The biggest takeaway in the Atlanta Falcons’ preseason loss to the New York Jets this past Friday was the emergence of the team’s newfound pass rush.
With the arrival of new head coach Dan Quinn, the Falcons have made a sharp delineation within the defensive line, separating the group into two separate units between the base group of starters and that of the sub-package unit.
It’s that latter group that really stood out in the road loss to the Jets. As all four players: Vic Beasley, Adrian Clayborn, Jonathan Babineaux and O’Brien Schofield were able to create pressure and provide head against the Jets starting offense. None fared better than Beasley and Clayborn, both of whom had a bit of their coming-out party as new Falcons.
Beasley, the Falcons’ top draft pick, showcased some power as he was able to work back long-time Jets left tackle D’Brickshaw Ferguson. That’s notable given that power was the least developed aspect of Beasley’s game during his productive days at Clemson University. Beasley also put on a nice spin move on Ferguson to deliver a hit on Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick on one play, leading to an incomplete pass.
It wasn’t a dominant performance by Beasley, but he flashed more this week than he did against the Tennessee Titans in his first NFL action. He showed something against the Jets that the team can continue to build upon for the future.
Clayborn More Natural Fit at Defensive Tackle Than End
As for Clayborn, he seems to look at home playing defensive tackle in the team’s sub-packages. Expectations were when the team signed him as a free agent that he might be their answer at defensive end, but instead the Quinn-led coaching staff has opted to play Clayborn exclusively inside over these first two preseason games. That seems to be a smart call given that it appears to best take advantage of Clayborn’s strengths and also help to hide his weaknesses.
Watching Clayborn as a defensive end during his days at Tampa Bay, it became apparent to me how much he tended to rely on his first step to beat opposing offensive tackles. Yet, his first step was by no means good enough to consistently do so.
Clayborn also was a player that didn’t play with the sort of consistent hand use and power to make him more effective on the edge. I’m of the opinion that extends from the Erb’s palsy that limits the strength in his right arm. Watching Clayborn on tape at Tampa Bay, he rarely ever used his right arm to fend off and disengage from blockers.
I’m not sure Clayborn’s game has changed much if judging by the first two Falcons preseason games. But the major difference is that being utilized on the interior has made those aforementioned limitations less limiting.
Clayborn’s first-step quickness, while not devastating to most starting NFL tackles is exactly that to many guards. That was certainly the case against the Jets’ James Carpenter on Friday evening, who had much difficulty trying to stay in front of the Falcons’ newest pass-rusher.
Also Clayborn typically lines up on the right side of the defensive line to the outside shoulder of the opposing team’s left guard. That means that his left arm is between him and the blocker, allowing him to use his stronger hand and arm to fend off blockers as he did against Carpenter on Friday when he got a sack.
In the following clip, you can see how that sack goes down (h/t to @FalcoholicDW):
Clayborn is initially lined up over the left tackle (Ferguson), but is going against Carpenter, No. 77 at left guard. This wider alignment allows Clayborn to use pure speed on this specific play as Carpenter is going to be forced to get wide to try and stay in front of him.
Clayborn initially tries to swim, expecting Carpenter to punch, but finds only air. When Carpenter finally does punch, the Jets guard is perpendicular to the line of scrimmage and is bending at the waist rather than the knees. Both of these are no-nos for offensive linemen. This results in Carpenter being overextended, off-balanced and unable to generate leverage and power when he does punch. Clayborn is able to roll off this punch with ease, Carpenter goes for a tumble and the Falcons defender has a clear pathway to the quarterback.
This sort of pass rush would be far less effective if Clayborn was working against an offensive tackle that had the feet to stay in front of him and could stay balanced when delivering a punch. This is a feat that could be prone to repeat if/when Clayborn continues to face lesser left guards on the Falcons’ schedule this year.
Another part of the “renaissance” of Clayborn is the fact that the Falcons are only asking him to work in the nickel thus far. That means that when he hits the field, he’s almost exclusively being asked to rush the quarterback and doesn’t have to worry as much about gap discipline and playing the run. That wasn’t a strength of Clayborn’s during his days in Tampa Bay, most likely due to the disadvantage of playing without both arms when gaining leverage at the point of attack.
Schofield, another newcomer to the Falcons, also can’t be forgotten. After a relatively quiet outing against the Titans, Schofield showed up with a couple of pressures thanks to using both power and an inside counter move. Schofield has never been a dominant pass-rusher, but as a complementary guy that can provide heat opposite opposite players like Beasley, Clayborn and Babineaux, he can be effective.
Like Clayborn, it doesn’t seem that the Falcons have much intention of utilizing Schofield outside their nickel sub-package. While he’s listed as the team’s backup at outside linebacker and garnered a single snap in that capacity against the Jets, he’ll likely only play there only if starter Brooks Reed goes down with injury for an extended period of time.
All in all, these improvements up front won’t likely give the Falcons one of the league’s most-feared pass rushes in 2015. But it’s a great start for an improvement that has been much needed for many seasons.
Quinn’s scheme relies heavily on dropping the linebackers and defensive backs into zone coverages. Zone coverage becomes ineffective when quarterbacks are given time, allowing receivers to find the soft spots within the zone where no defender is. So it’s important that the team can create pressure with just four defenders to counteract this flaw. At least through their performances in the first two preseason games, it seems the Falcons are certainly capable of doing so.
However in contrast to the improvements to the Falcons seemingly have made on the defensive line, the offensive line still remains a work in progress.
