Last season linebacker Akeem Dent got the opportunity to replace long-time starting middle linebacker Curtis Lofton. He didn’t exactly run away with that opportunity. Dent was the focus of many of my game reviews, noting several times how much he was struggling to impact against the run in 2012. That is going to have to change in 2013.
This upcoming season is going to be an important career marker for Dent. It’s likely going to be the year where shows enough that he could be counted on to become a significant contributor for the Falcons for years to come or one where he shows himself to be relegated to becoming a role player.
Dent does not have to come out and be an elite middle linebacker in 2013. But he does need to show significant improvement from a year ago. Dent struggled to make plays when the Falcons utilized their base package last year. He appeared in less than half (48.5%) of the team’s total defensive snaps last year (according to Pro Football Focus).
That led to the Falcons overuse of strongside linebacker Stephen Nicholas, whose Pro Football Focus coverage rating was the fifth-worst among all linebackers. Dent should be in a prime position to take reps from Nicholas. Dent is more athletic and has better hips than Nicholas. While Dent is no coverage maven, he should be an upgrade physically. The key will be the mental aspect of the position however.
Nicholas has stiff hips, which causes him to struggle to turn and run with receivers downfield. But he is a smart player that if he can keep things in front of him, he can take good angles and occasionally break up a pass. That led to his Pro Football Focus coverage ratings in previous seasons being relatively good. It’s about being in position, something the coaching staff appeared to trust Nicholas with more last year, prompting him to be a part of their nickel subpackage. This year, that role should go to Dent. He’s now entering his third season with the team, his second in Mike Nolan’s defense. Middle linebackers are traditionally considered the smartest, most instinctive players on the defense. Dent needs to live up to that reputation and that will mean getting the majority of the reps in the nickel.
That cerebral improvement should also pay dividends against the run. Too often last year, it appeared Dent was thinking rather than reacting to plays. You could see instances where opponents run the ball between the tackles, where Sean Weatherspoon or Nicholas would be attacking the hole, and Dent was playing on his heels. That allowed fullbacks and offensive linemen to get downfield and effectively get position against Dent on the second level. That led to him being key blocked 10 times last year (per Moneyball game reviews). That was less than either Weatherspoon (17) or Nicholas (14), but given that Dent only played half as many snaps, that number was too high. That (and poor tackling) were major causes why the Falcons run defense ranked 28th last year in giving up big plays of 20 or more yards on the ground per rushing attempt.
As the game slows down, there should be more instances where Dent can attack the ballcarrier between the tackles in 2013. Most of the plays that Dent did make against the run (6 tackles for loss) came outside the hashmarks where his speed and range proved to be pluses. Because of that and if he continues to struggle against the inside run in 2013, then the Falcons will have to think long and hard about moving him to the strongside linebacker position come 2014. Dent played that position while at the University of Georgia, before their switch to a 3-4 defense prompted his move inside. The reality that Dent may project better for that position at the NFL level than a middle linebacker. And that decision could be determined based around what sort of season Dent has in 2013.
Again, it doesn’t all have to fall into place this season. But he does need to show significant improvement. That way it should inspire confidence that the Falcons don’t have to go back to the drawing board when trying to determine a long-term partner with Sean Weatherspoon.
The Falcons run defense was poor last year and was a major liability when it came to the team’s loss in the NFC Championship Game. The San Francisco 49ers were able to run the ball with a success rate of 70% after the first quarter of that game, essentially doubling a “normal” success rate for an offensive ground attack. Dent is going to have to be a major factor in improving the defense in that arena. And he won’t be able to do that on the bench, which means shooting past Nicholas to be the second best linebacker on the team.
Nicholas is a well-known commodity. While far from a superstar, he’s a player that the coaching staff can trust due to his experience. Dent simply wasn’t that player last year, but must become that in 2013. If he can do that as well as improve his ratio of good plays versus bad plays, that could go a long way to helping the Falcons defense make a significant leap forward.
The 2012 Falcons defense simply wasn’t good enough to go on the road and win in January. But they did play very well at home (up until the 49er game). Dent alone isn’t going to tip the scales to this unit being one of the best in the league and road-worthy, but it can help. Help blur the obvious disadvantage the Falcons had against a potent ground attack like the 49ers and their inability to match up with potent tight ends throughout the year. Those areas were liabilities last year, and Dent’s production in 2013 can go a long way to making it so those aren’t this year. And that could ultimately be the difference between the Falcons taking the next step in their overall success in 2013.