Home > Features > Takeaways From Last Week – March 17, 2014

Takeaways From Last Week – March 17, 2014

March 17th, 2014
John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Tyson Jackson

It’s not fun being so negative.

Which makes my negative reaction to the Atlanta Falcons initial free-agent moves doubly worse.

Are the Falcons a better team after signing guard Jon Asamoah, defensive tackle Paul Soliai and defensive end Tyson Jackson? Aboslutely.

Are they a significantly better team? No, not really.

At least not in some areas. Sure, they beefed up the run defense. But was the run defense that huge a need? Perhaps it’s selective memory, but outside Bobby Rainey’s Week 11 romp, I don’t recall that many instances where I felt like the defense getting the ball run down their throat.

I do remember the Falcons getting run on and run on a lot, but it never felt like it was something “out of control” to the degree to prompt swift and decisive action at the outset of the free-agent market. I think a lot of the poor run defense had more to do with the fact that they were so young at linebacker, coupled with shoddy tackling in the secondary. It seemed more like long runs were killing the Falcons, evidenced by the 28 runs of 15 or more yards they gave up last season, which was tied for the fourth-highest total allowed in the league.

Not to suggest that upgrading the run defense shouldn’t have been a priority for the Falcons, just not the priority.

I try not to be the guy that acts like the “armchair GM” that all his decisions are the right decisions. I’m very aware that I’m often wrong about things, and that there are several methods to the madness that is building successful NFL teams.

So when looking at the Falcons’ moves, I always try to see them from the team’s perspective. And if I can follow their logic and thinking, then I can usually accept, if not approve their decision-making.

So from the team’s perspective, it’s very clear they wanted to upgrade both lines. They re-signed two offensive lineman in Joe Hawley and Mike Johnson and added Asamoah. They went after defensive linemen by re-upping Corey Peters and Jonathan Babineaux while adding Soliai and Jackson.

It’s clear that the focus was on the interior of both lines, to add beef and “toughen up” the unit just like they had indicated was their plan all along. I mentioned Soliai as a potential target back in February, albeit with the expectation that he’d be a relatively cheap addition.

So on the face of things, I cannot fault the Falcons. In fact, I applaud them. They correctly identified the two biggest weaknesses of the team in both lines and addressed them with upgrades.

But once you go beyond that superficial layer, things start to fall apart.

As previously mentioned, the Falcons chose to bolster their run defense along the defensive line. And again, while the running game was a weakness for the team in 2013, perhaps the most glaring weakness was the team’s inability to rush the quarterback.

The Falcons were dead-last in the NFL in 2013 in third-down conversions allowed. It marked the fifth consecutive season where the Falcons did not finish higher than 24th in the NFL in terms of getting third-down stops. Clearly, it’s been a problem area for some time. And it’s probably not a coincidence that only two teams have sacked the quarterback less than the Falcons in that five-year span (Tampa Bay and Jacksonville).

If the team was going to pay out substantial contracts to defensive linemen, you wish it had been for players that would help out in that regard. And simply put, Soliai and Jackson do not. With their respective teams last year, the duo combined to rush the quarterback on 493 snaps (per Pro Football Focus) and combine for six sacks, three hits, and 17 hurries. Compare that to Osi Umenyiora, who disappeared for long chunks of the 2013 season, who had seven sacks, four hits and 29 hurries on 440 pass rushes.

As things stand today, the Falcons made no improvement to their pass rush. In fact, it could be demonstrably worse if Soliai and Jackson are forced to play significant minutes.

Which brings up another issue, which is that Soliai and Jackson probably won’t play all that much for the team.

Barring injuries, it would be surprising if they see more defensive snaps than either Jonathan Babineaux or Corey Peters in 2014. The Falcons won’t be featuring a 3-4 defense in nickel/passing situations, instead they will give a 2-4-5 or 4-2-5 looks. And neither Soliai nor Jackson were regular members of their old team’s nickel sub-packages, and almost certainly won’t be in Atlanta.

With the 2-4-5, it’s more than likely the team would prefer to employ Babineaux and Peters as the two down linemen, with standup pass-rushers on the outside (Kroy Biermann and a rookie?). And in a 4-2-5, it would be the same two on the interior with the edge-rushers putting their hands in the dirt (Osi Umenyiora and a rookie?).

In an ideal situation, neither Soliai nor Jackson would play more than half the defensive snaps. Soliai played just 48 percent last year, with Jackson playing in 46 percent according to Pro Football Focus.

Essentially, in those all-important situations where the Falcons need to get after the quarterback and get a stop, their two highest-paid defensive linemen won’t be on the field.

Nothing is stopping the Falcons from continuing to upgrade their pass rush for the remainder of this offseason. But it really seemed like with a number of good pass-rushers hitting the market, the Falcons could make a substantial upgrade to that area of their roster this spring.

