Falcons’ 2021 season review: linebackers

Atlanta Falcons inside linebacker Foye Oluokun (54) prepares to play on defense during the second half against the New Orleans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Sunday, January 9, 2022, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz/Special to the AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz/Special to the AJC

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Atlanta Falcons inside linebacker Foye Oluokun (54) prepares to play on defense during the second half against the New Orleans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Sunday, January 9, 2022, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz/Special to the AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz/Special to the AJC

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

FLOWERY BRANCH -- The Falcons’ rotation at outside linebacker did not produce much pressure on the quarterback this season, leaving inside linebackers Foye Oluokun and Deion Jones to do most of the heavy lifting.

Oluokun, a sixth-round pick from Yale in 2018, led the NFL in tackles, with 192. The team’s defensive signal-caller, Oluokun also had two interceptions in 2021, including a game-saving pick in the victory over Detroit.

Jones, a sixth-year pro from LSU, was productive, with 137 tackles, but he had 17 missed tackles (11%) and played with a chronic shoulder issue. Mykal Walker has flashed in limited duty at inside linebacker and appears ready to step in if the Falcons can’t re-sign Oluokun, who just finished the final season of his four-year contract signed as a rookie.

As for the outside linebackers, Dante Fowler led the team with 4.5 sacks. After an injury-plagued 2020, Fowler restructured his contract with the Falcons with a heavy dose of incentives. He would have earned an extra $1 million if he reached five sacks, $2 million for seven sacks, $3 million for nine sacks and $4 million had he reached 11.

Rookie outside linebacker Ade Ogundeji played 527 defensive snaps and started 11 games. The Falcons have high hopes for him, but he failed to make many splash plays. He finished with one sack.

“You’re not coaching it, they just figure out a way to get to the quarterback,” general manager Terry Fontenot said. “There are pressure players whether it can be an end, it can be a defensive tackle or linebacker or safety. They just figure out a way to get to the quarterback.”

The Falcons are looking for those players who can increase the pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The defense finished last in the NFL with only 17 sacks and also was last in sacks per pass attempt ratio (3.12%).

The Steelers (55), Vikings (51), Rams (50), Bears (49) and 49ers and Dolphins (48) were the top six teams with the most sacks, and all doubled the Falcons output. Actually, there were 18 other teams with at least 34 sacks.

“There’s different ways that they do it,” Fontenot said. “There’s different guys and different ways they do it. But you’re just looking for pressure players.”

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees thought he’d just blitz from everywhere to create pressure. He tried, but the coverage players didn’t hold up in man-to-man defense.

“(When) I watch guys rush the passer, I’ll guarantee you the coach didn’t coach him,” Pees said. “Guys got talent.”

Pees discussed having former pass rusher Terrell Suggs when he was with the Ravens. Suggs was a talented rusher who posted 139 sacks from 2003-19.

“We have got to develop the talent that we have whether it changes,” Pees said. “It’s also going to be us doing a better job. Go to them and get them to do the things we need to do.”

And while they continue to look for players to produce pressure from the outside, the team has to shore up the inside strength and is expected to enter into negotiations to retain Oluokun’s services. Oluokun was not sure if he wanted to test free agency, which starts March 16.

“Really that’s up to my agent,” Oluokun said. “I remember earlier in the season, he said if I don’t get restructured in that (exhibition) season — I’m not just going to take an offer. Just listen and everything, but if the Falcons and I can work it out, that’d be nice.”

Oluokun, who played at Yale, finished a four-year $2.6 million deal which averaged $651,657 annually.

“One for me, where I feel like I could be successful,” Oluokun said on what he’d look for in a team. “I think you know, I don’t really know how free agency works in other people’s minds, but I don’t just want to go where they offer me money and I’m not going to be successful in the scheme. I want to go where I’m going to be successful and we can end up winning games.”

Oluokun believes he can continue to flourish in the new 3-4 defensive scheme.

“So, at the end of the day, I’m still a football player and a competitor,” Oluokun said. “Hopefully people respect me on that level to where I get the money, and I’m playing in the right scheme.”

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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