person can disrupt the mindset and attitude of the team. That applies to any position group in any sport. He is someone that I think bolsters the position group. He brings a lot to our team in terms of competing and being a great person.”
A few hours before our interview, it was announced that the Falcons came to terms with Grady Jarrett on a new deal. The front office had been working relentlessly to make sure one of the franchise’s cornerstones remains in Atlanta. There aren’t many players who have consistently performed at a high level like Jarrett has over the past three seasons. Crawford was ecstatic to hear the news, as he credits Jarrett and the coaching staff for helping him elevate his game.
“Grady is one of my closest friends on the team,” Crawford said. “It’s funny that he’s younger than me, yet I have dedicated so much time towards learning from him. I watch him on tape regularly. We talk to each other all the time. We feed off each other. When he does something good, I’m excited for him. I’ll then push him to do better. He does the same for me. We don’t ever let each other make excuses. I truly am happy for him. He definitely got what he deserved. He’s that good of a player. Similar to Clayborn, he isn’t afraid to make mistakes. He doesn’t put on a front. When you need him, he’s as real as it gets.”
“I’m fortunate to have played with a lot of great players in my career. Sometimes, you don’t know who you’re going to end up playing with. The same goes for the coaches too. I’ve been fortunate to work with good coaches like DQ, Bryant Young, and now Jess Simpson. They’re all cool people, who have been real helpful. There is no confusion. Everyone is clear about what the standards are. That’s all you can ask for at the end of the day.”
For all his success in 2018, Crawford is hungry for more this upcoming season. It took some time for him to find a certain level of consistency last season. There were also plays he wishes he could have made in big moments. Considering four of the Falcons’ nine losses were by six points or less, his frustration is understandable. This team is clearly talented enough to do something special. With Crawford cementing his place as one of the key players in Quinn’s defensive line rotation, the opportunity is there for him to shine once again.
“I’m looking to take another jump this season,” Crawford said. “I still feel that I left a lot out there last season. There were moments I could have capitalized on. There were a couple of games where I wasn’t playing inside because (Derrick) Shelby got hurt. I had to help out on the outside. I didn’t get to fully play inside and continue to keep working on my craft in those games.”
“When I was watching some of the games from earlier in the season, I wasn’t using my abilities to the maximum. It was clear to me on tape, which made me want to prove that I can do better. I think I started doing that as the season wore on. That’s why I believe I can build off last year. I’m excited to get back on the field. I’m excited to hit and get back to work.”