Atlanta’s pass rush has been miserable for three consecutive seasons. The introduction of Dan Quinn as head coach was supposed to be a totally new era of Falcons football. The days of quarterbacks sitting in the pocket until the sun sets were supposed to be over. Vic Beasley was supposed to be an instant pass rushing phenom. Unfortunately, 2015 was far from that. Atlanta actually recorded less sacks last season than they did in 2014, as they finished last in the NFL in that category with just 19.0. To put that in perspective, Houston Texans phenom, J.J Watt finished last season with 17.5 sacks by himself. The Falcons did not address the pass rush during the draft, but added some depth during the free agency period. Year one of the Dan Quinn era might not have shown the improvement in the pass rushing department that many fans had hoped, but the addition of some new faces along with the progression of some current players could result in major improvement in year two.
The Falcons added the likes of Derrick Shelby and most recently Dwight Freeney in free agency to bolster the front line of the defense. Shelby recorded 3.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles last season as a backup for the Miami Dolphins. Those numbers are not anything special, but Shelby found himself in the shadow of a loaded defensive line for the Dolphins. He was not seeing the kind of reps he will be getting in Atlanta and those numbers are bound to go up significantly. Vic Beasley has already pointed to Derrick Shelby as being a terrific addition to the team and a player to watch out for in the beginning of the season. Shelby will slide into the starting position as the strong side defensive end. He loves using a bull rush to shed blockers and get to ball carriers. Over the course of his career, he has become known as more of a run-stopper than a pass rusher but do not be surprised if he leads this Falcons team in sacks in 2016.
Dwight Freeney very well may be entering his final NFL season. He has put together a Hall-of-Fame career over his fourteen years and is still finding a way to produce, even at 36 years of age. Freeney recorded a team-high 8 sacks a year ago as a member of the loaded Arizona Cardinals defense, and he did so in just 11 games. He is purely a pass rushing specialist at this point in his career, playing almost exclusively on third downs. However, his vaunted spin move is still one of the most feared moves in the league. It is unlikely Freeney will mimic the same type of production as he did last year in Arizona, but he still might be the best pass rushing option for Atlanta this year on third-downs.
The additions of Shelby and Freeney are certainly going to improve the Falcons pass rush, but if Atlanta really wants to see major improvement, some of the younger players are going to have to start coming into their own. Vic Beasley recorded a team-high four sacks last season, but that number is far from where he needs to be. Beasley will be spending a lot of time at linebacker this season. He will be in coverage more and pass rushing less. Beasley’s combination of size, speed and strength allow him to excel at several different spots on the field. It will be interesting to see exactly how Quinn utilizes Beasley in the defense. Brooks Reed, who has normally been a run stopper through his career, is expected to line up as a pass rusher a lot more. Reed struggled with injuries last season for the Falcons and failed to even record a sack the entire season. He only has 14.5 sacks over his 5 year career, but like Beasley, Reed is versatile, so he could be capable of stepping up and rushing the passer.
Outside of Beasley and Reed, Grady Jarrett and Ra’Shede Hageman have to step up in their increased roles. Jarrett was a 5th round pick out of Clemson, and right off the bat, people were labeling him as a steal. He had a stellar career clogging up running lanes at Clemson and his success continued in his rookie season. Jarrett played in 15 games for Atlanta as a reserve and recorded 24 tackles. He is the type of defensive presence in the middle of the line that is crucial to stopping the run and establishing a pass rush. He will be used as a nose tackle for Atlanta and it is imperative that he builds off of his stellar rookie season. Hageman has lined up primarily as a defensive tackle for the Falcons in the past, but Dan Quinn plans to utilize Hageman as a defensive end this year as well. Tyson Jackson will be moving to the defensive tackle position, allowing Hageman more chances to get after the passer. The former second round pick out of Minnesota only has two sacks in his first two seasons. His athleticism for his size is well documented and he might be able to contribute in the pass rush this season.
The pass rush is going to be better because it simply cannot get much worse. 19.0 sacks for an entire team over a 16 game season is an embarrassment. The addition of Derrick Shelby looks to be the most promising. He has the opportunity to be a full-time starter and certainly has the ability to rush the passer. Beasley will likely improve of his sack total from last year, and Freeney will certainly add a presence the Falcons have lacked for a while. However, Atlanta still has a lot of room to improve in this department. Many of these players are not long-term solutions and this unit will likely still be the number one priority heading into next offseason. The pass rushing will be improved but it is a long way from were Dan Quinn ultimately wants it to be.