For the better part of a decade, the Atlanta Falcons’ defensive line has been their primary Achilles heel. First-round draft picks and high-priced free agents haven’t been enough to revitalize a unit that has long lingered among the NFL’s worst teams at generating and converting pressure.
With adequate financial resources this offseason, there was an expectation that Atlanta would attempt to correct this problem once and for all. The Falcons’ approach didn’t involve overpaying for the top pass rusher on the market – not that there was a true no-brainer option available – nor did it involve using their top-10 draft pick on a talented defender.
Nevertheless, their approach appears to be working so far.
“Absolutely. Obviously not just size-wise, but depth, and I love it,” Falcons head coach Arthur Smith said when asked if this defensive line group feels different than previous years. “I love that energy—the O-line [and] D-line.”
Depth is the key word in that response. While Atlanta didn’t add that unquestioned No. 1 pass rusher, it improved its depth along the defensive line immensely.
The addition of players like David Onyemata, Bud Dupree, Kaden Elliss and Calais Campbell means the Falcons should be fresher throughout games and more resilient to the injuries that occur during the course of a season. The benefits don’t start there, though. As we’re learning in camp, an increased veteran presence is leading to a bump in competition and competency.
“It gives you confidence to know that you can just go out there and be the best you, because the person next to you is going to handle their job,” Grady Jarrett said. “And not only handle it but do it at a high level.”
During the previous two seasons, Atlanta’s defense has not performed at a high level in a very key area: the pass rush. In fact, the Falcons rank dead last with 39 sacks in that time; the second-worst team in the league, the Las Vegas Raiders, had 62 sacks.
The Falcons hope to fix that by improving the overall talent and depth of the defensive line and utilizing athletic second-level players like Ellis and Troy Andersen in an aggressive fashion. The early returns have been impressive.
Even without their starters, the Falcons’ defensive front had moments of pure dominance against the Miami Dolphins in the preseason opener. Atlanta recorded five sacks, although Albert Huggins was the only defensive lineman to get credit for any of the takedowns, and he split his sack with linebacker Mike Jones Jr. Linebackers Nate Landman and Arnold Ebiketie each earned sacks as well as defensive backs Cliff Chattman and Natrone Brooks.
Sacked em— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) August 12, 2023
: FOX | NFL+ pic.twitter.com/BhkXL5x2RN
“We talked about it all camp, that’s who we want to be, that’s the type of defense we want to be,” Ebiketie said of the defense’s performance against Miami. “We want to attack, we want to be aggressive, and I think today kind of showed that we’re in the right direction to where we want to be as a defense.”
Friday night’s performance is indicative of the investment Atlanta has made on the defense, and especially up front. Adding players like Onyemata and Dupree pushes players like Timmy Horne and Ebiketie further down the depth chart. That then leads to those players suiting up and playing with the reserves in a preseason game, increasing their reps and allowing them to build confidence with big performances. It’s a ripple effect down the line.
We will get a look at the Falcons’ starting defense this week against Cincinnati, which will provide a snapshot idea of this group’s prospects this fall. Those prospects can be helped by the ascension of young players like Zach Harrison or DeAngelo Malone, but that notion is starting to feel more like a cherry on top than a fundamental need.
The summer is a very misleading time in the NFL, and it’s important to never overreact to small sample sizes. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to ignore the stark differences between Atlanta’s defensive line play this year in camp compared to previous iterations.
If we’re looking for early signs that 2023 could provide an end to the playoff drought, this one is flashing.