The Falcons defense has failed to sack opposing quarterbacks for some time now, and last season was no different. Atlanta ranked tied for 23rd in the league in sacks with only 29 total and 26th in sack percentage at 4.43%. Thomas Dimitroff’s parting gift to the Falcons was Dante Fowler’s egregious contract that Terry Fontenot smartly adjusted. Fowler supremely underperformed and posted career lows in every major pass-rushing statistic outside of his rookie year. According to PFF, Fowler generated pressure on just 7.8% of his pass-rushing snaps in 2020 after that number sat at 14.0% in 2019.
What is even more confusing about the Falcons’ abysmal pass rush is that the group hasn’t struggled to pressure the quarterback; in fact, Atlanta’s 2020 defense was one of the better units around the league. They ranked 10th in total pressures, just one spot behind the division rival Saints, who are widely considered to be an elite defense. ESPN ranked Atlanta the fourth-best team in pass rush win rate (49%), ahead of the Buccaneers, Ravens, and Rams.
Dean Pees has remained steadfast on his group blitzing (a lot), but the defense under Raheem Morris and Jeff Ulbrich was still attacking. The Falcons also blitzed among the most in the league, ninth most at 225 times. PFF even ranked the group as a whole as a very average pass-rushing unit, 16th in the league. It’s possible this unit wasn’t as bad as fans think, but I have one statistic that should raise some eyebrows.
Deion Jones, an off-ball linebacker, led the team in sacks in 2020 after recording 4.5, which is more than Dante Fowler and Grady Jarrett. That is not the ingredients for a productive pass rush. Jarrett and Fowler only combined for seven sacks, but the former consistently applied pressure — posting the third-best pass rush win rate as a defensive tackle, behind only Aaron Donald and Chris Jones. The fact of the matter is there’s plenty of blame to go around, but with a new scheme, there should be progression.
I fully believe there will be positive regression for Jarrett’s sack totals as Pees schemes pressure as well as any in the league, and I could say the same for Fowler. According to Mike Clay’s projections, those two will likely battle it out for the locker room lead in sacks, but Jarrett will narrowly edge out Fowler 7.5 to 7 sacks this season. Clay also projects Foye Oluokun and Debo to record a few sacks themselves, but he expects a big year for Steven Means, posting 5.5 sacks.
I believe Debo and Foye could potentially challenge Means in the battle for third in the sack department, but it should be a contest between Fowler and Jarrett for first. Pees’ system is predicated on disguised blitzes, so I would imagine a few different defensive backs — Isaiah Oliver, Richie Grant, etc. — will record a few sacks themselves. I wouldn’t expect double-digit sacks from any member of the defense, but a variety of players will reap the benefits of playing in this new-look defense.
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