Last week in their win over the New York Jets, the Atlanta Falcons added an interesting new wrinkle with their defensive look: leading pass-rusher Vic Beasley started the game as the team’s strong-side linebacker in their base defense.
Over the past year, Beasley has found a home at left defensive end in the team’s nickel sub-package, but there have always been hints that the Falcons would like to see him get more looks at as a stand-up linebacker.
However those opportunities at linebacker were mostly confined to limited snaps during the past two preseasons. But after an impressive performance against the Jets, there are indications that Beasley’s move might be more permanent with head coach Dan Quinn indicating earlier this week that he’ll continue to get looks on the strong side.
Part of the reasoning behind Beasley’s more extended look at linebacker likely is due to the knee injury sidelining rookie linebacker Duke Riley. Despite an underwhelming debut season thus far for Riley, his absence does represent a significant loss in athleticism and speed for the Falcons at the linebacker position.
Riley’s immediate replacement options in veterans Kemal Ishmael and Sean Weatherspoon are underwhelming in terms of their ability to cover space and make plays in coverage. Thus the Falcons solution centered on putting the very athletic Beasley at linebacker, prompting current starting strong-side linebacker De’Vondre Campbell to return to the weak side in the team’s base defense, a role that he played exclusively as a rookie in 2016.
A three-man linebacker corps of Beasley, Campbell and middle linebacker Deion Jones suffers no dropoff in terms of athleticism given Riley’s absence and in fact may represent a significant upgrade in physicality given the latter’s struggles with missed tackles.
I personally consider myself a big proponent of this position shift for Beasley, as it was something I was pining for this offseason. Yet the selection of Riley in April’s draft made such a shift for Beasley less probable.
Against the Jets, Beasley showed some positive traits that with further development indicate considerable upside for being both a stand-up defender in addition to his already proven ability as a pass-rusher with his hand in the dirt.
Beasley will certainly be a work in progress at linebacker, but he possesses the traits to think there is a lot of untapped potential that the team can hope to mine over the coming weeks, months, and years should he be given additional opportunities.
In the immediate future, it’s possible that upon Riley’s healthy return later this season could end the Falcons experiment with Beasley as a linebacker. But I for one believe that Beasley has the capacity to showcase enough upside that the Falcons will continue to tinker with Beasley in the role for the remainder of the season, particularly if he continues to perform in the coming weeks as well as he did against the Jets.
Here I will outline three positive plays and one negative one that Beasley showed in his debut as a starting strong-side linebacker against the Jets.
In the above image, Beasley makes a nice play in the first quarter where he shows his ability to set the edge. Even though he takes an initial false step, he has the strength and athleticism to recover against the Jets tight end, Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Jets running back Matt Forte is forced to bounce the play outside, where the fast pursuit of Campbell chases him down for a minimal gain.
Beasley’s experience as a defensive end taking on much larger offensive tackles that often outweigh him by 70 or 80 pounds means that taking on even a large 260-pound tight end like Seferian-Jenkins isn’t a massive challenge.
Being able to set a hard edge is an important trait and role for the strong-side linebacker as he is often tasked with preventing ballcarriers from getting to the edge. Even though Beasley doesn’t make the play here, his ability to set the edge helps free up other teammates like Campbell to make such plays.
Here we get to see Beasley showcase his pass-rushing ability with his patented speed rush to try and dip under Jets left tackle Kelvin Beachum and turn the corner. Beasley proves too much for Beachum, drawing a holding penalty and also flushing quarterback Josh McCown into the waiting arms of cornerback Desmond Trufant for a sack.
What makes this play notable is the fact that Beasley is rushing from the right side of the defense rather than his normal left side. In fact, the Jets game marked the first time this season in which Beasley had the chance to rush from the right side of the defensive line. Even though he only got three such opportunities, this above play showed him making the most of those limited opportunities.
The value of playing strong-side linebacker is that there is no permanent side of the field that one plays. The strong side is determined by the offensive alignment, traditionally being arrayed on whichever side of the line the opposing team’s tight end lines up. Yet the complexity of offensive formations makes such strict definitions antiquated today.
But nonetheless, the value remains that it will give Beasley more opportunities to face off against left tackles, traditionally the better pass protectors to their right-side counterparts. Yet that is not always the case.
Notably Beasley has struggled at times when facing against right tackles that outclass him in size, length and power. Despite the added pedigree, left tackles in many circumstances can be an easier matchup for the undersized Beasley.
In fact the numbers seem to back things up. According to Pro Football Focus, Beasley has managed to rush from the right side a total of just 23 times since the outset of the 2016 season. But he has managed to generate six combined pressures, meaning he has pressured opposing quarterbacks on 26 percent of his right-side rushes.
In contrast, Beasley has rushed from his normal left side a combined 517 times since the start of 2016, generating 60 pressures or roughly 12 percent of his plays.
