Falcons’ 2021 season review: defensive line

Falcons head coach Arthur Smith talks to defensive lineman Grady Jarrett (97) and Jonathan Bullard (99) during a joint practice, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (Marta Lavandier/AP)

Credit: Marta Lavandier

Credit: Marta Lavandier

Falcons head coach Arthur Smith talks to defensive lineman Grady Jarrett (97) and Jonathan Bullard (99) during a joint practice, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (Marta Lavandier/AP)

Editor’s note: This is the fifth of an eight-part position-by-position series analyzing the Falcons’ 2021 season under first-year coach Arthur Smith. Today: The defensive line.

FLOWERY BRANCH -- With defensive tackle Grady Jarrett as the centerpiece up front, the Falcons moved to a 3-4 defensive alignment in the 2021 season.

Jarrett played 865 defensive snaps and had 59 tackles, a sack and 17 pressures (hurries on knockdowns) on the quarterback. But he was primarily the lone producer on the line as injuries and COVID-19 cases had the Falcons shuttling players in and out of the lineup.

Jarrett, defensive end Jonathan Bullard and nose tackle Tyeler Davison worked together for most of training camp, but injuries and sickness held Bullard down to just nine games, four starts and just 224 defensive snaps (19.1%). Davison played in 12 games, made 11 starts, played 358 defensive snaps (30.6%).

Bullard finished with 21 tackles and Davison had 30.

Some teams elected to focus solely on Jarrett, who’s attracted a lot of double-team blocking combinations. The two-time Pro Bowler even was triple-teamed in one game.

“There really was a play I think it was Detroit, I watched the thing on film and I was like dang somebody ought to be free,” Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “There were three guys on him. We actually did make a decent play on it. If they block (him) with three of them and let somebody go, that’s fine by me.”

The Falcons were poor against the run as they gave up 131.9 yards per game, which ranked 27th in the league. The defensive front didn’t help much in the pass rush, either.

Only Jarrett and Marlon Davidson had a sack.

The Falcons tried to move Jarrett around to try to free him up.

“There have been some times where we played him outside,” Pees said. “Tried to rush him from outside and keep him away from the big guys inside. But it’s kind of inherent to his position that if you play in there, you’re good, they are going to double-team you.”

The Falcons need someone to play alongside Jarrett, who can take advantage of being blocked one-on-one.

“If you play beside (Los Angeles Rams star defensive tackle) Aaron Donald, you’ve got a good chance that you’re going to end up being in a one-on-one,” Pees said.

The Falcons also used veteran free agents Mike Pennel and Anthony Rush, who was the only true nose tackle on the roster.

Pennel played 10 games, 250 defensive snaps and made 21 tackles.

Rush played in 10 games and made six starts. He played 251 defensive snaps and finished with 19 tackles.

Davidson, the former second-round pick out of Auburn, played in 11 games and made one start. He finished with 21 tackles.

Rookie Ta’Quon Graham played in 13 games and made five starts. He played 310 defensive snaps (26.5%). He finished with 15 tackles.

John Cominsky played in only four games.

“Definitely, me getting those snaps in the games definitely has helped,” Graham said. “I definitely think it’s helped me get along faster.”

Graham, who was taken in the fifth round (148th overall) out of Texas, also contributed on special teams.

“Yeah, I’m looking forward to his offseason to not being not being in draft prep,” Graham said. “Actually get a full offseason to lift weights, condition and really push myself physically before Year 2, I think it will be a huge help for me.”

Graham felt he learned a lot about how to survive in the trenches in the NFL.

“I think personally for me, physically I’ve been pretty fine,” Graham said. “I’ve been pretty healthy. Some weeks you are more sore than others. But I feel like the biggest challenge for a rookie, that I went through is probably the mental grind of playing like that many more games and trying to stay focused during that time.”

Graham looked up Jarrett and Davison for guidance.

“Those guys have been through it,” Graham said. “They’ve been through their rookie year already. Just leaning on them I think has helped me like a lot.”

Falcons rookie defensive tackle Ta'Quon Graham after practice on Jan. 5, 2022.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

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Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Atlanta Falcons’ position-by-position analysis:

Part 1: Running backs

Part 2: Quarterbacks

Part 3: Wide Receivers/Tight ends

Part 4: Offensive line

Part 5: Defensive line

Part 6: Linebackers

Part 7: Defensive backs

Part 8: Special teams

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