Atlanta’s 2019 season puzzled many fans with their 1-7 start prior to going 6-2 over their final eight games. Defensively, the Falcons were at the bottom of the league in almost every statistical category, leading to Dan Quinn surrendering his play-calling duties to Jeff Ulrich and now defensive coordinator Raheem Morris. The result was a radical improvement.
The 2019 defensive effort as a whole was still mediocre at best but ended strongly. At the bye, Atlanta was 31st in the league in turnover differential but ended the year 19th. Their pass rush, however, wasn’t so lucky, as they finished 29th in the league with only 28 sacks.
Fast forward to the current off-season; the assumed perception is that the pass rush HAS to improve and does not have much room for regression. Only time will tell if this assumption is true; my thoughts are that the pass rush will hardly improve but not due to Atlanta’s personnel. There are two main variables in which we can accurately predict how the pass rush will do. Those are internal assets and external threats.
The internal assets are those players and coaches capable of either applying pressure directly or indirectly. Directly would mean, the front seven applying material pressure to the quarterback. While indirectly would be considered the defensive backs, which would affect the pass rush by making the quarterback hold the ball longer. Coaching and schematics indirectly help a pass rush, and with the coaching change that worked in the latter half of the year, this seems to be positive.
Starting with the assets that apply direct pressure, Grady Jarrett is a future All-pro and will be the most consistent player defensively. With the addition of Dante Fowler, fans can expect the production they hoped from Vic Beasley in seasons prior. In limited snaps, Fowler proved his worth in both Jacksonville and Los Angeles as a specialty edge rusher. In his final year with the Rams, he started 14 games where he recorded 11.5 sacks and would have more than likely been signed to an extension with the team if not for their poor cap management. Takk McKinley has me confident that, with a competent complement (Fowler) opposite of him, he will produce like a first-round draft choice is expected. But this is a real prove it year for the former Bruin.
Moving to the indirect assets, the most significant question marks are at both corner positions. Starters are assumed to be Isaiah Oliver and AJ Terrell. Terrell is a complete mystery regarding whether or not his skills are transferable to the next level, whereas Oliver improved dramatically when the coaching change took place last season. Coaches commented on his much-improved technique during the end of the season with high expectations for the future. Both safety positions can be attributed as strengths of the defense, but are divisive because of their inability to stay on the field. The greatest ability is availability. Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen, and Damontae Kazee will be relied on heavily to help their young corners and must stay healthy.
External threats can be an offensive player or coach on any team on the Falcons’ schedule. Starting in the NFC South, New Orleans is the offensive powerhouse within the division. With incredible offensive personnel and coaching, the Saints will again be the team to beat in the South. With two of the best tackles in the league and an elite offensive line coach in Dan Roushar, Atlanta will be hard-pressed to rack up sacks in those two games. Carolina possesses a middle-tier offensive line coach, but the installation of a spread style offensive scheme by Matt Rhule could prove difficult to figure in the first divisional matchup. Moving on to the final south rival, Tampa Bay’s offense has scary good skill position players, especially with the addition of Tom Brady. But the offensive line is weak. Center Ryan Jensen is the only highly touted starter on the line. With rookie Tristan Wirfs expected to start opposite Donovan Smith, this is where the Falcons will want to attack Brady.
Moving on to the NFC North, Green Bay is the only credible offense in that division. Even so, the Packers rode their defenses’ coattails to the NFC championship, where the offense struggled and eventually lost embarrassingly. The Packers’ offensive line is one of the best pass-protecting units in the league, but with the departure of long-time Packer Bryan Bulaga, there is a window for opposing defenses. In Chicago, the left side of the offensive line boasts two pro-bowl quality players at tackle and guard. The weakness lies over the right side, but they are returning all five starters. Like the Packers, the Vikings and Lions both rely on running the ball and building play-action passing off that. Atlanta will have to stop the run against these NFC North opponents, throwing the quarterbacks off rhythm and improving their chances of pressure.
The AFC opponents this year reside in the west division, including the Chiefs, Chargers, Raiders, and Broncos. All of them have slightly above average offensive lines but many different offensive philosophies. The Chiefs’ air raid system will be tough to contain without a consistent four-man pass rush and could be the toughest matchup all year (outside of New Orleans) against two of the league’s best offensive tackles. The Chargers and Broncos have unproven quarterbacks and will be the games in which the defense needs to take advantage. Denver will have the weakest offensive line in the division with the youngest quarterback; Atlanta should absolutely dominate this game. The Raiders have a similar offense to the 49ers, Packers, and Rams, where they want to establish running the ball and build the passing game off that. With all five starters returning, Oakland will have great cohesion.
The other two second-place NFC teams that Atlanta will face are Seahawks and the Cowboys. The Seahawks have notoriously had one of the worst offensive lines for the past couple years, and nothing seems to be different this year. With three new starters, week one should be complete nightmare for their offensive line. We must consider Russell Wilson, though, as he is a magician in the pocket and a top-five quarterback in the league. Dallas has an aging but incredibly talented group. Both tackles are former All-pros and so is Zack Martin — the leader of the group. Mike McCarthy is taking over in Dallas and derives his offensive philosophy from the Bill Walsh west coast Air Coryell offense. This is a dramatic difference from where the Cowboys were a year ago, pounding the rock with Zeke.
With a difficult schedule, the Falcons’ pass rush will be hard-pressed to improve drastically. The name of the game is pressure. The NFL’s elite defenses create chaos in the pocket. Pressure equates to turnovers, which results in wins. Atlanta will be in an interesting position to prove they have improved from a year ago playing the most elite quarterbacks and offenses in the league this season.