Hope isn’t a strategy. It’s something people use to create optimism, in creating or strengthening the belief that things will change for the better in the future. That’s the best way to describe the Falcons’ plan to improve an appalling pass rush going into the season.
They ranked at the bottom of nearly every statistical category regarding sacks, hits, and pressures in 2021. It couldn’t get any worse, which meant they had to make some sort of strides with new young talent and capable contributors.
To go from 32nd to 30th in sacks isn’t exactly the type of improvement the coaching staff had envisioned. It’s been another disappointing season of quarterbacks consistently standing tall in the pocket and able to go through their progressions. Grady Jarrett has bounced back nicely after a pedestrian 2021 season by his extremely high standards. Besides that, there isn’t any real threat off the edge or alongside him on the interior.
Arnold Ebiketie has shown glimpses of terrorizing opposing tackles, but it’s come in flashes rather than complete games. Before his potential season-ending injury, Ta’Quon Graham showed signs of being disruptive with his first step and violent hands. Similar to Ebiketie, it never quite translated into legitimate consistency on a game-to-game basis. The same can be said for Lorenzo Carter and DeAngelo Malone.
It goes without saying that the occasional impressive moments are nowhere near good enough to build a foundation for the future. There simply has to be more production from the defensive line for the organization to feel confident about the direction up front going into 2023, even if no one can expect miracles.
Using the personnel better
One of the immediate solutions to better play up front comes from a better snap distribution with the defensive line rotation. Ade Ogundeji continues to start, despite offering no edge pressure and little edge defending in run support. Per Football Focus, he has almost as many missed tackles (eight) as defensive stops (eleven). His pass-rushing statistics are even worse, with just one sack and four hurries in 11 games. Considering how woeful the Falcons have been at stopping the run, particularly on stretch plays, it seems nonsensical to continue depending on a player who hasn’t added much to this point as either a run defender or pass rusher.
For as undersized and raw as he is, Malone has given them quality all-around snaps when on the field. His willingness to take on blockers and burst into closing down running lanes was showcased against Cleveland and Los Angeles. There have been moments where his quick first step gave opposing tackles fits. It’s disappointing how he’s only received 133 snaps in a defensive line rotation where the team has struggled to generate pressure. Ogundeji and Carter aren’t players that should be depended on to play 30-50 snaps a game. They’ve never proven to be starting-caliber players, yet Dean Pees insists on utilizing them like it.
As versatile as Carter is, he is at his best as a situational pass rusher rather than a full-time starter. His usage is very reminiscent of how Kroy Biermann was utilized in 2014. Both players have their attributes and can be dangerous as pass rushers, but they become exposed when playing 50-60 snaps a game. They are more efficient in contributing roles where they can use their strengths, like Carter’s athleticism and Biermann’s relentless motor. Those assets become neutralized when those strengths are overused, and it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that Carter’s production has fallen off a bit as the season grinds on. That’s where the coaching staff must dial in on players’ strengths to make up for not having high-end talent.
Schematic creation and execution
The problems don’t solely stem from a snap distribution, as designs have left something to be desired. Outside of a few games like those against New Orleans and Chicagom, Dean Pees has still not been able to cook up a consistent pass rush.
Sometimes, it comes from an overreliance on delayed blitzes that opposing offensive lines identify with ease. Other times it comes from poor execution, like against Washington, where players are getting blocked into each other on odd alignments. Pees likes to spread the front out and use linebackers in long-distance areas to generate pressure. Whether it’s to confuse the opposing quarterback or utilize the athleticism of players like Mykal Walker or Troy Andersen, the insistence on using three-man fronts with an array of linebackers has been mostly ineffective to this point.
The Falcons need to start using more condensed formations to crowd the line of scrimmage as a way to fluster opposing quarterbacks. With A.J. Terrell healthy and starting to get back into form, the secondary is in better shape to hold up on the back end. Why not take more risks with multiple athletic linebackers and hard-hitting safeties? Jaylinn Hawkins and Richie Grant never shy away from the physicality of the game, occasional missed tackles aside. Grant is excellent at exploding downhill and finishing plays. They have the assets to help give the defensive line assistance to create more opportunities to sack the quarterback.
When it comes to the personnel up front, they have to start playing Ebiketie and Malone opposite each other on passing downs to see what they offer. As Malone provides the blistering first step and burst, Ebiketie has the technique and hand usage to give opposing tackles serious problems. It’s now a matter of using them as the first-choice edge rushers on passing downs while mixing in Carter to spell them. There has been enough evidence to suggest both players have the skills to be capable edge rushers. They need to be given the trust to go out there and prove they can be players that can be depended on for the future.
While he is better as a run defender than a pass rusher, Abdullah Anderson possesses violent hands and play strength to be a factor on passing downs. He has earned his way to being inserted into an expanded role. There could be opportunities for him to run twists with Jarrett or create openings for edge rushers off pure stunts. Anderson is constantly taking on blockers and being active with his hands. After being largely utilized in base on run downs, the coaching staff should look to see how his motor and active hands translate into collapsing the pocket.
Building the pieces for the future
The Falcons' pass rush isn’t going to become magically formidable. It will take another off-season of investment and development to put them in a position to be a consistent threat, and there is only so much that can be done in the here and now to improve. What can be accomplished is giving the rookies more opportunities, and the players who have earned their way into the rotation more opportunities.
With a greater emphasis on utilizing the players making a difference and being more shrewd and varied with the rush concepts, opposing quarterbacks won’t feel as comfortable going against the Falcons’ defense. This is very much a work in progress, but there should be more progress over the final five games for a defensive line that does possess legitimate talent and versatility.