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The Falcons have their best pass rush in years, even if the sacks aren’t showing up

Especially in recent weeks, the Falcons are getting meaningful pressure.

Atlanta Falcons v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

You may have noticed this year that quarterbacks sometimes do not have a small eternity in the pocket to throw against the Falcons. Sometimes, they are being forced to throw the ball more quickly than they would like, or even forced out of the pocket entirely. This strange phenomenon is, according to top scientists I’ve worked with, called pressure, and it’s something the Falcons are suddenly good at getting.

The Falcons are third in the NFL in pressures with 95. Remarkably, they finished 31st in the NFL in that statistic just a year ago, putting up 109. The 2020 Falcons are on pace to blow by that number in two weeks, and on pace to have easily their best season in the last few years. Here are the pressure numbers from Pro Football Reference for the past three seasons, keeping in mind that PFR combines hurries, knockdowns, and sacks to generate it.

2020: 95 through 9 games (3rd in NFL)

2019: 109 (31st in NFL)

2018: 137 (25th in NFL)

This is all the more remarkable because the Falcons are just 23rd in sacks, and on pace to have another fairly low total in that regard. But under Raheem Morris the team is starting to blitz a bit more and having more luck doing so, as they’ve put up 48 pressures in their last four games as opposed to a still-robust 47 through the first five games. The team’s long-hyped rotation of front seven players who could bring pressure—and the smarter use of players like Isaiah Oliver and Keanu Neal, who are capable pass rushers in their own right—has actually shown up this year.

Those pressures have had an impact, forcing some bad throws from Kirk Cousins, Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock in particular that helped the team get off the field. The Falcons are miles and miles away from being a great defense, but for the first time in recent memory, they’re fielding a competent pass rush that might very well be able to help them out against lead-footed quarterbacks like Tom Brady and willow-armed quadragenarian Drew Brees.

We’d all like to see more sacks, but it’s not a coincidence that the Falcons defense is improving a bit now that the secondary isn’t an irredeemable tire fire. Let’s see where they end up, and whether this proves to be a blip or the start of something better for an oft-maligned defense.