The Atlanta Falcons passed on signing free-agent defensive end Dwight Freeney this week, raising concerns about how effective their pass rush will be in 2016.
While there’s still a chance that the team re-signs Freeney, at this current juncture they seem to be doubling down on a new configuration of their defensive front netting positive results.
In essence, the Falcons coaching staff led by head coach Dan Quinn and defensive line coach Bryan Cox are betting on their own ability to get more from this unit. Only time will tell if that is a smart bet.
From a human perspective, one can understand their decision. Quinn made his bones as a defensive line coach over the past decade in this league and as the architect of the 53-man roster, he’s less likely to bet on himself when it comes to constructing the 2016 Falcons roster. And that includes the decision on whether the Falcons should add a 36-year old pass-rusher like Freeney into the mix.
At the outset of the offseason I expected the Falcons to make at least one major splash at this position, particularly defensive end to try and upgrade a unit that finished with a league-low 19 sacks in 2015.
However the biggest move to date has been the addition of former Miami Dolphins defensive end Derrick Shelby.Shelby spent the past four years as a reserve in Miami and is now being counted upon to be a major contributor as a starter in Atlanta. While Shelby’s added value shouldn’t be minimized, he’s far from what many back in February would have considered a “big splash.”
There’s reason for the Falcons to be optimistic, given that Shelby did prove very effective down the stretch for the Dolphins last year upon replacing an injured Cameron Wake as a starter.
According to Pro Football Focus, Shelby had four sacks, three hits and 19 pressures over the final eight games while replacing Wake. One could suggest that in Atlanta as a full-time starter, he’ll have the opportunity to double that production from last season.
Beasley led the team with 42 total pressures last season, so if Shelby is able to double his 2015 numbers to produce around 50 or so, that will provide a huge boost to the Falcons pass rush this season.
Shelby’s task will be to mimic the role of Michael Bennett in the Falcons defense, by playing both inside and outside. Adding such a player was about the only prediction I made at the outset of this offseason in regards to the defensive line that seemed correct.
Shelby is being counted upon to play on the edge in the team’s base package, but will kick inside to defensive tackle in nickel situation. Bennett provided this exact role in Seattle, a role that allowed him to blossom into one of the league’s more fearsome pass-rushers.
Bennett coincidentally is one of the few players that both Cox and Quinn coached prior to their second stint together in Atlanta. The two previously worked together as assistants with the New York Jets nearly a decade ago when Quinn served as that team’s defensive line coach and Cox was his assistant.
While the Seahawks had one of the better defenses in the NFL in both 2011 and 2012 while Quinn was still coordinating the University of Florida’s defense, it was without a formidable pass rush.
Sure they had Chris Clemons, whose 22.5 sacks in those two seasons paced a Seahawks unit that ranked 22nd in the NFL over that same span with 69 sacks. That isn’t that much more than what the Falcons produced (ranked 28th) with 62 sacks.
Then, the Falcons were spearheaded mainly by John Abraham’s 19.5 sacks over that same two-year span and habitually struggled to get off the field on third downs with rankings of 30th and 26th, respectively in those years.
Yet for the Seahawks, things took a turn for the better in 2013 when they signed Bennett and Cliff Avril in free agency. Those two spearheaded a much-improved pass rush that allowed that Seahawks defense to blossom upon Quinn’s return to coordinate it in 2013. That’s when Seattle’s defensive line blossomed into one of the league’s most feared pass rushes despite the fact that they only ranked 17th in that span in terms of sacks produced.
Not only is that another indicator that looking at sack totals doesn’t tell the whole story, but it shows that the Seahawks only found success when they collected the right combination of pass-rushers.
Clemons was coming off an ACL injury suffered in January 2013, sidelining him for the team’s eventual loss against the Falcons. It could be argued his absence was the single biggest reason why the Falcons were able to win that game.
Without steady Seahawks pressure against a questionable Falcons offensive line, quarterback Matt Ryan was able to hook up with Julio Jones often and post what was then career postseason highs of 250 yards passing and three touchdowns. It’s fascinating to go back and look at Ryan’s production in his three previous postseason outings, failing to crack 200 passing yards in any of them. That’s in stark contrast to how effective Ryan had been during his first four NFL seasons, averaging 229.6 yards per game in 62 combined regular-season appearances.