Falcons Offensive Line Has Yet to Answer Concerns
Through two preseason games, the Falcons various combinations of starting five have generated just 13 yards on 11 rushing attempts. I note the various combinations, because the Falcons haven’t maintained the same starting five for all eight possessions in which starting blockers have been featured the past two weeks.
All of those changes have come along the interior, most notably with Joe Hawley and Mike Person alternating series at center. But the Falcons also mixed Jon Asamoah in with the rest of the starters at right guard against the Jets.
Although that probably implies that Asamoah is still in the mix to regain the starting right guard spot he lost on the second day of training camp. That is probably not the case since Chris Chester was pulled from the game at the end of the first quarter on Friday night in New York. That’s notable because the only other offensive players that started the game and did not play a single snap beyond the first quarter were quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones.
Falcons head coach Dan Quinn practically confirmed Chester cementing his status when he indicated yesterday that the only positions still up for grabs are that center and left guard position.
James Stone has earned both starts at left guard and has lined up beside Jake Matthews for every single one of the second-year tackle’s snaps. It’s clear that the Falcons want Stone to win the job and build a rapport with Matthews. While Stone had some lapses against the Jets, he fared well enough to suggest why the coaching staff seems to have high hopes for him.
Like Chester, Stone’s best asset is his mobility. In an zone-blocking scheme that makes ample use of the outside stretch play, that is an important asset. While Asamoah is more than capable athlete that can block on the move, he’s not quite as quick to get out in space as either Stone or Chester. If the new coaching staff prioritizes mobility over all things, then it makes sense why the team might have soured on one of the team’s better performers last season.
Whoever lines up at guard this week will have very important tests in the Falcons’ third preseason game against the Miami Dolphins because they’ll be facing Ndamukong Suh, one of the league’s most dominant interior pass-rushers. More than likely, Chester will see the bulk of snaps facing Suh, given the Dolphins defensive tackle typically lines up against the right guard at left defensive tackle.
Asamoah’s Status Likely Signals Trade
Asamoah’s tumble down the depth chart likely will facilitate his being traded out of Atlanta within the next few weeks. All players that are on a 53-man roster on Week One will have their base salaries guaranteed for the rest of the season. That would mean that Asamoah’s $2.5 million base salary would become guaranteed, locking the Falcons in to a $4.27 million cap hit in 2015.
That’s too high a premium to pay for a player that is likely going to be riding the bench. While Asamoah of course would be a good insurance policy for the Falcons should Stone or Chester get hurt or struggle as starters, it’s not worthwhile for the Falcons given that high price tag.
If the season started tomorrow, then Asamoah would almost certainly be inactive on gamedays with Person serving as the team’s preferred backup and swing guard/center. It makes little sense to have over $4 million languishing on your inactive list each week if you can trade him and get value in return in the form of someone that can actually contribute on Sundays.
That’s why the Falcons would be willing to eat the $931,000 penalty in extra dead money this year by trading Asamoah. That’s close to the equivalent salary of a 10-year veteran minimum contract. So that extra dead money isn’t that much of a deterrent when one considers that it’s like signing a veteran, and could potentially net the Falcons a draft pick next year.
That latter point is pertinent given the team already lost a fifth-round pick next year due to league penalties stemming from their illegal use of crowd noise last season. Plugging a hole at another position and making their 2016 whole again is worth the extra dead money.
The real concern with moving on from Asamoah is determining whether the Falcons can survive with some combination of Stone, Chester, Person and Hawley as their starting trio on the interior. The early returns in the preseason suggest that this group isn’t getting the job done in the running game.
Mathis Might Be Back in Mix For Falcons
That of course opens up the possibility that the Falcons still explore the possibility of signing free-agent guard Evan Mathis. While there has been no overt indications that the Falcons are interested in Mathis, the next few days would be the time to make a move. That would likely be hinged on Stone and/or Person not inspiring confidence with their play against the Dolphins as well as Mathis still being available early next week.
Mathis’ free-agent visits have begun to heat up again, with the Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans being two teams that have been linked to the free agent in the past week. While that interest from other teams might get the Falcons’ fan base antsy over losing Mathis to another competitor, it’s unlikely to be the case for the team itself.
The Falcons showed considerable patience back in March when it came to signing free agents. They wanted guys at the right price, and there’s little reason to believe that won’t be the exact same approach should their interest in Mathis start to percolate in August.
While it’s certainly possible that going with the untested Stone and declining Chester as starters could prove costly to the team’s ability to run the ball effectively in 2015, it won’t mean that things are all doom and gloom in Atlanta for the future.
After all, Quinn isn’t here just to win it all in 2015, but to build up the team to compete for many years to come. It may come to pass that in January, the team’s experiments with Stone, Person and Chester are deemed failures. If that is the case, then the Falcons will make the requisite changes and upgrades in 2016.
But the team is likely hoping that through the process of competition, that at least one of those players, particularly between Stone and Person, will emerge as a long-term solution to one of their three interior spots.
Chester and Hawley are both free agents next offseason. Whether they return beyond this season will depend entirely on their play. If they play well, then they’ll likely be offered lucrative contracts to return at starters’ salaries. If not, then the Falcons will let them walk and try to replace them with other players on the open market.
Ideally, Stone and/or Person will be able to replace one or both of those free agents as starters in 2016. The Falcons will really only find that out by throwing them to the wolves this season. It obviously could come back to bite them, or it could prove to be smart forward-thinking on the new coaching staff’s part.
Only time will tell.