Falcons’ Dante Fowler could earn millions with a flurry of sacks

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) is sacked by Falcons defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. (6) as he fumbles the ball during the first half  Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021, at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. (Dirk Shadd/Tampa Bay Times)
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Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) is sacked by Falcons defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. (6) as he fumbles the ball during the first half Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021, at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. (Dirk Shadd/Tampa Bay Times)

Credit: TNS

Falcons outside linebacker Dante Fowler blew past Jaguars’ tight end Chris Manhertz, got his right arm extended up in the air and swatted the ball off the hand of rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

It was the type of explosive defensive play the Falcons envisioned when they signed Fowler before the 2020 season. With the Falcons still in need of a pass rush, it was a promising play with six games to go.

Fowler, who has 3.5 sacks on the season, is highly incentivized to make more plays like that down the stretch and perhaps legitimize the Falcons’ playoff push. When the Falcons (5-6) face the heavily favored Buccaneers (9-3) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes Benz Stadium, Fowler can earn an extra $1 million with 1.5 more sacks.

“When you get a sack-fumble that can be a game-changing play,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said on Monday. “We are just continuing to strive to play more consistent. Everybody sees the highlights, but it’s every down, play after play, we’re trying to improve and get consistent across the board.”

After an injury-plagued 2020, Fowler restructured his contract with the Falcons with a heavy dose of incentives. He earns an extra $1 million if he gets to five sacks, $2 million for seven sacks, $3 million if he gets nine sacks and $4 million if he gets to 11.

If Fowler gets a sack in each of the final six games, he’ll end up with 9.5 sacks and would collect an extra $3 million.

It would be very timely for Fowler to go on a tear over the final six games for a defense that’s growing and trying to help the Falcons return to respectability after missing the playoffs for the past three seasons.

On the play that resulted in a 10-yard loss after Manhertz recovered the fumble, the Jaguars were more concerned with defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and left Fowler free on a tight end.

“Whenever we get opportunities to win one-on-ones, we try to do it,” Fowler said.

Fowler was originally drafted by the Jaguars third overall in 2015 and spent three and half seasons with them before being traded to the Rams.

“Just treated it like another away game,” Fowler said of the homecoming of sorts. “Just wanted to come down here and handle business, which we did. Got the W.”

Fowler didn’t get all emotional after the sack. He did take a bow and swiped at the turf after the play.

“It just felt good to come back and get a sack in Jacksonville for sure,” Fowler said.

After suffering a hyper-extended knee against the Jets on Oct. 10, Fowler somehow finished the game and then missed the next three games. He’s been rounding back into form since returning against the Cowboys on Nov. 14.

The Falcons’ defense had to protect the 21-14 lead as the offense couldn’t run out the clock.

It felt good for us to go out there and close out the game like that,” Fowler said. “I think we (were) playing pretty good throughout the whole game. And when it was a clutch moment time, and time for us to stand up, we did that.”

Over the past two games, the pass rush has exhibited a pulse going against rookie quarterbacks Mac Jones and Lawrence.

The Falcons had one sack and six quarterback hits against the Jaguars. They had a season-high three sacks against the Patriots to go along with five quarterback hits.

The Falcons are last in the league with 15 sacks. The Lions have 16 and the Seahawks have 17. The Vikings (33), Panthers (32), Bears (32), Browns (31) and Steelers, Patriots and Rams (30 each) have all doubled the Falcons output.

Fowler knows that some cash in on the line, but he plans to play within the defensive scheme.

“I just think we’re coming together and playing as a team,” Fowler said. “The team we have is built to play as a team. So, I think guys are doing that and getting more confidence.”

When Fowler was out, rookie Ade Ogundeji got the starts. He’s now a part of the outside linebacker rotation along Brandon Copeland and Jonathan Vaughters.

“Our rookies are getting confidence throughout the year,” Fowler said. “They’re getting a lot of reps. So I think you’re starting to see guys playing with confidence and swagger and just playing together as a team.”

Also, rookie safety Richie Grant and cornerback Darren Hall played extensively against the Jaguars. Grant played 32 defensive snaps (44%) against the Jaguars. He played 58 defensive snaps against the Dolphins on Oct. 24. He’s been getting more action of late. He played 33 snaps (43%) against Dallas and 24 (37%) against New England.

Hall played a season-high 26 defensive snaps (36%) against the Jaguars. His previous high was 21 defensive snaps in the blowout by Dallas.

“When we signed safeties Duron (Harmon) and Erik (Harris), we knew that we wanted to bring them along the right way,” Smith said. “(Grant’s) contributed on (special) teams and his role is starting to grow on defense. Darren Hall, the same thing. So, I’m pleased that those guys are getting better every week. The biggest challenge now is to do it again against Tampa, that’s pretty salty group over there.”

If the rookies can help improve the coverage, that might give Fowler more time to rush the passer, get more sacks and collect more cash.

“Just playing together as a unit, everybody doing their job and being on one accord,” Fowler said.

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Falcons’ 2021 schedule features trip to London, January trip to Buffalo

Atlanta Falcons schedule and scores

Eagles 32, Falcons 6

Buccaneers 48, Falcons 25

Falcons 17, Giants 14

Washington 34, Falcons 30

Falcons 27, Jets 20

Bye Week

Falcons 30, Dolphins 28

Panthers 19, Falcons 13

Falcons 27, Saints 25

Cowboys 43, Falcons 3

Patriots 25, Falcons 0

Falcons 21, Jaguars 14

Next four games

Tampa Bay at Falcons, 1 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 5

Falcons at Carolina, 1 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 12

Falcons at San Francisco, 1 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 19

Detroit Lions at Falcons, 1 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 26

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