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Falcons defensive line steps up collectively to earn a gritty road victory

Calais Campbell, Bud Dupree, and Arnold Ebiketie discuss how the defensive line has stepped up during Atlanta’s two-game winning streak and Ryan Nielsen’s powerful influence.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at New York Jets Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Whenever a game is played in turbulent conditions, the battles in the trenches hold greater weight. Both lines have to impose their will and find control in an unstable environment. Teams are going to look to run the ball more. They are doing everything imaginable to play mistake-free football on passing downs. It becomes a genuine challenge to not only score points, but to not to allow the opponent opportunities because you are committing mistakes.

For one of the few times this season, the Atlanta Falcons won the turnover battle and never beat themselves. In the process of doing that, the defense stepped up and caused three turnovers to help put the offense in a better field position to score enough points in a difficult matchup. Their success started up front by producing three sacks and shutting down Breece Hall. By putting the Jets in frequent third-and-long situations, Ryan Nielsen’s defense was able to dial up more aggressive blitzes and simulated pressures. That ultimately led to Richie Grant’s game-changing strip sack, where he got a clear look off the strong side to make a massive play.

As the defensive line continues to chip away and contribute in numerous ways, one player has made big plays at opportune times. In the last five games, Arnold Ebiketie has produced four sacks. That includes two massive third-down sacks in the past two games. It’s been difficult for Ebiketie to find his niche as a young edge rusher. He hasn’t established a true winning move or consistently overpowered opposing tackles yet.

The last month has been hugely encouraging for him, however. Arthur Smith said in his postgame press conference that his confidence is building, which is evident from seeing his efficiency off the edge. Ebiketie opened up about his overall progression.

“The biggest thing for me lately has been understanding what kind of player I am,” Ebiketie revealed. “Knowing the tools I have in my arsenal that’s going to make me successful. I’ve been trying not to do too much from a mental standpoint. It’s really relying more on the key skills that I know I can do best. Lately, I’ve been doing a good job of playing faster and getting off the line of scrimmage.”

“It’s on me to produce. It’s having that mindset of being able to get by anyone. I have that understanding with my skillset and technique that I can make a big impact. That’s what it comes down to for me to affect games.”

Bud Dupree has been one of Ebiketie’s biggest supporters. The veteran edge rusher can be seen celebrating with him after practically every big defensive play. It’s a healthy balance between battle-tested veterans and promising young talent across the defensive line. They have meshed well in becoming a compact, relentless unit that consistently plays hard. Dupree is ecstatic about his growth.

“AK (Ebiketie) always had the skill set,” Dupree stated. “You know he’s quick and agile. You see what he can do around the edge. There’s a big upside for him going forward. I’m excited to see where he can take this recent success. This is only his second year. He’s still figuring things out. He’ll continue to grow, and once he puts it all together, then you’ll see him have a long, successful career.”

Ebiketie appreciated the praise and commended Dupree for his influence on the locker room. The front office’s decision to add several veterans across the defensive line has paid off in adding valuable experience and intensity. It has allowed the young players time to learn on the practice field, in film sessions, and from watching on the sidelines during the game. Ebiketie loves what Dupree has brought to the team.

“Bud is the man,” Ebketie said, smiling. “When you see him making plays, you got to feed off that energy. We feed off each other. We have a lot of veterans to learn from. I love playing with them, especially Bud, and getting to pick up on new skills to be productive. We are always going to fight for each other. The veterans have been huge in building up our competitive edge.”

Ebiketie isn’t the only young edge defender making strides. Zach Harrison is another player who has flashed in recent weeks. As someone who was considered raw coming out of college, it was going to be an arduous transition for him going against top-level offensive tackles. He hasn’t backed down from the challenge and has taken the initiative to work on his skill set. Calais Campbell has been impressed by how he’s played in an expanded role in recent weeks.

“His confidence is growing,” Campbell told me. “There’s a lot on your plate as a rookie in the NFL. There has to be a point where you have a moment that makes you realize you belong. That moment makes you feel like you can do this consistently. It shows you can do this, and it’s not much different from what you’ve been doing your whole life to get to this point. I look into his eyes now and see a much more confident player. He is getting off the line of scrimmage quicker. It’s exciting. We have total trust and faith in him.”

Campbell has been taking on his own expanded role in recent weeks. Following Grady Jarrett’s season-ending injury, the well-regarded defensive lineman has been playing 40 to 50 snaps a game. That kind of workload is not ideal for someone at 37 years old. It has not fazed the former first-team All-Pro at all. Shifting inside on more passing downs to generate pressure is one of his biggest attributes. He knows sacrifices must be made when the heart and soul of the team can’t be on the field. Campbell has prepared himself for playing even more extensively and lining up in different spots across the line of scrimmage.

