Falcons’ pass rush still a work in progress

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

FLOWERY BRANCH – The Falcons’ pass rush showed some promise early in the season, but since has fallen off.

The Falcons (5-10), who are set to host the Cardinals (4-11) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, have dropped to the back of the pack in sacks.

The Falcons have 19 sacks, only one more than the Chicago Bears, who rank 32nd in the NFL.

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“We need to be better,” Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “You picked the one spot that we are probably playing the worst in, I’m not surprised. We need to be better.”

Injuries to defensive tackle Ta’Quon Graham and outside linebacker Arnold Ebiketie (wrist) helped slow the Falcons.

“We know we’ve got to continue to find ways to pressure the quarterback,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “It’s not just on the edge, it’s the coordinated rush on the inside, too. There’s a lot that goes into it.”

Graham was doing a good job of getting a push alongside defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. Graham had five quarterback knockdowns and eight quarterback hits. He suffered a season-ending knee injury against Chicago and was placed on injured reserve Nov. 21.

Graham was helping to free Jarrett, who had 5.5 sacks and 13 quarterback hits playing next to Graham. In the four games without Graham, Jarrett has a half a sack and one quarterback hit.

“TQ was playing very well,” Falcons defensive line coach Gary Emanuel said. “He was improving from Year 1 to Year 2. Some of the stuff he was able to do pass rush-wise and be able to play the run with technique, obviously you miss that.”

Jalen Dalton, Timothy Horne, Matt Dickerson and Jaleel Johnson have helped to try to replace Graham’s snaps.

“They have come in and are working hard to improve their game,” Emanuel said. “They are trying to be well-rounded players.”

Jarrett has been the most effective pass rusher for the Falcons. He has six sacks, eight quarterback knockdowns and 14 quarterback hits. That doesn’t count the controversial sack he had in the first meeting with Tampa Bay, when he was called for unnecessary roughness.

“Numbers don’t point to the impact that he’s truly had,” Emanuel said. “Grady has done a great job of being a leader. He’s one of the hardest-working guys that I’ve ever been around.”

Ebiketie was a factor in the pass rush before sustaining a wrist injury. He had 2.5 sacks, eight quarterback knockdowns and 11 quarterback hits.

“He went through a stretch of about three weeks where he was playing as well as anybody that we had,” outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino said. “Especially in the situations that we played him.”

In part to protect the wrist, the Falcons had to spot-play Ebiketie more and pull him out of the run defense.

“We are pleased with where he is,” Monachino said. “Would love to find ways to scheme some things up to get him more production. He’s effective for sure as rusher, and we want to keep him going in that direction.”

Outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter is the second most-effective pass rusher on the team. He has four sacks, five quarterback knockdowns and 10 quarterback hits.

Carter, a former Norcross High and Georgia Bulldogs standout who signed a one-year, $3.5 million contract with the Falcons, has started all 15 games and played 808 defensive snaps (81%).

“We know we’ve got to be more productive there,” Smith said. “The growth of some of those young guys and the things that we’ve seen from AK (Ebiketie) and DeAngelo (Malone) and then Zo (Carter) taking on a different role coming in here. In my opinion, to have a really top-flight pass rush, I mean there’s a lot of coordinated things and it’s not just outside, it’s inside out, too.”

The Falcons believe they have improved their pass-rushing talent on the outside.

“The collection of talent there is a marked difference,” Monachino said. “I love those guys. As people, it’s hard to beat Steven Means and Brandon Copeland, those are great people. But from a youth and a talent standpoint, we made a jump.”

The Falcons parted ways with Means and Copeland after last season. Also, Dante Fowler, who has five sacks and seven quarterbacks hits for Dallas, was released.

“Where it’s heading is these players are going to continue to develop,” Monachino said. “They are going to develop Year 2, Year 3, Year 4 and Year 5. That’s when they are starting to hit the prime of their careers. Our goal is to move them down the road so that when they hit the prime of their careers, they are playing their best football. That’s where I see it going.”

Also, stopping the run will help the pass rush. The Falcons ranked 24th in the NFL in stopping the run.

“Before we can move to the French pastries, we have to handle the meat and potatoes,” Monachino said. “There is some of that still going on, the meat and potatoes (stopping the run). Eventually, we’ll be able to start adding little nuances and tricks and tools into their tool boxes.”

The Falcons are high on Malone, who has a sack, a quarterback knockdown and two quarterback hits.

“We haven’t babied DeAngelo at all,” Monachino said. “He has made a quantum leap from an understanding standpoint. He’s not there yet. ... But DeAngelo has carved himself out a nice little role. We’d love to ramp that up; over time he will. He’s still a young player who’s learning a new position, and it does take time.”

Malone is listed at 246 pounds and needs to add about 10 pounds of muscle over the offseason.

Ade Ogundeji has started 14 games and has developed into a strong edge-setter in the run game.

“Ade is playing starter-quality football,” Monachino said. “If Ade was a double-digit sack guy every year, would that diminish or would that improve our opinion of him. If he’s a great run defender and doesn’t have sack numbers, does that mean he’s not a good player? I don’t believe that’s the case. Ade is playing really good football for us.”

Ogundeji may never become a dominant one-on-one pass rusher, but he become more effective.

“We’d love to see some growth in all of them in that area,” Monachino said.

Even the teams with good pass rushes never are satisfied.

“Everybody wants more,” Smith said. “I guess we are all greedy. When you are in this industry, ultimately you’re trying to win. Try to find ways to improve.”

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Atlanta Falcons 2022 schedule

Sept. 11 Saints 27, Falcons 26

Sept. 18 Rams 31, Falcons 27

Sept. 25 Falcons 27, Seahawks 23

Oct. 2 Falcons 23, Browns 20

Oct. 9 Buccaneers 21, Falcons 15

Oct. 16 Falcons 28, 49ers 14

Oct. 23 Bengals 35, Falcons 17

Oct. 30 Falcons 37, Panthers 34 OT

Nov. 6 Chargers 20, Falcons 17

Nov. 10 Panthers 25, Falcons 15

Nov. 20 Falcons 27, Bears 24

Nov. 27 Commanders 19, Falcons 13

Dec. 4 Steelers 19, Falcons 16

BYE WEEK

Dec. 18 Saints 21, Falcons 18

Dec. 24 Ravens 17, Falcons 9

Jan. 1 vs. Arizona, 1 p.m.

Jan. 8 vs. Tampa Bay, TBD