Tosh Lupoi is latest to try to help weak Falcons pass rush

Tosh Lupoi, hired as the Falcons’ defensive line/run game coordinator, talks about what team will implement come practices. (Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC)

Falcons assistant Tosh Lupoi arrives with a coaching resume heavy on college gigs and a cumbersome new title: defensive line/run-game coordinator (defensive ends). No one will care about Lupoi's short NFL experience or that ridiculous job description if he can help the Falcons consistently bother opposing quarterbacks.

“We’re going to make it happen,” Lupoi said Tuesday.

Lupoi should be optimistic. It’s March. Lupoi just got the job, his second in the NFL after one season as the Browns’ defensive line coach. We’ll see if Lupoi’s sunny outlook lasts as he tries to help the Falcons fix what’s long been broken.

The Falcons haven’t ranked better than 14th in sacks per pass attempt since 2004, when they were second. They ranked 25th or worse in 11 of the past 15 seasons. In recent years that’s largely been a function of front-office neglect. But the pass rush has floundered even when the Falcons spent significant resources trying to juice it.

The Falcons have signed big-name free agents: Ray Edwards (2011), Osi Umenyiora (2013) and Dwight Freeney (2016). They traded for John Abraham (2006). They used first-round draft picks on Jamaal Anderson (2007), Vic Beasley (2015) and Takk McKinley (2017).

Those individual moves did not add up to an effective pass rush. There will be no major talent injection for the pass rush in 2020. A big part of Lupoi’s task will be to help the guys the Falcons have now get better.

“What’s obvious to me is this group is hungry,” Lupoi said.

Maybe so, but it’s short of productive pass-rushers. The best one, Grady Jarrett, is a tackle. The most talented edge rusher, McKinley, just had a second surgery on his left shoulder. Veteran end Steven Means missed 2019 with an Achilles injury.

The Falcons are set to pick 16th in the draft. That’s long after the only sure-thing pass rusher, Chase Young, will be off the board. The Falcons are banking on the new collective bargaining agreement to help tidy up general manager Thomas Dimitroff’s salary-cap mess. There won’t be much room for good free-agent pass rushers, who are expensive.

Of course, the pass rush is only one element of pass defense. Tighter coverage can give the rushers more time to affect the quarterback. But the Falcons’ secondary has question marks, too.

Anyway, the bottom line is the Falcons need a better pass rush.

“It all starts, to have a successful defense, (with) affecting the quarterback, whatever that means,” defensive coordinator Raheem Morris said. “A lot of people say ‘affect the quarterback’ and they automatically go right to sacks. You’ve got to get them off the spot. You’ve got to get those guys to think a little bit, (force them) outside of their comfort zone.”

Falcons defensive coordinator Raheem Morris takes questions during a series of press conferences with coaches at the team training facility on Tuesday, March 10, 2020, in Flowery Branch.  Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
Falcons defensive coordinator Raheem Morris takes questions during a series of press conferences with coaches at the team training facility on Tuesday, March 10, 2020, in Flowery Branch. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

It’s true that sacks aren’t the only measure of the pass rush. Use a different gauge, and the conclusion is the same. The Falcons haven’t had a good pass rush during Dan Quinn’s five seasons as head coach.

The Falcons’ NFL ranks in sacks per pass attempt, from 2015-19: 32nd, 26th, 14th, 26th and 29th. Football Outsiders adjusts the sack rate by down, distance and opponent and ranked the past five Falcons teams 32nd, 24th (tied), 19th (tied), 25th and 28th. Break it down to total pressures (sacks, hurries and forced scrambles) and the Falcons ranked 31st, 20th, 19th and 30th from 2015-18.

Football Outsiders has yet to release its pass-rush pressure rate for 2019. When it does, the Falcons will rank near the bottom of the league again. Sacking quarterbacks, getting them off their spot, making them uncomfortable — the Falcons haven’t been good at any of it for a long time.

This is what Lupoi is up against. He was considered an ace recruiter as a college assistant. Alabama coach Nick Saban promoted Lupoi from co-defensive coordinator to primary coordinator for the 2018 season. According to AL.com, Saban stripped Lupoi of play-calling duties during the season then let him go after Clemson shredded Alabama's defense in the national championship game.

During Lupoi’s one season in Cleveland, the Browns ranked 15th in sacks per pass attempt, 17th in adjusted sack rate and 12th in total pressure percentage (per Pro Football Reference). Lupoi’s group included end Myles Garrett, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2017. The Browns also had two former third-round picks (Larry Ogunjobi and Chad Thomas) and trade acquisition Olivier Vernon ($15.5 million of his salary against the cap).

Lupoi has less raw talent to work with in his new job. The Falcons will have to fashion a season such as 2017, the year after Beasley’s career-best campaign. That season they relied on a collective effort from Beasley, Jarrett, McKinley, Adrian Clayborn, Brooks Reed and Dontari Poe.

Maybe the Falcons can repeat that formula in 2020.

“I’m going to tell you right now, I’m not so much going to focus on numbers and end results as much as the process that it takes to get there,” Lupoi said.

That’s a reasonable thing to say now. It won’t sound so good if, come fall, the Falcons field yet another defense with a weak pass rush.

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