Falcons’ defensive line needs better sack production in 2021

Falcons defensive end Dante Fowler (56) lines up against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Tampa Bay won 31-27. (Danny Karnik/AP)
Falcons defensive end Dante Fowler (56) lines up against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Tampa Bay won 31-27. (Danny Karnik/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series looking at Falcons position groups going into the offseason.

As a group, Falcons defensive linemen combined to tally 18.5 sacks in 2020.

That’s it.

That number isn’t going to cut it in the NFL, especially when getting to the quarterback is more important than ever with the advent of the quick game. Over the past three years, the trend has developed where the Falcons have been unable to make matters difficult on opposing quarterbacks, which has led to the many losses and a coaching change.

The other 10.5 sacks the Falcons amassed were credited to linebackers and defensive backs, when the defensive coaches realized the defensive line couldn’t get the appropriate pressure on its own. Linebacker Deion Jones led the Falcons in sacks, with 4.5. And this change came when the Falcons started not only to blitz but to further disguise who was coming on their four-man rush.

The Falcons have plenty of fixes to make with the defensive line. Here’s an early look at where things stand entering the offseason.

Contracts expiring: Three defensive linemen from the 2020 roster are seeing their contracts expire when the new league year begins -- Steven Means, Charles Harris and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner. Means and Harris both recorded three sacks, with Tuioti-Mariner recording a sack and recovering a team-leading two fumbles. After the Falcons parted ways with defensive end Takk McKinley, all three of those players saw their playing time rise as part of the rotation.

Still under contract: Last offseason, Grady Jarrett signed a four-year extension worth $68 million, which puts him under contract through the 2023 season. Jarrett has improved each season en route to consecutive Pro Bowl nods. No matter the cap situation at the moment, it goes without stating that Jarrett is untouchable on this roster. Not only is he the team’s best defender. but there’s a case to be made that he’s the best overall player. As an interior defensive lineman, Jarrett recorded four sacks and eight tackles for loss while facing countless double teams and slanted protections.

Dante Fowler and Tyeler Davison will be entering the second year of the three-year deals they signed with the Falcons last offseason. Allen Bailey, Marlon Davidson, John Cominsky and Deadrin Senat are all slated to return, with both Bailey and Senat’s deals expiring after the 2021 season.

2020 performance: Although the Falcons did a fine job against the run by holding teams to an average of 104.8 rushing yards per game (sixth in the NFL) and 4.4 yards per carry (tied for 14th in the NFL), they once again could not get the job done when it came to rushing the passer. Although the Falcons ranked tied for sixth in the NFL with 59 quarterback hits, they ranked tied for 23rd with 29 sacks. They also ranked 26th in sack rate by bringing down the quarterback on only 4.6% of passing attempts.

With the money invested in both Jarrett and Fowler, this must be an area the Falcons improve upon in 2021. The Falcons would be better served with improved secondary play to add a little more time for the pass rush to get to the quarterback. At the same time, it’s tough to ignore the fact that this is a top-10 team in pressures, but a bottom-10 team in actual sacks.

Offseason outlook: Edge rushers are expensive in free agency, and the Falcons spent big to get one last year. Therefore, the likelihood of the Falcons getting an elite defensive end, with their salary-cap issue, is slim to none. It’s more likely for the Falcons to bring in a veteran rotational presence while addressing the future through the draft.

2021 draft options: If the Falcons decide against a quarterback with the fourth overall pick, an edge rusher typically would be in play. This season, however, there doesn’t appear to be a player garnering the kind of attention that Washington rookie defensive end Chase Young received a year ago.

First-round options in the initial 16 picks at edge rusher include Miami’s Gregory Rousseau and Michigan’s Kwity Paye. The early second round could see players such as Texas’ Joseph Ossai and Penn State’s Jayson Oweh available. At defensive tackle, the pre-Senior Bowl top option is Alabama’s Christian Barmore, although he’s generally considered a late first-rounder. The scouting season will reveal more, but the draft analysts don’t appear high on this year’s defensive line class thus far.

Conclusion: For too long the Falcons have lacked consistency on the defensive front. In the second consecutive season, the Falcons failed to record at least 30 sacks, having notched 28 a year ago before recording this season’s 29. The envisioned plan under the previous regime was for Vic Beasley and McKinley to work opposite of each other and in tandem for many seasons. Any lasting hope of that pair succeeding has since fizzled out.

Now, the Falcons have to figure out an appropriate way to address the defensive line so that the group can finally start accruing sacks on defense.

Previous stories in this series

Falcons linebackers offered stability on struggling defense

Next staff will have some retooling to do in secondary

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