But before I go down a tangential rabbit hole about the issues that the Falcons offense has faced as part of their past postseason struggles, I’ll return the focus back to the defensive line.
Back in the midst of the 2014, The Ringers’ Robert Mays, formerly of Grantland, wrote about the decline the Seahawks pass rush showed that season. Mays attributed one cause of their decline in production was due to their inability to get effective interior pressure from their defensive tackles.
A big reason why the Seahawks pass rush overall didn’t dominate statically from 2013-14 was their dramatic decline in sack production in 2014. After tying for having the eighth best pass rush in 2013 with 44 sacks, the following year the Seahawks saw a steep decline in sack production, ranking 20th with 37 sacks.
Although that decline of the Seahawks pass rush relative to the Falcons past units is somewhat laughable. The last time the Falcons fielded a pass rush that reached 37 as their team total was in 2006, ironically a year where the team’s two best rushers in Abraham and Patrick Kerney missed a combined 15 games due to injuries.
So the standards for both teams are very different, as a “down year” for Quinn’s group in Seattle would represent the most productive season that the Falcons have had in the past decade.
Long story short, Quinn made his bones in Seattle partially because of the dominance of the defensive line. While the secondary made headlines, it was the improvement that Quinn was able to foster up front as to why the Seahawks went from one of the best defenses in a single year to one of the best of all time under his guidance in 2013.
Thus it made sense that the Falcons would follow suit in Atlanta by investing in their pass rush this offseason. With Shelby firmly planted on the inside in the team’s nickel pass rush and Beasley certainly joining him on the outside, it leaves two other spots that haven’t quite been filled.
Adrian Clayborn is the likeliest candidate to line up at the right defensive end spot opposite Beasley. That was the same role he finished the year in after the Falcons made the decision to stop playing him on the inside. Clayborn responded with a couple of impact plays late in the season, suggesting that rushing from the edge better suited him.
If the Falcons do decide to bring Freeney in, then it’s likely he’ll compete with Clayborn for playing time at the same right defensive end spot. But Freeney isn’t likely to completely overtake Clayborn in that role, as the two are likely destined to split duties rushing from the edge.
News of the Falcons not signing Freeney this past week certainly prompted a strong negative reaction from some but it goes to show that reacting without all the information will lead one to look foolish.
In an interview with Sirius XM radio, Freeney indicated that he had no intention of signing with either the Falcons or Cincinnati Bengals (who he visited last week) after their meetings. At 36 years old, it appears that Freeney has no desire to sweet through organized team activies with any team and will likely reconsider his options closer to training camp in July. At that time, perhaps the Falcons will bring him back into the fold.
If that happens, one can predict that Freeney’s role won’t be too dissimilar to the one he played last season in Arizona when he collected a team-leading eight sacks in 11 games. That role being an occasional pass-rusher in the nickel sub-package. In those 11 outings, Freeney played 256 snaps.
To better illustrate how relatively little that is, Ra’Shede Hageman played 301 snaps over his final 11 games last year, which was the seventh highest total of any Falcons defensive lineman.
That means that Freeney was just a part-time player and split time with other pass-rushers, a role he’d likely continue in Atlanta. He and Clayborn would likely split reps at right defensive end in the nickel sub-package front, likely with a 60-40 split based on whichever of the two proved more impactful.
But if Freeney isn’t signed later this summer, it will be an indicator that the team is very confident in the abilities of Clayborn to handle those duties on the outside. Clayborn’s late-season production gives reason to believe that confidence isn’t misplaced, but one does have to be concerned about Clayborn’s habit of getting hurt every other year.
He missed both the 2012 and 2014 seasons with injuries and if the old pattern of staying health in odd years and injured in even ones follows suit, he’s due for another injury in 2016.
If that was to occur, Freeney would make a very effective insurance policy. If not him, the Falcons might be compelled to rely on either Brooks Reed, Courtney Upshaw or Malliciah Goodman to pick up the slack as an edge-rusher.
The team does appear poised to give Reed a lot more looks at defensive end this season, a role the team experimented with late last year.