“Going inside on third down is something I’ve been accustomed to doing,” Campbell said. “We know how long I’ve been in this league. It’s natural for me to rush inside. Of course, I wish we had Grady. He’s so talented, such a disruptive force. We made a good trade bringing in (Kentavius) Street. We have a good rotation of guys. Grady has been around in the locker room helping us. For me personally, I knew I had to step up when he went down, knowing how much he means to this franchise. I had to give even more as a rusher, in particular. I’m doing my best right now handling this added responsibility and helping keep this win streak going.”

As Campbell takes on a bigger role, Dupree found himself playing in his kind of environment against the Jets. Coming from Pittsburgh, the savvy edge rusher has a plethora of experience playing in grueling conditions. That could have been one of the reasons why he had arguably his best game as a Falcon. Dupree admitted to having a chip on his shoulder after missing out on likely game-ending sacks against Minnesota and New Orleans. Finishing is something he takes tremendous pride in. It was pivotal for him to turn the pressure he generated into drive-ending sacks.

“I know all about playing in these types of games back in Pittsburgh,” Dupree chuckled. “It’s going to be either rainy, snowing, or cold at this time of year in the Northeast. I’m used to it and made it into being in my element. I embrace the weather, fans, and the environment. You know you are going to see some things in the crowd that let you know they want to rattle you. We have to do everything we can to make them quiet.”

“Missing those sacks in crucial moments weighs heavily on me. Not being able to finish those sacks these last couple of weeks would affect any pass rusher. It makes your stomach hurt. After these past few games, I can feel the pain inside of me. The miss against the Vikings in the fourth quarter stings.”

“We could have won the game at that moment. I had one against the Saints on third down last week where I should have gotten a sack. It didn’t cost us, but I know I got to get that one. All the misses are frustrating, but you can never give up. You got to come back next week and keep chasing. Stay relentless. You know what’s working to get you to that spot. Just got to execute and finish. That’s what I did today.”

Dupree wasn’t the only defensive lineman experiencing some familiarity going against the Jets. As Campbell lined up, he couldn’t help but notice Duane Brown lining up on the opposite side. Both players were selected in the 2008 draft. Both players are one-time first-team All-Pros and two-time second-team All-Pros. To still be in the league is a testament to their fortitude as exceptional players who continued to play after being among the best in the league at their respective positions. Campbell loved seeing Brown out there competing against him like it was 2007.

“We actually played each other in college,” Campbell laughed. “We got drafted in the same year. I remember being asked at the combine during the draft process about who was the best offensive lineman I’ve played against. I immediately answered Duane Brown. He was the best player by far. Seeing what he’s accomplished in his career has been awesome. I know he was just coming off injured reserve, but he was out there battling and competing hard. He’s a special player who loves the game of football. It’s cool to see us old heads still doing this. I hope it provides hope for all the vets out there.”

Nielsen has made a massive impact on the defense’s growth. Coming from a defensive line coaching background, the players up front have taken an even greater appreciation for what he’s done to solidify the unit. It’s far from perfect, yet they play with terrific discipline and fundamentals. Ebiketie loves the energy Nielsen has brought to the table. It’s what also helped him be more flexible by spot-dropping into coverage and not always lining up as a pure edge rusher in Nielsen’s variety of defensive alignments and simulated pressures.

“Ryan is a super high-energy guy,” Ebiketie said. “He’s the type of guy that’ll tell you our defense hasn’t allowed a touchdown in two weeks several times. He wants us to be proud of all the great things we do. He emphasizes playing to a high standard, and when we do it, we celebrate together.”

“I got comfortable dropping into coverage and lining up more as a strong side linebacker in certain setups. Our system is all about versatility and creating different looks. I’ve been asked to play deeper for some of our schemes. We all have to be adaptable and do our best to make plays. That’s how we are where we are at right now.”

It’s not easy for Campbell to be astonished, considering he’s practically seen it all in the NFL. What Nielsen has done to transform the defense has left him thoroughly impressed. To add several new players and build up younger talent who just played in an entirely different scheme was going to be a massive challenge. For it to come together and establish an identity is hugely rewarding. Campbell is far from satisfied despite the success, knowing how much work is left to be done to secure first place. That said, he fully believes in Nielsen as a true leader who is dedicated to maximizing his players’ talents and shutting down offenses.

“He knows how to make big-time adjustments,” Campbell said. “Some of our biggest plays this season have been fully inspired by him. His football intelligence is through the roof. Then, you get his passion that meets his work ethic and preparation. He’s got all the traits you want from a coach. He’s pulling the strings for us, getting the best out of our talent. We know with Ryan that he’s going to put us in a position to be successful on the football field. You got to enjoy playing for him, knowing he wants to bring the best out of players.”

“His players are going to go out there and ball with his leadership. You saw that today. We had a lot of fun out there getting after it and trying to outperform what the opposing great defense was doing. He’s going to have fun celebrating with us, as you can see from all our wins, but we are all mindful of knowing there’s so much left to be accomplished.”