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A new approach to bolstering the defensive line creates belief in Atlanta’s defense

For the first time in years, the Falcons are making sensible, encouraging moves to bring formidable play to a defensive line that has been bullied and overmatched for far too long.

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Baltimore Ravens v New Orleans Saints Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

When we were assessing the Falcons’ depth chart in the offseason over the past four years, one of the immediate concerns was the personnel across their defensive line. It seemed hope was their strategy for fulfilling the edge-rushing need. No successful plan in the NFL uses hope as the primary driver behind decision-making, which is probably why the Falcons saw little success.

Looking at the roster, there was no justification for depending on the type of edge rushers to play significant snaps that the Falcons were reliant on. The same applies to the interior line, with largely underwhelming or overmatched talent lining up alongside Grady Jarrett.

The last time the Falcons came close to producing 40 sacks in a season was in 2017. That group was filled with versatility, depth, speed, and violence. Jarrett started coming into his own, along with a rookie Takk McKinley. Adrian Clayborn, Brooks Reed, and Courtney Upshaw had career seasons. Vic Beasley made his contributions, while Dontari Poe proved to be the nose tackle they were missing from the previous season. To see a Falcons defense produce 39 sacks with a deep, talented unit was mesmerizing at times. The strides they made against the run later in the season can’t be discounted, either. Unfortunately, they haven’t come close to matching that production since then.

Hiring Ryan Nielsen to replace Dean Pees created plenty of intrigue, given his success in New Orleans and defensive line background. With cap space finally opening up in 2023, there was going to be a strong emphasis on addressing the glaring needs in the trenches. Despite the lack of available high-quality edge rushing options, there were plenty of interior tackles and ways to implement Nielsen’s philosophy. It was time for the Falcons to finally add legitimate ferocity to a defensive line that had been undersized and languishing for far too long.

Bringing the power

The Saints’ defense stood out in numerous ways over the past five years of being one of the top units in the league. The manner in which they utilized bigger defenders off the edge gave opposing offensive lines fits. In a league where teams crave explosive edge rushers with blistering first steps, New Orleans prioritized brute power with violent hand usage.

Cameron Jordan, Trey Hendrickson, Marcus Davenport, and Carl Granderson used their size, strength, and motor to generate pressure. Possessing a plethora of talented interior tackles and linebackers who embraced chaos, Nielsen coached a defense that did a terrific job of brutalizing opponents into submission.

When Nielsen arrived, he must have been aware of the project on his hands. Outside of Ade Ogundeji, the Falcons had no edge rushers on their roster above 260 pounds. The interior didn’t have much depth. They lacked versatility across the board. It was an undersized unit filled with holes and unknowns.

With New Orleans undergoing their latest chapter in the battle against being over the cap, defensive players were bound to be leaving for loftier contracts. David Onyemata and Kaden Elliss were two instant signings that gave the Falcons’ front a much-needed injection of physicality and vigor. Onyemata is an ideal fit to bring consistency and dependability alongside Jarrett. Not only does Elliss bring positional flexibility and all-around dynamism, but his overall NFL background also makes him a fascinating fit for a young defense.

What the Falcons did after those two first-day signings raised eyebrows across the league. The return of Eddie Goldman was unexpected, yet welcomed by Arthur Smith. Despite not playing much football over the past few seasons, Goldman’s ability to take on multiple blockers and fill up space makes him incredibly useful as a rotational player. His presence in the base defense for 15 to 20 snaps could make Jarrett more effective in pass-rushing situations. Considering the number of snaps he has played over the past five years, the coaching staff must be aware of moderating his usage as he gets older. That’s one of many reasons why the signings of Calais Campbell and Bud Dupree could greatly elevate the defense.

Veterans with a point to prove help build a foundation

Campbell and Dupree have played for great defenses over the course of their careers. In Campbell’s case, he has been one of the primary driving forces behind the success of Arizona, Jacksonville, and Baltimore. His massive frame, long arms, and relentless motor have made him a nightmare for offensive lines for countless years. The former All-Pro has numerous accolades and impressive traits, along with being a tremendous leader and locker-room presence. While Dupree isn’t on that level, his ability to convert speed to power is something the Falcons haven’t had off the edge since McKinley.

These two signings represent the desire to add solid play, power, versatility, and a new mentality to Atlanta. While it may seem strange for a team still rebuilding to sign two defensive linemen in their thirties, the organization is moving with the right intentions to craft together a capable defense. The days of largely depending on hope and the development of prospects are over. Adding legitimate talent who brings a nasty edge and forcefulness to their playing style gives the defensive line a completely new look. They can bullrush offensive linemen into quarterback’s laps. They can set the edge and use their violent hands to defend the run. They can line up in different areas and run twists to create openings for their teammates to get open lanes on quarterbacks. That’s what signings like Campbell and Dupree can do.

The addition of Campbell is a statement signing, considering other teams that would appear more attractive weren’t selected by the six-time Pro Bowler. He fully believes in the vision of how Nielsen wants to play. The opportunity to play more off the edge on early downs had to be tempting, with how Nielsen prefers using bigger defensive linemen. It’s hard to find a bigger well-rounded defensive lineman that can play multiple positions than Campbell. From a schematic standpoint, it’s the perfect fit for a revamped defense. From an organizational outlook, Smith’s desire to convince him to join Atlanta makes this an outstanding signing to help a young defense blossom under a new defensive coaching staff.

Dupree’s disappointing, injury-plagued two seasons in Tennessee may cause trepidation about how much left he has to offer. For someone who got paid like a premium player, Dupree looked ordinary on a stellar Titans’ defensive line. He couldn’t generate consistent pressure and didn’t look comfortable playing every down. How he will be utilized in Atlanta could help bring the best out of him in a rotational role. As Brandon Thorn eloquently stated, Dupree’s sheer power and ability to set the edge can boost the development of Arnold Ebiketie and DeAngelo Malone.

By having a veteran who embraces getting dirty and wearing down offensive tackles, the all-around younger edge rushers can become more productive in getting after the quarterback. Dupree has plenty to prove, which he made evident by turning down a return to Pittsburgh and lining up opposite T.J. Watt. Signing a one-year deal in an environment where he’ll have every opportunity to get back to form makes for another exciting addition in an off-season filled with highly encouraging moves to build a formidable defense.

The growth continues

After an impressive off-season, the Falcons don’t enter the draft in desperate need of defensive linemen. That won’t stop them from selecting a highly-regarded prospect like Nolan Smith or Myles Murphy. There is a clear emphasis on continuing to build in the trenches. Depth is one of the most powerful assets a defense can possess.

Nielsen had it in New Orleans, which helped them become one of the most aggressive, overpowering defenses in the league. Terry Fontenot is fully aware of it from his time in New Orleans. From seeing them add several pieces to the defensive front this off-season, the message is clear in Atlanta. They must be equipped in the trenches to compete with the best.

It’s been a long time since there were realistic optimistic goals for a Falcons’ defense. The coaching and personnel decisions have made it possible to envision them being respectable. As great as signing Jessie Bates and trading for Jeff Okudah are, they can only elevate so much with their capabilities. It’s going to take genuine improvement up front for results to change in Atlanta.

Smith and Fontenot have done well in putting the pieces together in 2023. How they add to the work they’ve done in this upcoming week could take these new expectations to a new level.