A productive defensive end in college, Reed has been relegated mostly to a run-defending linebacker in the pros. He was highly productive as a rookie pass-rusher with six sacks back in 2011, but has yet to eclipse three in any of the four seasons since.
However expecting a resurgence in production from Reed is probably a bit misplaced. As it would be in Upshaw as well, who is also attempting to make the transition from 3-4 outside linebacker to 4-3 defensive end in Atlanta.
Upshaw certainly brings the size one expects from a defensive end, being listed at 272 pounds but looking like he could have easily tipped the scales above 280 last season. It’s only a question of whether he brings the quickness.
The Ravens reduced his reps on passing downs with each successive year he was on their team for a reason. This past year his playing time increased because the team didn’t have any viable alternatives once Terrell Suggs was sidelined for the year. However once fourth-round rookie Za’Darius Smith got up to speed later in the year, the Ravens started to cut back on Upshaw’s workload as a pass-rusher.
The Falcons are probably going to put more on Reed handling the sub-package duties if Clayborn needs a breather than Upshaw. Instead Upshaw is likely going to be counted on to replace Kroy Biermann as the team’s main option in the base package at “LEO” or the weak-side defensive end spot.
The team could also mix Shelby and Reed into the mix there as well, indicating that the base unit is also going to be undergoing some major changes.
Those changes are going to be prompted somewhat by the team’s desire to get more pressure from that unit. But it remains to be seen if the shuffling will prompt it.
Ra’Shede Hageman is set to get more looks at strong-side defensive end. There’s reason to be optimistic that Hageman is on the verge of blossoming into a more effective pass-rusher, albeit not to the degree that he’s going to be a regular in their nickel sub-package. However, Hageman did prove to be an effective pass-rusher on base downs in the team’s upset win over the Carolina Panthers last year.
That performance came on the heels of getting into a sideline scuffle with Cox just a few weeks earlier, signaling that the young man may finally be maturing and coming into his own. If that carries over into this offseason and subsequent regular season, the Falcons should see improvement that spot in terms of pressure.
With Hageman playing more defensive end, that has prompted the Falcons to move Tyson Jackson inside to defensive tackle. He’ll likely take over for Hageman in the base unit on the inside, but could also split snaps there with Jonathan Babineaux.
Babineaux was counted on as one of the regulars in the team’s nickel sub-package last year, but the addition of Shelby and the development of Grady Jarrett might prompt him be counted upon less as a pass-rusher this year and instead more as a disruptive run-defender.
Regardless the Falcons are going to have to find ways to lower Babineaux’s workload. His 548 snaps paced the entire defensive line unit, despite turning 34 last October. That “pitch count” was a lot lower than his workload in previous years where he was one of the most-played defensive linemen in the league, but he still shouldn’t be pulling that much weight at this point in his career.
Like Freeney, the Falcons might be better off allowing Babineaux to pick and choose his spots both as a two-way defender.
But for that to happen, the Falcons are going to need to see more out of not only Shelby as an interior pass-rusher, but also Jackson and Jarrett.
That shouldn’t be as big an issue with the latter, given his quickness, ability to penetrate and be disruptive is reminiscent of a young Babineaux. Yet it seems that Jarrett’s primary role in the rotation will be working as the replacement for Paul Soliai at nose tackle in the base defense.
Jarrett earned snaps in that role towards the end of 2015 when Soliai was nursing a calf injury last December. Then the team split some reps at that spot between he and Joey Mbu, who was elevated off the practice squad once Soliai went down.
One wonders if the Falcons envision the same thing since Jarrett doesn’t have prototypical size or bulk to deal with double teams as effectively as Soliai did a year ago when the Falcons run defense finished 14th in the league, but ranked atop the league through the first 10 games of the year.
It’s worth noting that Soliai didn’t become a regular on the team’s injury report until Week 11 when he was coming off a concussion he suffered in the Falcons’ Week Nine loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
After Soliai’s initial bout with injuries the Falcons gave up 806 rushing yards over the final six games of the year, the fifth most of any defense in the NFL over that span.
Is that drastic shift in quality related to Soliai’s absence? Perhaps, although one would probably make a stronger argument for poor tackling being a bit more problematic.
