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The Falcons pass rush is a huge offseason priority, again

For what seems like the 20th straight season, Atlanta looks set to leave a season light on pass rush production and answers.

Atlanta Falcons v Washington Commanders Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Falcons pass rush is a punchline again. Atlanta’s inability to get home when it matters has been a running source of frustration for the team and fans for a long time now, and even during those 2016-2018 seasons when production picked up, it has not felt like the team was truly terrorizing quarterbacks on a consistent basis.

Still, those are halcyon days compared to where we find ourselves now. The team went from a modest 28 sacks in 2019 to 29 in 2020 before the bottom fell out in 2021, when the team recorded a futile 18 sack total. The 2022 season was supposed to be a step in the right direction after the team replaced stopgap starters and unproductive veterans with rookies Arnold Ebiketie and DeAngelo Malone, plus veterans like Lorenzo Carter and Eddie Goldman. Unfortunately, the team suffered injuries and attrition along the defensive line, nobody quite made the leap we hoped for, and once again this is the league’s least productive pass rush.

Sacks don’t tell the whole story, but in this case they come close to doing so. Atlanta’s also putting up either league-worst or bottom three pressure numbers, hurry numbers, pass rushing grade from Pro Football Focus, and most other metrics you can think of. They are actually hitting quarterbacks, but not at a rate high enough to lift them out of the doldrums.

The knock-on effects of that are obvious. Atlanta has a bottom 10 pass defense despite not playing all that many great quarterbacks, and while some of that is due to coverage struggles and the loss of Casey Hayward, the added pressure on the secondary owing to how much time quarterbacks have to work with is a major factor here. It’s no great exaggeration to say that the Falcons likely won’t have a great defense again until their pass rush is at least an average one.

As Tori McElhaney wrote recently, none of this should really be a shock. Atlanta has not added a true difference-making pass rusher in either of the last two years, and signings like Dante Fowler didn’t really pan out when they have tried. Adding Carter and Ebiketie in particular figured to get Atlanta closer to having a solid pass rush, and it has moved the needle incrementally. Carter is just not a high-end option on his own and Ebiketie, while extremely promising, is still a work in progress in his rookie season. The defense has at least managed to clamp down on scoring in recent weeks even without the sacks and pressures mounting, so hey, that’s something. Right?

While McElhaney’s points and the comments from coaches are fair—this team has to lay the groundwork, improve their young talent, and add more talent to really take a step forward—the pass rush is arguably Atlanta’s top priority this offseason. They need more talent in the secondary, they need a piece or two along an improving offensive line, and they may need a new quarterback depending on their evaluation of Desmond Ridder. While they don’t need to blow up the outside linebacker group or spend all of their cash on defensive linemen who can get after whatever ancient horror the Saints and Buccaneers trot out at quarterback, the Falcons do have to develop their young talent effectively and add significant talent to really make any progress.

There will be a lot written and said about this team’s progress in 2022, here and elsewhere, and the fact that everything ahead of Atlanta seems likely to be better than what we’ve endured the past two years. All of that is true, but the pass rush has made little progress and remains a true work in progress, and that continues to hamper this squad’s upside. Fixing that—or at least taking a much larger step forward—figures to be a major theme of this coming, critical offseason.