While the disparity in sample size prevents us from drawing strict conclusions, it does indicate that the Falcons edge-rusher probably should be given a lot more than 23 chances to rush from the right side over the past two seasons.
As a blitzing strong-side linebacker, he’ll be given more of those opportunities. Similar to what it was against the Jets, it might only be a handful per week. But that certainly could still make a difference.
In the fourth quarter, Beasley got to show off his coverage chops and closing speed against Seferian-Jenkins. While he was unable to prevent the reception, this play does a nice job showcasing Beasley’s athleticism and its effectiveness in coverage.
Despite being screened by his own teammate in Campbell, creating the necessary separation for Seferian-Jenkins to reel in the catch, Beasley’s closing speed eats up that separation to prevent any yardage after the catch.
This is a valuable trait in coverage and means that Beasley will be a tough nut to crack when lined up against opposing tight ends trying to create separation. We’ve already seen in the past that Beasley is capable of making plays in coverage on the rare occasions he gets to drop into coverage.
While there certainly will be some kinks that will need to be worked out with Beasley in coverage, his baseline athletic tools give him as good a starting point as you’re going to find.
The above play illustrates his speed and we know his abilities as a pass-rusher are indicative of good hip flexibility and change-of-direction ability. That means that eventually with more technical refinement down the line, he should be able to stay in the hip pocket of tight ends on more complex routes.
This final play in the second quarter against the Jets, is an indicator that Beasley is far from a polished product at the linebacker position.
On a naked bootleg, Beasley shows hesitation on his read and is unable to decide whether he wants to attack McCown upfield or stay at home and try to cover the releasing fullback, Lawrence Thomas, into the flat.
McCown is able to loft an easy completion over Beasley’s head. While not an overtly bad play by Beasley, it’s indicative that he is by no means a finished product. It’s unlikely that regardless of the decision Beasley made in that situation, he would not have dramatically impacted the outcome of the play.
But it’s nonetheless important to note that indecisiveness is a problem given Quinn’s emphasis on Falcons defenders playing “fast and physical.” At a certain point, you just want Beasley to make a quicker decision regardless of what it is. With more experience and comfort playing the position, there should be every reason to believe that his decision making will both be sharpened and accelerated.
And the hope is that not only in the immediate future thanks to Riley’s absence, Beasley will gain more experience at linebacker but that it will continue beyond Riley’s return to the lineup as it could impact his long-term future in Atlanta.
As Blogging Dirty’s Matt Karoly noted on a recent Falcons Central Radio podcast, Beasley’s ability to showcase a greater skillset beyond his pass-rushing ability will be important given that it could have contract implications down the road.
Beasley is likely due a substantial contract extension at some point in the next few years. The Falcons may seek to extend him in 2019 before he enters the final year of his contract, assuming that he receives the fifth-year option next spring. Given the outrageous price tag of elite pass-rushers in recent years, the fact that Beasley has primarily been “just” a situational pass-rusher in sub-packages makes him fairly unique among his peers.
Of the 16 pass-rushers that recorded double-digit sacks in 2016 including Beasley, only two players saw a lower snap count than the Falcons pass-rusher: Miami’s Cameron Wake and Minnesota’s Danielle Hunter.
Wake, as a 34-year old player a year ago, needed to be on a bit of a “pitch count” to preserve him at that point in his career. And Hunter, like Beasley, was primarily a third-down specialist behind Vikings starters Everson Griffen and Brian Robison.
However this season, Hunter has been elevated to the starting lineup over Robison and is averaging roughly 50 snaps per game versus the 37 he saw a year ago.
Meanwhile, Beasley’s workload has dropped thus far in 2017. A year ago, he averaged roughly 42 snaps per game, but this year that figure has dropped to 30. That can be partially attributed to a hamstring injury forcing him to miss the better part of three games. But the Jets game a week ago was in fact the first one in which Beasley had appeared in at least half the defensive plays, compared to a year ago when he did so in all but two contests.
Another reason why Beasley’s playing time has slipped this year is due to the addition of rookie Takk McKinley, who is also drawing reps in the nickel along with veteran fixture Adrian Clayborn. The Falcons essentially have a three-man rotation in their sub-packages at the defensive end spot and are trying to maximize opportunities for McKinley in order to speed his development.
If Beasley can add the ability to also earn reps at strong-side linebacker in the base package, it adds much-needed flexibility and depth to the defense in addition to giving him a stronger place at any future negotiation tables when second contract talks come up.
Ultimately this position shift could prove a win-win not only for Beasley’s financial future but for the Falcons as well in the long run. Thus you should be just as eager and excited as I am to witness Beasley’s development in the coming weeks. If he continues to build upon the foundation he showed against the Jets, there’s every reason to believe that this move could help take the Falcons defense to new heights in due time.