Over the final six games, the Falcons gave up 12 runs of 15 or more yards on 170 opposite rushing attempts. They allowed that same amount of long runs during the first 10 games of the year on 246 run plays.
Buccaneers running back Charles Sims had a big 25-yard run in Week 13 due largely to a missed tackle by free safety Ricardo Allen and quarterback Jameis Winston infamously had a 20-yard run due to a bunch of missed tackles across the Falcons defense in that same game.
Vikings runner Adrian Peterson made middle linebacker Paul Worrilow and Philip Wheeler both look like chumps with missed tackles on three late-game big runs in the Falcons Week 12 loss.
Justin Durant whiffed on a 16-yard touchdown run by Fozzy Whitaker in Week 14’s loss to the Carolina Panthers and Allen missed another tackle on a 31-yard run by teammate Cameron Artis-Payne two weeks later.
So perhaps the Falcons are right to be a bit more concerned with the tackling on defense than any lost bulk up front with the switch from Soliai to Jarrett.
It seems that the Falcons plan is to offset whatever is lost in run defense this year on base downs for improved pass rush. After all Mays did attribute the Seahawks’ decline in 2014 somewhat to their inability to get adequate pressure on base downs on the interior.
Adding Jarrett up front in the base package certainly should create more disruption at that spot, but it does remain to be seen if Jackson’s switch inside will do the same.
Jackson simply has never been too effective as a pass-rusher and it seems doubtful that he figures into the team’s long-term plans.
Certainly one of the biggest surprises of the offseason has been the team’s decision to retain Jackson heading into the summer. It seems highly doubtful that the Falcons plan on keeping Jackson going into the regular season.
With a $6.35 million 2016 cap figure and a $4.25 million base salary that becomes fully guaranteed should he be on the 53-man roster the first Sunday of the year on September 11, the Falcons could free up $4.75 million in cap space if they cut him before then.
That seems to be a no-brainer to release a player that isn’t likely to be a major player in the team’s defensive plays despite costing so much. Hageman saw 419 snaps last year as the team’s base-package three-technique, the seventh-most of any defensive linemen last year.
Guaranteeing two-thirds of Jackson’s high 2016 cap hit at the outset of the year just doesn’t make a lot of sense from a financial standpoint given how limited his playing time is going to be this season. But perhaps the Falcons are keeping him around while waiting until Hageman shows that he has the versatility to play both defensive end and tackle in their base unit.
At this point, both players appear fairly redundant in their defensive rotation. The Falcons should be able to get by without Jackson pulling major reps along their defensive line if Hageman proves an effective inside/outside option. Some combination of Babineaux and Hageman can handle the three-technique in their base defense. The Falcons could also tinker with moving Jarrett to the three-technique if or when they want to get Mbu into the mix at nose tackle.
Hageman can also split reps with Shelby at strong-side defensive end in the base package. Shelby can also pull double duty at “LEO,” but also cede reps to Reed, Beasley and Upshaw at that spot. Goodman is another candidate that has experience playing either end spot in the base package.
Similarly the team has a multitude of combinations they can deploy in their nickel sub-package, particularly if they can add another veteran edge-rusher like Freeney before the start of the season.
One weakness of the Falcons current defensive line group is that it is lacking one standout player in the same way that Seattle had with players like Clemons, Bennett or Avril and Atlanta formerly had in Abraham.
The team is hopeful that Beasley takes that next step into becoming that player. There should be a high amount of confidence that Beasley will be improved, it’s just only a matter of how much improvement. And as noted earlier, it’s clear from the team’s offseason decisions at this position group that the coaching staff is confident that improvement will be significant.
But if there is a strength of this defensive line group, it’s that the team has many options and can tinker with many different combinations to get the best four players on the field at any given.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that Quinn is still early in his tenure here in Atlanta and it’s unfair to expect that he has everything figured out. This offseason’s moves (or lack thereof) in regards to the defensive line is another strong indicator that he doesn’t quite have everything resolved.
But there’s at least reason to be quasi-optimistic that this year will go a long way to getting all the ducks lined up in a row so things can start to coalesce. So that next offseason the Falcons will be in a position to put the finishing touches on a revamped defensive line.