Instead, they preferred instead to make a substantial upgrade to the run defense. That could help somewhat to improve the team’s third-down defense by presenting far less manageable situations for opposing offenses. But Atlanta was the fifth-worst in the NFL on 3rd-and-10 or more last year, so it’s probably not going to make a whole lot of difference.

And that’s really where the negativity about the moves come from, since it really represents a missed opportunity by the Falcons to correct a long-standing problem with a lack of a pass rush.

I could possibly write about what things might be looming on the horizon for the Falcons in terms of their offseason moves, and how these moves affect the draft. But in all honestly, I have seven more of these weekly columns that I will be writing between now and the draft. So I can afford to spread out those views for the coming weeks.

And if you want to hear more of my reactions to the moves, I go a bit further in-depth in both podcasts I do: Falcons Central Radio on Pro Football Central, and Episode 60 of the FalcFans Podcast.

Instead, I’ll do some quick blurbs on moves I liked and didn’t like that other NFL teams made this past week:

My Favorite Moves:

  • New England gets Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, stealing a page from Seattle with getting two very capable press corners.
  • Baltimore acquires wideout Steve Smith, formerly of the Carolina Panthers. Also manage to keep booked left tackle Eugene Monroe.
  • Chicago keeps cornerback Charles Tillman, but enhances the pass rush by signing defensive ends Lamarr Houston and Willie Young, two underrated guys in this free-agent group.
  • Denver upgrades their pass defense by getting DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib. It’s clearly “Super Bowl or Bust” in Denver for the next year or two.
  • If Hakeem Nicks reverts into the player that he was in 2011, Andrew Luck may have found his No. 1 receiver of the future. If players like Trent Richardson and Dwayne Allen start to live up to their potential, and T.Y. Hilton continues to be a dynamic weapon, the Colts may have solidified their skill positions for years to come. Now it’s going to be up to them to upgrade their offensive line play.

Solid Moves

  • Arizona solidifies left tackle with Jared Veldheer. The Cardinals have literally gone 15 years without adequately addressing this position with a number of failed first-round picks: L.J. Shelton, Leonard Davis and Levi Brown.
  • You have to be somewhat impressed that with no money, the New Orleans Saints managed to find a way to reel in safety Jairus Byrd with a monster contract.
  • Kansas City picks up defensive tackle Vance Walker as a replacement to Tyson Jackson, as Walker should enhance their pass rush.
  • Andre Roberts is an underrated receiver that should be a solid No. 2 option for RGIII in Washington.

Intriguing Moves

  • Green Bay overpays Julius Peppers. But in regards to Peppers, you always wonder if he has a down year because he’s lost a step or because he just isn’t trying as hard.
  • Contrary to expectations, the New York Jets didn’t break the bank for wide receiver Eric Decker. He’s not making that much more than Brian Hartline.
  • Oakland is going with an “over the hill” defensive line featuring ends Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley, along with tackle Antonio Smith.

Not So Solid Moves

  • Buffalo lets Jairus Byrd walk, instead giving with Aaron Williams a long-term contract and then rewarded mediocrity by signing guard Chris Williams to a long-term deal.
  • Cleveland gets rid of D’Qwell Jackson and T.J. Ward, replacing them with Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner.

My Least Favorite Moves:

  • Detroit spurns the opportunity to draft a big-time wideout in Mike Evans in the draft for a somewhat erratic Golden Tate.
  • Jacksonville thinks that Zane Beadles is an upgrade over what they had at guard?
  • Why did Tampa Bay get rid of Darrelle Revis again?
  1. Jim
    March 17th, 2014 at 12:08 | #1

    Well, not sure what you were seeing from the Falcons that made you think their run D wasn’t so bad. It was as poor as their pass rush. It was highly unlikely the Falcons would be able to totally correct either problem through free agency only. They do need to address their pass rush woes through the draft as well as continue to add help on run D. First and foremost the Falcons must stop opponents from running roughshod through their D. If a team can’t stop the run they can’t stop anything period. The results will look like 4-12 or worse.

  2. thescout
    March 17th, 2014 at 17:19 | #2

    The decision to sign Jackson probably was was the result of a few things. First, the lack of ideal def ends to be effective in stopping the run and pass. How many JJ Watts are out there? The Falcons probably decided that at least Jackson can stop the run and it makes the opponent offense one dimensional. In a passing league the defense will still have a tough time stopping the pass.Jackson and Solali will be on the sideline when it is a passing down. The OLB will be forced to be able to pressure the QB since Jackson can’t do it.

    Second, since Jackson was drafted by KC there is the Pioli connection. Pioli knows what Jackson can do and decided he knows what he is getting with Jackson. Between now and when Jackson’s contract is up the Falcons must find a legit 3-4 def end who do both defend the pass and stop the run.

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